29 December 2019

Homily - The Feast of the Holy Family - 29 December 2019

The Feast of the Holy Family (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Last Sunday we had the opportunity to reflect on the life and example of Saint Joseph. In particular, we noted how his silent reflection was borne from his desire to listen intently toward the will of God and to carry out the Lord’s will. We saw in Saint Joseph that “silence does not express an inner emptiness but, on the contrary, the fullness of the faith he bears in his heart and which guides his every thought and action.”[1]

It was the fullness of his faith that allowed Saint Joseph to heed the angel’s warnings to “rise, take the Child and his mother” and go (Matthew 2:13, 20). He did so without questions or arguments or hesitations; why? Because “whoever listens, whoever obeys, has nothing else to do than this: get up. Get up, and set off, and the path is that of obedience, through which salvation passes.”[2]

When Saint Joseph got up and fled, first to Egypt and then to Nazareth, he left everything behind without a second thought: “his work, his house, and his friends. But none of this amounts to anything for him. His happiness consists only in protecting the child and his mother with no thought for himself.”[3] In this, Saint Joseph knew what Frodo Baggins also knew: “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”[4] Saint Joseph gave up so much in life, but gained so much more in protecting the Divine Infant and his Mother.

We might say that Saint Joseph is an embodiment of selfless love because, at great personal risk, the foster father of Jesus “entrusted himself always to God’s will, and put it into practice.”[5] Here, we learn that

the faith of Joseph, in fact, did not end when he gave his assent, but, on the contrary, from there began a journey in which only faith would have guided it, a path in which, at every step, he would be called to trust anew. And that is the wealth and beauty of life.[6]

So it is with our faith, as well; it is not enough to make an initial assent of trust in God, but with each step of life it must be renewed. This is why the Psalmist sings, “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways” (Psalm 128:1)!

Reflecting on the fullness of Saint Joseph’s faith, the Church has bestowed upon him, among other titles, those of “Chaste Guardian of the Virgin” and “Diligent Protector of Christ.” Whereas last week we saw his obedient silence, today we see his outstanding courage, a desirable attribute that enabled him to be, as Pope Francis describes him, “the guardian who tirelessly protects his family.”[7]

Perhaps curiously, it is precisely in the courageous silence of Saint Joseph that we learn a great secret of family life, namely, that love “reaches its fulfillment when each family member seeks not his or her own joy, but the joy of the other. Dedication to the good of the other is the condition for the happiness that comes from God.”[8] Indeed, it might be said that Saint Joseph “forgets himself in order to seek the good of the child and his mother, these precious people to whom God has entrusted him. His entire life is characterized by that care.”[9]

In recent decades especially, many people, both men and women, have not looked seriously to Saint Joseph for guidance in their families. Having fallen for the lie that life is about myself, too many people have not imitated Saint Joseph’s forgetfulness of self. Today in family life, we must admit with much sorrow that

we often lose sight of that attitude when affection degenerates into masked self-interest. Then discord reigns rather than harmony as interests and feelings are questioned and doubted: nothing is ever right, no one in the family is ever happy since self-centeredness can never be satisfied.[10]

The Chaste Guardian of the Virgin and Diligent Protector of Christ understood this well; consequently, he was both blessed and favored (cf. Psalm 128:2).

If we wish to recover and strengthen the beauty of family life within our society, then we must each look to Saint Joseph as a clear indicator of the path laid out before us. We must be chaste guardians and diligent protectors of one other to help us all grow daily in holiness and follow his example of selfless and loving courage. We must remember that life is not meant to be about me, myself, and I and that life is not meant to be convenient all of the time; for most of humanity, very little in life was, is, or will be convenient. In fact, if we are honest, love always requires inconvenience because love always entails sacrifice. We can learn all of this from Saint Joseph. May he, the Chaste Guardian of the Virgin and the Diligent Protector of Christ, teach us to do the same for each other; may he obtain for us the grace of courageous silence so that we might also forget ourselves and care selflessly for those entrusted to us. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 18 December 2005.
[2] Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., Homily, 29 December 2019.
[3] Albert Vanhoye, S.J., Daily Bread of the Word: Reflections on the Weekday Lectionary Readings (Chicago: Liturgical Training Publications, 2019), 29.
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 1006.
[5] Pope Francis, Admirabile signum, 7.
[6] Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Homily, 29 December 2019.
[7] Pope Francis, Admirabile signum, 7.
[8] Albert Vanhoye, S.J., Daily Bread of the Word, 28.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 29.

27 December 2019

Homily - Christmas Day - 25 December 2019

The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We have come today to the altar of the Lord heeding the call of those ancient shepherds who said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15). This “thing” is, of course, what the choir of angels announced to them as they watched their sheep, namely, the Birth of the Son of God and the Son of Mary, the mystery of Love made flesh.

Curiously, 70% of the American people call themselves Christians, but 90% of the American people say they celebrate Christmas.[1] Of the 90% of Americans who celebrate Christmas, 55% observe it as a religious celebration. Think about that for a just a moment. That means that almost half of the Americans who celebrate Christmas do not recognize it for what it is. If Christmas is not seen to be a religious festival, it can only be an occasion to of greed, a time to save money on material things and to receive gifts; that this is what it has in fact largely become should be no surprise. Culturally, we have forgotten why we give gifts at Christmas. We do so in imitation of the Magi, who gave to the Christ Child their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We cannot give gifts directly to Jesus, but we can give gifts to each other. This is why the custom of giving gifts at Christmas arose; if we divorce Christmas from its religious foundations, it all becomes quite meaningless and an ox and a donkey know more than we do.

Of the 90% of Americans who celebrate Christmas, whether as a religious holy day or simply as a cultural celebration, only 51% plan to attend religious services either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. If you are tracking the math, not every American who claims to see Christmas as a religious feast will attend public worship in honor of Christmas. This is, to be sure, curious, and seems to indicate a weakening of faith in the Birth of the only Begotten Son of God. Today, then, we must ask ourselves an important question: Have I come today recognizing Christmas to be a religious event, or have I come simply to appease human beings?

Of the various aspects of the celebration of Christmas, one of the most profoundly religious aspects is the inclusion of the Christmas Creche, the Nativity Set, without which our celebration of Christmas would seem somehow incomplete. Simply consider what you would think if you entered this church today and did not see the representation of the Lord’s Birth.

The Nativity Set has its origins with Saint Francis of Assisi who in 1223 asked Pope Honorius III for permission “to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass.”[2]

Nearly eight centuries later, we still erect Nativity displays in our homes, churches, and in public places so everyone who looks upon them might also say with the shepherds, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” Happily, this tradition is now embraced by many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who join us in using statues both small and large to envision what those shepherds saw that caused them to return to their fields “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

It is intriguing that Saint Francis requested two particular additions to our Nativity displays that are not found in the Gospels, the inclusion of the ox and the donkey. If these two animals are not mentioned in the Gospels, why did the little poor man of Assisi include them?

A late Ottonian depiction of the Nativity, from a manuscript in the Getty Library (1025-50 AD).
Saint Francis is the first person to portray the Nativity without painting or carving, but he is not the first to include the ox and the donkey in depictions of the Birth of Jesus. Many illuminations from the medieval manuscripts portray them closer to the manger than Saint Joseph, and sometimes even closer than the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ox and the donkey tend to gaze upon the Christ Child with looks of warm affection and a sublime wisdom. Both Saint Francis and these artists knew that many centuries before the Birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foretold, “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). Saint Francis and these artists included these two animals to serve as striking questions to the onlookers: Do you know your Master? Do you know his crib?

Who is it that the ox knows? The ox knows, firstly, that he gazes upon a great mystery, “an infinitely greater thing than anything” J.R.R. Tolkien said he “would dare to write.”[3] The ox knows that when he looks upon that Child, he looks upon the invisible God made suddenly and unexpectedly visible. He knows he looks upon his master, upon the omnipotent God who took unto himself a human face, the Creator of all things who lowered himself to become one of his creatures, “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Do you know who this Master is? Do you know the One the ox knows?

He is the Divine Child who looks out upon his creation with his human face, with eyes full of compassion, with knowledge, power, and tenderness. He looks upon all he has made and calls out with a word of love and of command. “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). “Love one another,” he says, “as I have loved you” (John 15:12). “Be perfect,” he says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “These things I have spoken to you,” he says, “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full” (John 15:11). He is the one who acknowledges himself to be the “master and teacher” who says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (John 13:13; Matthew 11:29). This is the Master the ox invites each of us to know, to follow, and to love.

But what does the donkey know of the Master’s crib? He knows that the crib of his master is the donkey’s own manger, nothing more than a feeding trough for the animals, but in this humble trough is contained a very great mystery, for this Child grew and called himself “the bread of life” and said quite emphatically, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:35, 53). The Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, in a village whose name means “the house of bread,” and was placed in a manger, not as food for the animals, but as food for those he came to save, as food for you and for me. Do you understand what the donkey understands?

The ox and the donkey bellow and bray to us today, beckoning us to approach their manger – the very crib of the Master - so that we might look upon the Face of the invisible God made visible and know who and what they know. They call us to pause in silence and ask us: “Do you know your Master? Do you know his crib? Do you understand and know his merciful love? Will you eat of him and be nourished by him in order to love as he loves?” They call us to ponder the tremendous love which God displays in his Incarnation, to recognize that “God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us, and continue to work through us.”[4]

This Christmas, let us resolve to know the heart of the Infant Master, to allow ourselves to be touched by and understand his love, to imitate his selflessness and allow it to work through us in all we say and do. If we open ourselves in this way to love and to be loved by this Holy Child, then we can bring the message of the angels to everyone we meet: “A Savior has been born for you, who is Christ and Lord” (Luke 2:11). Amen!

[1] Pew Research Center, “Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas are Declining in Public Life, 12 December 2017.
[2] In Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84. In Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles. Catherine Bolton, trans. (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva), 80-81.
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Draft Letter to Michael Straight, 1956. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 237.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 December 2005.

14 December 2019

Homily - On the importance of the Nativity Scene

The Third Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

His Holiness Pope Francis recently published the Apostolic Letter Admirabile Signum in which he reflected on the admirable sign of the depiction of the Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. It used to be commonly seen in both public and private places at this time of year, though now it has all but fallen into disuse - even within Christian homes - as we shape Christmas more and more into a celebration of winter.

The Holy Father wrote his letter both “to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas” and to express his “hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.”[1] His desires in this letter are also mine.

It was, of course, Saint Francis of Assisi who first gave us the crèche on Christmas Eve in 1223 in the Italian village of Greccio. He was so moved by the humanity of Jesus that he said to a man named John who, we are told, “had a good reputation and even better life”:

If you would like us to celebrate this feast day of the Lord in Greccio, then go there ahead of me and prepare what I tell you. I would like to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass.[2]

Everything, of course, was prepared as the Poverello requested and he celebrated Christmas that year at Greccio, some sixty miles north of Rome.

When Saint Francis arrived that Christmas Eve night, everyone present was

gladdened with new joy over the renewed mystery…  The brothers sang the Lord’s praise and the entire night was spent in celebration. Sighing, the Saint of God stood before the crèche, filled with sighs, contrite in piety and overcome with ineffable joy.[3]

Francis stood before the crèche, before the manger filled only with hay, flanked by the animals, and was filled with sorrow for his sins and with joy at the humility and love of the Child of Bethlehem. Does the same happen to you when you gaze upon a Nativity set? Perhaps as children we once were filled with the humility and love of the Son of God when looking at – or playing with – a Nativity set. It can still be so today; in these remaining days before Christmas, let us beg the Lord for this beautiful grace.

Some might now be asking why a Nativity set should move us so deeply and inspire both sorrow for sins and with great joy. Isn’t it just a collection of figurines? No, it is more than a simple set of statues because a depiction of the Lord’s Birth “shows God’s tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness. The gift of life, in all its mystery, becomes all the more wondrous as we realize that the Son of Mary is the source and sustenance of all life.”[4] This is, in part, why, today, after receiving the very Body and Blood of the Son of God, we will bless the images of the Christ Child that we will place in our nativity sets at Christmas. Such displays remind us that Christ Jesus – the Bread of Life – was born in Bethlehem – the House of Bread – and placed within a manger, a feeding trough (cf. John 6:35).

The Nativity is set such a cherished custom for many of the faithful because it is a way for us “to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross.”[5] At the same time, it reminds us that “in Jesus, God was a child, and in this way he wished to reveal the greatness of his love: by smiling and opening his arms to all.”[6] For this reason, “the nativity scene shows God as he came into our world, but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God’s own life. It invites us to become his disciples if we want to attain ultimate meaning in life.”[7] Perhaps this is why, in an age in which so many people – Christians included – live as though God did not exist, that the Nativity display is quickly vanishing from both public and private life. Indeed, as Pope Francis as said,

It does not matter how the nativity scene is arranged: it can always be the same or it can change from year to year. What matters is that it speaks to our lives. Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition.[8]

As we prepare, then, to celebrate the coming feasts, set up your Nativity sets with joy in a prominent place of the home. Gather together around them frequently and learn

to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with him, his children, brothers and sisters all, thanks to the Child who is the Son of God and the Son of the Virgin Mary. And to realize that in that knowledge we find true happiness.[9]

If we allow our Nativity sets to teach us to imitate the love God, then, we, too will be of good reputation, and of even better lives. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Admirabile signum, 1.
[2] Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84 in Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles, trans. Catherine Bolton (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva, 2001), 80-81.
[3] Ibid., XXX.85.
[4] Pope Francis, Admirabile signum, 3.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 8.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 10.
[9] Ibid.

09 December 2019

No, Elijah was not reincarnated in John the Baptist

In my homily yesterday, I quoted these words of Jesus in regard to Saint John the Baptist:

All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:13-15).

From these words, a few people received the impression that I implied that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah. This is, of course, not what I meant and is certainly not Jesus said.

This misinterpretation is not new to our day, and is one that Saint Jerome confronted in his Commentary on Matthew. He said:

So John the Baptist is called Elijah, not in accordance with foolish philosophers and certain heretics who introduce the topic of metempsychosis (transmigration of souls) but because, according to other evidence of the gospel, he came in the spirit and goodness of Elijah and had either the same grace or power of the Holy Spirit. The austerity of their life and firm resolve were equally strong in Elijah and in John. Both lived in the desert. The former girded himself with a belt of skins, and the latter had a similar belt. The former was forced to flee because he accused Ahab and Jezebel of the sin of impiety in their lives. John was beheaded because he accused Herod and Herodias of unlawful marriage. There are those who think therefore that John is called Elijah because, just as Elijah would lead the way in the second coming of our Savior (according to Malachi) and would announce that the judge is coming, so John acted at the first coming and because each was a messenger of the first or second coming of our Lord (2.11.15).

This is why the Lord said to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, that his son would go before the Lord “in the power and spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteousness, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

08 December 2019

Homily - Camel's hair is a sign of, and a call to, repentance

The Second Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a rare moment in the Scriptures when we are told what someone wears, but two of the four Evangelists - Matthew and Mark – take the time to tell us Saint John the Baptist “wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4; cf. Mark 1:6). If both Evangelists make explicit reference to John’s clothing, there must be something significant about it; but what? What is noteworthy about a tunic made of camel’s hair?

Saint John Chrysostom tells us, “John’s clothing itself was symbolic of nothing less than the coming kingdom and of repentance.”[1] We know this is true become there is another man who wore similar clothing in the Scriptures, one who lived many centuries before John’s birth. To this man the angel of the Lord said:

Go, intercept the messengers of Samaria’s king, and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron?’ For this, the Lord says: ‘You shall not leave the bed upon which you lie; instead, you shall die’” (II Kings 1:3-4).

This man warned of impending death for the grave sin of idolatry, of turning to false gods for help.

Hearing these words, the king’s messengers returned to him. King Ahaziah asked them, “What was the man like who came up to you and said these things to you” (II Kings 1:7). “‘Wearing a hairy garment,’ they replied, ‘with a leather girdle about his loins’” (II Kings 1:8). Hearing this description, the king knew at once the name of this man and cried out, “It is Elijah the Tishbite” (II Kings 1:8)!

By donning a garment made of camel’s hair and securing it with a belt of leather, John the Baptist demonstrated in a clear way his prophetic calling. We learn through the prophet Zechariah that this form of dress was customary for the prophets: “On that day, every prophet shall be ashamed to prophesy his vision, neither shall he assume the hairy mantle” (Zechariah 13:4). But more than this, John showed through the use of his clothing, that he was Elijah.

That Elijah would return was foretold by the Lord God through the Prophet Malachi:
Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom (Malachi 3:24).

The mission of John the Baptist was the same as that of Elijah, to turn back hearts. This is why he cried out in the desert, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)! Because John the Baptist’s life so clearly reflected that of Elijah, Jesus said of John, “All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:13-15). What are we to hear? His call to repentance, for John came “to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).

Regrettably, too many people have accepted the lie that sin is unimportant; too many people say something like, “I’m a good person; that’s all God wants.” This is simply not true; God desires – and even commands – that we be holy, that our lives look like that of Christ Jesus.

To sin is – in Greek – “to miss the mark,” hamartia. It is an archery term used by Saint Paul to describe our offense against the law of God, our failures to love by God and neighbor. Put simply, to sin is to miss the mark. What is the mark for which we are aiming if not the life of Jesus? We our lives fail to reflect his, we miss the mark; we sin.

As I said, lots of people today refuse to acknowledge their sins. They think because they have not committed physical murder or adultery, or because they have not robbed a bank, that they have not sinned. This is only because they fail to realize the reality of sin; every sin is a failure to love, and each of us fails to love several times each day. Saint Augustine put it this way:

So long as a person bears flesh, he cannot but have some at least slight sins. But don’t belittle what we are referring to as these slight sins. If you belittle them when you weigh them, shudder them when you count them out. For many slight ones make a great one: many drops fill a river; many grains make a mass. And what hope is there? Confession above all.[2]

Confessions are heard here before Mass, but few people come; next week, another opportunity will be had. Will you hear the cry of the Baptist to repent and take advantage of this opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord?

When it comes to confession, people generally have a few basic questions, the first of which goes something like this: “Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest?” The short answer is because Jesus wants us to confess our sins to a priest. When he breathed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, Jesus said to them, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). If Jesus did not want the Apostles to forgive sins, he would not have given them power and the authority to do so; he did nothing needlessly. If the Apostles are to know which sins to forgive and which sins to retain, they must know what the sins are and this requires confession.

The second question wants to know something like, “Won’t Father treat me differently? What if he remembers my sins?” The likelihood that a priest remembers who goes to confession is small; we enter the confession to lift the burden of sin, not to keep a tally of who comes. However, even if a priest does remember who comes to confession, he cannot treat that person any better or any worse because of what he learns in the confessional. It’s rare that a priest might remember who confessed what sin. You enter the confessional to get of your sins; why would the priest want to keep them?

A third question is, “It’s been a long time; how do I go to confession.” The process is very simple. Enter the confessional and tell the priest how long its been since your last confession. “It’s been while,” means different things to different people; has it been two months, or thirty-seven years? Next, confess your sins are best as you able; there is no need to euphemisms; let the priest know you are finished by saying something like, “These are my sins,” so he doesn’t accidentally interrupt your thoughts. The priest may then give a few words of counsel and will give you a penance. If you think the penance is too severe or too light, let the priest know. Next, make an act of contrition by acknowledging your sorrow for sin; it can be as simple as, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The priest will give you absolution and send you on your way with your burden lifted.

When Saint John tells us to prepare the way of the Lord, he intends for us to prepare and cleanse our hearts, for by cleansing our hearts we also cleanse our lives. This is – frankly – the only preparation for Christmas that matters. As beautiful as the lights and trees are, as tasty as the cookies are, if our hearts and souls are not prepared, all of the preparations of our homes will be vain and will not produce the full joy that is desired.

In what remains of Advent, “what we really must do is clear the way for the Lord who is good and powerful. We are disposing our hearts for an encounter of love with him, and in this way we are encouraged to undertake the needed purification.”[3] Ask the Lord, then, to help you recognize your failures to love, your failures to love both God and neighbor, in ways both large and small. Enter into the confessional with these failures to love and ask for the grace to make a good and worthy confession. By doing so, you will encounter Love himself, who will fill you the joy and peace he longs for you to have because his kingdom is indeed at hand. Amen.

[1] Saint John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 10.4.
[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 3.14.
[3] Albert Vanhoye, S.J., Daily Bread of the Word: Reflections on the Weekday Lectionary Readings (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2019), 2.

Homily - Are these acts proper to a preparation for the coming of Christ the King?

The First Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

We prayed a few moments ago that, through this sacred season of Advent, that the almighty God will grant us “the resolve to run forth to meet [his] Christ with righteous deeds at his coming.”[1] If I may say so, our country is in desperate need of these righteous deeds!

How have we, as a nation, begun our preparations for the coming celebration of the Birth of the Christ? The answer – to anyone who pays any attention – must be a deafening, “Poorly!” Sadly, the sense of an encroaching darkness is not only to be found in the natural world, but also in the hearts of men and women. We sing in our carols that this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but how did many seek to enter into the joy of the season? With self-absorption, violence, and greed. As evidence of this, take just a few examples of what transpired this past Friday, the very day after we as a nation professed to render thanks to the Almighty: a man was shot in a mall food court in Syracuse, New York because of an argument;[2] in White Hall, Pennsylvania, a fight broke out in the Lehigh Valley Mall; and in Hendersonville, Tennessee, employees at a Walmart had to disperse a group shouting profanities.[3] Are these the righteous deeds required of us to “be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom?”[4] Are these acts proper to a preparation for the coming of Christ the King?

I know some may object and say, “Father, those things didn’t happen around here; calm down.” Perhaps not, but not too far from here, in Jacksonville, Illinois, a man sought to hire himself out to stand in line for Black Friday shoppers; he listed one his qualifications as having “plenty of felonies so no need to worry bout [sic] me backin [sic] out of a fight.”[5] I remind you again of the words of Saint Augustine I shared with you two weeks ago:

Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good, and the times will be good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.[6]

Because we are part of this nation and all bear some share in the madness that has become Black Friday – and an improper celebration of Christmas - we must all honestly examine our lives and ask ourselves an important question: Am I resolved to go forth to meet the Savior with righteous deeds? The consideration of such a question is, after all, the very purpose of Advent. “Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11).

In the midst of the darkness of these days, I find myself repeating a line J.R.R. Tolkien gave to Aragorn at Helm’s Deep: “Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.”[7] The ancient Christians prayed looking toward the east; even in their homes, they would look out an eastward facing window when making the sign of the Cross and saying their prayers. They did so in the confidence of the return of “the one Morning Star who never sets,” Christ Jesus, “who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.”[8] They looked to the east because they knew that dawn is ever the hope of men. They looked not simply to the dawning of a new day, but for the dawning of the coming of the Lord Jesus with his angels and his saints; they lived in eager expectation of his coming and sought not to be caught unawares lest he come as a thief in the night. Can the same be said of us? Do we live in eager expectation of the coming of Christ, or in eager expectation of the next sale or party?

This season of Advent has as its chief aim two purposes: first, a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, and, second, a preparation to celebrate his Birth at Bethlehem. The temptation today is, as I have said before, to anticipate too early Christmas Day at the expense of our spiritual growth. In many families, the Christmas tree and the Nativity set are already raised and will be taken down shortly after Christmas dinner, in stark contrast to the liturgical year, which celebrates Christmas beginning not until Christmas Day and continuing through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this coming year the twelfth of January.

It seems we have forgotten this rich season that calls us to wait, to be still, to ponder, and to hope for the dawn. The Church “raises its gaze to the final goal of pilgrimage in history, which is the glorious return of the Lord Jesus” and, recalling Jesus’ “birth in Bethlehem with emotion, it bends down before the crib. The hope of Christians is directed to the future, but always remains well rooted in a past event.”[9] To put it another way, “Christians live in the transitional period between the black of night and the bright light of morning… But since the gloom of the present age has yet to dissipate, it remains a time of temptation and risk for God’s people.”[10]

Too often we lose sight of both of these directions – the future and the past - in the hustle and bustle of worldly life and become too caught up in the present. Advent calls us to step beyond this busy-ness, to contemplate anew the great love of the Lord Jesus who “shall judge between the nations and impose terms on many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

Our communal neglect of Advent in favor of the maddening drive to get more and more stuff we do not need “seems especially disturbing – for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.”[11] We find ourselves surrounded by

More Christmas trees. More Christmas lights. More tinsel, more tassels, more glitter, more glee – until the glut of candles and carols, ornaments and trimmings, has left almost nothing for Christmas Day. For much of America, Christmas itself arrives nearly as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long Yule season that has burned without stop since the stores began their Christmas sales.[12]

Is this not something of what the Lord Jesus warns against when he tells us that we also “must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24:44)?

It is too easy for us to give in to the temptations that surround us, to focus on the commercialism and materialism of the culture in which we find ourselves, to ignore this season of grace in which we should be stirring ourselves from our faithlessness and from our sluggish spiritual sleep (cf. Romans 13:11). I challenge, urge, and beg you to instead focus on Jesus, on keeping his commands by loving God and neighbor in every circumstance, and to prepare to meet him when at last he comes to judge the living and the dead. So long as there is yet another dawn, there is time for us to “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Let us keep these days of Advent well, not in the anticipation of the gifts we will exchange on Christmas Day, but in gratitude for the gift of the Lord’s mercy given us in his Birth at Bethlehem and in expectation of his return in glory.

Some time ago, Pope Francis gave us a bit of wise fatherly advice. He encouraged us to spend time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, with the Eucharistic Lord present in his tabernacle, and to make a simple prayer: “You are God; I am a poor child loved by You.”[13] If we make this prayer our own, the Lord will help us remember the many ways we have failed to love both God and neighbor. With these sins in our minds and hearts, we can enter the confessional and entrust ourselves again to God’s merciful love. We will leave the confessional with a lightened and joyful heart and “the dawn from high shall break upon us” (Luke 1:78). Then, walking in his paths, this will truly be the most wonderful time of the year (Isaiah 2:3). Amen.

[1] Roman Missal, Collect for the First Sunday of Advent.
[2] Ryan Miller and Sarah Taddeo, “Destiny USA shooting: Police search for suspect after man shot at mall on Black Friday,” Democrat & Chronicle, 29 November 2019.
[3] Cf. Leslie Katz, “Black Friday 2019 fights prove shopping for deals is as perilous as ever,” CNET, 29 November 2019.
[4] Roman Missal, Collect for the First Sunday of Advent.
[5] Jimmy Bates, in the Facebook group “Jacksonville, IL Swap Shop, 27 November 2019.
[6] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the New Testament, 30.8.
[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings, 3.7 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 524.
[8] “Exultet,” Roman Missal.
[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 27 November 2005.
[10] Scott W. Hahn, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 238
[11] Joseph Bottum, “The End of Advent,” First Things (December 2007), 20.
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Pope: Corruption is blasphemy which leads to worship of money,” Vatican Radio, 24 November 2016. Accessed 27 November 2016. Available at http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2016/11/24/pope_corruption_is_blasphemy_which_leads_to_money_worship/1274477