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.)

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