Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent

"It’s the season for giving!" How often have we heard that recently? We certainly hear it from merchandisers, who want us to buy gifts. That season for giving began after Thanksgiving with "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday." But the "season for giving" goes beyond that, doesn’t it? People seem more inclined to give in order to help others this time of year. Many charities report that most of their donations come in November and December. And it’s not just because people are looking for year-end tax breaks.

There’s a tradition- even an expectation- of giving during this season, and it’s not always linked anymore with our Christian celebration of Christ’s birthday. Now it’s just a part of the "holiday spirit" of peace, joy, and goodwill. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing that. I’m not going to knock anyone or group that makes a good faith effort to reach out to people in need. But, I would like to make the point that this "season for giving" wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the reason for the season: the birth of Jesus, God’s gift to us. The tradition of giving at Christmastime would never have a reason, if not for Christ. Think about it: would society have established a special season of peace and goodwill in which people open their hearts to give to those in need, without a religious motivation? I seriously doubt it.

I’ve read on the popular Beliefnet website that there’s a great deal of frustration these days among atheists because they don’t have their own holidays, and they’re conflicted about how to celebrate those with religious origins. So what do they celebrate? Some suggest "World Darwin Day" on February 12. Another proposal is "World Humanist Day." Some- with tongue-in-cheek- say "April Fools Day." And yes, there is the Winter Solstice, which arrives at the same time as Christmas. But in the discussions and proposals I read, there was no stress on giving to the less fortunate.

You may have seen on Metro busses and trains ads from the American Humanist Association which say: "No God? No problem! Just be good for goodness’ sake. You can be good without a belief in God." And at one level, we could agree with them. We don’t believe that atheists are without compassion or goodness. Even though they may not believe in God- at least not yet, anyway- they’re still made in the image of God. They can have common decency, empathy, compassion, even great generosity. There are indeed a handful of atheist charities.

But the truth is that we are most like God when we give, because God gives. God is love, and one way to spell love is G-I-V-E. What does that mean in practice? If we don’t believe in God, we’re not going to try to be like God. And as a result, we will give far less. Study after study has shown that deeply religious people give much more in terms of donations and volunteer service that non-religious people. Faith in God can and should inspire us to kindness and generosity.

One thing I do in my ministry is help those training to become deacons learn how to preach. Last year, I heard a group of candidates give practice Advent homilies. And each one of them struck a common note: Advent is a time for us to prepare for the coming of Christ. How can we do that, they asked? By giving! They mentioned different charities that we might give to or help with, and one suggested making acts of love toward those who may be sad or lonely this time of year. And that’s all good advice. Those are things we might do, not just at Christmastime, but all year ‘round.

But since Christmas is coming, is there something else that we, as Christians, might be able to give? There are certainly a lot of "gift suggestions" out there these days! But may I be so bold as to suggest one more? It doesn’t cost any money, I assure you. Today’s Scripture readings which speak of Mary and the birth of a child suggest what it is. And it comes to us from none other than St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis loved Christmas. He was born, over 800 years ago, into a relatively wealthy family. But his mother, who was very devout, knew that God had something special planned for her son. So she made sure that he was born like Jesus was- in a barn, surrounded by animals. When he was an adult, he created the first "living nativity," as we call them today. He filled a manger with hay outside on Christmas Eve, 1223. He brought in cows and donkeys to stand beside it. And in the manger, he placed a friend’s baby, and had the mother and father stand beside, playing Mary and Joseph. People came from all over, holding candles and singing songs, to see how the Lord was born in such a humble place. Then they all went to Midnight Mass, and Francis preached on the great gift of Jesus’ birth.

But Francis wanted people not just to hear about Jesus’ birth, and see a demonstration of what it was like. He wanted Jesus to be brought into our world over and over again. And he said that it was up to us to make that happen. He wrote a called the "Second Letter to the Faithful." In it, he said this: "We are mothers of Christ when we carry him in our heart and in our body by divine love and with a pure and sincere conscience. We give birth to him through holy works, which should shine forth as an example to others."

What Francis was saying is that, as Mary gave birth to Jesus some 2,000 years ago, we can bring Christ into our world over and over, through our witness, through our works of compassion, through our love. During this "season of giving," what greater gift could we possibly give than the Son of God himself? As we prepare to celebrate his birth, let’s you and I give birth to him as well, once again.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

December 20

First-time moms and dads are often excited and apprehensive at the same time. They may worry: "Am I up to the job? How will I juggle work and family? Will my baby be okay? How is my life going to change? Can we afford this?"

Consider how Mary may have felt at the Annunciation. It was an angel who told her that she'd be a mom. What's more, he said she wouldn;t be an ordinary mom- her son was to be a king! To top it off, she wasn't even married yet, and somehow her child was to be conceived by a "Holy Spirit."

Scripture describes Mary as frightened and confused, and who could blame her? Thankfully, Gabriel understood. He told Mary to put away her fears, and he assured her that nothing is impossible for God.

Aren't Gabriel's words meant for us too? Like Mary, we may face situations that fill us with fear, appear impossible, or seem to make no sense, and we wonder how they fit into God's plan. We may find ourselves asking Mary's question: "How can this be?"

When we do, Mary invites us to imitate her surrender, entrusting ourselves into the hands of a trustworthy God by saying, "Your will be done." Even though we may be afraid, even though we may not understand, even though the way ahead looks dark, still we should trust, as she did.

To know "the Lord is with you" was enough for Mary, and it can be enough for us too.

Friday, December 19, 2014

December 19

Today’s gospel recalls the birth of St. John the Baptist. We don’t decorate trees, send cards, sing carols, or exchange presents as we’ll do to celebrate Jesus’ birth in just six day’s time. But John the Baptist doesn’t mind a bit that his birthday is celebrated with less fanfare than that of our Lord, because he was a humble man. You’ll recall that he once said about Jesus: "He must increase, but I must decrease."

John the Baptist knew that his mission was to prepare the way for Jesus. He lived his life, not to promote himself, but to promote the Lord. In this, John the Baptist is an important witness for us, and challenges our society’s preoccupation with self-promotion. He reminds us that Christians shouldn’t aspire to be a celebrity, but should strive to be a servant. We should live lives that shout not "Look at me!" but "Look to Jesus."

This is not to say that John the Baptist was not important. He was incredibly important! That’s why each of the four gospels begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry, by first telling the story of John the Baptist.

You and I may be called to positions of importance: in the workplace, in society, in the church. But there’s a big difference between being important and being self-important. St. John the Baptist bears witness to that.

So happy birthday, John the Baptist. Like you, may we live our lives, not for ourselves, but for Jesus.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 18

Our television airwaves are filled with images of happy people rejoicing over the Christmas gifts they receive. We see excited children under the tree, frantically tearing off wrapping paper to reveal a longed-for treasure; wives wide-eyed with amazement at a shiny new car gleaming in the driveway; and suburban dads smiling behind the wheel of a new riding lawnmower.

Our gospel reading for today reminds us that we as Christians have something far more precious to rejoice in this time of year- the gift of Christ. His holy birth in ancient Bethlehem speaks to us of God's unshakable, faithful, tender, merciful, and eternal love for us like nothing else can. This is a love that will never forsake us; never reject us; a love that always keeps its promises; a love that never ends; and a love that comes to us without conditions or exceptions, no strings attached. God's is a love that we can name- Emmanuel, "God is with us"- because it came to dwell with us here as a person. It is a love that saves us from our sins so that we might dwell together with him forever.

This season, some may try to convince us that "nothing says 'I love you' like a diamond." But we know that nothing says "I love you" more than a newborn king. In gratitude, let's ensure that our greatest rejoicing this Christmas be not for a gift that came in a box but for the one that lay in a manger.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advent 3 Wednesday

Our television airwaves are filled these days with images of happy people rejoicing over the Christmas gifts they receive. We see excited children under the tree, frantically tearing off wrapping paper to reveal a longed-for treasure; wives wide-eyed with amazement at the shiny new car gleaming in the driveway; and suburban dads smiling behind the wheel of their new sit down lawnmower.

Our gospel reading for today reminds us, however, that we as Christians have something far more precious to rejoice in this time of year: Namely, the gift of the birth of Jesus, which speaks to us like nothing else can of God’s unshakable, faithful, tender, merciful, and eternal love for us. A love that will never forsake us; a love that will never reject us; a love that always keeps its promises; a love that does not end; a love without conditions or exceptions; a love with no strings attached; a love that we can name Emmanuel, because it came to dwell with us here; a love that saves us from our sins, that we might dwell together forever.

Some may try to convince us this season that “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a diamond.” But we know that nothing says “I love you” more than a newborn king. In gratitude, let’s ensure that our greatest rejoicing this Christmas be not for a gift that came in a box, but for the one that lay in a manger.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent 3 Monday

When a couple is too afraid, too angry, or too embarrassed to communicate honestly about difficulties in their relationship, they'll inevitably drift apart. The same is true of our relationship with Jesus. If we find ourselves too afraid, angry, or embarrassed to share parts of our lives with Jesus, our relationship with him will remain distant and superficial at best, or at its worst it will completely fall apart.
This is implied in today's gospel. Jesus was told, in essence, "Tell us who you are." Jesus replied that he would gladly do so, provided that those who asked would honestly answer one simple question about John the Baptist.
Some where too afraid of what the crowd might think. Others were too embarrassed to admit they thought that John's ministry was inspired by God. Seemingly all of them were angry with Jesus becasue they saw him as threatening their authority. So they lied instead of honestly sharing their opinions, and their relationship with Jesus became even worse than it already was.
Today's gospel reading challenges us to review our lives and see if there are any things we don't share with Jesus. If there are, our relationships with him are going to get stuck or deteriorate. Jesus has already given all of himself to us, on the cross and in the Eucharist. In return, he asks that we give our whole, complete, authentic selves to him. After all, we're only as sick as our secrets, and we're only as intimate as we are honest.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent

Today is a day for us to rejoice! Of course, every Sunday is a day of rejoicing because it’s the day on which we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. On this third Sunday of Advent, however, joy and rejoicing are special themes that run throughout the prayers and Bible readings appointed for today’s Mass. That’s why today is traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice.” And that’s also why the candle we lit on the Advent wreath today is pink, a more festive and joyful color than purple.

Joy is something that all of us long for and search for. Deep down, every one of us wants to be a joy-filled person. “God made us for joy,” said Pope John Paul II. That’s why it’s important, I think, that we give careful consideration to what today’s scripture readings suggest that we do. For instance, the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, doesn’t tell us simply to rejoice. It tells us instead to rejoice “in the Lord.” That’s a critical distinction, because so many people today try to find joy in something other than the Lord.

Yet that’s a hopeless quest. Because while there are many things in our world that can bring us some passing happiness, true and lasting joy can only come about through a personal, life-giving relationship with the Lord. As Isaiah said, “In my God is the joy of my soul.” This means two things. First, joy is God’s gift to us when we’re in relationship with him. Second, if we want to be joyful people, we need to work on our relationship with God. Joy, then, is something we need to cultivate.

One way we can cultivate joy is to remember, on a regular basis, all the wonderful things that God has done for us. We heard Isaiah do this when he rejoiced that God had clothed him with a robe of salvation and wrapped him in a mantle of justice. And we heard Mary, the Mother of Jesus, do the same in today’s responsorial psalm, which is a selection from her Magnificat, the song she sang after Jesus was conceived in her womb. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sang. “The Almighty has done great things for me.”

Attending Mass frequently, even daily if possible, is an excellent way we can remember the great things that God has done for us. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Jesus gave us the Mass. “Do this in memory of me,” he said. And every time we honor that command, we recall Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension- all done out of love for us, for our salvation, and for our joy.

Praying the rosary is another excellent way we can bring to mind the great things that God has done for us, because it helps us to reflect upon the significant events in Jesus’ life, and Mary’s too. It’s also essential that we read the Bible. If you don’t do so already, I would recommend, during the week, prayerfully reading and studying the Scripture readings appointed for Sunday Mass.

A second way we can cultivate joy is by counting our blessings. This is what St. Paul tells us to do in today’s reading from I Thessalonians. “In all circumstances give thanks,” he said, “for this is the will of God.” So often, however, we go through our day taking things for granted and being bombarded with materialistic messages. We wind up envious of the things we don’t have, and ungrateful for the things we do. This can rob us of our joy. That’s why we should follow St. Paul’s advice to give thanks for anything and everything. We can give thanks for even the littlest things: A morning cup of coffee, the fact that the toilet flushed, a smile from a stranger. We can even give thanks for difficult and painful things, because they’re opportunities God gives us to exercise patience and forgiveness. If we give thanks for all things, we’ll recall how much God loves us and provides for us, and our joy will grow.

St. Paul also told us today to “pray without ceasing.” This is another way we can grow in joy. Praying without ceasing may seem like an unattainable or unrealistic goal. But ask yourself how much you pray now, and you’ll be sure to find that you can pray even more. One way to pray more is to make it a habit to pray at the beginning and the end of regular daily events. For instance, say a prayer when you first wake up. Instead of saying, “Oh no, it’s morning,” say “Oh God, it’s morning” and then ask for his blessings upon your day. Prayer also when you go to bed at night. We can also pray at the beginning and end of meals, commutes to and from our jobs, and when starting and finishing our work. We can pray when we tuck our kids in, pray when we drop them off at school, and pray when we pick them up. We can pray in the shower, in the car, and while we fold laundry and do the dishes. And many people today pray Morning and Evening Prayer from the Church’s official “Liturgy of the Hours” or devotional magazines.

The bottom line is that we joy for which we seek can only be found through a relationship with God. And anything we do to grow in that relationship will help us to grow in joy. Because with God, we’ll receive the joy of being forgiven. We’ll experience the joy of being unconditionally loved. We’ll know the joy of being promised an eternity of happiness. And we’ll find joy in the assurance that God is in control, that he walks by our side, and that he has a purpose and plan for our lives. Truly, in the words of John Paul II, “Our God is the God of joy!”

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Memorial of Saint Lucy

A few years back, the plain white lights on my family’s Christmas tree were replaced by good old-fashioned colored lights – that can blink! And we love it.

We see lights everywhere this time of year. That’s why it’s sometimes called a “season of light.” And that was true even long before the introduction of electricity, thanks to Saint Lucy, the fourth century martyr whose memorial we celebrate today.

Tradition tells us that Lucy wished from an early age to consecrate her life to God as a virgin. A spurned pagan suitor, however, turned her into the Roman authorities, who ordered that she be forced into prostitution. She resisted and was tortured, having her eyes gouged out.

Her witness to Christ led to her being blinded, and deprived of receiving the gift of light. Appropriately, for centuries her feast has been celebrated at the darkest time of the year. In her honor, traditions arose which celebrate light: Lucy fires would burn in ovens, Lucy candles were lit in homes, and in Scandinavia even today, girls process with candles or a wreath of candles on their heads. Indeed, her very name, Lucia in Latin, means “light.”

Light is always welcome during these dark days. And all the lights we may see- white or colored, blinking or not, flame or electric- are meant to be enjoyed. But like Saint Lucy herself, all of them should be seen as reflections of the one whose birthday we anticipate: Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )