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.

2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle A (2)

Today’s readings remind us that the coming of Christ brings judgment, but also justice and mercy. John the Baptist is the last and most blessed prophet because he has the privilege of seeing the Messiah come, the Messiah to which so many of his predecessors had given witness, and today he is helping us prepare this Advent.

Today’s First Reading reminds us that the Messiah comes to usher in true justice: he goes beyond appearances to judge hearts, and he knows events as they truly happened, not just piecing together a case through rumors and innuendos. His spirit will be characterized by wisdom. His justice will usher in peace: Isaiah portrays this peace speaking of predatory and dangerous animals who lay down alongside their prey, leaving them unharmed, and an unshakable calm to nature itself. Isaiah goes on to say that the Messiah will also be “set up as a signal for the nations.” Not just the Jewish nation, but all nations.

Paul in today’s Second Reading reminds the Christians converted from paganism that they too were welcomed by Christ for the glory of God, therefore they should glorify God for his mercy toward them. Paul reminds us that Sacred Scripture, such as today’s First Reading, has the goal of instilling hope. Christ comes this Christmas to bring us not only justice and judgment, but mercy and peace if we welcome it. He offers it to everyone. When we become of one mind and welcome each other as Christ welcomed us, we glorify God. Glorifying God is not just the task of Jews, but of the Gentiles who welcome the Lord as well.

John the Baptist in today’s Gospel shows the way to welcome the Messiah: sorrow for our sins. It’s no coincidence that the liturgical colors of Advent are the same of the those of Lent: it is a penitential time, a time to take stock of whether we’ve welcomed Christ or others during the year. However, this time is also aglow with hope, since Advent represents the long dark centuries when humanity, lost in sin, seemed hopeless. Now the Messiah is at hand to usher in justice and peace. Just as John warns the Pharisees and Sadducees today, we can’t rest on our laurels. We’re not safe just because we’re Christians; our actions determine our fate. We struggle with sin throughout our lives, so we also have abundant opportunities for repentance, including Advent.

John tells us in today’s Gospel that the good fruit of our actions is the sign of our repentance. We’re one week into Advent and we still have plenty of time to welcome Our Lord through good works in appreciation for the mercy he has shown us. We do a lot of good for family and friends in preparation for Christmas, but let’s go beyond that circle to do good for those who have no one this Advent.

Readings: Isaiah 11:1–10; Psalm 72:1–2, 7–8, 12–13, 17; Romans 15:4–9; Matthew 3:1–12. See also 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle A.

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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.

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.