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.

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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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.

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.