The Epiphany of the Lord
January 7, 2024 — Year B
Readings: Is 60:1-6 / Ps 72 / Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6 / Mt 2:1-12
by Rev. Dan Kelly, Guest Celebrant
In the first reading that we heard today, we heard Isaiah say “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem. Your light has come.” This is really important to us on this feast of Epiphany. “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples.” We can also see that too, in the turmoil we find on earth today: the wars, the sadness, the destruction, even in our own country where there is intolerance and all kinds of violence, breaking into stores and wreaking all kinds of havoc. But we find in that first reading, “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes,” Isaiah tells us, “And look about; they all gather and come to you.”
This first reading is a sign of hope for us, and there are other signs of hope that we have. I’m going to remind you of some things that I don’t think the children have ever heard.
When I was a youngster, growing up in a certain town, there was a planetarium. This particular planetarium was in a science museum, called the Franklin Institute, and that was the Fels Planetarium. My mom and dad took all five of us sons (we had no sisters) when I was just a young lad.
The first thing that we saw when we went into the Franklin Institute was a huge ball, hanging from a cable rising five stories high to the dome at the top. That ball was slowly moving back and forth in slow circles. It was a pendulum. There were little pegs all around a circle set up at the bottom of this huge ball, which probably weighed close to a ton. At the bottom of the ball there was a little peg, like a little spike, hanging down, and that ball would swing over and knock down the pegs. It would knock down a peg twenty-four times; every hour it would strike down another one until twenty-four hours had gone by. Early in the morning, workmen had to come out there where all the pegs had been knocked down. They had to stop that ball – Maybe it took four men to grab hold of it and slowly stop it. They would set up new pegs, and then let it go. Thus it marked the hours of the day and the rotation of our earth on its axis. It was a wonderful visual sight to see, and as a child, I was utterly amazed.
Now I’m going to move you on in that same Franklin Institute to another place. There was a huge theater, and this theater was domelike, larger than our church, and it had seating all around it, with a projector. That projector would shine onto the ceiling above, and form sights in the sky. The astronomers and technicians could display anything that they wanted to show. So, you went in there and took your seats, and everyone was chatting, just like we do coming into the church, chatting in the foyer. And then we get into church, and then we’re quiet because we’re meditating. And then the lights start to go dim. The lights in the enormous dome would continue to get dimmer until it got so black you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face. Those experiences were meant to draw attention to something special. One of the announcers would say, “You can’t see your hands. It’s like nothingness.” So, you might wonder what the universe was like.
We were visiting the planetarium in that season between Christmas and the Epiphany. They had decided to put up the sky as it might have appeared when those first pilgrims from other countries – the three Magi – were following a star. They began to explain that, and then you would see the stars appear within this dome, with one star moving very slowly. They would recount the events as described in the Bible, and it brought home to us, not only the enormity of the universe, but also a fact of our own faith that we are living by.
We know who those three pilgrims, those Magi or kings or philosophers were. They might have been studying all kinds of things. They came from other countries; we don’t know where they came from, as the Bible doesn’t tell us that. But sometimes our Nativity scenes may show one from Ethiopia, another from Persia, and another from Arabia. We don’t know all that, but they did not work together until they met on a similar type of pilgrimage. They were all seeing this star moving that they had not seen before. After all, they were astronomers; they were philosophers, and they knew what they were looking for.
Later on (not found in the Bible), names were given to them: Balthazar, Melchior, and Casper. They went to King Herod, who was in charge of that whole area, because they wanted to find out if he knew anything. They had heard that there was a new king to be born, and they were following his star. As we read in Holy Scripture today, they were overjoyed at seeing the star and stopped at the place where the child was. Herod said, “Oh, this is wonderful news. Go and find out where he is and come back and report to me so that I may go and worship him, too.”
King Herod was not a good man; he was a very evil king. He was jealous, he was threatened that there was another child to be born who might be king of all this land. Why are we celebrating the feast of the Epiphany? You might think that, next to Christmas, it couldn’t be too important. Epiphany is like we heard from Isaiah in the first reading today: The light will shine down upon you.
They went and found the child, and it is said they prostrated themselves before the child. Now, if we look at our manger scene, we see the three kings. We see the scene there, but we don’t see them prostrated. We know what “prostration” is. Prostration is when you lie down flat on your stomach, head down, feet down. The only time we see a prostration in our liturgy in the Catholic Church is on Good Friday, when the Passion is being read. The priest comes in, and, if there’s a deacon with him, the deacon will join him. And the priest will prostrate, lay flat down, on Good Friday before the Passion is read, and meditate for a few moments. It’s quite a dramatic, silent scene.
So, we have this story and the image that we have from today. They arrived in Jerusalem, but then were warned in a dream, as we heard in the gospel, not to return to Herod. What did Herod do? You know, after Christmas, we have two feast days, days of martyrs. The first day after Christmas is the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the first martyr. And then the next is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Because what Herod did was, when the Three Magi didn’t return to him, he ordered his soldiers to go and kill (terrible thought!) every baby boy two years of age or younger. I don’t want to bring horror to you. I want you to know what evil is; what the killing of the innocents is. The Church even helps us to meditate upon that, and we read about that in Scripture. There must have been a wailing throughout that area of mothers and fathers as soldiers went through, taking these baby boys. Why? Because Herod did not want a king to come in his place.
We celebrate that the infant king Jesus survived. God sent the archangel Gabriel to help with this. We have four archangels. You remember three of them: Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, and the fourth one, who didn’t turn out so well: Lucifer. It is Lucifer who was driving the madness of King Herod.
Gabriel is the one who appeared to Mary many months before the birth of her child and said, “You are going to have a child.” Mary is only engaged. She’s planning on her marriage to Joseph. She says, “How can this be, because I don’t yet have a husband?” Joseph was going to quietly divorce her, so that there wouldn’t be any scandal. But then, during his sleep, the angel Gabriel, a very busy archangel, woke up Joseph and said, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take this child into your home to be your wife, because the child is a gift of God, a creation of God, the Holy Spirit.”
Later on, a child is born, and then Herod is letting out the order to kill all these baby boys less than two years of age. The angel Gabriel comes to Joseph again, the father of that family – foster father – and says, “Quick, take the baby and his mother and go to Egypt, a distant country. Go to Egypt and stay there until I tell you to come back.”
We know approximately when Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus left Egypt and returned on this long, long trek back to Nazareth. They had left Nazareth, gone to Bethlehem so that Joseph could register and pay his tax, and that’s where the baby was born. Then they went further away from Nazareth and Bethlehem to Egypt. Do you know when they came back? It was seven years. How do we know that? A lot of research was done many years ago, and it was seven years simply because that’s when the threat was gone: Herod died.
We know, unfortunately, that Herod’s death is not the end of the evil that happens, but it’s the starting of a new life. Joseph, Mary and their young son now about seven years of age, started their long trek all the way back from Egypt, trekking back through Bethlehem, passing by Jerusalem, and the other sixty-five or seventy miles more to get up to Nazareth, to live out their lives, where Jesus would learn by going to synagogue.
When I was young, my father and mother took us to that planetarium. Later on, I became interested in joining the Boy Scouts, but there was no scouting in the parish where I lived in the city. My good friend, says, “You could come and join the Sea Scouts.” Well, I knew very well there were Sea Scouts around. They were not as plentiful as the Boy Scouts. But after all, at that time my brother was in the Navy, my father had been in the Navy in the First World War, and so, I said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea!” I went up there and, on the Delaware River, there were about thirteen – we called them “ships,” and they were the bunkhouses for each group of boys who were in the Sea Scouts. We learned all kinds of things nautical. Once a month Rabbi came and gave us wonderful readings from the Scriptures, from the Bible, and gave us animated talks that young boys would really need growing up: how to behave, how to have fun, how to be good sons to your parents and good brothers to your brothers and sisters.
So, those were some experiences that I had growing up, and it all started with a memory of a father and mother who wanted to take their children to this particular museum, years ago when I was still a little pup, amazed at the pendulum, and amazed at the sky shown in that theater on a feast of the Epiphany.KEEP READING
Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
December 31, 2023 — Year B
Readings: Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 / Ps 128 / Col 3:12-21 / Lk 2:22-40
by Rev. Nixon Negparanon, Pastor
Our readings today from Sirach, Colossians, and Luke present a harmonious theme that revolves around the dynamics of family, relationships, and the virtues that foster a harmonious and godly life.
In Sirach, we are reminded of the honor and respect due to parents. The call to honor your father and mother is not just a cultural or societal norm but is deeply embedded in the divine order. It reflects a recognition of the role parents play in our lives and the wisdom they can impart. The passage also emphasizes the importance of kindness, which extends beyond familial relationships to the broader community.
The letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians provides a practical guide for Christian living within the context of family and community. The virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness are highlighted as essential for maintaining the unity and peace of the Christian community. Above all, the apostle Paul underscores the central role of love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. The passage challenges us to live out our faith not only in public worship, but also in the intimate spaces of our homes and relationships.
The gospel reading from Luke introduces the presentation of Jesus in the temple and the devout figures of Simeon and Anna. Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, recognizes Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise and a light for all nations. Anna the prophetess adds her voice to the praise and thanksgiving. This encounter in the temple symbolizes the dedication of the Holy Family to God’s plan and the broader significance of Jesus’ mission for all people.
As we continue our journey through Christmas season, this feast of the Holy Family is an important celebration straight after the feast of the Nativity of the Lord and within the octave of Christmas.
There is a story of a man who tried to follow in the footsteps of Santa Claus by giving out gifts to strangers every Christmas. When asked why he wanted to be like Santa, he said, “I grew up in an orphanage. Every Christmas I visit homes and hand out gifts to children and adults alike with the hope that I would eventually find my parents, meet my family, or at least touch the hearts of other families.”
At this time of the year, we give sincere thanks for the love, nurturing, and support that our family can give us, and the love, example, and intersection that the Holy Family gives us on our journey through life. We think of our parents’ and family’s countless acts of kindness, love, and sacrifices. When we were young, we probably didn’t appreciate the scale of it all. When we get older and have our own families or watch with admiration our brothers and sisters and friends raising their own families, we start to appreciate what our parents must have given and sacrificed out of love, and we are truly grateful for this.
We are also very mindful of people whose family life has been extremely difficult, and who did not have that support that others take for granted. That is, not everyone in this world has been blessed with an unconditionally loving and accepting family who support one another.
We give thanks to mentors and all people who have been good role models and sources of care and protection for the young. These people have been family to others, beyond the ties of blood. We keep in mind currently families worldwide who’ve had it really tough this year, perhaps due to illness, distance, separation, financial hardship, and worries.
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are the patron saints supporting each other and sticking together when everything is going wrong around them. For example, when we look closely at the very first Christmas, we quickly see that life for the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was anything but smooth sailing.
The joy and hope of this celebration comes from the fact that God came into our world and made a home with us when everything was going badly for the world. The first Christmas came at a time of incredible unrest for the people of Israel who were suffering under the foreign domination of a pagan empire. They had values quite opposed to and different from many of the sacred religious values of the Jewish people.
Mary and Joseph are forced to take a terribly difficult trip to Bethlehem when Mary is imminently due to give birth. This would have been a difficult trip at the best of times, but it must have been extremely difficult for an expectant mother at the end of her term. They arrive at their ancestral hometown, and there is nowhere to stay. They are forced to sleep in a barn, and Mary gives birth to a baby surrounded by animals. The baby is placed in a food trough where the animals normally eat. The shepherds, some of the poorest and lowest outcasts in society, are the first to hear about the birth and come to pay their respects.
Mary and Joseph also had countless incidents when they had just to trust in what God was doing and all the while were plunged into confusion about what it all meant. They trusted in God and supported each other especially when things were unclear and did not make any sense to them, and this made all the difference.
The celebration of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph offers a poignant moment to reflect on the significance of family life and the virtues exemplified by the Holy Family. In contemplating the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we find a model for love, unity, and faithfulness that resonates across the ages. At the heart of the Holy Family is a profound sense of love and sacrificial service.
Joseph’s unwavering commitment to Mary and Jesus, even in the face of uncertainty and challenges, speaks to the strength that comes from selfless love. In Mary, we see a mother who treasured and pondered the mysteries of her son’s life, embodying the qualities of contemplation and deep faith. Jesus, the son of God, chose to enter the human experience, growing up within the embrace of a human family.
This feast invites us to consider the sacredness of our own families and the responsibilities that come with it. In a world that sometimes seems to devalue the institution of the family, the Holy Family stands as a beacon of hope, and a reminder of the importance of cultivating love, respect, and unity within our own home.
As we reflect on the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we are called to strengthen the bonds of love within our families, to prioritize faith in the face of challenges, and to embrace the sacredness of the family unit. Whether our families are nuclear or extended, biological or spiritual, the virtues embodied by the Holy Family of love, trust, and faithfulness, serve as a timeless guide for building strong and resilient families that reflect the love of God in our world.
May the Holy Family inspire us to cultivate holiness within our homes and to be a source of light and love for others. In a world often marked by division and discord, these readings offer a counter narrative of unity, love, and mutual support within the family and the Christian community. They challenge us to embody the virtues of Christ in our daily interactions, extending compassion and forgiveness to those closest to us and to the wider circle of humanity. As we celebrate the Holy Family, we strive to emulate their virtues, creating homes and communities that reflect the love and harmony of God’s Kingdom. The Holy Family is our inspiration and prayerful support.
At this fifth day within the Christmas season, we give sincere and heartfelt thanks for family, and the support and strength we can give each other along life’s long journey with all these joys and sorrows, graces, and temptations. Holy Family of Jesus and Mary and Joseph, pray for us. May Jesus Christ be praised.KEEP READING
The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)
December 25, 2023 — Year B
Readings: Is 52:7-10 / Ps 98 / Heb 1:1-6 / Jn 1:1-18
by Rev. Jay Biber, Guest Celebrant
I love John’s gospel this morning. Of course, I love Luke’s gospel at the night Masses. Luke’s gospel, which goes into all the detail about the manger, then the trip of Mary and Joseph, and no room at the inn. All of those specifics of going for enrollment in the Roman census. All the details, very specific details.
John’s gospel was the product of what would seem to be a later reflection, a later gospel. John, of course, was the one apostle who did not pour out his blood for the faith. The other eleven all gave themselves as martyrs, except John. John was the youngest apostle at the time of Christ and would live to be the oldest. The writings attributed to John in the New Testament come from a period of more mature reflection, just like we can look back on our lives. When you look back, you understand it with a different eye. You can look at it differently, because enough life has happened to you.
John talks about the Incarnation in these famous words of “Et verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis.” The Word, the second Person of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. When God speaks, it’s that Word that goes out and takes on flesh, caro. Et habitavit in nobis – and lived among us. It’s that first great mystery that God has chosen, and it’s so great a mystery. God has chosen to take on flesh while still being God at the same time.
And not only that, but He has depended on the “yes” of Mary to do it. She wasn’t forced. She wasn’t a robot. She chose to take Him within her womb. We see human dignity in God’s taking on flesh. That must mean something really enormous about our flesh, about the human dignity of it. It’s from the beginning, willed by God.
And then, dwelt among us. But the way He does it: in all humility, coming through the womb, so the womb itself becomes a place of great mystery, the touch of the divine in it, capable of bearing divinity. Mary bore divinity, because Christ was who He was: He was the Word. He was the second Person. He is the Word.
Why? Because our flesh had lost its brilliance through the original sin of self-sufficiency: “We can do it on our own. We’re not meant to need anybody.” Oh yes, it’s disobedience, but I suspect it was that spirit of self-sufficiency that preceded the actual disobedience. “I don’t have to have a God; I can be one. Oh that sounds good: I can be one.”
One of the customs of the Church, to emphasize the Incarnation, is to bow during the Creed, when we say “and He became Man.” We’re meant to physically bring the body into worship. But today we genuflect at those words.
In the fifth century the Church began making a proclamation at Christmas, maybe because they said, this is so great, this is so unimaginable, when you really think of it. It was sung last night. It announces the Incarnation. “When God in the beginning created heaven and earth,” it goes back. “Century upon century had passed.” “In the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith,” so we’re beginning with the Old Testament. “The thirteenth century since the people of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus.” “Around the thousandth year since David was anointed king,” so we’re squarely in the tradition of Israel here. “In the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel.”
It’s locating this moment, and of course that’s how we measure time. That’s our calendar. Christ enters – God enters – history. Not some sort of crystal, new age thing, but tangible, physical, material.
But then it leaves the Old Testament. “In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad.” Obviously that has nothing to do with Israel. It’s got to do with Athens, the great capital of the Greek empire, before Rome. And so now it’s situated in the secular world. This gives meaning to the secular world as well as the specifically religious. It touches everything. This is when the Incarnation happened: in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad.
And then, let’s take it to the next empire: to Rome. “In the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the city of Rome.” And then more; you see the portal narrows. “In the forty-second year of the reign of that particular Roman emperor, Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace.” The stage is set now.
“Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by His most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” That’s what we call the Annunciation, on March 25, really our first celebration of the Incarnation, because Christ was who He was in Mary’s womb, just like you were, from the first moment of your conception. You were who you were. “And was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah and was made man.”
We often look to redemption as the passion of Christ, but this is the first of the two great pillars of our redemption: the Incarnation, because He takes flesh, because God’s plan has always been that we would be spirit and matter, spirit and flesh. That’s how we’re saved. Not in spite of that, but in that structure.
Why did God do it this way? He could have made it so nice and clean, so nice and tidy. He could have made it so we couldn’t sin, and so our sin wouldn’t affect others. But He didn’t make it that way. I prefer to think that that’s because of our greatness, because of that potential greatness that’s there, if we turn everything over to Him. If we make that real surrender, then life begins to pop.
Think of the details of Mary’s life. First of all, the Annunciation. You’re going to have a baby, from the Holy Spirit. And there’s Mary’s first yes, followed by a series of yesses all the way through, at each moment. A series of yesses, none of which she would have scripted, none of which situations she would have scripted herself, I don’t think. But she keeps saying yes, she keeps saying I trust, let it be done to me according to your word.
Part of me says I wish I could really celebrate Christmas, but there are so many distractions, so many things that get into my head and mess with my head, whether it’s stuff in the Church right now, stuff in the world, in our culture, and on and on and on. If only I weren’t so distracted by these things, if I weren’t giving them rent-free space in my head, then I could really focus on the beauty of God.
Well, think of Mary. Talk about distractions! Everything. Are they talking a little bit and whispering in town? And then the census is announced, and Joseph, the father of the family, would historically go and sign up like he’s supposed to within the Roman empire. But Mary goes with him. She didn’t have to go. You wouldn’t expect the mother and the children to go for those things. She went.
And then, it comes time to give birth, no room at the inn. She still says yes, and she gives birth in the manger. If anybody’s ever had an Italian grandmother, trying to make you eat, she’ll say “Mangia, mangia.” That’s our word manger. Manger is the French, same spelling, meaning to eat.
So He who will provide – think of the mystery — in His body, that Body and Blood of Christ that many of us will receive later this morning, He who will feed the world and strengthen the world until it comes time for God’s project to finally wind up in the final judgment. He who feeds the world is born in the place where the animals feed, the trough. And Mary continues to say yes.
So don’t ever expect your Christmas day or your Christmas season to be without distractions. For some reason God has chosen the Incarnation as His way, and that’s messy. Birth, children, that’s messy. But somehow, for those eyes of faith that can look into that reality, there is a divine beauty as well. And so, through the grace of God, I’ll expect distractions every Christmas.
There’ll always be something wrong, easy to find, but if I can keep my eyes on Mary and her Son who lived among us, then those distractions can be very, very significantly reduced. Then we can, in all situations, come to this great feast thankful and hopeful.KEEP READING
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 24, 2023 — Year B
Readings: 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16 / Ps 89 / Rom 16:25-27 / Lk 1:26-38
by Rev. Mr. Mark De La Hunt, Permanent Deacon
It is still Advent, but in case I don’t see you at Christmas Eve Mass today, Merry Christmas, Maligayang Pasko, Feliz Navidad, Joyeaux Noёl, Buon Natale, and Wesołych świąt.
Holy Name of Mary parish is dedicated to Jesus’ mother, Mary, and on this Fourth Sunday of Advent we enter into the first joyful mystery of her most holy rosary, the Annunciation. As a deacon in a Marian parish, how can I not center the homily on Mary, when Luke centered the beginning of his gospel on her “who was with child (Lk 2:5)?” Interestingly, Matthew starts his gospel centered on Mary as well and, though John waited until chapter two to introduce Mary, chapter one prepared for her grand entrance at Cana, with Mary as the Queen Mother, asking her son, Jesus the King, to help the young married couple.
In a predominantly Protestant area, we can feel uncomfortable speaking of Mary, even to the point of fearing mentioning the name of our parish. Peter Kreeft said that “[non-Catholic Christians] object to our Catholic devotion to Mary because they think it detracts from our adoration of Jesus.” He added, “In fact, it is exactly the opposite: the more we love Mary, the more we love Jesus, and the more we love Jesus, the more we love Mary (Kreeft 82).” Along those same lines, to try to put non-Catholics at ease with honoring Mary, someone once said, “You cannot love Mary more than Jesus does.”
But Peter Kreeft upped the ante and tied having a relationship with Mary to discipleship, to following Jesus. He wrote, “Jesus gave us Mary, when He said to St. John, the only disciple who stayed with Him at the cross, “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). So if we, like John, want to be Jesus’ disciples, if we want to be as close to Jesus as John was at the cross, then we must be close to Mary, because Jesus gave us Mary (82).”
Dr. Kreeft’s words are worth reflecting on. To be a disciple who will stand and face death and a seeming loss of all hope like John looking upon Jesus dying on the cross, it is most helpful to have Mary, the only perfect disciple, at your side like he did. For John must have realized that no matter how much sorrow he felt at that moment, it was not as deep as Mary’s, looking upon her only child dying in agony. Yet despite the awfulness of it all, neither Jesus’ suffering, a mocking crowd, nor the threat of mighty Roman soldiers could tear her from her Son’s side. When she told the angel Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word,” she meant it for better or for worse (Lk 1: 38).
From the moment of her freewill consent, she became the Christ Bearer, the Mother of God. How did she prepare to bring Jesus into the world? First, she set out to care for someone in need, her cousin Elizabeth who Gabriel told her had conceived a child in her old age (Lk 1:39-56). Second, she and Joseph patiently suffered in faith and hope, traveling eighty miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary suffering in discomfort, probably riding a donkey, being so near to giving birth. Joseph, hurting from a longing to take her suffering upon himself, but only able to give her his tender care. Joseph suffering from not being able to find her a comfortable room in which to give birth, and Mary suffering from having to give birth away from the comfort of her home and friends (Lk 2: 1-7).
But as He always does, God brought them great joy and consolation when they thought they could endure no more pain and anxiety. Mary shows us the way to live our lives in faith and trust in God’s plan for us. This side of heaven, our journey will entail suffering and pain at times, but with Mary, we can bear it patiently, with great hope, and even joy. The hope and joy she brings to us is her Son.
In The Lord of the Rings movies based on the books of devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, the battle between despair and hope, darkness and light is vividly displayed in rich symbolism for the cause for Mary’s hope. One depiction takes place at a great battle called Helm’s Deep (The Two Towers). The battle begins in darkness and rain, and the enemy vastly outnumbers the free people. They fight with valiant hope, but eventually wear down and accept that death is their fate, that evil will triumph over good and darkness over light. But then, they look to the east, to the rising sun, and grace descends upon them in the form of friends and an angelic figure, dressed in white, charging down a high hill to their aid.
In a second depiction, an even greater battle is taking place, and the situation is even more hopeless. A great white, stone city (think of it as your soul) is under siege and burning (The Return of the King). The city’s caretaker has fallen into despair from listening to the enemy’s voice more than to the voices of wise friends. As he walks in a somber procession to “die as he chooses,” the camera blurs out that hopeless scene and focuses on a single white flower that was barely noticeable in the foreground. The white flower was a sign, long awaited, that the city’s true king had returned and would restore the city to its former grandeur.
And so, here we are on the last Sunday of Advent, some of our suffering being voluntary from extra prayer, fasting, and charity, and some from the burdens and sorrows of life that weigh upon the young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak alike. If we bear our suffering and burdens with Mary, we will see what she saw in Bethlehem: hope in the newborn Savior, and hear what she heard from the shepherds about angels’ appearing in light with a message of peace. At every Mass, we, like those in Tolkien’s story at Helm’s Deep, look to the east. Catholic Churches, whenever possible, are oriented such that the altar is set in that direction.
In our suffering and worries, we look to the altar. We hear Father call to us, not to despair in the cares of this world, but to “lift up our hearts (Roman Missal Preface).” And then a little while later, he encourages us to, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and we look up, to the east and see Father, clothed in white like that angelic figure at Helm’s Deep, holding the rising Son, Jesus come to save us (Roman Missal The Order of Mass). Notice that to look upon the Eucharist is like looking upon the white flower in Tolkien’s white city. It is both reminder and reality that our long-awaited King has returned and will restore our soul to the grandeur God made it for from the beginning. Jesus did this for His mother from the moment of her conception, which is why the angel Gabriel called Mary by the title, “full of grace (Lk 1:28).”
I am going to close this homily with a poem that Peter Kreeft shared, entitled “Jesus and Mary.” It illustrates how knowing Mary helps us know her Son, especially in graces God sends to us and most especially in the Eucharist. Don’t get lost in all the words but hang on to the ones that touch your heart the most.
Body of Christ from Mary’s body;
Blood of Christ, from Mary’s blood.
Jesus the bread, Mary the yeast;
Mary the kitchen, Jesus the feast.
Mary the mother by whom we are fed;
Mary the oven, Jesus the bread.
Mary the soil, Jesus the vine;
Mary the wine maker, Jesus the wine.
Jesus the Tree of Life, Mary the sod;
Mary our God-bearer, Jesus our God.
Mary the silkworm, Jesus the silk;
Mary the nurse, Jesus the milk.
Mary the stem, Jesus the flower;
Mary the stairway, Jesus the tower.
Mary and Jesus, our castle entire;
Mary the fireplace, Jesus the fire.
Mary God’s ink, Jesus God’s name;
Mary the burning bush, Jesus the flame.
Mary the paper, Jesus the Word;
Mary the nest, Jesus the bird.
Mary the artery, Jesus the blood;
Mary the floodgate, Jesus the flood.
Mary and Jesus, our riches untold;
Mary the gold mine, Jesus the gold.
Mary, our mother, ask your Son to enable us always and in all circumstances, to remember to look east so that the Star of Joy and Hope may rise in our hearts and minds, every week being an Advent and every Sunday Mass a Christmas for us. Amen.
J.R.R. Tolkien. “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” New Line Productions, Inc. 2002-2003.
Kreeft, Peter. “Food for the Soul; Reflections on the Mass Readings, Cycle B.” Word on Fire 2023.
The Catholic Church. “The Roman Missal.” Catholic Book Publishing Corp., N.J. 2011.KEEP READING
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
November 26, 2023 — Year A
Readings: Ez 34:11-12, 15-17 / Ps 23 / 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28 / Mt 25:31-46
by Rev. Mr. Mark De La Hunt, Permanent Deacon
Here, on the doorstep of the season of Advent, we pause and meditate on the solemnity of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” He has absolute sovereignty over all creation, for He created it. And yet, in four weeks we enter the mystery of His becoming man, born in a stable, no crib for a bed, His dad a blue-collar worker and His mom a teenage girl. From now until Christmas, we walk from today’s discomfort at the foot of His judgment seat to the joy and peace of His manger in Bethlehem. These are the poles of our spiritual journey and the religious road between them is called Advent.
I encourage you to make a resolution for Advent that will be your gift for Jesus at Christmas. Consider making a different holy resolution each day or week of Advent. One I recommend is to find a quiet time to listen to St. Mother Teresa’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on YouTube and ponder it in prayer. Hearing the voice of a great saint is a precious gift.
I listened to her speech early one morning, and it cast a familiar Bible verse in a different light for me. In morning prayer that day, I read this beatitude: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8).” I always interpreted this as meaning something along the lines of, “If you live a holy life with Jesus, you will go to heaven and see God.” In her speech Mother Teresa shared stories of the poor in an intimate and tender way, and as I listened, that beatitude led me from the foot of Jesus’ judgment seat to the side of His manger. You might say I had an epiphany.
We will come back to Mother Teresa’s speech in a bit, but now let’s meditate on the scriptures. Just as there is a dichotomy between Christ King of the Universe and Christ in a manger, there is one between the Old Testament readings where Jesus is a good shepherd and the last two where He is a king and judge (Kreeft 778). How are they connected? As our shepherd, He leads us in how to live for the day we will be judged.
In Ezekiel 34, God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak (Ez 34:16).” Jesus is judge, but He does not sit back and wait for us to succeed or to fail, relishing the day He will judge us. On the contrary, in Psalm 23 He says He will “lead [us] in paths of righteousness (3).” Why? In the verse before that He says He desires to “lead [us] beside still waters, [to] restore [our] soul (Ps 23:2).” One could say that He leads us in how to do good things that restore our soul for our day of judgment, but how is that related to still waters?
Ever look at a pond or lake in the stillness of the early morning, when the water is perfectly flat? It acts as a mirror, reflecting the trees and the sky, and somehow that reflection is more beautiful to us than if we simply looked directly at the trees and sky. So it is when He “restores our soul.” When we take up our cross and follow Him, loving our neighbor, we are at peace, and He restores our soul. It is then that our restored soul becomes like still waters, reflecting Jesus’ love. Others can read about His love directly, but it is more impactful when they see it reflected in us.
Leaving the comfort of the first reading and psalm, we move to the discomfort of the second reading: “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power…until He has put all His enemies under His feet (1 Cor 15:24-25).” Who is under His feet? His enemies, yes, but in today’s gospel we are; everyone is.
In the gospel He is sitting up high on His throne which is also the judgment seat (Mt 25:31-32). He moves one hand and many are moved to His left. He moves His other hand and some are moved to His right (Mt 15:33). Those on the right to eternal life in the kingdom prepared for them and those on the left to eternal punishment (Mt 15:34, 46).
How will He judge us? If there is a judge, then there must be a law to judge by. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment; love one another (Jn 13:34).” May God have mercy on those who say we do not need works to get into heaven and then cherry pick verses, out of context, to support their wishful thinking. St. Paul called Jesus’ new commandment a law writing “…love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Rom 13:8).” Jesus gives us the consequences of breaking that law. In Matthew 7 He said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven (21-23).”
Those words made some uncomfortable, so they tried to negotiate with the King of the Universe. Here is how that went. “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name? Did we not drive out demons in Your name? Did we not do mighty deeds (miracles) in Your name?” Jesus responded, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers (Mt 7:22-23).” Prophecies, exorcisms, and miracles are all good things, and God allows even sinners to perform them, for they are good for His people. But if one does those things without love for their neighbor, then doing those things does not fulfill the law.
That leads us to today’s gospel, which is the conclusion of several Sundays of warnings from Jesus about the end of time. The last two weeks we heard about the virgins running out oil for their lamps and being locked out of the wedding banquet. And about the servant who did not give his master a return on his talents and so was cast out into darkness weeping (Mt 25:1-30). Jesus saved the most disturbing warning for last. Disturbing, because He spells it out for us today. He clarifies what the symbolism was for the oil in the virgins’ lamps and the servants’ talents. He points out those ever so serious sins that lie hidden in our conscience like a copperhead snake amidst some leaves.
The sins I speak of lead us to another good Advent resolution. Examine our conscience for sins of omission, those acts of love we failed to do. Jesus gives us an examination of conscience in today’s gospel. “When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you (Mt 25:38-39)?” And the King of the Universe replied, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (40).”
A good examination of conscience is free of excuses. Excuses did not work well for the miracle workers who were without love. Here are some questions you can turn into Advent resolutions. Have I introduced myself to a new parishioner or to a new neighbor and welcomed them? Have I gathered up the extra coats, shoes, and clothes in my home and given them away? Have I helped feed the hungry? Is prison ministry on my heart, and if so, how can I act on it? Could you bring your children or a friend to visit a nursing home? Is there someone who is sick that you can go and pray with or help with their chores that are going undone?
If you are still feeling comfortable because judgment day sounds so far off, then listen to these somber words from the Church.
“The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in His second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul—a destiny which can be different for some and for others (CCC 1021).”
“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ [King of the Universe]: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation (CCC 1022).”
So when will you die? I have been surprised at how many of my high school classmates I have outlived. They were so much healthier than me. Our particular judgment can come at any time. In the first verse of the gospel next week, Jesus says, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come (Mk 13:33).”
Now we are in the proper frame of mind to turn to Mother Teresa for guidance and hope. In her Nobel prize acceptance speech, her stories of seeing extraordinary goodness in the poor shed new light on Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God.” What does “pure of heart” mean? St. Angela Merci kept the answer simple, “Charity does not sin.” When, with love, I welcome the stranger and visit the sick, my heart is pure in that moment. It is free of sin.
My epiphany while listening to Mother Teresa’s stories of the poor was that, when I am lovingly caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, I am pure of heart and I…see…God. I see the person, but in them the King of the Universe is looking back at me. And in that sacred moment, I travel the Advent road from Jesus’ judgment seat in heaven to the manger in Bethlehem where our King joins us in all our suffering.
Have mercy on us, oh King of the Universe, and send us Your Spirit to lead us from the fear of Your judgment seat to the hope of Your manger. Amen.
Kreeft, Peter. “Food for the Soul; Reflections on the Mass Readings, Cycle A.” Word on Fire 2022.
Mother Teresa. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech. YouTube.
Catholic Church. “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” 2nd ed., Our Sunday Visitor, 2000.KEEP READING
The Epiphany of the Lord
January 8, 2023 — Year A
Readings: Is 60:1-6 / Ps 72 / Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6 / Mt 2:1-12
by Rev. Mr. Barry Welch, Guest Homilist
At 8:22 PM on November 23, 1949, a bright light appeared in the Blue Ridge. It flickered on and off for a few seconds, just before lighting up for good. There were two hundred twenty-five mayors from all the surrounding areas who traveled from afar to watch and witness this spectacle, along with many locals and media. Originally meant to be just a seasonal Christmas decoration, it has become a symbol of the region and one of the most recognized icons in Virginia, as well as one of the most photographed. I’m talking about the Roanoke star. It attracts visitors from all over to walk beneath its paths and to relax while enjoying the incredible view.
My family moved back to the area in 1994. I have to confess that even though this star is so attractive and draws so many visitors from all over, I had not gone up to see the Roanoke star until 2015, some twenty-one years later. What drew me there then was a high school graduation party we had for our oldest son. We thought it would be a great place for our out-of-town guests to come and get an iconic view of what it is like here. They were coming from New Jersey, New York, Richmond, and numerous other places.
It’s funny how we tend to take things for granted, like the incredible gifts available to enjoy right in our own backyards, like the Roanoke star, the Peaks of Otter, and from where I grew up, the mighty New River, Smith Mountain Lake, D-Day Memorial, Appomattox Courthouse and many others. Very often, it takes out-of-town guests, outsiders, to illuminate this beauty and joy. Outsiders, coming from afar, like the Magi in the Epiphany story we’re celebrating today, help us recognize the gifts around us every day.
We can become a little like the chief priests and scribes in the gospel today, because they had this beautiful thing occurring, but they had become complacent. They had become bland and comfortable in their situation there in Jerusalem with their own things to do, their own busy-ness. Herod probably didn’t care a whole lot about the Jewish religion and prophecies, but those around him were steeped in Hebrew scriptures, especially of the prophets, and Herod had access to that. They all would have known the prophecy of the coming Messiah. They knew that Bethlehem was to be the location of this future ruler. They knew of the glory and joy about to come in this future leader, a savior, the Messiah.
This knowledge, however, wasn’t urgent or important. The scribes knew about Jesus, but they did not seek Him. It took out-of-town visitors, out-of-town guests talking about a rising star, to illuminate for them this new beauty and joy to be given to the world. These Magi, astrologers, wise men gazing at the stars, looking at their charts, sought Jesus without really knowing, like the scribes did, who He was. The scribes missed Him entirely. They took Him for granted, even eventually becoming critical and working against the Messiah.
We, too, can become complacent and comfortable, even to the point of ignoring and criticizing lots of great things in our lives. When guests come around, however, we see things anew. That’s human nature. It happens to all of us. We become complacent and self-satisfied, missing what is important, even when it’s right in front of our eyes.
This happens with our faith life, in our church, with our faith, our doctrines, and in our own parish. Sometimes it takes outsiders coming in, guests coming to visit, or people interested in RCIA, to bring out the noble and humble welcoming parish that we want to be.
We notice, then, that sometimes we don’t see what is important. We can get to where we argue, complain, or just go about our busy-ness, forgetting Who is here, Who has come and why. When a visitor comes asking questions, seeking illumination, then our light begins to stutter and flicker. Then our love of Christ, His Church, and this parish begin glowing and we begin to brag about her, like we do of our children. We forget about our dislikes and disagreements. In a parish that could be disagreements about decorations, music, homilies, etc. Instead, we beam with the honor of serving such a wonderful and loving king as our Jesus is and we are happy to share our love of Him and His Church, and our parish. We forget about her human flaws, and we see more clearly her mission.
No matter where you are, visiting anywhere in the world, your parish is home, where the important thing, the reason the Church exists, the reason we are all here, comes. We are here for an encounter with Him, our Lord and Savior, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Every time we are at Mass and participate in the Eucharist and any of the sacraments, we have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. That encounter is attractive, effective, beautiful, and joyful every single time. We want to cherish it, savor it, and make it last.
The Epiphany story gives us a subtle clue of what life is like once you have this encounter with Jesus, once you truly let yourself go and let sink in the significance of that encounter. It becomes your own Epiphany. Afterwards, nothing is the same. You find that your journey has been altered. The journey of the Magi was altered as well. After their encounter with the baby Jesus, they departed for their country in a completely different way. Life was different. Their trajectory, your trajectory, is different. Everything is different. Your new path is illuminated now by Jesus. You are carrying with you a light to shine upon others. (“Shine upon” is an ancient meaning of the word, epiphany.). You are carrying a light to shine upon others. You are the epiphany.KEEP READING
The Octave Day of Christmas
Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God
January 1, 2023 — Year A
Readings: Nm 6:22-27 / Ps 67 / Gal 4:4-7 / Lk 2:16-21
by Rev. Nixon Negparanon, Pastor
During the Christmas season, the image of the Most Holy Virgin Mary with her child comes readily to mind. We see this image in all Nativity things, right in front of us, and in many other places, on many Christmas cards or postcards that we receive from our families or friends. It should also be in our hearts.
We have come together here today as a family of God on this first day of the New Year. We celebrate the maternity of Mary, the event around which this feast is celebrated. As we start the New Year, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, thus reminding us of our other mother: of course, Mother Mary.
When a child is in danger, it will instinctively call out, “Mom” or “Mama.” That’s because the essence of being a mother is care, love, help, support, and concern for her children. As a Jewish proverb puts it succinctly, “God cannot be everywhere, so he created mothers.”
As we commemorate this solemn feast, the Church has for us these brief reminders. In the year 431 AD, the Council of Ephesus, an ecumenical council of bishops of the Catholic Church, settled whether Mary was to be called “Mother of Christ” – Christotokos, implying Jesus is merely human, or “Mother of God” – Theotokos. The Council decided on the title Theotokos, Mother of God, for Mary. The Council said that Mary is rightfully the Mother of God, therefore affirming the divinity of Christ.
In the Bible, the very first person to refer to Mary as the Mother of God is her own cousin, Elizabeth, who said in a loud voice, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” There is nothing wrong with invoking Mary with the title “Mother of God.”
So what do we mean when we invoke Mary as the Mother of God? When we say Mary is the Mother of God, we do not mean that from all eternity, our God took His Godship from Mary, or that Mary is the source of the Godship of Jesus. As the Catholic Church teaches us, Jesus Christ was eternally begotten by God, Light from Light, True God from True God, eternally begotten by the Father. It means that Mary did not give Jesus Christ His Godship; Mary only gave birth to the humanity of Jesus Christ.
However, right from the moment of conception, the baby in the womb of Mary was truly God and truly man at the same time. Therefore, the baby born from the womb of Mary is God and man. Mary gave birth to God and man. When we say Mary is the Mother of God, it does not mean that she gave Godship to Jesus; it only means that Jesus was God right from her womb.
Saint Thomas added to this by asking, “Do mothers beget bodies or persons?” As one priest asked, “Do our mothers merely give birth to our bodies, or to ourselves as persons?” As people, of course. Thus, Mary conceived in her womb the Son of God, not just His human nature, but His divine nature as well.
If we look at the attitude of the mother, it is very beautiful. At the start, when she still bears the child in her womb, she must take care of herself, in order that the child is not in danger. She can’t sleep at night, because she watches the child sleep. As the child goes to school, she’s the one preparing the provisions.
But on the other hand, the womb of the mother becomes a battlefield or war zone, the worst enemy of the unborn, defenseless child. The enemies of the unborn child are many: abortion, artificial birth control, cigarette smoking, drinking hard liquor, and many more. That is why the child, while still in the womb of the mother, experiences rejection, insecurity, human rights violations, and lack of love from the parents. This is not so of Mary, who follows God’s will to be the mother of Jesus, even though she is in danger of being punished through stoning.
There was a teacher who had just given her primary grade class a lesson on magnets. In the follow-up test, one question read My name starts with M, has six letters and I pick up things. What am I? She was surprised to find half of the class answered the question with the word mother. Of course, the answer was supposed to be magnet.
People especially need their mothers in times of need, of uncertainty, or insecurity. We need our mothers to pick us up. Perhaps even more so for those of us who are already old, not necessarily physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
So as we begin another year, with all the uncertainties that it may bring us, the Church is telling us that we need our Blessed Mother Mary. May we all be like Mary with our total trust and faith in the Lord.
Let us not put our hopes in someone or something that may only give us false and ephemeral hope in the end. Instead, we place our entire lives in the loving and caring presence of our God who is always there for us. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” With Mary, we pray that the Lord will bless us this new year, and all the days of our lives.KEEP READING
The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)
December 25, 2022 — Year A
Readings: Is 52:5-10 / Ps 98 / Heb 1:1-6 / Jn 1:1-18
by Rev. Nixon Negparanon, Pastor
There was an inquisitive 4-year-old who happened to be rooted strongly to the “why” and “tell me” stage of life. The little boy was helping to sort out ornaments and said, “Daddy, what does ‘ignore’ mean?” The father explained, “Ignore means not to pay attention to people when they talk to you.”
Immediately, the little boy looked up at his father and said, “I don’t think we should ignore Jesus.” Puzzled, the father knelt closer to his animated son and replied, “I don’t think we should ignore Jesus either, son. I think we should give Him our full attention. So why do you say that we ignore Him?” “But daddy, that’s what the Christmas carol says: O come let us ignore Him.”
Kids sure say the darnedest things sometimes. But you know, brothers and sisters, often we actually get so caught up in the frenzy of preparations — parties, shopping, and decorating — that we appear to ignore the true meaning of Christmas and fail to prepare a place in our hearts to come and adore Him.
Let us adore the baby Jesus in the manger. A baby easily wins the heart and love of anyone with human feelings, but how much more does this baby win our heart and love? Imagine Jesus, the son of God and our savior, born in a stable and placed in a manger instead of a crib. When God comes, He usually comes in humility, silently and peacefully, without causing a great disturbance.
God’s humble coming in Jesus would not surprise us if we knew God better, but of course we will never know God sufficiently to understand. So, no matter how much we try to understand God becoming human in Jesus, we will not be able to comprehend. It will remain a mystery. The best reaction is that of the shepherds, simply to praise God.
So let us praise God now in our own words. As we look at the baby Jesus, we think of the mystery of God’s love for us, and ask ourselves: Why did God, who is almighty and all powerful, become small and powerless as a baby? Quite simply out of love for us. God became human so that we might become more like God. If Jesus had not come as a human like us, we might have had difficulty in believing God really loved us, but now we know for sure.
John the Evangelist says this is the revelation of God’s love for us: that God sent His only son into the world that we might have life through Him. This Christmas, brothers and sisters, let us thank God for revealing His love for us in Jesus, that He who is so big and powerful became so small and weak for us, that He became one of us to help us be more like Him, to have life through Him.
So, as we see baby Jesus in the manger, we reflect on God’s way being a way of gentleness and tenderness. God’s way is not one of violence, but gentleness. There’s a lot of goodness and love in the world but God is always tender and loving. As we look at baby Jesus in the manger, we see that He is the answer to today’s problems.
Instead of violence, in baby Jesus in the manger we see gentleness. Instead of hatred, in baby Jesus in the manger we see tenderness. Instead of selfishness, in baby Jesus in the manger we see love for us. So let us ask baby Jesus to help us to be gentle, tender, and loving with those around us, as He was in the manger.
Jesus in the manger gave us hope. In the darkness of our world His light has shone. His coming in gentleness encourages us to hold out the hand of reconciliation, to help one another, to work for peace. And we remember the message of the angels: Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace!KEEP READING
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2022 — Year A
Readings: Is 7:10-14 / Ps 24 / Rom 1:1-7 / Mt 1:18-24
by Rev. Mr. Mark De La Hunt, Permanent Deacon
Mary and Joseph have finally arrived on the Advent stage. Before we talk about them, though, let us take a moment to appreciate the history regarding the selection of the scriptures we have heard from the First Sunday of Advent on November 27 to now. I want us all to be more aware of the thought and prayer that went into selecting the readings, so that we can be more thankful for the gift of the Catholic Church, which selected them.
In compiling the lectionary readings for Advent, researchers prayerfully studied lectionaries covering a period of 1,500 years! They selected only the best and most traditional readings from ancient Rome, Old Spanish, Gallican or French, and other western churches. How blessed we are to be family members of such a Spirit-led Christian tradition. Within this tradition, every Advent Sunday to Advent Sunday there is a progression of theme to prepare us for Christmas. “Christ will come again (1st Sunday), Christ does come today (2nd and 3rd Sundays), and Christ has come (4th Sunday) (Wallace, 47).”
Today is the (Vigil or) 4th Sunday of Advent, and fittingly St. Matthew writes, “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about (Mt 1: 18).” And he quotes the prophet Isaiah, writing that He shall be called Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” With Jesus’ arriving, note that John the Baptist has exited the stage of God’s great play or, as Bishop Barron calls it, “theo-drama,” having played his role of “preparing the way of the Lord (Mt 3:3).” Joseph and Mary now take the stage, but today the stage spotlight is really on Joseph. Mary will take the starring role at Christmas.
In the commentary book on the gospel of Matthew by Dr. Ed Sri and Curtis Mitch, today’s gospel passage is entitled the “Annunciation to Joseph (Sri, 42).” This makes so much sense. Like Mary’s annunciation, an “angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream” and told him Mary’s baby was conceived through the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20). For the record, though, Joseph’s annunciation differed from Mary’s in two ways. First, the archangel, Gabriel, spoke to her in person, not in a dream, and second, Joseph’s annunciation comes after the fact; Mary is already with child.
Prior to the angel’s arrival, Joseph had been discerning what he should do about the fact that his new wife was already pregnant, even though they had not consummated their marriage. Being a “righteous man,” he decided he would divorce her as required by Jewish law (Dt 22: 20-21). Jewish law required stoning as punishment, but with Israel under Roman rule in Joseph’s day, Roman law was in play. It prescribed a public trial in place of a stoning. However, Joseph chose to keep the divorce private so as not to shame her (Mt 1:19).
Joseph was being exceptionally merciful here. Can you imagine how much he hurt inside thinking his wife had been with another man while he had been waiting to consummate the marriage according to Jewish custom? Pain causes most of us to lash out in anger, wanting to cause pain in the one who caused it in us. Surely Joseph was not just a caretaker chosen by God to care for Mary and Jesus. No, no, no, he loved Mary so much that his love triumphed over the pain of the perceived betrayal.
Nevertheless, being a follower of the law, he has chosen to divorce her quietly, but then God sends him an angel to give him new direction. I bet the angel’s arrival was in response to Joseph praying something like this, “Lord, I will divorce her according to your law, but not my will, but yours be done.” Maybe he even taught the second part of that prayer to his future son.
Note that as God so often does when He is giving us a new direction for our life, He directed the angel to first remove Joseph’s fear: “Joseph…do not be afraid (Mt 1:20).” After reassuring him, he gave Joseph a new path, “…take Mary your wife into your home…it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived…. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus (Mt 1: 20-25).” Joseph knew this message was an answer to his prayers, not just a crazy dream. Accordingly, he surrenders to God’s will, takes Mary into his home and names the baby Jesus. And by the way, to name a child is to make it your own and thereby, since Joseph is in the line of King David, Jesus, through Joseph, becomes a part of that line as the prophets foretold.
The names Jesus and Emmanuel are important. Jesus is derived from the Old Testament name Joshua which means “Yahweh is salvation (Sri 45).” We need to be saved. To be saved is to be freed. Sin is what we need freedom from, not political powers, not our guilt, and not a lack of acceptance by others of our behaviors. Sin can destroy both the body and the soul; it is the greatest threat we face. It causes us so much confusion, pain, and suffering. And if we do not seek God’s forgiveness for it, that pain and suffering become eternal after we die. How can Jesus, a man, save us from a threat of eternal consequence?
This is how. Matthew says the baby Jesus is the “Emmanuel” prophesied in today’s first reading from Isaiah. In other words, Matthew is telling us that God Himself is present in Jesus (Sri 47). The message that Jesus is God present with us is so important that Matthew’s gospel mentions it in the first chapter that I just proclaimed and in the last when Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, until the close of the age (Mt 28:20).”
I am going to digress a minute to mention a heresy that still exist among Christians related to today’s gospel. The next verse after the last one in today’s gospel is, “He had no relations with her until she bore a son… (Mt 1:25).” I bring it up because this verse has been used by some as an argument that Mary did not remain a virgin as has been taught for two thousand years. They think the word “until” means Joseph and Mary had relations after Jesus was born. That is heresy and it has been around since the 300s. In the year 383, St. Jerome shot down this heresy with numerous quotations from scripture including Jesus saying, “I am with you until the close of the age (Mt 28:20).” Referring to Jesus’ words, St. Jerome sarcastically asked the heretic, Helvidius, “if he thought the Lord would then forsake His disciples after the close of the age (Hahn, 106).”
Now back to the homily…When reading and listening to reflections on the 4th Sunday of Advent, a common reflection emerges. Dr. Ed Sri, Fulton Sheen, Peter Kreeft and others point out that Christianity differs from mere religion in that it is not so much about people seeking God, but about God seeking us (Sri 47). Dr. Sri points out that after Adam and Eve sinned, “they hid themselves from the presence of God (Gn 3:8), and ever since, God has been seeking to bring us back into an intimate relationship with Him (Sri 47). He wants to be wedded to us, and Jesus fulfilled His Father’s desire in His very personhood. Jesus IS the marriage of humanity and divinity (Barron on Hallow app). And He consummates that marriage at every Mass, giving us His body at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). God came to us to bring us into His Holy Family; that is Christmas.
Mary had THE Annunciation. Joseph had his annunciation, the shepherds outside Jerusalem had theirs. And you and me and every humble Catholic around the world has their own annunciation at every Mass. For the priest and deacon hold up the sacred bread and declare to you what it really is, not a symbol, but the Body of Christ. We just might as well say, “This is Jesus whom Mary conceived in her womb through the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid, but take Him under your roof, for He is your savior (Mt 8:8).” This is the bread of which Jesus said at least four times, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever (Jn 6: 50, 51, 54, 58).” These are Jesus’ words to us. Jesus is God, and what He says is. And at the moment we receive this bread of angels we, like Mary, give our fiat, Amen. “May it be done to me according to your word (Lk 1:38).”
CatholicIreland.net: Origins and development of Advent. November 30, 1999
Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri. Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew. Baker Academic 2010.
James A. Wallace. Preaching to the Hungers of the Heart; The Homily on the Feasts and within the Rites. The Liturgical Press 2002.KEEP READING
Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2022 — Year A
Readings: Is 35:1-6a, 10 / Ps 146 / Jas 5:7-10 / Mt 11:2-11
by Rev. Mr. Barry Welch, Guest Homilist
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is taken from the first word of our entrance antiphon. Because we had a beautiful opening hymn, Father didn’t say the entrance antiphon, but I’m going to say it to you now. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” Isn’t that a beautiful entrance antiphon? So, Gaudete – rejoice!
Some seven hundred and fifty years before Jesus’ ministry, Israel was in captivity. They were exiled from their precious homeland and far distant from their beloved holy temple. Generation after generation after generation of families had lived this existence, this exile existence in Babylon. It was there that the great prophet Isaiah spoke to the people, telling them that change was coming. He had a beautiful vision of the people being reunited with their place, a new Jerusalem to be rebuilt and reinhabited.
“Rejoice,” he writes, “rejoice with joyful song.” The first line we heard from Isaiah today says, “The dry, parched desert will exult,” which also means rejoice. He will come to save you, the weak will be strong, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will rise. Those whom the Lord had ransomed will return and enter Jerusalem, singing and crowned with everlasting joy. Rejoice!
As with most prophets, Isaiah’s message in this prophecy has more than one meaning. The first meaning is that, yes, the Jews will be released from exile. Yes, they will be allowed to return to Judah. Yes, they will be allowed to rebuild the temple and to resume their religious practices. All these things, because of a new ruler, Cyrus the Great, who conquers Babylon two hundred years after Isaiah made that prophecy.
But Isaiah’s message has a different meaning as well. It foreshadows a future Savior even further than those two hundred years, whose reign is forever; his message is of true everlasting joy.
So, let’s fast forward to what I proclaimed in Matthew’s gospel and in Jesus’ time, where Jesus affirms John the Baptist and confirms that He himself is the Anointed One, fulfilling the prophecy. Now how does He do that?
We hear that in prison, John has heard about what Jesus is doing and what is happening in the world around him while he is in prison. And so, he sends his two followers to go and talk to Jesus and to ask Him a question: Is he the one to come, or should we be waiting for somebody else?
Jesus does not give a simple, straightforward answer; He doesn’t say, “Yes. Next question. What else you got?” He doesn’t give a simple answer, and He also doesn’t declare openly, “Yes, I am the Messiah.” He doesn’t do that either. What does he do? He proclaims the kingdom. He proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven with this prophecy. And just like John the Baptist proclaimed, he says, “Go and tell John what you see and hear, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleaned, the deaf hear, the dead rise.” Does that sound familiar? We just heard that in Isaiah.
Through His actions, through what He has done and is doing, His works of love and mercy, He is fulfilling that well-known prophecy that we just heard from Isaiah, written seven hundred and fifty years before. He’s also saying that that prophecy wasn’t pointing toward violent overthrow of civil government. It was pointing to Jesus. And you can trust this because of His work of love and mercy, which were spoken of by Isaiah so many years before.
And also, “Messenger, when you go back with this message that I’m giving you from Isaiah’s prophecy, you are also saying John, you can believe in yourself, because you too are fulfilling that prophecy.” Amazing! As the messengers are leaving and are going to return to John the Baptist with what they’ve heard and what they’ve seen, Jesus honors their master, saying that he is the awaited messenger. That’s affirming. He is the one foretold by Isaiah – remember the voice the one who cried out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord? That’s the one!
And because of this, he is the greatest prophet of all. And yet, the least of the Kingdom of Heaven is even greater than he. That’s a curious statement right there at the end; it kind of threw me as I was reading it. I think I know a little bit about what that means. Each of us Christians, we followers of Jesus, we believers are more blessed than John, because we get to live in this age brought on by Jesus. We are blessed to live on this side of the resurrection and so we can be part of His mystical body, a part of His community of believers, and truly be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and we get to be a part of that kingdom. How awesome is that?
Gaudete! Hallelujah! Rejoice! Amen.KEEP READING