1st Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

Today we reset the narrative that we follow throughout the liturgical year and begin the first liturgical season of a new liturgical year: Advent. Today’s readings help us to set the right tone for this season.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah articulates the feeling of abandonment to sin on the part of Israel, unfaithful and fallen, and a desire that the Lord return to them and set things aright, no matter what the consequences. Israel, through Isaiah’s lips, is tired of the long, lonely night of sin. They’ve turned from the Lord’s path and not heeded him as they should. The Lord has rescued them many times, and, even now, they call upon him as their “redeemer” hoping he will work similar wonders for them as he did for their forefathers.

They also acknowledge that the Lord will redeem them if he comes and finds them striving to change; the redeemer responds to our efforts at righteousness. Those who are indifferent to the Lord and his ways will never find them, but Israel today shows regret for what it has done or failed to do.

Advent is a time for us to regret one of the big reasons for Our Lord’s First Coming at Christmas: our sins and his desire to redeem us from them. It commemorates the time of penance before the coming of Christ when man was lost and fallen, so that when our Redeemer comes we welcome him with even more joyous expectation.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that with the coming of Christ the lament of Isaiah in the First Reading has been heard. Christ has come and redeemed us, and now, this Advent, we await him to come again at Bethlehem. Paul reminds us of all the spiritual gifts Our Lord has showered upon us thanks to his First Coming.

We live Advent already redeemed. We know how the story ends, even though with the Advent season we return to the first part of the narrative when Fallen man was lost in sin and without hope. Paul today may be speaking of the Second Coming, but his words remind us that every Advent season is an opportunity for Our Lord to come into our hearts and reveal himself in a special way, building on the spiritual gifts we’ve already received.

Advent, in expectation for Christmas, should not be lived in a spirit of “what have you given me lately?”, but, rather, recalling all that Our Lord has given us, along with the hope that he will continue to lavish his spiritual gifts on us.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord establishes the tone for Advent, even though he is speaking of the Second Coming: vigilant expectation. The Lord first came in a way that nobody expected. Isaiah today was hoping the Lord would come and make mountains quake, but Our Lord was born a little baby in a cave instead, hidden to most of the world. A lot of knowledgeable people in the Lord’s time were clueless about the time and way in which he was coming. It reminds us that many times God is not someone we figure out, but Someone who reveals himself to us.

We know how the story ends, so there is no spoiler alert needed, but every liturgical season presents us with an opportunity to keep our eyes open so that we recognize when the Lord sends some special insight or grace our way. In a conversation where we get distracted we sometimes miss something the other person was saying. Advent is a moment for giving the Lord our undivided attention so he can guide us to a better life. He wants to have a conversation with us this season.

Don’t skip Advent. Everyone faces the temptation of fast forwarding their attention and concern to Christmas, and many times that takes them off track, focusing on shopping and family logistics instead of the Reason for the Season. Advent is an opportunity for each of us to meditate on the Reason for the Season and help others to do so as well (hint: the Reason is not presents, despite what your children tell you). It is a time for reflecting on our sins and asking Our Lord to continue to redeem us from them.

If there’s some point of spiritual growth with which we are really struggling, Advent is a time not only to work on it, but to pray unceasingly for the Lord’s help in overcoming it. If we’ve become estranged from someone we love (or loved) we can ask Our Lord to help us to become reconciled. Shopping and family logistics are a reality of this season, but they also provide a spiritual opportunity to go out of our way for others. All the organizing, planning, budgeting, wrapping, etc. is to express your love for someone, and in loving others you love Christ. Don’t forget to include something for someone who may have no one to love them.

Readings: Isaiah 63:16b–17, 19b, 64:2–7; Psalm 80:2–3, 15–16, 18–19;1 Corinthians 1:3–9; Mark 13:33–37.

Solemnity of Christ the King, Cycle A

Today’s Sunday is also ominously referred to as the last Sunday in Ordinary time, and not just because next Sunday a new liturgical year begins with Advent. Today’s Sunday reminds us that one day will be the last day of history: the day when Christ, Our King, returns in glory so that, as the Second Reading today phrases it, “God may be all in all,” and he reigns forever.

In today’s First Reading Ezekiel has just criticized the kings of Israel for not being good “shepherds” to Israel, their flock (see Ezekiel 34:1–10) and tells Israel that the Lord himself will shepherd them. This shepherd will rescue the sheep no matter how much they’ve strayed or been scattered. When he is among them he will tend them as a shepherd should. He will make sure they have the pasture and rest that they need, and will keep them together and take care of the sick and injured.

The Lord, however, also warns that the “sleek and strong” sheep will be destroyed, and that it is the right thing to do. The implication shifts back to the Lord being a good and just king who punishes the bad kings of his people. Those bad kings grew strong at the expense of their flocks and lost sight that they too were sheep of the Shepherd. Anything of danger to the flock gets ended. The Lord also has a word for the flock: they too will be judged. The Good Shepherd, Our King, does all this for us.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul outlines the process that began with Christ’s Resurrection from the dead and continues until the end of time when “God may be all in all.” Christ’s Resurrection was just the beginning. As the “firstfruits” the resurrections are just starting. Adam’s Fall condemned us all to death; Christ’s resurrection brings life back to us again. This won’t happen until he returns in glory. His Resurrection is a testimony that it will happen to those who believe in him as well.

At the Last Judgment everyone will be raised from the dead, good and evil, and judged by Our Lord in the sight of all. The powers he destroys, including death itself, are all the evils in creation that afflicted us. We will never have to fear them again, because they’ll be definitively overthrown by Christ. Then, with his Kingdom secure and established, Christ will offer it to the Heavenly Father who gave it to him in the first place, and the Heavenly Father’s desire to have those who believe in him gathered around his Son to be with him forever will be fulfilled.

In today’s Gospel we hear, in Our Lord’s words, what the Last Judgment will be like: at the end of time everyone, living or dead, will stand before the Judge and be evaluated on their charity. The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” receives an added incentive: what you do unto others you are also doing to the Lord himself.

Love for neighbor is not just the ethical and loving thing to do; it is a way to love God himself. We’ll be judged on love for both. Sometimes Our Lord hides really well in those we’re trying to love. Many saints throughout history have persevered in loving nasty, smelly, offensive, ungrateful people because they know they are loving Our Lord and showing those people how much God loves them. We may not feel loving or feel the love, but we continue to try based on a deeper spiritual conviction that it is the right thing to do and a way of loving Our Lord. When we live this deep spiritual conviction, driven by charity, the difference between those who don’t and us is like the difference between a nasty cranky goat and a humble simple sheep: night and day.

With every Our Father we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come!”, and Our Lord, at the start of his public ministry, said the “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The Kingdom began with Christ preaching it and grows even today. It’s not just something that will come at the end of time. Charity and justice are the way we can help Christ’s Kingdom to spread. His Kingdom is a conquest of hearts, starting with ours. We should go out and through our justice and charity help him conquer the hearts of the whole world.

Readings: Ezekiel 34:11–12, 15–17; Psalm 23:1–6; 1 Corinthians 15:20–26, 28; Matthew 25:31–46.

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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

A recurring theme in all of today’s readings is the importance of a healthy respect for the Lord. In Biblical language this is usually referred to as “the fear of the Lord,” but today’s Gospel parable reminds us that fear can rattle us into making bad decisions as well as encourage us to make good ones.

Today’s First Reading presents an abbreviated wish list of everything a man should expect from a good wife, but also what is her due. A man entrusts his whole heart to a woman he considers “worthy.” She brings good things into his life, not grief. She is industrious and productive with her talents. She is not selfish, but helps the poor and needy. She is not focused on vanity, but what the Lord expects of her. Note that it says she “fears the Lord”: everything she does is out of respect for the Lord, not just her husband or society. And, as justice demands, she should be rewarded for her praiseworthy works. A good wife has all the characteristics of the fruitful servants in today’s Gospel, and this wish list could describe any person we consider good.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul teaches the Thessalonians that if they truly respect the Lord and put that respect into practice they should have no fear about the day he comes. The Thessalonians are worried about when the Second Coming will occur. Paul tells them it is completely pointless to worry if they live a holy life. What does the thought of Christ returning in glory today do to you? The only fear it should bring is for the unrepentant sinners who’d face Judgment. It is the guilty who fear discovery and judgment. The guilty hide in a life unillumined by the light of Christ, thinking it provides them cover. The fear of the Lord’s judgment can rattle us in the same way, making us scramble for a cover that does not exist, trying to avoid a judgment we know we deserve, all in vain. It’s an awareness of the Lord’s love and mercy that makes us always respect him and live, without fear, in the light of a holy life pleasing to him.

Today’s Gospel is a parable about life. The master in today’s parable gives his servants all the capital they need, but he also expects them to use that capital in a way that benefits not only him, but them. Two servants use it wisely, and one, so rattled by a fear of his master, doesn’t benefit the master or himself at all and pays the price. We have been given talents, some more, some less, and we’re expected to do something with them. We cannot boast about coming up with any of them on our own. It doesn’t matter how talented we are; what matters is how we use our talents in the service of God and for the good of others. The successful servants doubled what they’d received; if through our efforts even one more believer stands before Our Lord on Judgment Day, prepared to enter into his master’s joy, we’ll have accomplished our mission. In the Last Supper the Lord reminded his disciples that they were to bear fruit as the best way of glorifying the Father (see John 15:2, 4, 5, 8, 16). How do we give the Lord a return on his investment in us?

We mustn’t let fear be an obstacle in truly serving Our Lord. As the unfortunate servant found out today, he was so rattled about what he thought were his master’s expectations that he made the wrong move. He was so culpably foolish that the simple steps he could have taken were far from his thoughts. Who knows how things would have turned out if he had simply asked his master for suggestions in the first place. We too must ask the Lord to help us unearth our talents and teach us the best way to use them.

Readings: Proverbs 31:10–13, 19–20, 30–31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1–6; 25:14–30.

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Christ is sometimes referred to as the Wisdom of God, and that comparison goes both ways. Just as Our Lord always lights the way, wisdom is necessary for us to see our path in life and to show the path to Christ for others as well. The greatest wisdom is him.

In today’s First Reading we’re reminded that we seek out the things we love, and we need to seek out and love wisdom. If you don’t look for something it is unlikely that you are going to find it. Wisdom is the light by which we see the bigger picture in life. The more we consider the bigger picture in life, the more wisdom we can find.

The world sometimes can be very dark, and we need to keep watch for those moments of light when they present themselves. It’s no coincidence that the First Reading today has us keeping vigil to find wisdom or seeking her out at the crack of dawn. In today’s First Reading wisdom is personified as a woman, but we know that Christ is wisdom Personified. He doesn’t just wait for us to find him. He seeks us out, comes into our lives, our situations, and tries to help us sort things out. Thinking of wisdom perfects the virtue of prudence, and prudence the virtue of knowing the right thing to do in every situation and circumstance. What better teacher than Christ?

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul encourages the Thessalonians who are in the dark as to the fate of their fellow believers who have died. In the early Church the Second Coming of Christ was thought to be just around the corner. The Thessalonians were concerned because some of them had already died and the Second Coming had not yet happened. Would the dead be left out?

In the light of the Risen Christ Paul helps them see the bigger picture. It is the wisdom of the Resurrection: if Jesus died and rose, so would their departed loved ones. Death does not have the last word, because Christ has conquered death. Christ sheds light on death and his victory over it, and we have hope as a result.

In today’s Gospel the lighted lamps represent charity. The less charity you have, the less likely you’ll be ready for Our Lord or able to help yourself or anyone else to find him. An Entrance Antiphon in the liturgy for the feast days of virgins summarizes perfectly what is praiseworthy of the Wise Virgins today, “Here is a wise virgin, from among the number of the prudent, who went forth with lighted lamp to meet Christ.” The wise ones know the wait for the Lord can be long, so they take extra oil. They see farther and plan. The foolish ones probably didn’t see much beyond the party they wanted to enjoy, but the party was just one part of what was expected of them.

The marriage feast in today’s parable is an image of Heaven. The wise virgins continued to stoke the light with the fuel of their charity (love for Christ, and love for others in him), and that light not only showed them path to take, but others as well. Jesus today teaches us that we must have an intense and lasting love to light the way. Love is the only mark of an authentic disciple. If a disciple is following Christ, someone can follow that disciple to be led to Christ. Like the bridegroom in today’s parable, Jesus will appear at a midnight of human history, and we must be ready with lamps bright and alight.

The foolish maidens proved how foolish they were by thinking they could risk not loving enough when the moment of decision came. They wanted to draw the wise virgins into their foolishness by asking for their oil. We see this played out in so many areas of our lives: that negative comment, that judgment, that suspicion. We lack charity and we want to suck others in thinking it will resolve our problems, but it doesn’t. Love for Christ is not a tradeable commodity. It is intimately personal. If the wise virgins had taken their advice, then there would have been ten foolish virgins left out in the dark that night instead of five. Since we’re speaking of the love of Christ it begs the question: how much is too much? Jesus teaches us today that the real question should not be how much should we do, but how much can we do.

In Baptism we received the light of Christ, and Christ has asked us to make that light shine in others’ lives in a special way. Are we leaving anyone in the dark? Are we leaving those with whom we work in the dark? In today’s parable the failure rate was fifty percent. Am I sharing the love of Christ with them? Am I helping them? Am I accepting them? Am I sharing the things with them that are truly helpful for them? Paul phrases it beautifully in his letter to the Ephesians: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (4:29).

Are we leaving those we “love” in the dark? Those with whom we work are not the only co-workers in our lives. What about our family? Is it a fight every day just to get the kids out of bed, bathed, clothed, and groomed? Are you on the same wavelength as your spouse?

Love is like light. It’s meant to shine on the things that are darkest in order to bring them to light, address them, and resolve them. Love is a light that has to shine in the dark in order for you to see and to show the way to others as well.

Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12–16; Psalm 63:2–8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

In today’s readings we’re reminded that our receptivity to a message should not be determined by our esteem or scorn for the messenger, but by whether that message is true. When we are the messengers we must also remember that anything we do to contradict the message hinders even the truest things we try to share.

In today’s First Reading the Lord laments the fact that his priests are playing favorites instead of carrying out the office entrusted to them. Priests are held to a high moral standard, even today, and when they don’t live up to it their lifestyle sends the wrong message and imparts the wrong teaching. Our Lord in today’s Gospel does not criticize the Pharisees so much for what they teach as much as for what they do. They themselves don’t do what they teach. Being revealed as a hypocrite is one of the most detestable things imaginable. A hypocrite transmits two contradictory messages and, even when one of them is true, he clouds the ability to get to the truth. The Lord today warns the priests who are showing partiality and hypocrisy that their blessings will become curses: when the truth is revealed about them an apparent blessing is revealed to be a lie for everyone to see.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul paints another portrait of a minister of God: a humble, caring, and loving messenger. Humility is about speaking the truth, no matter what the consequences. Paul’s actions show his sincerity in holding himself up as an example not only of a shepherd of souls, but of any believer. He has put the Lord’s invitation to be meek and humble of heart into practice, seeing his ministry as one akin to a nursing mother. Like the mother of a newborn he not only nourishes them on the Gospel, but offers them his very self. His motivations are not selfish: he cares for them because he loves them. Unlike the burdensome Pharisees Our Lord decries in today’s Gospel, he doesn’t seek to be a burden to anyone. In Acts it is mentioned that he practiced his livelihood (tent making) while carrying out his ministry (see Acts 18:1-3; 20:33-35).

He didn’t seek out money, but was grateful when it was offered to help him help others (see Philippians 4:14-16). It wasn’t about the money. If any servant of Our Lord was just in it for the money they would probably change careers (see Paul’s “boast” in 2 Corinthians 11:16–33 if you want a job description). Paul received satisfaction from knowing that through his example the Thessalonians truly believed that he had shared the word of God with them and put it into practice as a result. Every servant of Our Lord couldn’t be happier if he helped someone in this way.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord makes an admonition to the disciples that for us has become a basic rule of thumb: practice what you preach. He also reminds us that with prestige and recognition come expectations. All believers are brothers because they all share one Father in Heaven, and they are all disciples because they follow the teachings of one Master, Christ. Through baptism we’ve all received an equal dignity in the eyes of God, and when any member of the Church forgets that, other members of the Church suffer through their bad example.

At the same time, Our Lord does not deny that the scribes and Pharisees whom he is criticizing have an authority that comes from Moses that is to be respected. Today there are some who are tempted to discard the preaching because certain preachers do not practice it. That’s not what Jesus teaches us. It’s sad when a preacher gets in the way of the message by putting himself first, but if he is preaching what has been handed down to us from Christ through the apostles and their successors, it is still a teaching that is necessary for us, because it is true. That’s the ultimate criterion for accepting anyone’s message: whether it is true or not. Prestige or infamy don’t change what’s true.

The core lesson today to bishops, priests, and deacons is to not let themselves get in the way of communicating the message: it’s not about ego, titles, or honors, but, rather, about communicating the message Our Lord has entrusted to the Church’s pastors through the centuries. This is a lesson for every believer: through our bad example we can hinder the spread of the Gospel, the message everyone needs to hear and believe. Our Lord also reminds us today that with prestige and recognition comes expectation: the expectations we have, but also the expectations of others. When we seek recognition or prestige for their own sake, climbing the social ladder, trying to get ahead in life, etc., at some point we come to the realization, if we’re fortunate, that we’re milking past glories instead of doing the things that’d merit recognition. That’s vainglory. Even if we don’t realize it we can be sure that others do. Jesus puts us on guard against resting on our laurels, as some scribes did, who focused on maintaining and increasing their prestige instead of helping people to understand God’s word, which is what they were trained to do, and what was expected of them. If we focus on giving the best of ourselves for the sake of others, receiving recognition for it or not doesn’t matter to us. This is a healthy way of keeping our accomplishments from getting to our heads.

It takes a lot of courage these days to share the Gospel, even when we do back it up with our Christian example. This shouldn’t discourage us. Even Our Lord faced people who detested what he was trying to say (“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”—John 6:60). Some believers take exception to Church teaching on a specific issue, but they fundamental question is whether what the Church teaches is true. When the Church presents us a with a difficult teaching on faith or morals our first response should be faith, not criticism. We don’t believe it is an opinion, but, rather, the truth. In faith we know that Our Lord entrusted his teaching on faith and morals to the Apostles, and that has been handed down to us. If we have a difficulty with that teaching we must first take it to him in prayer and then ask him to help us understand, not reject the messenger.

Readings: Malachi 1:14b–2:2b, 2:8–10;1 Thessalonians 2:7b–9, 13; Matthew 23:1–12.