Homilette for Thursday, January 1, 2009

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

(Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21)

We call the first month of the year “January” after Janus, the pagan god of gates and doors. Statues of Janus have two heads like a door has two sides -- one looking backward and the other forward. Certainly in January we look in these two directions. We repeatedly refer to the old year, sometimes mistakenly writing its number on checks. But as the month moves along, we think more of the possibilities lying in the year just begun.

The Nativity scene with Jesus lying in a manger also calls us to look both backward and forward. The manger is not meant to indicate Joseph and Mary’s poverty, but to recall what the prophet Isaiah said of Israel. “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger,” Isaiah observed, “but Israel does not know, my people has not understood (me)” (Is 1:3). Now, the evangelist Luke shows, the shepherds of Israel see and know their Lord. The Lordship of Jesus, however, will only be revealed to all lands in the future. After Jesus is crucified, rises from the dead, and send his Spirit upon them, his apostles will preach his name throughout the world.

New Year’s Day is generally reserved for rest and visiting (and, for some, football). But the Church calls us to mass to reflect on the significance of what has taken place during the past week. We have heard the story of Christmas retold. We have celebrated Christ’s coming by acts of kindness and generosity. And we have found ourselves immersed in an atmosphere of peace and goodwill. Like Mary in the gospel we are to reflect on these things in our hearts in order to distill their meaning for the year ahead.

Homilette for Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

(I John 2:18-21; John 1:1-18)

People may find it curious that the Church ends the calendar year with a reading from the beginning of one of the gospels. However, those who remember the so-called Tridentine Mass will recognize the passage as the “last gospel.” It is still read at the closing of every mass celebrated according to the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal.

The passage itself summarizes the story that the gospel writer is about to tell. The Word of God, Jesus Christ, existed before creation and is the source of all that is. Although he is one with God, he came to live among humans to enlighten for them the path of righteousness. Unfortunately, humans often reject the light of Christ like coyotes running for cover at sunrise. But to those who brave the embarrassment of having their sins exposed, Christ confers the grace of repentance and forgiveness.

Today is a choice day for making resolutions of how we intend to live in the future. Let us resolve to walk according to the light of Christ during the coming year. Let us commit ourselves to reject what is bad, to do what is good, and to consult Church teaching for assistance in distinguishing between the two.

Homilette for Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

(I John 2:12-17; Luke 2:36-40)

Reading the First Letter of John during Christmas season corrects tendencies to exaggerate the goodness of life on earth. Food abounds and drink flows during the holidays. Many people take vacations or just stay at home to rest. It is also a time for recreation -- movies and, for the more vigorous, maybe skiing or bowling. Would some not say that the world and all that is within it are good indeed?

But, of course, the world poses at least as many challenges to Christian life as it presents benefits. In today’s first reading the author, sometimes called “John, the presbyter” or “John, the elder,” warns Christians of its pitfalls. His “children” are the members of his church community. The “fathers” are the men and women who have long accepted the faith. They know well the love of God which comes through Jesus Christ. The “young men” are newcomers to Christianity. They have overcome the allurements to sin which can hold others from commitment to Christ. Both groups have to stand on guard against the world’s temptations which remain the triple threats of lust, envy, and pride.

As we come to the end of the year, we might ask ourselves how we have fared against the three great nemeses. Do we seek God’s assistance when lustful desires enter our thoughts? Do we thank God for what we have, or do we constantly look to our neighbors for what we lack? Do we remind ourselves daily that we live to serve God, not to be served by others?

Homilette for Monday, December 29, 2008

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

(I John 2:3-11; Luke 2:22-35)

A well-published biblical scholar once ignited a holy man’s ire by calling John’s letters “New Testament baby-talk.” The scholar only meant to say that John’s letters possess simplicity and directness as if they were written for children. We see this in today’s first reading. “Whoever loves his brother remains in the light...,” John writes, “Whoever hates his brother remains in darkness...”

John does not have enemy-love in mind here as if he were challenging Christians to love those who hate them. Nor does he mean that they have to necessarily love blood brothers and sisters. He is simply reiterating Jesus’ commandment to his community of disciples that they love one another. It may sound easy, but hard feelings can sprout when humans associate closely. They will feel frustration, envy, and even enmity with one another at times. John is saying that Christians must overcome these troublesome sentiments.

John would be oversimplifying if he meant that we may limit our love to love those with whom we associate. But certainly such love teaches toleration, respect, and compassion so that we in turn may love even those who hate us.

Homilette for Friday, December 26, 2008

Feast of St. Stephen, Proto-martyr

(Acts 6:8-10.7:54-59; Matthew 10:17-22)

In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, predicts his martyrdom in his Christmas sermon. He tells the people that in the Christmas mass not only the birth of Jesus but also his death are remembered. This dual remembrance indicates that the Christian life is neither pure joy nor pure sorrow. No, we live both on every occasion. Thomas goes on to ask, “Is it an accident … that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?” Of course not, the Church deliberately places the martyrdom of Stephen on the day after Christmas to temper our celebration.

We can point to this duality in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Nativity accounts. In Luke after Jesus is born, his parents take him to the Temple where Simeon prophesizes that Jesus will be a sign to be contradicted. He means that Jesus’ enemies will do him in. In Matthew the horror is more evident. The birth of Jesus, the King of the Jews, occasions the jealousy of King Herod. To eliminate his rival Herod has all male infants of the area murdered.

We must take to heart the traverse sentiments of Christian life. Our happiest celebrations should include a remembrance of fellow humans suffering around the world. Similarly, our most intolerable moments, like the loss of a loved one, should not go without faith in Christ’s victory over death. Christians are neither rosy-eyed optimists nor morose pessimists. No, we live both the death and the resurrection of the Lord deep in our hearts.

Christmas Homily

I trust that this atypically long reflection will not bother anyone. More importantly, I hope that everyone enjoys a truly blessed Christmas. Thank you for the attention to my thoughts and for any good works they may inspire. May you come to know Christ better as his coming, love him more sincerely, and live with him in peace forever.

The Nativity of the Lord. Mass at Midnight.

(Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14)

Fifty years ago there was a controversy about what the angels said that wondrous night when Christ was born. According to what Catholics called “the Protestant Bible,” the angels proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Meanwhile, the so-called Catholic translation had the angels saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill.” Our present translation is politic in not using the word “men” at all, which is certainly found in the Greek original. But if we insert the more proper term “humans,” we would have the angels saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those humans(,) on whom God favor rests.” Who “those humans” are depends on the way we read the text. If we pause after saying “humans”– as if we were inserting a comma – then “those humans” would be equivalent to “all humans.” But if we speed on to the relative clause, then “those humans” are the only ones upon whom “God’s favor rests” – presumably Jesus’ disciples or, we Christians.

Just for tonight let us consider the first alternative – that the angels are extending peace to all people on this mystic night. This interpretation makes good sense since the angel first proclaimed “...good news of great joy that will be for all people.” In what ways then does the coming of Jesus bring peace to all people, whether Christian or not? This is the question we want to address.

First, we can say that the coming of Jesus brings peace because Jesus advocated non-violent resolution of conflict. He never proposed war as a solution to problems. It is true that he drove money-changers from the Temple, but only the Gospel of John shows him with a whip in hand, and not even there does it say that he struck anyone, much less killed for his purpose. More typical of Jesus is his admonition, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Remembering Jesus, German and English foot-soldiers locked in combat across the trenches during World War I called a truce on Christmas night, 1914. They suspended the war to sing Christmas carols and exchange small gifts in honor of the Prince of Peace.

Second, the coming of Jesus brings peace by his example of attending to the needy. Jesus gave as a mark of his authenticity his preaching to the poor and his healing of the lame, the blind, and the deaf. There will never be peace as long as people lack basic necessities. Those with means must not sit back comfortably saying how they acquired their wealth honestly. Rather, they have to address the needs of those who live on the margins of decency and those whose lives are being snuffed in gestation. In a magazine article a woman describes how she bought a green coat with red trimming at a department store close-out. Happy to find a “Christmas coat,” she went home excitedly without trying it on. When she finally did, she found it way too small. Then she had the inspiration of giving the coat to a street person she had encountered. But, she had to ask herself, was the person’s need or her own vanity behind the gift? When society realizes that the poor need more attention than paper-platefuls of food at Thanksgiving and presents at Christmas, it is on the way to social justice and peaceful living.

Finally, Jesus’ coming brings about peace as he appeals for repentance. Even non-believers should acknowledge the need to examine what they are doing and to make the necessary adjustments to conform to what they believe to be true and good. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol exemplifies this kind of corrective. Ebenezer Scrooge comes to realize that dreadful Christmas night that his penny-pinching is not bringing him happiness but misery. Graciously he changes his ways.

Before concluding, we should indicate why Jesus’ birth is especially good news for those who implicitly follow his ways. The world would be a much better place if all peoples limit their use of force, meet the needs of the poor, and correct their errors. But this does not exhaust the gospel’s message. Jesus further exhorts us to pursue his path of self-sacrificing love. Tonight we recall how he left behind his divinity to take human form. The manger in which he lies, made of wood, reminds us of the wood of his cross. He invites and, more critically, empowers us to let go of our own comforts and self-satisfaction. As results we become the inheritors of a new earth -- the kingdom of heaven.

Homilette for Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(II Samuel 7:1-5.8-12; Luke 2:67-79)

A boy returned home from school to tell his grandmother that Jesus was not born in December but in March. The date, he explained, was changed for commercial reasons. It is possible that the lad is at least partly right. No one today knows exactly when Jesus was born. It may have been during the month of March or any of the other months.

The indications that the gospels give regarding Jesus’ birthday – a census decreed by Caesar Augustus and a strangely moving star – appear to be more theological than historical markers. The Church (not Macy’s) placed the date at the end of December because this too conforms to what we believe about Christ. As Zechariah says of him in the gospel this morning, Jesus is “the dawn...that shine(s) on those in darkness and the valley of death and guide(s) our feet into the way of peace.” In other words, Jesus is like the sun that appears every morning and especially like the sun of late December that reverses, in the northern hemisphere at least, the trend of decreasing daylight throughout the latter part of the year.

Comparing Jesus to the sun helps us appreciate his significance. Just as the sun provides heat and light so Jesus provides us love and truth. Without Jesus our love would be like a firecracker that glows for a moment and then fizzles cold. Without Jesus we would wander in the darkness of sin choosing, like a dog gulping down rotten meat, what is harmful. The date on which Jesus was born is not important. What is important – indeed absolutely necessary – is that he is with us.

Homilette for Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(Malachi 3:1-4.23-24; Luke 1:57-66)

In Luke’s gospel John the Baptist clearly takes the place of Elijah, the prophet of fire. He warns the people that unless they reform and do good works, they will be cut down like trees “and thrown into the fire.” In this way John goes before the Lord, as his father Zechariah proclaims in his song of jubilation at his naming, “to prepare his ways.”

Jesus will not take up John’s message of the primacy of divine wrath. Rather, his preaching will be dominated by the image of God as human’s protector. Although he will not shrink from mentioning God’s power to cast a sinner into hell, Jesus will stress God’s love. God, he will say, has counted the number of hairs on each of his followers’ heads to insure their total salvation.

Since love can be looked upon as a kind of fire, we might forge a distinction. Fire can destroy dispassionately, and it can purify with all compassion. John, following Elijah, will use images if not the force of a blazing fire to warn us of the danger that dissolute living incurs. God’s love, incarnate in Jesus, is a fire like a surgeon’s laser. It will not harm but heal and make us whole.

Homilette for Monday, December 21, 2008

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(I Samuel 1:24-28; Luke 1:46-56)

The movie It’s a Wonderful Life has more than a Christmas scene to recommend it as an all-time holiday classic. More crucially, the film demonstrates all the hope that the child Jesus brings into the world. The schemes of the villain Potter are vanquished while poor people are enabled to live with dignity in their own homes. Most of all, God comes to the help of his faithful servant, George Bailey, in his hour of desperation.

What director Frank Capra puts on film, Mary proclaims in the gospel today. She sings of how in sending His son into the world, God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Mary makes these claims after pondering in her heart all that the angel and her kinswoman, Elizabeth, tell her. She is Jesus’ true disciple who listens to the word of God, turns it over in her heart, and then gives it fresh expression. All of us should imitate her not only with words about what God has done for us, but also with deeds that bespeak God’s mercy.

Homilette for Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

(Judges 13:2-7.24-25a; Luke 1:5-25)

We feel for couples who want to have children but remain barren. Often they seem to be the most virtuous of people – she, gentle and caring; he, responsible and understanding. Raising offspring like themselves would not only fulfill the couple’s desire but would also give hope to their neighbors for a nobler society. Why, we ask, does God not grant them their continual prayer for a family?

Children, however, are not human property but belong to God. They are born to serve His design for a more just creation. In both readings today God grants the barren couples a son to further His purpose of preparing for the coming of Christ. Manoah and his wife will give birth to Samson who will defeat the enemies of the Israelites among whom Jesus will be born. Zechariah and Elizabeth will give birth to John who will announce that the Lord is at hand. Does God take pity on these pious couples because they pray to Him?

Yes, we can be sure of that. But we should not see their having children as necessarily the answer to their prayers. It is wiser to see Jesus as God’s response to all our prayers whether for children, a new job, or whatever. He is the gift which makes life worthwhile. He is our personal savior, who will yank us beyond death into eternal life. He is also the model of justice and prudence which may guide all peoples to peaceful earthly coexistence whether or not they recognize his divinity. Finally (and this is purely Christian hope), he is the omega point of the evolving universe who will bring the restless stars of the heavens together in harmony.

Homilette for Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(Jeremiah 23:5-8; Matthew 1:18-24)

Listening to the children of God’s poor, we may receive an entirely new concept of “Christmas gift.” Once, a missionary went to the highlands of Honduras to celebrate mass on the night after Christmas Day. Arriving early in the evening, he attended the meeting of the youth group. The group’s director asked the missionary to say something. He only inquired about the children’s Christmas gifts. But the children did not seem to understand. Rather than describe any toy or clothing they received, they only mentioned how they would be more obedient to their parents and more prayerful. Then the priest realized that he was the one who misunderstood. The children came from families too destitute to provide material gifts for them. “Christmas gifts” were what they all did for Jesus.

In the reading today from Jeremiah, the prophet provides us with a similarly new concept of the “promised land.” He foresees the descendants of Israel taking up residence on their rightful territory. Jesus fulfills this prophecy by giving us, the new Israelites because of our relationship with him, a share in the new “promised land.” To be sure, our destiny is not real estate in Israel. Rather, if we but observe his commandments, it is a place at the Lord’s table in heaven.

Homilette for Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

(Genesis 49:2.8-10; Matthew 1:1-17)

The tedium of reading Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of either Matthew or Luke causes some to reel. But it is worth a second look. The two lists differ in places so it is impossible that both are historically accurate. But each relates important truths that have become part of our faith tradition. We should see the genealogies like DNA codes that reveal something of Jesus’ innate makeup.

In Matthew’s genealogy the list highlights Jesus’ descent from David, the great king of Israel, and also from Abraham, to whom God made the promise of a blessing to all nations. Jesus, we may say, is the royal Messiah whom has God has sent to lead the human race.

The list also conveys a sense of the world’s readiness for salvation as it divides Jesus’ ancestors in three groups of fourteen generations. Matthew uses the convention of fourteen (two times seven) articles to indicate double fulfillment. As Jesus completes three sets of fourteen generations, we should see him as the conclusion of all history. He has delivered the world into a new age of grace, not the status quo of sin.

Finally, the series refers to five women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “the wife of Uriah”, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. These remarkable people show how God works in unexpected and even, given the virgin birth, unheard of ways to accomplish His ends.

Homilette for Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

(Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13; Matthew 21:28-32)

“A man had two sons.” So begins the reading today from the Gospel of Matthew. So also begins Jesus’ parable of the so-called prodigal son found in the Gospel according to Luke. The phrase may also refer to the story of Adam, Cain and Abel. Each of these tales tells of choices made by the sons whether or not to do the father’s will. (In the case of Cain and Abel, the father is God Himself.) One son makes a half-hearted decision to please his father which ultimately proves wanting. The other son, in the gospel stories at least, demurs at first but ultimately decides to subject himself to the father’s will.

The stories teach that all people must choose between paying lip-service to God and acting to please him. That is, everyone must decide to either follow his or her own preferences or to do God’s will. To be sure, the right choice requires the grace of the Holy Spirit, but the Church teaches that the Spirit comes to everyone.

It is appropriate that we reflect on the choice now as we make immediate preparations for Christmas. The gospels present Jesus as the one who manifests the definitive will of God. Do we accept his ways as presented to us by his body, the Church? Or do we only make a nod to him by calling ourselves Christians but, more deeply, live for self-satisfaction?

Homilette for Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday of the Third Week of Advent

(Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17a; Matthew 21:23-27)

In today’s gospel the chief priests and elders ask Jesus by whose authority he performs his marvelous deeds. Although Jesus adroitly sidesteps the issue because of the malicious intent of the questions, it is one that should preoccupy us during Advent. How does Jesus accomplish such mighty works? In Jesus’ reply to the Jewish leaders, he refers to John’s preaching. We can find here a hint for our reflection on Jesus’ authority. But first it would be helpful to examine the reference to Balaam in the first reading.

Balaam was a holy man who lived in Palestine just before the Israelites occupied the territory. When Balak, the king of the Moabites, saw the oncoming Israeli hordes, he summoned Balaam to curse the intruders. His hope was that a holy man’s curse would provide him the margin of victory. Balaam, however, will not comply with the king wishes because he sees that God favors the Israelites. The rising star which he sees in the heavens represents the ascendency of Israel’s prominence in the land.

Just as Balaam recognizes the coming of Israel to dominate Palestine, John the Baptist sees one coming after him who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. He is not sure exactly who the coming one is. In fact, he may be disappointed to hear of the lack of righteous indignation with sin in Jesus’ message. The fire and Spirit, which John foretold, turn out to be Jesus’ life-giving actions of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoral to wholeness. Unlike John, a prophet who speaks under God’s authority, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom with his own divine authority.

Homilette for Friday, December 12, 2008

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

(Zechariah 2:14-17; Luke 1:39-48)

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Elizabeth recognizes that the action in her womb as a response to the Lord whom Mary carries womb. She can do little but exclaim, “Most blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” God has indeed blessed Mary by choosing her to bear His son, but this fact alone hardly makes her all that we believe her to be.

Later on in this same Gospel of Luke, a woman will call out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” Jesus’ replies to this compliment with a correction. “Rather,” he says, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28). Jesus is not slighting his mother a bit here because he knows better than anyone how Mary always responds graciously to God’s word. Her responsiveness is demonstrated when she hurries to Elizabeth’s side after the angel informs her that the latter is with child. The inspired Elizabeth recognizes this greater quality of Mary when she tells her, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

We can see find Mary acting on the word of God when she meets the indigenous Juan Diego. She orders the Indian to tell the Spanish bishop of Mexico City that he must build a church on the site where she stands. Native Mexicans at this time are a poor, defeated nation whose converted Christian members have to travel into the city for mass. By mandating a church where the people reside Mary demonstrates God’s care for the poor found on most pages of Scripture.

Homilette for Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thursday of the Second Week of Advent

(Isaiah 41:13-20; Matthew 11:11-15)

The venerable teacher had the peculiarity of calling his students “pinheads.” The adolescents under his tutelage, however, did not take offense. Indeed, they perked up at the appellation to pay greater attention to the lesson. So the people of Israel respond to Isaiah as he calls them “worm” and “maggot” in the first reading. The prophet’s message certainly merits attention. God will rescue them from their captivity. Their way home will not be torturous but pleasant. Rather than straining beneath the desert sun, they will walk blithely under the shade of trees and drink from wayside pools.

Early in the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist hurls similar insults as the prophet Isaiah. “Brood of vipers” he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who seek him out in another desert. The people attend to his word because they recognize John as a true prophet. But for all its truth his message still falls short of the full revelation of the Kingdom of heaven because it lacks a dimension of God’s Fatherly love. This is why Jesus says that the least in the Kingdom – the tiniest one who comes to know the grace of the Kingdom -- is greater than the mighty Baptist.

Also a prophet, Jesus not only talks about God’s love but demonstrates it with powerful acts of mercy. Today we see similar preaching backed by deeds in the activities of many churches. One community of faith not only gives the poor an elegant weekly dinner but sponsors an annual concert featuring Handel’s “Messiah” so that the larger civic community might come together and be lifted up in the Lord’s name.

Homilette for Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wednesday of the Second Week of Advent

(Isaiah 40:25-31; Matthew 11:28-30)

Muslims are fond of repeating the Arabic phrase, “Allahu akhbar,” throughout the day. It means “God is great” and expresses the content of the first reading from Isaiah. God is great, much greater than we are – either as individuals or as a collective. Indeed, He made us and knows all our thoughts and our every action. But he does not compete for prominence with us like an upstart athlete wanting to prove his mettle. Rather God assists us in transcending our limitations so that we might even share in His greatness.

Unfortunately, we still want to compete with God. The first woman was tempted in the garden to be “like the gods,” and many today have the same ambition. They want to determine for themselves the boundaries of righteousness. The results of such a pursuit are usually disastrous. People become stressed out and confused with restless hearts. In the gospel Jesus offers everyone a better way. He invites especially those who feel oppressed and overburdened to come to him. He will not free us from responsibility but trades his burden for ours. Where we struggle to legitimize our desire for fame, fortune, and fun; he offers his peace, hope, and love. Our own burden would prove intolerable in the long run and leads us nowhere; his leads us to what is truly good and is absolutely manageable.

Homilette for Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tuesday, II Week of Advent

(Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 18:12-14)

The other day public radio advertised an upcoming interview with an evangelical pastor who has parted from the Church’s tradition. The pastor believes that God could not send anyone to hell because, he says, if God condemned one person for infidelity or lawlessness, then He would have to condemn billions and that would make him a mass murderer worse than Hitler. Believing God to be all-merciful, we have compelling reason to agree with the renegade pastor. However, we should first examine the Church’s teachings.

The readings today reveal God not as an executioner but, quite the contrary, as a savior. He tells the prophet to comfort His people Judah by informing them that their punishment has ended. By now they have learned that “all flesh is grass”; that is, that the opulent nations that Judah once emulated, have withered like the grass in winter. Judah can see the futility of following those nations and the need to return to God’s ways. Likewise in the gospel, Jesus pictures God as a worried shepherd seeking one lost sheep even though he has ninety-nine others to support his needs.

It would be blasphemy to characterize God as a mass murderer. We rightly see Him as one who seeks out the lost and comforts the bewildered. Because some seem to scorn His message, we cannot say for certain that they ever return to his fold. Still we can pray that every person turns to God in his or her heart and heeds His words of reform and comfort.

Homilette for Monday, December 8, 2008

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Genesis 3:9-15.20; Ephesians 1:3-6.11-12; Luke 1:26-38)

Once in a while in newspapers, Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus is referred to as her “Luke 1:26-38.” Both events are mysteries of faith, but we must be careful not to confuse the two.

We believe that Mary, by virtue of a special grace anticipating her being the mother of Jesus, was immaculately conceived. This means that from her conception in her mother’s womb she suffered none of the effects of the sin committed by Adam and Eve. We remember that the first humans disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. Actually concupiscence – the desire to be like God – caused Adam and Eve to disobey. What to them was a radical decision, to their descendants has become an innate defect. Mary alone, except for Jesus, the “God-man,” was spared of this fate.

The gospel today demonstrates Mary’s innocent nature. Addressed by God’s messenger as “full of grace,” Mary has difficulty understanding that the angel is referring to her. And when told that she will conceive of the long-awaited Messiah, Mary expresses no desire for illicit sexual relations. We can say that Mary possesses neither pride nor lust, two of the graver manifestations of the sin inherited from Adam and Eve. Rather her disposition is one of submission to God’s authority. She responds, “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Of course, Mary gives birth to Jesus who eventually gives himself over to death so that humans might overcome their inclination to disobey God’s commands. We are not conceived, like Mary, with a completely innocent nature. But through Christ’s efforts, we can conquer pride, lust and other forms of sin.

Homilette for Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday of the First Week of Advent

(Isaiah 29:17-24; Matthew 9:27-31)

In explaining why random evolution cannot account for the complexity of human life, intelligent design advocates often point to the eye. They say that such an intricate organ is not likely to come about by chance, no matter if it had a zillion years to develop. The eye’s sight is not only wonderful, it is also useful. For this reason the blind men in today’s gospel ask Jesus for mercy.

The two men lack physical sight, but they possess faith which is another way of seeing. The men may have heard that Jesus is in the line of David. But this is only a fact of heredity. More significantly, they believe that he is the son of David who will restore the glory of Israel. As Isaiah foretold, he is the one who will open the ears of the deaf, give sight to the blind, and bring release to prisoners. Jesus rewards their faith with a new kind of twenty-twenty vision; that is, they can now see as well with their eyes as they have all along with their souls.

This Advent those of us who see well enough with our eyes might ask Jesus for the enhanced vision which faith gives. We want to see him as the one to save us from all that threatens us. Also, we need faith so that we might never lose sight of everyone's dignity, no matter the person's disability or condition.

Homilette for Thursday, December 4, 2009

Thursday of the First Week of Advent

(Isaiah 26:1-6; Matthew 5:21.24-27)

The gospel today is taken from the ending of the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” The evangelist Matthew has portrayed Jesus as the supreme lawgiver surpassing even Moses. The new morality, which Jesus has just outlined, enables a people to shine with righteousness as brightly as a city at night.

Jesus’ moral teaching does not negate the Old Law, but it does point to its deficiency. Simply trying to conform to the ideals prescribed in the Pentateuch, the people will always fall short of the mark. They need internal support even more than external norms if they are to stand out as a righteous society. To supply what is lacking Jesus will infuse them with the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas calls the Holy Spirit, who is God, the chief component of Jesus’ New Law. We might compare this development to the building of modern skyscrapers. Previous ages knew multi-storied buildings but only with the use of a steel framework could the super-tall high rises that characterize constructions of the twentieth century be built.

Some of us may recoil at the words righteous and righteousness. We hear them as self-righteous which is not what Jesus has in mind. Once again, it is Jesus’ Spirit infused within that provides the difference. It tunes up our antennas to the world around us. Then it moves us to reject vice and to practice virtue. We can rest assured that our righteous efforts will meet with Jesus’ approval when he comes in glory.

Homilette for Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Memorial of St. Francis Xavier, priest

(Isaiah 25:6-10, Matthew 15:29-37)

During what the Church calls “Ordinary Time” weekday mass readings are not coordinated. In this long period she assigns a first reading and a gospel passage with different themes in order to give mass-goers maximum exposure to Scripture. During Advent, however, she selects a first reading from the Old Testament and a gospel to show how Jesus fulfills the anticipation of the people of Israel. Today, for example, the prophet Isaiah tells how God will prepare a banquet for all peoples in honor of lowly Israel who preserved faith in Him. In the gospel passage Jesus, a descendant of Israel, does just that. First, he assists those who are usually left out – the blind and the lame – as he addresses the masses. Then he feeds everyone large portions of bread and fish.
Because we can count on God to keep His promises, we ready ourselves for Christ’s return during Advent. But the preparations themselves convey special blessings. It is like the story Garrison Keillor tells of wintertime in rural Minnesota where he grew up. His school principal once matched children from the country with “snow parents” who would give them shelter in case a winter storm prevented their return home after school. Keillor remembers being assigned to a family whose house had a statue of the Blessed Virgin in its front yard. One afternoon when school was dismissed early and he was waiting for the school bus, he went to the house to meet the family. He introduced himself to the woman at the door simply as her “snow child.” The woman invited him in and told him to sit down while she called her husband. In the meantime, she brought him cookies and milk.

As Minnesotans in winter are sure to get heavy snowfalls, we can be sure of Christ’s eventual return in glory. Also, like Minnesotans preparing for snow, we ready ourselves for that climatic day during Advent. Finally, like the young Garrison Keillor, in our preparations we experience moments of grace.

Homilette for Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

(Isaiah 11: 1-10, Luke 10:21-24)

The prison minister related the kind of story she hears over and over again. A small black man, who apparently just arrived in the city, was wrongly accused of purse-snatching. That the fellow was hardly aware of what was happening was so obvious that the arraigning judge released him on reconnaissance. The poor man was still left homeless and just about penniless.

Even if one believes that the legal system is both fair and functional, he or she should still realize that such misfortunes as what befell the black man in the story happen with some regularity. Especially those without money to pay professional fees are vulnerable to miscarriages of justice. There are also abuses at the other end of the spectrum. The rich sometimes “get away with murder” because they can afford clever attorneys who manipulate the system.

In the first reading today the prophet Isaiah announces that all injustices are coming to an end. A Messiah, he says, will be born to establish righteousness throughout the land. He will hear the cases of the poor along with the rich. He will prosecute villains and allow the innocent to walk with heads high. As a result, there will be a truly peaceful society with the equivalent of Asians and Africans, capitalists and communists, surgeons and street sweepers all taking care of one another. The message of Advent is that this vision has been realized in Jesus of Nazareth and will be universalized shortly when he returns in glory.