Homilies for December 2013

For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for December 2013 

1st Sunday of Advent—December 1, 2013

The desires of the flesh

Purpose: This Sunday’s readings focus on our preparation for the Lord’s return in glory. Like those who lived in Noah’s time, we do not know when the Lord will come again. The Christian must, therefore, prepare for that day every day. The psalmist calls us to rejoice in the Lord’s peace, while St. Paul encourages us to live honorably. Honorable living is dignified living, or a lifestyle that is consistent with the status of a person. Lust is clearly a dishonorable form of living. It leads to all sorts of other sins.

Readings: Isa. 2:1-5 • Rom. 13:11-14 • Mt. 24:37-44
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings120113.cfm

There’s a story about some shipwrecked men who drifted aimlessly in a lifeboat across a vast ocean. As the days passed under the scorching sun, their food and fresh water rations gradually give out. They become deliriously thirsty. One night, while the others were fast asleep, one man ignored the stern warnings he had been given and gulped down some salt water. He died soon afterwards. It is a fact that ocean water contains seven times more salt than the human body can safely ingest. When a person drinks it, he or she dehydrates quickly because the kidneys demand extra water to flush out the excess salt. The more salt water someone drinks, the thirstier he becomes. He can actually die of thirst.

Lust is a desperate thirst. It is a thirst for something we want but cannot have. It is a thirst that can kill God’s life within us. It is a thirst that can fill our lives with darkness and doom. It is a thirst that can destroy relationships we cherish. Many lives are ruined by lust, and technology has only made the problem worse. The Catechism calls lust a “disordered desire for, or inordinate enjoyment of, sexual pleasure” (CCC 2351). Notice that the word “disordered” is used. To be disordered means to be out of the natural order. The Church is not saying that sexual pleasure or desire in itself is sinful. It is a gift from God. The problem is when sexual desire becomes an end in and of itself, when it becomes detached from marriage and the gift of human life.

In the second reading, St. Paul uses a familiar image in describing sin and grace. He urges the Christians in Rome to cast off darkness and put on light. Like the sun in the sky, Jesus Christ dispels the darkness of the world. He continues to dispel darkness that remains in the souls of his faithful ones. Sin is darkness. It is the shadow of Satan. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that there is darkness in our lives. At Baptism, we receive the light of Christ. Our soul is filled with God’s life and love. But Baptism is only the beginning of a lifelong journey. A Christian needs to keep living in the light, and throwing out the darkness of error and sin. Paul lists six sins of darkness. They are orgies, drunkenness, promiscuity, lust, rivalry, and jealousy. Half of those sins are sins of the flesh. They are sins of lust.

Whether you think of it as a “desperate thirst for pleasure” or an “expression of darkness,” lust is a serious sin with serious consequences. Our society is darkened by the shadow of lust. We see it expressed in so many ways. From the proliferation of pornographic web sites, to explicit sex education offered in public schools, to disgusting nudist magazines, and parades of erotic behavior; lust is all around us. Lust is a symptom of a deeper problem: the desire for affection, attention, love, and acceptance. Do you experience love and acceptance in your relationships? Is lust a problem for you? Fornication, prostitution, self-abuse, and sexual assault are some of the fruits of the poison of lust. Are you guilty of any of these sins?

The Scripture contains many stories of lust and its effects. After the Original Sin, Adam and Eve covered themselves, and struggled with their desires. The citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah felt the wrath of God for their sins of the flesh. David lusted for Bathsheba, and had a child out of wedlock. Dinah, the daughter whom Leah bore to Jacob, was sexually assaulted, and death followed. Two old men lusted after Susanna in the Book of Daniel, and suffered the consequences. The woman caught in adultery narrowly escaped the death penalty. St. John, in Revelation, compared Babylon to a great harlot. The Bible condemns the sin of lust. That’s because it is so harmful to us spiritually, emotionally, and sexually.

If lust is a desperate thirst or a dark spot in life, then the answer is clear. We need to fill up our lives with Christ. We need to dispel darkness with the light of the Savior. The readings we just heard are proclaimed on the First Sunday of Advent. Advent coincides with the natural rhythm of the season. The days are growing shorter and the nights are growing longer, until Christmas, when the days start to grow longer again. This natural phenomenon is a symbol of what we should do with our lives, which is to let the light of Christ fill us and drive out darkness.

How do we overcome the sin of lust? First, we need to recognize that it is a serious problem; if you don’t recognize the problem, you’ll never solve it. Second, we need to avoid the near occasions of the sin of lust. An old seminary professor put it this way: “If something is a near occasion of sin, don’t think about it. That only leads us to wanting it. If something is a near occasion of sin, don’t go near it. In other words, stay away from magazines, television programs, or Internet sites that lead to the sin. Finally, if something is a near occasion of sin, don’t touch it. In other words, don’t touch a dial or switch if it leads you to sin.” Third, we need to make a frequent Confession. The grace of Confession strengthens us in our battle against the sins of the flesh. Finally, we need to fast. Fasting is a lost discipline. Few Catholics fast outside of Lent. However, we are expected to do some form of penance every Friday of the year. We can choose our form of penance outside of Lent, but we are supposed to do something. Perhaps, we can offer our Friday abstinence from meat, desserts, or television. Whatever we offer should be in reparation for sins against the flesh. These are time-tested tools in our struggle with sin.

Advent is not just a time to fill empty Christmas stockings, but to fill empty hearts with the power of God’s love. We need to dispel the darkness of sin with the light of the Savior. As we enter the Advent Season, and await the Lord’s return in glory, let us strive to live honorably, casting off the darkness of lust, and rejoicing in the gift of human sexuality. May this Holy Season be a time of grace and renewal for each of us. Mary, Virgin Most Pure, pray for us. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  §64, 762, 769, 2043, 2317.

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2nd Sunday of Advent—December 8, 2013

Endurance and encouragement

Purpose: Advent is a season of expectation and preparation for the coming of the Lord. We are to repent of sin and live in God’s peace so that justice may flourish. For many, the Advent Season is a sad and troubled time. One Christian response is to offer words and deeds of encouragement and consolation. The Eucharist strengthens us in this task.

Readings: Isa. 11:1-10 • Rom. 15:4-9 • Mt. 3:1-12
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120813.cfm

Someone once described encouragement as “oxygen to the soul.” A few years ago, a television newscaster came upon a man dressed up in a silly-looking Spiderman suit. He had placed suction cups on his hands and feet in order to climb the side of the tallest building in the world. He climbed one hundred twenty five stories. When he reached the top, there was thunderous applause, as well as police and reporters, waiting for him. They asked him, “Why did you risk your life to climb this tall building?” He thought for a moment and replied, “I love to hear the applause.”

People love applause, affirmation, affection, attention, support, praise, and esteem. While we have to be alert for pride to slip into our minds and hearts, at the same time, there is nothing wrong with building one another up in love.

Today’s second reading is addressed to Jews living in Rome. In chapters 14 and 15, Paul describes two factions that are part of the Jewish community: those who are strong in faith, and those who are weak in faith. Paul addresses the Jewish community as “brothers and sisters,” indicating that those who embrace Jesus as Messiah form a family. Families in that part of the world were often torn by dissension and conflict, which sometimes led to blood feuds and death. So the Christians were challenged to be people of integrity, mercy, harmony, and reconciliation. They were to encourage one another in the Faith, and strengthen the family. 

To encourage others is to lift them up, to inspire them, to reinforce the good qualities we see in them. To encourage also means to challenge others to be the best persons they can be, to be the kind of people God wants them to be. Lots of people have written about the encouragement. Someone once said: “A compliment is verbal sunshine.” William James said: “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to feel appreciated.” Samuel Goldwyn once said: “When someone does something good, applaud! You will make two people happy.” When we encourage others, we build a Christian community of love and joy.

In June 1993, the police in South Windsor, Connecticut, pulled over motorists in larger numbers than usual. But not because there was a crime wave. One person stopped by a patrolman was Lori Carlson. As the policeman approached her vehicle, she wondered what she had done wrong. To her amazement, the officer handed her a ticket that read: “Your driving was GREAT—and we appreciate it.” On Wednesday, June 9, the authorities in this Hartford suburb had begun a new program to give safe drivers a two-dollar reward for obeying the speed limit, wearing safety belts, having children in protective car seats, and using turn signals. “You are always nervous when you see the police lights come on,” said one resident pulled over for good driving. “It takes a second or two to adjust to the officer saying, ‘Hey, thanks for obeying the law.’ It’s about the last thing you would expect.” The police in South Windsor had a great idea. They reinforced good behavior through encouragement, praise, and support.

By remaining faithful to the Covenant and living by God’s commands, the Jewish people were a light to the Gentile nations. And that’s what Christians are to do: be a beacon of light and hope to a dark world. And we can be that light when we encourage one another to be the best person he or she can be.

Advent is a time to buy presents for those we love: friends, colleagues, and others. May we offer the gift of encouragement as an expression of our love for Christ. Mary, Mother of Consolation, pray for us. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §520, 678, 2627, 2820.

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Immaculate Conception—December 9, 2013

Responsibility

Purpose: To contrast the irresponsibility of Eve with the acceptance of responsibility by Mary. As Eve said “no” to God in the garden, Mary said “yes” to God in her home, and the world was changed for the better.

Readings: Gen. 3:9-15, 20 • Eph. 1:3-6, 11-12 • Lk. 1:26-38
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120913.cfm 

There was once an important football game between two teams. One team was much larger than the other team. The larger team was dominating the smaller team and winning the game. The smaller team’s coach saw that his only hope was to call the plays that went to Calhoun, the fastest back in the area. The coach spoke with his quarterback about giving the ball to Calhoun, and letting him run with it. During the first play, the coach was excited, but Calhoun did not get the ball. Now the game was in the final seconds with the smaller team’s only hope being for Calhoun to break free and score the winning touchdown. The third play came and, again, Calhoun did not get the ball. The coach was upset, so he sent in the play again for a fourth and final time. The ball was snapped and the quarterback was sacked, ending the game. The coach was furious as he confronted the quarterback: “I told you four times to give the ball to Calhoun, and now we’ve lost the game.” The quarterback replied, “Four times I called the play to give the ball to Calhoun. The problem was that Calhoun did not want the ball.”

There are many irresponsible people these days. Many don’t want the ball in the game of life. We read stories in the newspapers about people suing others for damages and restitution because they refuse to accept responsibility for accidents and other unfortunate events. Responsibility is an important Christian quality. In the first reading from the Book of Genesis, we hear the familiar account of the Original Sin. After eating the forbidden fruit, God asks Adam where he was. Instead of admitting his sin, Adam blames Eve for giving him the fruit. When God ask the woman why she ate the fruit, Eve blames the serpent for tricking her into it. The Lord them punishes the serpent and foretells “enmity” between him and the woman, conflict throughout the course of history. Adam and Eve were not only disobedient first parents; they were also irresponsible first parents. They refused to accept responsibility or blame for their actions.

On the other hand, we have the example of Our Blessed Mother. When the angel was sent to announce the good news that she was to be the Mother of God, Mary asks a question and submits to God’s will. Mary accepted the responsibility of being God’s servant, and brought the Savior into the world, so that he could accept his own responsibility. She fulfilled her role with dignity, grace, and humility.  

We are at beginning of the celebration of Advent. Advent is a time to review and renew our responsibilities to God and our fellow human beings. What are our responsibilities? Are they confined to a minimal obedience to the Commandments of God and his Church? Of course not. First, we should remember that we are baptized into Christ Jesus. Mary’s Immaculate Conception reminds us of our dignity as Christians. Like her, we are responsible for growing in holiness. This happens through remaining in a state of grace and friendship with God. Remembering our baptism means calling to mind our creation in God’s image and likeness.

Along with remembering our baptism in Christ, we should renew our renunciation of sin, and embrace the life of Christ. Original Sin continues to affect us in various ways, and so a daily examination of conscience can help us remain aware of the temptations to sin all around us. Hopefully, this daily examination of conscience will lead us to a regular confession of our sins, and the reception of forgiveness, grace, and future help. 

Third, we should increase our prayer life. It is a fact that Catholics who pray more are better disciples and servants of God. Well-rounded prayer includes both vocal and quiet prayer, meditation and reflection, public liturgy and private devotion. The more we pray, as Mary did, with heartfelt trust and love for God, the better equipped we will be to deal with the challenges of the Advent-Christmas season.

Finally, we should embody the virtues of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. These mysterieshumility in the Annunciation, charity in the Visitation, spiritual poverty in the Nativity, obedience in the Presentation, and zeal for the spread of the Gospel in the Finding of the Christ Child—are endless pools of grace that can enrich our lives. By living out these mysteries and carrying out these virtues, we grow in holiness.

In the Original Sin, Adam and Eve refused responsibility given to them by their Creator; in the Annunciation, Mary accepted responsibility given to her by the same Creator. As the Church Fathers, and other writers, have said so eloquently: “Sin entered the world through Eve, while grace entered the world through Mary.” May our acceptance of Christian responsibility lead to a better world, now and forever. Mary, conceived without Original Sin, pray for us. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §491, 492, 2013-14, 2028, 2813.

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3rd Sunday of Advent—December 15, 2013

Complaining and criticizing undermines community

Purpose: In the Person of Jesus, God has come to heal and save the human race. Jesus came to save, and not condemn, humanity. As we patiently and joyfully await the fulfillment of his Advent, we need to cease complaining about, and criticizing, one another. Criticism causes various kinds of harm to individuals, as well as the Christian community.  

Readings: Isa. 35:1-6a, 10 • Jas. 5:7-10 • Mt. 11:2-11
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121513.cfm

“Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another, that you may not be judged” (Jas. 5:9). A young musician’s concert was poorly received by the critics. The famous Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, consoled him by patting him on the shoulder and saying, “Remember, son, there is no city in the world where they have erected a statue to a cynic.”

Cynicism, criticism, and complaining are like termites. They slowly, but surely, eat away at the building blocks of a community. Criticism undercuts the spirit of community, and disrupts initiative and effort. It is easy to criticize others when you don’t have any ideas of your own.

In the second reading, James advises his community to be patient. He was dealing with people who were anxious and fearful because the Lord had not returned in glory. The Lord came to save us and, upon His return in glory, everything will be brought to its completion. In the meantime, we have to live in the real world, a world full of tension, conflict, uncertainty, and misunderstanding. Christians faced the challenges of community inside their ranks, and persecution from outside their ranks. James counseled patient endurance in these uncertain times. As he puts it, “the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8).

A father and his son took a donkey to the market. The man sat on the beast, and the boy walked. People along the way said, “What a terrible thing, a big strong fellow sitting on the donkey’s back, while the youngster has to walk.” So the father dismounted, and the son took his place. Soon onlookers remarked, “How terrible, this man walking, and the little boy sitting.” At that, they both got on the donkey’s back—only to hear others say, “How cruel, two people sitting on one donkey.” Off they came. But other bystanders commented. “How crazy, the donkey has nothing on his back and two people are walking.” Finally, they were both carrying the donkey. They never did make it to market.”  

That old story makes a good point: we can always find something or someone to criticize. We can always come up with little critiques about the behavior of our brothers and sisters. But our criticism often says more about ourselves than the people we are criticizing. Someone once said: “People who try to whittle you down are only trying to reduce you to their size.” Are you whittling others down by your harsh comments and unconstructive criticism? What does your criticism of others say about you?

Empress Catherine II of Russia once said: “I praise loudly; I blame softly.” That little phrase could, if lived out, help many Christians, and Christian communities, grow and prosper. A seminary professor once told me that encouragement, praise, and support are the grease that runs the engine of parish life. And I have found that to be true. Praising people loudly, and blaming them softly, accomplishes much good. It’s amazing to witness how peoples’ faces light up when they receive compliments instead of criticism.

This is Gaudete, or “Rejoice,” Sunday. We wear rose-colored vestments, light a rose-colored candle, and reflect on the theme of joy. The Church reminds us that joy is part of the anticipation of the Lord’s coming. Joy is one of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22). Joyful people reflect the presence and activity of the Spirit in their lives. Our lives would be much better if we had more joyful people, and fewer critics. But this means breaking bad habits, and making or cultivating good habits. It means changing how we live, and that’s tough to do, especially as you grow older. But with God’s grace, amazing things are possible. He can turn the biggest cynic into the greatest supporter.

A help-wanted sign put it well: “Wanted—Christians who overlook their brothers’ and sisters’ faults as easily as they do their own.” Our homes, our families, our schools, our workplaces, our society, and our world need more people who overlook the faults of others as easily as they overlook their own. May we live out the call to Christian discipleship by offering less criticism, and more praise. Mary, Mother of Charity, pray for us. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §547, 548, 549, 2443.

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4th Sunday of Advent—December 22, 2013

Five reasons to end cohabitation

Purpose: Jesus is Immanuel, the King of glory, risen triumphant over sin and death. This Sunday’s Gospel account of the call of Joseph is an excellent opportunity to reflect on customs, ancient and contemporary, and to address a particular pastoral problem today. Members of the Body of Christ have an obligation to assist and support one another, and to ensure that the natural institution of marriage is stable and strong. Therefore, cohabitation is a problem that must be addressed by priests, parents, and couples themselves.  

Readings: Isa. 7:10-14 • Rom. 1:1-7 • Mt. 1:18-24
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/122213.cfm

A new survey contains good news for those concerned about marriage. The decades-long climb in the share of couples living together outside of marriage in the U.S. has come to a halt. Between 2000 and 2010, the share of U.S.-born Americans living with someone in an intimate relationship resembling marriage was largely unchanged. The recent recession, high unemployment, stagnant incomes, and battered housing markets contributed to the trends undermining the traditional family structure that gathered steam starting in the 1970s. But pre-marital cohabitation before marriage has also undermined family life. The number of cohabiting couples grew from 400,000 in 1960 to 3.8 million in 2000. Nearly 60 percent of couples who were married in the early 1990s cohabited first. The other piece of good news is a recent trend of couples living separately. Today, almost one in four couples in a serious relationship say they are living apart by choice. Experts tell us that many couples are meeting when they are older. They have already settled into a comfortable routine in their own home with their own things, and don’t want to share a home again. Many studies show that one of the keys to a healthy and happy relationship is spending time apart. One of the things that improves attractiveness is not always being together in the presence of your partner.

These recent trends affirm something the Church has taught from the beginning: that cohabitation belongs within marriage, and that people preparing for marriage need to prepare in a serious and morally acceptable way. Today’s Gospel contains the account of the call of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, and the foster-father of Jesus. Matthew tells us: “When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:18). It might help to understand betrothal and marriage in Our Lord’s time. In ancient times, marriages were arranged by parents to join extended families, rather than individuals. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. Her union was an arrangement for the benefit of her family. Betrothal was the first phase of the marriage process in which prospective spouses, often cousins, were set apart for each other. The entire marriage was a ritualized removal of the woman from her family. The groom’s father offered gifts or services  to the bride’s father to win the wife he wanted for his son. Contracts were made and ratified publicly. Though a betrothed couple did not live together, a formal divorce was required to break the public establishment of the betrothal. Mary and Joseph had been betrothed, but were not living together when she became pregnant. And we know the rest of the story.

Today families do not negotiate a wedding. Men and women enter marriage for the good of individuals, and families accept each other (hopefully). But we are still struggling with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, with its notions of birth control, free love, reproductive rights, an exaggerated idea of liberty and, yes, cohabitation. There are many reasons couples should not cohabit. First, cohabitation is sinful. It leads to sexual relationships that belong in marriage. Even if a couple is not sexually active, cohabitation can lead to near occasions of sin. Second, cohabitation is detrimental. It undermines communication. It is a fact that couples who live together do not communicate as well as couples who don’t live together. Each person is afraid of offending the other person, who can leave any time. So problems are put off, and issues unresolved. Third, cohabitation is unstable. A far greater number of couples who cohabit (as much as 80 percent) divorce, compared with the overall divorce rate of nearly 50 percent. There is no permanent bond or agreement with the couple, but only a loose commitment to be together. Fourth, cohabitation is risky. You commit part of your life to another person privately, but since you have not committed publicly, he or she could part at any time. You risk losing the person you love because you have not entered into a permanent relationship with that person. Finally, cohabitation is convenient. The problem with convenience is that it short-circuits good marriage preparation. Couples don’t discern their partners when they cohabit and, often, end up not understanding their partners.

There are three strategies to overcome this problem. First, we all need to realize the evil of cohabitation. It is wrong to live as married persons when you are single. It’s a lie, and lying is sinful. We need to understand the harm this is doing to marriages and families. Second, we all need to reflect on our behavior, not only couples themselves, but parents, siblings, grandparents, and others who encourage or support children in this sin. Finally, we all need to repent of this sin, and establish proper boundaries for engaged couples. These three “Rs” can help us end this problem. May the prayers of our Lady help us, too. Mary, Virgin Most Prudent, pray for us. Amen. 
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §497, 1601-1666.

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The Nativity of the Lord—Vigil Mass—December 25, 2013

Guadalupe and the Birth of Christ

Purpose: To communicate insight about the Nativity through the story of Guadalupe. Guadalupe changed the course of Mexican and Church history. It led to the eradication of a terrible epidemic (human sacrifice) and the conversion of millions. The Nativity has power to convert souls today. We are called to be open to the mystery of Our Lord’s birth.

Readings: Isa. 62: 1-5 • Acts 13:16-17 • Mt. 1:1-25
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/122413-vigil-mass.cfm

Imagine the scene. You are riding a bus along the highway outside Mexico City on December 11, the day before the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the sides of the interstate, tens of thousands of Mexican pilgrims, on foot, on bicycles, on the backs of pickups, in vans, are traveling to the same destination, the shrine of Our Lady who, in 1531, appeared to a poor native boy named “Juan Diego.” They have all traveled with clear purpose and heartfelt determination, to pay tribute to the Mother of God, who blessed and blesses their land. More than 2.3 million pilgrims visited the shrine on December 12, out of a nation of some 20 million people. Can you picture yourself among these faithful and devout pilgrims?

The love of these people is evident to any observer. They all come to view the tilma, or the cloak, the visionary had on when Our Lady appeared. A miraculous image of the Virgin Mother was left on the cloak, and it stands in view behind the altar for all to see. When Our Lady came, she delivered a simple message: “I am the Mother of Consolation.” When scientists studied the cloak, they found inexplicable phenomena. The eyes revealed a mirror image of the bishop and the saint, as if it were a photograph of the encounter the visionary had with him. The image also reveals a pregnant woman. Scientists performed tests which revealed within the very image of the woman, the presence of a male child.

The Mother of God came as a pregnant woman to remind the world of the dignity of every human child conceived in his mother’s womb. She came as the mother of consolation to a violent and destructive culture. In 1531, the Aztecs had been sacrificing their brothers and sisters to their pagan gods. Our Lady came to end the barbarism which destroyed that culture. (We also hope she will eliminate the barbarism of our culture). After her miraculous appearance, all human sacrifices ceased when hearts were converted to Christ.

What a message for our time! The Mother of Consolation reminding Americans of her tender love for the poorest and most vulnerable, the young and the old, the sick and the starving. Our Lady loves them all and embraces them tenderly.

Christmas is a time to gaze lovingly on the image of a Baby to remind us of the beauty and worth of every human being. From the moment of natural conception to the moment of natural death, we are loved by God. Christmas reminds us that we are loved by a heavenly Father, who sent his only-begotten Son to deliver the best Christmas present of all, God’s love. Christmas reminds us that we are not orphans. We have a heavenly Father who sent us a divine Brother, whose name is Jesus. Christmas teaches us that we have a mother, too, a heavenly mother whose name is Mary, the Mother of Consolation.

Christ was born in a crude stable, not a comfortable inn. He came in poverty, not luxury. He came among the poor of this world to make them rich in heavenly blessings. Why? Because he loves us. It’s that simple. And because he loves us, he came as one of us. Our loving God wants to come into the stable of our hearts. Christ Jesus wants to come to the deepest parts of our souls, where we sometimes keep dark and dreadful secrets. He wants to come where we keep our resentments, fears, and frustrations. He wants to come where anger and or where our pride lives, where our lust lives. He wants to come into the stable of our souls, where sin lurks like the shadow of a stinking stable.

Mary, in her apparition at Guadalupe, reminds the world: “You have nothing to fear from Jesus. He is consolation. He is healing. He is peace. He is joy. He is love. He is life.” Mary told Juan Diego, the visionary, to pass these words on to us: “My child, my little one, there is nothing that you need be afflicted with, nothing that should disturb your heart. Are you not under my shadow?”

Yes, we are all under Our Lady’s shadow at Christmas. We are reminded that, as Jesus came into a stable, so many centuries ago, so he wants desperately to come into our hearts, too. He wants to come into the United States, to bring about a change of heart, to convert our culture, to reform our lives, so that we see the value and worth of every human person, from womb to tomb.

Take Our Lady’s message into your heart this Christmas, and take Christ into your heart, as well. Welcome him to the stable of your soul, and ask him to transform it into an Inn. Beg him to sweep away the bitterness, the violence, the hatred, the fear, the sin within you. When Mary last saw Juan Diego, she said to him, “Tu mi embajador, muy digno de confianza,” which means, “You are my ambassador, very worthy of my confidence.” You and I are ambassadors. So carry the message to your home, your school, your workplace. Be Mary’s ambassadors, taking the message to a world which desperately needs it.

She is the mother of consolation, because Jesus is the consolation that comes into the darkness of our hearts, and brings light, love, peace, and joy. May we be worthy of her confidence. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: § 144, 148-49, 721-26, 967, 972.

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The Nativity of the Lord—Mass at Midnight—December 25, 2013

The great gift exchange

Purpose: In the Incarnation, God demonstrated his love for humanity. Jesus, the Son of God, took on human flesh, and dwelt among men and women. Christmas is the celebration of the gift of God in Christ Jesus. It is one of the most solemn and beautiful celebrations of the liturgical year. The readings remind us of the awesome power of this gift. Aware of this great gift, the Christian response is to spend our lives in the service of others.

Readings: Isa. 9:1-6 • Ti. 2:11-14 • Lk. 2:1-14
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings122513-mass-at-midnight.cfm

Every family has its Christmas customs and traditions. My family was no different. We would decorate a tree, put up colorful lights, hang garlands, bake sugar cookies, and buy groceries in preparation for Christmas eve. On Christmas eve, we would gather in the early evening for our family celebration. We would eat dinner first. Mom would make a simple meal of tuna salad sandwiches and oyster stew, and we exchanged gifts after helping mom clean up after dinner. We gathered around the Christmas tree, and each of us took our places around a semicircle. The oldest in the family would distribute the gifts. Each person would read the label on his or gift, open it, and show it to the rest of us. Then, we had to say “thank you” for every gift we received.

I thought about this family ritual while reflecting on the Christmas message. It occurred to me that Christmas is a celebration of a great exchange—the exchange of gifts between God and his people. God gives us the gift of his only-begotten Son, and we give him the gift of worship, and lives of service to others.

People spend many weeks, and lots of money, selecting, purchasing, and wrapping gifts for loved ones, friends, co-workers, and others. We do this as a sign of gratitude and love. But we sometimes forget that the greatest gift exchange is not between family members, friends, or co-workers. The greatest gift exchange is between God and the human race. The Scripture readings for Christmas talk about this great gift. St. Luke tells us that the Child Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. The angel declares that “today, in the city of David, a savior has been born, who is Christ and Lord” (Lk. 2:11). God sent the greatest gift of all time, the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ, who saved us from our sins. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. He preached, taught, healed, suffered, died, rose, ascended to Heaven, and sent the Spirit on his apostles. Jesus lives in our midst, teaching, healing, and loving us through the Church.

Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate the gift he gives. There is a story told about a man who punished his five-year-old daughter for wasting a roll of expensive gold wrapping paper. Money was tight, and he became even more upset when the child pasted the gold paper on a box to put under the Christmas tree. Nevertheless, the little girl brought the gift box to her father the next morning, and announced, “This is for you, daddy.” The father was embarrassed by his earlier overreaction, but his anger flared up again when he discovered that the box was empty. He yelled, “Don’t you know, young lady, when you give someone a present that there’s supposed to be something inside the package?” The little girl looked up at him with tears in her eyes, and said, “But daddy, it’s not empty. I blew kisses into it until it was full. It was the best gift I could give you.” The father was crushed. He fell on his knees, put his arms around his little girl, and begged her forgiveness. The little girl was killed in a car accident a few weeks later, and it is said that the father kept that gold box by his bed for the rest of his life. Whenever he was discouragedh or faced tough problems, he would open the box, take out an imaginary kiss, and remember the love of the child who put it there.

In a real sense, each of us has been given a special gift from God our Father, not a box of kisses, but a Lord and Savior. God the Father has given us a precious gift. The Father’s gift was not wrapped in gold paper, but wrapped in swaddling clothes; the Father’s gift was not given in an empty box, but was born in a manger; the Father’s gift was not an invisible token of love, but instead a Person whom we could see, hear, and touch. God has given us his Word in the Flesh.

The question is: “What are we going to give him in return? How will we repay him for this great gift?” A true gift exchange takes place between both parties. Of course, we can never fully repay the gift of Jesus. But we can do something in gratitude for the gift of the Savior. We can give the gift of praise at Mass, our time, talent, and treasure to the Church, obedience to God’s commandments, and service to our brothers and sisters. These are precious gifts. As you open and examine your Christmas presents, think about the Father’s gift to you. Think about all he has done for you this year, and reflect on ways you can express your appreciation. Offer him a sacrifice of praise from your heart, and recommit yourself to doing his will. May we express by our lives the gratitude in our hearts for the gift of Jesus the Lord. Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. Merry Christmas. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §333, 449, 515, 525, 695, 1041.

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The Nativity of the Lord: Mass at Dawn—December 25, 2013

The Paradox of Christmas 

Purpose: Out of love for us, God took on human flesh, the human condition in every way except sin. Our Savior has appeared on earth. Light dawns for us all. This homily explores the paradox of Christmas: a season of light and darkness, joy and sadness for some. But the message of Christ can transform our lives and our experiences, if we are open to receive it.

Readings: Isa. 62: 11-12 • Ti. 3:4-7 • Lk. 2:15-20
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122513-mass-at-dawn.cfm

“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Lk. 2:15). There is a paradox at Christmas time. On the one hand, Christmas is a season of light, love, joy, and peace. We celebrate festive liturgies, light candles, decorate trees, sing carols, rejoice in the company of loved ones, eat cookies, drink eggnog and apple cider, attend parties, and open presents. It is a time of joyful celebration. On the other hand, the traditionally happy holidays are an especially difficult time for those who are grieving, or who are alone. At this joyous time of year, scenes of happy families are not what some are experiencing. People who are alone, people who have experienced the loss of a spouse to death or divorce, or the death of a child, or close friend, find Christmas to be a season of constant despair, rather than perpetual hope. What should be a happy time of year is in fact a depressing time because some are reminded of everything they don’t have in their lives. People suffer physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

What is the answer to the paradox of Christmas? How do we reconcile ourselves to it? The answer to the paradox of Christmas is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the key to understanding the paradox of Christmas. Jesus holds the key to Christmas joy in his tiny hands.

On the one hand, he is the reason for our love, joy, and peace. Jesus came into our world to free us from the fear of death, to dry our tears, and scatter darkness from our hearts. Everyone has good reason to rejoice because he became one of us “in the wonder of the Incarnation.” On the other hand, Jesus is the solution to the sadness and emptiness in our lives. Jesus came to give us hope and joy. Our hope and joy come from the fact that our Savior came to be with us, and take us with him. Jesus fills our empty hearts with his grace, mercy, and peace.

Jesus is the answer to the paradox of Christmas. He scatters darkness and brings light; he drives out evil and brings in goodness; he destroys death and restores life. One little baby did all that. What a difference one baby can make! 

In a Western mining camp, a baby was born. His mother was the only woman in the place, and she died soon after the child’s birth. The miners decided to keep the child, and care for him. The little baby lay in an old box, wrapped in rags, torn from old clothes. One miner rode 80 miles on a mule to Sacramento, California, and bought a complete set of baby clothes, and a beautiful rosewood cradle. The clean cradle stood in stark contrast to the dirty floors, and grimy walls of the mining cabin. The men realized that a baby’s home could be nicer than that. So they scrubbed, papered, and whitewashed the place. On sunny days, they took the infant outdoors for a nap in the fresh air. The men cleaned the house and grounds, and then cleaned themselves. After work, they changed their clothes, washed, and shaved. They even purchased a few mirrors for the place. They made a rule against unnecessary noise. These miners stopped yelling and shouting. They even stopped cursing and swearing. Eventually, this once rough and roaring camp became the most clean, courteous, and kind camp in the entire West—and all because of one baby! We don’t know the baby’s name, or what he grew up to become, but we do know that he changed lives early in his life. 

My brothers and sisters, the Baby of Bethlehem shows us the power of God’s love for the world. God gave us the greatest Christmas gift ever when he sent his only-begotten Son “to save us all from Satan’s power,” as the song goes. He is the key to the paradox of Christmas.

This year, I encourage you to follow the example of the shepherds, and go to Bethlehem, the manger of your heart. As you turn on your Christmas lights, turn on the light of Christ in your life. As you play Christmas songs, let songs of praise rise from your lips. As you open your Christmas presents, open your hearts to Jesus our Savior. As you pray with your family before Christmas dinner, remember those less fortunate than yourself, those for whom the holidays are sad, and those who feel there is no hope or joy at this time. 

Whether in church or at home, this year enjoy the Christmas trees and the decorations, but do take a few minutes to gaze at the statue of that Baby in a manger. Let him confront you, challenge you, and change you. Thank him for everything he has done for you, and the promises he still has in store for you, promises beyond anything you can possibly imagine.

Jesus is the key to the paradox of Christmas. Jesus is “the reason for the season.” May he be the key to a richer, fuller, happier life for us all. Merry Christmas. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: § 65, 422-455.

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The Nativity of the Lord: Mass during the Day—December 25, 2013

The Underground Manger

Purpose: To describe the underground manger in Europe during World War II. God once spoke to us through his Son, the Word made Flesh. Salvation has been revealed to all the nations. Jesus gives hope to the human race. The listener can find hope in him, even in the darkest of times. He is encouraged to remember the Person of Jesus every Christmas.   

Readings: Isa. 57:7-10 • Heb. 1: 1-6 • Jn. 1:1-18
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122513-mass-during-the-day.cfm

As the year, 1940, wound down, and Christmas approached, the United Kingdom stood defiantly alone against Fascist tyranny. The Nazi blitzkrieg had overrun much of Europe, and thousands of British troops lay dead in France and Belgium. That fall, the Luftwaffe had been narrowly defeated in the Battle of Britain. And while invasion seemed unlikely (it had, in fact, been postponed), it was a possibility. Christmas 1940 was a somber, simple, and solemn one. There was a wartime ban on the pealing of church bells, which could only be rung as a signal for invasion. Food rationing was a fact of everyday life, which meant that Christmas dinner for many would consist of fish and chips, a small piece of pork, soup, or cheese sandwiches, and tea. The Sunday Dispatch wished its readers “Not a merry Christmas, but a happy Christmas—devoted to the service of our country.”

For thousands of families, Christmas literally went underground in December 1940. In the subway, called “The Tube,” Londoners were sheltered from nighttime bombing raids. Children hung their stockings on three-tier bunks, female volunteers distributed sandwiches, and Salvation Army carol singers handed out sweets. Quentin Reynolds, the associate editor for Colliers magazine, observed, “This year, England celebrates Christmas underground. It will be a Christmas of contrasts: holly and barbed wire, guns and tinsel.” Despite the looming threat of invasion, Britons tried to keep their spirits up. There were the traditional pantomimes, which contributed to war funds. One air-raid shelter group staged Cinderella.  In it, Cinderella lost her gas mask instead of the glass slipper, and the Wicked Fairy appeared as Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler. Two days before Christmas, Edward R. Murrow heard carols as he strolled past the entrance to an air-raid shelter. “The singing was steady and firm, and it came from the underground,” he reported to his radio listeners in faraway, neutral America. Signing off his Christmas Eve broadcast, he said, “Merry Christmas is somehow ill-timed and out of place, so I shall just use the current London phrase—so long and good luck.”

Two thousand years ago, the first Christmas took place, not in an air raid shelter, but in a quiet hamlet on the other side of the world, one of the most famous towns on earth: Bethlehem. In a cave outside of town, the Savior was born. Surrounded by animals and angels, the Son of God came into the world as a man. St. John the Apostle puts it this way: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). The long-anticipated event had finally arrived.

Christmas is the night that light entered a dark world, grace entered a sinful world, and salvation entered a struggling world.

St. Leo the Great put it well: “In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its Creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which {the devil} had overthrow mankind” (Leo, Sermon, 190).

The external trappings of the first Christmas were crude and simple: a cave for a house, a manger for a crib, animals for company. Christmas is about the gift of a Savior. Christmas is about a God who loved us so much that he became one of us. Christmas is about Jesus. Jesus was born in a cave, not an inn. Jesus came into the world as a tiny Babe, not a conquering hero. Jesus became poor so that we could become rich in grace. Jesus came to change hearts, and hearts need changing.

My brothers and sisters, history is a great teacher. The account of Christmas 1940 in London reminds us what the true meaning of Christmas is. The account of Christmas 1940 in London reminds us that Christmas is not about external trappings like trees and toys, but rather grateful hearts and joyful families who welcome the Messiah.

America, like the United Kingdom in 1940, celebrated Christmas under the clouds of war. Like the United Kingdom, our future was at stake, but you wouldn’t know it looking around these days. Other than pat downs at airports, and pictures of soldiers overseas on occasional nightly newscasts, there are few signs that we remain at war against violent Islamic extremists. We don’t have curfews, roadblocks, blackouts, or rationing. On Black Friday, crowds waited anxiously for hours outside malls and store,s like Target and Best Buy, to take advantage of special deals, and discounted items. Our tables are full of delicious delicacies; our homes are stacked with electronic devices, like I-phones, I-pads, laptop computers, and entertainment packages. We are blessed in countless ways. We are at war, but do we have a spirit of sacrifice as a nation at war should? We celebrate Christmas by giving gifts, and attending family gatherings, but do we have the true spirit of Christmas in our hearts and families?

As we enjoy Christmas activities, it is important to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus this, and every, Christmas. The Person of Jesus is here and now. He comes to give us life and salvation. He comes to wake us up. He wants to be born again in our minds and hearts. He wants us to be at peace with our neighbor. He wants us to embrace a cross. rather than lounge on a couch.  

It is important for us to remember that, for millions of people, Christmas will be more like 1940 England than 2013 America. For the Indian family that goes to bed hungry today, for the nine-year-old Brazilian child who lives on the streets, and the American family out of work and running out of hope, Christmas 2013 will be a somber, simple, and solemn holiday.

These people, as well as our troops fighting overseas, need our encouragement, praise, and support. Christ has come among us. Let’s act like we believe it! Mary, Queen of Heaven and earth, pray for us. Amen.
Continued reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §1171.

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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—December 29, 2013

Refugees from contemporary Herods

Purpose: The Holy Family was not immune to suffering, sacrifice, exile, and uncertainty. They, too, struggled with darkness and sin in the world. King Herod was a vicious, cruel, conniving individual. He, and his retinue, lived in the shadow of darkness. He saw Jesus, not as Savior, but as a threat to his power and position. His attempt to eradicate the threat failed, but we continue to struggle against Herods in our time.

Readings: Sir. 3:2-6, 12-14 • Col. 3:12-21 • Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/122913.cfm

At a place called Cranbrook, in the United Kingdom, local volunteers once built a rifle range where they could practice. By a strange coincidence, two starlings decided to build a nest on a pile of brush and sticks used to stop the bullets as they whizzed through or past the targets. Their little nest was almost directly in the line of fire. In that dangerous spot, the birds built their nest, hatched their eggs, and raised their young. Bullets splintered twigs all around them, and threw up dirt and dust over their tiny nest. But the birds stayed anyway. Only when fall and cold weather set in did the birds leave their dangerous location for a safer and sunnier home. One volunteer was curious about how the starlings managed to remain safe despite all the bullets whizzing around them. He wondered why a bullet never killed any of the birds. So one day he went over to the nest, and as he approached it, a coin fell from the nest onto the ground. He picked it up and marveled at the words on it. It was the familiar motto: “In God We Trust.”

“In God We Trust.” This simple motto was the motto of the Holy Family. It was the principle by which they lived their lives and survived dangers, trials, and threats. We know little about the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. What we know comes largely from the Gospel accounts we hear at this time of year.

This year we hear the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. The Gospel reminds us that they did not live in splendid isolation. They did not live in a cocoon, sheltered from the joys and sorrows of everyday life. They lived in the real world, a world that was at times dark and cold. They struggled against the forces of sin and death. St. Matthew tells us that an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph, and commanded him to take his family to safety in Egypt. He wanted Joseph and his family to escape the clutches of the wicked King Herod. Herod was trying to destroy the Child Jesus because he feared Jesus would become a political rival. He responded to his fears by anger, destruction, and violence. His attempt failed.

Threats to the family are not a thing of the past. There are many threats to family life in the 21st century. They include a contraceptive mentality, which separates life and love; individualism, which isolates couples from each other; attempts to redefine marriage and family, which add to the confusion prevalent in society, especially among the young; no-fault divorce, which tears at the fabric of the marital bond; abortion, which destroys the fruit of married love; excessive concern for material things, which obscures the value of spiritual gifts; poor moral examples in the movies and on television, which promote false notions of marriage.

Behind these threats is the devil. Satan is trying to destroy families today, as Herod tried to destroy the Holy Family centuries ago. Modern Herods include government officials who promote laws, policies, and practices which relativize marriage, and redefine the family; providers of contraceptives and abortifacients, who destroy the gift of human life; actors and actresses, who teach on the screen that marriage need not be guided by ethics and morality. And the list could go on and on.

How do families deal with these modern Herods? It starts with adopting the motto, “In God We Trust.” Trusting in God is the key to renewal of family life in our nation and world. When we trust in God, we place ourselves in his hands. When we trust in God, we follow his directions and teachings. When we trust in God, we live out the goals of the natural institution of marriage. Only God can rescue our families from a culture of death and immorality.

May we face the threats to our families as Joseph did, with trust, humility, and obedience to the commands of God. May the Holy Family inspire us to grow closer to God our Father. Mary, Queen of Families, pray for us. Amen.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §815, 1156, 1827, 2218, 2641.

 

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avatar About Rev. Ray E. Atwood

Rev. Ray E. Atwood was ordained in 1994, and has been pastor of Prince of Peace Cluster (consisting of St. Paul’s Parish, Traer; St. Mary’s of Mt. Carmel Parish, Eagle Center; and Sacred Heart Parish, LaPorte City) in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, since 2012. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Systematic Theology from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. He is author of the book, Masters of Preaching: The Most Poignant and Powerful Homilists in Church History (2011). He presently pastor of Prince of Peace Cluster, consisting of: St. Paul’s Parish, Traer; St. Mary’s of Mt. Carmel Parish in Eagle Center; and Sacred Heart Parish, LaPorte City, Iowa.

Comments

  1. avatar Fr.Ephrem Ruwaichi says:

    God is good all the time. I would like to thank God for you,for such a good job of giving deep and meditative reflection on the word of God,be blessed.

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