Holy Family, Cycle B

Today’s Solemnity of the Holy Family, within the Christmas octave, reminds us that our family is a bedrock of love. We count on them and we know that they count on us. That bedrock also reminds us that we can always count on the love of God as well.

In today’s First Reading Sirach reminds us that we should not take our family for granted. A family is a gift, and our family is our family no matter what they do or don’t do on our behalf. We feel that all too well when we don’t respond to the love shown by our family, or lose a member of our family unexpectedly. We count on our family, and that reliance reflects the reliance we should have on God. When we can’t count on our family, it’s hard for us to count on anything else, even God.

We all know of truly tragic and heart-breaking family situations – divorce, children lost to drugs, squabbles over inheritances, misunderstandings, even betrayals – but even in those situations we don’t lose sight of the ideal Sirach describes: a father and mother set in honor and authority over their children, children revering and praying for their parents, obeying them and caring for them when they grow old, and the blessings God showers on children who do so.

This model of mutual respect, help, and reliance is meant to be reflected in our society as well, so when it’s not lived in the family it’s no surprise that society suffers as a result. Our family is more than what they do or don’t do for us, and more than what they mean or don’t mean to us: they are our family. God’s given them to us, and us to them.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that as believers we are all brothers and sisters in the great family of Our Father thanks to Jesus, and our virtues should show the same love and respect we experience in our own family. We’re made holy by sharing in the life of God, through our Baptism, and we are “beloved” because we have received the gift of life itself, no strings attached. We build our love on that bedrock of divine love by bearing with one another and forgiving each other when grievances come, just as the Lord has forgiven us for all those times we haven’t shown him the love he deserved.

With a spirit of gratitude to God for the gift of life and the gift of his Son we serve and love each other in our family, avoiding bitterness and provocations and disobedience. “Obedience” grates on ears today in a world that’s so obsessed with autonomy and self-reliance, but in a family it means acknowledging the gift God has given us of someone we can rely on. We show gratitude by obeying, and it reminds us that being someone relied on can be a big sacrifice and responsibility as well.

Today’s Gospel (Luke 2:22-40) reminds us that the Holy Family, and every holy family, is centered on Christ. He’s the ultimate bedrock of our love. Simeon was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he died. He didn’t know when, he didn’t know how, but when the moment came the Holy Spirit led him to the baby Jesus in the Temple and revealed Jesus to be the Christ. Simeon didn’t just rejoice for his own sake at finally meeting the Messiah, but for all of Israel that had been waiting for him. A whole family of faith built on love for God through love for Christ was being born.

Anna’s married life was short; she spent more of her life as a widow than as a wife, but all those years were full of prayer. Anna spent many years in prayer and expectation, but when the moment came, she didn’t shy away from giving witness as well. She was attentive to the signs of the times, helped by the Holy Spirit, and she saw that the time of redemption was at hand. Both Simeon and Anna remind us that the elderly have a great vocation to prayer and to sharing their wisdom. Who can deny the impact of grandparents and even great aunts and uncles in their lives?

God calls our loved ones to love, and sometimes they (or we) don’t respond to that call. It’s the mystery of human freedom and sin. He calls us to love as well, and when we consider Christ’s example we know our love can’t be tarnished by a lack of love from others. Don’t feel left out in the cold: the Holy Family always has room for you, and the Church is always praying for you. The bedrock of love is always there, and forgiveness, even when a loved one doesn’t show it, is the balm that will bring you peace and consolation. Don’t be afraid to say “I forgive,” and don’t be afraid to say “I’m sorry” either. It’s often the trigger for many people rediscovering that the bedrock of love on which their lives are built. It doesn’t mean that you’ll forget, and many times it doesn’t mean that what happened will hurt any less, but it will give you a peace that the world can’t give.

Readings: Sirach 3:2–6, 12–14; Colossians 3:12–21; Luke 2:22–40.

Christmas, Mass During the Day (2)

In today’s Gospel the evangelist John speaks of the true light, so that makes it the perfect Gospel passage for the Christmas Mass during the Day: daytime is the brightest moment on Christmas Day. We need spiritual light to grasp the profundity of this day. We need to gaze upon the manger, gaze upon the baby Jesus, and remind ourselves: “this is God, and he’s come to save and love me.” In a cave in Bethlehem, probably in a little hollowed out part of rock filled with some straw, God was born as a baby for me. What does that say about him, and what does that say about me?

In today’s First Reading Isaiah reminds us that with the First Coming of the Lord everything he brings as a “gift” mankind is a cause for joy. The day of the Lord, like the coming of the Messiah, was seen more along the lines of someone powerful coming to “clean house” in a socio-political way. No one can deny that the coming of the Messiah did bring tremendous changes on the socio-political level, but all would agree that Christ did not bring them in the way anyone expected. The Gospel is the good news. The Gospel is Christ himself. Therefore, Christ doesn’t only bring good news, but is good news. The coming of the Lord at Christmas brings us the hope of salvation, peace, and redemption. His coming does not just bring good news to Israel, but to “all the nations” and “all the ends of the earth.” The power of God and his salvation are revealed to all, starting with a little cave in Bethlehem, then choirs of angels, then shepherds, then Kings, and so on.

Today’s Second Reading reminds us that, in Jesus, God has now said it all. We call Jesus Christ the Word of God for a reason. None of the other messengers sent throughout salvation history were on a par with God himself. Neither man nor angel could compare to God coming in Person. Through the birth of the Son of God at Christmas we see our relationship with God in a new light. We see Jesus as our big brother giving us the opportunity to acknowledge and have God not only as our Creator, but as Our Father. With the coming of Jesus we don’t just have a few new facts revealed, continuing a gradual revelation throughout salvation history: through his Word, God has now said it all. The mystery of what God is trying to say by coming in Person as a little infant in a manger gives us plenty to pray about and contemplate. Seeing him a sleeping newborn today reminds us that Christ’s entire Incarnation is meant to communicate something, not just the words he’ll began to speak as he grows older.

As John reminds us in today’s Gospel, the true light that enlightens everyone has come into the world with the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. The Son of God is also the Word of God. He himself is the message. All of creation occurred through him and with him in mind, so he is the key to unlocking the meaning of creation itself, including us. He became flesh and dwelt among us because he wanted to communicate something to us Personally and profoundly. It was unexpected and, to many, unobserved, but, starting with the Holy Family, those who received him in faith gained the ability to become, like the Son, children of God. We gaze today upon the baby Jesus in a manger and see the Word whom God the Father had in mind when he created the whole world. The baby Jesus is the key that unlocks the meaning of our existence here on earth; and even in a manger the Word is communicating to us without so much as a peep.

One of the most beautiful things about Christmas are the hymns. They’re truly treasures that have stood the test of time. They let us easily foster and express our joy at the birth of Christ. Why not contemplate the lyrics this week of your favorite hymn? It is always good to explore the reasons for our joy. Sometimes the hymns don’t directly speak of the events in and around Our Savior’s birth, but they present a great opportunity to consider the traditions that have sprung around the Nativity.

Readings: Isaiah 52:7–10; Psalm 98:1–6; Hebrews 1:1–6; John 1:1–18.

4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s readings remind us, at the threshold of Christmas, that the mysteries of Our Lord and his saving plan are something revealed gradually over time, and will culminate with seeing Our Lord face to face in eternity. If we seek to gradually unravel the mystery we find that it goes beyond all our expectations.

In today’s First Reading King David decides it is time to build the first Temple for the Lord, and he receives a promise of a lasting dynasty. However, this dynasty is not like any other dynasty. The Ark of the Covenant in David’s time, a sign and instrument of the Lord’s presence among his people, had been housed in nothing better than a fancy tent, and now that David’s kingdom was secure he starts to feel guilty about the Lord’s nomadic “accommodations.” He consults the prophet Nathan and receives the green light from the Lord to start planning for the construction of what would become the first Temple of Israel, completed eventually by his son Solomon.

The Lord is pleased with David’s initiative, because David was showing appreciation for all the Lord had done for him: he’d gone from being a young shepherd to a great military leader to a king thanks to the Lord, not his own merits. The Lord promised David a lasting peace and success for his kingdom, but not just in David’s lifetime. The “house” of David, in recognition of the “house” he wanted to build for the Lord, would be a dynasty that endured in the Lord’s presence not just in history, but forever. That descendant who ensured that eternal dynasty would one day be revealed to be Our Lord, the Messiah, whose birthday we’ll celebrate real soon.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that God’s plans are always revealed gradually, shrouded in mystery. The Messiah wasn’t revealed at first to be the Son of God. That was revealed in Our Lord’s Incarnation, as the Gospel today reminds us. The Messiah wasn’t revealed at first to be a blessing for anyone other than Israel, but in Christ it was revealed that the Messiah would be a blessing for “all nations.” What Nathan and other Old Testament prophets foretold was only fully revealed and understood in Our Lord. The key to unlocking the mysteries of God is named Jesus Christ, but turning that key requires faith in him, following his rhythm.

In today’s Gospel the Annunciation, and Mary’s response, remind us that there’s always an element of mystery in God’s plan for our lives, a mystery to be accepted in faith. If you seek rational certainty you’re no longer believing, you’re just trying to prove something. The Angel Gabriel is dropping more bombs than a military plane. Mary doesn’t know how to respond to an angel appearing to her and saying she is pleasing to the Lord. It’s pure humility on her part.

Then Gabriel drops another bomb: the Lord wants Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary is confused, because it seems her plans, good plans, were not God’s plans after all. The Church Fathers see in this confusion Mary’s prior plan to have pledged her perpetual virginity out of love for God, something unheard of in her time among the Jews. While explaining the biological and theological technicalities Gabriel also lets her know that her son will be the Son of God.

Mary was faced with a decision, the decision to become something seemingly impossible: the Virgin Mother of God the Son, who’d be the Messiah and save Israel. To understand the true weight of her decision we must forget for a moment everything that came after this decision. Put yourself in her shoes in that moment. She had to decide to embrace the seemingly impossible based on a promise that nothing was impossible to God.

She was faced with a mystery that in many ways was beyond her comprehension, but it was God’s mystery and that was enough for her: she accepted God’s mystery in her own life with faith and was never the same. She didn’t qualify her acceptance of the invitation; she said, “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Our Lord leaves signs for anyone with faith who wants to find them. He even promises that the Holy Spirit will help us to find them. A little silence and prayer will clear our minds and hearts to see more clearly what plans he may have for us at Christmas and in the new year about to begin. Like Mary, even if we don’t understand 100%, we must respond in faith and move forward with him.

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8b–12, 14a, 16; Psalm 89:2–5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25–27; Luke 1:26–38.

3rd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

This Sunday is also called Gaudete Sunday (from the first Latin word of its entrance antiphon: Gaudete—Rejoice) and includes the first Glory to God we’ve prayed or sung on a Sunday since Advent began. Rose colored vestments are an option only two days of the year, and this is one of them. Why? It’s not Christmas Day yet, but it is the day we celebrate the joyous realization that the Messiah is already here and appearing soon.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah reminds us that the coming of the Anointed of the Lord (“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me”), the Messiah, is going to bring good things and is a cause for rejoicing. The anointed one brings a happy resolution to a veritable litany of afflictions: good news to the poor, healing to the sad and grieving, freedom to the imprisoned and enslaved, a blessed time, and vindication—being cleared from blame for past faults. Isaiah doesn’t just describe what the Anointed One will bring, but our reaction as well in language that inspired Mary’s Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55). We rejoice because with the Messiah justice and peace will flourish as abundantly as a lush garden.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that joy should not just be our attitude when things are going great, but when things are going rotten as well, because those things pale compared to the joy Our Lord will bring us. Some may see us as airheads when we live joyfully for no apparent reason, but that’s when we must explain the cause of our joy: doing God’s will, aided by the Holy Spirit, can fill us with nothing other than joy. Paul encourages us to be moved by the Spirit, but this is not just sentimentalism. He teaches us to test everything to see what is truly good and what is truly evil. The good makes us profoundly happy; evil just makes us miserable if we let it. We rejoice because even though holiness is hard Our Lord has promised he will help us and he will do the heavy lifting in our sanctification. We just have to let ourselves by led by his Spirit. All the things the Messiah promises in the First Reading will be brought to us spiritually by Christ if we let him: good news, true freedom, healing, justice, and peace.

In today’s Gospel John the Baptist tells the priests, Levites, and Pharisees that he is not the Messiah, but that the Messiah has arrived and he is heralding him. As we saw in last week’s readings, the prophet Malachi said someone would come prepare the way for the Lord (see Malachi 3:1). That someone would encourage his listeners to make straight the way of the Lord (see Isaiah 40:3): John the Baptist. John identifies himself as that person today. The amazing message of John that should fill any believing Jew with awe (hence, his skeptical visitors didn’t pick up on it) was that, unlike the prophets before him, he was telling them the Messiah was already “among” them. The Messiah was not coming. He was already here and just hadn’t “gone public” yet. To be fair, that would take some time for the Jews to process, because for them the Messiah would come in power and glory to “clean house” for them.

This Gospel is apt for Advent because now we remember Our Savior in Mary’s womb, about to be born. He is already among us, but hidden, waiting to be revealed. In a way this week we can celebrate the moment of salvation history when Mary becomes pregnant and Jesus’ birthday draws near.

Today’s First Reading not only tells us the joyful things the Messiah will bring; it tells us how we can imitate him. We may not be able to do miraculous things (unless the Lord wills it), but we can bring joy into someone’s life. If we’re not doing that with our family, that’s where we must start, but it shouldn’t just stop there. Just as in other times of year there are people hurting, hungry, or simply lonely during this season. If we bring them joy, we bring them the good news that someone loves them and cares for them always: Our Lord.

Readings: Isaiah 61:1–2a, 10–11; Luke 1:46–50, 53–54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24; John 1:6–8, 19–28.

2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

The prophets in today’s readings teach us that it is not enough for the Lord to make a beeline toward us. We need to clear a straight path toward him and help others reach him as well. Our sins are the roadblocks and setbacks in the journey.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah reminds us that we can help the Lord reach us or hinder him, but he is coming one away or the other. Salvation history, from the Fall to the Incarnation, was a long, difficult, and twisted road. Mankind was lost in sin and groping in the dark to regain its bearings. The Lord’s interventions before coming in Person were all to keep people moving and facing in the right directions, with mixed results. They were expecting to meet him at the end of the journey, not during the journey. Today the Lord tells Isaiah to encourage Israel after all their struggle and difficulty with the good news that not only are they getting closer, but the Lord is coming closer to them to help them along the way. They’ve paid the prices for their sins and are ready of be reconciled with the Lord. With all the imagery of making a straight path, filling in the valleys, and levelling the peaks not only is the Lord encouraging them to make a beeline for him, but to build a direct path to him. A direct path between two people is good for both. In the Incarnation and Birth of Our Lord, for which we’re preparing, we meet Our Lord on the way, and he makes the way easier and accompanies us.

In today’s Second Reading St. Peter reminds us how we can make straight the way for the Lord, and how the Lord makes the way straight for us. It is a long road because Our Lord is patient with sinners and wants their salvation. Some need time to get back on course. Some need more time, some need less. With sin the road doesn’t get longer; it gets harder. We go off track, take useless detours, stumble along the way, sometimes turn completely around and lose progress. The Lord will appear unexpectedly and everything will change, for good or ill, depending on our attitude toward him. God was born as Jesus Christ. Our humanity is his humanity, and a meeting point no one could have expected in our journey towards eternity. That meeting seeks to transform our lives, not condemn them. Our Lord wants to make it a good moment, not a bad one, but the decision is ultimately ours: we make straight the path to him if we live in “holiness and devotion,” eager for his day to come as a day of righteousness. That Day is not just at the end of time when he returns in glory, but, as his Birth reminds us, the moment we’re born of water and the Spirit in Baptism (see John 3:3–8). From that moment we’re back on the path to eternity with him at our side, and that path is made straight, if we keep pressing on.

In today’s Gospel John the Baptist starts telling Israel, and us, to get ready, fulfilling two prophecies of the Old Testament. The prophet Malachi said someone would come prepare the way for the Lord (see Malachi 3:1). That someone, as the prophecy in today’s First Reading reminds us, would encourage his listeners to make straight the way of the Lord (see Isaiah 40:3): enter John the Baptist. Mark tells us how the way of the Lord was made straight by John: a baptism of repentance (as opposed to what we now know as the sacrament of Baptism) for the forgiveness of sins. An attitude of repentance and a desire for forgiveness is what makes the Lord’s path straight, and John’s baptism with water was a way to show it.

Mark also makes a point of describing John’s attire because it was the “uniform” of a great prophet, Elijah (see 2 Kings 1:8), who was one of the most amazing prophets of the Old Testament in terms of the signs and miracles. Malachi actually described the one who would prepare the Lord’s way as “Elijah” (see Malachi 4:5). John’s mission would be equally amazing for two reasons: first, because he would actually baptize the Lord when he came, a moment when Our Lord sanctified the waters for Baptism; second, because he would be the last prophet of the Old Testament, the one who would immediately announce the Messiah and see him before his death.

If John personifies how we can make the Lord’s path straight (an attitude of repentance and a desire for forgiveness), the right attitude is not enough. His baptism was a sign of that attitude, but the action would happen in the Baptism we now all receive to be “born anew” (see John 3:3–8) in the Holy Spirit. Advent is our moment for adopting the right attitude, and Christmas will be the moment when we encounter Our Lord and remember that we too were born in him, leaving the old, dead life of sin behind.

The Messiah is coming in a few weeks, hidden in a cave in Bethlehem. As far as hide and seek goes, finding him can present a challenge if we try to do it on our own. During Advent the prophets, apostles, and evangelists are telling us where and how to find Our Lord at Christmas. Meditate on the Advent readings as a roadmap to make a straighter way to and for the Lord. Our Lord’s Incarnation and birth are also a way in which God comes out of hiding from a humanity lost in sin so that we can seek him again. Our Lord never avoids us, even in those moments where we’re letting him down. That alone warrants us seeking to encounter and unite ourselves more deeply with him at Christmas and beyond.

Readings: Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11; Psalm 85:9–14; 2 Peter 3:8–14; Mark 1:1–8.