4th Sunday of Advent

In our first reading today, the Lord gives Nathan a fairly long message to deliver to David.  He makes David a series of promises ending with “your throne shall stand firm forever.”  Remember, this is the same David who had one of his men killed so he could have the man’s wife for himself.  David’s closet was full of skeletons.  But here’s God telling him that he’s going to be a mighty king and that his kingdom will last forever.

 

Even in David’s time, everybody knew that no kingdom could last forever.  It’s still true today.  But the Lord wasn’t talking about an earthly kingdom.

 

Fast forward to today’s Gospel, Luke’s famous telling of the Annunciation.  It’s a beautiful story and one we’ve all heard many times.  Right in the middle of the story the angel tells Mary “the Lord God will give him (meaning Mary’s unborn Son) the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

There it is again; “The promise of a never-ending kingdom”.  We know today that the angel is talking about a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one.  Poor Mary doesn’t know what to think.  Her response is, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

 

I want to stop here for just a minute.  When I was first in formation for the diaconate, about fifteen years ago, I went to a two-day workshop on the Gospel of Luke.  The speaker was Father Eugene La Verdier, an expert of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, which was also written by Luke.  He spent the entire first morning talking to us about this Gospel passage.

 

Obviously I can’t tell you everything he said, but the gist of it was this.  Everything about Mary was small.  She lived in a very small town, Nazareth which was part of a very small province called Galilee.  To the people of Jesus’ time, Nazareth was kind of a back-water place, definitely not the kind of place that would give birth to the Messiah.

 

Then there’s Mary herself.  She’s a young girl from a small town.  She’s still a virgin.  In Mary’s society women were definitely second class citizens.  But married women at least had the prestige of their husbands.  Unmarried women were the lowest rung on the social ladder.  Aside from the biology of the thing, the idea of a young, single woman, a nobody in the Jewish society of that time, giving birth to such a mighty king was unprecedented.  “How can this be since I’m no more important than a good donkey or camel?”

 

Remember that Mary was engaged to Joseph.  Surely she intended to have children.  The idea that one of them might become a king was far-fetched but not impossible.  Her response only makes sense if we look at it as a sign of humility. “How can someone as lowly as me give birth to a king?”

What I’m suggesting to you is this.  The Son of God was born of a woman; an unmarried woman from a small, insignificant place.  The idea that she would give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God was outrageous.   But Mary was chosen by God.  Jesus was the only person in history to have chosen His own mother.  He didn’t choose someone wealthy.  He didn’t choose someone powerful.  He didn’t choose a queen.  Any of those choices would have made it much easier for Him to perform His ministry.

 

He chose Mary.  He chose Mary to show you and me that with God anything is possible.  He chose her to give us encouragement.  If this lowly girl could be His mother, then you and I shouldn’t be afraid to tackle anything.  He chose her to show us how we should respond to God’s call just as he chose David to be a mighty king in spite of his past sins.

 

You and I may think we can never change the world. We’re just not important enough. Or maybe we think we’re too sinful. But the stories of David and Mary prove that we’re wrong. In just a few days we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior. It’s not just a day revolving around gifts and food. It’s a day to remember that Jesus was born for us; to save us from our sins. It’s a day to ponder our part in salvation history. What can I do to repay such a remarkable gift? What does God have in mind for me. It’s a day for us, just like Mary, to say, “Let it be done to me according to your will.”

 

Time and again you have shown your generosity to others. Your response to our Christmas gift drive was outstanding. As you celebrate your own Christmas, take a moment to remember that some poor child is having a merrier Christmas because of your donated gifts.

 

After mass today (tomorrow) we’ll decorate the church for Christmas. We’ll have more poinsettias than ever before thanks to the generosity of our members who donated to our flower fund. Our Christmas visitors will be very impressed.

 

During the year you’ve helped with other collections for those less fortunate than we are. We may be a small community, but together we get things done. That’s what discipleship is all about. In the coming year, I hope that we can all work together to spread the Gospel to more people. There are plans in the works to build our attendance and to increase our revenue. Saint John Nepomuk Chapel has a special place in the hearts of people all over Saint Louis and throughout the nation and the world. We recently received a check from a lady from Florida, a non-Catholic lady by the way, who heard about our broken window and wanted to help.

 

There’s a Czech organization in Cleveland that sends us a check every year for Christmas. We regularly have visitors from other cities who attend mass here. You may not be aware that we often give tours to out-of-town groups visiting Saint Louis.

You and I are part of God’s plan. He has something He wants each of us to do. It’s up to us to respond, like Mary. In a few minutes we’ll all say together, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

 

4th Sunday of Advent

(This is my homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent)

Today  is the fourth Sunday of Advent.  All the candles on the Advent wreath have been lit.  Now, it’s time to take the wreath down and decorate the church for Christmas.  Father and I will hang up the purple vestments until the first week of March when Lent will begin.

 

For the past three weekends we’ve been hearing about John the Baptist and his ministry of preparing the way of the Lord.  Remember Jesus called John the greatest man ever born of a woman.  But He promised us that the least person in heaven would be greater even than John.  We have hope because that includes you and me.

 

But today the Gospel takes a different tone.  There’s no mention of John.  Today’s story is about Mary and Joseph.  It’s a critical story because it gives us some insight into what these two people had to do to fulfill their part in salvation history.

 

The angel of the Lord has visited Mary and told her that she would bear a son.  In Friday’s  Gospel reading from Luke the angel tells Mary, “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”  As we all know, Mary told the angel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”

 

Now, Mary was engaged to Joseph.  When Joseph realized that Mary was pregnant his first impulse was to “divorce her quietly.”  Remember, things were much different in Mary and Joseph’s world than they are today.  In our world unmarried mothers are not scorned.  They’re not ashamed of their situation and some even brag about it.  Famous people, especially members of the Hollywood crowd go on talk shows and talk openly about their pregnancies.  They are proud of what they’ve done and don’t seem the least bit concerned about their sinfulness.  But for about the first 1,900 years of the Christian era, being an unwed mom wasn’t something to be celebrated.  It was the cause of great shame and embarrassment.

 

So, it’s not hard to understand how Joseph felt.  Mary had brought shame on herself and on him.  Guys, put yourself in his place.  What would you have done?  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man”.  He was “unwilling to expose her to shame.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would have been as gracious as Joseph.

 

But the angel appears to him in a dream and explains what’s going on.  Mary has conceived through the Holy Spirit.  Her son will save His people from their sins.

 

The experts tell us that Mary was young, probably a teenager.  Joseph was older.  Imagine what his friends and family must have said.  “It serves your right, Joseph.  You decide to marry this young girl and she turns up pregnant.  What did you expect?”  Think about the gossip.  But, he ignored the taunts of his so-called friends and did what the angel told him to do.  I’m sure he spent a lot of time in prayer.

 

So here we have two ordinary people who’ve been asked to make huge sacrifices so that the prophet Isaiah’s words would be fulfilled:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”

 

Joseph, being a “righteous man” and a devout Jew, surely was familiar with Isaiah’s prophesy.  Surely he and Mary spent a lot of time talking about what was about to happen.  Maybe they both had planned on having a big family.  Maybe Joseph had big plans for his carpentry business.  If they were engaged, they must have spent a lot of time talking about what their lives would be like as a married couple.  But all that changed in an instant.  And today we thank God that they were willing to give all that up for the greater glory of God.  If either one of them had said no 2,000 years ago, our lives would be very different today.  By agreeing to God’s plan they set things in motion that would change the world forever.

 

You and I also play a part in God’s plan.  Even though we will probably never be recognized by the world, every time we say yes to God’s plan, we start a chain-of-events that changes the world.

 

Is there anyone here who’s never seen It’s a Wonderful Life?  It was on TV last night.  George Bailey was given a wonderful gift.  He gets to see what his world would have been like if he’d never been born.  Of course it’s fiction, but it’s definitely a story that should make us think.  What would our world be like if we’d never been born?  What little things have we done that have changed other people’s lives?  Chances are, like George, we have no idea.  God does great things through ordinary people and things.

 

If you’ve been following the news this week, you know about Phil Robertson.  He’s been attacked for stating his Christian beliefs.  And the whole thing has had some remarkable results.  There’s a Facebook page called “Bring Back Phil Robertson”.  In just two days it’s received more than a million “likes”.  Americans are standing up for their faith (and Phil’s) in amazing numbers.  God is working a miracle with something as simple as a duck call.  It’s a beautiful thing to happen just a week before Christmas.

 

My recent blog post on Phil-gate has had more hits than all my previous posts put together.

 

I could stand up here all day and talk about things that have happened in my life that can only be explained by God’s intervention.  He put the right person in the right place at the right time to give me something that I needed.  Maybe it was something they said.  Maybe it was something they did.  But, God’s hand was in it.  I know all of you could do the same.

 

So, as we prepare to celebrate the greatest event in the history of mankind, it’s good to reflect on today’s story.  Two ordinary people from a very small town said yes to God and changed everything.  That’s what Christmas is about.  That’s what our Catholic faith is all about.  Christmas is a time when we focus on a great miracle.  But miracles happen every day.  We may be the catalyst for a miracle and never even know it.  Thank you Mary and Joseph for saying “yes”.

 

 

Epiphany

Epiphany!  The dictionary defines it as a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.  That’s definitely what we have today.  The Magi came from a far land to worship the newborn king, the Baby Jesus.  A star led them to Bethlehem and to the manger where Jesus lay.

Every year we put up the crib before Christmas.  Then we symbolically place the figure of the baby in the manger on Christmas Eve.  Today we complete the picture with the arrival of the figures of the three kings.  There’s one more week of the Christmas season which ends with the baptism of Jesus.  Next Sunday we’ll take it all down.

There’s a ton of symbolism in the way we celebrate the birth of Christ. We spend four weeks getting ready for Him to come.  Then we have the glorious celebration of His birth on December 25.  On the following Sunday we commemorate the Holy Family.

This one’s a little strange.  All of a sudden Jesus is twelve years old.  He’s separated from Mary and Joseph and they look for Him for three days.  When they finally found Him He said the words that must have broken Joseph’s heart, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?”  The lesson we learn is that apparently Mary and Joseph still weren’t quite sure what to make of this

“Son of God”.  If they did, wouldn’t the temple have been the first place they looked?  Where else did they look for three days?  But I digress.

Getting back to our Liturgical calendar, on January 1 we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.  Jesus is a baby again. Sometimes this is called the feast of the circumcision, because that’s how the day’s Gospel ends.  But the emphasis here should be on Mary.  “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart”.  Imagine how overwhelmed this young girl must have been.

That brings us to today, the Epiphany; a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.  Seeing a tiny newborn lying in a feeding trough for animals, about as simple and homely an experience as anyone is likely to have, the Magi suddenly, intuitively perceive the reality of what they’re seeing; the Son of God.

We know that the shepherds have seen the child but these men aren’t shepherds.  They’re not even Jews!  They’re powerful kings from a foreign land and they’ve been called by God, led by a star, to be witnesses to the birth of the Messiah.  The Gospel ends with them departing for their own country to deliver the good news of what they’ve seen.

Here’s the thing.  Jesus wasn’t sent just for the Jews.  Paul tells us in the second reading that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise of Jesus Christ through the Gospel.”  He may have been the Messiah that the Jewish people had been waiting for but He was our Messiah too.

You and I can have an epiphany just like the Magi did.  Jesus reveals Himself to us in many ways, usually in ways that we’ll miss if we’re not paying attention.  Someone says or does something that touches your heart.  You pick up a book and something in its pages seems to speak just to you.  Maybe you see a small child or a homeless person and you feel the need to do something.

The other day there was a dog on Telegraph Road.  He must have been hurt because he was running back and forth from one side of the street to the other.  There was a major traffic jam because everyone stopped not wanting to hurt it.  I thought at the time that there was still goodness in the world.  So many people were willing to be late for work rather than take a chance on hitting someone’s pet.

Your epiphany may come in church.  It may come at work.  It may come while you’re driving your car.  You never know.  We have to be paying attention.

Next Sunday we’ll take down the Christmas decorations and return to Ordinary Time.  But even in the taking down there’s symbolism.  The trees and the lights and the manger may be gone, but Jesus remains with us.  We just have to look a little harder to see Him.  Finding Him in the ordinary things of our daily lives is our Epiphany.

This ends my homily but I was listening to Cardinal Dolan’s homily for Sunday and he made an interesting point.  The Magi  were looking for an adult king.  Imagine how surprised they were to find an infant!  You can listen to the Cardinal’s homily here.

4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent

You know that when the characters in Scripture talk to one another, they’re also talking to you and me.  Today’s Gospel is a good example of that.  In the very last line Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

 

Think about that for a second.  Mary is blessed because she believed.  Doesn’t that apply to us?  Aren’t we blessed when we believe.  Think about the famous passage; John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave* his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

 

Mary believed.  And you know what?  She gave her only Son too.  You have to think that Mary, like all young women and men, had plans for her life.  There’s no mention in Scripture of Mary having any friends, but you know she did.  They probably giggled and talked like all young girls, planning what their lives would be like.  But Mary was blessed because she believed.

 

How was Mary blessed?  She was blessed to have only one Son who would leave home at the age of thirty and in three short years would be humiliated, tortured, and executed.  The first inkling she would have of all this was when she and Joseph took Jesus to the temple.  Simeon told her that her heart would be pierced.  I don’t think she planned on that.

 

Mary was blessed to never be intimate with her husband.  Blessed Mary, ever virgin.  That had to be an adjustment for Mary AND Joseph.

 

The Holy Family was forced to flee to Egypt and live in exile while Herod tried to find Jesus and kill Him.  Then when they were settled into their new home, the angel came and told them to go back.  Another blessing?

 

Remember when Jesus was twelve years old?  Mary and Jesus took Him to the temple and lost Him.  It was a big caravan and Mary thought He was with Joseph and Joseph thought He was with Mary.  All of us who are parents have probably been separated from one of our kids at one time or another.  Total panic!  Imagine how Mary must have felt losing the Son of God.  I guess that’s another way she was blessed.

 

The point of all this is what it means to be blessed.  We may have a tendency to think of the blessings of this world.  And that’s ok.  I’ve been blessed with a wonderful wife, four great kids, and four and a half great grandchildren.  Those are major blessings but they’re also worldly blessings.

 

The blessing we’re all looking for is the blessing of eternal life.  That’s the big one and it doesn’t necessarily come from worldly blessings.  In fact, one man’s blessing may be another man’s curse.  The guy who lives in the big house with the $2,000 suits and the Mercedes Benz in the garage may be miserable.  And, the things he did to get all that stuff may be what keeps him out of heaven.  Blessings we create for ourselves aren’t blessings at all.  Blessings can only come from God.

 

On the other hand, the guy who lives in the mobile home in Jefferson County and drives a beat-up pickup truck, but who goes to church every Sunday and shares what little he has with others is probably on the express train to eternal life.

 

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

 

Here’s the thing.  If we believe anything the Lord tells us then we have to believe everything the Lord tells us.  If anything He says isn’t true then He’s a liar.  And if He’s a liar, then we can’t believe anything He says.

 

In just a matter of hours we’ll begin to celebrate the birth of the Savior.  God sent His Son to save us from our sins.  In His three short years of earthly ministry Jesus gave us some instructions.  His instructions were much simpler that the hundreds of Jewish laws that the people were used to.  Basically He told us to Love Him and to love one another.  He told us He had come to build a Church and Peter would be the rock; the foundation.  He left the Apostles to run the Church.  He told them, “Whoever hears you, hears Me.”  That’s this thing we call the Catholic Church.  He left us the beatitudes and the golden rule.  He left us the Lord’s Prayer.

 

So, as we get ready for the celebration of the greatest event in the history of the world, the almighty God being born as a human baby in a manger in Bethlehem, let’s take Elizabeth’s words to heart.  We may be blessed with great families, or good looks, or great minds.  We may be blessed to live in a nice house and drive a nice car.

 

Or, maybe not.

 

But we’re all blessed with the ability to believe what the Lord has told us.  Whether we believe or not is up to us.

 

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

 

 

 

 

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic #3 The Blessed Mother

“Hail Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.”

When the Lord spoke these words to Mary, her life was changed forever.  She was to become the Mother of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  When she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who was also with child, even in her old age, her words were prophetic as well.  When Mary entered Elizabeth’s home the child in her womb leapt for joy and Elizabeth said,

“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  

Of course, these two sentences from Luke’s Gospel are the beginning of the “Hail Mary”, the tribute to the Blessed Virgin that every Catholic learns early in life and continues to pray as long as they live.

We discussed earlier, in our post on saints, that we don’t worship Mary.  We venerate her.  How else should we treat Jesus’ mother?  Without her, there would have been no Messiah.  Obviously Mary could have said no.  In fact one reason we do venerate her is because she said yes.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  Mary could have refused.  She could have told Gabriel to leave her alone.  She was young.  She was engaged to be married.  The last thing she needed was a surprise pregnancy.  Nazareth was a small town.  What were the neighbors going to think?  What was Joseph going to say?  But she had faith in God and she agreed to do His will.

Don’t forget, Mary was born without sin.  God had been preparing for this event for years.  If Mary had refused to go along, He couldn’t just go get another woman.  He would have had to start over.  But, of course, He knew that she would never refuse to do His will.

But why do we Catholics have such a strong devotion to Mary?  After all, other faith traditions believe the same Nativity story that we do.  They understand that Mary was Jesus’ mother, but they don’t seem to hold her in the high esteem that we do.  We pray for Mary to intercede for us with Jesus.   Every Catholic church has at least one statue of her.  Until recently, Mary was the most popular girl’s name in the United States.  There are thousands of Catholic Churches named after her, either as Saint Mary, or as one of her other appellations.  We Catholics love Mary.

Mary carried our Lord in her womb for nine months.  She raised Him from a baby and held Him in her arms after He was crucified.  She was assumed into heaven so her sinless body wouldn’t have to lie in the ground.  She was Jesus’ mother and I think we can all agree, if you love someone as much as we love Jesus, you have to love their mom.

Mary said “yes” to God and gave birth to His Son.  As He hung on the cross, Jesus gave her to his beloved Apostle John, and so gave her to us.  Mary was very cool.

Here’s a trivia question for you.  What is the only US city named after the blessed mother?  

 

 

40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic #25 We ARE the Body of Christ

Everyone likes to belong to a group.  As Catholics, we belong to the largest family of all, the body of Christ.

There are over a billion Catholics around the world and we all pray together.  And that’s not all!  There’s more???  Yes there is.  Not only do we pray with all those other Catholics, we pray with “all the angels and saints.”  That’s HUGE!  Think about what we say in the Penitential Rite:

Therefore I ask blessed Mary, ever-Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

In one simple sentence, we’re flooding heaven with prayers.  Every Sunday hundreds of millions of Catholics are making that same prayer.  When we ask our brothers and sisters to pray for us, our prayer isn’t limited to just those people who surround us in the physical dimensions of our local church, we’re uniting our voices with every Catholic, in every church in the world;  PLUS all the angels and saints.

I feel sorry for people who say they can worship God without going to mass.  “I can speak to God anywhere, not just in a particular building.”  They’re right, but only up to a point.  Which is better, to pray to God all by myself, or to pray to God along with the entire Church?

Having the entire Body of Christ joining in my prayer makes me a part of the largest family, not just in the world, but in the entire universe.

Isn’t that cool?

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?