Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Story of Christmas

(The Solemnity of Christmas-Year B;This homily was given 25 December, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Stories. We all love stories. Stories are what fill the movie theatres year after year. They’re the reason why mega-bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble stay in business. Everyone loves a good story.

In many ways our lives are very much like a story. What kind of story is your life right now? Is it a success story, where things have really come together in your business or in your personal life? If so, we thank God this morning for that story. Maybe it’s a horror story, with terrible images of Bald Hill Road, long lines, piles of wrapping paper and a really huge Visa bill!

For some this year, their story is a tragedy; we can all think of people we know whose lives, whose story, has taken a turn for the worse. This morning we pray for them, that their story will change. For most of us, though, maybe our story is simply one that is incomplete; we are waiting for what will happen next. Our story is still unfinished.

This morning we celebrate the greatest story ever told: The story of Christ. It is the remarkable story about the God who became man in order to bring us home to Heaven. For 2,000 years that story has been told over and over, in hundreds of different ways.

Just a moment ago we heard that story in narrative form, as we listened to it proclaimed in the Gospel. On Christmas Day, in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi told that story in the small Italian town of Greccio, by constructing the world’s first living manger scene. Some 800 years later we still tell the story in that same way, with crèche scenes like the one in our sanctuary this morning.

But have you ever heard the story of Christ told as a romance, as a love story? I know it sounds a little strange; we’re not talking about putting Jesus on the cover of a Harlequin Romance novel! It’s actually something that is very Biblical. All throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as the faithful husband who makes a spousal covenant with His people; in the Vigil Mass for Christmas, the prophet Isaiah boldly declares:

As a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you.
—Isaiah 62:5

The great Spanish mystic and doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, also writes about the birth of Christ as a love story between God and His people. It is one of his greatest poems, and he calls it—of all things—the Romances.

Basically it is a dialogue of love between God the Father and God the Son. We are allowed to kind of "eavesdrop" on that conversation in heaven. In that Poem the Father says:

“My Son, I wish to give you
a Bride who will love you.
Because of you she will deserve
to share our company,
and eat at our table,
the same bread I eat,
that she may know the good
I have in such a son;
and rejoice with me
in your grace and fullness.”

The Bride, of course, is us. We are the Father’s gift to His Son. But that gift is one that is incomplete because of the nature of God and because of our own human nature. God is pure spirit, existing from all eternity long before the material world is ever created. He is different from us.

We are made of body and soul, flesh and blood. We could never be fully united to the Son. It is an incomplete gift. The Father in the Romances recognizes this. He says:

“Now, you see Son, that your bride
was made in your image,
and so far as she is like you
she will suit you well;
yet she is different in her flesh,
which your simple being does not have.”

And so the Father proposes to the Son that He will make Him like His bride. He will give Him a body, make Him flesh and blood like the Bride He has already been given. The Son—of course—is delighted, as He is delighted in everything that the Father does. He cries out to the Father:

“My will is yours,
and my glory is
that your will be mine . . .
I will go and seek my bride
and take upon myself
her weariness and labors
in which she suffers so;
and that she may have life,
I will die for her,
and lifting her up out of that deep,
I will restore her to you.”

It’s a beautiful poem about why God became man, and what God has in mind for all of us when Christ is born in Bethlehem. We are the reason Christ becomes man. We are the Bride He comes to seek out, and even to die for. He comes to take upon Himself our weariness and our labors.

God becomes man for us. Christmas is the place where God’s story meets our story, where the Son leaves His throne in Heaven and breaks into our world in a very real and glorious way. That miracle that occured in Bethlehem is one that can happen at any time, in any place, even and especially in the midst of our own story.

Each year the national weekly publication Our Sunday Visitor invites its readers to share with them their most personal and meaningful Christmas stories. Several years ago a woman named Eileen O’Grady wrote about her experience one Christmas Eve night in 1962.

She was a young woman who found herself homeless, pregnant and very much alone. She wandered through the city, cold and in tears, until she finally came to rest at a Nativity scene in front of a local church. Eileen writes about how she felt as she sat there in the snow, looking at the statue of Mary. She says:

I knew Mary and I were very different, but I could see the similarities, too. I sat there throughout the night, at times feeling sorry for myself , at other times feeling sorry for Mary, who was also young, pregnant, and homeless. As daybreak came, a light snow began to fall, and I felt a sense of warmth, a peace, and a confidence that everything would be OK.
—Our Sunday Visitor’s Christmas Memories, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.

And little by little things were OK for Eileen O’Grady. She found a small apartment in that town and eventually gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She finished high school and provided a nice home for herself and her daughter.

And finally, some 20 years after sitting in front of that Nativity scene, both she and her daughter had a deep conversion of faith and became active members of their Church. Eileen looks back at that Christmas Eve night in 1962 as the moment that made all the difference in her life.

“This is my story,” she says, “and this was my best Christmas.”

Wherever we find ourselves this Christmas, we are reminded that our stories really are incomplete unless they become part of God’s story. We are made for God, and only God can give our lives true meaning and true purpose.

This morning we can ask ourselves: Where is the Bridegroom seeking us out this Christmas Day? Where will that miracle Baby of Bethlehem find His place in our stories this Christmas?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Decorating the House for Christmas

(Fourth Sunday of Advent-Year B;This homily was given 18 December, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Is your house decorated for Christmas? There is something exciting about unpacking those old familiar decorations: the lights, the crèche scene, setting up the Christmas tree.

You may have read in the news recently about that gentleman in Cranston, who decorated the front of his house this year with giant pictures of Paris Hilton. When asked what the display had to do with Christmas, he answered, “Absolutely nothing.” No argument there.

Just last week I asked one of the kids from the school next door why we decorate our houses, why we place lights in all the windows. She said, “Because we’re getting ready for Jesus, the Light of the world.”

Now, I am sure not everyone who places a light in their window is thinking that; but it is a beautiful—and theologically correct—way to look at this season. When we decorate our houses, filling them with light, do we really believe that we are getting them ready for God?

In the first reading this morning, King David is resting comfortably in his house, and it dawns on him that the Ark of the Covenant—the presence of God, which accompanied the people on their journey through the dessert—has no house at all. He says to Nathan the Prophet:

Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent.
—2 Samuel 7:2

God is out in the cold, so David wants to build a house for God, a temple so that the people can worship Him as they should. It is a very noble gesture. Yet, the response he receives from God is quite different than what he was expecting. God says to him:
“Should you build me a house to dwell in?”
(2 Samuel 7:5).

He reminds David that he wouldn’t even be the king if not for the blessings given to him so freely, so graciously. It was nice of David to consider, but in the end the Lord simply says, “No, thank you.”

In fact, He has something else in mind all along. Nathan the Prophet says to David:

The Lord also reveals to you that He will establish a house for you. . .
–2 Samuel 7:11

David is not going to build anything; but God is going to build David a house. The house that he promises to David is not really a house at all, but a dynasty. The same word that David was using to refer to a temple is used by God to refer to the kingship of David, and of his descendants after him.

God goes on to say:

Your house and your kingdom
shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand forever.
—2 Samuel 7:16

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of that promise. There will be a descendant of the house of David ruling over the people of Israel forever. That is God’s idea of a house. It was one of the greatest promises ever given to the people of Israel. They cherished it. The Messiah himself—the people understood—was to come from the house of David.

But in the days that followed, that promise, and that house, seemed to fall apart. David himself was to fail miserably at times. His son Solomon would expose the house of David, the royal throne, to the worship of foreign gods. Some of the kings after him would do much, much worse.

There were good and faithful kings, but it was more often the case that the house of David was weakened by idolatry, apostasy, and even exile. Kings were dragged away from the land of Israel, held captive in foreign nations. Until eventually there was no king at all.

Israel became a nation occupied by the Romans; the kings of old were now nothing more than simple commoners. The lights had gone out in the house of David. So much—it would seem—for the promises of God.

That is the context for the event that happens in the Gospel this morning. In a few short words St. Luke reveals the God who once again inspires hope in a nation that might have all but given up. He says:

The angel Gabriel was sent from God . . .
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David.
—Luke 1:26-27

Gabriel enters quite unexpectedly into the house of a poor, simple, holy woman named Mary and says to her:

Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
—Luke 1:31-33

God never forgets His promises. The lights may have gone out in David’s house, but God was about to bring in the Light of the World. At the darkest moment for the chosen people, God would shine a light into their lives that would change their nation and the rest of this world forever. That is what we are getting ready to celebrate in a few short days.

So, if that’s the case, then we can ask again that same question we began with: Is your house decorated for Christmas? Are we ready to welcome the Light of the World into our houses, into our families and into our lives, this Christmas?

It will do us no good whatsoever if our houses are decorated for Christmas and we have not made room for the Son of God. Jesus Christ comes into this world to turn the hearts of all people back to God. That is why we celebrate. The coming of Christ should change us, it should move us to deepen our relationship with God.

Our hearts, our lives, our families, should be like houses that are filled with light, announcing the presence of Christ—the Light of the world—to all those who long for that Light. That little girl I mentioned earlier, from Our Lady of Mercy School, she understood that. She’s not waiting for Paris Hilton this year. She is waiting for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Light of the world. Who are we waiting for, and Whom are we decorating for, this Christmas?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Gaudete! Rejoice!

(3rd Sunday of Advent-Year B;This homily was given 11 December, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

It is Gaudete Sunday once again! The pink candle has been lit in joyful expectation of the coming of Christ. Gaudete Sunday is the Church’s way of reminding us that the coming of Christ is near, very near. No matter how hectic things may be in our lives, today is a day to slow down, think about what this season is all about, and to rejoice.

There is a story about a woman who had a long list of friends for whom she really wanted to buy Christmas presents. Time slipped away and she soon realized there was no way she could get to the store to purchase those gifts. As a last resort she decided to send them all a really nice card.

She went to the gift store and looked over the cards that were left, and finally found a box of 50. They were beautifully decorated on the front, and she was in a hurry so she bought them. Not bothering to look at the message inside, she quickly signed them and sent them out just in time for Christmas.

Around New Year’s, she had time to go back to two or three cards she didn’t send from that stack, and she was shocked when she read the message inside. It said, in a nice little rhyme:

This Christmas Card is just to say
A little gift is on the way

This morning we could borrow that same rhyme, and change it just a bit:

This Gaudete Sunday is just to say
A tremendous Gift is on the way

John the Baptist, in the Gospel this morning, can hardly contain himself as “the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” Christ is near, the One we are waiting for; He is on the way, and so we too cannot help but to rejoice!

But if we really stop and think for just a minute: How can we rejoice when there is so much suffering and sorrow in the world we live in? What are we to make of the tragedies that fill the evening news and the pages of the newspaper each day? When we say to each other, “Rejoice!” are we not deluding ourselves and hiding from the real problems that exist all around us?

The other day I was speaking with a priest friend of mine from the Diocese of Savannah, in Georgia. There was a terrible tragedy there; one of his parishioners—an elderly woman—was murdered one week ago. Her funeral was held on Thursday, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The pastor was the one who celebrated that funeral, and I asked my friend: “what did he say?” What could you say in a situation like that, just before Christmas? He told me that the pastor talked about how the world we live in is in desperate need of a redeemer. Then he talked about how we’ve got one: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of Mary.

We do not rejoice because we are hiding from the reality of the world around us. We understand that reality; all too well do we understand it. But we believe in the One who has come to change that reality and to change the world as we know it.

We rejoice because the Son of God became man and brought us hope; and most of all we rejoice because we know that this life, this world, is not all there is; we know the rest of the story, and we know how that story will end.

Once, during the Second World War, there were two friends from Scotland who were taken prisoner and placed in a concentration camp. One of them was a professor and the other was a chaplain.

A high wire fence in the middle of the prison separated the Americans from the British, so the guards placed the professor on the American side and the chaplain on the other side with the Brits. Everyday, the professor would talk to his friend through the wire fence, speaking in the Gaelic language that the Germans did not understand.

Unknown to the guards, the Americans had a little homemade radio and were able to get news from the outside. One day news came over the radio that the German high command had surrendered. The war was over. The professor took that news to his friend and then watched him disappear into the barracks. A moment later a roar of celebration came from that place.

Life in the camp was completely transformed. The men walked around singing and shouting, waving at the guards and even laughing at the dogs that growled nearby. When the Germans finally heard the news three days later, they fled in the night and left all the gates open. The next morning the prisoners walked out free men. But in reality they were already free days earlier, when they heard the news that the war was over.

This Gaudete Sunday we rejoice in the Lord, who has already begun to set us free. We are not afraid to proclaim our faith with confidence to a world that is in desperate need of a redeemer, because we know that God—in Christ—has already given us one.

Are there tremendous problems in the world we live in? Of course there are. And we are called to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering of those around us, to mourn with those whose lives have been shattered by tragedy or sorrow.

But at the same time, we have reason to rejoice because God has come into this world and set in motion the events that will bring an end to all these things. Death and war and disease and sorrow and suffering will not have the final word. God will speak the final Word, and He has spoken it. The final Word is Christ.

Isaiah the prophet, in our first reading this morning, announces with great joy the words that will ring in the coming of the Messiah; they are words of prophecy, words of longing, but most of all they are words of hope:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners.
—Isaiah 61:1-2a

We can ask ourselves: Where are the poor in our lives who are waiting to hear those glad tidings, the Good News of Christ? Who are the broken hearted in need of a word of hope and healing? Who are the captives, held bound by a world of empty promises and meaningless pursuits? Christ is calling us this Gaudete Sunday to share with them the reason we rejoice.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Freedom & The Immaculate Conception

(Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception; This homily was given 8 December, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Where are you most free in your life right now? Where are the places that you feel less free or perhaps not free at all?

One of the greatest gifts that we have been given by God is the gift of freedom. Many of the saints tell us that freedom is the thing that makes us most like God. Yet freedom can be easily misunderstood, easily misused; that is something we all experience each day.

Because of our fallen human nature—the fact that we are tainted by original sin—we do not always make the choices that we ought to make. It has been said that the easiest doctrine of faith to prove is original sin. We see its effects everywhere. Just look at the newspaper, or turn on the TV. Closer to home, we can all think of times when we have said or done things that we regret, things that we knew were wrong. We made the wrong choices.

Thankfully, God does not leave us on our own when we make the wrong choices; His passion and desire for our lives is forgiveness and total freedom in Christ; that is why Jesus dies on the cross, to save us and free us from sin.

God is constantly offering us His grace—supernatural help to overcome the effects of original sin—so that we can become more free and more alive in Christ. The goal of life, the point of our existence, is to accept that grace and act on it, to grow closer to God and to each other. We are called to live in an eternal relationship with God, and the only way that is possible is by the grace God offers.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the belief that Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. [Not to be confused with the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary; the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, St. Ann].

We believe that Mary was preserved from original sin by the merits of Christ, before He was born, and before He suffered and died on the cross. Mary is redeemed by Christ, just as you and I are. But Mary was given a special grace—in fact, filled with grace as we hear in the Gospel—because she was the one who would carry the Redeemer in her body.

Because Mary was free from original sin, and because she was filled with grace and never committed sin, she was totally free to do the will of God at all times. You could say that she was the most liberated woman who ever lived!
She shows us what it means to be fully human and completely free in this world.

I am sure it was not easy for Mary to make some of the choices she made: to say yes to an unexpected pregnancy that would change her life forever; to let her Son leave home, knowing he would never return; to stand at the foot of the cross, supporting her Son in His suffering and death. These were not easy decisions, but they were the right ones, and an example for all of us who must make choices of our own each day.

And so, we can ask ourselves again: Where are we most free in our lives right now? Where are the places that we are less free, that we find it a struggle or a difficulty to do the right thing? Through the intercession and example of Mary, may we come to realize that we are never alone in the decisions of life.

God—who filled Mary with grace and preserved her from original sin—gives us grace in our own lives to overcome whatever keeps us from being totally free and totally faithful to Christ. Might we also rejoice with Mary this day, and come to share more completely in the freedom that her Son came to bring us.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

It's Not Too Late!

(2nd Sunday of Advent-Year B; This homily was given 4 December, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

It may seem like this time of year is moving along at lightning speed, but we are still only at the very beginning of the Advent season; Advent itself can seem like an odd mixture of many different things.

We wear purple and light purple candles, but it’s not Lent. And the readings are focused either on the first coming of Christ as a child, or they are apocalyptic—focused on the second coming, the last days and the end of the world.

So which coming of Jesus do we celebrate in Advent, the first one or the second? The Catechism says that we celebrate both. We share in the joyful preparation of that first coming of Christ as a child, so that we will grow in our desire to see Him when He comes again (CCC, # 524).

This is significant, because it’s easy to forget—in the secular world we live in—that Jesus really did promise to come back again at the end of time. How often do we really think about that?

In the second reading this morning, the Apostle Peter is warning the Church about those who will arrive in the last days, casting doubt upon the promise of the Lord’s return. They will begin to question—after all these years—whether Jesus has any intention of coming back at all. In response to them, St. Peter says:

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
—2 Peter 3:8-9

St. Peter offers a very different perspective on a very familiar Advent theme: not only are we waiting for God, but He is waiting patiently for us, and calling us to repentance.

Advent is the time when our waiting meets God’s waiting, and we are given the chance—as we heard in the opening prayer of this Mass—“to remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with Joy.” This is a season to make a brand new start with Christ. I hope you have had the chance to do that this Advent. If you haven’t, the Good News is that it still is not too late. As St. Peter reminds us, God is patiently waiting, and has been for quite some time.

There is a very beautiful story that we always hear around this time, that classic tale from Charles Dickens called A Christmas Carol. You’ve probably watched it a dozen times on TV, and maybe even seen it in the theatre.

Ebenezer Scrooge, that crusty and obstinate old man, suddenly receives a visit in the night that will change his life forever. The Spirits of Christmas past, present and future come to reveal more about his life than he was ever willing to see.

You may remember the climax of that story, when the ominous Spirit of Christmas Future brings Ebenezer into the graveyard and points to that one, solitary stone, neglected among all the others. Scrooge becomes filled with dread and he says:

Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?

He receives no answer from the ghost, and so he moves toward that gravestone and reads the name that he already knows is on it: EBENEZER SCROOGE. And the only thing he wants to know, the only thing that matters, is whether or not it is too late.

“Spirit, hear me!” He cries. “I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this if I am past all hope? . . . Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! . . . Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

And of course we know how the story ends. He wakes up in the morning, only to discover that he has been given another chance; it was not too late. His whole perspective, his entire life, has been changed and transformed in a single night.

Why do we love that story? Why does it never seem to grow old? I would suggest that A Christmas Carol is so dear to us because—at it’s very foundations—it is a story that rings true.

Again, as St. Peter tells us, "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day." God can make up for a lifetime of mistakes and missed opportunities in a single day, in a single moment; but we have to be willing to open the door for Him. We have to be willing to repent.

In the Gospel this morning, we hear John the Baptist—as we do every year around this time—crying out in the dessert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Mark 1:3).

What are some of the basic and practical ways God is calling us to do that this Advent? This morning I would suggest three. The first one we have heard already from St. Peter and Ebenezer Scrooge: Repent.

We don’t need a visit from the Spirit of Christmas Future, or some ghost from the past, to tell us when we have failed to love God and those around us. We know. In our consciences we know. God moves us, by His grace, to acknowledge those times and to turn away from sin in our lives and to turn back to Him. Repentance.

The second practical way that we can prepare for the coming of Christ is reconciliation. Having repented of our sins, we come to receive the forgiveness of Christ in the very Sacrament He instituted for the forgiveness of sins.

I was at Bishop Hendricken High School this past Thursday, with about 8 other priests from around the diocese, and we heard confessions for over 2 hours from students who were not obligated to be there.

They came during their lunch hour to receive the grace Christ offers in Sacramental confession and to begin a new walk with Christ this Advent. Might we learn from them how to prepare more completely for the coming of Christ in our lives.

So, repentance, reconciliation, and finally a recommitment to follow Christ more closely this Advent.

We simply make an effort to spend a few moments in prayer each day; perhaps in the morning we make an offering of our day. In some way we acknowledge that we are indeed waiting for the one who is so patient and so steadfast in waiting for us and helping us to be ready for the coming of Christ.