Christmas, Vigil Mass

This evening we celebrate when something truly miraculous came to pass on a Holy Night: God was born. The newborn Jesus ushers in a new dawn, a dawn of hope for a humanity that was lost in the night of sin and in need of a Savior.

Like Isaiah in this evening’s First Reading, we can’t be silent in the light of what we’re celebrating: our Messiah is born. The vindication Isaiah describes dawns with the birth of Our Lord. With the daybreak of Our Lord a new age begins, the age of our redemption and restored union with God. Vindication means to set free, to avenge, or to free from allegation or blame, to defend. The Lord has freed us from our sins. He has avenged us for all the evil we’ve had to suffer. In becoming one of us he has freed us from blame and shown favor toward us. With his birth we will be defended from sin forever. This vindication is a restoration of the dignity of Israel after it had gained a bad name. For her infidelity she was Forsaken, and everyone knew it. She was despoiled of her true wealth—the Lord—and became Desolate as a result. The Lord shows his favor toward us, his People, with a love as deep and solid as that of newlyweds. The union between the Lord and humanity will never diminish. He has become flesh, one with us in his humanity, and bridged the gap between the divine and the human worked by sin. Like the love of newlyweds, that love should only grow deeper. His holy humanity has the power to make our humanity holy too and is destined to grow.

In this evening’s Second Reading Paul describes all the key players in salvation history that would lead to the Messiah born to us today. The God of Israel, none other, chose to reveal himself and walk with the patriarchs, then freed their descendants from Egypt and established a people as his people. When the king they clamored for failed them (Saul) the Lord raised up David as their king, a king who’d always be faithful to him. King David’s descendant, Jesus, would be faithful to the Father forever and save us forever. John’s conception and birth, as the prophets foretold in the Old Testament, also heralded the arrival of the Messiah. This evening we celebrate that the Messiah is Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.

In this evening’s Gospel recalls the lineage of Our Lord to reveal something even more miraculous than the birth of the Messiah: the birth of the Son of God. He is descended from David, something he gets from Joseph, but he wouldn’t be in the human family tree at all if not for Mary welcoming him into her womb, enabling him to assume human nature. There are saints and sinners in his family tree, but he shows his solidarity with them all by taking up a place in the human family. The Gospel also presents Joseph trying to face the dilemma of the Incarnation. Joseph was betrothed to Mary, but he knew he was not Our Lord’s biological father. Something in his heart did not want to condemn Mary for an apparent wrong, but the facts that he knew, and the Law, were clear.

It took a revelation and faith to accept the miracle that was about to be born, and Joseph had a strong faith. Every birth is a miracle, but the birth we’re celebrating this evening takes the miraculous to an entirely different level. We’re happy to celebrate the birth of Our Savior, just as anyone in need of saving would be. Illustrious historical figures who’d go on to save their people are many. This evening we rejoice that God the Son is born. God has assumed human nature and come among us, full of grace and truth. Some historians may balk at that, but we believe with joy what the Lord has revealed to us: God is born as Our Savior.

Christmas Eve gives us an opportunity to help the light of Christ dawn more brightly on Christmas Day. Christmas Day is still relatively sacred in terms of a civil holiday, but someone is always working, and not always because they want overtime. Sometimes they drew the short straw or are far from family and friends. Why not bring that gas station attendant, homeless shelter volunteer, emergency responder, nurse on shift, police officer, etc., a plate of Christmas cheer, or a simple thank you for working so that others can be safe and rest?

Readings: Isaiah 62:1–5; Psalm 89:4–5, 16–17, 27, 29; Acts 13:16–17, 22–25; Matthew 1:1–25. See also Christmas, Mass During the Day (2), and Christmas, Mass During the Day.

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4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle C (2)

The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s readings remind us that the pregnant pause of Advent, soon concluding, is a time to renew and rejoice in the promises of the Lord, promises we start to see fulfilled in Our Savior’s birth.

In today’s First Reading Micah reminds us that the fulfillment of the promise starts humble and small, but will grow to something great, lasting, and wonderful: peace to all of good will. Like King David, the Messiah would not be born in royal Jerusalem, but in the little town of Bethlehem, a humble beginning. Yet his origin is from “ancient times”: from eternity is about as old as you can get. The Lord’s plans for Israel and the eternity of the Son are both ancient and mysterious.

The return of his “kindred” to the children of Israel alludes to all of humanity benefitting from his rule, not just Israel. He will rule with the authority and strength of the Lord, with the goal of establishing a lasting kingdom characterized by peace for all. After Micah’s prophecy and the last prophets Israel experienced a “pregnant” pause. The prophets fell silent. There was Messianic expectation, but nothing seemed to happen for a long time. Like a child in the womb something beautiful was gestating. Advent also represents this pregnant pause. Just as a child takes ninth months to form in the womb, these weeks of Advent, now drawing to a close, let something worthy of our hope form as well.

In today’s Second Reading the Letter to the Hebrews explains why Our Lord came. We sacrifice to please the Lord but sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake is not everything. If you’re divine like the Son, assuming a human nature and living a human life is a sacrifice. Imagine giving up Heaven for an earthly life. The Father wanted someone to sacrifice himself for our redemption, and the Son did so, knowing and wanting the will of the Father. Sacrifices are often external to us, so we always run the risk of disconnecting our hearts from what we’re doing. We lose sight of why we’re sacrificing something. The Incarnation and Nativity teach us that the Son, in assuming human nature and being born of Mary, went “all in” in terms of sacrifice. He began a human life to give it all for us and for his Father.

In today’s Gospel Mary had just given her fiat (accepting her vocation to be the Mother of God) and she has hurried to help her cousin Elizabeth who is well along in her miraculous pregnancy. Like Mother, like Son, Mary sought to do the Father’s will too. After the centuries of pregnant pause announced by Micah something was starting to happen.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that life starts in the womb, not on our birthday, as any mother who feels her child growing and kicking in the womb will tell you. John starts “prophesying” (probably with his feet) knowing the Lord is near. Elizabeth is also privileged with a spiritual insight into what is happening: she knows Mary is bearing the “Lord” her womb. She also knows the source of Mary’s blessing: her faith in the Lord’s promises. As Advent concludes we are blessed to the degree that we believe the Lord’s promise will be fulfilled. We’ll end Advent with a little baby in a manger being born, but we believe he will grow one day to redeem us and shepherd us and everyone we love who welcomes him to a lasting peace.

One of the titles of Our Lord, very appropriate in the light of Micah’s prophesy today, is Prince of Peace (cf. Isaiah 9:6). The Prince of Peace is about to be born to shepherd in a lasting peace. We don’t have to wait. Advent is a season of penance and reconciliation, a time where we make peace with the Lord, and we make an extra effort to make peace with one another. If you are feuding with anyone, now is the time to offer the olive branch to welcome the Prince of Peace.

Readings: Micah 5:1–4a; Psalm 80:2–3, 15–16, 18–19; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–45. See also 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle C.

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Cycle C

The Third Sunday of Advent is also called Gaudete Sunday because of the first word of the entrance antiphon. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”; each reading today is an invitation to joy because it proclaims that the Lord is near and will soon be in our midst.

In today’s First Reading Zephaniah tells Israel why it should be rejoicing. The Lord is not just going to show mercy to them and save them; he is going to rejoice among them. Zephaniah speaks of a judgment withdrawn and enemies turned away: whenever Israel was unfaithful to the covenant they believed the Lord sent enemies to punish them for their transgressions. The Lord is no longer a just Judge executing judgment on them; he is now a defender and advocate in their midst. In Advent we remember that before the coming of Our Lord we were estranged from him and at the mercy of sin. He’s coming to change that. The Lord is not just in our midst grudgingly; he’s happy to be among his people and he’s rejoicing over us and as one of us.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that Our Lord being near is a cause for rejoicing. Just as we take comfort and security from our parents being close when we’re children, so we should also take comfort and security from knowing Our Lord is never far away. In Advent we rejoice that Our Lord, Our Savior, is close and will never be far away again. Paul encourages us to ask the Lord for whatever we need without anxiety. Our Lord is worthy of our trust and gratitude, so we trust he’ll give us what we need. That attitude fills us with the peace of God, a deeper and more lasting peace than the world can offer. What better reason to rejoice?

In today’s Gospel people are flocking to John because expectation is building that a change for the better is at hand. People from all walks of life are approaching John and asking advice on the right thing to do. They’re willing to share and willing to be fair in their dealings with others. A better society is at hand, which is why they start asking themselves whether John is the Christ. John tells them that the Christ is coming and promises something even better than what he is calling for: a salutary shake-up. Winnowing fans were used to toss grain and straw into the air: the straw and chaff would blow away, leaving the grain to fall back onto the floor. The “grain” is everyone and everything good and just, while the “chaff” is burned as bad and useless. Even if a shake-up was coming, it is for the sake of good, not evil. Even today Advent is a time for letting ourselves be shaken out of our complacency for the sake of something better. In the Second Reading today Paul said our kindness should be known to all. It is the kindness of Our Savior that should inspire us this Advent to show that kindness.

Joy is meant to be contagious. One smile can “infect” a whole room. The best way we can foster our own joy during Advent is to share it and spread it. Some people are masters of spreading “Christmas cheer.” We can be passive and simply take the cookies when they come, or we can take the initiative and organize the joy, bake the cookies, cheer up someone who is feeling down. Paul teaches us that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7), and Our Lord teaches us in Advent that it is giving that brings us cheer. He rejoices in us, so let us rejoice in him and share the joy.

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14–18a; Isaiah 12:2–6; Philippians 4:4–7; Gospel Luke 3:10–18. See also 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday).

2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle C (2)

Advent is a time of penance and conversion, but is also characterized by Messianic hope: our penance and conversion reflect a good work that is already underway, a good work that is about to experience a boost and a means to bear fruit in the birth of Our Lord at Christmas. As St. Paul describes it in today’s Second Reading: “the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Our Lord enables us to definitively leave our sinful past and ways behind, and that is a cause for joyful hope.

In today’s First Reading Baruch reminds Israel that the Lord is coming to help smooth the way so that they can return to Jerusalem in triumph. The Lord had taken Israel from being a nomadic people wandering in the desert (Abraham) to the Chosen People in the Promised Land, a nation. Their sins drove them into exile and scattered them again, and refugees don’t have the luxury of dressing in their “Sunday best.” Baruch encourages Israel to foresee the moment when they’ll cast aside the rags of their affliction and dress in their “Sunday best” because the Lord is bringing them back to Jerusalem.

The peaks and valleys that make any journey more difficult will be leveled to pave the way for a people that were once exiled and defeated, but now are victorious thanks to the Lord. Even as they were exiled the Lord promised through his prophets to bring them out of the desert and back into their Land again. Salvation was underway even then. Advent reminds us that salvation is underway and has been from all eternity, culminating in the Incarnation and Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that the good work in us, a work we are trying to capitalize on in Advent, wasn’t started by us, but it can be finished by us, for good or for ill. The Lord from all eternity wanted us to be gathered around his Son before him in Heaven. Adam, Eve, then we blew it. Our Lord came to deliver us from our predicament, but the Holy Spirit was working in our hearts long before that, nudging us toward contrition and conversion for our sins, trying to get us disposed so that the good work could get back on track (in Christ) after we’d derailed it (through our sins).

We received the grace of redemption at Baptism, Paul encourages us today to trust in Our Lord and trust that the good work of redemption will reach its completion thanks to him. Our redemption is underway. It’s not finished yet. Paul also reminds us that the work of redemption is a work of God’s love: it wants to spark something in us, a love that burns all secondary and disordered loves away. Through that good work the Lord’s love reaches out to us, and, straining toward his, our love reaches out to him. His love reached out to us first, and it continued to reach out to us after we’d sinned and continues to reach out to us whenever we reject it by sinning.

In today’s Gospel John the Baptist is mobilized to get the word out that the Lord is coming to lead anyone to salvation who wants it. Today’s Gospel said the “word of God” came to him, something prophetic. God addresses his word to his prophet to set something good into motion. At that moment, just as in Advent, the good work was simply an announcement: the Lord is coming, get ready. The way to get ready was to receive John’s baptism (a gesture of repentance, not the Baptism we’ve received that was instituted by Christ) and seek forgiveness for our sins. We could never extricate ourselves from the consequences of our sins alone: John is announcing that the Lord will pave the way for our forgiveness and our conversion. The Lord is coming within reach. We need to start reaching out to him during Advent.

The holiday season is a special time for reaching out in a special way to those in need, whether spiritually or materially. Outreach literally means “reaching out.” Helping the poor is always important. Reaching out to reconcile with those with whom we’re estranged is also a beautiful way to welcome Our Lord at Christmas. Reaching out to those who are lonely, those whose family is far away, or those coping with loss. Reaching out to that irascible person who is difficult to get along with, getting under that crusty armor to discover who they truly are and show that you “get it.” You may not need to go very far. Some of these people you might even find in the privacy of your own home or family.

Readings: Baruch 5:1–9; Psalm 126:1–6; Philippians 1:4–6, 8–11; Gospel Luke 3:1–6. See also 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle C.

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1st Sunday of Advent, Cycle C (2)

A new liturgical year begins today, and we inaugurate it with the season of Advent, a time of joyful expectation and spiritual conversion to prepare for the birth of Our Lord at Christmas. Today’s readings remind us that Advent is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Our Savior.

In today’s First Reading the Lord announces through Jeremiah that the promises made throughout salvation history are about to be fulfilled, masterfully evoking the sense of anticipation we’re called to live in Advent. Jesus is that shoot that springs up from the line of King David, destined to be a just king who brings safety, security, and justice: in a word, the long-awaited Messiah. Humanity will no longer be left alone in the dark of sin and menaced by the shadow of death. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the people of Israel, who’d received so many promises, including this one, were scattered throughout the known world and under the dominion of a foreign power. Hope was the only thing they had left. Advent is a time when we start to see the light at the end of tunnel: the birth of Our Savior.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us of the most important thing brought by the Messiah: the love of God in Person. Paul reminds us that we need to get ready for Our Lord’s arrival, which is the purpose of Advent, and how. The Lord wants to increase the love we have in our hearts, not only for him, but for each other. It takes strength of heart to welcome Our Lord as he deserves at Christmas. Advent is a time of conversion: a time for turning out hearts back to him if they’ve strayed. It’s also a time for turning out hearts back to each other. It’s no coincidence that during this season we turn back to our families and think more about those in need. Our Lord came for both those reasons: we need salvation and help coming in from the cold solitude of sin that separates us from him and from each other.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord teaches us, describing his Second Coming, that the heart cannot rely on feelings alone, which change like the wind, if it wants to endure trials. The heart must rely on something deeper. The Lord foretells the calamities that will fall, but he tells us to be steadfast in those moments, because he as Our Redeemer is coming. Everyone endures trials in life, and, strangely, during Advent the preparations for Christmas are a trial for some: shopping, preparing for family visits, juggling work, study, and family time, etc. The “trials” of Advent are actually opportunities. We can make them a Christmas gift for Our Lord by putting love into everything we do during Advent: giving out of love, serving visiting family and friends because we love them, not just out of obligation. It’s not that we don’t love at all in doing those things; rather, it’s an opportunity to increase our love as St. Paul suggests in today’s Second Reading. Perseverance’s worth is measured by what it endures, and whether Advent is a time of joyful expectation for us or something we “survive” Our Lord will show us how to live it in a spiritually fruitful way.

There are two Advent traditions that are great for fostering joyful expectation: lighting a candle of the Advent wreath each Sunday or using a special Advent calendar. Don’t just foster that expectation; put it into action. Whether you celebrate every Sunday or every day, put a little spiritual gift for Our Lord (an extra prayer, an act of charity, a sacrifice) by the wreath or calendar every time you recall Christmas getting closer. Our holiness is best gift to offer Our Lord at Christmas.

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14–16; Psalm 25:4–5, 8–10, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:2; Luke 21:25–28, 34–36. See also 1st Sunday of Advent, Cycle C, 34th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday and 34th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday.

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