December 24, 2017 4th Sunday of Advent

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Dec 242017
 

 

Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 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.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

On this 4th Sunday of Advent it is not Jesus that the Church places before us in the Gospel lesson, but his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation is familiar to us, perhaps too familiar. We must not trust in our familiarity and rush through it, for this is not just another familiar reading from Scripture. It is the Gospel—the truly Good News—announcing the salvation of the world and specifically to us here gathered. It is the announcement of the Messiah, the Savior of the world, our Savior. This is truly Good News.  It says that neither this world of ours, so full of evil and despair, suffering and danger, nor our own lives which are so often fraught with shame and embarrassment, selfishness and resentment and fear, anger and anxiety, lust and apathy and all the nefarious quests for power and domination; neither the world nor ourselves shall be abandoned and unredeemed. Soon a light will shine on a stable in Bethlehem, a light that heralds the rising Sun and the beginning of a new day.

A young girl is in labor. She is destined to be the mother of the Most High, the mother of God’s own Son, who comes to bring this Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom of justice and peace, of mercy and love, a kingdom that will carry the day over the kingdoms of this world and maintain its rule forever.

Yes, God Himself will come and have the final word, wiping away all the tears and fulfilling all the prayers, all the longing, all the hope.

This is no mere pipe dream. It became reality because this young girl, Mary, in spite of her questions, uncertainty, doubt and most certainly some fear, this young girl gathered all her courage and said, “Yes.”

She elaborated: “Behold I am the handmade of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” And so she became the dawn preceding the sunrise of salvation.

This was the “there and then” message that we so lovingly and heartily embrace every Christmastide. But there is a “here and now” application upon which we must reflect. For Mary’s response is the model for our response; it is the example of true faithfulness.

There are some of us who, when pressed with this, will think, “I have never had the experience of an angel being sent to me. It may be true enough that what happened to Mary was extraordinary and unique, but it has never happened to me and I doubt very much if it ever will.”

But I must tell you that it does happen to us. Perhaps not in so dramatic fashion. God does speak to us in a myriad of ways and remember all angels are messengers from God. When an Angel speaks, God speaks. He very well may send us an angel without wings. A messenger we may not see but who will speak to us in the depth of our hearts.

In his little book of meditations entitled Accepting the Mystery, Cardinal Walter Kasper reflected, As I see and understand her, Mary was a person who quieted herself and listened, a person who listened with and within her heart as God spoke to her about what God wanted from her and about what her life’s task would be; we, on the other hand, are too often focused on the outside world, distracted by many things that seem important or interesting and fascinating. Because we are like this, we miss or crowd out the voices that speak to us from the depths and in silence. And so we have to ask ourselves: Are we really aware of what is happening to us in our own depths, of what God is saying to us, of what God wants?

As we prepare to come before the manger and behold him who will be named Jesus, let us not forget that each of us has a name, a personal name, which indicates that I am unique. Although I may share this name with many others, my name still distinguishes me from everyone else. This name is not simply what you and I are called by family and friends, but this is the name by which God calls you and me. God knows you. God has called you from before time and will never forget you. That you are here on this earth is not the result of blind coincidence or the product of an undirected evolution. On the contrary, from the time of your conception you are here to be loved, and to be honored and greeted and welcomed into this world. “The Lord is with you.” Grace does reign and holds sway in your life. “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

When we receive and embrace this insight, then we are open to something more. Yes, God wants me to exist and he does love me. But God also wants something from me. God wants something from you. You have a task and mission in this world. It’s not the same as Mary’s mission of being God’s mother. But we, each and every one of us, has the task and mission of receiving God in our hearts, not as a gift for ourselves and not as our private property, but as a gift, a present for others. As we share our gifts, a light goes out from us, a light that makes the darkness of the world just a little brighter.

Certainly questions and doubts rise immediately. How can this happen? And the answer to this is the same as the answer that Mary received: the Holy Spirit will come upon you, the Spirit of Counsel and Strength, of wisdom and courage. But God’s Spirit does not take hold of us without our permission. The Spirit awaits our answer, our readiness, our “Yes.”

The story that begins with the Angel Gabriel confronting Mary continues on. It’s continuity through the centuries in the lives of God’s people, so very similar to you and me, and yet each one so distinct, sets the stage for God to act in this life of each one here. We have before us Holy women and men who have said “yes,” and consequently the world receives light.

Today, it is our task to become small morning stars, announcing the sun of justice and love, it is our own witness to Jesus Christ our Savior. “O Come Let Us Adore Him…”

 

December 20, 2017 St. Dominic de Silos

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Dec 212017
 

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 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.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

 

Once again from the Gospel lesson we read the beautiful story of the Annunciation, that Mary would be Theotokos, the Greek word for “The One Who Bears God.” This is also the Feast of St. Dominic of Silo. He’s not to be confused with the other St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, but there’s a sweet, poignant story that connects both Dominics and a bit to the Annunciation.

Our saint today, Dominic of Silos, was born in Spain to a peasant family around the year 1000. As a young boy he spent countless hours in the fields, welcoming the solitude. He eventually became a Benedictine priest and served in numerous leadership positions. Following a dispute with the king over some property, Dominic and two other monks were exiled. They established a new monastery in what at first seemed an unpromising location. But under Dominic’s leadership it became one of the most famous houses in Spain and many healings were reported there.

About 100 years after Dominic’s death, a young woman made a pilgrimage to his tomb. There Dominic of Silos appeared to her and assured her that she would bear a son. The woman was Joan of Aza, and the son she bore grew up to be the “other” Dominic, the one who founded the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers.

For many years thereafter, the staff used by St. Dominic of Silos was brought to the royal palace whenever a queen of Spain was in labor. That practice ended in 1931.

But these stories of a mother’s miraculous pregnancy gladden our hearts, especially this time of the year. Few things are said with stronger feeling than “Unto us a child is born—unto us a son is given.” The only thing that could rival that are the words “Unto us a child is born—unto us a daughter is given.”

St. Dominic is patron saint of prisoners, shepherds and of course pregnant women. St. Dominic de Silos (pray for us.)

(c. 1000-1073)

 

 

December 17, 2017 3rd Sunday of Advent

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Dec 172017
 

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.

This is the season of hustle and bustle, joy and anticipation. We’re preparing for Christmas and there are so many things to do. But we are aware that we live in unsettling times: times full of bloody conflicts, malicious terrorist attacks, insecurity and fear of what may come next. Fires and earthquakes and floods and thawing tundra and other signs of global warming abound. Refugees emulate Mary and Joseph as they frantically search for a safe place to stay. There is prejudice and hatred, disdain and contempt and apathy.

And as you know, this is also the season of personal darkness and depression for many. Old memories may niggle and haunt. Injustices and slights from the past rise to the surface. Old sins, confessed and forgiven, still lurk. Many are hoping just to make it through. For me, both the joy and the vexing linger. But it’s quite familiar. What it does primarily is to help me to be empathetic and offer a word of hope to people who come to confess and unburden themselves.

To fortify myself, I’ve been reading and reflecting on some seasonal meditations by Cardinal Walter Kasper. These meditations are compiled in a little book entitled Accepting the Mystery: Scriptural Reflections for Advent and Christmas. In one meditation entitled “Judgment and Grace,” Cardinal Kasper writes: The Message of Judgment is itself a message of grace. He goes on:

Whoever does not take the word of judgment seriously and thinks that it can safely be ignored also does not take grace seriously. Such a person… trivializes Christianity…

God does not want all the terrible wrong and blatant injustices, the murders, the destruction, the desecration. God’s anger and wrath are enkindled against [the perpetrators.] In the end what God wants is that the murderer not triumph over his victim, that no one get away with lies and deceit, that injustice not win the day, that it is not only the rights of the strong that count, [but also those of the weak, the victim, the oppressed, the most vulnerable] and that evil not have a future. What God works for is that in the end all are truly equal, that all masks fall away and the truth comes to light. God’s desire is that truth instead of lies, that justice instead of power, and that love instead of hate triumph in the end…

And so must we not say that it is truly grace that God turns out to be the judge and has the last word? Therefore the message of judgment is also a message of grace; the message of judgment is also a message of hope. (pp4-5)

We see this in today’s OT lesson. It is a message of hope. Specifically Isaiah speaks of the return from Exile, what is known as the “Babylonian Captivity.” The people of Jerusalem and other parts of Judah have lived for more than 5 decades as slaves in Babylon, which roughly would be in present day Iraq. The neighboring empire of Persia—present day Iran—under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, eventually conquered the Babylonians and set the people of Judah free.

As an aside, and to show the length of the memories of these people, when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran back in the late 1970’s, Israel provided a safe place of refuge for the Shah because he was a direct descendent of Cyrus the Great who had liberated the Jews 2500 years earlier. It was paying a debt and it’s part of the reason Iranians hate Israel so much.

Back to the announcement of hope from Isaiah: There was a great swelling of hearts as the promised Good News of the ‘vindication’ of God was announced.  The people of Judah could go home.  But when they arrived back in Jerusalem they found it in ruins. The temple was destroyed, stones from the city wall were strewn about as rubble, their economy was non-existent, but they were home.

Unfortunately, as happens all too frequently, their joy was soon replaced by bickering. Their leaders started pointing fingers and laying blame. A group of laity called the Zadokites who were probably the forerunners of the Sadducees believed things should be done one way and the Levites, a group of clergy, thought things should be done another.

The populace chose up sides; it was a time of hard feelings.  What had once been joy and hope had turned into bitter conflict.  Although they were “home” they had no homes, there were no buildings in which to stay, they had no money, and now their leaders were at each other’s throats. The folks needed a word of hope.

G.K. Chesterton wrote this about hope:  “As long as matters are really hopeful, as long as our lives are running smoothly, hope is a mere flattery or platitude.  It is only when life as we know it has been shattered that hope begins to be a strength. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”

He’s saying that if we are living in a happy, secure time hope can be trivial. It is only when we are broken and bereft that hope has true power.

Life had been shattered for the Jews; they were home from slavery and now they needed some leadership and a word of hope. The leadership came from Ezra, a scribe who reinstated the order of Mosaic Law, and Nehemiah, an organizational genius who coordinated the building of the city of Jerusalem.

In today’s lesson it is the prophet Isaiah who offers the “Word” of hope from God.

We hear Isaiah proclaim: “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all nations.”

This promise from God through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah, gives hope to all the world today. But back then the promise was more specific.  This new day will not be like the days of slavery, when you had to be obedient to your slave master, when you had to live in slave quarters, and you slaved away for somebody else’s benefit and, perhaps most importantly, the hope is that your children will not be sold into slavery.

It is reminiscent of Isaiah’s earlier prophecy: “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent, its food shall be dust.  They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord.” (Is. 11:6)

And Jerusalem knew peace for 200 years.

Theologian Paul Hansen says that “[Christian hope] is an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.”

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful…” (Heb.10:23) And again from Titus 3:6-7: “The Holy Spirit…poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope…”

And perhaps the most important “Word” of Hope is from Jesus himself, when centuries later, he stood and read aloud these words we heard today from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me, he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…a day of vindication by our God.”  Jesus then declared to those assembled in the synagogue: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” O come Emanuel.

Judgment is grace, grace is judgment; we trust that God will graciously set all things aright and love will triumph. It may seem a long way off sometimes, but that is our promise, that is our hope.

In closing, I want to share this prayer from St. Francis De Sales:

“O God, let us not look forward to the changes and chances of this life in fear, rather may we look to them with full hope that as they arise, you deliver us out of them.”

“God, you are our keeper and you have kept us hitherto.  Help us to hold fast to your dear hand that you would lead us safely through all things and when we cannot stand, Lord bear us in your arms.”

“Help us not look forward with fear and dread to what may happen tomorrow”

“We trust in you God who will either shield us from suffering or will give us strength to bear it.” Amen. St Francis de Sales and all the saints (pray for us.)

 

December 3, 2017 1st Sunday of Advent

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Dec 032017
 

To remind you on this First Sunday of Advent: this is the season of twofold anticipation. We anticipate the first coming of Christ as the Babe in Bethlehem and we also anticipate Him to come again in full glory with the Angels of light. Advent is a season of watchfulness, a time to remind us not to be caught off guard or unprepared.

This is the theme of this morning’s gospel lesson. We read:

“Watch …—you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming—whether in the evening—or at midnight—or at cockcrow—or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all—Watch!”

The Church reinforces this. From the Catechism we read that: … the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by ‘distress’ and the trial of evil, which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching” (CCC #672).

Several decades after the Ascension and Jesus had not returned, things got confusing. Many of the first generation of the faithful had “fallen asleep,” a euphemism for dying. An explanation was needed. The Apostle Paul addresses this in the 4th chapter of I Thessalonians, beginning at verse 13.

We would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so—through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord— that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command— and with the archangel’s call— and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first— then we who are alive—who are left— shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Yet even with words like this, there’s a bit of a disconnect with the returning of Christ in Glory. The Church gives no blueprint as to what it will be like. As I pondered this, I turned to an illustration from the book When Christ Comes by Protestant Pastor Max Lucado. It is rather compelling. He writes:

…the light begins to tumble a river of color: spiking crystals of every hue ever seen and millions more never seen. Riding on the flow is an endless fleet of angels. They pass through the curtain one myriad at a time, until they occupy every square inch of the sky. North: South: East: West. Thousands of silvery wings rise and fall in unison, and over the sound of trumpets, you can hear the Cherubim and Seraphim chanting: “Holy. Holy. Holy…”

Between each word is a pause. With each word a profound reverence. You hear your own voice join the chorus. You don’t know why you say the word, but you know you must. [Holy. Holy. Holy.]

Suddenly …all is quiet. The angels turn, you turn, the entire world turns: and there he is. Jesus…the angels bow their heads… And before you is a figure so consuming that you know instantly: you know. Nothing else matters. Forget stock market and school reports, sales meetings, football games, [cancer or Caribbean cruises]. All that mattered, matters no more, for Christ has come…

I’m curious: What’s your response to all this?

Is it apathy? You don’t think it’s relevant and you kind of shrug your shoulders as I’m standing up here talking about it. But if you do think about Christ’s return, what do you think?

Is it denial? Do you think this is fanciful and probably not going to happen, at least not like this? Do you think the return of Christ is more metaphor than concrete event? After all, it hasn’t happened in 2000 years, so it must be some kind of ‘myth.’ The early church needed something to hang on to during the persecution from the Romans and the Jewish authorities. This story was a good way to be able to say to one another: “Just wait. God will get them for what they’ve been doing to us.” But it isn’t really going to happen—and certainly not this way—or so you think.

Is it discomfort? You’ve been told that YOUR sins will be revealed. Yep, all of them. You’ve been told that your dirty little secrets will be made known. God’s exhaustive records will be opened and names will be read. Then there’s all that stuff about the ‘mark of the beast’ and ‘Armageddon,’ and ‘antichrist.’ It’s pretty confusing and the confusion adds greatly to the discomfort. But it is motivation to get to confession.

Is it disappointment? Who would feel disappointment at Christ’s coming? How about a woman who is 8 months pregnant? She wants to hold her new born babe. Or how about a young couple who are engaged? They’ve wanted to be married for such a long time. Think of the young soldier in Afghanistan who has never seen his baby girl. He’d really like to hug and kiss and smile at her.

Is it obsession? Sell everything and join the survivalists in the hills out of Grants Pass.

Is it regret? You’ve just had a row with your spouse and you haven’t had a chance to make up. Or you’ve just unburdened your heart and confessed the sin of theft and have not had a chance to make restitution. Or you just haven’t gotten around to making your confession.

Does the thought of Christ’s actual return throw you into a panic? “It’s too late. It’s too late!” You say in prayer, “Omygod, omygod, omygod, O Lord what am I going to do?”

Is it relief? I hope that is my strongest feeling. I want to feel the words of that old African American Spiritual: “No more sorrow, no more sadness, no more troubles I’ll see. There will be peace in the valley for me.” All cancer is dead. Every heart will be mended, whether from myocardial infarction or a wayward child. Salvation has borne fruit. And Glory will be something we all will behold.

So how do we prepare for the return of Jesus in whatever form or manner?  Obviously by living faithfully. We must receive the sacraments of the church, specifically and especially Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist and we must regularly take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are to say our prayers and read scripture. It helps greatly to enhance our devotion to our Blessed Mother.

We are to act justly and to reach out selflessly with hands and hearts of compassion.

Remember, God wants the totality of our beings: our lives, our souls and bodies, and especially our hearts. He has this deep abiding, burning love for us. I would remind you that we are called to respond in a mature manner, what I like to call a combination of natural and spiritual maturity.

Natural maturity, using a psychological term,  is to be “self-actualized.” We are to think our own thoughts, feel our own feelings, have appropriate boundaries in dealing with others,  to be responsible, dependable people. And above all to be compassionate and loving.

Spiritual, maturity ironically takes us in the other direction. We are baptized into Christ. We are in Him and He is in us. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit. The more mature we become in Christ, the more we are aware that we are completely and unequivocally dependent on Him. Every beat of our hearts, every cell that divides in our bodies, and every breath we take is possible only by God’s Grace. We ask: “Have I fully surrendered to Christ?”

And do we think ‘we’ instead of just ‘me.’ Remember the Catholic Church is based on Community. Our sanctity is lived out in relationships.

Advent is a solemn time, a time for reflection and a time to consider our sins. It is also a time of hope, a time of anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us through Christ.

In closing, I came across this cute story: “A test was given in Emma’s 4th grade class.  One of the questions was: “Upon what do hibernating animals subsist during the winter?” Emma thought for a few minutes and then wrote: “All winter long hibernating animals subsist on the hope of a coming spring.”

We Catholics, along with other Christians, subsist on the hope of Christ’s return in glory, no matter what form it may take, and hope does spring eternal.

Oftentimes the simplest answer is the best one.