Homilies for December 2020

For December 6, Immaculate Conception, December 13, December 20, Christmas, December 27

2nd Sunday of Advent – December 6, 2020

Readings: Is 40:1–5, 9–11 • Ps 85:9-10-11-12, 13–14 • 2 Pt 3:8–14 • Mk 1:1–8  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/120620.cfm

With this Gospel pericope, we begin in earnest this Year of Grace in which we, for the most part, read each Sunday from the Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark. In order for us to truly grasp the impact of the Marcan Gospel, we might wish to first review a few items concerning Mark’s Gospel.

As we know, Mark is one of the Synoptic Gospels, along with that of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke. They are called “synoptic,” an adjective that comes from the Greek word synoptikos, which means “seeing all together.” The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke more or less tell in a similar fashion (with different emphases) the story of the Lord Jesus.

There’s a debate which we won’t get into here as to which is the earliest of the Gospels to be written — that of Matthew, which had been given primacy as the first Gospel until the Reformation, or that of Mark, which many scholars believe, due to its primitive structure, is really the first to be written. I won’t let you know which side of the debate I fall on, but, as a hint, I would side with the biblical scholar David Laird Dungan on this issue!

It is thought to have Saint Peter himself as the main source of information and it was written in Koine Greek. Some have opined that if a person learned around 80-100 words in New Testament Greek, they could read the Gospel of Mark with little problems! I wish that the seminarians whom I teach take up this challenge as an impetus to really master Greek!

As I have mentioned, Mark’s Gospel is simple, clear, and direct. Look at the first line of the Gospel, which we proclaim this Sunday: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There’s no nice prologue situating things historically, like in Matthew’s Gospel or that of Saint Luke. There’s no prologue which begins in the depths of time and eternity like Saint John presents us. It is a simple declarative sentence, one which tells us all that we need to know. It sets us up with the single most important fact that we have to have as we begin our reading of this Gospel — it is the good news of Jesus, the anointed one who is the Son of God, indeed God himself. Like I said, it’s simple, clear, and direct.

With this in mind, we face a challenge then in our prayer lives as we begin this new Year of Grace 2021 — can we, in our prayer, in our dialogue with the Lord, as we speak to him and as we listen attentively in the movements of our hearts, be simple, clear, and direct?

Prayer is, according to the great Saint John Damascene, is the “raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” It is simply talking to the one who knows us better than we even know ourselves. We need in our prayer to be honest with God and to be honest with ourselves. Prayer consists of Adoration (recognizing that God is God, that we are not, and thank God for that), Contrition (recognizing that we are sinners and that we need God to save us), Thanksgiving (recognizing that everything in our life is a gift, free and undeserved from God, even the crosses which we have to bear), and Supplication (recognizing the difference between our wants and our needs). God knows us; he knows the desires of our human hearts and he wishes to give us everything that we need for our salvation. In our prayer this year, perhaps we can be like Saint Mark in his writing style in the Gospel — to be simple, clear, and direct. After all, the Lord, in his goodness, his wisdom, and his omnipotence, already knows!

Immaculate Conception – December 8, 2020

Readings: Gn 3:9–15, 20 • Ps 98:1, 2–3AB, 3CD–4 • Eph 1:3–6, 11–12 • Lk 1:26–38  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/120820.cfm

During the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore (May 13, 1846), the bishops of the United States chose our Blessed Mother, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, as the patroness of our country. What is interesting about the U.S bishops’ choice of the Immaculate Conception was that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not declared by Pope Pius IX until December 8, 1854.

This, of course, did not mean that Catholics did not believe in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception until the Holy Father declared it. It was long believed that Mary, the Mother of God, was kept free from the first moment of her conception from the stain of original sin so that she could be the spotless Mother of God. It should be noted that the Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin birth, although it is intrinsically tied to it. No, the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception and birth of Mary. It is the fact that Mary is the Immaculate Conception, a fact revealed by the Virgin herself to Saint Bernadette in Lourdes, France in 1858, that makes Mary to be the “predestined by grace by eternal decree” God-willed Virgin and Mother.

What does that great gift of Pope Saint John Paul II that is the Catechism of the Catholic Church tell us about the Immaculate Conception? Simply this: 

492 The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.”

493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia), and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature.” By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.

So, what does this mean for us who are not immaculately conceived, for those of us who suffer from the stain of original sin? How can we hope to emulate the virtues of the Blessed Ever-Virgin, Mary, the Panagia? Perhaps we might wish to look back a few years to 2015 for an answer.

On April 11, 2015, at First Vespers of Divine Mercy Sunday (Second Sunday of Easter), Pope Francis presented the Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy, entitled “Misericordiae Vultus” or “The Face of Mercy.” In the document, Pope Francis says the Holy Year is “dedicated to living out in our daily lives the mercy” which God “constantly extends to all of us.” The Holy Father explained that the year would begin on December 8, significant not only because it is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, but also because it is the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. The basic message of the Second Vatican Council was to bring the message of the Gospel to all the people of the world, to enter into dialogue with the modern world, both Christian and non-Christian, both believers and non-believers alike, all the while remaining faithful to the fonts of Divine Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church. The basic message of both the Immaculate Conception and Vatican II was to allow every living being to have an encounter with the Word of God, not simply the proclaimed scripture, but the Incarnate Word of God Himself, Jesus Christ, the Lord. Through Mary, the Immaculate vessel prepared for all eternity to be the Mother of the Redeemer, all of humanity is prepared to have this encounter with the Living Face of God in Christ.

In this Papal Bull, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminds us that “The mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality through which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child,” and that “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life . . . The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”

The motto for the year was “Merciful like the Father” and the Pope stated, “Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident . . . Wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.” So, a question on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception: How can we be an “oasis of mercy?” The Holy Father offers some concrete suggestions in the second part of his Bull: go on pilgrimage as an “impetus to mercy.”

Therefore, two ways for us to grow this year in mercy: first, have mercy on ourselves and second, have mercy on others. First, then, will be to have mercy on ourselves. I know that I beat myself up far too much, and usually over little things that really don’t matter, all the while missing the forest for the trees, ignoring the aspects of my life that are hindering me from being a true disciple of the Lord, that about which I should be most concerned. We can rediscover who and what we have been created to be, namely a true child of God, one created in God’s image and likeness, and, despite the presence of personal sin in our lives, we are still fundamentally good. We are offered the opportunity to journey within, to make that pilgrimage to the place of love that the All-Merciful Father has for us. By going ad intra, we can then go ad extra. Having made that journey, that pilgrimage internally, we can then go externally, for “nemo dat quod non habet,” you can’t give what you don’t have.

Second, we can have mercy on others. Pope Francis mentions that we can all try harder to not judge or condemn but forgive and give, all the while being certain to avoid the pitfalls of gossip, envy, and jealousy. We can examine our relationships with others, to see how we are adding to the building up of true, loving, life-giving relationships based in love of the Lord first, and then in love of the other. Perhaps our confessions this year can truly be what they are meant to be, a cleansing of our souls and a renewal of the grace of the Christ in our hearts. The Holy Father also speaks about justice, without which there can be no real mercy. Mercy is not the “cheap grace” decried by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but comes at a precious price — the spilling of the Blood of the Son of Justice, Jesus Christ. This year, we can never be petty, never be cowardly, never be cruel, and, for the times we fall and are, we can make amends.

Therefore, a final question: What then is mercy? Mercy is the ability to see all with the eyes of Christ. It is recognizing all of us are creatures in the loving hand of the creature; it is recognizing the need in each and every one of us for the loving embrace of God. In Hebrew, a word that corresponds to mercy is hesed, God’s loving kindness, his faithfulness. It is part of God’s very nature and it is the foundation of the covenant. When we show mercy to others, we participate in the very life of God. Seeing with the eyes of mercy means to give practical assistance to all those in need.

Venerable Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, writes: “The simplest and most practical lesson I know . . . is to resolve to be good today, but better tomorrow. Let us take one day only in hands, at a time, merely making a resolve for tomorrow, thus we may hope to get on taking short, careful steps, not great strides.” Following Mary Immaculate, may we be sure to take short, careful steps on our pilgrimage to Mercy Himself.

3rd Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2020

Readings: Is 61:1–2A, 10–11 • Lk 1:46–48 • 1 Thes 5:16–24 • Jn 1:6–8, 19–28  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121320.cfm

In the Gospel we proclaim this Sunday from the Evangelist John, we encounter, yet again, the figure of Saint John the Baptist. The Lord Jesus had John’s disciples come to him, asking quite bluntly if he’s the one about whom John was preaching, the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.

Although only Luke’s Gospel actually comes out and states that John was the blood relative, the cousin of the Lord Jesus, we know for certain that there was a strong, intrinsic bond between John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus Himself proclaims the fact that there is no man born of woman greater than John the Baptist. In fact, there were many, many people who truly believed that John was the Christ and there were many, many people who left everything to go and follow him. One of the reasons why the story of the baptism of the Lord by John in the Jordan is featured in all four of the Gospels is to serve as a reminder to all that it is Jesus, not John, who is the Holy One of God, the Messiah. John, in all four accounts from the Gospel, is the first to recognize the adult Jesus as Lord, and, in fact, protests vehemently the mere suggestion that he should baptize Jesus.

There must have been a reason why so many people believed that John was the Messiah at first. For starters, he fit the part of the Old Testament prophet much more than did Jesus. John, with his clothes of camel hair and the leather belt around his waist, looked the part. With his diet of wild honey and locust, and, above all, his consistent message of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God, John, perhaps even more so than Jesus, looked like a new version of Hosea, with his outrageous stunts to make his point, or a new Ezekiel, a new Isaiah or, perhaps even more, a new Elijah.

Imagine being John the Baptist. Imagine the whole world hanging on your every word, your every action. Imagine the feeling of power, the feeling of euphoria. They all want you; they all need you. Now, remember that messiahs, or rather people claiming to be the messiah, were a dime a dozen in Jerusalem. Every single Jewish mother was hoping and praying that it would be her little boy who would grow up to be the savior of his people. And, I’d venture to guess, perhaps Elizabeth was the same.

And yet, John does not let the fame, the adulation go to his head. He knows who he is and what it is that he is meant to be. “Not me, but thee, O Lord.” “He must increase, I must decrease.” Or, as he states in another Gospel passage, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is able to do this because he knows who he is: he is not the messiah, but the forerunner of the Messiah, the last and greatest of the Prophets, the one selected from all eternity to point the way to the Lamb of God, who is going to take away the sins of the world. John knows that he is a beloved child of God Most High, one created in the image and likeness of Almighty God, and one who will be bathed in the most precious blood of the Lamb who will be slain for us men and our salvation. And that’s enough for him. This is true humility, true openness to the will of the Lord in our life. This can only come from self-knowledge and confidence in the place that the Lord has for us in the building up of his Kingdom.

How about for us? Do we know, really know, who we are? Do we recognize that we are not the Messiah? That God is God and that we’re not God, and thank God for that? Do we recognize that we are creature, not creator, completely totally dependent on the one who loves us, that every breath we take is totally dependent on the gracious will of our Heavenly Father?

This is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday in which we wear our rose-colored vestments and light that third candle on the Advent Wreath. We are called to rejoice, because this liturgical time of Advent, a time of waiting, of longing, of expectation is nearly complete. The violet of Advent and the white of Christmas meld into this color, used only twice in each liturgical year. We should rejoice and be glad this day, because the Lord knows us; the Lord gives us the privilege of knowing him, and in knowing him, we grow to know ourselves ever more clearly of who we really are — beloved daughters and sons of God Most High.

4th Sunday of Advent – December 20, 2020

 Readings: 2 Sm 7:1–5, 8B–12, 14A–16 • Ps 89:2–3, 4–5, 27, 29 • Rom 16:25–27 • Lk 1:26–38  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/122020.cfm

At the conclusion of today’s Gospel passage, taken from the Evangelist Luke, we hear the phrase: “for nothing will be impossible for God.” When hearing this sentence of Sacred Scripture, spoken by the Angel Gabriel at the beginning of the new creation, at the coming of the Redeemer, my mind goes back to the very first book of Sacred Scripture, Genesis. We have, in Genesis’ eleventh chapter, the story of the Tower of Babel. You will, of course, recall that the Lord was not too pleased with the hubris, the pride, displayed by our ancestors. Weighed down by the effects of Original Sin, living in the time before even the Abrahamic covenant, it finally looks like man has his act together. They have the same words, the same language, and in their migration from the east, they come to the valley of Shinar and build a city, with a tower, with a top in the sky, as the Scriptures tell us so that they can “make a name for themselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

And into this picture comes the Lord, who, in his wisdom and justice, states: “If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another.”

Did you catch the phrase that is used in Genesis: “nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach.” In other translations, that section reads: “Nothing that they have a mind to do will be impossible for them!” The initiative in this case arises from man, not God. Their plans do not begin with his inspiration, continue with his help, and under his guidance, reach a successful conclusion. Their plans, their language, it’s all for them, in order to “make a name for themselves.” It is for their self-glorification, and their assurance of security.

Contrast that to the scene we have presented to us in the Annunciation, a scene where one, a daughter of man, yet untouched by the stain of original sin, has not a tower built in her, from her very flesh and bones, but a mighty fortress. The pride of Babel is replaced by the humility of the little town of Nazareth and, Mary, in her proclamation of her Magnificat, states, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. Her language is not scattered and unintelligible. It is clear, simple, and direct. She knows the truth, this daughter of Eve, and so she says “fiat,” certainly not for her self-preservation nor her own self-exaltation, as she would, in the course of her life, greatly suffer, becoming Our Lady of Sorrows.

In the life of the priest, there can be many tendencies which one needs to counter immediately. There is, in the apostolic fervor and desire for a true Churchmanship, we can become easily more residents of Babel than the home of Joachim and Anne in Nazareth. For our own self-promotion and self-glorification, one may find himself immersed in a world of self-reliance rather than being open, attentive, reasonable, loving, and honest before the Lord. Not in ourselves can we make anything happen; everything in our lives begins with the Lord’s inspiration, continues with his help, and only under his guidance can ever achieve a successful conclusion, for “Nothing is impossible for God.”

Christmas – December 25, 2020

Readings for Mass During the Day: Is 52:7–10 • Ps 98:1, 2–3, 3–4, 5–6 • Heb 1:1–6 • Jn 1:1–18  

These readings, as well as alternatives for other Christmas Masses, can be found on the USCCB website here: bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/122520.cfm.

During this holiday season, our minds turn to many, many things, not the least of which are gifts, namely the giving and the receiving of gifts. There is a certain etiquette of giving gifts and receiving gifts, and, the truth of the matter is, God the Father, by the social standards of Emily Post, would be considered to be a terrible gift giver, and we, God’s beloved, would be considered to be the most gauche of people.

For the one who gives the gift, according to social norms, there must be two considerations. The first is that all gifts must be reciprocal and of equal value. In the case of the gift of God the Father, namely, the true, ultimate gift of His only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the gift is not and cannot be reciprocal; it cannot be of equal value. This is uniqueness of the Covenant made by God with his people, the Covenant made with Adam, renewed with Noah, solidified and ratified forever with Moses, renewed yet again with David, and, finally, made concrete and eternal in the Person of Jesus Christ.

The Covenant, by its very nature, must be a pact between two equal parties; it is not in the case of God and his people. God is God, we are not; he is eternal, we are temporal; he is omnipotent; we are all-weak; he is completely faithful and merciful; we are fickle and cruel, due to our fallen human nature. The gift is God’s love made flesh; the gift is our salvation come to us in the form of a weak, helpless infant, born from eternity into time. It is the a gift which we do not deserve and that nothing we can do can ever even begin to give back to God in appreciation of the gift. This gift is totally, completely, utterly gratuitous. In order to appreciate the gift, we need to know the intention of the giver. This Divine giver grants us his Son for one reason and one reason only. He loves us and wants us to be saved.

For the one receiving the gift, according to social norms, there has to be a complete knowledge of the implications of receiving the gift. Do we understand, really understand the implications of our reception of this gift of Love’s Pure Light, the Son of God, in our lives? If we accept the gift who is Jesus, then we have to change. We have to change our lives; we have to become he whom we receive, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And when we do change, we then have to violate yet another rule of the gift-giving etiquette, the rule of no re-gifting! Re-gifting is one of the things that we don’t like to admit that we do upon occasion; it’s tacky and it can be dangerous — what if we give a gift back to the one who gave it to us in the first place? But in the case of the gift, the gift of Jesus, we have to re-gift. We have to see Christ in one another and, in doing so, we have to be Christ to one another.

Gift-giving and gift-receiving: the ultimate gift, the one that keeps giving, is the gift that is Christ, the gift, once received, that we must then give away, that we must share. This is the blessing, this is the challenge of Christmas.

Feast of the Holy Family – December 27, 2020

Readings: Sir 3:2–6, 12–14 • Ps 128:1–2, 3, 4–5 • Col 3:12–21 • Lk 2:22–40  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/122720.cfm

A few years ago, my sister participated in something that I really didn’t want to do myself. She signed up for one of those kits from Ancestry.com to find out her genetic makeup. I told her that I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want my precious DNA falling into the wrong hands and to have the possibility of an evil clone of myself looming large on the horizon. We found out that she, and I guess me, too, as we have the same parents, are not descended from wild animals as my mother often said, but were pretty much from where we thought we were — Ireland, England, and Scandinavia.

We really don’t know much about my ancestors, and we never could find out information about them from my grandmother. When asked how they died, for instance, she would reply, “They stopped breathing” or “shortness of breath.” But knowing one’s ancestors is a key in knowing oneself.

This feast in honor of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, makes us think of our families and our ancestors. Knowing where you’ve come from helps form the person. This is not to reduce the individual to what’s referred to in seminary formation as “family of origin issues,” but it’s helpful for us to realize that even Our Lord and Our Lady come from a particular family, in a particular time, in a particular context and so do we.

Knowing this can help us live our vocations because it can remind us that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, on the solid rock formation that the people who came before us and lived happily, healthily, and holy the vocations that we strive to live each day. I didn’t invent the priesthood, nor did any one consecrated woman or man invent religious life, nor did any one Christian invent baptism. It comes from the Lord, the source of all good gifts. We have the example of those who came before us to strengthen us, to encourage us, and yes, to help us learn from their mistakes.

Today, at this Eucharist, through the intercession of Mary and Joseph, let’s thank God for the gift of our families, our ancestors, our presbyterates, our religious communities. We stand on the shoulders of giants of our faith, who helped bring us to where we are at this moment. Praise God for this gift.

Rev. John P. Cush, STD About Rev. John P. Cush, STD

Fr. John P. Cush, the Editor-in-Chief of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, is a professor of Dogmatic Theology at Saint Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in the Archdiocese of New York. He is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The How-to-Book of Catholic Theology (OSV, 2020), Theology as Prayer (IPF, 2022) and is a contributor to Intellect, Affect, and God (Marquette University Press, 2021).


  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Dear Fr. John Cush,
    The Peace of Christ.
    Thank you for your piece on Mary, the Immaculate Conception.
    Just in case you are interested in mine, go to: Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration: https://enroutebooksandmedia.com/maryandbioethics/.
    Incidentally, Fr. David Meconi has a copy for review, should you be interested in doing so.
    God bless, Francis.

  2. Avatar Carlos L. Alvarado says:

    Fr. John please check your homily for the fourth week of Advent.