Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 2011:

Here we are together celebrating the great feast of Christmas. Today we remember the birth of Jesus, the birth of our Savior, the beginning of salvation. It is always good for us to remember just what we say about this little baby, born 2000 years ago in that little town of Bethlehem. What do you see when you see this little baby?

Think about what we say in the creed: he is the only begotten son of God, God from God, Light from light, begotten, not made: consubstantial with the Father. These are amazing mysteries. Jesus, the little baby born in Bethlehem is consubstantial with the Father. When we look on the baby Jesus we see God. This is an amazing mystery. But, why did Jesus come? Why is that baby in the manger?

The creed says: for our sake and for our salvation. So this baby has something to do with us and our salvation. I think we can learn three things about Christ as our savior by looking at Jesus in the manger.

We learn in the book of Genesis that God created Adam and Eve, placing them in the garden so that they could live and have communion with him. Yet, through the Original Sin Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden, there is a separation between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. After Original Sin our relationship with God was ruptured. When we look at the baby Jesus in the manger we see a baby. This baby is like us, he is fully human. When we look at Jesus in the manger we see a reunion between God and humanity. In the person of Christ, God and man are united. No longer is there separation between us and God, in the person of Jesus we are again reunited. In order to save us, in order to reunite heaven and earth, Jesus became one of us. When we look at the baby in the manger we see a baby who is fully human. He is weak and helpless, he is totally dependent on his mother, in other words, he is just like us when we were babies. When the Word becomes flesh he experiences everything it means to be human so that he can heal it, purify it, and raise it to heaven. So the first thing we learn about Christ the savior is that he experienced everything that we experience so that he could be like us in all things. So when we see Jesus in the manger it reminds us that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother, he was born, he lived, he died, all for us and with us. In order to heal humanity he had to go to the very beginning: conception and birth. This is what we celebrate today on Christmas.

Now, look where he is. Jesus is born, not in the palace, but in the stable. He is not laid in a pristine bed, but in a lowly manger. Though he was of the house of David, Joseph and Mary were meek and poor, animals and shepherds were his first attendants. But, again, Jesus does this to show his unity with all of us. We all come from various backgrounds and upbringings. But, I would venture to guess that most of us were born in hospitals or at least in clean surroundings. I doubt there is anyone here who was born in a manger. When Jesus is born in that lowly stable, in that little town of Bethlehem he is taking his place as the lowliest of the human family. He is the Word made flesh, the glorious Son of God, but by taking the lowliest position in the human family, he raises all of us to new heights. This is the second thing we learn from the baby in the manger, we fell from grace because of the pride of Original sin, but in the baby in the manger we see the humility of Christ that destroys the pride of Original Sin.

Lastly, think a bit about this manger. We get so used to seeing it that we think nothing of it. In our nativity sets these mangers look just like cribs, but what was the purpose of a manger? A manger was a place where the farmers placed the food for the animals. Now, this seems like a practical place to put the baby since there was probably hay in the manger. But, I cannot help but think there is more to this manger than simply a nice place to lay the baby. Already, when we see Jesus in the manger he is telling us something important: I am the bread of life, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life. This is the third lesson that Jesus teaches us from the manger: he is the bread of life given to bring us life. Even as a baby, he is prefiguring the precious gift of the Eucharist. Because just as that baby born 2000 years ago was truly the Son of God, so is this Holy Eucharist we celebrate today on the feast of Christmas the true body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. It is the same Jesus, given to us in different form.

When we see Jesus in the manger we learn many things. We learn that when Jesus takes on our humanity, he goes to the beginning so as to heal the whole of our nature. He takes the lowliest place among us to lift us to the heights of heaven. But, he doesn't stop there, even as a baby he gives himself as our food for eternal life. As we now turn to celebrate this Holy Eucharist, we give thanks and praise to God our Father who sent his Son Jesus into the world to be our savior.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mary: model for Advent


4th Sunday of Advent 2011:

Today as we celebrate the 4th Sunday of Advent the Church gives us the familiar story of the Annunciation to help us transition from Advent to Christmas. This is one of our most beloved stories, truly the beginning of the Good News of Salvation. It is a beautiful story any time of year, but I think it is a great story to ponder this week as we try to spend one last week in Advent preparing for the celebration of the birth of our Savior.

I think we can learn three things from Mary that can help us make the most out of Advent. First, she was prepared for the angel. Listen carefully to the story again: Hail, Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Mary was greatly trouble, it says, at what was said. Notice here that Mary is not greatly troubled by the appearance of the Angel. I think I would be less troubled by what the angel said, and more troubled by the fact that an angel was talking to me. Not Mary, she acts as though everything were normal. This is what it means to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. During this season of Advent our prayers and readings have been telling us to be prepared for the coming of our Savior, not only at Christmas, but especially when he comes again at the end of time. We do this by prayer and good works, we do this by repentance and by preparing the way for the Lord in our hearts and in our world. If we are constantly looking for Christ, if we are constantly preparing ourselves for his coming, then even an angel of God could come to us and we would not be surprised. But, that is the kind of preparation we are supposed to carry out.

How did Mary carry out this preparation? Hail, Mary, full of Grace. This title, full of Grace, is quite interesting. IF you look at the Greek you notice it is a perfect passive participle: already having been filled with grace, would be another way to translate this passage. The Church has looked to this passage as a way of supporting the teaching of Mary's Immaculate Conception, which means that from the first moments of her existence, Mary was free from sin and full of grace. I believe that this was the reason Mary was not only frightened by the presence of God in the angel, but almost expecting it. Since she was full of grace she was always ready to see the Lord. The same should be true for all of us. Now, Mary received a singular gift of grace that came to her at the first moment of her existence. We receive those gifts over time. This week many of you will have the chance to make a good confession before Christmas, every confession fills us with grace. We will have a chance to receive Holy Communion in a few moments, this will fill us with grace. When we pray to God and serve him in others, these are opportunities to be filled with grace. Like Mary, we need to be prepared for the presence of God in our lives, and this preparation takes place by availing ourselves of the opportunities for God's grace.

So what happened to Mary? She was prepared, full of Grace, and God asked her to bring Christ into the world. God never took away Mary's freedom, instead she gave a free yes to the will of God: let it be done to me according to your word. Again she is a great model for us. If we are prepared to meet the Lord, if his presence is in us through the many opportunities for grace all around us, he will ask us to bring Christ into the world. God had a special mission for Mary, and truly blessed is she among all men and women. But, God has a special mission for each one of us as well. If we follow Mary's example we too can bring Christ into the world. This is certainly not easy, which is why it is so important to ask Mary for her prayers and guidance. Let us echo the words of the angel as we say together: Hail Mary…

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gaudete!

3rd Sunday of Advent 2011 Year B:

Rejoice, I say it again, rejoice the Lord is near at hand. This is the entrance antiphon to today's mass. The first word of this antiphon in Latin is Gaudete: rejoice. This is why we call this Sunday Gaudete Sunday. Liturgically we see that the joy of the celebration of Christmas is starting to sneak into the preparatory season of Advent. The first thing you notice is the fact that we have lit the pink candle and I'm wearing pink vestments (yes, they are pink… you can call them Rose all you want…). This is what happens when the white vestments of Christmas are mixed with the purple vestments of Advent. Also, you may have noticed a slight change in the opening prayer from the last couple of weeks: today we hear about the preparation for the feast of the Lord's nativity. Up to this point the focus of Advent has been preparing for the Second Coming of the Lord. Now we begin to prepare to celebrate the feast remembering the First Coming of the Lord at Christmas. Today's Mass shows us the link between these two events: Joy.

For two weeks the Church has been teaching us how we are to prepare ourselves for the Lord's coming. Two weeks ago we heard: grant us the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming. Last week we heard: let no earthly concern hinder those who have set out in haste to meet Christ. So the Church is teaching us that to be Christian, to be one of those who await the return of the Messiah, means to be running forth to meet Christ with righteous deeds. This season of Advent is a time of preparation and reflection, a time to ask ourselves if we run forth to meet Christ with righteous deeds, or if we run away from him because of our sinfulness. This season is a time to heed the voice of John the Baptist: prepare the way of the Lord, open our hearts, repent of our sins. Yet, this can be disheartening and difficult. How does repentance take place? Where do we find the energy to run forth to meet Christ?

Here is where joy comes in. If our hearts are filled with the joy that can only come from God, we find the strength, the courage, and the desire to run forth to meet Christ. Sometimes we get the feeling that Christianity is all about morality. And it is certainly the case that the moral life is an important part of Christianity. To be followers of Christ means that we must leave behind our selfish sinfulness and embrace a life of virtue, but without joy we will never be able to do this, because we won't want to go through the hard work of conversion if there is no joy.

However, joy is not easy. It is not bubbly enthusiasm. Joy comes from knowing God's love, experiencing it and giving thanks for it. Joy comes from meeting Jesus, and becoming like him. Joy is at once a sign and requirement for developing the Christian attitude, for becoming like Jesus. St. Paul gives us a great lesson on the Christian attitude today in the second reading: rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. These three commands of Paul tell us less about what we are to do and more about how we are to be. I would argue that if we could master these three things, the rest of our lives would really fall into line.

Rejoice, always. It is easy to rejoice sometimes: at the birth of a child, at getting a job or a promotion, at doing well in school or sports, when Indiana University beats number 1 Kentucky, etc. But these joys, great as they are, can be fleeting. There can also be many times of sadness in our lives: at the death of a loved one, at the suffering of another. Paul commands us to rejoice always. How do we get there?

Pray constantly. Paul does not mean that we spend our whole lives in the Church. Rather, all of our lives must be prayerful. And we must have a consistent life of personal prayer. Prayer is not so much about what we say, as it is about to whom we say it. Prayer is about establishing a relationship with God. If God is in our lives, we will be filled with joy. Not a passing joy, but a source of strength even in difficult times. If we really reflect upon God's goodness and his presence in our lives it should instantly turn into thanksgiving.

Here at this Mass we are fulfilling St. Paul's command: give thanks in all circumstances. We gather in joy to celebrate this holy Eucharist, to enter into this solemn worship. As we do so it is important for us to reflect upon God's goodness, to recognize his presence in our lives, and to turn to him in thanksgiving. All of which, again, should fill us with joy. Here is the program: pray, reflect on God's goodness (like Christmas), give thanks for these things and we will have joy. This joy will allow us to run forth to meet Christ with righteous deeds when he comes again. Our opening antiphon is so beautiful and it really gives us an insight into how we live a Christian life: Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again: rejoice for the Lord is near at hand.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent 2011 Year B:

    Just like last week, our opening prayer is quite beautiful, and it captures something essential to the season of Advent: may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in hast to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company. Beautiful to be sure, and it reminds us of two important facts about Advent: first, it is easy to get distracted, second the learning of heavenly wisdom is the key to overcoming distractions and entering into Christ's presence.

    It is no secret that this is a busy time of year. We are hustling from one place to the next. There are Christmas parties, Christmas programs, athletic events, social events, end of semester exams, papers, all thrown on top of our normally busy schedule. During the midst of all this craziness, we are supposed to be celebrating Advent. Advent is the season where we are preparing ourselves to celebrate the feast of Christmas, but also it is the season where we reflect on the fact that Jesus will return again, asking ourselves if we are prepared to welcome Christ when he comes again. It seems like incredibly poor timing: how are we supposed to have a reflective peaceful season where we evaluate our preparedness to welcome Christ during the busiest month of the year? Wouldn't it be better to have Advent in January when nothing is going on?

    But, there is a key point to be learned here. I have often quoted Bishop Sheen who once famously said that everyone in the world needs 30 minutes of prayer every day, unless you are busy. Then you need an hour! It seems counterintuitive, but the busier we are, the crazier our lives become the more we need to focus on our relationship with Christ. Because the truth of the matter is that we are always busy, our lives are always crazy, there is no such thing as some ideal time for a spiritual relationship with Christ. Rather, we must learn to encounter Christ in the midst of our everyday live. This is why Advent is such a great time of year, because it should teach us to seek Christ even when life is crazy, again our opening prayer is so timely: may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet Christ.

    Second, important in all of this is the learning of heavenly wisdom. Our readings today provide us with some great examples of the kind of wisdom we really need. The first reading is a great reading, if you are like me you cannot help but hear the refrains from Handel's Messiah during the reading of this scripture: comfort ye, my people… It is a wonderful reminder that God does not forget his people. Yet, if we know some of the background it becomes even more amazing. This prophecy was given to the people during the Babylonian Captivity, during the Exile, the darkest hour in the history of the people of Israel, what is God's response? Comfort!!! This is the kind of wisdom we need during advent: no matter how crazy your life is, no matter your difficulties and shortcomings: God does not forget us, he sends us his comfort his peace.

    How do we allow the peace to enter into our lives? John the Baptist tells us: prepare the way for the Lord. Again, this is heavenly wisdom! We must open our hearts, open our minds, we must prepare a way for the comfort and peace of Christ to come into our lives by turning away from sin, by repenting and believing in the good news. The more we can be open to the wisdom that Christ gives us in the scriptures, through the teaching of the Church, through our participation in the Liturgy, the more we will prepare a way for the Lord, the more we will learn heavenly wisdom, which will allow us to set out in haste to meet Christ when he comes again.