11 December 2021

Homily - The Third Sunday of Advent - 12 December 2021

 The Third Sunday of Advent (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, Mother Church takes up these words of the Apostle Saint Paul and makes them her own: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)! We might well wonder why it is that we ought to rejoice this day.

The celebration of the Lord’s Birth is now just two weeks away. These days ought, then, to be filled with a certain childlike joy, the giddiness of anticipation. At least they would have been so filled twenty years ago. They certainly were when I worked in the toy store. They were fun days to be out and about, with people humming their favorite carols and holiday tunes, jingling bells and wearing strange hats, wishing one and all a “Merry Christmas,” and sharing cookies and hot chocolate.

It may be that I have not gone to the right places just yet this year, but I have not noticed much at all this year that helps make up what we generally mean by the “Christmas spirit.” Whatever we mean by that phrase, it seems largely to be absent this year, even from most Christians. What is wrong? Why are we not rejoicing? If I may say so, it is because we as a society – and perhaps even as individuals – have lost sight of what the celebration of Christmas is all about. Does it feel like the most wonderful time of the year?

This past Friday the Christmas tree and Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square were dedicated. When Pope Francis received a delegation from Peru and from Italy who helped put everything together this year, he encouraged them not to let their celebrations of Christmas “be polluted by consumerism and indifference.”[1] Is this not what has happened in our context? Have we not allowed – and perhaps even encouraged - consumerism and indifference to pollute our celebrations of Christmas?

In his great concern that we honor the Birth of the Savior properly, the Holy Father gave this exhortation:

Let’s not live a fake Christmas, please, a commercial Christmas. Let us allow ourselves to be wrapped up in the closeness of God, this closeness which is compassionate, which is tender; wrapped in the Christmas atmosphere that art, music, songs, and traditions bring into the heart.[2]

One of the ways that a priest allows himself to be wrapped up in the closeness of God is through the sacred vestments he wears for the celebration of the Sacraments. These vestments become part of the art of the Church, part of the tradition of the Church’s festivities, and serve – for those who know how to read them – as aids to enter fully into the sacred mysteries and as a help for others to be filled with the joy born of the love of God.

William Durandus, the thirteenth century Bishop of the French Diocese of Mende, spoke movingly on the chasuble, the outermost vestment a priest wears when offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The word “chasuble” comes the Latin casula, meaning a “little house.” But Bishop William noted that, in Greek, the chasuble is called the planetes, the from which we get our word “planet,” a word that means “wanderer.” Why would a piece of clothing be called a wanderer?

Durandus’ thought about this – which was surely not only his – is because the border of the vestment, “wanders wide as it is raised over the arms, signifying charity [love].” Just as charity covers a multitude of sins, according to Saint Peter, so the chasuble, the garment of love, “wanders over all and encloses and contains all other vestments within itself” (I Peter 4:8).[3] Consisting as it does of the front and back, the chasuble “signifies the two arms of charity,” namely the love of God and the love of neighbor, without which “the Priest may never discharge his office.”[4] The Bishop even goes so far as to say that “the wideness of the chasuble is a figure of the breath of charity.”[5]

What are we to say then of the colors of the chasuble? The virtue of charity, of love, has many different aspects, each of which produces a certain joy. The various colors of the chasuble, if you will, represent these aspects of love as though it were refracted through a prism.

White is worn on the holiest of Christian feasts. It is the color of light and so we wear it at Christmas as we celebrate the Birth of Christ Jesus, who is the “light [that] shines in the darkness;” at Easter, we celebrate his Resurrection from the dead, proof that “the darkness has not overcome” his light (John 1:5). White is also worn for the memorials of the Saints, those who let their light “shine before others” (Matthew 5:16). White, then, betokens the purity of joy, a joy that comes only from the pure love of God for us.

Red is worn on Good Friday in honor of the Precious Blood of the Lord Jesus poured out upon us from the Cross. It is also worn on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon us. Likewise, red is worn on the memorials of the martyrs who poured out their blood for love for God. Red, then, symbolizes the joy of sacrifice, a necessary component of love, and the selflessness of love that covers the beloved and brings joy to the heart.

Green is worn throughout the year when we are not celebrating a particular moment in the life of Jesus or preparing to do so. Green is the color of life and growth and so it shows the joy that comes from growth in the Christian life, motivated by love, until, as Saint Paul says, we “attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

Violet is worn as we prepare to celebrate the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. The color of mourning and sadness, violet reveals the repentance of sin and the conversion of heart each of us should have as we prepare to welcome Christ when he comes. Violet then shows the joy born of a reconciling love.

Today, though, we wear rose, a color worn, at most, only twice throughout the year. Why acquire a chasuble that will be worn so infrequently? Rose is a mixture of violet – the color of sorrow – and of blue. In iconography, blue is associated with the heavens and, consequently, with divinity. The Blessed Virgin Mary is often depicted with a blue inner garment and a red outer garment, red being the color of the earth and of blood. Her garments show how she carried divinity within her humanity when she conceived Jesus in her womb. Rose, then, even as it recognizes our need for conversion, shows, in a particular way, the joy of the closeness of God and thus is the color of expectation.

The joy to which the Church summons us today is not born of some mere momentary pleasure, of a quick shot of dopamine or serotonin in the brain. No, the joy to which the Church summons us today is born of the expectation of the closeness of God. It belongs to us to bring this joy of the closeness of God – the joy that is Christmas – into the public square. We receive this joy here at the altar when we hear the Word of God and receive the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, but we cannot leave this joy here, nor can we keep it to ourselves; we must take this Christian joy with us as we exit the doors of this house of God and share it with each person we encounter by inviting him or her to this same closeness of God. Let us say to those we meet, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice” because the Lord is near! Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, in Hannah Brockhaus, “Pope Francis: Avoid ‘fake Christmas’ of commercialism by reflecting on God’s closeness,” Catholic News Agency, 10 December 2021. Accessed 10 December 2021. Available at https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/249845/pope-francis-avoid-fake-christmas-of-commercialism-by-reflecting-on-god-s-closeness.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Durandus, Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, III.VII.1.

[4] Ibid., III.VII.2.

[5] Ibid.

08 December 2021

Homily - The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception - 8 December 2021

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Dear brothers and sisters,

Whenever Mother Church requires our attendance at the Holy Mass on a holy day of obligation, someone inevitably asks why. Why does the Church oblige to attend Mass on certain days that are not Sundays on pain of mortal sin?

Without intending to be too simplistic in answering such a question, the Church obliges us, using the authority of the keys entrusted to Saint Peter and his successors, because it is good for us and for our salvation. It is good for us because it is helpful to stop and reflect on certain key aspects of salvation history and their relation to us here and now. To this answer, I can well imagine an objection being raised: What does the Immaculate Conception have to do with us?

Consider this headline I read this morning on the front page of a national newspaper: “ONLY WE CAN FIX US.” The headline, of course, is blatantly false, even given one of the leads into the article: “I will stop letting our differences divide us and start letting them develop us.” While the attempt of the article to encourage mutual dialogue between opposing views is an admirable and necessary goal, the premise that “only we can fix us” could not be more wrong.

This notion lies at the heart of the entire Enlightenment project’s attempt to abandon and jettison and banish religion from public life. This notion still lies at the heart of the progressive movement today. The thinking is that if we just set up these policies and forbid those practices or ways of thinking the world will be just dandy and we will get along as bosom buddies. Anyone who pays attention to the world and to human nature, fallen as it is, knows that this is not true. These ideas fall flat because they refuse to take into account the reality of sin and its consequences in each of our hearts.

We hear the result of sin very clearly in the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve and how quickly they are to refuse to accept accountability for their actions: Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent and the serpent earlier blamed God. It was a great game of passing the buck, which really hasn’t diminished after these many generations. But already then at the beginning of human history there is the great promise to undo this blame game: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

The woman, ultimately, is the Blessed Virgin Mary and the prophesied offspring is Christ Jesus through whom we are called to be “holy and without blemish” before God the Father (Ephesians 1:4). It is because of her offspring that Mary received the singular grace of being conceived immaculate, of being conceived without the stain of original sin. Because Mary would consent to the will of the Father conceive the Second Person of the Trinity within her womb through her marvelous response to the Archangel Gabriel, “May it be done to me,” she was conceived immaculately (Luke 1:38).

Mary knew she was to conceive the Messiah and so she knew what the angel said to Joseph, namely that the Child conceived by her would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Mary knew she could not save herself; she knew she could not fix herself. Only God Almighty could preserve her from every stain of sin.

This is why, Pope Francis said, Mary was “greatly troubled” at the Archangel’s greeting to her. The Holy Father asked,

How is Mary’s heart? Having received the highest of compliments, she is troubled she [sic] because she hears addressed to her what she has not attributed to herself. In fact, Mary does not credit prerogatives to herself, she does not hold claim to anything, she accounts nothing to her own merit. She is not self-satisfied, she does not exalt herself. For in her humility, she knows she receives everything from God. Therefore, free from herself, she is completely directed toward God and others. Mary Immaculate does not look to herself. This is true humility; not looking to oneself, but looking toward God and others.[1]

Mother Church obliges us to attend the Holy Mass today to remind us that you and I cannot fix ourselves, no matter what the headlines say.

Mary did not sin, though she certainly knew its effects; even so, Mary was in need of a Savior, and it was because of him that she received that prevenient grace, that grace coming before the Death and Resurrection of her Son, that she was conceived without the stain of the original sin. Mary received the fruit of her Son’s sacrifice before anyone else and was truly holy and without blemish before him.

You and I, however, do sin, in ways both large and small; this cannot be denied. Though we have been cleansed of the original sin in the waters of Baptism, its effects still remain with us; we still have a tendency toward sin. But if we know follow the example of Mary, if we entrust ourselves completely to the will of God, we, with her, can be made holy and without blemish before God. But we cannot do this on our own; only God can do it in us.

Let us, then, not be afraid to break with society and freely acknowledge that we cannot fix ourselves; let us instead entrust ourselves entirely to the merciful love of God, who in Christ Jesus, who “chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him” (Ephesians 1:4). “And when we are assailed by the doubt that we cannot succeed, the sadness of not being adequate, let us allow the Madonna to look on us with her ‘eyes of mercy’, for no one who asked for her help has ever been abandoned!”[2] Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Angelus Address, 8 December 2021.

[2] Ibid.

05 December 2021

Homily - The Sunday Sunday of Advent - 5 December 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

As a student of history – in which I hold a Bachelor of Arts – I always marvel at the Gospel compiled by the Evangelist Saint Luke. Though trained in the medical profession, he shows himself again and again to be a careful historian, one very much concerned with historical details such as what we hear from his Gospel today.

Saint Luke goes to great lengths to situate Jesus within human history. At the opening of his Gospel, he tells us his sources: “…those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” and that he wrote his account of the life of Jesus – and of the Church – so “that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1:2, 4).

For example, he tells us that Christ Jesus was born when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire and when Syria was governed by Quirinius. Most people are at least familiar when Augustus, the nephew of Julius Caesar who at birth was given the name Octavian, but few are familiar with Publius Sulpicius Quirinius; for now, let us just note that he died in year A.D. 21 and is known to historians who have coins dating from his governorship.

But situating Jesus in the context of the reigns of Augustus and Quirinius was not enough for Saint Luke. As if to lay aside all doubts or false claims that he simply made up his account, he gives us the names of other important personages during the time when Saint John the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah. He mentions Tiberius Caesar who succeed Augustus as Emperor of Rome. Other government officials named by Saint Luke include Pontius Pilate, Herod, and Philip, with whom we are familiar and whom historians know. But then there is also Lysanias, of whom we have an inscription from the temple noting that he built a road. Then there are Annas and Caiaphas, who will reappear during the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. The inclusion of these historical places situates Jesus within a real time and an actual place.

Saint Luke’s purpose in mentioning these seven men is both simple and profound:

to say that the history of God is mixed with this history of ours. God does not make a parallel history, an alternative to that of man. There is only one history, for God and for man; and man will not have to look for another if he wants to find God: he will find Him inside this story, inside the fold of these names that we hear in the passage of the Gospel and in today’s world.[1]

This is just the start of what Saint Luke intends to tell us through the list of these names. “Seven names, pagans and Jews, to say that salvation is for everyone…”[2]

To put it perhaps more pointedly, we might rightly say that the intention of Saint Luke, while being

…concerned with the historicity of Jesus as opposed to the unhistorical nature of a mythical bringer of salvation, … was not … to demonstrate that we can visit the places that the historical Jesus visited, hold in our hands the coins that he touched, or read the scrolls that he knew. He showed the historicity of Jesus clearly enough, but he went further and pointed to the universality of Jesus. Jesus did not belong to one people. He belonged and still belongs to the oikoumene [to the inhabited world].[3]

But when the prophet Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist both prophesied that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” what did they mean (Isaiah 40:5; Luke 3:20)?

Saint Augustine of Hippo proposed an answer to this question when he said:

Consider the text “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” There is no difficulty at all in taking this to mean “And all flesh shall see the Christ of God.” After all, Christ was seen in the body and will be seen in the body when he comes again to judge the living and the dead. Scripture has many texts showing that he is the “salvation of God,” particularly the words of the venerable old man, Simeon, who took the child in his arms and said, “Now let your servant go in peace, O Lord, according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30).[4]

We can also see this central truth, this deepest longing, of the Christian faith in the very name of Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.”

Both Isaiah and John admonish us to take down whatever hinders us from seeing Christ Jesus, to remove level whatever obstructs our sight of him, and to remove whatever keeps us from looking him in the eyes (cf. Isaiah 40:3-4; Luke 3:4-5). In short, we must be reconciled with Jesus.

Is this not the very purpose of these days of Advent during which we devote ourselves to preparing for the Lord’s coming? It is not enough to put up trees, wreaths, and boughs; it is not enough to purchase gifts and wrap them; it is not enough to bake cookies and attend parties; it is not enough to send cards and sing carols. In the midst of all of this, we cannot forget that

…it is today, in the present, that our future destiny is being played out. It is our actual conduct in this life that decides our eternal fate. At the end of our days on earth, at the moment of death, we will be evaluated on the basis of our likeness - or lack of it - to the Child who is about to be born in the poor grotto of Bethlehem, because he is the criterion of the measure that God has given to humanity. The Heavenly Father, who expressed his merciful love to us through the birth of his Only-Begotten Son, calls us to follow in his footsteps, making our existence, as he did, a gift of love. And the fruit of love is that fruit which "befits repentance", to which John the Baptist refers while he addresses cutting words to the Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowds who had come for Baptism.[5]

Let us, then, hear the words of Saint John the Baptist again, as if for the first time: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Luke 3:4).

May it never be said of us that we forgot “Advent is synonymous with hope, not the vain waiting for a faceless god, but concrete and certain trust in the return of him who has already visited us.”[6] We ought, then, to allow Saint John’s words to pierce our hearts, to convict us and convince us “to discern what is of value” that we may be filled with hope as we await the return of the Redeemer (Philippians 1:10).

If we do what John says, when the Lord comes again into the external desert of this world and the internal desert of our hearts, he will find us “pure and blameless,” ready to look upon the beauty of his Face and “put on the splendor of glory from God forever” (Philippians 1:10; Baruch 5:1). Amen.

[1] Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Homily, 5 December 2021. Accessed 4 December 2021. Available at https://www.lpj.org/apostolic-administrator/meditation-of-patriarch-pierbattista-pizzaballa-second-sunday-of-advent-year-c.html?fbclid=IwAR3plX4tNszQVjPrb44JXmk3RP3WgsCCPm0EGVfKxpBFFrU3wpSnNf-upJ8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year (Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny, 2020), 98-99.

[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, City of God, 22.39.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 9 December 2007.

[6] Pope Saint John Paul II, Angelus Address, 2 December 2001.

04 December 2021

Advent Letter to Parishioners

Each year I write a letter to my parishioners during Advent to wish them a merry Christmas, which I enclose in a Christmas card. Below is the text of this year's letter:

 Dear brothers and sisters, 

I don’t know if you have noticed it yet or not, but our society’s celebration of Christmas is becoming more and more removed from the Birth of Christ Jesus of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even finding Christmas cards that depict and mention the Birth of the only Savior of mankind is becoming increasingly difficult. Instead, so-called Christmas cards and decorations are mostly nothing more than a celebration of winter. 

We can either let such a state of affairs depress us, or we can use them to stir up within us a desire to truly celebrate the historical event that first brought about the great feast of Christmas: our Lord’s Birth in Bethlehem. 

Society’s desire to forget the Christ Child is really an attempt to put ourselves before God, a temptation always to be avoided and resisted. Our heavenly patron, Saint Augustine of Hippo, offers us a few profound words in this regard: 

We are striving for great things; let us lay hold of little things, and we shall be great. Do you wish to lay hold of the loftiness of God? First catch hold of God’s lowliness. Deign to be lowly, to be humble, because God has deigned to be lowly and humble on the same account, yours, not his own. So catch hold of Christ’s humility, learn to be humble, don’t be proud (Sermon 117.17). 

As we approach the Christmas festivities, let us not lose sight of their purpose, namely to rejoice with exceeding gladness in the love of God who deigned to become a tiny child for our sakes. Seeing his humble love, let us strive for the greatest thing of all: to become saints and enjoy forever the beauteous splendor of his Face. 

As we rejoice in the Savior’s Birth, please be assured of my prayers for you and your families and friends as I wish you all a Christ-centered, joyous, blessed, and merry Christmas!

What can you get your priest for Christmas?

 Each year it happens that someone asks for suggestions about what gifts would be appropriate to give their priest. So it is that I once again offer this post, which I have updated slightly from previous years.

N.B.I am not writing this post as an attempt to receive gifts but as a way of trying to assist people in choosing gifts for their local priest.

Before getting to my list of suggestions, let me offer a few thoughts.

First, you have to keep the personality of the priest in mind; not every priest is the same, and neither are their interests. For example, if you want to give your priest a gift certificate to a restaurant, first ask yourself if he goes out to eat. Personally, I rarely go out to eat. Even if your priest does go out to eat, is the restaurant you have in mind one he either already likes or will like? You don't want to give him a certificate or card that he won't likely use (I have a stack of gift cards to restaurants I haven't yet used).

The same might be said with vestments. There are vestments that some priests wear that I'll never touch and there are some vestments that I wear that others will never touch.

Second, various religious artworks and knick-knacks are always nice, but keep in mind that the rectory only has so many shelves and blank spots on a wall. At the same time, the more things a priest collects  over the years, the more things he has to move when the time comes. Some things priests don't mind moving, other things they do.

Third, homemade holiday treats (cookies, pies, cakes, fruits, etc.) are delicious and always welcome, but check with the secretary to see how much has already come in. At this time of year the kitchen counter is most always overflowing with goodies that cannot be eaten because of their sheer quantity and can't really be given away because parishioners often know who makes what.

Now to the suggestions. Some of these are things that I wouldn't mind having myself and some have come from conversations with others priests (I won't tell you which is which):
  • Gas cards
  • Gift cards for oil changes or tire rotations
  • Gift certificates to book stores (Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Ignatius Press, etc.)
  • An I.O.U. for baked goods later in the year (just don't forget!)
  • Gift certificates to religious goods stores (both local and on-line)
  • Gift certificates to his favorite restaurant
  • Car wash tokens
  • See if the priest has a wish list on Amazon.com, Ignatius.com, or other web sites
  • Make a donation in the priest's name to Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, or Peter's Pence
  • Offer a gift for a particular situation in the parish
  • Cash never hurts, either
The above list is certainly not exhaustive, nor is it meant to discourage you from giving your priest a physical gift. If the list is helpful, use it; if not, ignore it.

When still in doubt, always check with the secretary to see if she has any ideas. Priests often comment to their secretaries on a variety of issues and you never know what he might have mentioned quite in passing the other day. Astute secretaries are aware of these things.