Sunday, December 21, 2014

Behold, This is Christmas - Homily Notes for the 4th Sunday in Advent (B)

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, jack frost nipping at your nose… There have been candy canes in the classrooms and days of baking cookies. Music on the radio, untangling Christmas lights; Santa Claus, and maybe that treasured, quiet moment by the fireplace where you snuggle with your beloved as snow lightly falls. Ah, Christmas.

But this Advent season started with an exhortation to “stay awake” and to “watch”—exhortations that warned us of danger. The danger was that we might miss Christmas because of our busy-ness; today the danger is that we might miss it by making Christmas… sentimental. All of the Christmas trappings, lulling us to sleep, tempt us to see today’s visit from an Archangel as a kind of dream-sequence of blurred trees and soft voices. Yes, Christmas can become a kind of sentimental thing where, in the end, the baby Jesus is reduced to a precious moments doll that is “nice” and “cute” … but that is all.

Surely, there is more to Christmas than that.

The Final Battle

J.R.R. Tolkien, a Catholic author who lived through the First and Second World Wars and who was a daily communicant, wrote metaphorically about the Catholic life and its struggles through a series of fantasy books entitled The Lord of the Rings. These books, later adapted to film, drew from the entirety of the Catholic heritage (including the Old Testament) and told of battle after battle between men and goblins and other evils, battles that are waged around the ultimate of weapons (a ring of power) that could cover the world in a suffocating darkness. The books are the ultimate in the good-versus-evil genre.

For ancient Israel, this good-versus-evil battle played out literally through many wars with the nations surrounding her. Today’s reading, however, announces a time of peace—a peace that has come from God Himself. He says:

I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.

A few of Israel’s victories had come when the Ark of the Covenant preceded her in battle. The Ark of the Covenant (think: Indiana Jones) was a sacred treasure of Israel that held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the miraculous manna-bread from the desert, and the rod of Aaron that had turned the Nile to blood. The Lord overshadowed the Ark, as like a cloud, and wherever it went, there was the mighty God.

In this moment of remembrance, God makes a promise to David: He says:

I will give you rest from all your enemies.

From all your enemies. But what other enemies were there that had not been destroyed? Paul answers us when he says:

The final enemy to be destroyed is death.

This presumes that the enemy which has brought death—namely, the devil—will also be destroyed. This is precisely what begins to happens when Jesus dies on the Cross on “Good Friday.” On that day, the enemy-- not Jesus-- but the enemy is vanquished and the dawn of victory begins. Hence, we call Good Friday “good.” And on the third day, when dawn breaks the darkness, we see that Jesus, the Light of the World, is victorious.

In the ancient church, it was traditionally held that Good Friday happened on March 25th-- the same date of the Annunciation. 

The Secret of the Annunciation

J.R.R. Tolkien, realizing this historical fact, sees that there is a connection between Good Friday and the Annunciation. That is, if Good Friday is the day of victory, the Annunciation is the day that God paratroops behind enemy lines, all secret-ops like, and begins the final assault against the ancient tyrant of this world. Tolkien, therefore, orchestrates his book in such a way that the greatest victory and the destruction of evil—namely, the ring of power—happens on March 25th.

This changes everything.

The Annunciation is not just some nice Taster’s Choice moment between a humble Israelite girl and an distant angel. This is a secret council behind enemy lines wherein Gabriel reveals to Mary the secret weapon: Mary is to become the New Ark of the Covenant, the one who will proceed the New Israel, the Church, into the victorious battle against Satan. As the New Ark, she will not be carrying the Ten Commandments or the manna or the rod, but within her will dwell the very author of the Law, the very Bread of Life, the very Blood of Salvation, Jesus Christ, which the Old Ark and its contents prefigured.

In this moment, Mary is more than a poor peasant girl. The Archangel Gabriel greets her by saying, “Hail!” This is a crucial point. You see, Gabriel could have greeted Mary in the common tongue of Aramaic or Hebrew—shalom—but he says the Greek word “Chaire!”—Hail! This is an elevated greeting which means “rejoice” and whose root is the same for “grace.” Grace and joy are related. But more, this word, “Hail!” is a greeting for royalty. Kings and Queens are greeted in such ways—not peasant girls.

And so Mary ponders what this greeting may mean: how can she, so humble and poor, be greeted in such exalted ways?

It reminds me of Tolkien’s small, humble characters called Hobbits. Of them, he says “Even the smallest person can change the course of the world.” In Tolkien’s books, it is the smallest and most unnoticed who draws the wars to an end.


In this moment, Mary has a decision. Does she agree to this battle? Does she agree to this exalted vocation—a calling beyond anything anyone may have imagined for her? In this moment, God’s plan is laid out. All creation waits. Gabriel waits. What will she say?

In this moment, Mary’s YES will be like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains. Mary’s YES will conquer Eve’s NO. If Mary says yes, she will have obtained in that moment a victory more decisive than any battle waged on earth.

And so she says: Behold.

We have heard this word before. It means to see deeply, almost beyond appearances, and to the mysterious. Gabriel has said “Behold, Elizabeth has conceived…” See the mysterious at work!

Even on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate says, “Behold, the man.” See, your king! (Of course, the people respond not by beholding, but by shouting all the louder: Crucify Him!)

From the Cross on the same day, Jesus says to us, “Behold, your mother.” See… bring her into your home and to your heart! See the mysteries at work!

So, when Mary says “Behold!” her yes is so total that it echoes the very plan of God: His plan becomes her plan.

Nine months after that March 25th day, the world would celebrate Christmas.

Victory in Battle

Let us conclude with the last words of today’s Gospel. It says,

And the angel departed from her.

This may seem like a throw-away line, easily dismissed as a transition to the next part of the story. But it tells us something profound: after all of this is revealed and Mary says yes, the angel leaves and Mary is alone.

But she is not alone. While the world resumes its daily activities, within Mary is Jesus Himself. In the coming months, she would hold her belly and ponder upon the words Gabriel proclaimed to her: Hail, my queen … I have been with you wherever you went … I will give you rest from all your enemies…

Her interiority and her prayerful pondering will aid her when she hears the words of Simeon the priest-prophet when he tells her that a “sword will pierce your heart also”—swords that are used in battles. She will need to hear again and again in the depths of her heart the command to rejoice—that first command of the Gospel—as her Son is taken from her and scourged and crucified.  Yes, as the battle comes for her and her Son, Mary will find victory as she ponders about the Jesus that grows within her.

What can we take from this?

The Church wants us to consider this battle and this victory. Just like Mary who ponders, the Church once more ponders the Annunciation so as to prepare ourselves for Christmas. Even the opening prayer to today's Holy Mass is the very same prayer used on the feast day of the Annunciation!

So, Behold! Behold your Savior and His Mother in these last days before Christmas.

And let’s be honest: this is such a battle! Yes, it is such a battle to pray sometimes—especially when prayer can be dry or we’re tired. It is such a battle to not give up when we have so much else to do. Or, if we know we are to go to confession, it is so easy to say “not this year.” No! Fight! Battle! This is the year! This is the day! The victory is now. This is where we prove our valor—prove ourselves worthy of the victory that God brings us this Christmas. Prove that this isn’t just a sentimental holiday that ends in the Returns line at Target. Behold that this is the day in which the light breaks through the darkness and is victorious over it forever! This is Christmas. Behold!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Joyful Preparation - Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (B)

(From Handel's Messiah. One of my favorite songs-- which literally sings the readings for today's Holy Mass....)

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It was a dark time in Israel’s history. Long gone were the days of Moses and of David. Nearly lost from memory were the triumphant entry into the Promised Land and the days of peace and the joys of home in the Temple. All had been destroyed and Israel was enslaved again; her most noble of people taken in chains to the land of Babylon; her poor left behind. It was there, by the waters of Babylon, that Israel sat down and wept (Ps 137), the pain of being so far from the Lord, so deep, that she hung up her harps on the trees; unable to sing—for who can sing when there is no hope?

We’ve all been there. All of us have examined our life at one point or another and realized how far we are from good. I’ve been impatient. Or I’ve been impure. Or I’ve lost sight of what life is about and I’ve done the same silly thing over and over again. How can I ever get back what was lost? How can I move forward from here? (Because I want to do better. I want to be holy). And maybe for a time we are holy… but then we fall again. And the hope that we had… that hope seems lost.

The Return of the Exiles

To you, dear soul, our Lord speaks. “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.”

What does this mean? It means that the time of your exile is over! Those who walked in darkness shall see a great light. The captives in Babylon shall return home; those enslaved to sin shall be set free. For “Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”

I imagine here, that Jesus is coming toward me; Jesus the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders-- that lost sheep who has so often been… me.

Yes, dear soul, there is hope!

From the Other Side of the Confessional

I feel like Isaiah today. Or St. John the Baptist. Proclaiming a day of jubilee, a season of hope, a time for forgiveness and of light.

One of the greatest privileges in my priesthood is to experience this moment of homecoming—when the exile returns to the Promised Land, when the Prodigal Son returns to the Father, the lost sheep carried home.

Second to the Holy Mass, there is no greater privilege than to be in the confessional when a soul comes in, a soul who has pondered walking through that door for years, debated it, pondered it, struggled with it, wondering what to say, ashamed to say what has been done. And then they come in and they kneel down, and they say “Father... Father, it has been so long…. And I’m sure I’ve broken every commandment in the book…”

And they don’t know how much I admire them in this moment, how much I admire their courage, and how joyful I am on the other side of the confessional: because the first of the exiles is returning, the lost sheep has been found, my son or daughter is home again! My child was dead! And is now alive!

Little does that soul know, as it is crying because of its sins, that I am crying too—but for joy!

A Hope Fulfilled

There is so much hope in that decision to go to confession. The soul that resolves to go has entered into that deep hope that believes the promises that our Lord gives will be fulfilled: that those who come to Him and repent will not perish, but will have eternal life in heaven. Yes, going to confession is one of the few places in this world where we actually obtain what it is we hope for. We hope for forgiveness, we hope for a new beginning—and this is exactly what we receive!

So, I want to make an appeal to you, dear soul, especially you who have been a long time away from the confessional. Come. The Lord does not delay his promise. He has been patient with you. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved: his delay is short and the day of the Lord will come like a thief. I want you to be prepared.

There are some who have forgotten how to come to confession. Do not be ashamed, the priest is there to help you. There are some who do not know where to begin; don’t worry, we will help you there too. (After all, I’ve been on that side of the confessional too). There are some who say, “Father, I’ve done the same things as I always do.”—to which I say,  thanks be to God you’ve only done the same old things and nothing new! In military terms, you’ve been holding the line. And thanks be to God for that! And our Lord is calling you too, because He wants to give you some victories now.

A Christmas Joy

Yes, brothers and sisters, there is a great joy in returning home. It is the joy of Christmas.

You see, this is why we celebrate Christmas. The people who dwelled in darkness were in darkness. They needed a Savior. We do too. We needed a Good Shepherd who would go in search for this little lost lamb and bring us home on his shoulders.

This is precisely why God became one of us. This is why we celebrate Christmas: our Savior has come—and come to free us from the exile of our sins!

As a priest, I am so honored that I get to participate in this.

[Some may wonder why we need a priest to be forgiven….  Consider Noah. God could have saved Noah’s family by Himself-- for God is God. But God used Noah. So too, God could have saved Israel on by Himself, but God sends Moses. And then David. And then the Prophets. And then the Apostles. Time after time, God asks weak, sinful men to be the conduit of grace. He could have done it Himself, but He asks us to come to the priest. This is where He has become one of us. Like at the manger, this is not where some would expect to find God. But this is precisely where He is!

So, let Jesus be Jesus.]

Yes, dear friends, that dark cave and manger where Jesus was born—that was the first confessional. We have been the animals, the ox and the ass, but now we come to Him asking for forgiveness.

This is the preparation that John proclaims, this is how we are to make His paths straight: to ask for forgiveness is the straightest way to His heart. And ours.

Today is a day of return—a season of hopeful jubilee. This is our joy. This is why we sing.

Joy to the World

And so, I want to sing to you another Christmas song that we typically associate with Christmas, but which I would like you to consider in light of the confessional. When a soul comes out of the confessional, they have been given new life and a new beginning, such that Jesus says the angels and saints rejoice—all of heaven and earth is in song-- when a sinner returns. So, when you come out of the confessional, you can sing this song—because it is for this very moment that Christ has come!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
                        Let earth receive her King!
                        Let every heart prepare Him room.
                        And heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing.
                        And heaven and nature sing!

On Wednesday night of this week, our parish will have ten priests for confession. Come to confession. And enjoy Christmas a couple weeks early!

(Visit the YouTube site and read the historical details of Joy to the World -- they are quite interesting! ... Summarized: Joy to the World was written firstly as a hymn singing about Jesus' Second Coming; what we sing is actually only the second half of the hymn; and the tune is taken from Handel's first few bars of... wait for it.... "Comfort Ye" and other selections of his "Messiah." So, there you go.)