Thursday, December 31, 2015

Holy Mary, Mother Of God

As a Church, we have many beautiful titles to describe Our Lady. She is called the "Blessed Virgin Mary" because she conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is called the "Ark of the Covenant" because the child she carried in her womb would be the fulfillment of all the promises God made to the people of Israel. We also call her "Gate of Heaven", "Star of the Sea" and "Comfort of the Afflicted", because she continues to intercede for us at the throne of her Son in heaven.

We begin every new year in a special way by remembering and celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary under one of her most ancient titles, that of "Mother of God." When we call her, "Mother of God", we are first of all making a statement of faith about who it was she conceived in her womb. That child who was named Jesus is the Son of God Most High. He is God himself who takes on our human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because that child is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, equal to God in majesty and power, we rightly call his mother Mary, the Mother of God.

This ancient and venerable title also tells us much about who the Blessed Virgin Mary is and the role she played in the salvation Christ brought to the world. Mary was not merely the vessel chosen by God for the birth of his Son. Rather, she was an active participant in the drama of salvation. Without her "yes" to the message of the angel Gabriel, the Son of God could not have been born. After his birth and throughout his ministry Mary is present at the wedding feast at Cana, at the foot of the cross and at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the apostles giving birth to the Church. Mary is the first to believe in Jesus and the first to follow him. Saint Augustine wrote that before Mary conceived Jesus in her womb, she had already conceived him in her heart. And so, Mary, the mother and the disciple, rightfully has a central role in our salvation and is worthy to be venerated by us as an example of what it means to follow and believe in her Son, Jesus. 

At the center of Mary's identity and mission is first and foremost that she is a mother. No other title better describes who she is and how she serves the plan of God. As followers of Christ, we can rightly claim her as our mother as well. Jesus said as much from the cross when he turned to Mary and entrusted his disciple John and us along with him to her with the words, "Woman, behold your son." Because she made it possible that Jesus could have life, and because he became the source of our life through his death and resurrection, we can point to Mary as our mother in faith. Furthermore, Saint Paul tells us in the second reading that in baptism we received the Holy Spirit who makes us sons and daughters of God together with Christ. That same Spirit who hovered over Mary so that she could conceive Jesus in her womb puts the very life and love of the Father into our hearts. Through baptism, Jesus, born of a woman, becomes our brother, God becomes our Father and so Mary is now our mother. Because of that, we can count on her to take our needs to her Son and to watch over us on our journey to heaven.

As we begin this new year, the most important thing for us to keep in mind is that we should follow Mary's example. Because of her faith, she brought Jesus into the world. It is now up to us in the power of the Holy Spirit to do the same. By the kindness we show to those in need, we are to make it known that Jesus still walks among us in the person of believers. By bringing food to the hungry, we are to make it known that God continues to feed his people. By standing with those who weep and are sorrowful, we are to make it known that Christ is always by the side of those who suffer. As Mary gave her life and her body over to God's plan of salvation, we must give our very selves over daily to the wonderful works the Father wants to accomplish in our lives and in our world.

Mary is the Mother of God. She is blessed above all women because she carried the Son of God in her womb. It was her incomparable joy to hold the baby Jesus in her arms, to look on his face and to contemplate the wonder of a God who loved us enough to come down from heaven and save us. She is our mother as well. Because she cares for us, she wants nothing else than that we turn to her Son to seek forgiveness for our sins, strength against temptation and the power to do good for the needy who cross our path.

The Son of God took on a human body in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He now gives that body to us in the form of bread and wine. Like the shepherds who made haste to see with their own eyes the Word made Flesh in the arms of Mary, let us leave this place proclaiming the mystery we have celebrated and rejoicing in God's goodness. Like Mary, let us carry this mystery in our hearts and ponder it so that we can bring Jesus into a world that longs to hear the glad tidings of God's love. Then God's face will shine upon us, and we will know a peace that can never be taken away.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Called To Be Family

Do you want to make a difference in the world? Do you want to change society for the better? Do you want to leave your mark on history? Then be a good father or mother.

Study after study shows us and common sense confirms that children make out better in life when they are raised in a stable home with a loving father and mother. The unconditional love of a mother keeps them emotionally stable throughout life. The discipline of a father gives them the tools they need to be successful in school and in work. There is no better place than the home for a child to learn the faith, taking after the example of his or her parents to love God, to serve neighbor and to live with his or her ultimate goal of reaching heaven. No other institution in society can shape and form children better than families can. And when families fail, the community as a whole suffers because of it.

Because the family is the most fundamental building block of both the Church and society, we serve the world best by being good fathers and mothers. There is no other role we can undertake to better the world that is more effective or more meaningful. There is no other job that is more consequential to the future of humankind than that of a father and mother.

God understood this when He created us. He gave women and men a nearly irresistible attraction to each other and gave them the power to cooperate in creation by uniting in love to bring forth children. When He sent His Son, Jesus, to be born for our salvation, God understood that He would need a family to grow in wisdom, age and favor as Saint Luke tells us in today’s gospel. If Jesus needed a family, then we certainly also need one.

And so, on this beautiful feast day, we look to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family of Nazareth, for inspiration. They lived out perfectly what God intended marriage and family life to be.

Consider, first of all, Saint Joseph’s great faith. When He discovers that his fiancee, Mary, is pregnant, he trusts the angel’s revelation to him that it is through the Holy Spirit that she is with child. He surrenders all his plans to accept Mary as his wife. There must have been times when he felt he had let them down. It must have torn him up inside that the only place he could provide for Mary to deliver Jesus in was a stable. When they fled to Egypt to avoid Herod who threatened to kill the child, he must have wondered what he had gotten himself into. Yet courageously, he protects Jesus and Mary. While in Egypt, he must have struggled to find work in a land where he did not know the language or customs. But out of love and a strong commitment to his family, he found a way to make it work through God’s grace. He is an example to all fathers that, no matter what circumstances they may find themselves in, God will provide if they remain faithful to their wives and loving to their children.

Secondly, Mary is the premiere example of what it means to be a wife and mother. Though her pregnancy was certainly unplanned, she accepted and loved the child growing within her. Though it must have been uncomfortable for her to travel all the way to Bethlehem on a donkey when she was so close to giving birth, we do not hear one word of grumbling or complaint from her. Likewise, she accepts that a stable is the best that Joseph can do. There is another interesting piece to the gospel story that often goes unnoticed. When it is time for the Holy Family to flee to Egypt, Joseph is the one to receive the message from an angel in a dream. Then, when it is time for them to return to Nazareth, again it is Joseph who receives the message in a dream. When Joseph told Mary it was time to go, she could have said to him that she did not feel like moving again. She could have said, “When angels start talking to me in dreams, then I’ll go.” Instead, she humbly places herself under Joseph’s protection, trusting him to do the right thing. She did not act this way out of weakness or out of fear of her husband. She did it out of love both for him and for her child. She also did it out of faith that God would provide for them all.

Finally, Jesus is an example for all children. Though He is God, he placed Himself under the care of human parents, Mary and Joseph. He obeyed them trusting that they loved Him. If Jesus obeyed his parents, then children must certainly obey theirs!

It is very tempting as a child to think that your parents do not understand what you are going through. It is tempting for you to believe that you know better what is good for you than they do. However, your parents were once your age. Though the world has certainly changed, they experienced just about everything you are going through. They know what it’s like, and they only want the best for you. God has given you your parents to take care of you and guide you through life. Accept what they have to tell you and obey them because they have your best interest at heart. God promises that whoever obeys his parents -  not only when he or she is a child but even into adulthood - will have a happy and successful life. When it is hard to obey, pray to Jesus that He will teach you and strengthen you. With so many things in today’s world that can harm you, it is more important now than ever that you listen to and obey your parents.

Of course, not everyone is blessed with happy marriages or stable homes. We can never forget parents who struggle to raise their children alone or young people who feel trapped in negligent and abusive homes. The Holy Family of Nazareth can help them as well. God wants every home to be happy and every child to be successful. Therefore, we can trust that He will provide for all our needs if we turn to Him with faith and with a heart ready to commit to our families no matter what the cost.

It is vital to our success as a nation and central to our work as a Church that every family be a place where Jesus is found. Like the Holy Family of Nazareth, if we place Jesus at the center of our home, our success and happiness will be assured.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Finding Jesus In The Temple Of The Family

Today's gospel reading, the finding of Jesus in the temple, is the last word we hear about Jesus until he appears on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John. From the time he is twelve until he turns thirty, the gospels are silent about his life. These twenty years are called the "hidden years" because Scripture gives us no details about the life of Jesus during that time. What little we do know is summed up at the end of today's gospel: He lived in Nazareth. He obeyed his parents. And he "advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man."

Though we have few details about their life together, the Holy Family of Nazareth - Jesus, Mary and Joseph - have served as a model of what the Christian family is meant to be. Like most families, they lived ordinary and unremarkable lives. We can presume that they worked, shared meals together and prayed. As a good Jewish family, they would have attended their local synagogue and made pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem. It was in this simple, uneventful home, however, that Jesus, our Savior, grew and was formed into the man who would one day shoulder the burden of our sin, die on a cross and rise from the dead. It was in these humble and simple surroundings that this great man spent most of his life on earth.

Most of us, like Jesus during his hidden years, are not called to do remarkable acts of charity or heroism. Rather it falls to us to live simple and humble lives with our families. Whether we are parents or children, we grow in age, wisdom and grace through the joys and trials of our everyday lives. We learn the beauty and power of God whenever a new baby is born into our families. When the anxiety of paying bills or dealing with illness mounts, we grow in trust of our Heavenly Father who always makes things work out for our good. By doing our chores around the house cheerfully and with love, we learn about serving others. At family gatherings, we learn to be patient and kind by biting our tongue whenever our cranky uncle starts talking about politics or our teenage cousin double dips his tortilla chip into the salsa. Each family, no matter how imperfect, is a temple where we can find Jesus present and a school where we can learn the ways of God.

It is for this reason that prayer is so important for family life. We need to acknowledge that Christ is at the center of our lives as a family and to remind ourselves that our home is a holy place. One great way to do that is by having our homes blessed. Whenever we bless something, we are setting it apart for God, we are declaring that it is holy. By blessing our homes, we are saying that our home life is consecrated to God the Father, that it is now under his protection and that his word will be the guiding principle of our family life. Another vital way of bringing prayer into our homes is by making it a point to say grace at every meal, even when we are eating in a restaurant or have guests over. Grace at meals teaches us to be thankful for what we have and to be mindful of those who go without. It also sets a tone for the meal, making the behavior and conversation at the table more courteous and serious. No matter how we choose to do it, prayer is vital to family life so that we may have the strength to deal with the pressures of modern life and to help us recognize God's grace working in small and subtle ways in our home.

It should not surprise us that Jesus, the sinless one, obeyed his parents, Mary and Joseph. As children in catechism we learn that obeying our parents is our first duty. No doubt, whenever we went to confession, disobeying them was at the top of our list of sins. We learned that God gave our parents to us to protect us and to teach us. As imperfect as they may be, our parents are the first to introduce us to our faith and our primary models of what it means to live a Christian life. For this reason, the fourth commandment - Honor they father and mother - is the first one which deals with our responsibilities to our neighbor. And it does not expire when we turn eighteen or move out of the house. Rather, God intends that we love and honor our parents throughout our lives, especially when they are older and most need our attention and help. Older people in our society increasingly feel that they are a burden to their families and that their lives lack meaning and purpose. They need our affection in their old age more than ever. All of us have much to learn still from our parents no matter how old we are. Most especially, teenagers and younger children need contact with their grandparents and older relatives  so that they can learn their family history and grow in their sense of personal identity. Along with prayer, honoring our parents as Jesus did is one of the pillars
of a strong family life.

Like Jesus, each of us is called to grow in age, wisdom and grace through our family life. As children, we are called to honor our parents as the ones given to us by God to teach us. As parents, we are to recognize that our children are gifts from God, entrusted to our care, so that we can nurture them into strong followers of Christ. There has perhaps been no other time when family life has been under so much pressure. We see the effects of our weakened moral climate and a difficult economy all around us. Divorce has touched just about every family in one way or another. Now more than ever it is time for us to turn to God for strength to make him the cornerstone of our homes so that the strains of modern life will not break our families. We should also turn to that model of simple faith and humility, the Holy Family, and ask for their prayers to help us follow their example in our lives. Then our families, no matter how broken or imperfect, will be holy temples where we find Jesus, a safe place for children and a school of love and faith.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Word Becomes Flesh

There is no other time of the year that captures our imagination the way Christmas does. No matter how old we are, the child within us gets caught up in the lights, the images and the all around wonder of this season. Everything around us seems charged with electricity and all our senses are heightened. We want to absorb all the sights and sounds of Christmas and feel the buzz of this special time of year.

Where do all the images and stories of Christmas come from? From the Bible and, in particular from two of the gospels - Matthew and Luke.

Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective. In a dream, he learns that the child Mary is carrying is the Son of God. And so, he takes Mary to be his wife and commits himself to safeguarding the child Jesus. From Matthew, we hear the story of the Magi who come from the East following the star to offer gifts to the newborn King of the Jews. Through that gospel we also learn how Herod wants to kill the child and how Joseph must take his young family into Egypt until the ruler dies.

Luke, on the other hand, tells the Christmas story from Mary’s point of view. She learns from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the Messiah. The story of how they must travel to Bethlehem to enroll in the census also comes from Matthew along with how there was no room for them in the inn. The manger scenes in our homes showing the baby Jesus lying on a bed of hay with animals surrounding him comes from this story in Matthew. Finally, angels appear to shepherds watching their flocks under the light of the stars and they come to join the scene.

And so we can thank Saint Matthew and Saint Luke for these beautiful images that come to mind whenever we think of Christmas and the birth of our Savior.

This morning we listened to the story of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Saint John. If Saint Matthew told the story from Joseph’s perspective and Saint Luke from Mary’s perspective, we can say that Saint John tells the story from the perspective of heaven. There are none of the sentimental images in it that we typically associate with Jesus’ birth. Rather, Saint John takes us all the way back to the first day of creation when God brought the world into being by the word of his command. In fact, Saint John tells us that the child born today is that Word through whom God brought the world into being. The images that come from Saint John are not those of a child sleeping in a manger being serenaded by angels. Rather it is the image of the powerful voice of God thundering through the universe bringing all things into being.

Saint John wants us to be clear about one thing. The child born this day is not just a sweet, innocent child. He will not grow up to be just an important man or wise teacher. No. He is God. As such, he demands not just our admiration but our adoration. He demands not only our affection but our total obedience. He demands not only that we celebrate his birth once a year but that we live for him every day of the year. This child is our King, our Savior and our Lord.

In the beginning, God’s first words were “Let there be light!” Saint John tells us that the Christ Child is “[t]he true light, which enlightens everyone…” This day God is inviting us not only to celebrate the birth of Christ but to step into the light. In the baby Jesus, God is offering us nothing less than himself. He demands that we respond by giving nothing less than our very selves to him.

We cannot live without light. It helps us to find our way, to avoid danger and to tell one thing from another. When we are in darkness we feel lethargic and depressed. We have to feel our way along hoping not to fall over hidden obstacles. During these cold, dark days of winter, we can feel especially sad and miserable because of the diminishing hours of sunlight.

With the birth of the child Jesus, God is inviting us to step into the light of his truth and love. He is challenging us to turn our back on the darkness of sin and confusion and to walk in the way his love marks out for us.

It can be a scary thing to step out of the darkness and into the light. Often, we prefer the darkness. We are afraid that the light will expose our flaws and imperfections. We do not want the illusions, fantasies and denials that we use as a crutch to help us deal with life to be taken away from us.

However, something wonderful happens when we find the courage to step into the light. We discover that the darkness which we thought was covering up our negative qualities was also hiding much of our goodness. As we allow our weakness, flaws and imperfections to be exposed to the light, we also discover that God loves us just as we are. We do not have to earn his love or try to impress him or anyone else. In fact, we learn that we are loved precisely because we are weak and vulnerable. Finally, we discover that we cannot be good on our own. We desperately need a Savior to help us to walk in the light, to be healed and to be transformed. That Savior was born for us on this day.

Saint John challenges us to put aside the sentimentality that can so often cover up the true meaning of this Christmas day. He challenges us to turn away from the darkness and step into the light which the Christ Child brings into the world. Will today be the day that you give your life to Jesus? Will today be the day that you live as a child of God? Will today be the day that you learn what it means to have a Savior and to have your life transformed by his grace and truth? That is the only way that this day will be a true and fitting celebration for the birth of the Word who made the universe and “sustains all things by his mighty word.” That is the only way that we will discover for ourselves the true meaning and lasting impact of His birth for the history of our world.

Friday, December 25, 2015

God's Search For Man

Christianity is unlike any other religion.

Other religions claim to offer a path to finding God. By following a set of principles or repeating various rituals, they claim to reveal knowledge about God. It all starts with the individual who takes the initiative to look for a Deity who is hiding either within themselves or out in the world somewhere.

Christianity is vastly different. It is not about our search for God. Rather it is about God’s search for us. Our Heavenly Father is the one who takes the initiative to look for us. We do not have to search high and low to find a God who is hiding from us.  He already knows us and wants a relationship with us. To find out the truth about God, we do not have to rummage through libraries piecing together information about Him. Rather, He has revealed everything about Himself to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

We learned this beautiful mystery of God’s love and concern for us from our Jewish brothers and sisters. Consider the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis. When they had succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, they did not run to God to ask for forgiveness. Rather they hid. It was God who went into the garden to look for them, crying out “Where are you?”
The same is true for each of us. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that the story of our lives is not that God has been hiding from us but that we have been hiding from God.  The good news is that it is never too late for us to emerge from the bushes, cry out “Here I am”, and let God find us.

Today’s beautiful feast reminds us in striking fashion how God takes the initiative in searching for us.

Consider what happened in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. This God who created heaven and earth, who has existed from all eternity who dwells in blinding light, was born a poor baby. Why? Because He wanted us to know Him. He wanted us to see and touch Him. He wanted us to be able to hear His voice. But most importantly, He wanted to be loved by us.

Our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews touches on this mystery. God revealed Himself in the past through the law and prophets of the Old Testament. He sent human messengers to teach us about His love. However, on Christmas day, He sent His Son, the image of His glory. This Son is the one Word unveiling the mystery of God. When we look at Jesus, we see God Himself. When we hear Jesus, we hear God Himself. Our Heavenly Father is no longer hiding. Rather He is among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Consider also the life of Jesus. Since He was the one with all the knowledge of God and who possessed the power to heal, He could have simply stayed in His home in Nazareth and waited for people to come to Him. There is no doubt that they would have come in droves. But He did something different. He went throughout the countryside seeking out the lost. He went to the seashore and found fishermen to follow Him. He went through the city streets looking for tax collectors and prostitutes to share God’s love with. Finally, He went to Jerusalem where He made Himself an offering for our sins on the cross. He did it all so that every obstacle keeping us from God could be cleared away. He did it because He loves us and He wants us to love Him in return.

The purpose of our lives, then, is not to find God but to let Him find us. It means stopping in the tracks of our hectic lives so that God can catch up to us. It means turning off the television, computer and radio so that we can hear Him calling out to us. It means clearing out all the clutter from our lives so that God can find a place to sit and be with us. It means taking our focus off all the small and petty things that take place every day so that we can look up and see His hand reaching out to us.

Consider this as well. God is love. We are not searching for love, then. Love is searching for us. God gives meaning to life. We are not searching for meaning, then. Meaning is searching for us. God is Truth. We are not searching for Truth, then. Truth is searching for us. If in the secret of your hearts you are longing for love, meaning our truth, then know that it is God calling out to you. All you need to say is, “Here I am, Lord.” and let Him do the rest.

God is not far from us. He is not hiding or playing games with us. Rather He is among us. He has made Himself known through Jesus Christ and the Church which He founded. We hear Him speak in the Scriptures and we touch Him through the mystery of the Eucharist. His love is near to us. This feast of Christmas proves it. The wait is over. God has visited His people. Let us rejoice and be glad.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The God Who Came Down To Earth

As the year winds to an end, it is natural for us to want to look back and remember what happened. We think about the people in our lives and the gift of love they are to us. We may review what we were able to accomplish and evaluate whether we worked to the best of our abilities. We will feel regret over the mistakes we have made, the people we have let down, and resolve to do better in the coming year.

It is also natural during the Christmas season with all the festivities to take a broader view of our lives. How is it that we are blessed with so many beautiful people who love us despite our weaknesses and faults? How is it that despite all the bad choices we have made, good things still happen to us? Why are we so blessed?

We might be tempted to attribute everything that is good about our lives to ourselves and our own efforts. But if we are honest, we would have to admit that it is only part of the story. We had no say in when or where we would be born and what talents we would possess. They were a pure gift given to us along with which parents we would be born to. If we are honest, we would have to admit that all that we are and all that we have accomplished is a pure gift from an all-loving God.

This God is not just sitting on some throne in heaven light years away from us. He is not a disinterested observer of what goes on here on Earth. He did not just wind us up and then sit back to see what would happen. Not at all. God is here among us. While respectful of our free will, He whispers into our heart words of encouragement, guidance and challenge. He brings people in and out of our lives to give us joy and to teach us how to love. At every moment, He is by our side. Any joy we have experienced in life, any consolation, any peace has come because He has led us to places of refreshment.

This is what our yearly celebration of Christmas is really all about. The all-powerful God came to live among us. In Jesus, the baby born in Bethlehem, God becomes man. He learns from the inside out what it means to be human. He shares our joys and sorrows, our victories and defeats, our pleasures and pains. The birth of Jesus on Christmas day reveals to us a God who is not warming a bench on the sidelines watching the game from a distance but who is in the thick of the struggle with each and every one of us.

At this point, it is natural for us to ask, “What about the difficult times of our lives? What about the times when we lost loved ones tragically or when we suffered illness? If we give God credit for all that is good in our lives, should we not also blame Him for what is bad?” This is the mystery of human suffering. How is it that an all-loving and all-powerful God can allow so much bone-crushing pain and misery?

That is not something we can answer in a ten-minute sermon or really ever hope to understand in a lifetime of searching. What we can say is that God is with us in our suffering, carrying our cross with us every step of the way.

We see it in the baby whose birth we celebrate this day. He was born homeless in a stable. During the first years of His life, He lived as a refugee in Egypt because King Herod wanted to put Him to death. Most of His life He eked out a living as a laborer in Nazareth. He knew what it was like to get paid less than He deserved or to not get paid at all. He knew what it was to go hungry and to wonder how He would be able to support Himself. Whatever we have experienced, He has also experienced.

Therefore, on this Christmas night, as we reflect on our lives, God makes an offer to us. If our lives are not all we hoped they could be, we can turn to Him to find new purpose and meaning. If we are bent over with pain and grief, struggling to shoulder our cross, we can turn to Him for consolation and relief. If we are confused, not sure of what direction we should head in, we can turn to Him for guidance and inspiration.

There is a reason God appeared among us as a baby. He wanted us to approach Him without fear. He did not want to impress or intimidate us. He did not come to judge and condemn us. He came so that we could love Him. He came so that we would not be afraid to turn to Him in our need. That is really all He asks - that we stop trying to find fulfillment and purpose in earthly things that can never satisfy our longing hearts and look to Him for everything we need.

What He asks of us this night is that we gather around Him not out of a sense of tradition or obligation, but out of love - love for the God who became Man so that we could know and love Him in return. Love for the God who brings joy into our lives and strength to bear our burdens. Love for the God who became poor so that we might become rich.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Who does not get excited to see a baby? Who is not thrilled to hear that someone in the family is pregnant? Who is not moved by a small child’s innocence and beauty? Whenever we see an infant it is natural for us to gush with affection. Babies bring so much joy and hope into our world.

Today’s gospel speaks of two women who are filled with joy because of the children they are carrying in their wombs. The older woman, Elizabeth, is very old but pregnant with her first child. All her life she was considered cursed because of her inability to conceive. Her neighbors probably whispered behind her back speculating about what sin she may have committed to be so abandoned by God. Now after years of prayer and far past her natural ability to bear children, she is blessed with a son. It is clearly a miracle and cause for rejoicing.

The other woman, Mary, is much younger - a mere teenager. Her life is turned upside down by the appearance of an angel declaring to her that she will be the mother of the Savior. The announcement confuses her and fills her with dread. What does it mean? How can it even be possible? However, once the reality sets in and it becomes clear to her that the angel’s words were true, she too becomes filled with joy and exclaims, “God has done great things for me!”

Both women, Elizabeth and Mary, despite their differences are signs of hope that God can do the unexpected and the impossible. And it starts not with vast armies, not with political maneuvering and not by awesome displays of power. Rather it starts with two babies conceived in silence and carried in the wombs of two humble women.

Our life of faith both as individuals and as a Church is much like the exchange we see between these two women in today’s gospel.

Like them, none of us here is famous or influential. For the most part, what we do or say in the course of a given day goes unnoticed. Yet there is a light of faith we carry around within us that is explosive enough to set the world on fire. We received it at our baptism, we nourish it through prayer and the sacraments and we put it to use through our good works. Just as Mary carried Jesus in her womb we carry Him in our hearts through faith. It may seem impossible that the God who created the universe dwells within us and works through us. However, with God all things are possible.

Many of us are like Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. We can often feel that we have been abandoned by God. We can wonder why our Heavenly Father has not answered our fervent prayers. We may ask ourselves what it is we could have done to deserve having to suffer silently for so long. However, like Elizabeth, we should take courage. God has a plan. He wants to do great things in and through us. If he has delayed in answering our prayers it is because He has something in mind that is greater than we could ever hope for or imagine. We can only wait patiently as His plan unfolds, the way a pregnant woman waits patiently for her child to be born.

As we reflect on the joy that babies bring us, we should not forget one reality.  Not all women welcome the news that they are pregnant with delight and exuberance. For many women, discovering they are going to have a child brings with it fear, shock and sometimes even embarrassment. Depending on their situation, they may worry about how they can afford another child, what it will mean for their jobs or how their parents will react.

Mary and Elizabeth have something to say to these women as well. As amazed as she was at her pregnancy, Elizabeth must have also worried. Being an older woman, what would the pregnancy mean for her health? What effect would it have on her aging body? Once her child was born, how would she have the energy to get up in the middle of the night and chase him around in the middle of the day? After being childless for so long, what would having a son to look out for mean for her marriage?

To some extent, Mary’s situation is much the same for many young women in our society. She was not married when the angel announced to her she would become pregnant with Jesus. What would it mean for her relationship with Joseph? How would she explain it to her family? It was perhaps because of these questions that Saint Luke tells us she “made haste” to make the trip to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, in the hill country.

As a people who value life, we should always make haste to help women who find themselves in difficult pregnancies. Not only should we not judge them or gossip about them, we should make real efforts to give them what they need to settle their fears and welcome the gift of life growing within them.

We can always turn to Mary. She understands every situation a woman and mother could find herself in. She knows what it is to have a difficult pregnancy, to have her child be lost for three days, and to have her child be killed. We can be assured that she understands and that she will pray for us.

We often say when a woman is pregnant that she is “expecting.” As a people of faith and hope, we are also expecting. We are waiting with joyful hope for the coming of our Savior. We are living with eyes wide open in search of His presence among us. In just a few short days we will celebrate His birth with adoration and gladness. God is within us and among us just as He promised. Let us bring Him into the world, despite the difficulties, so that everyone may share our happiness.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sharing Our Joy

One of the greatest joys a family can experience is the birth of a baby. In those months of pregnancy, everyone in the family - grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles - excitedly counts down the weeks. The anticipation plays itself out through baby showers and frequent visits. Everyone in the family wants to help out and be a part of the blessed event.

As followers of Christ, we are called to live these weeks of Advent with the same excitement and anticipation - especially in this last week with Christmas only a few days away and the candles of the Advent wreath nearly burned down. The joy should be evident in our faces and in our voices as we sing. Our Lord is near! Our hearts leap with gladness!

This sense of jubilation runs deeply through today's gospel reading. Mary, upon learning that her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, goes into the country to pay her a visit. Saint Luke tells us that she traveled "in haste". She was anxious to share her joy with her cousin and to celebrate with her all that God had done. Elizabeth and the child in her womb both are overjoyed by the thought that the mother of their Lord was paying them a visit. They recognized that it was God himself growing in Mary's womb. She was bringing the Almighty Lord into their home and sanctifying them by her visit. They could not contain their awe and wonder at what God was doing in their midst.

It is said that friendship divides our sorrow and multiplies our joy. When we have good news, it is impossible for us to keep it to ourselves. We have to call all our family and friends to tell them about our good fortune so that they can celebrate with us. Joy is not meant to be kept hidden away. Rather it is meant for us to share with others so that it can grow, infecting others and enveloping us with its light.

Each of us would be quick to share the news of a promotion at work, of a pregnancy in the family or if we won the lottery. But are we just as eager to share with others what God has done? Are we willing to tell others the insights we receive in meditation or how God has answered a prayer for us? Do we invite others to share the joy we receive because of our intimate friendship with Jesus? Or is it something we keep to ourselves, something we consider private? If so, we are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to spread the joy of the gospel to others and on the opportunity to let our enthusiasm for our faith take over our souls.

Mary and Elizabeth could not help but share with each other and celebrate together the wonders God worked in their lives. We should not allow fear, self-consciousness or concern about what others may think to keep us from doing the same.

Of course, all this presupposes that we are living our faith in the fullest way possible through the grace of God.

It happens perhaps more frequently than we like to admit that our faith becomes a matter of going through the motions. We try to meet our obligations - going to Mass on Sunday, contributing to the Church - but our heart is not fully given over to Christ. It is not that we are doing anything wrong, it is just that we are not investing ourselves fully into our faith. When that happens, when our faith is only on display on Sundays, we are not experiencing the fullness of joy that Jesus came to bring us. When we are merely following the rules and not following Christ, we are witnessing to others that religion is burdensome and lifeless. It is a far cry from the enthusiasm and spirit which filled Mary and Elizabeth. This last week leading up to our celebration of Jesus' birth is a good opportunity for us to recommit to our faith, to make a heartfelt decision to put God at the center of our lives and to make his word the guiding principle of our homes. Then we will be filled with a new fervor to celebrate the birth of Jesus because his presence will have become real and active in our lives once again.

The other obstacle keeping us from experiencing fully the joy of our faith is sin. When we fail to repent of our sins, they cut us off from God and his life which are the source of our strength and happiness. That is why we call serious sin, "mortal", because it is a fatal wound to our soul. But, by the grace of God, there is a sure remedy - the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When we confess our sins, we receive healing for the wounds those sins left on our soul and are given the strength to live our faith not just on Sundays but during the week. Our shame is taken away from us and joy floods our heart. We become radiant again with the peace that comes from being reconciled to God.

There are still a few days left before Christmas. If you have not yet taken the opportunity to go to confession, I urge you to make it a priority for yourself. Put it at the top of your "to do" list for this week. If you do so, you will find that this Christmas season will be unlike any other you have ever celebrated because you will experience in a new and deeper way the peace and friendship with God that Jesus came to bring.

Mary is blessed among women because she believed that God's word to her would be fulfilled. Elizabeth was blessed because she received the mother of her Lord into her home. We are blessed also because we have put our faith in God's word and we rejoice that Jesus is among us in a real way through the gift of the Eucharist, his body and blood which we are about to receive.

Our joy over such incomparable blessings should know no bounds. We should be running through the streets making it known to everyone we meet. Then the joy of this season - a joy which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit - will be alive in our hearts, and we will know the real meaning and power of Christ's birth. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rejoice! The Lord Is Near!

We have so much to be thankful for.

First of all, our very existence is a gift of God. None of us could have asked to be born. Rather, from the beginning of time, our Heavenly Father had it always in mind to create each one of us. He used our parents - no matter what circumstances they may have been in - to bring us to life. None of us is a mistake or an accident. God has always wanted us to exist. And He considers our lives to be very good no matter how successful, talented or accomplished we may or may not be.  We can be thankful for our lives no matter how they have turned out because we are known,  wanted and cared for by Almighty God.

Secondly, we can be thankful for the gift of faith. Perhaps because most of us were baptized as children and raised in the Catholic Church, our faith is something we so easily take for granted. But consider all the blessings that come from it. Because of our faith, we have beautiful memories of first communions, baptisms, marriages and retreats. Through our Church we have developed many long-lasting and sustaining friendships. In fact, many of you met your wives and husbands through church. But, most importantly, because of the gift of faith we have had a purpose to inspire our life’s journey, we have had strength to endure hard times and we have the hope of everlasting life. Our faith is a special gift which we should always rejoice over in the presence of God.

Thirdly, we can be thankful that God provides for all our needs. Not many of us here today are rich, but we have what we need. At the very least, we have enough to get through this day. We should never fool ourselves. No matter how hard we have worked, everything we have is a gift from God. We could just as easily get sick, lose our livelihoods and become destitute. We should always be thankful for as much or as little as we have. And, acknowledging that what we have comes from God’s loving hands, we should always be mindful of those who have less than we do. As Saint John the Baptist tells us in today’s gospel, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” By so doing, we will know the joy of sharing in God’s goodness and become even more thankful of what we have.

The archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan, is fond of saying, “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.” When we are aware of God’s presence, when we are thankful for His goodness, joy inevitably wells up in our souls. We want to lift up our hands in praise and our hearts in song. We want to share it with others.

Too often we live our faith in a less than inspiring way. We become so focused on our personal sin, on injustice in our world or on the shortcomings of our leaders, that we lose focus of God’s mercy, power to save and presence among us. That is not how God wants us to live. Rather, He created us to exude the peace, joy and love which come from knowing and serving His Son, Jesus.

That is why Saint Paul in today’s second reading commands us to rejoice. In fact, it is so crucial to the Christian message that he says it twice. Why should we rejoice? Because the Lord is near. Knowing that our Almighty Father is always by our side expels the anxieties of everyday life. Knowing that He cares for us casts out our fears. Mindful of all the blessings He bestows on us, we live with the peace that comes from knowing that He will always provide for us.

Joy is central to the Christian message. It is by seeing the joy within us, more than anything else we can do as a parish, that will inspire young people to give their lives to Jesus, that will inspire sinners to abandon their poor choices and that will turn hardened hearts to love of neighbor. Nothing speaks as convincingly of the reality of God’s existence and goodness than the smile that comes on our face when we tell the Good News or the peace in our heart as we reflect on God’s love for us.

Pope Benedict XVI has declared this year to be the Year of Faith. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, he wants all Catholics to grow in their understanding of the faith, to live it more fully and to share it with others more freely. To promote the Year of Faith, he held a gathering of bishops from around the world in Rome to discuss how we as a Church could more effectively propose the gospel message to the modern world.

For the Holy Father, joy is an essential element to bringing the good news to others. Upon closing the gathering of bishops, he spoke these powerful words:

Our world is full of contradictions and challenges, but it remains God’s creation. The world is wounded by evil, but God loves it still.... There is no room for pessimism in the minds and hearts of those who know that their Lord has conquered death and that his Spirit works with might in history....In the face of the questions that dominant cultures pose to faith and to the Church, we renew our trust in the Lord, certain that even in these contexts the Gospel is the bearer of light and capable of healing every human weakness.

As a people blessed with life, faith and everything we need, we must exude that joy that comes from knowing God. Despite the difficulties and challenges of life, we know that Jesus has already won the victory. We simply need to witness to His goodness and entrust everything in His hands knowing that, no matter what may happen, He is in control. Believe me, people will notice and will ask us the reason for the joy and peace we have. And there can be only one answer. It is all because of Jesus.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Every great city has a monument that becomes part of its identity. Paris has the Eiffel tower, London has Big Ben and San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge, to name a few. They are a source of pride for these cities as well as symbols of their importance. They are the first places tourists visit when they are in town and are on every postcard they send.

Ancient Jerusalem, however, had no great landmarks or tourist attractions to set it apart from other nations or peoples. The source of their pride was not huge granite monuments or architectural wonders. Rather the glory of Jerusalem was that God was in its midst. The fact that God selected Israel to be his chosen people made Jerusalem a shining jewel among the cities of the earth. And so the prophet Zephaniah can say, "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! The Lord, your God is in your midst." Israel could be a joyful nation not because of its military might, not because of its economic power and not because of its economic influence. Their joy was that God dwelled among them. And the joy of the Lord was their strength.

This is a theme which Saint Paul picks up on in the second reading from the letter to the Philippians. He urges them to be joyful and to give thanks in all circumstances because God is near to them. Even in their need, they are to bring their petitions to God with gratitude in their hearts knowing beyond any doubt that he will hear and answer them. The joy of the believer is not based on what mood we happen to be in nor on how things are going in our lives. No matter what circumstance we may find ourselves in, God is always near to us. Christian joy, then, is rooted in the knowledge that we are loved and chosen by an Almighty Father who never leaves our side.

This attitude of gratitude is very important to our lives as Christians. It is easy to lose sight of it during our day-to-day struggles. When we choose to be thankful we are making an act of faith that no matter what we face God is at our side through it all. And so we give thanks for our rude co-worker. We give thanks when it is cold and rainy outside. We even give thanks when we face tragedies because they are all somehow a part of God's plan. It does not mean that we do not cry. It does not mean that we do not clench our teeth in anger. It does not mean that we never lose our cool. What it does mean is that we face all these challenges with a new strength and a new courage. It means that no tragedy can break us because we take joy in knowing that God is always by our side. And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

This attitude of gratitude not only has the power to change our mindset, it can also make real changes in the people around us.

About ten years ago at a Catholic men's conference, a college athlete gave a powerful witness to the power of gratitude. One of the teammates on his lacrosse team had been experiencing a dramatic loss in his strength and endurance. Though he had been a standout athlete throughout much of his college career, he was now no longer able to keep up in practice. After a battery of medical tests, he was diagnosed with a muscular disease. What had been a promising career in athletics had come to an abrupt end. All his dreams had been shattered.  

Rather than sulk and brood, the young man decided that he would be thankful for the strength he had left and enjoy as much of his life as he could. He continued to show up at the practices and games to encourage his former teammates. His joy and gratitude were contagious. They no longer took for granted their own health and abilities, but played with renewed focus and purpose. What he was no longer able to contribute physically to the team, he contributed spiritually and emotionally. The change it made in their lives was evident off the field as well. They no longer swaggered around like "big men on campus" but made time to visit their fans in the hospital and to use their celebrity to promote charitable events.

Joy and gratitude, even in the face of a life threatening illness, made all the difference in the world.

The crowds that gathered around John the Baptist at the banks of the Jordan River asked him, "What must we do?" They were anticipating the coming of one who would be mightier than John, one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire. They did not yet know the one who was to come, but we know him. He is Jesus, our Lord and Savior. What must we do who have been baptized in his Spirit and have been formed by his word? We must rejoice that he is present among us. We must live with gratitude no matter how much or how little we have. And then we must bring the good news to others so that they can share our joy. Then the joy of the Lord will truly be our strength.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Making A Change

A young man’s marriage was headed for divorce, so he turned to his pastor for some counseling and advice.

The first time they met, all the young man could do was complain about his wife. She was never home. When she was home, all she did was talk on the phone. Because of her commute, she had to leave early in the morning so he was left packing the children’s lunches and bringing them to school. None of his needs were being met.

The pastor listened patiently to the young man’s laundry list of grievances. When he was finished, the pastor opened his desk drawer and took out an index card. Handing it to the young man, he said, “The next time we meet, I want you to write ten good qualities your wife has on this index card and read them to me.”

The young man joked that it would not be easy, but he agreed to do it.

All that week, the young man made the effort to find something good about his wife to write on the card. He began to notice the care she took in cleaning the house. When something was broken, she always took the initiative in fixing it without asking his help. Despite the issues they were dealing with as a couple, she was genuinely happy to see him when she  got home. Because he was so focused on the negative, he had been oblivious to all that was good in his marriage.

The young man learned something else through the exercise. He learned how selfish he was. He was so focused on himself and his needs that he did not notice how hard his wife was working to keep their marriage together. He was so wrapped up in himself that he never noticed how his wife would try to talk to him but he ignored her so that he could watch TV.

It became very clear to him that the problem with their marriage was not her but him. If his marriage was going to survive, he was the one who would have to change.

We can probably all relate to the young man in the story. There have been times in our lives when we blamed everyone else for our difficulties and struggles. We were so focused on our own needs that we ignored the love and concern of those around us. In the end we learned that they were not the problem, we were. We discovered that the only way the negative circumstances in our lives would change would be if we changed.

Today’s gospel reading introduces one of the major figures of the Advent season, John the Baptist. As Saint Luke tells us, John is sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus. Why does God need someone to prepare the way for Jesus? Why couldn’t God just sent His Son without preparing the people first? Because He was about to do something radically new. It would be an act of salvation which Israel and the world had never seen before. To be aware of this gift and be able to accept it, the people would have to change their attitudes and behaviour. Like the young man whose marriage was close to breaking up, they would have to take their focus off themselves and turn it toward God. They would need to experience repentance. They would need to change.

As we read the Bible, we can sometimes wonder how so many people rejected Jesus despite the beauty of His teaching and all the miracles He performed. For many people, however, Jesus did not fit the description of what a Messiah or holy man should be. For example, the Pharisees did not believe He could be a prophet because He ate and drank with public sinners. The Zealots, like Judas Iscariot, did not believe He could be the Messiah because He did not work to overthrow the Roman occupation. Many others could not embrace His teachings on forgiveness and compassion for the poor. However, the problem was not with Jesus. The problem was with so many people who refused to change and so could not embrace the gift of salvation being offered them.

If we are going to experience all the blessings of this Advent Season - indeed, all the blessings of this life - we will need to change. We will need to change our outlook, our attitudes and our behaviour. There is much that is good all around us that we are oblivious to because of our selfishness. God is calling us to heed the words of John the Baptist to change our lives so that we can prepare a way for His Son.

A good place to start is every evening making a good examination of conscience. To make sure that our reflection is fruitful, we should try to look for one either online at a Catholic website or in a book. That will challenge us to see where in our hearts and minds the compassion of Christ is lacking. It will help us to understand exactly what inclinations and actions we will need to correct so that we can reflect the love of Jesus. Then going to confession to unburden our conscience and experience the healing power of this beautiful sacrament will give us even more strength and insight.

As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, God has begun a good work in us and by His grace He will see it through. He wants us to take off our robes of mourning and misery to don the cloak of glory and joy from the Lord. It is all there for us if we will only heed John the Baptist’s call to repentance and conversion. It is within our grasp if we only have the courage to take a good hard look at ourselves and change.