4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle A (2)

As the saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn, but the dawn also represents the light growing brighter and brighter. This Sunday the light of the Advent wreath is full because we are close to the dawn of our salvation: the birth of Our Lord. God will soon visibly be with us after nine months in his mother’s womb. In today’s readings we see how people welcome the news, for good or ill, and we can ask ourselves how we receive the news.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah makes a prophecy that a a virgin will conceive and bear a son named Emmanuel (“God is with us”). The Lord asked King Ahaz through Isaiah to ask for a sign, and Ahaz disobeyed: he obviously didn’t believe the Lord was speaking through Isaiah, or maybe he didn’t want to listen to the Lord at all. The Lord communicates at times whether you want him to or not: in this case, he prophesied the birth of the Messiah. Ahaz was already not listening well to the Lord, so the prophecy didn’t mean much to him, but it meant a lot to us. Eventually things did not work out well for Ahaz, but things worked out great for us: the Lord was born.

In today’s Second Reading Paul reminds us that the prophets promised the Gospel that we would receive from Our Lord, along with the mission to share that Gospel with everyone. In Advent we remember the Word of God is not just a message. He is a Person, the Son of God. We’re preparing to receive Our Lord in less than a week, but we are also called to share that news with others. The Word is coming in Person to put something into action: the work of redemption and our mission as apostles to put that Word into action for the benefit of others as well.

Matthew in today’s Gospel shows the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus, but also the source of Joseph’s confusion and dilemma: Mary’s fidelity to the marriage agreement their families had already made was called into question. Joseph knew he was not Jesus’ biological father, and that apparently meant adultery on Mary’s part, calling for action to be taken. The Law was clear on how adulteresses should be treated, but somehow Joseph knew in his heart that he should not expose Mary to the cold brutality that the Law prescribed (adulteresses were shunned and even stoned). He had a dilemma in his heart, and he felt obliged to opt for the Law, but in the most compassionate manner possible: a parting of ways with Mary through a quiet divorce.

The Lord resorted to a channel of communication that hearkened back to the age of the Patriarchs: a dream. Joseph had already intuited in his heart that the raw Law was not the answer, but he hadn’t felt he could go beyond it, just temper it with forgiveness and compassion. In the dream the angel communicated to him that the Holy Spirit was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and that Jesus would be the Messiah. Joseph obeyed and welcomed not only Mary and Jesus into his home, but into the House of David.

If it seems sometimes that God has to resort to a back channel to communicate with us, to lower our resistance in order to speak to us, we must remember that the most fundamental means of communication is love. Love doesn’t discard justice; rather, it tempers it and permits space for mercy and compassion. When we don’t understand what Our Lord is asking from us, or why he may have permitted a troubling situation, let’s strive to respond with the same fairness and compassion as St. Joseph. The Lord will make sure his message gets through to us somehow.

If Our Lord did not temper his justice with love, he would have left us forever in the darkness of our sins. It was love that made him become flesh and dwell among us to redeem us from our sins and bring joy back to hopeless lives. Sometimes we can be so “fair” that we end up being harsh. With the quiet gentleness of a newborn baby the Lord is about to teach us at Christmas that mercy shows love is greater than justice. If you to dispense any justice this week, make an extra effort to temper it with love. It’ll make you more merciful.

Readings: Isaiah 7:10–14; Psalm 24:1–6; Romans 1:1–7; Matthew 1:18–24. See also 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle ASaint Joseph, Husband of MaryAdvent, December 18th, and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Cycle A (2)

The Third Sunday of Advent is also called Gaudete Sunday because of the first word of the entrance antiphon. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.” Advent represents all of salvation history leading up to the Incarnation of Our Lord, and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that, after the Fall, the world was a harsh and unforgiving spiritual desert for a long time due to sin. Now those who were faithful to the Lord are about to be rewarded, and that is a cause for rejoicing. A new life is about to bloom that will lead to a new life to bloom in all of us: the life of Christ.

Generations of prophets encouraged, harangued, explained, and warned God’s chosen people, and other than a faithful remnant the appeals on the Lord’s behalf fell on deaf ears. In today’s First Reading Isaiah paints the coming of the Lord in terms of relief and new life. Dried and arid land comes into full bloom. People withered by poor health are restored. Injustice and the pain injustice brings are addressed and lifted. He describes the joy of being ransomed from the slavery of sin to be able to return to the Temple on Mt. Zion rejoicing. Our Lord takes up these prophecies in today’s Gospel to encourage John during his imprisonment.

John described himself as a voice crying out in the desert; in today’s Second Reading Paul describes the prophets as suffering hardship and showing heroic patience, waiting for the fruits of their work to be seen. Paul also describes the patience of farmers and gardeners who plant, till, and prepare the soil, watching and hoping for rain to make the fruits of their work bloom. John’s in the dungeon this Sunday and he’s waiting for some sign of the “precious fruit of the earth” Paul describes. In Our Lord’s works John sees something starting to sprout, and Our Lord tells him through his disciples that there are signs of new life coming into bloom in order to help him persevere in faith and hope.

To understand the momentous revelation Our Lord makes today for his listeners we have to imagine what it was like to hear prophet after prophet promise, generation after generation, century after century that the Messiah was coming, only to have to keep waiting. Today Our Lord tells them, and us, that the wait is all but over: John the Baptist is the last prophet, the prophet who would come as a new Elijah right before the arrival of the Messiah. A promise made through the prophets for centuries is about to be fulfilled in Jesus. In Advent we celebrate that long wait ending, but also that events are about to take a dramatic turn for the better. When Our Lord describes John as least in the Kingdom of Heaven, he is telling us that if we considered John blessed to be a prophet with a special mission and relationship with God, we would be even more blessed if we believed in Our Lord and formed a part of his Kingdom, a Kingdom he’ll inaugurate with his incarnation and birth. Advent is a time to help us grow in joyful expectation and hope. Let’s ask Our Lord for a great faith that his promises will be fulfilled in our lives if we believe in him. Let’s ask for his blessings as we prepare for Christmas.

In today’s Gospel we see a glimpse of when the Advent and Christmas party is over. John the Baptist has dedicated himself to his mission of prophet to the Messiah, and now he’s in a dungeon for it at the whims of a cruel tyrant whose “wife” wants him dead. He also knows that prophets usually don’t live to a ripe old age, so the doubt comes: was it worth it? Is Jesus really the one? John’s disciples are bringing him news, but it’s no surprise that in the gloom of a dungeon your outlook can get equally gloomy. His decision shows great humility: imagine sending your own disciples to ask whether you’ve been prophesying the right thing all along. It also shows faith: he asks Jesus with simplicity whether he is the one or not and doesn’t demand proof. How many Advent and Christmas seasons have you lived? If a fresh hope in the coming Savior has given way to a gloomy routine of another holiday season that will come and go too quickly, now is the time to ask Our Lord to remind you of all the miracles he has worked in your life in order to re-fortify your hope. Don’t be shy about asking him.

Readings: Isaiah 35:1–6a, 10; Psalm 146:6–10; James 5:7–10; Matthew 11:2–11. See also 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Cycle A, 2nd Week of Advent, Thursday and 3rd Week of Advent, Wednesday.

1st Sunday in Advent, Cycle A (2)

Today in the celebration of the Eucharist there’s a change of vestment colors to celebrate a change of season. It’s not just that the weather is getting colder: today we begin a new season in the liturgical year and a new liturgical year. We begin Advent. “Advent” means “coming.” Last Sunday we celebrated the future Second Coming of Christ; during Advent we prepare to celebrate the First Coming of Christ: at Christmas, or, to be more technical, at the Annunciation, when through the Holy Spirit he was conceived in Mary’s womb (also called the Feast of the Incarnation), but he was born at Christmas, which is also called the Feast of the Nativity. In Advent we celebrate the start of salvation history, when man was lost in the darkness of sin before Christ’s First Coming to earth at Christmas.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah prophesies the coming of the Messiah as time of peace and blessings for all nations forever – that is cause for rejoicing, which is why Advent is a time for rejoicing. Isaiah’s prophecy began to be fulfilled in the First Coming, when the Savior of the World was born, and will be fulfilled in the Second. Isaiah today envisions people coming from all over the world to the mountain of the Lord’s house (Mt. Zion in Jerusalem) to be instructed by the Lord himself. The Lord will bring peace and light to guide us. He is the true light that enlightens everyone (cf. John 1:9).

In the First Coming and the Second Coming Christ is not letting us go it alone. When St. Paul in the Second Reading today reminds us that “our salvation is nearer now that we first believed,” he’s reminding us that Christ is nearer to us now because he is one of us. God became man. At Christmas we’ll be celebrating the fact that God is with us as one of us. We have to do our part, we have to change our lives, but shielded by the “armor of light,” “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as St. Paul encourages us to do: by living a Christian life we are helping Christ to fulfill that prophecy of Isaiah.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking about his Second Coming, but the question for both the First Coming and the Second Coming of Christ is the same: How are you getting ready? Your answer to that question will influence how you live Advent. Is it “finally!”? Is it “yeah, right…”? Is it “yikes”? Those answers are not answers to what gifts you’re going to get, what family you’re going to see, or how much you’re going to eat: they’re answers to how you are getting ready for Christ’s coming at Christmas. The Second Reading and the Gospel today remind us that he is coming at an unexpected moment. For the Israelites that was nothing new, but what they didn’t imagine was that the Messiah, the Savior of the World, would come in such an unexpected way: as a little baby in a manger. What’s your response to the Savior of the World coming as a little baby and lying in a manger? Maybe the question “Are you getting ready?” takes on a different light when you consider how he is coming. For the Israelites, the coming of the Messiah was going to be at the end of time: he was coming to defeat all their enemies and clean house. Instead he came as a little baby, way ahead of schedule. How did they respond? Some saw a little baby in a manger and said, “he’s not the Messiah, come on….” Others didn’t even believe in a Messiah to begin with, and didn’t change their opinion: “yeah, sure, the Savior of the World…right.” Christians are often on the fence: Some have the same attitude as the Israelites and the skeptics, but others are saying, “yikes,” because the Second Coming is all they have on their mind, and they know they’re not ready. Advent is a time to get ready the real Christian way, just as today’s Psalm says: “Let us go rejoicing!” Rejoicing is the Christian way to respond to the question Jesus is asking in the Gospel today.

Four weeks makes Christmas seem a long way away, but it will come quicker than you expect. Take some time in prayer this week to draft your spiritual plan for Advent. Not your plan for breaking out the ornaments, getting the tree, or do your shopping. Your spiritual plan. How are you going to use Advent to prepare spiritually for Christmas? Once you’ve made your plan, make a family plan too.

Readings: Isaiah 2:1–5; Psalm 122:1–9; Romans 13:11–14; Matthew 24:37–44. See also 1st Sunday in Advent, Cycle A and 21st Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday.

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).