The Holy Family [B]

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph [B]
Sirach 3:2-6,12-14  —  Colossians 3:12-21  —  Luke 2:22-40
December 30, 2011                                         

               Despite the fact that stores are now selling candy for Valentine’s day, Christmas is not actually over:  Christmas does not last only one day, and Christmas is not only a celebration of Christ’s birth.  Christmas is a season which begins on December 25 and lasts until early January.  This Christmas season celebrates several mysteries, the first of which is Jesus’ birth.  Today we celebrate the second mystery of Christmas, the Holy Family of Nazareth.
               The Church calls us to meditate on the Holy Family of Nazareth.  In doing so, we realize that, just as celebrating Jesus’ birth helps us reverence how human life is created in the Image of God, so our celebration of the Holy Family helps us reverence the human family as an image of the Church.
For many of us, the past week has presented us opportunities to be with members of our families.  And no matter what difficulties might exist within our families, time spent together helps us realize one of the facts that is rejected by the world in which we live, but preached as Truth by the Church:  the fact that the family is the basis of all social life.  The family teaches us “how to be with others”.
Those of us who are middle-aged often fall prey to the habit of thinking that what we do for others or give to others is what matters most.  But those who have many years of life under their belts are like those who have very few years of life:  they recognize that time spent with others is of much greater value than things given to others.
               Spending time together on a regular basis may not seem to amount to much, but when that foundation is there, the love and care which comes out of such time supports them when they end up in a crisis, as all families occasionally do.  The Holy Family, still weary from their journey to Bethlehem, and weary from their search through Bethlehem to find suitable lodging, were forced after Christ’s birth to flee their country to the foreign land of Egypt, out of fear for Jesus’ life, only the first of many sorrows for the Holy Family that was predicted by Simeon in today’s gospel passage.
               The habits of the Holy Family must be the habits of our own families.  If we truly care for the members of our family, we are willing to both pray for each other’s well-being, and we are willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to keep each other safe from the dangers of the world.
               After the great sacrifices made during his infancy, Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth under the care of his foster father, Saint Joseph, and his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This life was not spectacular:  from the time he was a baby to the time he was thirty years old, we know of only one thing that happened to Jesus:  Mary and Joseph finding him in the temple.  By and large, the first thirty years of Jesus’ life were simple ones in which his mother and foster father made ordinary sacrifices for Jesus’ well-being, day after day.  The Holy Family prayed together as a devout Jewish family, and they took the steps necessary to care for one another.  When Saint Joseph died, Mary and her son carried on alone.  Yet no matter what God the Father asked of them, they prayed and acted together according to His Will.
               Today God presents the Holy Family as a treasure.  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not only holy themselves:  they help us to be holy.  We all know that our world is troubled, and that our country is troubled.  We don’t have to dwell on that.  But the cure is right here before us:  to strengthen the family, to build up the family, and to improve family life through God, which builds up in turn the life of our community, country, and world.
               Your home is a treasure.  The home is “the domestic church,” “the school of discipleship,” where to live in peace, a person has to learn how to be humble and how to serve the needs of others, the same virtues which make a person a good citizen, and a good follower of Jesus.
As the Holy Family went to pray in the Temple, all of our families must together seek out God by worshipping at Mass and celebrating all the sacraments together.  In the sacraments, most especially through Christ’s very Body and Blood, our families are strengthened by Christ and bound together.  As we offer up our own sacrifices now with Christ, let our prayer be that we may imitate Him:  to know the needs of others with the Wisdom of God, and to serve the needs of others with the Love of God.

The Nativity of the Lord - 25 DEC 2011

The Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2011

“‘She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.’” [Matthew 1:21]

Growing up, I knew only three of my grandparents, since one passed away before my parents married.  Of the three grandparents whom I knew growing up, only one was Catholic:  my mother’s mother, my Grandma Kelly.  Although we only saw her a couple of times a year, I learned a lot about my Catholic Faith from her.

My Grandma Kelly was widowed fairly young (when my mother was 18 years old), so she had to become financially independent.  To say that she was a hard worker is an understatement.  My brother and I would spend a summer each week at her home.  We saw the sort of work ethic and frugality that she lived by.  I don’t think as young boys, who didn’t have the advantage of growing up on a farm, that we appreciated this about her.  But as we got older and entered the adult world, the message that she had taught by her example sank in.

But even more than her work ethic, her faith drove her life.  It’s not often anymore that I return to my mother’s hometown.  But whenever I do, and go to pray inside the church where she was a parishioner most of her life, it’s easy to walk straight to the pew where we prayed with Grandma at Holy Mass whenever we visited.  This pew was on the right side of the church, about seven pews from the back, entering from the center aisle.

When you’re young, you think the world is one big constant.  Nothing will ever change.  Only with experience do we realize just how much change is a part of life.  As a boy, despite the fact that one
grandparent had already died, I imagined that grandparents, like parents, live forever.  But in the 1980’s, that world changed:  my father’s mother died in 1981, and my father’s father in 1982.

My Grandma Kelly, however, didn’t seem ever to change.  In 1986, she was 85 years old, but didn’t hesitate to come down from north-central Kansas to help celebrate my graduation from high school.  She still worked, and still lived by herself in her own home, and drove her old Ford to church, to work, and downtown to buy groceries and go to the post office.  Or if there was big shopping to do, she would drive into Salina.  But that fall, when I was in my first semester at Kansas State, I found out one day that she had suffered a stroke.  When our family went to visit her in the hospital, she was conscious, but very weak.

In the hospital, we were told that she would not likely recover.  That was the first time I recognized that this pillar of strength could be weak.  I realized that she would never be active again, and busy, as she enjoyed being.  She would never be able to carry out the good works animated by her Catholic Faith.  But her faith was still clearly part of her, inside her.  And I realized, as an 18 year-old, that all her works had been borne from her Faith.  Her ability to work was taken from her, but her Faith could not be taken away.  And besides, not all of her good works were taken away from her:  she still prayed faithfully there, on what became her death bed.

We only got to visit her twice in the hospital, and then, on Christmas Eve 1986 (25 years ago), she died.  Her funeral was held a few days later in her parish.  It was strange to sit in one of the front few pews, instead of with her towards the back.  It was strange to be part of a funeral Mass, with all the Christmas decorations and lights shining inside the church.  It was strange to realize that I would never again in this life have a grandparent to turn to, to ask a question, and to pray beside.

Fewer than six months later, I left Kansas State and entered the seminary.  One of the greatest regrets of my life is that my grandmother did not get to see me enter the seminary.  But then, maybe I wouldn’t have entered if not for the lesson about Faith that she illuminated for me by her death.
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To many in our world who celebrate Christmas for a whole variety of reasons—some sacred and some secular—Christmas doesn’t seem like the time to reflect on death.  However, I’d be willing to wager that even the most ardent atheist can’t help but find himself thinking at Christmastime about his loved ones who have passed away.

But for the Christian, there’s an even more powerful link between the mystery of the Birth of Jesus, and the mystery of human death.  Over the past few weeks, in the sermons of Advent, there were a few phrases that suggested this link:  that “the wood of the crib is the wood of the Cross”, and that “Jesus was born into this world, so that He could die from this world.”  Jesus’ vocation was not to be born.  Jesus’ vocation was to die on the Cross.  Jesus’ birth makes possible His death.

We as Christians celebrate on December 25 not just a remembrance of Jesus’ birth 2000 years ago, but an opportunity for new life that God is handing us today.  Every good work, every spiritual and corporal act of mercy, every sacrifice of your life as a Christian, can bear fruit because Jesus makes death an opportunity for life.

This truth is really no more or less than the truth with which we conclude the Prayer of St. Francis, that “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life”.  Let me illustrate this truth with a poem from the 20th century.  Personally, I’m not much for poetry, but this poem—titled “The Journey of the Magi”—has taught me a lot.  Since I have a hard time expressing poetry, let me offer you a recorded version, recited by an actor whose voice you may recognize.  The poem is spoken in the person of one of the three wise men, reflecting many years later on the journey that they made to Bethlehem.  What I’m going to play here is only the last sixty seconds of the poem, where, after having explained what they witnessed on the way to Bethlehem, the wise man, in his old age, reflects on what they witnessed at Bethlehem:

The “old dispensation” means not just the Old Testament, which ended when Jesus was born.  The “old dispensation” means living your life according to your own human terms, clutching your gods, instead of allowing God the Father to hold you in His Hand, and guide you through this world.  The “old dispensation” is the little kingdom that each of us makes for himself, instead of living for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus Christ is born today.  We see His light.  He guides us by His light to follow Him through life:  not only on Sunday, but seven days a week, every week of every year of our life here below.  Mary has borne a Son for us, and His name means “God saves”.  God saves us, not from trial and tribulation, but from sin and death.  Jesus shows us, teaches us, and strengthens us to accept that our salvation comes from our putting to death everything from the “old dispensation”, everything that is not of God, so that we can live freely enough, to live for God alone.

I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a very joyous, happy and merry Christmas Season, and a very holy new year.

4th Sunday of Advent [B] - 18 DEC 2011

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [B]
II Samuel 7:1-5,8b-12,14a,16  ─  Romans 16:25-27  ─  Luke 1:26-38
December 18, 2011

“Should you build me a house to dwell in?”  [II Samuel 7:5]

King David seems to be a humble man.  He appears, in our First Reading, to want to set things right.  And both of these virtues—humility and justice—are at the heart of the Advent Season, modeled as they are by John the Baptizer and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  So perhaps the Church proclaims our First Reading today, on this final Sunday of Advent, in order to hold King David up as a model for us.  Or, perhaps not.

Perhaps not, given the Lord’s response to King David.  Settled in his palace [after] the Lord had given him rest from his enemies, King David cries out in concern about his own dwelling being richer than the Lord’s.  In His divinity, God dwells in Heaven, of course, but in some mysterious manner God had dwelt on earth, since the time of Moses, within the Ark of the Covenant.  King David is referring to this Ark when he cries out, “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God dwells in a tent!”  The Lord responds with a rhetorical question that unlocks the meaning of the First Reading:  “Should you build me a house to dwell in?”

We realize this is a rhetorical question because the rest of the Lord’s words reveal King David’s intention to be… just too small.  David in this passage appears neither humble for admitting the richness of his own palace, nor just for implying that the Lord deserves better than a tent.  The Lord turns David’s intention upside down.  Instead of accepting David’s concern, the Lord reveals all that He is going to accomplish for His servant David:  “I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.”  “I will give you rest from all your enemies.”  And finally, speaking of Himself in the third person:  “The Lord also reveals to you that He will establish a house for you.”  But the Lord’s ways are not man’s ways, the Lord’s house is not David’s house, and the house the Lord builds is not built according to man’s ways:  that is, the Lord’s house is not built of cedar, brick, marble or stone, but of living stones that are far more precious.
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One thousand years after David’s time came and he rested with his ancestors, the Lord raised up David’s heir.  Gabriel was sent from God… to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David….  St. Gabriel hails Mary as being full of grace, and says to her, the Lord is with you.  Then Gabriel explains to Mary that the Lord God will give Mary’s son the throne of David his father… and of his kingdom there will be no end.
But Mary responds simply with a sincere question.  The angel’s praise doesn’t make her proud.  She has no noble plans, like King David, but only a question for the Lord“How can this be?”  Gabriel answers honestly, but could only have raised more questions, when he replies that the Power of the Most High will overshadow you, and that therefore the child to be born will be… the Son of God.  Had Mary been full of irony and skepticism (like so many of us), she might well have replied, “Well thanks, Gabriel, that explains everything!”  St. Gabriel had only added mystery to mystery.  He had not, in human fashion, made clear the “How?” of the Incarnation.  But he had made clear the divine “Why?”:  that in the Incarnation, the Lord is fulfilling His promise to establish a house for you.

Mary’s response is simple.  Mary’s response is a model for your own life as a disciple of Jesus.  King David, at least in today’s First Reading, is not a model for your life.  David believes that serving God starts with his plans.  But Mary is different.  The two sentences that make up her response are really nothing more than an extended definition of the Hebrew word “Amen”.  She declares, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  Too often as believers, we add the word “Amen” to the end of a prayer mindlessly, giving the act no more thought than when, with pencil in hand, we mark a period at the end of a sentence.  But the word “Amen” is the most important word of every prayer.  The word “Amen” is our profession that we personally accept everything that’s been said in the prayer.  The Blessed Virgin Mary, in speaking her words here to St. Gabriel, models for us what she commends in similar words at the Wedding at Cana:  “Do whatever He tells you.”
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So what do you and I as Christians have to learn from King David and the Blessed Virgin Mary?  The primary lesson is not to place great stock in our own plans, even if they seem humble and aimed at honoring the Lord.  This is what David did.  Mary, on the other hand, honored the Lord far more by listening for, and accepting, the Lord’s plan, not devising her own.  In Mary, not in David, we see the virtues of humility and justice:  humility, because she preferred God’s will to her own; and justice, because she accepted the truth that her life was not hers to live, but belonged to God, for Him to do with whatever He might will.

You know, many of us adults, I’d be willing to bet, when we hear the word “fiat”, think of the Italian car maker whose subsidiaries include Ferrari and Maserati.  If King David lived today, he would probably drive a car like a Ferrari, whose symbol is a stallion rearing upwards.  But “fiat” is also a word in the Latin language, which in English generally means “agreement” or “assent”.  More literally, the Latin word “fiat” means “let it be”.  This is Mary’s first word as the Mother of God:  she accepts God’s plan by saying, “Fiat mihi secundum Verbum tuum”“May it be done unto me according to your Word.”  And so the Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us.

On this final Sunday of Advent, we honor Mary at this particular moment of the Annunciation, when the human life of Jesus began.  Nine months later came the day that we will celebrate beginning next Sunday on December 25.  But in the midst of the grandness, majesty, and joy of Christmas, don’t forget the simplicity and humility of Mary, who in all things sought only to give God His due, which was her all.  Mary was not like the great King David.  If Mary lived today, she would not care to drive a sports car:  she would be content to ride on the back of a donkey that plods forward one step at a time, with its head down.

Mary knew that true humility does not make us weak, small or less powerful.  Handing our life over to God means becoming an instrument of His peace, and a dwelling place for His Word.  The grandest building made of human hands—whether St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Eiffel Tower, or the Twin Towers—will one day fall to the ground:  by decay, if not by human malice.  But even the smallest soul given to God endures in God’s Presence forever.  From such souls, God forges His house, the Mystical Body of the Church, with its foundation on earth, and its stories stretching into the heavens.

3rd Sunday of Advent [B]

Third Sunday of Advent  [B]
Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11  —  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24  —  John 1:6-8,19-28
December 11, 2011

               John the Baptizer is front and center in our Gospel today.  We might ask, “How is John the Baptizer an Advent figure?”  We don’t have little figurines of St. John the Baptist that we put in our crèche scenes:  he was a six-month old baby, of course, when Jesus was born.  In today’s Gospel passage, St. John the Baptist is a grown man, who’s not speaking about getting ready for the birth of Jesus.  So how is he an Advent figure?  What does his message tell us about our spiritual preparation for Christmas?
               If we had to sum up John the Baptizer in one word, that word would be… “witness”.  Our translation of today’s Gospel passage uses a slightly different range of words:  “testimony” and “testify”.  But what do you call a person who testifies, or gives testimony:  is “testifier” a word?  I think the word “witness” sums up what we’re thinking about when we look at John the Baptizer, because you can use it in three different ways, to describe:  (1) who he is;  (2) what he does;  and (3) what he gives.
               To give witness authentically, two things have to be true.  You have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to talk truthfully.
On the one hand, the witness that you’re going to give, you have to know to be true.  Sometimes we think of the verb “witness” as something passive, as if you were watching TV.  But to be a good witness in a court of law, you have to have actively witnessed the events in question:  you have to have seen what happened, in what order, and how.
               Of course, even if you do know the truth about what happened, you have to be willing to testify, and to do so truthfully.  Imagine, for example, that you were standing on a street corner, and saw an accident between two vehicles.  You saw very clearly that it was the fault of the first vehicle.
               But then the drivers get out of their vehicles, and you notice that the driver of the first vehicle is your grandmother.  Suddenly, the police pull up.  Do you go up to the scene of the accident, knowing that the police will ask for your name and a statement?  Or do you turn away from the scene, so that you won’t be called into court to give witness?  What motivates us to give witness, or not to give witness?
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               John the Baptizer was not called to give witness about an event.  And neither are we.  John the Baptizer was called to give witness about a person:  the person of Jesus Christ.  For John the Baptizer to give authentic witness about Jesus, two things had to be the case:  (1) he had to know what he was talking about, and (2) he had to talk truthfully.
               In terms of John the Baptizer knowing what he was talking about, we have to recognize that there’s a big difference between knowing facts, and knowing a person.  There’s a big difference between knowing—say—algebra, and knowing another person.  There’s also an important difference between knowing facts about a person—such as their date of birth, or height, or favorite color—and knowing the person personally.  To know a person personally, means to have a relationship with that person.
               The same is true of each of us, if we are to be a disciple—a follower—of Jesus.  It is not enough to know about Jesus.  The devil himself knows far more about Jesus than you or I are ever likely to know (the devil, like all angels, is a creature of great intelligence).  To know Jesus personally, as His disciple, means to recognize Him for who He says He is:  the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the Lord and meaning of our world.  …  I guarantee you that the devil will never call Him those things.
               To know Jesus personally means to know Him as our Lord.  But that’s not enough to give witness to Jesus.  Remember again John the Baptizer.
               For John the Baptizer to give authentic witness about Jesus, the second thing that had to be the case was that John had to talk truthfully.  We might think that this is easy:  after all, I’m sure no one here has ever lied about the meaning of Jesus.  I’m sure that none of you ever said to someone at a party, “Jesus is not important to me.”  You’ve never told someone at the grocery store that “Jesus is just a person of historical importance, like Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr.”  I doubt that any of you has ever tried to convince someone on your block that Jesus was just an inspiring prophet or teacher, like Moses or Buddha, Confucius or Mohammed.  You’ve never said any of those things.
               Unfortunately, none of those statements is the real problem today when it comes to talking truthfully about the meaning of Jesus.  Because the need “to talk truthfully” has two opposites.  That is, there are two ways not “to talk truthfully”.  The first is “to talk falsely”.
               The second is “not to talk”, period.  And unfortunately, this is the way that most of us fail to give true witness to Jesus.  Whenever we pray the Confiteor at the beginning of Mass, what do we say to God?  “I have sinned through my own fault… in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.”
               But the last time that you were in the confessional, did you say anything about your call from God to give witness to Jesus?  When was the last time that you said to someone at a party, “Jesus means more to me than any other person in my life”?  When was the last time that you told someone at the grocery store that the teachings of Jesus offer the greatest possible happiness to every human person?  When was the last time that you asked someone on your block if they believed in Jesus?  Is it wrong to do so?
               It is certainly culturally wrong.  The culture that surrounds us vilifies and ridicules those who bring their relationship with Jesus to bear on other relationships in their lives.  The culture that surrounds us reduces the meaning of loving Jesus to an interior, subjective feeling, rather than being a communal, objective truth.
               In fact, Jesus wasn’t born into this world in order to be “one way among many”, or “one person’s opinion”, or an “alternative lifestyle”.
               Jesus was born into this world to be, for every human being, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  God calls us, as He called John the Baptizer, to give others joyful, truthful witness about the difference that Jesus makes in human life.

Immaculate Conception - 8 DEC 2011

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Genesis 3:9-15, 20  ─  Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12  ─  Luke 1:26-38
December 8, 2011
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” [Luke 1:28]

In the beginning, God had a plan.  God’s plan was for mankind to live a blissful life in this world, and at the end of earthly life, to rise body and soul into Heaven, to spend eternity there with Him and all their brothers and sisters in the family of man.

But mankind did not cooperate.  You know how Adam and Eve brought sin into the world.  They did not cooperate with God’s plan, and so God came up with a “Plan B”.  In this “Plan B”, God would show His love for mankind by handing over His only Son, knowing that man would crucify this Son, and knowing further that the Crucifixion of His Son would destroy the power of human sin and death.

In God’s “Plan A”, one man and one woman were to begin God’s plan.  They failed.  Adam and Eve instead brought sin and death into human experience, to make what had been designed as a human paradise into a valley of tears, full of suffering, doubt, and at time, even despair.

In God’s “Plan B”, one man and one woman were to begin God’s plan.  They obeyed.  They fulfilled God the Father’s Will.  And so through Jesus and Mary, you have the opportunity to live a life here below filled with hope and joy, and even some measure of peace.  But all of the virtues in our earthly life will only be fulfilled in the perfection of Heaven.
ó   ó   ó
Today the Church throughout the world celebrates the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Our Blessed Mother is the one creature in all of God’s Creation who obeyed God unfailingly.  Our Blessed Lady is the one human person who has been completely open to accepting Jesus into her life.

We hear Mary’s openness to this gift of life in today’s Gospel passage.  Gabriel was sent from God… to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph… and the virgin’s name was Mary.  Saint Gabriel the Archangel is God’s messenger, bearing the news of Mary’s Son.  Mary asks how she, a virgin, can conceive.  But God’s messenger assures Mary that God’s Son will be conceived in her womb by the Power of the Holy Spirit.

Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus reflects God’s omnipotence.  God can create something out of nothing.  In the beginning, God created the universe out of nothing.  Similarly, in the nothingness of Mary’s virginity, God creates, and His Son is conceived as a human being in Mary’s womb.  But these two acts of God creating out of nothing—God’s creation of the universe, in the beginning; and God’s creation of Jesus’ human body and soul, in the fullness of time—both anticipate, and foreshadow, an even greater miracle on God’s part.

Likely you have heard the saying, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the Cross.”  This saying isn’t historically true, but its truth lies in pointing our attention to the fact that Jesus’ conception and birth were a means to a greater end:  that end being Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.  As another saying puts it, “Jesus was born into this world, so that he might die from this world.”

Through Mary, God’s Son comes into the world to destroy sin and death.  Jesus’ vocation is fulfilled more than three decades later, according to the same pattern by which God created in the beginning, and in Mary’s womb.  God creates… out of nothing.  So it is with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  Human sin is a failure to love.  Human sin is an absence of grace, an absence of love.  You and I, as human beings:  how do we respond when someone doesn’t love us?  In our sinfulness, we usually respond in kind.  If someone gives us the cold shoulder, we do the same.  We respond to an absence of love with a further absence of love.  That’s how sin works:  it spreads like a spiritual and moral cancer, destroying the love that God meant, in the beginning, for our human life to be about.

Thanks be to God, God does not respond to sin as you and I do.  If God did, then when we had wandered far from Him, God would have (metaphorically) turned His back on mankind, and left us to wallow in sin, finally to die and exist forever separated from Him.  Thanks be to God, God responds to the nothingness of sin by choosing to love.  Down into the midst of a human race of sinners, God chose to send His only-begotten Son.  Jesus entered this world, and on Calvary, in the midst of the nothingness of rejection, rebuke, scourging and mockery, Jesus offered His life for the forgiveness of sin.  In the midst of the nothingness of sin, God “re-deemed” the world.
ó   ó   ó
Thanks be to God for His act of “re-creation”.  Thanks be to Our Blessed Mother Mary for saying “Yes” to her part in God’s plan.  And thanks be to God for preparing Mary to say “Yes” to His will for her life.  Those are the three truths that the Church celebrates today on this Holy Day of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  First, God from all eternity, knowing that man would reject Him, planned to re-create the human world through the offering of His Son.  Second, God chose Mary to be the Mother of His only-begotten Son, and Mary chose perfectly to accept this vocation.  Third, knowing from all eternity of Mary’s fidelity, God prepared Mary for her vocation be means of a unique grace:  the grace that we call the “Immaculate Conception”.

Many people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Virginal Conception of Jesus.  This confusion is somewhat understandable, given that the Church proclaims the Gospel passage of the Annunciation—Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus—on the Holy Day of the Immaculate Conception.  But the Church proclaims this Gospel passage today not to confuse, but to show the link between Jesus and Mary, between His divine life and her human life, between the vocation of Jesus to die for mankind, and the vocation of Mary to give birth to mankind’s Savior.

At the moment that Mary was conceived in the womb of St. Anne, God preserved Mary from the stain of Original Sin.  Ordinary human beings like you and me—that is to say, “ordinary” in the sense of “fallen human beings”—are conceived with the stain of Original Sin.  This Original Sin, of course, is washed away by the Sacrament of Baptism.  But God chose to preserve Mary from Original Sin.  God chose to let Mary be immaculate—that is, without sin—from the first moment of her life, when Saints Joachim and Anne conceived her.

Again, this gift was given to Mary not only for her own sake, but for the sake of her Son, and for the sake of all those who would become members of her Son’s Mystical Body, the Church.  You and I celebrate Mary’s fidelity today because she is our Mother.  She is the Mother of the One whose Body we are members of.  We honor her as the first and best disciple of Jesus Christ.  And we honor her because of the unique gift of holiness that God gave her through her Immaculate Conception.  During this Season of Advent, her life shows us best how to receive Jesus into our lives.

2nd Sunday of Advent [B] - 4 DEC 2011

The Second Sunday of Advent [B]
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11  ─  2 Peter 3:8-14  ─  Mark 1:1-8
December 4, 2011

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  [Mark 1:1]

This past Thursday morning after Mass, I was serenaded outside church by parishioners singing “Happy Birthday”.  I’ve been a priest almost seventeen years, and never been sung to before…  preached to, yes; but never sung to.  This says a lot about the parishioners of St. Mark’s, and reminds me of the email I quoted in the bulletin a few weeks ago, from a gentleman in southwestern Kansas who said that after visiting, he and his wife would like to join St. Mark’s if and when they move to this area.

But St. Mark’s parishioners weren’t the only ones who remembered my birthday.  Johann gave me a little gift.  You probably can’t read it from where you’re sitting, but it says, “Love is being owned by a Schnauzer.”  Wasn’t that thoughtful of him?  You know, every gift says at least two things:  it says something about the one who gives it, and something about the one who receives it.  This is true regarding both simple and profound gifts.  On the one hand, imagine that you were to give a bag of treats to your dog for Christmas.  You would most likely give him treats that you think he would enjoy, and this simple exchange would show your affection for him, and his taste in goodies.

Something infinitely more profound, of course, is at the heart of Christmas.  During Christmas we celebrate God the Father giving to us the Gift of His Son.  Advent is the time for reflecting on this Gift, to help us understand God our Father better, and also our own human selves better.
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God the Father gives us the Gift of Jesus in many forms (many “wrappings”, we might say).  God the Father gives us His Son, for example, through the Sacred Scriptures, especially through the accounts of the Gospel.  The Gospel accounts themselves are divine gifts, and these four gifts—called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John— reflect, like any gift, the one who gives, and the one who receives.

During this new Church year that began last Sunday, we hear from the Gospel account of St. Mark the Evangelist.  During this year, we at St. Mark’s Parish will have occasion to learn more about our parish patron.  His account of the Gospel will be the focus on our parish’s Generations of Faith this coming Spring.  But right now, consider Mark’s Gospel account in the setting of all four of them.

St. Mark the Evangelist wrote the shortest of the four.  It’s only sixteen chapters long, while the longest—that of St. Matthew—is twenty-eight chapters long (almost twice as long).  Is this difference an accident, or through this difference does God reveal something to us?  This really begs a wider question:  why are there four accounts of the Gospel?  Wasn’t one good enough?  Is it just an accident that there are four Gospel accounts?

Consider these questions by reflecting on your own life.  Is there any single person on earth—with the exception of yourself—who knows you completely?  If you’re married, then you’d surely say that your spouse knows you extremely well, but did your spouse know you as a child?  Does your spouse know what your childhood was like better than your parents?  If you have children, is it possible that your children know a side of you that your parents don’t?

I’m sure you see the point.  Even though you are one person, and the same individual throughout your life, different persons know you, and have seen your life, from different vantage points.  Even at a particular time—say, when you were a sixth-grader—your classmates, parents, siblings, and teachers, all knew and related to the same person.  Yet each of those persons saw you from a different perspective.

This sheds some light on the differences among Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Only Matthew and John knew Jesus personally:  Mark and Luke only knew of Jesus through the apostles whose disciples they were (Mark was a disciple of St. Peter, and Luke a disciple of St. Paul).  Each of these four evangelists wrote their Gospel account based on the relationship each had with Jesus:  in two cases, second-hand.  Their own human understanding of the Gospel shaped how the Holy Spirit worked through them to hand on the Gospel.

The other side of the coin is that each evangelist wrote his Gospel account for a different group of Christians.  With his particular audience in mind, each evangelist handed on the gift of the Gospel.  None of the Gospel accounts tells us everything that could have been written about Jesus.  As St. John the Evangelist says in the very last verse of his account, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.”[1]  However, while the four Gospel accounts do not give us everything there is to know about Jesus, they do give us the saving Truth about God’s Love for us in Jesus.
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The Gospel passage that the Church proclaims on this Second Sunday of Advent portrays St. John the Baptizer.  The passage that we just heard is the first eight verses of Mark’s Gospel account.  Mark’s portrait of John the Baptizer—lean and mean—reflects Mark’s account of the Gospel itself.  Mark does not tell us about the conception and birth of John, as Luke does; for that matter, Mark doesn’t tell us about conception and birth of Jesus.  Mark begins his account of the Gospel with John and Jesus already adults.

St. Mark the Evangelist plucks three verses from the Old Testament to illustrate John the Baptizer in the role of prophet.  None of the four evangelists portrays John at great length, but that’s part of the portrait of John, and illustrates one of his key virtues.  Likewise, consider from this what you yourself should take home from today’s Gospel and reflect on during the coming week.  How is St. John the Baptizer a model for your life as a Christian?

When you look at St. John the Baptizer, one of the first virtues that we see is humility.  Certainly humility is key to understanding Advent.  We hear that John’s appearance and diet are ‘mean’ in the sense of humble:  John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt….  He fed on locusts and wild honey.  The material humility of John’s life, however, is a means to an end:  that is, living his vocation to be a prophet, pointing out Jesus to others.

This is your vocation, also, in virtue of your baptism into the life of Christ Jesus.  The role of prophet demands of you humility:  both materially and spiritually.  Most often, “material humility” is called “simplicity”.  What is not needed, is in fact a burden.  Advent, like Lent, is a time for throwing off burdens, both materially and spiritually.  (Keep in mind that our parish’s Penance Service will be held on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18.)

Spiritual humility, however, is more important than material humility.  Spiritual humility is reflected in John the Baptizer’s life:  he proclaims, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”  John is referring to Jesus, of course.

Jesus is not just “the reason for the season”.  Jesus is the reason for human life itself.  Jesus is the answer to every question about the meaning of human life.  The more that you humble yourself before Jesus, and say about your life what John said about his, that “He must increase, and I must decrease”,[2] then the more your life will deepen in meaning.  Even in the face of your sins, through humility, repentance, and accepting Jesus as the price for your sins, …the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.  Giving up your life to Jesus becomes your gift to your own self.

[1] John 21:25.
[2] John 3:30.

The parish I serve

<b>The parish I serve</b>
St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Colwich, Kansas (Diocese of Wichita)