Merry Christmas Eve

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We’re almost there!  At my parish the first mass for Christmas is just a few hours away.  I’ll be preaching at midnight mass which we celebrate at 10:00 pm.  Considering the large turnout we always have, I’ve been working on  my homily for a while.  I also preach this weekend, so my limited creativity is really being tested.

Later today I’ll be posting my Christmas homily and that will be my contribution to the blogosphere for tomorrow.  For today, I”ll just say that I hope this is the most blessed, holiest Christmas you and your family have ever had!

My prayer for you is that you enjoy the day, take pleasure in the giving and the receiving, and take time out to remember why we do all this.  There has never been another day like that first Christmas day so long ago and there never will be again.  It was a day so significant in the history of the world that every day since has been measured by that one day, even by those who don’t share our faith.  Two thousand and nine years later, we’re still celebrating.

So raise a cup of egg nog and toast the little family that became three in a manger stall so long ago and far away.  Thank God for sending us His Son so that our sins could be forgiven and we can look forward to an eternity in paradise.

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The Fourth Wednesday of Advent

In today’s Gospel we read of the birth of John the Baptist.  Isn’t it odd that when Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives gathered on the eighth day for the baby’s circumcision that they had already chosen a name for him?  My wife and I have four kids and we didn’t let our neighbors and relatives pick a single name.  I doubt if you did either.

Even when Elizabeth told them that the baby’s name would be John, they still argued with her.  “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So, they asked Zechariah what he thought.  Remember that he was struck dumb when he questioned the angel’s words that Elizabeth was going to be a mother in her old age.  So he took a tablet and wrote “John is his name,” and “all were amazed.”

This elderly woman has had a baby, her husband has had his voice taken away,  and the relatives and neighbors are amazed that they’ve chosen to name the baby John?  That seems to me to be the most normal thing that’s happened around there for a while.

But don’t we all know someone like that?  They overlook the main thing to focus on the small stuff.  You know, the ones who rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But then, the most amazing thing of all.  Zechariah gets his voice back.  Now the neighbors are afraid. The events are discussed “throughout the hill country of Judea.  All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?'”

Well, we know the answer to the question.  John will go before the Lord to prepare His way.  Everyone of us is a little bit John.  Our calling is to prepare the Lord’s way, too.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.  As we wind up the Advent season, hopefully  we can look back and  see that we’re just a little bit more ready than we were four weeks ago.  If so, then our Advent has been a success.

The Fourth Tuesday of Advent

No room in the inn!  I wonder, if there was no room for them in the inn on that night so long ago, how much room would there be for them today?  Remember that the inns were all full because of the great crowd that was gathered in Bethlehem for the census, a big event.

Today everything seems to be a big event.  The big game.  The big sale.  The big presentation.  The big exam.  With so many things competing to be the biggest, how do we react to something as simple as the birth of a small child?  Not only that, but we’ve let the celebration of His birth become an extravaganza of parties, and presents, each one competing with all the others to earn the title of biggest and best.

Isn’t it ironic that our human efforts to celebrate His birth have led to the same kind of frantic activity that caused His birth to go mostly unnoticed on that night so many centuries ago?  In our “humanness” we’ve made the birth of the Son of God almost an afterthought as we celebrate the day.   For so many of us Santa Clause has become the central figure, relegating Jesus to a secondary role, if He has any role at all.

OK, I get it.  You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t serious about your Advent preparation.  My words should be directed elsewhere.    But hopefully you’ll be the one to spread the word to your friends and family who may have forgotten what Christmas is really about.  You can help stop the craziness in your own world.  Jesus is counting on all of us to do what we can to put Him first on His Birthday.

It’s not too much to ask, is it?

The Fourth Monday of Advent

Mary visits ElizabethIn today’s Office of Readings Saint Ambrose reflects on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.  Quoting Luke’s Gospel he writes, “as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting the child leapt in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

“Notice the contrast and the choice of words.  Elizabeth is the first to hear Mary’s voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace.  She hears with the ears of the body, but he leaps for joy at the meaning of the mystery.  She is aware of Mary’s presence, but he is aware of the Lord’s.”

Ambrose explains that John received the Holy Spirit from Jesus’ presence and Elizabeth received the same Spirit from John.  Elizabeth received the Spirit after John was conceived where Mary received the Spirit before Jesus was conceived.  As Elizabeth says to Mary:  Blessed are you because you have believed.

Then Ambrose speaks to you and me when he says, “You are also blessed because you have heard and believed.  A soul that believes both conceives and brings forth the Word of God and acknowledges his works…..Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. ”

We all have the opportunity to share the Spirit with others when we proclaim our belief in the Incarnation, in our actions and our words.  And isn’t that the greatest Christmas gift of all?

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

As we begin these last few days before Christmas I can’t help thinking about the paradox of the season.  We’re called to prayerfully reflect on the coming of the Lord.  But our celebration of His birth has become so bloated with external activity that we don’t really have the time to celebrate His birth. We’re like a young couple who spends so much time planning the wedding that they forget to prepare for marriage, sometimes with disastrous results.

It reminds me of that first Christmas morning.  All of Bethlehem was bustling with activity as of the descendants of David were in town to register for the census.  There were no vacancies at the inns, forcing Mary and Joseph into a cattle stall.  The most significant event in the history of the world went mostly unnoticed.  Everybody was just to busy.

So who did the angels choose to receive the good news?  Shepherds!  The lowliest, smelliest people of all!  Why would they make such an important announcement to such unimportant people?  Simple.  Such lowly people had no part in all the activity in town.  They were doing what they always did.  They were alone with their flocks.  And sheep are notoriously poor conversationalists.

As my friend Father Bruce Forman once wrote, “God speaks to those who sit quietly and listen.”  That’s what the shepherds were doing on that night long ago and that’s what God asks of us.  No, we don’t have to all become shepherds.  We can have human companions.  But we also need quiet time.  Even if it’s only a few minutes a day, make time to sit quietly and let God speak to you.  You might be surprised what you hear.

The Fourth Saturday of Advent

Father,

you show the world the splendor of your glory in the coming of Christ, born of the Virgin.  Give to us true faith and love to celebrate the mystery of God made man.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Doesn’t this closing prayer from this morning’s Liturgy of the Hours sum up our feelings as we enter the final seven days of Advent?  We ask for true faith and love in the face of a world where faith and love are often ignored, or worse, ridiculed.

“This is the twenty-first century.  Forget faith.  We need proof.  How do you knot that this “Jesus” was really the Son of God?”

It’s like the old joke where the customer asks the salesman the price of a car and the salesman answers that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.  In the same way, if you have to have scientific proof that Jesus is truly the Son of God, born of a Virgin on that first Christmas night, then you’ll never get it.

Thomas Merton wrote in No Man is an Island, that God never gives us the complete answer because, if He did, then faith would be impossible.  He gives us small glimpses of the truth, but added together they don’t equal the whole truth.  If they did, then there would be no faith.  And faith is what He asks of us to enter into His kingdom.

I discovered this passage of Merton’s at at time in my diaconal formation when I was seriously questioning if I was really called or not.  At that time in my life it was exactly what I needed to seal the deal.  I was looking for proof at a time when faith was what was needed.

And so we pray, “Father, Give to us true faith and love to celebrate the mystery of God made man.”

Third Friday of Advent

Joseph and JesusWow!  It’s the third Friday of Advent already.  Christmas is just a week from today.  You can tell it’s getting close, not just from the latest “biggest sale of the year”, but because the Church presents us with the story from Matthew’s gospel of how “the birth of Jesus Christ came about.”  It’s such a familiar story that I really don’t know what to say about it that hasn’t already been said.

Maybe we’ll look at it from Joseph’s point of view.  We don’t know a whole lot about Joseph.  Not one single word of his is recorded in any of the four Gospels.  Some scholars think that he was an older man.  Some say he might have been a widower with children from his first wife.  There are some clues, but we really don’t know.

What we do know is this.  He was engaged to a young girl who suddenly became pregnant.  He knew he wasn’t the child’s father.  He thought his fiance was a virgin.  That’s what she told him.  But here she was pregnant with a bizarre story about an angel and the Holy Spirit.  I don’t know about you, but that might be a hard one to swallow.  Remember, in those days people actually followed a moral code, a very strict moral code.  When Mary cloak started stretching at the seams, everyone would assume that Joseph was responsible and that wouldn’t help his carpentry business.  His reputation would be ruined.

So he decided to divorce her quietly.  Then the angel appeared to him in a dream and backed up Mary’s story.  The marriage was back on.  He would raise the Son of God as his own son with all the trials and inconveniences that came with the job.

The last line of the Gospel is one of the things that separate us Catholics from some of our protestant brothers and sisters.  Notice it says, “He had no relations with her until she bore a son.”  We believe that Mary was “ever virgin.”  Anyone who knows Jewish law would understand that if she were ever to have relations with Joseph she would be committing adultery.  In this case, adultery against the Holy Spirit.  That would have been pretty serious stuff.  But our English language doesn’t really translate Matthew’s writing very well.

The words “until she bore a son” could imply that something happened afterwords.  But that’s not the case here.  The way the people would have interpreted it is that they never had relations.  An better example might be “he never smoked another cigarette until he died.”  That doesn’t mean that he started smoking again after he died.  But I digress.

The story of the miraculous conception of Jesus is one of the greatest and most important stories of our Christian history.  As you think about it, put yourself in Joseph’s place.  Would you have done what he did?  Would you have believed an angel who appeared in a dream?  I don’t know about you, but I have some pretty weird dreams sometimes.

But Joseph did believe and followed God’s words and in just seven days we’ll celebrate the story of the little family in the little town of Bethlehem.  Come, Jesus, come.