Homilies

For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for December 2012

Nativity by Gerard Van Honthorst

A drowsy faith
Purpose: To draw attention to a particular crisis of faith present among Christians: a weak vigilance for the coming of Christ.

1st Sunday of Advent—December 2, 2012
Readings: Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28, 34-36
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120212.cfm

Today, the Church begins a new liturgical season.  This season, and this day, not only dignifies the beginning of a new Church year, it also reawakens the nearness of God’s loving presence dwelling among us in the Word-made-flesh.  It announces the imminent coming and manifestation of the eternal Son, wrapped gloriously in the tattered, flagellated robes of our humanity.

He comes to us as the divine warmth that melts the frigid lovelessness of sin and death.  He comes as the match that reignites, with us, the delight of the Father.  He is both captain and vessel, by which we are rescued from the ocean of godlessness, and transported toward the harbor of eternal safety and security.  It is he, the Son of Man, who begs us to be awake and alert to his coming.  Because we, who have been baptized into Christ, are subject to a tepidity of spirit in that we live among many who have never truly encountered Christ—neither knowing him, nor walking in his way we.  All too often, we assimilate the attitudes of those around us, making them our own.  We begin to believe that the numbness, accompanying the cold and harsh elements of society, is the true warmth that we are forsaking.  We grow tired of trying to protect the flame of grace burning within our souls.  We thrash about, becoming despondent in the hope of finding lasting peace and rest.  Salvation, therefore, must be something attainable at little cost to us.  Such an attitude points to a hidden crisis of faith growing in our midst.

Christ addressed the crowd, and his disciples, about this particular crisis of faith, as he preached in the temple in Jerusalem.  This crisis is not the absolute denial of God, nor even of Christ.  It is not the rejection of a particular teaching nor dogma.  Likewise, it is not the absence of a structural reform within God’s assembly, the Church.  Neither is it the anger, nor the resentment, that rejects the possibility of forgiveness and healing.  This crisis of faith is much more subtle.  It affects the fervor of the disciples, and, if not tended to, leads to neglect and carelessness.  It is a crisis of faith that springs from forgetfulness, and a lack of vigilance.  It is similar to a crisis that gripped the people of Israel centuries before, resulting in God’s permitting his temple to be destroyed by foreigners.

Thus, Jesus says: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap ” (Lk 21: 34).  And, again: “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you may have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:36).  Excess of pleasure and all the fretting, if not tempered, dampen the fervor of the Christian.  They become lullabies that rock the Christian to sleep.  They overwhelm the senses and disorient the mind to such a degree that the Christian loses his edge.  They become distractions and objects that Christians affix themselves to whenever they take the form of over-indulgence, a feeling of success, or hypnosis.  They cause the Christian to become drowsy.  Beware, then, of carousing, drunkenness, and the anxieties of daily life.

These three—the anxieties of daily life, drunkenness and carousing—are particularly deceptive.  Carousing is a false joy.  It leads a person to believe that there is no more need for diligent work, that the labor has finally paid itself off.  This spirit of merrymaking is often accompanied by drunkenness, which relaxes the body, creates euphoria, and inhibits a person’s reason.  One may, as well, pursue drunkenness as a way to escape the anxieties of daily life.  Stress, constant worrying, and strategic planning can dull the sharpness of the human spirit, causing a person to look for a way out.  The worries that fill life are endless and relentless.  They are like weeds—when one is plucked out, another takes its spot.  Anxiety, drunkenness, and carousing can dampen the alertness of the Christian.

Let us be cautious here, and not take these three too literally.  Jesus is not telling his disciples to outright avoid partying, drinking, or a stress-free life.  Rather, he is using them to illustrate various ways in which their faith might be weakened.  Whatever would produce these same effects within the Christian soul, and would weaken that person’s vigilance, must be tempered and moderated.  Only when Christ appears, will our joy be made complete.  Only when he comes, will we be able to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors.  But until then, we must content ourselves to be worn out by vigilance and prayer.

Do not be afraid to let yourselves be wounded as such!  Prayer and vigilance must cause your soul to ache for your savior.  They must tatter your soul.  By them, you will prove yourself the faithful watchman for this generation, crying out with the psalmist: “I wait with longing for the Lord, my soul waits for his word.  My soul looks for the Lord more than sentinels for daybreak.  More than sentinels for daybreak, let Israel look for the Lord.”  Strain, therefore, to see through the night of this life, until you see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Lk 21:36).  Be assured, he will come!  “And pray that you may have the strength to escape the tribulations that are escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man” on the day of his manifestation (Lk 22:36b).

Faith working through circumstances
Purpose: To reflect upon how God’s providence utilizes the circumstances of our lives to elicit and increase our faith.

Immaculate Conception—December 8, 2012
Readings: Gn 3:9-15,20; Ps 98; Eph 1;3-6,11-12; Lk 1:26-38
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120812.cfm

Just as we have begun the season of Advent, when we anticipate the birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ, so it is fitting that we should pause momentarily and should contemplate the beginning of his mother’s life.  If Mary was to be the most worthy vessel that would give birth to the human nature of our Lord and Savior, it follows that she would need to be prepared and purified for so noble a mission.  This purification and preparation would form an intimate and necessary part of her vocation as the Mother of God.  It would lie at the base of her identity as one of God’s elect, as an inheritor of her Son’s redemptive sacrifice, as a protagonist alongside multitudes of prophets, judges, kings and priests, as an interlocutor of the blessed Trinity, and as the beginning of the Church.  Thus, today we celebrate that intimate aspect of Mary’s personal vocation by which she is known as the Immaculate Conception.

“Immaculate Conception,” is a title that belongs personally to Mary.  It was neither something she earned, nor something she attributed to herself.  This title speaks of Mary’s being; namely, that she was conceived in the womb of her mother, Anne, immaculately, from the first moment the Lord called her into existence.  The Immaculate Conception means that Mary was preserved from original sin by a singular grace stemming from the redemption of her son.  This does not mean that Mary was immune from the need for grace, nor the need to live by faith.  Rather, grace ran before her.  The eternal Son was looking out for his would-be mortal mother.  He attributed to her the merits of his passion, death, and resurrection in a way that transcended time. In due time, he would attribute those same merits to us through baptism.

If the Lord were not to violate her dignity as a person, whom he had created in his own image, but instead utilize her freedom, and her femininity, to accomplish his salvific plan, it seems only right that he should allow her to share in her Son’s redemptive sacrifice in a way that was uniquely her own.  The Immaculate Conception, consequently, allows God the freedom to speak to Mary as a person who can respond to him with her whole being, uninhibited by sin: to freely say “yes” with a faith that needs to grow day by day.  This is the brilliance that can be lost on us!

God does not redeem us like a farmer, who picks berries and throws them into a basket.  He is not trying to pick as many as he can.  He does not reduce us to mere functionaries, as he orchestrates his divine plan in history.  Salvation affects each of us personally.  It is neither impersonal, nor dehumanizing, like a berry being thrown into a basket.  Rather, as an initial grace that sets us on a new path in life, salvation engages each of us.  It forms a dialogue between God and humanity.  My history, my life, becomes the setting of a constant dialogue with God, where I am both saved, and enabled to fulfill his mission for my life.  This is what we glimpse in the encounter between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary in Nazareth.  It was prepared for when Mary was conceived immaculately, and it now becomes a defining moment in her life.  The good news that St. Luke narrates at the beginning of his Gospel is not the whole story about Mary’s life.  It is a brief snapshot in the middle of her life, so to speak.  The angel Gabriel is sent from God to the village where Mary is residing.  She is found betrothed to a certain man named Joseph.  The marital license is already signed, and the dowry given the new husband.  But Mary and Joseph are not yet living together, according to the custom of the time.  She is still residing in the house of her father.  This is the set of circumstances through which the Lord engages Mary.

We would not be surprised about Gabriel’s announcement if it were not implicitly understood that Mary conceived Jesus through the overshadowing of the Most High.  Mary’s protest to the angel does not make sense, apart from such an extraordinary intervention on God’s part.  Consequently, we are led to understand that she did not conceive him through the normal course of events.  In the short time between Gabriel’s announcement, and Mary’s arrival at her relative Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is pregnant with “my Lord.”  How has this occurred, if not through the intervention of God’s grace?

But under no terms do we see the Lord forcing himself upon Mary.  Through the angel Gabriel, he announces his plan for her life.  He tells her about her would-be son in her womb.  He allows her to protest, and to ask further questions.  He allows her mind to probe the mysterious ways of God, and he gives her reason enough to lovingly donate her freedom to God.  He entices her faith, to which she says: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

How beautiful are God’s ways!  Through Mary, he shows us how he uses the circumstances of our lives to elicit our faith in him.  Through Mary, he shows us how his grace overcomes all of our difficulties without extracting us from them.  Through Mary, he shows us how we can find peace.  Through Mary, he shows us that we must live out our vocations as he calls us, through the conditions of our lives.  At times his grace works through the facts of our lives, and at other times he creates new facts.  But through them all, the Lord invites us to hand ourselves over to him in a profound act of freedom.

Too often, we fight the situations in which we find ourselves because we look upon them with hearts hardened by self-control, selfishness, and idealism.  On this day, we must return to that most fundamental truth that gives us certainty and confidence: that God lovingly encounters us through the events of our lives, if we but allow ourselves to encounter him through a precise act of faith.

A faith that alters history
Purpose: To offer a hopeful, yet subtle reason for moral conversion: namely, that conversion and repentance dramatically affect history.

2nd Sunday of Advent—December 9, 2012
Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126; Phil 1:4-6, 8-11; Lk 3:1-6
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

You have often heard of John the Baptist’s relationship to his relative and divine savior, Jesus Christ.  Every detail of John’s life and ministry is intimately associated with that of Jesus.  In the womb, John danced with abandon before Christ the Lord.  From his father’s lips, he was told: “And you, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk 1:76-77).  John’s ministry prepares the way for Christ.  His death foretells Christ’s death.  John’s message of conversion, and fidelity to the Law of the Lord, cries out for the justifying grace of the Cross yet to come.  He is the architect constructing the royal road, amid the people of Israel, on which his king shall walk.  It is his union with Christ that thrusts him into public view.

When the evangelist, Luke, describes the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, he does so in a peculiar way.  St. Luke expends great effort describing world leaders living in that era.  This detail of St. Luke’s Gospel is not a cursory remark.  It speaks of more than an attempt to date the time frame of John’s career.  While many of these public figures play a pivotal role in the death of Christ Jesus later in the Gospel, they also serve a purpose in being identified alongside John the Baptist.  Their role in the death of Christ contrasts with the Baptist’s role, calling for new life through repentance and conversion.  The darkness that overshadows more than a few of their names, illumines the splendor of the Baptist’s name.  While they are distained, the Baptist is admired.  In the Baptist, then, we find a man of God who offers us hope amid the domineering figures, and impersonal powers, of history.

Precisely because of his faith in the Lord, and his hope in the nearness of the Messiah’s presence, John the Baptist becomes a prominent and noteworthy figure, in his own right.  He is offered to us as a saintly role model, a divine counselor, a sign of hope.  He offers us a future filled with hope because he demonstrates in himself, and in the credibility of his message, the presence of the Lord in history, in our history today.  He is neither disingenuous, nor deceitful; otherwise his whole career would be like “a person who built a house on the ground without a foundation.  When the river burst against it, it collapsed at once and was completely destroyed” (Lk 6:49).  Rather, when the world released its flood of fury upon John, and called for his beheading, John was unshaken because he “dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock”—that is, on Christ (Lk 6:48).  Consequently, John demonstrates that his ministry is only as powerful and persuasive as is his ability to live it.  And how powerful it was!

What John proclaims is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in view of the Lord’s imminent arrival (Lk 3:3).  His voice blends with the voice of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Lk 3:4; cf. Is 40:3).  He calls out to those who pursue the good life to turn away from their sins, and to cast off any trace of a lifestyle that becomes a haven for sin.  He pleads with them to forsake all earthly attachments, and to make the way of the Lord—the Lord’s kingdom—the supreme object of their desires and labors.  John comes to comfort the weariness and fragility of human nature, exiled from God’s blessings.  He comes to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated” (Is 40:2a).

Upon the Messiah’s arrival, the Anointed One will take his people—who have been living in a foreign land, who have been interiorly and spiritually estranged and isolated throughout their lives—and bring them into the peace and comfort of his kingdom.  How he will do this is yet to be revealed at the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel.  But it is John’s express privilege to announce this historical deed.  It is his duty to prepare us to greet the Lord through repentance and conversion.

John the Baptist is the one who points out the spiritual cynicism that many experience when they measure themselves against the monolithic forces and figures of history.  He shows contempt for the question they put to themselves: “Why should I change my ways?  No one else is going to change or is willing to change.  It’s worthless.  Besides, I am insignificant.”  In contrast to this entrenched attitude, John proposes a different outlook.  He speaks to us of the hopefulness of conversion, when the eyes of our being are fixated upon the coming of the Messiah.  Just as John assumed his place among the historically noteworthy, because he assessed himself against the coming of Christ, so you should do likewise.

Therefore, submit any form of cynicism to the welding rod of God’s love.  Let him take the dispirited pieces of your life, which feel insignificant and worthless, and weld them into something that can cast a long shadow.  Do not let them remain odd pieces that clutter your life and serve no purpose.  Should you doubt their usefulness, melt them down in the fire of hope, hammering out a new sheet of metal on the anvil of holy determination.  In this workshop, you must dare to brave a new way of living.  No deed is too small or insignificant that, when consulting with God’s blueprint, does not contribute to manufacturing the bridge between heaven and earth.  The little ways of your life, made strong and pure, fasten the joints of that royal road.  Those which seem to be more substantial parts may well be the supporting beams that depend on the little ways of someone else.  Your little corner of the world, therefore, is of great concern, both to God and to humanity.  If you are a brave and willing expeditionist, if you prepare the way of the Lord in every detail of your life, you will be held in everlasting remembrance.  Such a faith in Jesus Christ truly alters history.

Fidelity to the covenant
Purpose: To invite the congregation to examine their moral conduct, particularly their deeds of justice, so that they may faithfully adhere to the covenant of their baptism.

3rd Sunday of Advent—December 16, 2012
Readings: Zep 3:14-18a; Is 12; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121612.cfm

Last week, we were introduced to St. John the Baptist.  St. Luke presented him to us against the background of his contemporaries: Herod, Philip, Pontius Pilate, Lysanias and the like.  St. John stood out against the domineering powers of his age by proclaiming the power of a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  In John’s view, what seems like a sign of weakness in humanity becomes precisely the moment when one is capable of wielding true power.  This sign of weakness is namely the ability to turn away from any and all forms of evil, to walk away from it, to suffer evil rather than commit it.  He captures with renews freshness the admonition of Isaiah the prophet over and against his contemporaries: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path” (Lk 3:4b).

John the Baptist interprets this prophetic utterance according to the specificity of each person’s life.  He engages every individual who experiences weariness and feels the truth of his or her interior emptiness.  He engages them not in general terms, but as it were, adapted to that person.  John is like a tailor who uses the same piece of cloth to make a suit that fits each person.  His words are snug and customized.  His work is always in vogue because he does not abandon craftsmanship, fashion and excellence for the latest and cheapest trend.  His work is costly, but it will command the attention of all who look upon you, should you risk the necessary price to profit from his unequaled services.

John the Baptist interprets this prophetic utterance according to the specificity of each person’s life.  He engages every individual who experiences weariness, and feels the truth of his or her interior emptiness.  He engages them, not in general terms, but, as it were, adapted to that person.  John is like a tailor who uses the same piece of cloth to make a suit that fits each person.  His words are snug and customized.  His work is always in vogue because he does not abandon craftsmanship, fashion, and excellence for the latest and cheapest trend.  His work is costly, but it will command the attention of all who look upon you, should you risk the necessary price to profit from his unequaled services.

John will not let anyone who comes to him settle for an imitation suit, or exchange his finely woven wool—taken from the choicest lamb—for a lesser material.  He cautions the crowds who come out to be baptized by him: “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.”’ (Lk 3:7-8b).  He warns them against the synthetic suits of religious sentimentality, empty show, and unearned recognition.  Faced with these cautions, the crowds in general, as well as representatives of different careers, approached John to ask him, “What should I do?”   John’s response is profoundly immersed in the covenant made at Mount Sinai.  His directives echo the demands of justice that form the heart of the covenant.

John’s instructions should not be reduced to moral lectures.  They are saturated in the new life that flows from God’s express intervention in Egypt, and the freedom he bestowed upon his people at Sinai.  Unless the people of Israel, God’s children, respect and honor the freedom of their fellow countrymen, they will end up creating a new Egypt in their midst; they will become the artisans of modern forms of tyranny and slavery. This freedom, and their unique vocation, are linked, therefore, to observance of the precepts given through Moses.  The dignity of the Israelites is preserved precisely in rendering justice toward one’s neighbor.  John’s counsel, then, is a summons to covenant fidelity (for more here, see Dominique Barthélemy, God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology, trans. Dom Aldhelm Dean {Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2004}, 81-90).

To the person who has two cloaks, John says he should readily share a cloak with one who has none.  If someone does not have food, and another does, the one who has food should come to the aid of the one who has none.  If a tax collector, who was subcontracted to collect taxes and toll fees, were extorting his fellow countryman in order to reap a personal profit, then he should stop collecting more than prescribed.  Likewise, a soldier ought to be satisfied with his wages, and not tyrannically manipulate those under his care.  It is imperative that an Israelite suffice the need of his fellow countryman.  The Israelite should not be the cause of perpetuating injustice.

Notice how John tailors his advice to each person’s station in life.  Fidelity to the covenant, and respect for each other’s dignity, is expressed in terms of the justice one is capable of practicing.  When justice is maintained, and the covenant is observed, Israel experiences “good news.”  Should we be surprised, then, that the crowds wondered if John the Baptist was the long-awaited messiah?  Faced with this expectation, John does not tell them in plain language that he is not the messiah.  Rather, John stretches their desires.  He does not want to lose the momentum of their conversion.  If he were to say, straight-forwardly, that he is not the messiah, the people might abandon the new life ushering forth from their baptism.   So, to alleviate their doubts and fears, he says: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming” (Lk 3:16a).  Does this not increase their yearning to see and follow the messiah?  Does this not confirm their decision to faithfully observe the covenant of old?  Does this not give them courage and hope?

John magnifies their expectations and his missionary labors by saying, “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals … (and) … His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:16b, 17).  John deems himself unworthy to strip Jesus of his sandal.  His deference, here, echoes the laws regulating family life (cf. Dt 25:5-10).  He is testifying that the messiah will be absolutely just.  His righteousness and integrity will strengthen the family of God, increasing its numbers (Roland Meynet credits P. Proulx and L. Alonso-Schoekel with recovering the levitical significance of the “sandal”; see Meynet, Il Vangelo Secondo Luca: Analisi retorica [Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna: Bologna, 2003], 143-145).

John is also saying that the messiah will practice justice in our midst, like the farmer separating the grain of wheat from its husk.  He will separate those who are faithful to, and practicing, the demands of the covenant from those who are not.  The messiah will not allow the wicked to coexist with the just, because wickedness sows discord and chaos.  In this way he, the just one, will show himself to be the prince of peace.

If you desire the peace he offers, then you must put off your “old self.”  You must shake off the husks of your sins, vices and deeds of injustice.  You must return to the observance of the covenant.  Which covenant, you may ask?  This one: your baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  By faithfully adhering to him, and practicing the justice of this new covenant, you will be empowered to restore vigor of spirit and hope in the divine to every person who encounters you.  Or would you deprive others of encountering the “good news” by rebutting the Baptist’s reply?

A faith that ignites faith
Purpose: To cultivate an awareness of the way that the Christian faith, lived boldly and consciously, affects others.

4th Sunday of Advent—December 23, 2012
Readings: Mi 5:1-4a; Ps 80; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122312.cfm

The faith of Mary is a centerpiece of the Advent season.  With Christmas rapidly approaching, the Church wants to take a quick glance once again at her faith, so that the mystery of Christmas might not be taken for granted.  If our faith is not reawakened, that day will likely pass us by and will be numbered among the many that have faded in memory.  But if our faith is conscious and strong, the mystery embraced by that day will forever embrace us.  Like a burning ember that reignites when it is given a waft of oxygen, so our faith is rekindled when we meditate upon the faith of the holy ones of God.

This very point transpires in a telling incident between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.  St. Luke reports that after Mary received the announcement of the angel Gabriel, she found herself traveling to the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth.  This journey of Mary is not by chance.  It is by the design of God.  It both allows her to confirm what Gabriel announced, and to have her own faith affirmed.  It was Gabriel who said to Mary: “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” (Lk 1:36-37).  And it will be Elizabeth who will say: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45).

This faith of Mary’s is recognized by Elizabeth through a series of events. First, when Mary arrived at the house of Zechariah, and in greeting her cousin, John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb.  He danced for joy before his Lord, present in the womb of Mary.  He was like David, who danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was being brought from the house of Obededom into the City of David.  It is as if the tiny infant, John, could care less who observed his dance.  He was like David, who said to his wife Michal, when she looked with disdain upon her husband: “I was dancing before the Lord.  As the Lord lives, who preferred me to your father, and his whole family, when he appointed me commander of the Lord’s people, Israel, not only will I make merry before the Lord, but I will demean myself even more.  I will be lowly in your esteem, but in the esteem of the slaves girls you spoke of, I will be honored” (2Sam 6:21-22).  In this light, the infant John could be said to have concerned himself with the one before him, in a spirit of profound humility.  His contemplation, like that of David’s, could not be limited by his soul.  Therefore, in the spirit of David, he leaped, and danced, and reveled with angelic joy, for nothing could restrain such excitement and contemplation.  One might say that John’s joy necessarily spilled over into his bodily posture hidden from public view.

Elizabeth refused to hide John’s jubilee that arose from his encounter with his incarnate Lord.  She was not filled with envy like Michal.  Rather, she marveled at the occasion, since she, too, was stirred to excitement when John danced in her womb.  Her joy rushed forth in a blessing, inspired by the Holy Spirit.  For “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Lk 1:41b-42).  In that blessing is disclosed a divine reversal of honor and dignity.  She, who was senior by years, showed deference to her who was senior by faith.  She, who was blessed by the Lord, because he took away the disgrace of her barrenness, was honored to know the one blessed by the Lord, whose child would take away the disgrace of sin.  She, who bore the last of the prophets in her womb, blessed the one who bore the supreme Prophet foretold by Moses: “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him shall you listen” (Ex 18:15).

To him Elizabeth, bowed down in worship.  To him, she listened.  To him, she owed her salvation.  Therefore, it was right that she should declare Mary “most blessed among women.”  This respect rendered to Mary comes not from her own creativeness, but from God.  Elizabeth recognized the movement of God’s grace in Mary’s life.  She recognized a divine plan that is still unfolding.  But, this does not cause her to be slow in showing partiality.  For the respect that comes from God, comes not with the passage of many years, but with a life lived in purity and faith.  Of this, the inspired author of the Book of Wisdom says: “For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years.  Rather, understanding is the hoary crown for men, and an unsullied life, the attainment of old age” (Wis 4:8-9).

Mary’s faith in the announcement of Gabriel allows her to understand “partially, as in a mirror” and lead a life worthy of one to be named, “Mother of God” (1Cor 13: 12).  Her faith allows her to hold fast to the hope that, what was proclaimed to her, would be fulfilled.    It is Mary’s faith, then, that causes Elizabeth to reexamine her own life: “And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Lk 1:43)?

In Mary, we see how Christian faith becomes a mirror for discernment.  This faith inspires others to look upon the events that fill their own lives as containing a divine meaning.  It allows them to begin to see that God has a divinely ordained plan for them, if they should listen to him and heed him.  The Christian faith, then, is not a private matter.  Though such faith is deeply personal, it is confirmed and affirmed as it proposes itself to others.  It is Mary’s faith that is proposed to us once again.  Her assent to the plan of God is a breath of oxygen that seeks to reignite our faith as we approach the crib of Christ.  Her faith is a model for us.  Her faith tells us that we should neither shy away from letting the Christian profession of faith affect our conscience, nor letting it affect others.  By surrendering to it, we are enabled to surrender shamelessly to the infectious joy of a God who loves us so much that he wanted to be born among us.

A legacy of faith
Purpose: To invite fallen away Catholics who have been scandalized by the sinfulness and shortcomings of the Church to return to her fold, and for them to renew their faith in God who is present in the Church, instead of just in the Church herself.

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord: Vigil Mass
Readings: Is 62:1-5; Ps 89; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Mt 1:1-25
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122512-vigil-mass.cfm

This evening, we are privileged to stand on the cusp of Jesus’ birth, the advent of our salvation.  As we prepare to celebrate his birthday, the Church invites us to take in the historical expanse that builds up to this moment.  Like a mother who is about to give birth to her child, we must let our minds and hearts drift backward in time, and consider all of the people who have gone before us, the lineage that Jesus inherits.  We must consider the hopes and dreams, groanings and strivings that marked the faith of Abraham’s children.  Only then will we be properly disposed to ask the questions: “Who is this child?” and “What will become of him?”  Only then will we be in a position to let the cry of this infant shatter the night of our spiritual darkness.  Bracing ourselves with hope, let us listen anew to St. Matthew’s Christmas proclamation.

“The book of the geneaology of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1).  With these words, St. Matthew begins his exposition of the good news.  He wastes no time launching into an historical survey of the people of God.  He is keen to read this history with the eyes of faith, so that we might begin to discern God’s plan for our salvation.  He is firmly convinced that God’s plan, which began with the election of Abraham, culminates in the birth, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Consequently, it is against this background that Jesus’ identity and mission is properly understood.  Like someone who walks into a stranger’s house and sees a wall littered with pictures of people, we may fail to appreciate the devotion and meaning that lies behind those pictures.  We may be tempted to look with distain upon them, thinking that it is a waste of wall space, an eyesore.  Or we may give them a split-second of our time, and no more.  In just the same way, a person today might “tune out” when the genealogy of Jesus is read.  We may give it a quick hearing, tolerating the list of names.  But, this is hardly the attitude that St. Matthew had in mind when he penned this lineage.

St. Matthew’s purpose takes up a different perspective.  He looks upon these photos as a lineage of faith.  He sees himself as a spiritual family member, as one who is living in the house, not as an outsider.  He views himself as an inheritor of this rich deposit of faith that builds up to the birth of Jesus Christ.  He knows that he has been inserted into this history, and wants to hand this faith in Christ on to us.  He wants to make us members of the household of Jesus, if we will but become participants in the drama of this family.

Let us carefully observe that this is not a perfect family.  In fact, this family is riddled with deceit, ambition, abuse, marital infidelity, murder, and idolatry, to name a few of its sins.  Jacob stole the birthright of his older brother Essau for a bowl of soup.  He deceived Isaac, his father, in order to obtain it.  Yet, the blessing was given, and fell upon Jacob.  Jacob, too, was deceived by his sons when they sold one of their brothers, Joseph, into slavery; for Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son.  While it was Joseph who saved his family from certain starvation, the lineage of Jesus did not pass through Joseph, the innocent one.  Rather, the lineage of Jesus passed through Judah, one of the sinful brothers.  Likewise, Judah failed to provide Tamar, his Canaanite daughter-in-law, with a husband from among his children.  So Tamar deceived Judah, in order to remain faithful to the law of God, and gave birth to Perez and Zerah.  Likewise, David, who unified the twelve tribes of Israel, was himself an adulterer and murderer.  Solomon, David’s son through Bathsheba, built the glorious temple in Jerusalem, and was considered the wisest man on the earth.  But he was a womanizer and turned to foreign deities in the course of his reign.

In short, this family tree is far from healthy and functional.  There were times when it was faithful to the Lord, and morally outstanding. There are other times when it clearly was not.  Yet, through it all, the Lord never abandoned his people, nor nullified his blessings.  What Matthew discerns is a divine perfection that runs through this family history.  At the conclusion of this genealogy, St. Matthew writes: “Thus, the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Christ, fourteen generations” (Mt 1:17).  In spite of the evil Abraham’s children did, God’s plan was never stalled.  It is Christ who brings it to fruition.  The evil brought about by humanity does not affect God’s omnipotence, or sovereign goodness; but God’s force moving through history definitely affects us, if we open up ourselves to Emmanuel, “God is with us.”

The Church must constantly open herself anew to the mystery of Emmanuel, since she herself is neither immune to the possibility of sin, nor to a stained history.  Should we, therefore, be shocked and scandalized by the sinfulness of some of her members?  Do we not remember that the Lord Jesus associated himself with the sinners, not the righteous, so that he could recreate their lives?

There are perhaps times when we want to expunge the Church of her less than stellar members.  We may want to strike their names from the parish books.  We might even deem some as unworthy of the office they hold, and want to see them dismissed.  But would our attempts at reforming the Church destroy and dismantle the very Church he is saving?  What is the basis of this reform?  Is it based upon our own idea of who the Church should be?  Or is it based upon the vision of who the Lord Jesus is calling the Church to become?  Amid this reform, is there still room for us to let the Church hand on the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith, even through the hands of her sinful members?  Are we able to remain within her walls, looking upon that tattered history with the wounded love of a family member?  Or do we rather distance ourselves and criticize the Church like one who looks with distain at the pictures on the wall?

The invitation is there, in St. Matthew’s genealogy: is it time to come home, despite the Church’s sinfulness and shortcomings?  Are we ready to renew our faith in the Lord who is present in the life and mission of the Church, and refuse to idolize the Church by making her the object of our faith?

The impartial sign of faith
Purpose: To urge people to expend themselves—their time, their energy, their dreams, and their ways of thinking—on the infant Jesus. 

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord: Mass during the Night
Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ps 96; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122512-mass-at-midnight.cfm

Tonight, the joyous news is announced!  Isaiah heralds it in prophetic fashion: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulders dominion rests.  They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5).  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad” (Ps 118:24)!  This is, indeed, the day we have been waiting for with great longing!  This is the day that “many prophets and kings longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Lk 10:24).  To you, this has been granted!  How blessed are you to hear this good news, and to behold your infant Savior!

Brethren, let us listen anew to the evangelist’s Christmas proclamation.  Listen to it, I beg you, like parched ground thirsting for rain.  Take it in; do not try to control it.  Let it work its way in between the granules of your life, like water seeping into the soil.  Let it enliven you, and make a claim upon you.  Thus, will you be fulfilled, and attain a happy and good life.

St. Luke begins by telling us of a decree promulgated by Caesar Augustus.  This Roman emperor wanted to have everyone enrolled in his kingdom.  Subsequently, in obedience to this royal decree, Joseph took his wife, who was pregnant with child, from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It was there that the household of Joseph was enrolled.  It was also there that Mary gave birth to the child announced to her by the angel Gabriel.  These circumstances are of great significance because they allow us to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ identity.  He, who is called savior, Christ and Lord, by the angel of the Lord, is to be compared to he, who is called Augustus by the Romans.  Both possess royal titles.  The one called emperor tries to hold death at bay, and may even use it as a punishment; while the other, called Messiah, leads us beyond the waters of death into life eternal, through his own death on the Cross. Both are called savior, because they offer peace.  The peace of one is deficient, originating in human ingenuity; the peace of the other is of the greatest excellence, originating in God’s creative love.  Both receive accolades—one from his citizens, the other from the angelic host.  Both of their domains reach to the ends of the earth; in Caesar’s case, “that the whole world should be enrolled;” in Jesus’ case, regarding the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Lk 2:1, 10).

Both possess religious titles.  One is called Augustus, the other Lord.  The one who is described as “august” and “majestic,” presents himself as possessive of divine qualities.  The other, who is called Lord, is described as such by the angel of the Lord.  He is given a personal title proper to God alone.  He is the one of whom St. Paul will later say: “Though he was in the form of God, (Jesus) did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6).  Without a doubt, either person sheds light upon the true identity of the other.

There is no more fitting contrast between Jesus and Caesar, as narrated by St. Luke, than the manner in which we find Jesus, that is, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Caesar is surrounded by wealth, and the pleasurable life.  Jesus is bound by coarse pieces of cloth.  Not only is he constrained in the manger, he is also surrounded by the roughness of life from birth to death.  His very life will be marked by this mean estate.  Just as Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,” so Joseph of Arimathea will take his body down from the cross, wrap him in a linen cloth, and lay him in a rock-hewn tomb (Lk 2:7; 23:53).  This is the definitive sign given to the shepherds, who are keeping watch in the fields.  It is the same sign given to us on this very night!  The genius of this sign is the prepossessing, attractive vulnerability of an infant.  God approaches us not with spectacular wonders and mystifying feats.  He does not raise a hand to gather his people.  Rather, by letting his hand be bound, he binds himself most intimately to every individual.

He appeals to each person who draws near his crib.  He cries out for their love and affection, their time and energy, their dreams and hopes.  He asks them: “Why do you feel yourself drawn to me?  Why can you not see yourself anywhere else but here, expending yourself for my sake?  Why do you feel as if you might melt before me, like a candle too close to the fire?  Do you not yet perceive that you are a candle made to radiate the light?  Do not be afraid, then, to let yourself be consumed by the fire of my vulnerability!”

This, indeed, exemplifies the wisdom of God and the foolishness of God.  “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” St. Paul declares, “and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1Cor 1:25).  By disarming himself, and being born in human likeness, God makes himself approachable in a most alarming way.  Yet, he also makes himself susceptible to rejection and disregard.  If he is rejected and overlooked, then it is we who have chosen to ignore him; it is we who have lacked faith.  But if he is acknowledged and cared for, then we must let him make a claim upon us.  The wisdom of this sign, then, not only reveals God, it also reveals the way of genuine human living and loving.

Let us not take this way of life lightly.  Faith in the infant Jesus is stingy.  It demands a life-long commitment.  It drives to the surface any hint of selfishness and greed, and refuses to be impartial or neutral.  It measures all things against the vulnerability of Christ, so that this baby might not be abandoned at some point in our lives.  In the end, faith in Christ must take a toll on us, or else it is not living faith.

Faith becoming of a mission
Purpose: To illustrate through the life of the shepherds how Christians are called to be missionaries.

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord: Mass at Dawn
Readings: Is 96:11-12; Ps 97; Ti 3:4-7; Lk 2:15-20
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122512-mass-at-dawn.cfm

Today is a day unlike any other.  It is unequaled among our holidays.  It does not recognize any human achievement or nationalistic spirit.  It does not signal a change in values or ideals.  It is not a day set aside in thanksgiving for prosperity or safety.  Nor does it commemorate a tragedy, which has forever wounded our memory.  No, today has nothing to do with humanity, and, yet, everything to do with it.  It is a strange and perplexing day.  Today, God dignifies humanity with his love in an indescribable way.  Today, we celebrate the birthday of God, who has taken to himself our human nature.

Today, God is born in our midst, desiring to live as a singular human being.  On this day, we see divinity united with humanity, heaven joined to earth, the uncreated wedded to the created.  Unimaginable strength is constrained by utter fragility.  With a human heart, God loves, and is loved; with a human voice he speaks, and is spoken to; with a human face he sees, and is seen.  What a scandalous truth!  How shameless God is!  He stoops to our level without loss to his majesty, in order to raise to his level those who were lost through sin.

“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk 2:15b).  With these words, the shepherds arouse themselves from the bliss of their angelic visitation, like ones who rise from a nap.  They go to see the sign which was given them by the angel of the Lord: a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, who is said to be savior, Christ and Lord.  They go, not fully understanding what was announced to them, but go, nonetheless, to see this sign.  It is only right that these shepherds not fully understand the message or the sign, because this child has not yet completed his mission; he has just begun it.  Even Jesus’ own disciples will misunderstand his mission until he has fully embodied his prayer: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).  Faith in Christ is a journey into understanding God’s design.  It is a desire to see what God has made known.  It must lead to conformity of my will to the divine will, or else I will never understand.  Let us, therefore, ponder this faith more thoroughly that moves the shepherds into word and action.

The faith of the shepherds is an immature faith, but not for a lack of wisdom.  It is just beginning.  Do we disdain a child who is learning basic arithmetic because she is not yet capable of calculating algebraic problems?  Or do we look down upon someone who is just beginning to read and write, but is not yet able to compose a letter?  No, rather we admire that child.  She becomes an inspiration to us, even reawakens our own acquisition of those same skills.  The faith of the shepherds, then, is a poignant reminder of the development of faith.  It cannot be, and should not be, taken for granted.  Its impact upon our lives must grow daily, lest we be accused of presumption.  Therefore, we too must say: “Let us go…to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk 2:15b).

Faith in the one who is savior, Christ and Lord becomes a journey held in common with one another.  The curiosity and desire that says: “Let us go,” becomes an interior imperative.  The individual shepherd, in communion with his neighbor, is driven to want to see, to adore and to worship.  The more he journeys with his colleagues, who hold the same desire as he does, the more his faith is confirmed.  They strengthen one another along the way, confirm each other, and even challenge one another.  When one feels wearied, that the journey has become seemingly difficult or monotonous, his friends hold him up.  What is revealed in this journey is the mysterious truth that faith is not a private matter.  “I believe” is shown to be “we believe;” “let me go” becomes “let us go.”  The faith of the shepherds, consequently, is both personal and communal.

But, St. Luke does not stop with the shepherds saying to one another: “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem…”  He takes us from the fields where they are tending their sheep to Bethlehem.  He writes: “So, (the shepherds) went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child” (Lk 2:16-17).  The shepherds have a need to explain their unexpected appearance in Mary and Joseph’s residence.  This leads them to share with Jesus’ parents the message that had been given to them by the angel of the Lord.  Thus, the faith which became a journey for the shepherds has now evolved into a mission for every Christian.  The shepherds become for us a primitive model of the Church’s evangelizing mission.

Notice how St. Luke says that “they made known the message that had been told them about this child.”  He does not go into great detail about what they said.  He simply tells us that they made known the message.   Insofar as we have been told, the shepherds are simply repeating the angelic message.  It is not yet a personal affirmation.  This occurs in much the same way as a child learning and memorizing the teachings of the Church.  Telling others about these teachings, about Jesus and his disciples’ way of life, is the basic form of sharing the gospel, of evangelizing.  But it is not adequate.  More is needed for the mission to be completely effective.

Later in the Gospel, Jesus will ask his disciples: “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  Then, he will ask them: “But who do you say that I am” (Lk 9:18-20)?  Jesus’ question becomes a turning point.  He presses the disciples into a conviction of conscience when he predicts his passion, death, and resurrection.  Then, he will say to them: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23-24).  The mission of the shepherds has yet to mature to this degree.  But, it is precisely this type of a personal witness, matched with a through-and-through knowledge of the Christian faith, that the world desires, that it needs, that it begs for today.  The Church is not looking for specialists, but rather simple shepherds ready to become disciples and apostles.

Faith in God’s Incarnate Wisdom
Purpose: To encounter the mystery of Jesus’ birth in the light of Israel’s belief in the wisdom of God, so that a profession of faith in Jesus is meaningful for our lives.

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord: Mass during the Day
Readings: Is 52:7-10; Ps 98; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122512-mass-during-the-day.cfm

No single gospel account captures the entirety of the Christmas mystery.  Rather, each evangelist invites us to relish in the meaning of this “in-breaking” of God into our history from a different perspective.  With Matthew, Jesus is presented as the great inheritor of the blessings and promises assured to Abraham and his posterity.  With Luke, Jesus is compared to the great and powerful figures of this world.  With John’s account, which was just proclaimed to us, we are taken into the intimacy of Jesus’ being.  Let us pause, then, and breathe in this fresh air of John’s account, so that our celebration today might be enlivened by the glad tidings he announces.

What St. John’s Christmas proclamation lacks in imaginative narrative, it makes up for in poetic profundity.  The angelic hosts singing glorias, the shepherds making haste to Bethlehem, Joseph receiving an angelic vision in his dreams, and the like, give way to a gracefully layered arrangement of God’s love and wisdom.  Perhaps, the good news of St. John is needed so that our imaginations might not be used against us.  If we fail to let our imaginations lift us up to the contemplation of divine things, we might well be concealing God, rather than disclosing him; we might find ourselves creating an idol in place of encountering God.  By presenting Jesus as the Word, St. John plays the master composer, so that we might experience the poetic beauty of God’s revelation.

The mystery of the Incarnation does not just pluck the strings of our imaginations, it also plucks the strings of our hearts and minds.  In this way, a beautiful song of salvation is released within our lives.  Does your life seem stale and flat, perhaps?  Do you yearn for more out of life, but feel like you are only playing one string at a time?  Then, listen anew to St. John.  Or has Christmas become something which is rote and repetitious?  Is it given no further thought throughout the year than when decorations are taken out of the closet?  In other words, are you merely plucking that string of the Incarnation once a year?  If so, then listen again to St. John.

Are you unaware that the string of a guitar is tuned against its other strings, or that a symphony of instruments is tuned against the piccolo and the bass?  So, Christmas must be tuned against the rest of your life, or rather, the whole of your life be tuned against the birth, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  This is what St. John captures in the riveting event of Christmas: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).  Everything about life is adjusted to this event.  It is what allows us to see and desire a better future.  It is where we encounter “grace and truth” as the piccolo and bass that make our lives complete.  Without “the only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, {who} has revealed {God the Father},” our lives are out of harmony.

Who is this “Word” that breaks into our lives today?  Who is this who challenges us, who either tightens or loosens the strings of our humanity?  This Word is the wisdom of God, through whom all things were made, just as the evangelist says: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”  This wisdom has been seared into you.  Without his divine design operative within you, life is chaos, and a striving after foolishness.  He is “the light of the human race,” which shines forth, scattering the darkness (Jn 1:4).  He is your way, your light, your path.  He is the one who shows you where true happiness is to be found: it is found in finding God, and being found by God.

Who is this “Word” that breaks into our lives today?  He is the one who sought out a people worthy of himself.  He called them to be his own.  He summoned them to forsake their idols that leave behind a sinkhole in place of happiness.  He fashioned them to be a vessel of his presence and glory, so that all might seek the living God.  “He came to what was his own, {to Israel}, but his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11).  “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born, not by natural generation, nor by human choice, nor by a man’s decision, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13).  What St. John means here is that receiving the Word, understanding who he is, and what he is capable of doing for your life, does not depend upon you.  It depends expressly upon God.  It is God who has chosen you.  It is God who has called you here today.  It is God who wants you here.  It is God who is entrusting his Word to you.  It is God who is calling you to let his Son, his Word, tell you who he is in himself and who he is for you.  It is God who is calling you to entrust yourself to his Word, his Son.

Who is the “Word” that breaks into our lives today?  He is the wisdom of God that is now dressed in human flesh.  He is true God, and true man, without ceasing to be one or the other, or without diminishment to one or the other.  He sees as God sees; he sees as you see.  Therefore, he is your architect, your foreman, your supervisor, and your mentor.  Trust him when he says to tear something down, or root something out of your life, or to build where it seems barren.  Invest your all, and he will endow you to the full extent of his investment: for the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.  Then, you will experience the design of his love, and tangibly know his security and grace.

Let us not build with him sporadically, as in once or twice a year.  He has an eternal wealth backing him up, if we but put forth the meager things we value.  We can build an exquisite site if we cash in every Sunday at the bank of his grace and love.  We can make a palace with him if we arise every morning to meet him at the construction site.  He is already there in everything that fills your life as the eternal Word.  But today, he is born in your midst as the Word become flesh, who has pitched his tent in your midst.  We have but to look for him and do God’s will under his direction.

Bred in faith and in morals, bred in vocation
Purpose: To highlight one of the central missions of Christian families: to be the primary place where a child begins to receive, understand and come into possession of his or her vocation.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph—December 30, 2012
Readings: 1 Sam 1:20-22, 24-28; Ps 84; 1Jn 3:1-2, 21-24; Lk 2:41-52
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/123012.cfm

The Church holds family life in highest regard.  Her esteem not only arises from the first blessing bestowed upon the human family, at the beginning of creation, but even more so from the second blessing, conferred in the mystery of the Incarnation.  She cherishes these two blessings because they affirm the fundamental goodness of family life and love.  On this day, when she celebrates the mystery of the Holy Family in Nazareth, these two blessings are presented to us for our meditation, preservation and appreciation.

These two vocations were perfectly harmonized in the life of the Holy Family.  The first vocation, given, as it were, to Adam and Eve, was inherited by Mary and Joseph.  They took seriously the task of making the home front a sanctuary of goodness, a school of virtue, and a place where the dignity of each individual is affirmed and safeguarded.  In a way that uniquely preserved the particular call to chastity on Mary’s part, so that she might be the Mother of God, Mary and Joseph affirmed the goodness of sexuality.  What was an exception in their case, so that the birth of Jesus might be the result of the overshadowing of the Most High (cf. Lk 1:35), was never meant to cast suspicion on the intimacy that is proper to a husband and wife.  Rather, they reclaim the domestic nature of the affective life, and give it a godly orientation.  In Mary and Joseph, we learn that husbands and wives are not meant to be stoic toward one another, nor to suppress their feelings, but to share them with one another, in great vulnerability and trust.  Consequently, in their life together, parents are able to teach and impart this fundamental vocation to goodness, and affective love to their children.  In the case of the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph exemplified and modeled this parental task.

Jesus was no exception to this educative process.  Being fully a human being, Jesus possessed this common vocation to goodness, happiness, and human fulfillment.  He learned this vocation in the life of the Holy Family.  He learned what it meant to be a human being from Mary and Joseph.  He learned what it meant to love with a human heart by receiving their love.  And, he learned what it meant to acquire knowledge, virtue and skill through toil.

Throughout this whole process, Jesus, as the Word-made-flesh, silently imparted to Mary and Joseph a second vocation.  Not only were they to teach Jesus about humanity by experience, but he, in turn, began to teach them about God by their experience.  The truth of his Incarnation lifted up the familial life of Mary and Joseph in such a way that it became a vehicle of participating in the very life and energy of God.  In other words, God endowed it with the beauty of his personal presence, so that now every twist and turn, every mundane task might be punctuated by his divine presence.  In the Holy Family, he made every family a crucial way for each person to grow in holiness.  It is in the family, therefore, that God encounters each person, and that each person is made capable of experientially encountering God.

St. Luke beautifully depicts the interaction of these two vocations at the conclusion of his infancy proclamation.  He recounts a telling incident that happened to the Holy Family when Jesus was twelve years old.  Through this event, we are introduced to Jesus’ saving mission.  From it, we learn how God is also preparing each one of us for a vocation: “Each year, his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover….” (2:41). In other words, Joseph and Mary took their responsibility seriously.  They understood their vocation as parents.  They knew themselves to be the first educators of their son, in the religious teachings and moral life given through Abraham and Moses.  They accomplished this duty—by way of demonstration—in their yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and faithful celebration of Passover.  They trained him in the ways of their ancestors, which also became their own way, and in this manner, handed on to him their expectations of the coming messiah.

In a similar fashion, Christian parents are the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith and morals.  They have the express privilege of forming the most fundamental vocation within their children, namely shaping their children’s desire for, and pursuit of, happiness.  Parents have an immediate and direct influence upon their children’s choices and behaviors.  They are positioned to teach their children what is good and noble, and to seek the appropriate means to obtain it.  In this way, parents are able to cultivate a rudimentary vocation within the hearts and minds of their children.  St. Luke continues by saying that Jesus decided to remain behind in Jerusalem, without his parents’ knowledge.  After searching for Jesus, and realizing that he was not with them, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem to look for him.  They eventually found him in the temple after looking for three days.

When they approached him, Mary said: “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety” (Lk 2:48b).  She revealed the exasperation, and almost sheer desperation, that gripped their parental hearts.  She showed a profound concern for his safety and wellbeing, while he, in turn, showed a notable concern for the will of God.  For this reason, Jesus responded to her question with a question: “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” (Lk 2:49)?  It is not that Jesus wanted to disrespect his parents.  Rather, he wanted to show respect and obedience to the mission that his heavenly Father had given him.  “But, they did not understand what he said to them,” writes St. Luke (2:50).

The evangelists continues, “{Jesus} went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.  And Jesus advanced {in} wisdom, and age, and favor before God and men” (Lk 2:51-52).  Christian parents can learn an important lesson here.  At some point in time, they must come to terms with the personal vocations that the Lord has in store for their children.  But until then, the fact that Jesus returned to Nazareth means that the work of Christian parents is immersed in the grace of God’s life and energy.  By diligently shaping their children’s first vocation, parents are able to train their children in holiness, showing them how to respond, wholeheartedly, to the Lord when he should call them.

Perhaps, the work of parents may be likened to bakers.  The moisture of goodness, love and grace, must be kneaded thoroughly into the flour of their children’s humanity.  If the flour is neither well-kneaded, nor completely moist, the dough will not bake right.  Even after the hands have done their work, a rolling pin is needed to flatten the dough, and prepare it for baking.  Just so, the work of parents is indispensible and awaits the shape of the cookie cutter.

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avatar About Fr. Richard L. Schamber

Fr. Richard L. Schamber is a priest of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and was ordained in 2007. He is presently the parochial vicar at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Milton, Florida.

Comments

  1. avatar Fr. Kevin L. Badeaux says:

    For the Second Sunday of Advent, I appreciated Fr. Schamber’s reflections on spiritual cynicism. The imagery of the last paragraph was truly inspired..

  2. avatar Jim McCoy says:

    I am a volunteer at at state prison in Monroe Wa.I give a weekly homily and I’d like to obtain some points and every day examples that tie into the weekly gospel. This can take the form of opening stories that relate to that Sunday passage. Can you advise me where I can find this information?

  3. avatar Glenna says:

    Would probably be helpful & appropriate to mention that the USCCB’s initiative for the Family in the Year of Faith kicks off today & runs until 11/24/13. Given the threatened state of the Church & Family in the USA in 2013, it is pretty important for parishes to push this: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/year-of-faith/life-marriage-liberty.cfm

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