Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Vigil Mass (OF)

Stories have been a part of our human experience since we have existed.  Even before we could write out words, we traced images onto the walls of caves.  Soon we began to have those appointed to the task of telling stories, either through recitation or through writing.  With the advent of motion pictures, we now have even more ways to enjoy our favorite stories come to life before our eyes. How many different stories have been told throughout the centuries: Odysseus and Aeneas, Arthur and Camelot, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the modern sagas of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Each of us has that story that we know from beginning to end, that story which we treasure greatly, which we return to time and time again.
What is it about that one story that attracts us to return to it even when we know the plot and could probably recite the whole thing from memory? It is something which speaks to us deep down within our being, striking a chord within our heart.  It resonates with what we desire and what we wish could be.  It is the proper resolution of all things: the good are rewarded, the wicked are overthrown and punished, and all live happily ever after.
This resolution is what every decent human being desires in their own life, and so we seek to affirm this by clinging on to stories where this resolution occurs.  How else do you explain the movies which get the biggest box office profits?  We want to see the triumph of good over evil, the victory of the hero against the villain, not the opposite.  Only a deformed mind would desire that evil emerges triumphant and good be crushed.  We treasure these stories because we recognize the reality that there is evil in our world, and that perhaps it might win over us unless we act.
Yet how often does it seem that this view of good versus evil is called simplistic or misguided in our own day?  We are told that one man’s view of good and evil may be vastly different than another’s, and that we must not seek to impose or be intolerant of the other’s views. Some even question the labels “good” and “evil” as being out-of-touch with the modern understanding of morality.  They will tell us that each value has its own place and time and that we cannot judge or dismiss these ideas from our minds.
If any of us really believed this view of the relative value of good and evil, then we would not be here tonight.  For tonight we re-hear the story that has been woven into the human experience from the very beginning.  We hear once the story of the real battle of good and evil which has been waged from the creation of the world, and which continues now and unto the end of time.  It is the story we are all too familiar with, yet the story which we should delight in the most.
Saint Matthew hints at this story in the beginning of his Gospel, when, as we have just heard, he lists out the generations between Abraham, David, and the one whose birth we are beginning to celebrate.  For those who are in the know, this list of names is like the feature of a TV series episode saying ‘Previously on...”  That story which is found within those names begins in the Garden of Eden when God creates man and woman, giving them life and calling them to union with Himself.  Of the fall of humanity we are all too familiar both in story form and in our own experiences.  We can try to deny it, but we know that there is a condition which leads each one of us to do that which we know is not right or to avoid doing that which is good.  So we see evil strike its first blow against God and against humanity, but it is not the last for either side.
Our story continues with Abraham: called in other places in the Scriptures the righteous or the faithful.  He obeys God completely in his life, from his call to leave his homeland and enter Canaan - the future home of his descendants - or even to the point of nearly offering his son as a sacrifice to God.  Abraham is one of the most holy people portrayed in the Old Testament, but he is not capable of finishing the story, and so it continues after him.
Next we see King David, the strong warrior who secures the nation of Israel against her enemies. David is highly praised in the Scriptures, especially in the Psalms as a righteous king and a holy warrior.  Yet David was not completely righteous or faithful; the most famous incident is when he lures Bathsheba away from her husband and commits adultery with her, even killing her husband so that she could be his wife.  David is thus seen as incapable of completing this story of humanity, and so it continues after him.
We then hear about those who are sent into exile after Israel is conquered many years after the death of David. This is one of the lowest points in the story up to tonight’s feast: the nation promised by God to exist forever has been conquered and banished from the Promised Land.  It seems at this point that God will not be victorious, that perhaps the devil will emerge victorious in this story.  But it is not the case: God will eventually free the people so that they may return to their heritage and live once more in the favor and grace of God.  Yet none of these men or women listed were able to conclude our story, and so it continues after them.
Until tonight.  With the child whose birth we celebrate tonight, our story begins to turn towards its climax through the introduction of the most unexpected of characters: the Author of the story itself.  For the child born to us this night is no mere child.  He is the Creator of the entire universe become a creature within that same universe; He is the Author of the great story who becomes one of the characters within that same story; He is the indivisible, infinite, immortal, eternal God become man so as to serve that same God.  It is this child who will turn the story towards its climax through His life and through His death.
Indeed, what we celebrate tonight is the fact that God becomes personally present to us through the same flesh which we all posses so as to bring about the conclusion desired by God.  Only God is capable of this, yet it is man who must do this since it was man who started the mess in the first place.  So it is that God takes on our flesh and is given a part in the story which He is writing.  So it is that this Jesus of Nazareth comes so as to free us from our sins.
We know the conclusion of the story: we see it in the Cross displayed so prominently in our church.  We will celebrate it once more on Easter Sunday when we recall and rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  But can we really say that all of that is the true conclusion to this story we have reviewing?  How can we say that this story is done when it seems that so little has changed from before?
It is true that the story of humanity is finished in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus’ vindication of humanity shines forth like the dawn and His victory like a burning torch, as prophesied by Isaiah in our first reading.  Yet this story is not finished for each one of us.  It is unfinished in that we each are given the choice of either joining in with the victorious story of Christ or of writing our own story against God and against Christ.  It is unfinished in that it is still being written in our hearts and in our lives, the pen standing over the paper at each moment to write down and to trace out our path either towards union with God or abandonment of God.
We all know the classic ending of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: Ebenezer Scrooge, having been visited by three spirits showing him Christmases past, present, and future, changes his ways for the better, exclaiming at the end “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” For the Christian, this is meant to be not the end of our individual stories, but the beginning of our own adventures.  Each one of us is called to a part in the great story of humanity’s fall and rise. Each one is meant to make our own the story of Jesus Christ: born in a stable, hidden for 30 years, teaching and preaching and working miracles, praised by many, hated by some, cursed and derided, tortured, suffered, crucified, died, and resurrected, now reigning gloriously in Heaven after his ascension.  If we are to honor Christmas all year, we must make our broken or discordant stories one with the story of Christ, with the story of His Church.
Let us rejoice in this day, because God does not abandon us as a failed story, but instead willing enters the story so as to restore us.  Let us rejoice in that God stoops down to meet us in our flesh so that we might be able to be united to Him.  But let us not forget this story or merely write it off.  Let us honor the true message of Christmas through our living out the consequences of that story: conforming ourselves to Christ through His Church, the Church which is the greatest storyteller in the world.  Let us continue to hear that story each Sunday and indeed each day of our lives so that we may not be entertained but moved to transform ourselves to be more like Christ our hero, Christ our victor, Christ our king.  May we truly celebrate the Christmas story by reflecting it in our lives in each moment, so that we may rejoice at the conclusion of this story at the Last Day, when all the wicked shall be condemned, all the good shall be rewarded, and Christ will glorify His faithful with the gift of eternal life.  Let us live out our stories so that we may be a part of the new story which will be written in joy and peace, where all will live happily ever after.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Advent (OF) - Mary and Her Child

We stand on the precipice of Christmas.  The time grows short, the days are getting shorter and busier, everyone is bustling about trying to prepare.  We are all in haste to get the house cleaned, the presents bought and wrapped, the decorations in place, the lights hanging, everything we need for Christmas.  How much attention, though, do we place on the reason for the season? Certainly, we are not forgetful of why it is that we celebrate Christmas: the birth of the Christ Child into the world.  Yet do we take time to consider the significance of this holiday?  It’s easy to do the work of cleaning and decorating, but are we cleaning and decorating our hearts and minds for the feast day we are to celebrate so soon?
If you pay attention to the prayers of our Mass, you might notice that something is missing: the name of the one who is to be born on Christmas Day.  We must always remember that Christ is not necessarily a name but a title, a title indicating the one anointed or chosen by God.  Throughout our prayers, which normally include the Holy Name, we notice an absence which expresses the longing of the Church for He who is to be born so soon.  It is the longing of our ancestors, the longing of our forefathers, the longing of the whole human race.  It is also the longing of a mother to at last hold her unborn child in her arms and to speak their name for the first time to them.
We are journeying now with the Virgin Mary to the town of Bethlehem - foretold by the prophet Micah in our first reading to be the birthplace of the one who is to be the ruler or the king in Israel.  Saint Luke presents to us one part of the journey which Our Lady makes towards her ancestral home in showing us what is traditionally called the Visitation: the period immediately after the announcement by Saint Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she will be the Mother of God.  The archangel had revealed to her that her cousin Elizabeth had also become pregnant by the power of God; she who had been barren for so long now bore within her womb the one who would prepare the way for the Lord.
Our Lady leaves in haste so as to marvel at what God has done in Elizabeth and in herself.  But no sooner does she greet her cousin than her cousin begins to praise her: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Elizabeth cries out in joy and in humility that she has received the gift of a visit from the mother of her Lord.  Even John rejoices while in his mother’s womb, leaping for joy that the One whom he will proclaim as the Lamb of God has come to him.  Joy overflows this moment which Saint Luke recalls for our consideration.
But even greater joy awaits our Lady: the joy of finally bringing this child into the world.  A mother desires more than anyone else the birth of her child, if for nothing else except to have the child finally out of the womb.  Yet Mary desires this birth for a far greater reason: because of who this child is and what He will do.  She knows that her child is the Savior of the nations.  She knows that her child will be the King who frees His people.  She knows that her child is the one who truly comes to do the will of God in the flesh He receives from her. She knows that her child is the Emmanuel - the God with us.
This is why she eagerly awaits His birth and rejoices with Elizabeth.  Along with her littleness and her humility, God blesses Mary’s immense faithfulness with becoming the most powerful woman in the world, as one magazine recently declared her.  Thus does Elizabeth praise her finally as being blessed because she believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.  Believing in God and His desire for our salvation, she who is the handmaid of the Lord has been exalted above every other creature, to the point of even being made the Queen of heaven and earth, all because of her child whose birth is at hand.
Let us rejoice with the Virgin Mary that she is to soon bring into the world the God-man.  Let us praise her, just as Elizabeth praised her, for her faith and her humility while learning from her how to do the same.  Let us be prepared in mind and heart for the coming child through our prayers and our lives.  Let us truly desire to welcome the one whose name will so soon be on our lips, just as it was on the lips of Mary at His birth: the one who is called Savior, the one who is our way and our eternal life, the one who is the God among us: Jesus Christ the Lord.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (OF)

If we were given the opportunity and the funds, what sort of house would we build?  Would we not desire the very best materials, the highest quality furniture, perhaps even the best and newest technology we could find?  If we were capable, we would each most likely build a house better than the one in which we live now, even if we are comfortable and love what we have.  This does not necessarily signify weakness or sinfulness, but rather that we desire the best in our lives, most especially with the place where we call home.  This desire for the best is not only found in humanity, but it can also be found within the Divinity.
God desires to have the best in all that He works.  This is not because He needs it, since He is infinite and omnipotent and already has everything He could ever want, but rather because the best that earth and creation can offer are those things which are closest to God in holiness, in beauty, and in truth.  God also desires the best in His works so as to lift us up to Himself through those works.  This is proven in the work for which we have started preparing in this Advent season: the birth of the Savior of the human race.
As we continue our preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas, it seems as if the Church interrupts this season of Advent with today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Yet this could not be farther from the truth.  If we understand what is happening in the mystery of today’s feast, we will see how this event is essential to the work of salvation God brings about in His Son Jesus Christ, along with seeing how the Blessed Virgin Mary is the greatest and the best creature God has ever made.
Having already noted this God’s desire for quality in His craftsmanship, we can look at what we celebrate today as one of the clearest examples demonstrating this principle.  It all begins in the Garden, which we hear the closing part in our first reading today.  Adam and Eve have contracted sin for the whole human race through their disobedience to God’s command, thus requiring their exile from the Garden and the punishment of travails in labor.  Yet even in the midst of this condemnation, God makes a promise to them that this will not persist forever.  The Lord tells our first parents that “I will put enmity between [the serpent] and the woman, and between [the serpent’s] offspring and hers” (Gen 3:20).  This has been seen by the Church throughout the centuries as the foreshadowing of what will happen in the Gospel between Christ the Son of Mary and the Devil the trickster who slithered his way into ruining humanity.
Indeed, God will do this not just through any human agent, but He will do it by His own Son becoming a man so as to win humanity back from Satan.  Yet this goal of salvation via the Incarnation of God the Son begs the question: how will God become man?  Will He imitate Adam by being born from the earth? Or will He just appear among the crowds, becoming a man instantly?  Or will God take the hard road by humbling Himself to become a man just as we have done: through being born of a woman?
If God were not only to free humanity from the bondage of sin and Satan and lift us up so as to draw near to Himself, He must do it by taking on every aspect of humanity that is possible, including being conceived and born.  Yet God is all-holy, all-perfect, Goodness in His very being; how can He be born of a sinful woman, He who will be like us in all things except sin (cf. Heb 4:15)?  We have already seen that God desires to do the best in everything He works, and it is the same with the birth of His Son, our Lord and Savior.  If God the Son is to unite Himself to our human flesh and so become Jesus, He must have the best mother and the most glorious dwelling that can be created in the universe.
Thus is the Blessed Virgin Mary not only given the singular privilege of becoming the mother of God, but she is given the greatest grace and the source of the innumerable graces that fill her: the grace of being conceived without the stain of original sin.  Just as God has desired a beautiful and holy temple undefiled by sin in the times of the Old Testament, so too does He desire the most beautiful and most holy temple in the womb where He will dwell for nine months and become a member of the human race, in the womb of the Virgin Mother.
But God grants this highest privilege and immense grace upon Mary not only so that she will be the Mother of God, but that she may also begin to unravel the effects of original sin upon humanity.  Just as Adam and Eve are without sin when they decide to disobey God, so too are Jesus and Mary free of the taint of sin so as to rectify that first disobedience with the greatest obedience offered by any two human beings.  Just as sinless Eve brought forth sin unto Adam, as the story tells us, so does sinless Mary bring forth for us now the new Adam who will free us from that sin.
The celebration of the Immaculate Conception can be seen, then, as one of the most essential pieces of the immediate preparation for the coming of Christ our Savior.  For in it we see the beginnings of the fulfillment of the promise God made to Adam and Eve at their exile from the Garden, by the new garden which is found in the immaculate and virginal womb of Mary.  Yet there is more that comes from this enclosed garden than the Son who will be King and Lord: there is also the beginnings of the mercy which God desires to show unto His people.
As you have heard or seen or read for the past few weeks, Pope Francis has inaugurated a Jubilee Year of Mercy which begins on this feast.  In doing this, the pope desires to renew among we the faithful a greater appreciation of the mercy of God won for us in Christ Jesus and to be witnesses of that mercy to a world in so desperate need of that mercy.  It is fitting that we begin this Jubilee of Mercy on the day when God shows one of the greatest signs of His mercy in freeing Mary from every stain and touch of sin from her conception in the womb of her mother.
The mercy of God is given freely, without any merit on our part, but completely from the merits of Christ’s saving Passion and Death.  Mary receives this mercy and grace in a pre-figurative sense through her Immaculate Conception.  She did not earn it in any way; how can we earn something when we are incapable of breathing or walking on our own?! St. John Paul II says that “Mary is the one who experienced mercy in an exceptional way — as no one else.” (Dives in misericordia 9)  For this reason, we honor and petition Mary as the Mother of Mercy; because of all that God has done for her and through her in her Immaculate Conception, most especially becoming the mother of the one who would win this mercy for us on the Cross.
Let us then take up the call of the Psalmist to “sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous deeds” through the Virgin Mary, the best creature God has made in this universe.  Let us rejoice that Mary has been chosen to be the one “full of grace” so that she would fulfill what the archangel Gabriel declared to her: that she will bear the one whose merciful Kingdom will have no end.  Let us also turn to her, the Mother of Mercy, and beseech her to plead for us, who are still plagued by sin and temptation, who so often times fail to live up to the promise that we made at our baptism.  Let us hope in the God who has done such marvels through Mary and continues to do many marvels through the Mother of God for we her spiritual children.  Let us entrust ourselves to Mary just as God entrusted His Son to her, that we may learn from she who is the handmaid of the Lord how best to serve and love the God of mercy.  Let us not only rejoice in this feast day, but let us desire to be renewed by the mercy and the grace of God as we enter into this Jubilee of Mercy: that all our sins may be forgiven, that our lives may radiate with the joy and the love of the child for the merciful Father, that our lives may be continually purified and elevated so that we will be able to join the immaculate Virgin Mary and all the saints in the greater glories which await the faithful in Heaven.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Second Sunday of Advent (OF)

If we want to get to a destination, we require directions to get there.  Either we use a map to discern these directions, or ask someone who knows the way.  We do not normally desire to get lost or to go wandering through the woods, but are purposefully directed towards our destination.  Even if we discover that our route is blocked, we quickly determine a detour route, or at least our GPS or phone does it for us.  We rarely dwell on the journey, but treasure the destination.
But what if we did not know the destination?  Or, knowing the destination, we were missing the map or the directions to get there?  How would we fare in getting to where we want to go in an alien land and with no guidance?  We might stumble upon our destination like a blind pig stumbling on an acorn, or we might never reach our destination.  We might, in fact, find ourselves in a place far different than where we wanted to go.  It’s not only about the destination, but how we get to that destination.
Our Mass today is filled with the imagery of roads and travel.  From Baruch to Luke, we hear about mountains made low and valleys filled on high so as to prepare the way for the Lord.  All this should make us think of the first great journey described in the Scriptures: the Exodus.  God calls Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and towards the freedom of the Promised Land.  It is God alone who maintains the Israelites in their 40-year journey through the desert until they are ready to receive that which God had promised them.
Our Mass today reflects a theme of preparing for the New Exodus, as the prophet Baruch first demonstrates.  This New Exodus will involve God once again leading His people, but this time it will be towards a greater promise.  God will smooth the way out for them by making “every lofty mountain ... low, and ... the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground”.  Just as highway builders today will flatten out the road as much as possible, so too in the old days did the ancient royal highway builders.  And so too does God make a royal road for His people to tread upon.
While the prophets may have done the survey work, it is the man found in our Gospel today who begins the process of building this royal road for the New Exodus.  John the Baptist, as we are told by Saint Luke, fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah which is echoed by Baruch: that one will prepare the way of the Lord.  This beguiling figure is depicted by the church fathers as a super-prophet, for not only did John foretell the coming of the Lord, but he was able to point with his very finger at the Lord present among the people, crying out, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
John the Baptist is often called the Forerunner of the Lord, because his ministry seems to point directly to what Christ will do in His own earthly ministry.  Saint Luke tells us that John was going about “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” in anticipation of what Jesus Himself will preach after His own baptism by John.  In this phrase we see the beginnings of the manner in which God will bring about this New Exodus for the people that are peculiarly His own.  If we are to enter onto this royal road, we must do so through baptism and repentance.
The New Exodus begins as did the original Exodus: by passing through water and being purified by water.  The passage through the Red Sea is seen as a type or symbol of baptism, in which we pass from our bondage in sin and in Satan to freedom in God.  Yet, just as the Israelites fell into sin through the worship of the golden calf at Sinai, so too are we still capable of falling into sin after baptism and losing God in the process.  Thus do we need the second aspect of this New Exodus as preached by John: repentance.
The Gospel writers use the Greek word metanoia, which is normally translated as “repentance.”  Metanoia signifies a change of one’s mind, a conversion as it were from one way of thinking to another.  God does not want us merely to receive baptism, but that it should be the mark of a process of changing ourselves from our former sinful ways into the new way of living taught by Christ.  Just as the passage through the Red Sea was not the end of the journey for the Israelites, so too is baptism not the end of our journey in the Christian faith.  This New Exodus which is the Christian faith must be lived out each day in everything we do.  It may be difficult at times, but it is possible to succeed, as our Psalm expresses so beautifully today: 

Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.

Let us heed, then, the call of St. John to follow the Lamb of God who has come among us and is coming among us so very soon. Let us enter onto the royal road which the Lord has prepared for us: thankful that He has washed us clean in baptism, but mindful of our continual need for metanoia, for repentance. Let us not be distracted by the temptations which the world, the flesh, and the devil throw in front of us to pull us off the royal road, but let us remain firm in the New Exodus which we undertake, striving to complete the work which God has begun in us in our baptism, as Saint Paul exhorts us to do. Even if we have fallen off the royal road, let us  not despair or lose hope nor let us settle in our sinful state, but let us run to confession as quickly as possible to be healed of our faults and further strengthened for the journey. Above all, let us journey down the royal road towards the one destination God has promised to those who are faithful: the destination of eternal life.