Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Mary, Mother of God

In all of human history, what woman has witnessed as many significant events as did Mary, the mother of Jesus?

She received the message of the angel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of the Savior with joy. Showing a perfect love of neighbor, she rushed out to help her cousin Elizabeth when she became pregnant in her old age and was there when John the Baptist was born. At her own son’s birth, she saw angels drawing shepherds to the stable and a star leading wise men there from the east. At the temple in Jerusalem, the prophets Ana and Simeon foretold that Mary’s child would be great and that she would suffer along with Him. Together with Joseph, she fled to Egypt when they learned that Herod was after the child to kill him. When it was finally safe to return, she settled with Jesus and Joseph in Nazareth where she nurtured and cared for Him.

When the child grew to be a man, she was present at His first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana where He changed water into wine announcing the new covenant. As He traveled from town to town preaching the good news, she was never far away. And when He was condemned to death, she stood at the foot of the cross weeping alongside John, the beloved disciple. It was there that Jesus gave His mother to be our mother when He turned to John and proclaimed: “Behold your mother.” When He rose from the dead, she was at the empty tomb and no doubt knew in her heart that He was alive. She joined the apostles in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came down upon them on the feast of Pentecost. During those early years of the Church, she prayed and broke bread with those who came to know Jesus through the apostles’ preaching. There is no doubt that she would also instruct them in the mysteries of her Son whom she cradled in her arms.

No woman witnessed as much history as Mary, the mother of Jesus did. She did not always take an active role in the events that were unfolding before her. More often, she pondered them in her heart, as today’s gospel tells us, letting the mystery she was witnessing form her heart and her soul.

What other woman in human history had as lofty a title as that by which we celebrate Mary today, the Mother of God? Some women have been queens, prime ministers or presidents of corporations. Some women have even claimed to be goddesses. But none has claimed to be the Mother of God. Only Mary can claim such a distinction through the grace of God who called her to be the mother of His Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity.

When we call Mary, “The Mother of God”, we have to be sure that we understand exactly what we mean. We are not saying that Mary is greater than God. We are not saying that she existed before God as our mothers existed before we did. Mary was created by God just as we were. What we are saying is that the child she bore in her womb, the child she gave birth to, was the eternal Son of God. Jesus is and always has been God. Yet, to take on our human nature, He was born of a woman, as Saint Paul tells us in the second reading from the letter to the Galatians. To put it very simply, since Jesus was God and since Mary was His mother, she is  the Mother of God. So when we call Mary, “The Mother of God”, we are professing our faith in her child, Jesus, that He is God.

In many paintings and statues, Mary is often depicted with the moon at her feet. Just as the moon has no light of its own but reflects the light of the sun, so the glory that Mary has as Mother of God is a reflection of the glory of her Son. When we show honor to Mary, we are following the example of Jesus who also honored His mother, and we are showing honor to the One whose light she reflects. What son is not pleased when he is told how beautiful his mother is?  Just so, Jesus wants us to love and honor His mother for He has given her to us to be our mother as well.

So as people of faith, we begin every new year not just with parties and by making resolutions, but by reflecting on the glory of Jesus which shines so perfectly and beautifully from the face of Mary,  the Mother of God. With her we ponder the mystery that unfolds before us of a God who loved us so much that He sent His only Son to die for us. Just as He has sent us His Son, He also sends us His Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity who, as Saint Paul tells us, makes us His sons and daughters. That Spirit is at work in us reminding us of our dignity as sons and daughters of God, giving us hope in the eternal joy that is our inheritance in heaven and making us holy.

Jesus, the Son of God, took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this continual unfolding of love, He offers that flesh to us in the mystery of the Eucharist so that we might be drawn ever deeper into His divine life. We are witnesses to this great love and power and are called to share it with others so that they can know the joy that we have. With the prayers of Mary who is the Mother of God and our mother to support us, we can do great things for Jesus.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An Advocate for Families

Since becoming the bishop of Rome last year, there has been no stronger advocate for families than our beloved Holy Father, Pope Francis. Whether it regards a living wage for working people, the values of a society that places possessions over people or the pressures that cause families to break up, his words always strike a chord with us who strive to follow the example of Jesus. His loving manner and his tender gestures have touched hearts all around the world and are no doubt helping people to see the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching on the importance of married love and family life.

This past October, Pope Francis invited people from all over the world to gather in Rome and discuss the situation of families in the modern world. This gathering, known as a synod, sought, in particular, to address the problems of how to proclaim the good news of marriage to a world that has stopped believing that love can last forever. Like Jesus, Pope Francis always keeps close to his heart those who feel disconnected from the Church. To those who find themselves divorced or abandoned by a spouse, he wanted to show the loving concern that we should have in welcoming every person no matter where they may be along the journey of faith.

To announce this extraordinary gathering at the Vatican, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the families of the world. In it, he directed the following words to us, “This...Assembly is dedicated in a special way to you, to your vocation and mission in the Church and in society; to the challenges of marriage, of family life, of the education of children; and the role of the family in the life of the Church.”

Unfortunately, much of the reporting about this gathering focused on some controversial statements and alleged infighting among bishops. However, the real focus of the event was the family and its crucial role in society and the Church.

Family is at the heart of every human life. Every person came from a family. It was in our family that we learned to speak, that we learned to relate to other people and that we came to understand ourselves. No matter how old we are, much of our behavior and attitudes still stem from that early formation we received from our parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins. The family is truly the most basic building block of society. Without it, there would be no civilization. And so, the healthier families are, the healthier society and the Church will be.

It goes without saying that it is love that makes a family. Love brings a man and woman together. Love makes them decide to have children. It is love that drives parents to endure difficult work schedules, to go without sleep to take care of sick children and to sacrifice themselves for each other’s good. That type of self-giving love,  rooted in blood ties, is what makes a family different from any other group in society. And it is the fact that children come from them that makes it so indispensable to the common good.

But there is another element that is crucial to the success and growth of families - faith. It is only through a deep, abiding trust in God that a man can give himself totally and without conditions to his bride. It is only through belief in the love of God that a woman can forsake all others to cling to her husband. It is only through faith that a man and woman can see their children as gifts of God to be cared for and nurtured. Because we are human, we will often fail in our love for one another. Our human selfishness and fears so often cause us to lash out and to hurt one another. It takes faith to find the power to forgive, to overcome our selfishness and to live in peace with one another.

In his letter to families, Pope Francis writes the following words about today’s gospel reading:
It is a beautiful image; two young parents and two elderly people, brought
together by Jesus. He is the one who brings together and unites generations!
He is the inexhaustible font of that love which overcomes every occasion
of self-absorption, solitude, and sadness. In your journey as a family, you
share so many beautiful moments: meals, rest, housework, leisure, prayer,
trips and pilgrimages, and times of mutual support....Nevertheless, if there
is no love then there is no joy, and authentic love comes to us from Jesus.

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph were joined together by God into a loving family to nurture and care for the child, Jesus. It was in this family that Jesus grew to be strong and filled with wisdom, as Saint Luke tells us. What made the Holy Family “holy” was the presence of Jesus. If our families are also to be holy, then we must welcome Jesus into our homes. We do this through prayer as a family, through Sunday Mass, through good works, through our hospitality and through our kindness to one another. From the love of Jesus there flows joy and peace. Forgiveness becomes possible and relationships are healed.

If you feel there is something missing in your family, then turn to Jesus. Welcome Him first into your heart and then into your home. Practice the words of Saint Paul in today’s second reading: “Put on...heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience”. Then real change can begin.

So often families suffer because each member waits for the other to change. Parents think that it is only when children become more obedient that the home will be happier. Children think that if only their parents would really listen to them that their relationship would get better. However, none of us has power to change anyone else. If we are waiting for someone else to change, we will be waiting a long time. We can only change ourselves. Let this be the day that we each make a decision to do whatever is necessary to improve our family life, no matter what situation we may find ourselves in. Then we will experience the peace that only Christ can give and that every family yearns for.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Holy Family

Jesus was human in every way that we are. Like each of us, he needed food to nourish his body. He needed a good night's sleep for his work as a carpenter. He needed tunics to clothe his body and a roof to cover his head. Like all human beings, Jesus sought out other people to be his friends. He knew the joy of playing games with other boys and felt the pain of being left out or ridiculed.

And, like all of us, Jesus needed a family.

God chose Mary and Joseph to be Jesus' mother and father. He gave them the responsibility of teaching Jesus how to speak, how to read the Bible and how to pray. At Joseph's side, he learned the carpenter's trade and how to be a man.

Though the gospels don't tell us anything about them, we can imagine that Jesus had a larger family of grandparents who spoiled him and cousins who came over to play with him. On holidays, we can imagine Jesus, Mary and Joseph getting together with their family to eat, share stories and play games.

Under the care and supervision of this family, Jesus was able to grow in wisdom, strength and grace as Saint Luke tells us in the gospel.

Except that their son happened to be the Son of God, the Holy Family of Nazareth was just like any other family. Like all families, the Holy Family of Nazareth faced many trials and difficulties. Despite traditional images of them, they did not always lead a tranquil life. Jesus was born homeless and into poverty. Shortly after his birth, they had to flee their country under the threat of execution to live as refugees in Egypt. It was a family born into tremendous exterior pressures.

Families today know pressures as well. For economic reasons, both parents frequently have to work outside of the home making meals together on a regular basis difficult. The price of real estate makes longer commutes necessary further limiting time with the family. And those are just some of the pressures on traditional, two parent families. We haven't mentioned single family homes where these pressures are doubled. And then there are "blended" families where stepparents and stepchildren are constantly testing the boundaries of their relationship adding to the tension within the home.

The status of the family today causes a lot of hand wringing, especially in the Church. There are fewer and fewer traditional families. We are right as Christians and as good citizens to promote the welfare of the traditional, two parent family. Children born in such families are no doubt better off economically and psychologically. The family is the cornerstone of the Church and of society. Our world is only as strong as the families which make it up. At the same time, we must recognize that in today's society when bodies mature more rapidly and adolescence lasts well into the 20's, people are going to make mistakes resulting in out-of-wedlock births and divorce.

A wise spiritual director once said that God is not found in the "ideal", but in the "real". The traditional family is an important ideal. However, God is not found in ideal families or in ideal people, but in real families and in real people. As painful as our past may have been and as much as we may wish we could go back and fix our mistakes, God doesn't give us the option of turning back the clock. God is spending His grace on us in our real lives and in our real families as we find ourselves today. God's grace happens in families that are "blended" and those that need to be mended.

Once we realize that families, as long as they are made of human beings, can never be perfect, then it has important implications for our lives as individuals and as a Church.

First, as individuals each of us can look back on our lives and find fault with our parents. It could be that they were never around or that they were never supportive. It could be that they were abusive in some way. Those scars can stay with us a long time. We know how resentments and grudges can ruin families. Can each of us today bring our hearts before the Lord and ask for the grace to forgive our parents or any other family member who ever hurt us? Can we leave our resentments at the foot of the altar and ask God to relieve us of that burden? Can we recognize that our parents were probably doing the best they could and let go of the anger we have been shouldering all these years? Once we are able to do that, then we can live together in "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" as Saint Paul calls us to.

Secondly, for us as a parish, we have to recognize the pressures that families face and ask ourselves, how can we be a more family-friendly community? Are the times we schedule for catechism and worship burdensome to families? In our worship and our hospitality, are we sensitive to the different types of families in our parish and careful not to stigmatize anyone, especially children? What can we as a parish community do to support families with all the challenges they face?

Families are never perfect, even when they are the ideal, traditional family. They are all marked by joy and pain, mistakes and good choices. The Holy Family - Jesus, Mary and Joseph - knew the pressures of family life. The difference was that they experienced God's presence even in those difficulties. Even with all the challenges of daily life in today's society, we can experience God's presence with us and teach our children to recognize Him as well. Then we have fulfilled our mission as a family, no matter what our family may look like.

(image by Marisol Sousa)

Friday, December 26, 2014

The New Creation in Christ

God created the world out of nothing through the power of his word. He spoke and it came to be. He said, "Let there be light", and there was light. He caused the mountains to rise up from the sea. He filled the sea with fish and the land with animals. Finally, by the power of his word, he created man and woman to be the crowning achievement of his great work. He created in us hearts to hear his word and mouths to proclaim it. 

When he called Israel out from among the nations to be a people peculiarly his own, he sent them prophets to proclaim his word among them. Such was the prophet Isaiah who speaks to us in today's first reading. He proclaimed to the people of Israel - and to us today - the good news of peace and salvation from God. Through the prophets, God promised Israel a mighty savior who would forgive them their sins and lead them in the ways of peace. Not only would this great Messiah lead Israel to freedom, but all the nations would witness the great power of God at work through this Savior.

When Isaiah first spoke these words, it was unclear what his meaning was. Who would this great king be? How would he lead Israel to freedom and peace? We who gather here this morning know exactly what Isaiah meant. We are celebrating this great mystery today.  The boy born this day to Mary and Joseph fulfills all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus is the Savior of the World.

In the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews we read: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son..." God who so powerfully created the world by his word, and then called the nation of Israel into being by his word, now speaks one last time in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the Word made Flesh dwelling among us.

What does the birth of Jesus tells us about this mighty God?

Very simply, God wants us to know him. He sent Jesus, a man like us, so that we could hear from his very mouth how much he loves us and how he longs for our friendship. Jesus is Truth and Love. Whoever hears him, hears the Father. Whoever sees him, sees the Father. We do not need to look anywhere else to find God but in the person of Jesus. 

When Pope John Paul II made his first trip to the United States, he preached a beautiful homily to the rain-soaked crowds who had gathered in the Boston Common. In short, he said that all those who want to know the truth should turn to Jesus. He is the Truth. All those who seek meaning in their lives should turn to Jesus. He is the source of all meaning. All those who seek love should turn to Jesus. He is the love of God made flesh among us. These words of the pope make clear to us the meaning of Christmas: Jesus is born to bring God into our world and into our lives.  

And so, this child born today is a lifeline to all those who are lost and don't know how to find their way. This child is God's hand stretched out to all those who looked for success, happiness and fulfillment in what the world offers, but couldn't find it. Jesus is God's peace extended to all those who have become bitter or enraged by life's unfairness. This child is hope born to those who have grown weary and have given up on ever finding meaning and purpose in their lives.

Whatever it is our hearts ache for - whether it be love, peace, truth or meaning - all of it can be found in the person of Jesus.

This has been a very difficult year for most of us. Many people are out of work. We feel poorer and less secure these days. If anything, we have learned that the security and happiness money promises to give us is an illusion. The future can look dark.  However, in the darkness of these days, hope is born for us.  If Jesus is our light, we can never lose our way, and the darkness of despair can never totally consume us. Jesus is the Light of the World.

For those of us who have already welcomed this child into our hearts and made him the center of our lives, we should rejoice! We have come to know the meaning and purpose of our lives. We know the truth and are given the power to live in the love of God. It is now up to us not only to celebrate it but to share it with everyone we meet. This light cannot remain hidden. We must bring it into our homes, into our places of work and into our classrooms.

For those of us who are still searching, God is offering us another opportunity to welcome him into our lives. God never grows tired of stretching his hand out to us when we are lost or confused. Whatever it is that we are struggling with, whatever it is that is keeping us from experiencing the fullness of joy, God has the answer for it. We need only turn to the baby born this day, take him into our arms and promise to love him. When the first step of our searching becomes love rather than doubt, then we are back on the path to truth. When love rather than knowledge is our driving force, then everything suddenly becomes a little clearer.

God wants to move in with us. He wants to be in our lives. Like any baby, he simply wants our love and attention. Who would deny a baby affection and care? Who wouldn't want to share their homes and their lives with a newborn child?

Just such a child is born for us today. He is Jesus!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Blessed Christmas

From the bottom of my heart, I want to wish all of you a blessed Christmas.

This day is always filled with a joy that runs deep within our spirits. That joy is an echo of the song of the angels proclaiming to the shepherds that Jesus, the Saviour is born. It rises up from the depth of our soul. Jesus is born! The good news inspires us to gather here this morning and celebrate the gift of God made known to us in this newborn King.

Christmas day has inspired some of the most beautiful music ever written. Most of us know all these carols by heart and have been humming them to ourselves throughout these past weeks. We look forward to singing them at parties or when we gather for Mass. For many of us, Christmas hymns rank among our favorite songs. It is not just because those songs bring back memories of our childhood or conjure up images of holiday bliss, but because they speak to a core truth of human existence. When we were in the dark, Jesus came to bring us light. When we were lost, Jesus came to find us. When we were enslaved to sin, Jesus came to set us free. That is the true meaning of this feast. That is the true reason we gather here today. It is the cause of our joy.

Pope Benedict XVI in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, asked a question that most of us may have asked from time to time. What difference did Jesus’ make? Since His birth there is still suffering and sin. He was not able yet to put an end to wars or to violence. What did Jesus come to bring, then? Our Holy Father gives a simple yet profound answer, “Jesus came to bring us God.” As our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s being. Whoever sees Jesus, sees God. Whoever listens to Jesus, listens to God.

Because of the birth of Jesus, God is never far from us. He is at our side in good times and in bad times. It is true that we continue to suffer. However, now God suffers with us. It is true that we continue to fall into temptation. But now our Heavenly Father graciously forgives us through the blood of His Son. It is true that all of us will one day die, but we can hold onto the hope of eternal life held out to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The human heart desires nothing less than God Himself. Now a real friendship with God is possible for each of us because of the miracle of this Christmas day.

How, then, can we experience the joy of Christmas every day throughout the year? How can the blessings of Jesus’ birth be ours when the decorations come down and the dark winter drags our spirits down? We experience the gift of Jesus all year long simply by going to Mass. Whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus Himself is present in our midst. It is His voice we hear when the Scriptures are proclaimed. He Himself is teaching us and imparting His wisdom to us, just as He did to His disciples. In a most remarkable way, we receive Jesus in the gift of His Body and Blood. At Mass, the bread and wine become truly the Body and Blood of Christ. It is no mere symbol or representation but the real Body and Blood of Jesus. The One whom the shepherds left their fields to see and whom the wise men traveled far to behold comes to us in the miracle of the Eucharist. Right here the blessing of Christmas is made real every Sunday, indeed every day.

That means that no matter how inspiring the preaching is, no matter how holy the priest or deacon is, no matter how well the choir sings, we receive the same awesome gift at every Mass. Why would we ever want to miss out on it? What could fill us with more grace and blessings than going to Mass would? Why would we want to settle for less?

The good news is simply this, “God sent His only Son into the world that whoever believes in Him may not die but have eternal life.” God loves each and every one of us. And He wants us to know how much He loves us. He could think of no better way of showing His love than by sending His only Son to share our broken human condition and, eventually, to die. God loves us not because of anything we have done or could do. God loves us simply because He is love itself. There is nothing we can do to make Him love us more or to make Him love us less. All this He has revealed to us through His Son whose birth we celebrate today.

There is a reason that we were all called here today just as there was a reason that the shepherds were called to the manger and the wise man were drawn to Bethlehem by the star. God wants to speak to our hearts. He wants to urge us to stop striving after what cannot fully satisfy us. He wants to plead with us to stop trying to make it on our own. He wants to reassure us that we do not have to struggle alone. This day, our Heavenly Father wants us to turn to His Son, the One He sent to save us. He wants us to find in Him true and lasting joy. And He wants us to share that joy with others. That is the meaning of this Christmas day. That is what makes this day and every day blessed. Jesus, our Saviour, is with us. Let heaven and nature sing!

(image by Marisol Sousa)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Prince of Peace

The twentieth century opened with one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history - World War I. Advances in science and technology made the slaughter of human lives possible on a massive scale. Airplanes could now drop bombs creating widespread destruction, and mustard gas burned the skin off soldiers.

Nowhere was the fighting fiercer than on the front lines along the Western front. British and German troops hunkered down in trenches exchanging gunfire and lobbing grenades. When the artillery failed to kill the troops, dysentery and dehydration succeeded in finishing them off.

However, on Christmas day of 1914 at Ypres, Belgium, the hounds of war were called off for a brief time. To celebrate the holiday, German soldiers began decorating their trenches with lights and singing carols. The British troops responded by singing carols of their own and shouting Christmas greetings to their German counterparts. In a show of holiday spirit, they agreed to stop the shooting to allow each other to leave their trenches to collect and bury the corpses of their dead comrades. In the process, the British and German troops began talking. They exchanged gifts and, in some locations, even held joint Christmas services.

Sadly, these friendly exchanges were not enough to bring an end to the brutal war. The fighting eventually resumed as fiercely as it had before. But for a brief time the soldiers came to see each other not as enemies but as friends. They recognized their common humanity. They saw that they all had families they were anxious to return to and a future full of dreams they hoped to pursue. For a fleeting time, they put down their weapons to experience peace.

How is it that such an event could have taken place during such a brutal war? How is it that men who only one day earlier had tried to kill one another could cross over the barbed wire and embrace each other as brothers? It is only possible through Jesus. It is not a coincidence that this truce took place on Christmas day. As the soldiers decorated their trenches and sang Christmas carols their hearts became filled with the love of God, a love that does not see race, nationality or social status. It was that love of God that gave them the courage to cross the battle lines and turn enemies into friends. Only Jesus, who could gather indigent shepherds and wealthy, world-wise Magi together in a stable in Bethlehem, can bring peace to a world rent by conflict and division.

This night we gather to celebrate the gift which Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was born to bring to earth. As Isaiah prophesied, a child is born for us. This baby, born in a stable, is the world’s only hope. Before Jesus, the world was covered with darkness. Each nation had its own idols. Each kingdom struggled to gain dominion over other kingdoms and to do away with other peoples altogether. Now that the Savior of the World has been born, people of all nations have come to recognize the one true God and Father of all. We can put down our weapons and cool our hostility as we come to see through our differences to the image and likeness of God within each of us.

A great light shines this night to a world that has too long been covered in darkness. All of us desire peace, but we do not know how to find it. We have tried every thing from treaties to alliances to negotiations to try to find peace, but it has always eluded us. Tonight God reveals to us that only in Jesus can our world ever know peace. Only Jesus can remove the hate, prejudice and selfishness which are the root of conflict and violence. Only when the world comes to know Jesus can we ever experience real and lasting peace.

On this night we celebrate that what was thought to be impossible became a reality. The virgin gave birth to a Son. God became man. Angels appeared to shepherds in a field. Wise men from the East were drawn to Bethlehem by a star. Tonight we rejoice because with God all things are possible. The Heavenly Father who gave his Son not only to be born but to die for us can do all things. The light that has shone upon us through the birth of Jesus will illuminate for us the way to peace both for ourselves personally, for our nation and for our world. All we need is the courage to follow that light, and the impossible will become real.

There are many corners of our world that this light has not yet reached. There are many people who turn away from the light because they prefer darkness. We need to bring the light that is within us to them so that they can know the peace of Christ which their hearts have yearned for but which has eluded them. As the angels announced the good news to the shepherds, we must announce to all those we meet that our Savior is born and that He may be found by all who wish to know Him. As the star led the Wise Men across the desert to Bethlehem, so we must lead others to where they may find the Messiah who was born to save them. We who believe and have been touched by Jesus are now the light of the world bringing hope and peace. The torch has been passed on to us and we must go out lighting the torches of all those whom God places in our path.

The world can know true and lasting peace because it is what God wants for us. And nothing is impossible with God. Come to Bethlehem and see.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Hail, Mary

As we light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath, we realize how near the end of our Advent journey is. In just a few short days we will be celebrating the birth of our Savior. Joy and anticipation fill us as the day draws near.

Advent is a season of patient waiting for the Lord who has promised to appear in our midst. It is a time to remember how God has revealed Himself in the past through the birth of Jesus Christ. It is also a time of celebration and gratitude for the ways God reveals Himself to us in the present through the insight we gain from His word, through the inspiration we receive from other believers and through the sacraments which heal and empower us. Finally, Advent is a season of anticipation as we look forward in hope to the glorious Second Coming of our Lord who will reveal Himself definitively to all people dispelling any possible doubt that He is the Savior of the World. These attitudes of remembrance, celebration and anticipation sum up the meaning of the Advent season.

Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, characterizes for us more than any other person in the Christmas drama what our Advent preparation should be, particularly as it comes to an end. She is the one who waits perfectly for the will of God to be revealed. We see in today’s gospel how she listens in wonder at the angel Gabriel’s declaration that she, the one “full of grace”, was chosen above all women to be the mother of the Savior. She does not ask what she has done to deserve such an honor. She does not ask what will be required of her in the future. She simply says “yes” to what God wants to do through her. “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” Mary’s focus is not on herself and what she might accomplish but on God and the great work He wanted to fulfill in and through her.

And so Mary, carrying the Savior of the World within her, serves as the shining image of the Advent Season. As she waits in joyful anticipation for the birth of her Son, she ponders the mystery of God that she has become caught up in. She marvels at why God would choose her, a humble girl from a remote part of Israel, to play such an important role in the world’s salvation. Her special place, however, does not fill her with pride because she understands that it is all God’s work. As she will explain to her cousin Elizabeth, “The Lord who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name.”

Mary, carrying Jesus within her, teaches us about the need to wait patiently for the Lord. When a woman is pregnant, there is no way to rush the birth of her child along. All she can do is wait patiently, giving the child all the time she needs to develop in her womb. Only when the baby is given that time will she eventually be born. There is nothing a mother can do to shorten her pregnancy to six or seven months. No matter how anxious she may be to hold her child in her arms, the only thing she can do is wait.

Mary teaches us this important lesson of the spiritual life - We have to give God time to work in our lives. No matter how anxious we may be to see progress in our spirituality or renewal in the Church, it can only come through the gentle work of God’s Spirit. We want to see instant results, but God works slowly and surely. No matter what we may be struggling with, what burdens are weighing us down, what sorrows are breaking our hearts, God promises to strengthen, heal and deliver us if we trust Him and wait patiently. We cannot rush God. We can only wait in joyful expectation for His work to come to term in ways that may surprise us but will never let us down.

Mary also teaches us that God does great things in small, imperceptible ways. When Mary said “yes” to being the mother of Jesus, it was the most important word ever spoken in human history up to that time, yet only the angel Gabriel heart it. Though it marked a turning point in human history, it appeared in no papers of the time nor was it recorded by any historian other than Saint Luke. What God did in Mary was thunderous and earth shaking, but it did not register on the Richter scale. God was working in a small way, through an ordinary girl, to change the course of history.

In just such a way, God is using ordinary people who are willing to say “yes” to Him day in and day out to build His Kingdom. It happens in the home of the man who quietly empties the dishwasher to give his wife one less chore to do. It happens in the school boy who stands up for a classmate who is being picked on. It happens in the hospital when a sick person offers up her sufferings for the conversion of sinners. It happens when a teenager decides to turn off his computer and read the Bible instead. None of these actions seems noteworthy or heroic. They will mostly go unnoticed by others. But it is through just such daily acts of ordinary generosity and kindness that God changes the world.

Mary teaches us, then, to say “yes” daily to the Lord no matter how small the task may be or how unnoticed our sacrifices may go. In our day-to-day attempts to love one another, God is transforming hearts. There is no way to measure the effect. There is no way to chart the progress of individuals or the Church. Each of us, following Mary’s example, has to trust God, saying “yes” when it is easy and when it is difficult. Each of us has to wait for God to act just as Mary did in a stable in Bethlehem and throughout her life of faith.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Mary Can Teach us

According to a long-standing tradition, Mary was only fifteen years old when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the Mother of God. Imagine God choosing someone so young to take on such a great responsibility of bearing the Son of God. What an incredible woman Mary must have been. She must have been wise and mature beyond her years to be called to such an exalted role.

Besides her wisdom and holiness, this young girl’s most important virtue was her humility. Though she had questions for the angel, she accepted what he said and was willing to give herself over to God’s plan. She did not negotiate with Gabriel. She did not ask, “If I do this for God, what is He going to do for me.” Rather she put aside her own will to say yes to God’s will.

Just as Mary taught Jesus how to walk and how to speak, she would have taught Him how to pray. She would have taught Him to have a great love for God’s word and for His temple in Jerusalem. But, most of all, she would have taught Him to seek God’s will in all things and to say yes of whatever His Heavenly Father would ask of Him.

Mary was a good teacher, because we see throughout Jesus’ life a willingness to embrace God’s will. When He teaches the disciples to pray, He includes the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And when He is lying prostrate in the garden overcome with anguish at the thought of dying for a sinful humanity, He prays as His mother taught Him: “Not my will but your will be done.”

If Mary can teach Jesus how to seek out and do God’s will, she can also teach us. Not only did Mary say yes to being the mother of the Savior, she also said yes to being our Mother at the foot of the cross when Jesus pointed to Saint John and said, “Behold your Son.” Jesus has entrusted us to the care of His own Mother. Now that her work on earth is complete, in heaven she watches over us and prays for us. She wants nothing else than to take us by the hand and lead her to her Son.

One powerful way that Mary teaches us to say yes to God’s will is through the rosary. When we pray the rosary, we are meditating on the mysteries of God’s plan of salvation. We are pondering the events of Jesus’ life and are inspired by His love and generosity. As we pray along with Mary, we come to see how those mysteries are at work in our own lives. We come to understand that just as in the first joyful mystery Mary is called to embrace God’s plan, so we are called to put our own plans aside to follow Jesus. We see in the fourth sorrowful mystery that just as Jesus embraced His cross, so our burdens and difficulties can be a means of salvation for us and the world if we embrace them with faith and offer them up to God in love. As Blessed John Paul II said so beautifully, the rosary is Mary’s school teaching us how to love and follow her Son.

As the new year approaches, one resolution we should make is to pray the rosary every day. If we could gather our whole family each night for this powerful prayer, even better. Our Lady promises tremendous blessings and graces to us when we devote ourselves to this beautiful prayer. She assures us that she will obtain for us from her Son whatever we may ask of her. She promises that we will find the strength to turn away from all sin and to burn with greater love for our Heavenly Father. And she promises that at the hour of our death she will ask her Son to have mercy on us. Along with receiving the sacraments and studying the scriptures, praying the rosary is a powerful way to grow in holiness and to learn from Mary how to say yes to God’s will.

Often people are discouraged from praying the rosary because they find themselves getting distracted as they pray. Instead of focusing on the mysteries or on the prayers, their minds start to drift off. This is very natural. Even Saint Therese of Lisieux complained that she struggled to fight off distractions when she prayed the rosary. However, we should never allow our human weakness to discourage us from praying. God accepts our prayers no matter how feeble they may seem to us. When a two year old starts saying words for the first time, even though they are mispronounced, we laugh and encourage the child. Just so, when we pray to our Heavenly Father, He takes delight in it just as we would in that small child who is just learning how to talk. And just as that child will eventually learn how to speak correctly by practicing, so we will grow in our ability to pray by praying more. Every day we will make some progress in our ability to focus on the prayers and the mysteries, even though at times we may fail to see it. It is when prayer is difficult that we will make the most progress. And we can always pray with confidence because Mary promises to bring those prayers, no matter how feeble,  to the throne of her Son.

Because Mary said yes to God’s will, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus this week. We have been preparing through these past four weeks to make a place for Him in our hearts and homes and to receive Him with joy. Because, like Mary, Jesus said yes to God’s plan, we have the great blessing this day of receiving His body which He gave for us and His blood which He poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. Now God is waiting for our yes. He wants to do great things in and through us. Let us ask Mary to teach us how to entrust ourselves to God’s will so that we can experience all the blessings He has prepared for us.

(image by Marisol Sousa)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

God is Mighty

"The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth..."

Along with Michael and Raphael, Gabriel is one of the great archangels serving the throne of God. His name means, "God is mighty", and he is called upon to make it clear that God is about to perform a "mission impossible" in someone's life.

He first makes his appearance in the Old Testament book of the prophet Daniel. Daniel has just had a vision of a ram and a goat, and Gabriel is sent to interpret it for him. The horrifying vision foretells the rise of a great political power which will wreak devastation throughout the world. Gabriel tells Daniel that eventually this great political power will be defeated but "not by human power". That is, the hand of God will work in a mighty way to save his people from the tyrant. Though it would seem impossible that Israel, a country which at the time was in exile, could defend itself against such a mighty power, Gabriel arrives on the scene to announce that all things are possible with God.

In today's gospel reading, Gabriel now appears to Mary to declare to her that God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah. She is startled, and cannot comprehend at first the meaning of the angel's greeting and message. As the angel reveals God's plan to her, it becomes evident that there's a hitch. How can she become pregnant if she is a virgin? Gabriel explains to her that it will be by the power of the Holy Spirit that she is to conceive. And so, the child will not be the son of a human father but of God himself. Gabriel ends his message with these words: "...for nothing will be impossible for God." God sends Gabriel to announce to Mary that he is about to do the impossible in her life.  

The Scriptures are full of stories of those whom God chooses to do the impossible. In the first reading, God tells David that his dynasty will be without end. David had been a simple shepherd boy. Alone, David could never have expected to be anything more than that. Yet, called and empowered by God, he became king of his people, and he is remembered forever because from his line Jesus, the Messiah was born. God did the impossible in the life of King David.

The twelve apostles chosen by Jesus to carry on his message were also simple fishermen, tax collectors and political idealists. By themselves they didn't amount to much. Yet God used them to spread the message of the gospel to all the nations. It wasn't because of a good business plan or effective marketing strategy that we still remember them two-thousand years later. It was because of the work of the Holy Spirit who emboldened them to witness to Jesus' love even in the face of persecution and death. The message of Jesus has reached us here in this place so many centuries later because God did the impossible in the lives of twelve simple men who said "yes" and followed Jesus. 

God is great. It is the nature of God to work wonders. When we say "yes" to God, the impossible happens. 

As we look in our own lives, what wonders do we want God to perform? Are there people in our lives struggling with addiction? Do we have children who have drifted away from the Church and no longer believe? Are we struggling in our marriages or other relationships? Has the economy placed a strain on our jobs? If we entrust all those cares to the Lord, we can expect him to do a miracle.

As a parish community, what do we want to achieve? Do we want to reach out to more young people? Do we want to bring back to Church those who have stopped coming? Do we want to make our catechism classes more compelling and our worship more joyful? What is holding us back?

We are rational and practical people. But, too often, we settle for the merely possible when God wants to do the impossible. Sometimes we approach God with a false humility, thinking that it would be arrogant or unreasonable of us to ask too much of him. But God loves us as his children and will spare nothing to bring us closer to him. There is nothing that we could ever ask him that would be impossible for him to do. All things are possible with God.

We are here today because God did the impossible in the life of Mary. We are here today because God did the impossible by becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ. And God will do the impossible before our very eyes turning simple bread and water into the very body and blood of Jesus to nourish and strengthen us. To unleash this mighty power of God, all Mary did was tell Gabriel, "Yes, let it be done to me as you say". To witness the impossible in our lives all we have to do as we receive the bread of angels is tell Jesus, "Yes, let your will be done in me as you say."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pure Joy

Every relationship goes through three distinct phases - Romance, Disillusionment and Joy.

When we first meet people we find attractive, we are drawn to their good qualities. We might find them physically attractive. They might be fun to be around or we might admire their intelligence and spirituality. Being around them is easy and conversation comes naturally. We want to get to know them better and we make a point of spending time together. All the while, emotional bonds form and we find ourselves falling in love.

However, in time, no matter how close we may grow to a person and no matter how attractive we may find him or her, romance eventually gives way to disillusionment. As the haze of infatuation dissipates and our emotional balance returns, we start to see the other person more clearly. Their faults and shortcomings suddenly become more visible and they do not seem to be as attractive as we once thought. At times, we find our feelings being hurt by their insensitivity. What once came naturally - talking and spending time together - now takes effort. We start to wonder whether he or she is the right partner for us.

Many relationships do not survive the disillusionment stage. Sometimes it just becomes too difficult to work through our differences. However, those relationships that can make it past disillusionment reach the third stage - Joy. Joy is vastly different and more profound than the giddy excitement we feel in the romance stage. Rather than being based on an illusory, idealistic image of our partner, joy draws its intensity and strength from a realistic knowledge of the other. We find ourselves loving the whole person, not just the qualities we find attractive. We accept, embrace and celebrate our loved one day in and day out when it is easy and when it is difficult.

When our relationship reaches this stage, we find ourselves putting the other’s needs before our own, sacrificing willingly to support our loved one and letting go of hurt, frustration and anger for the sake of our relationship. And then, one day in a quiet moment when we are sitting together holding hands, feeling comfortable just being together without having to say a word, we discover that despite the hard work and sacrifice we are truly and deeply happy. That is joy.

Disillusionment is an experience we have in all our relationships, not just our romantic ones. We can be disillusioned with our parents when we feel that they have not loved us as much as we wanted. We can feel disillusioned with our political leaders when they fail to deliver on their promises. We can feel disillusioned with the Church when her members do not live up to the standard of goodness and holiness we expect. And we can feel disappointment even with God when we see the alarming level of injustice and suffering in our world.

However, if we can work our way through disillusionment we can also experience joy in every area of our lives. Disillusionment literally means having our illusions stripped away so that the truth can be revealed. When a husband has the illusion stripped away that his wife is capable of meeting all his needs, then he becomes free to love her unconditionally as she is. When we are stripped of the illusion that our parents have all the answers, then we can begin to appreciate their hard work and sacrifices and begin to learn from them. When I am stripped of the illusion that everyone in the Church is good and holy, then I can be free to stop looking for the hypocrisy in others and focus on how I can change to become the good and holy person Jesus calls me to be. And when I am stripped of the illusion that God is going to stop everything and remake the world as I would like to have it, then I can accept my responsibility in helping to make the world a better place. In all these instances, I experience a deep, lasting joy that is not based on illusion or wishful thinking but in the real goodness of creation and the ability to love even when it demands sacrifice.

Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, the Church calls us to joy, a joy based on the love and goodness of God. In preparation for the feast of our Savior’s birth, we have been facing the reality of sin in our lives and in our world. The struggle with temptation and injustice can leave us feeling discouraged and disillusioned. But today, as we light the third candle on our Advent wreath, we are reminded that Christmas is close. The reason for our struggle against sin and injustice becomes all the clearer - Jesus, the true light, is coming into the world - as Saint John proclaims in today’s gospel. Only His light can dispel the shadows and illusions that keep us trapped in despair and enslaved to error. He is the ultimate cause of our deep and lasting joy because He can never let us down or abandon us. He alone can meet our hopes and expectations of a fulfilled life. In fact, Scripture assures us that Jesus and He alone is capable of doing for us more than we could ever hope for or imagine. With Him in our hearts, we are empowered to bring joy into the lives of others despite our own weakness, fears and failings; because we are pointing them to the one who alone can meet the deepest need of every human heart - Jesus, the Light of the World.

In this life, disappointments and disillusionment are unavoidable. However, as Saint Paul instructs us, we rejoice always. With the joy of Jesus in our hearts, we can accept people as they are, serve their needs and love them unfailingly. When we sacrifice ourselves for others, looking past their faults, we will find as we reflect in quiet moments that we are truly happy. That is joy. That is Jesus, the Light of the World, alive in our hearts.