Homily: Mary, Mother of God

Pronechen-MOTHEROFGODA pastor with a poor memory was watching the Mass on TV one day, and the priest in the Mass started his homily by saying, “Yes, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life in the arms of another man’s wife!”  The pastor could see the shocked reaction of the congregation. Then, the priest on the TV continued his homily, “That woman was my mother!” The audience exploded into laughter. A few weeks later this pastor thought that he would surprise his parishioners with this shocking sermon starter. So he started his preaching on Mary, the Mother of God. He began, “My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I have to tell you, I have spent some of the happiest days of my life in the arms of another man’s wife!” The people, as he expected, were spellbound at the shocking confession of their holy pastor.  Then after a long pause, the pastor muttered meekly, “…but for the life of me, I can’t remember who she was!”

Today we have three themes woven together in our celebration. From our readings, you might notice a repeated reference to the name of Jesus. Second, we celebrate the liturgical feast of Mary as the Mother of God. And third, which you might not know, we celebrate the annual World Day of Peace. So, we’ll touch on each one of these in turn.

Pope Paul VI, in his 1969 apostolic letter, Mysterii Paschalis, reorganized the liturgical calendar, and established January 1 as the solemn feast day of Mary, Mother of God. But before that, this eighth (and last) day of the Christmas Octave, January 1, was the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, which is now January 3. However, the readings for the Mass of this day weren’t changed, so they still reflect the original feast, and that’s where we’ll start.

The second of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” In giving his holy name to Moses, I AM, God identifies that He is the God-Who-Is, and other gods are they-who-are-not. Related imageHe is Israel’s God, their deliverer from slavery, their protector, their way, their truth, and their life. In the Holy Scriptures, in ancient human culture in general, names are not just arbitrary, but revelations of the nature of the person. Many times in the Scriptures, God provides or changes the name of a person, to reflect that person’s significant role (or changing role) in salvation history. The name participates in the reality of the person. How holy then, is the name God reveals as his own! So just as the first commandment sets apart the people’s reverence for God, the second commandment sets apart reverence for his Holy Name. After Israel’s reconversion to God during the Exile in Babylon, from that time on, they practiced such reverence for God’s name that they not only avoided using it in vain, they avoided using it all (except for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when it was pronounced by the High Priest). They would substitute “Adonai,” which translated into Greek as “Kyrios,” and into English as “Lord.”

In the Scriptures, as we can see just below, when the word “Lord” appears in all capital letters (as seen below, or small capital letters), the original Hebrew is the holy name revealed to Moses, but which has been substituted out of reverence. The Church continues to observe this practice, inherited from its originally Jewish sensibility. Pope Benedict XVI directed a letter to be sent out in 2008, calling attention to the fact that “in recent years, the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel’s proper name,” but that this is foreign to Christian tradition, all the way back to the first generations. In the letter, Benedict issued the directive (reminder!) that “in liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers, the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced.” 

Our first reading, from the book of Numbers, going way back to Moses and the high priest Aaron, describes the ceremony for the priestly blessing of the people, three times invoking God’s name, and that his face to smile upon them.

“This is how you shall bless the Israelites. Say to them: ‘The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!’ So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

It’s quite the fitting first reading! That we would enter into the New Year with the ancient priestly blessing by God’s holy name!

When we offer the First Eucharistic Prayer (the only one in constant use leading up to the liturgical reform of the 1970’s), we pray that the Father would look upon our offerings “with a serene and kindly countenance.” This word “countenance” is a fancy word for “face,” and in a way ties to our first reading: that the Lord accept our sacrifice, to look upon it favorably (to smile upon it), so that all of us… “may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.” 

As we see at the end of our Gospel reading, on the eighth day after the birth of Jesus, the circumcision and naming ritual was held, according to the Law. Here, Mary and Joseph name the child Jesus: “the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Jesus is a Latin form of the Hebrew Jeshua, which means “God saves,” or “salvation,” a name first belonging to Joshua, who succeeded Moses in leading the people of Israel across the threshold of the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. God has united himself to us, made himself intimate with us in our own nature, and approachable by us. And we use the new name that He has given us: Jesus (who saves us; who will lead us through the wilderness, across the threshold, and into the new Promised Land). We can use this name, his holy name, to praise him, to thank him, to call upon his help, or to intercede with him to help others. But still, he is God, and his name is holy—set apart—so we do not use his name in vain, disrespectfully, or carelessly. And we must work to break any bad habit we might already have of treating his holy name in the same manner as any other words.

The second aspect of our celebration today is that of Mary under the title of Mother of God. This title for Mary goes back to the Church Council of Ephesus in 431, what is called one of the early Christological Councils. These early councils were held to settle disagreements about the true nature of Christ, controversies about his humanity, his divinity, his soul, or his nature. In this particular case of Ephesus, there was controversy about the relationship between Christ’s human and divine nature, as it related to Mary. The bishop Nestorius and his friends argued that Jesus simply assumed human nature, and was incubated in Mary, taking nothing of her nature. They used the image of water passing through a hose, the water taking nothing of the hose, or light shining through a piece of glass, the light taking nothing of the nature of glass.

To their credit, they were trying to disassociate Jesus from the Greek myths like Hercules, who were the love-child of Zeus and some human mother. Perhaps this is also why the Church emphasizes that Mary conceived Jesus by the word of the angel, the hovering of the Holy Spirit, and not by more carnal means—as the Greek gods would have done.

But the position winning out as the true Christian belief is that Jesus indeed received his humanity from his mother Mary. He is, in his divinity, God, the Son of God, and in his humanity, the son of Mary, and the two are united in the Divine Messiah, who is Jesus.

Jesus is the union of the two natures, one of which is his eternal divinity, one of which came from his human mother, and the two bond together in Jesus, and Mary is the mother of the whole Jesus, although she is not the source of his divinity. The second person of the Holy Trinity humbled himself to become human and be born in the flesh, and the mother he was born of is Mary. So Mary is the mother of God, in the order of the flesh. She is not the mother of the Father, not the Mother of the Holy Spirit, not the Mother of the holy Trinity, but she is the mother of the Son, because he chose to come into humanity and be born of her.

The traditional term applied by the Council of Ephesus is that Mary is the theotokos – theo (God) + tokos (bearer), or “one who gives birth to God. This is translated into English as “Mother of God.” 

Christ is the head of the Body, and so the Mother of the Head is also the mother of the Body, and we are the mystical body of Christ. So in venerating Mary as the Mother of God, our human and divine Lord Jesus Christ, we are venerating her as our mother also, because we are members of the Body of Christ, as Saint Paul has said. One of the reasons our second reading was chosen is because it is the only glancing mention of Mary in the writings of St. Paul. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (and daughters). If we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, the Son of God the Father, and He (the Father) is our Father, in Christ, then we are also brothers and sisters of Jesus, the Son of Mary, and she is our mother, in Christ. And our Lord taught us this, when he gave His mother to the Church, in the person of the blessed apostle at the cross, when our Lord said to him, “Behold your mother.”

And our third theme for today’s celebration: Pope Paul VI released a letter on January 1, 1968, with the opening paragraph, “We address Ourself to all men of good will to exhort them to celebrate “The Day of Peace”, throughout the world, on the first day of the year, January 1, 1968. It is Our desire that then, every year, this commemoration be repeated as a hope and as a promise, at the beginning of the calendar which measures and outlines the path of human life in time, that Peace with its just and beneficent equilibrium may dominate the development of events to come.”

You can access the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference (USCCB) page with information about the 2019 (and previous years’) celebration of the World Day of Peace here. You can access Pope Francis’ 2019 message for the World Day of World Peace (“Good politics is at the service of peace“) here

The social teaching of the Catholic Church describes peace not simplistically just as an absence of war, but of universal justice, first of humanity toward God, then humanity within the soul, then outward toward others and the natural world. We cannot legislate peace, we cannot achieve peace apart from the source of peace, who is God.

The Hebrew concept of peace is encrypted in their word, “shalom,” which is a greeting, and the word for “peace,” but… at its essence, signifies “wholeness.” Image result for shalom peaceTo greet someone (or bid them farewell) with the wish of shalom is to wish them wholeness, completeness, the satisfaction and fulfillment of the holy desires of their heart. Someone said something along the lines of (that’s how quotes work in my brain!) “Human nature is a question… and God is the answer.” Shalom is to have the yearning question within you answered by God. That is peace. The answer to our longing, the satisfaction of our desires, the satiation of our appetites, the pieces within us falling into place, with no additional need but to have ever more of God’s infinite love.

And so, for this new year, we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of peace, by our words and actions, and by praying that the peace of God soothe the unrest and heal the sin in every human heart.

I have ended my homily on this feast day with this last segment every few years, and it is always well received, and much-requested to have in writing. So, it is my joy to provide it to you again this year…

For this new year, this opportunity for a new beginning, let us begin by consecrating our year and ourselves more intimately with the plan that God has for us, by daily prayer, by frequent confession, by spiritual reading, by frequent acts of corporal works of mercy. And to help, I have for you…

7 Ups for the New Year

  1. WAKE UP–Begin the day thanking the Lord. It is His day. Rejoice in it.
  2. LOOK-UP–Open your eyes to the Lord Jesus. Ask for his strength and protection from temptation. Ask for the anointing of his Holy Spirit, that his will be done. Unite your sufferings to His, and thank him for his blessings.
  3. DRESS-UP–Put on a smile. It improves your looks. It says something about your attitude. It enables Jesus, living within you, to smile at others.
    “Save us from sour-faced Saints!” – St. Theresa of Avila
  4. SHUT-UP–Watch your tongue. Don’t gossip. Don’t be judgmental. Say nice things. Learn to listen to others with love. Don’t be cynical; be empathetic. Don’t prepare your response, just be completely present, and really listen.
  5. STAND-UP–Take a stand for what you believe. Resist evil. Do good. Have the courage of your Christian convictions by practicing what you believe (what the Church teaches!). You may be the one to inspire someone’s conversion.
  6. REACH-UP–Spend time in prayer by talking to God, with your adoration, confessions, thanksgivings and supplications to the Lord—and by listening to Him by reading the Bible and by applying its message to your life.
  7. LIFT-UP–Be available to help those in need—serving, supporting, and sharing. Provide guidance in faith, hope, and love. Try to find Jesus in others and serve him, at every opportunity, in all that you do.

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Homily: Feast of the Holy Family


The Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the Sunday between Christmas (the First Day of the Christmas octave) and New Year’s (the last day of the Christmas octave, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God), and gives us a supernatural perspective on what it means to be a family. Each member of the Holy Family of Nazareth has their own feast days (Joseph has two, Mary has bunches, and of course the Lord Jesus is the main attraction!). but this feast day celebrates their unity and relationship as a family, and the holiness that should mark family life.

Our Gospel reading, as we just heard, gives us the well-known story of Joseph and Mary finding Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, after discovering that he was not in the caravan traveling from Jerusalem back to Galilee, and searching for him. Historians tell us that the men and the women traveled in separate groups, and children could be with either group. So each mistakenly thought Jesus was with the other, until they met up after the first day, and discovered he wasn’t with either one of them. Remember that making a mistake is not necessarily a sin, and so Mary did not sin in making the mistake of thinking Jesus had been traveling with Joseph and the other men.

One of the things we might notice is that the context of this story is the Holy Family having traveled in caravan from Nazareth to Jerusalem, which means that they were faithful in following the Law that the great feasts of their faith should be celebrated in Jerusalem. So Joseph, earlier identified as a just and righteous man, as father of the family was leading his family in religious devotion. Not every family would make the journey to Jerusalem all the way from Galilee (walking from Holy Trinity in Columbia, PA to the National Basilica in Washington, DC!), but Joseph led his family in doing so, as our reading begins, “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom.”

Another thing we might notice as far as setting the scene is that we are told Jesus was 12 years old. Now in one respect, it might just be the historical reality. Jesus was 12 at the time. But more likely, there are layers of meaning to this verse. For one, 12 was the age of adolescence, when one transitions from being considered a child to entering the threshold of adulthood. And that ties to a second possible meaning, which is how several phrases in this scene echo the Old Testament story of the prophet Samuel. Samuel was the son of Hannah, a childless woman who had prayed in the Temple for a son, and had promised to give her son to the Lord should the Lord answer her prayer. The Lord did answer her prayer, she had Samuel, and when he was weaned, she brought Samuel back to the priest Eli at the Temple, offered an oblation, Samuel’s father offered a holocaust, and they left Samuel there with Eli. Image result for samuel here i amYou might remember the story of Samuel as a young boy sleeping near the ark, and hearing the Lord’s voice call his name, and twice, he got up and went to Eli, saying, “Here I am. You called me.” And Eli realized it was the Lord, and told Samuel, if he hears the voice again, to respond, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” According to Jewish Tradition, Samuel was 12 when this happened. And you might also remember that it was Samuel, the priest and the last of the judges of Israel,  who was the prophet who anointed Saul as king, and later, David as king. So in making this reference to Samuel, our gospel is saying that Jesus as a young boy, or young man, has likewise gone to the Temple to begin his service to the Lord God, to speak the word of the Lord in the house of the Lord, and whose life is going to be totally dedicated to God’s will, totally dedicated to the priestly sacrifice that he’s going to ultimately offer in himself. And to reinforce this connection, it says that he increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man, which is almost a direct quotation from the Book of Samuel.

Dr. John Bergsma brings up the thought that perhaps the boy Jesus may have understood himself as being brought up like Samuel, and that when his parents brought him up to the Temple on this occasion, he believed that the plan was that he would stay and begin his service in the Temple, as Samuel did. It would explain Jesus’ apparent confusion when his mother and father finally arrive: “Why were you looking? Did you not know I would be here?” In other words, Jesus  might have thought his parent’s plan was that he would stay. It’s just speculative, but an interesting proposition. 

So we get a window into the Holy Family’s interior life here when Mary finally finds Jesus in the Temple. She’s very blunt. and says “Son why have you treated us this way? Look how anxious your father and I were searching for you.” Although Mary was immaculately conceived, and although Joseph was righteous and devout, they were also fully human. They experienced real human fears and real anxiety at having lost their son.

And Jesus’ response here is striking, he says, Didn’t you know where I would be? “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?

We see that Joseph and Mary didn’t fully understand what Jesus was telling them. That, too, is helpful for us. Several times we read in the scriptures where it tells us, Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart. So often we hear the words of Jesus, and we just don’t get it. We know there’s more to be understood in his cryptic words, but we just can’t penetrate into the mystery. We can get some consolation from the fact that his own mother, the Immaculate Conception, had the same problem. But she didn’t say, “I just don’t get it, I give up.” These things that she couldn’t get with her mind, she pondered in her heart. She mulled over his words, echoing them, holding them, and allowing them to feed into her love for her son, Jesus, even if she didn’t understand. What great humility she shows, and what great love! Just one of the reasons that she is held up as the model of the Christian life!

Besides that little insight, there are two great lessons as far as family life we get from this gospel story, before we move on.

The first is that even in a family of a saintly husband and father, the Immaculate Conception as the wife and mother, and the incarnate God as the son, misunderstandings can still happen, stress and anxiety can be present. How much more so then in our families? Faithful living of the Christian virtues can help to avoid many of the more profound problems in family life, but they are not a guarantee of freedom from all stress and difficulty. So it can be some consolation to us, as we struggle to maintain healthy, loving relationships in our families. It can be hard, and everyone struggles with it.

The second is the last line of our gospel reading, that we can learn from the humility of Jesus. He was already great in his wisdom, of course already divine, but he submitted to his parents and was obedient to them. So submitting and being obedient are not saying anything about dignity, as Jesus’ divine dignity was infinitely greater than his parents’.  In families, as in all human societies and groups, there has to be some organization and order of authority. Every person has gifts and weaknesses in different areas, and it often it happens that the one exercising authority is less gifted in various ways than those he or she is entrusted to lead and care for. Look at poor St. Joseph! (I always kind of felt for St. Joseph; if something went wrong in the household, who was the only one that wasn’t without sin!?) He was entrusted with leading the Holy Family, though he was neither immaculately conceived like his wife, nor divine like his son. Yet in his role as husband and father, he had the support of his obedient son and the trust of his wife, which certainly must have been a great encouragement.

And that then, brings us to the first reading. The book of Sirach is the summation of Jewish wisdom up until about 200 BC. It is part of the wisdom literature, and was written originally in Greek, which means it was excluded from the Jerusalem canon of the scriptures, hence also from Martin Luther’s bible, even though it was considered scriptural in Jesus’ time by most Jews, who lived outside of the Holy Land, and by all Christians, up until Luther. Because the book of Sirach provides such a thorough summary of the moral message of the Scriptures, the early Church used it heavily in catechesis, earning it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the Church book.”

To quote from Dr. John Bergsma:

Early on, the Church realized that it was difficult to catechize pagan cultures that did not practice the natural virtues well. Theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—rest upon and elevate the natural virtues. The Book of Sirach was employed to form catechumens in basic Judeo-Christian morality and family life. Leading a moral and well-ordered natural life is, of course, not the ultimate goal of the Christian life—union with God is. However, it is very difficult to make progress in union with God in the midst of immorality and disorder. The teaching of the Book of Sirach frequently strikes us these days as quaint or dated. However, our modern alternatives to the moral vision of Sirach have not been empirically successful. By almost any psychological or sociological measure, our culture is growing more unhealthy and dysfunctional. Sirach has been treasured in Christianity (and even in Judaism) for centuries because its principles work.

On this Feast of the Holy Family as we’re celebrating the family of Jesus, the Church also puts before us an exhortation to honor our own fathers and mothers. The first paragraph of this reading from Sirach focuses on the responsibility of children to respect and revere their parents, even despite their weakness and sinfulness. One’s relationship with one’s parents affects one’s relationship to God. “For the Lord sets a father in honor over his children and confirms a mother’s authority over her sons. Those who honor their father atone for sins; they store up riches who respect their mother.”

Happy is the person who finds it easy to revere his father and mother, because they are virtuous and admirable people! But many of us meditating on these readings struggle with this command to revere parents, because we have been hurt by them: perhaps we are children of divorce, or were abandoned by our father or mother. Perhaps we suffered abuse of some kind. How then do we react to this reading? It is still applicable to us. Our identity is so strongly bound up with our parents that hatred of them becomes self-hatred, damaging us at the core of our being. So for the sake of our own health and our relationship to God, we need to pray for divine grace to forgive offenses that otherwise are beyond our ability to forgive, and ask God to show us whatever was good, true, and beautiful in our parents, in order that we may emphasize and dwell on that. Isn’t this part of “loving our neighbors as ourselves”? This reading is, in a way, an application to the child-parent relationship of the principle of the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we have forgiven those who trespass against us,” because “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

The second paragraph of this First Reading especially commends honoring one’s father (and mother) in his old age. The Church has repeatedly taught that the moral measure of a society (and individuals, too) is how we treat the very old and the very young, those who don’t seem to “contribute” very much to society. Our society’s way of evaluating human worth based on usefulness is contrary to the wisdom of the Scriptures. The elderly deserve honor and care for their own sake, made in the image of God and infinitely loved by Him. Moreover, since there is an order to charity, those closest to us (like our parents) have the first claim on our love. Therefore, St. Paul will affirm: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”.

Now, we’ll finish out with the Second Reading, from St. Paul. This reading breaks down into two main sections.

The first part concerns how to behave individually as members of a family. It requires the virtues, it requires humility and forgiveness, it requires thankfulness. It requires individual holiness. This first part is the scriptural reading often used in the blessing of homes, because following its instruction leads to the holiness of the members of the family, and thus the family together.

The second part of the reading teaches the structure for peace within the family: our responsibilities of family members toward one another. St. Paul says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” So we see that everyone has some homework to do. Women, wives, are to learn humility toward the authority of the husband, children are to learn humility toward the authority of their parents. And men as fathers are called to be the humble and holy steward of that authority and respect. It’s not a matter of pride or privilege, but the yoke of responsibility. None of these roles come easily. They all require grace, God’s holiness.

St. Paul gives this a bit more detail in the beautiful reflection of Ephesians Chapter 5, where he compares the love of husband and wife with Christ and his Bride, the Church. The husband is to follow the example of Christ: to offer up his life for the flourishing of his bride and her children, to lead them to holiness by example and word, with sacrificial love and devotion. The wife is to follow the example of the Church: to praise her husband, to follow him, to strengthen the bond between them. Again, neither of these roles come easily. It requires prayer, humility, and grace. 

Now as we said a little earlier, it may be that the husband, as human person with imperfections and limitations, is not the best candidate to lead, perhaps not in the opinion of the wife. She may be more intelligent, more financially responsible, relate better with the children, and may even make more money. And all these are wonderful gifts from God for the good of the family and the greater family of society. Still, to be the virtuous wife she is to entrust herself to the leadership of her husband. Now, a smart husband knows how to delegate tasks to those in his authority according to their gifts. So if she’s better at the checkbook, he’d be humble and wise to have her manage the family finances. It might be better for the family if the husband stays home with the children. And if she’s smart, she also knows how to effectively influence her husband. As the matriarch says in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “The husband might be the head, but the wife is the neck, and she can turn the head however she wants.” So there’s a playful tension there, if they can work well together, be patient and forgiving with each other, with love and trust, and humility, and a healthy sense of humor.

There are most definitely differences between male and female, masculine and feminine, as God has made us. But also most definitely sin has entered into these distinctions, and the chauvinistic, abusive, workaholic, alpha male, lording his authority (making his authority felt, as the pagans do…) over his family is a sinful distortion, as is the domineering bad-mouthing wife and the weak husband. This is not to say that a woman with a strong will or strong personality is a bad thing! Many women saints had strong personalities! But in the family, she puts her gifts at the service of the family, and thus at the direction of her husband, who is responsible for orchestrating the gifts of the family for the good of the family. They are a team, and they must be a holy team, pursuing virtue and holiness, and protecting their love and unity against threats and distortions. My mother once said to me (before I was considering the priesthood), that when you fight with your spouse, you don’t face against your spouse, so that one wins and one loses. You fight along with your spouse, side-by-side, against the problem. The problem is the enemy. And you win or lose together, but you’re together. 

Throughout Scripture, beginning with Adam, the ideal held up for the father and husband is to serve as the priest or spiritual leader of the family, the domestic church. To do this, he needs the support of his wife. He needs her both to expect and to respect him as the “family priest,” so to speak. If the children see she does not respect her husband or look to him for spiritual leadership, the family becomes disordered. Even the Blessed Mother—though she was the sinless Mother of God—looked with respect on St. Joseph and honored him as her husband. A wife exercising humble submission is not slavery, it’s not of a lower dignity or worth, and it’s not antiquated misogyny. It is virtue, humility, and trust.

Image result for beautiful ballroom dancingIn wedding homilies, I often bring up the example of ballroom dancing. It’s the man who leads the couple, providing structure and direction. But it’s the woman that captivates everyone’s attention, with the beautiful flowing dress and graceful movement. The man’s protection, structure, and leadership allows the grace and beauty of the woman to unfold. When she feels secure, her gifts will flower and flourish, because she trusts in his protection (that’s why marriage is for life: for the provision and protection of the mother and her children!)

It’s too common today for fathers (provided they’re even in the daily life of the family) to abdicate their responsibility, and the mother acts as the spiritual head. But statistics reveal the truth of God’s plan. Children are far more likely to leave the church when raised in homes where the mother is the spiritual leader rather than the father. One wise pastor said to a father who drops their kid off at Church and Sunday School that they would be using their time better to go to Mass themselves, which will have a far more positive and lasting impact on their child’s spiritual life. 

I do want to take a moment and address a difficult exception: that is, those families that have a single parent, who is doing the best he or she can to be both mother and father. It’s literally an impossible job, because he can only be father, and she can only be mother. But the single parent has to be the sole provider in many ways for the children, financially, emotionally, and spiritually, and it’s draining, stressing, and in many ways, selflessly heroic.

And lastly, another difficult exception: is that this well-ordering of authority within the family does not extend to doing something sinful. If the husband says, “We’re going to rob a bank,” the wife is not to be cooperative in that. That’s a silly example, of course, but it establishes the principle. Unfortunately, in the real world, the line of what is sinful is sometimes harder to distinguish. A husband is not to lead the family into sin. A wife is not to follow her husband into sin. Children are not to follow their parents into sin. We are obedient to the will of God as a higher priority to being obedient to the will of men.

This sometimes come into play, for example, when one spouse has a higher libido than the other. One spouse does not have a right to the gifts of the other, otherwise they are not gifts, they become property, and we do not reduce one another, especially spouses, to the status of property (again, submission in marriage is not servitude). Likewise, acts in the bedroom, so to speak, which violate the human dignity of the other (along the lines of “Fifty Shades of Grey”) are objectively sinful insofar as they do violate the human dignity of one or the other person, even with their consent.

Where does the family’s joy come from? For one, it comes from shared time together, shared memories and experiences, forming healthy, enjoyable relationships, being able to trust in mutual support and unconditional love; not from having almost completely separate lives, and not from secrets. It comes from the fear of (or reverence for) the Lord, it comes from obedience to God. And nobody exemplifies that better, of course, than the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus; all three of them who were obedient to the will of God the Father.

This Feast Day gives us the opportunity to meditate on the way in which the family structure, established by God and mirrored in the Holy Family, reflects His own familial nature (as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), and shows us the truth about ourselves in his image of selfless and self-giving love in relationship.

Whatever our role in our respective families, this Feast Day presents an excellent opportunity for us to make an examination of conscience concerning how well we are living the virtues that make for “happy and cheerful Christian homes” (a phrase of St. Josemaría Escrivà). Many of these virtues are listed in our second reading.

This Feast also presents us an opportunity to ask for the intercession of the Holy Family to live our roles as a holy family in our homes, in the larger holy family of the Church (both of which are under the patronage of St. Joseph, patron saint of fathers, of the family, and of the Church), and in our community, with virtue, humility, and love.

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POST SCRIPT (from Dr. Brant Pitre):

Our Gospel reading is the fifth of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. I want you to read the words of Pope Saint John Paul II in his 2002 apostolic letter “On the Most Holy Rosary,” regarding a kind of union with Mary in this scene: 

Mary lived with her eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring his every word: “She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. 2:51). The memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart, were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her Son’s side. In a way those memories were to be the “rosary” which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life. Even now, amid the joyful songs of the heavenly Jerusalem… Mary constantly sets before the faithful the “mysteries” of her Son, with the desire that the contemplation of those mysteries will release all their saving power. In the recitation of the Rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary.

At times praying the rosary can be difficult, repetitive, and dry. But a beautiful way to look at the rosary is that the words, the repeated prayers, are like the body of the rosary, but the soul of the rosary is the mystery that you’re contemplating in each decade. With the mystery of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, we’re entering into Mary’s own memory of that event, and her own act of contemplating the mystery in her heart, meditating on it, pondering what it means for who Jesus is, and how he’s come to save. I wonder if these three days when they lost Jesus came to her mind the third day after she lost her Son Jesus in the tomb, and people were claiming that they had seen him alive. Think about it: In his youth, she loses her child Jesus for three days and then on the third day they find him in the Temple. It’s a kind of foretaste of what will happen on Calvary where Christ will be taken from her once again and then three days later, she will encounter him again in the joy and the mystery of the Resurrection.


This particular homily was shared quite a few times beyond the normal little circle (for which I am grateful!). So just a disclaimer:

First, I rely heavily on the commentary by Dr. Brant Pitre and Dr. John Bergsma over at thesacredpage.com. I openly acknowledge that some text is copied from them, and I am thankful beyond words for their wisdom and knowledge.

Second, although the title of this post is that it is a homily, that’s not completely accurate. As with all my homilies on this blog, the text in default grey is the homily I gave at the weekend parish Masses. The italic text in blue is from the scriptural readings for the Mass. The dark red text is what I wish I could have also said in the homily, but that would have made it even more too-long than it already is. And if there is green text, that’s usually a quote from another source, such as the Catechism. So there is a system to it! Thank you to everyone who comments and shares. Creating homilies, for me, is a prayerful, sacrificial labor of love, and it makes me happy that others benefit from them, and come to a deeper appreciation of God’s loving wisdom, given to us for our salvation.


Homily: Christmas at Night


Christmas is about the birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God. Christmas is about anticipation and fulfillment, tension……… and release. The baby in the manger in Bethlehem is the answer to God’s promises going all the way back to Genesis, the beginning of humanity, and our primordial rejection of our trust in God’s goodness. Jesus is the Son of the Woman who would crush the head of the Serpent who is the Father of Lies, who continues to tempt us, trick us, and enslave us, with his lies.

Jesus is the fulfillment of Adam; he is the New Adam, who will protect the honor of his Bride from the wickedness and snares of the devil. Jesus is the new Noah, who gathers and leads his family through the storm to safety and new life. Jesus is the new Melchizedek, the priest-king who offers the sacrifice of bread and wine to the glory of God Most High. Jesus is the New Moses, who frees his people from the suffering of slavery into covenant and communion with the true God, who leads us through the dangers of the wilderness on a New Exodus, gives us a New Law to guide us in truth, feeds us with New manna (bread from heaven), and delivers us to a New Promised Land. Jesus is the new Solomon, king and Son of David, who will build up the kingdom of God, and will rule in wisdom, and whose eternal kingdom will be the reign of justice, mercy, and love. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who will protect and lead the people of God, providing them peace in good pasture, with living water, and who will bind their wounds, heal the weak and sick, and gather the wandering and the lost. There are many, many images throughout the Old Testament that point to their fulfillment in the Messiah: the Passover Lamb, the prophet Elisha, the Son of Man, the child of the virgin, and on and on. What God had promised, God fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah.

All of this expectation, all of this promise, all of this fulfillment of the images and hopes and dreams and cries for rescue and redemption—all the power of God’s infinite divine love, all of this—is signified and embodied in the meaning of this one tiny little baby, born of poor, humble parents, in a simple little village, on a still, silent night.

Isaiah sings of the glory of this child of promise, in a time of great darkness and anguish. In Isaiah’s time, Israel was being oppressed by powerful enemies, and the king was lukewarm and political, refusing to trust in God, but trusting rather in a powerful but dangerous ally. And Isaiah sees the birth of the royal child as the dawning of a new age of hope for the people of God, a light in the darkness, a joy in a time of turmoil, a brave new glorious dawn to end the night of fear and trembling. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone! You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing… For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed… For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.”

Some of us gathered here on this night haven’t been here maybe since Easter, maybe since last Christmas, maybe years, maybe this is your first time. So welcome, or welcome back. You are very welcome and appreciated here, and we hope that you come back often, and that you might find our beautiful church to be inviting, perhaps enough be called your spiritual home, your place of finding God in the confusion and anxiety of the world.

Some of us, no doubt, are deeply troubled by the clergy-abuse scandal that’s been all over the news, and perhaps the decision to come to Church tonight was a difficult one. We have talked about it, and have been making our way through our anger and frustration, at the betrayal of so many supposedly holy men, and the suffering of so many innocent children and their families. I share in that anger, frustration, disgust, and disappointment. It’s a difficult time. But as we said this summer, the way forward is in truth and humility. We pray for the healing of victims, we pray for justice and mercy for all involved.

But most of all, we pray that we here might be better examples of what it means to be Catholic. We pray that as God shown his mercy in the darkness on Christmas night, so he might shine with his mercy through the darkness of these times, to restore his Church to her first love: coming together to minister to God with praise and adoration, to receive his grace and divine blessings through the liturgies, sacraments, and prayers, and to minister to others with generosity, compassion, and love. That’s what it means to be the Church, and we cannot let others try to redefine our story and our identity in terms of those who have failed to be who and what they promised to be. We pray and remain faithful and virtuous, which is what God’s holy people have done from the beginning, and will do until the end of time. The Church has had many scandals and periods of corruption in its…colorful…past, and she has survived, and even thrived, when they are met with courage, humility, and love, and she will so again. In the words of the Devotion to Divine Mercy, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

In our second reading, Saint Paul writes, “The grace of God has appeared… training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the… savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.”

This is the reality of Christmas in our lives: That God in his grace and mercy have come to us, to lead us out of the darkness of lawlessness, godless ways, and worldly desires, into the light of living temperately, justly, and devoutly, and being cleansed to be a people of his own, eager to do what is good.

Do you need to go to church to be good? For the most part, yes. Because sin darkens the intellect and weakens the will. We need to be taught and formed in mind and heart in what is good. Some things that seem good are not good. Many things promoted by our society as good are far from good. And some things we don’t want to do are very good. And also, the grace we receive from the Church—the Holy Word and Holy Eucharist of the Mass, the forgiveness of Sins in Confession, the grace of the sacraments of our vocation—these give us supernatural strength to do good, especially when it’s very difficult, and especially when we’ve created bad habits that dispose us more easily to doing what is not good.

Christmas is about the birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God. Christmas is about expectation and fulfillment, tension, and release. Let us live the miracle of Christmas by making the most of the mercy made available to us: his light in our darkness, his mercy in our sin, his life in our hearts, his divinity in our humanity, his glory in our world, his fulfillment of our hope. Merry Christmas, and may God abundantly bless you.

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Homily: She Went with Haste


In Catholic Digest some years ago, storyteller Maula Powers related an old German folktale about a creature called the Advent Devil, who tries to keep people so busy in rushing about that they lose sight of the real meaning of Advent and Christmas. The Advent Devil doesn’t want people to have time to really prepare to experience the rebirth of Christ within themselves. The temptations of the Advent Devil are diabolically clever. The Advent Devil’s business is to keep us so busy with the flow of the secular holiday hustle and bustle and holiday obligations that we forego daily prayer, reading the Scriptures, and Church services. Some of us have been fighting the Advent Devil this year. Just a couple more days! I hope you are in a position to use the little bit of time that’s left to focus on the real meaning of it all.

In our Gospel reading, Mary gives us the counter-example, the antidote, to the Advent devil. As soon as Mary had received the Good News that she would conceive and bear the Messiah, the Son of God, and that her relative Elizabeth, even in her old age, was in her sixth-month of her own pregnancy, it says, Mary “went with haste.” Not in haste in the sense of frantically or recklessly rushing, but in the sense of being focused on what she most needed to do: to visit Elizabeth, to minister her in her time of need, and to see that the sign that the angel had given her was true. She went with haste.

In the canticle of the Purgatorio, the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, those souls in purgatory who suffered the vice of sloth, or lukewarmness, distraction by earthly concerns, these souls spent their time in purgatory running the path around their level of the mountain repeating the refrain, “She went with haste.” It was to heal them of their distractions and to focus them, as Mary was focused on the one thing necessary. For Mary, it was the angelic message that God’s promise and the time of the messianic expectation was fulfilled, and that she had been prepared and chosen to be the mother of the Son of God and Son of Man, the Son of David, the light in the darkness, the long awaited Messiah.

Dr. Tony Esolen, in his commentary on Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, in speaking about sloth, quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in calling it “the sin against the Sabbath,” the sin against the joyful, feastful rest; the Sabbath not as a day of inactivity, but of the restful, peaceful, joyful activity of worship. He mentions the 20th century Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper, who said that sloth is the characteristic sin of our world today, this hamster-treadmill society of constant work, but scant religious zeal. Dr. Esolen then quotes from Dante, describing the band of souls racing past them:

“Straightaway past us on the ring they swept,
for that great throng of spirits ever raced,
and the front runners shouted as they wept,
‘Mary ran to the hill country in haste!”

Nazareth, the home of Mary, is in Related imageGalilee, in the low-lying farm-land of the north. Elizabeth lives in the mountainous hill country of Judea, in the south. It took a week or so for Mary to make the journey, where she stayed for three months. This means that when these two holy children encountered each other—the unborn infant John, in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, and the unborn Lord Jesus, the fruit of his mother Mary’s womb—John was about 24 weeks old, and Jesus was barely more than 10-14 days old—neither of whom are considered persons with the dignity of human life by our own country’s laws. But we’re not going in that direction today… that’s a homily for later.

An interesting dynamic of this encounter of the Visitation is that while the specialness of Mary always relies entirely on Jesus her son, Mary here serves as the intercessor, or mediatrix, of her son’s blessings. It is not when Mary approaches Elizabeth that John leaps—it’s not his response to the Lord’s presence or proximity—but the moment Mary’s voice reached Elizabeth’s ears. Mary is the one who mediates the Lord’s presence to them. It’s a beautiful image of the role that Mary plays and the dignity of Mary. It’s Mary’s greeting that leads Elizabeth here to respond.

Although we often say those words of Elizabeth in the prayer of the Hail Mary, Luke is clear that Elizabeth doesn’t just say, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” She shouts it! “Inspired by the Holy Spirit she exclaimed with a loud cry.” So Elizabeth and her unborn son are overcome with joy when she hears the words of Mary.

Elizabeth says, “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Again, note the emphasis on Mary. It doesn’t take away from Jesus, but, sometimes people might say Elizabeth is humbled by the fact that Christ comes into her presence. And that’s true, but it isn’t just Christ. It’s the mother of Christ as well. Now that expression, “mother of my Lord,” is important.

For one, the Greek word there is kyrios, which is the standard Greek term for a king or gentleman. But the majority of its use in the Greek Old Testament is as a translation of the Hebrew name of God, as it was revealed to Moses. By the First century, kyrios in the Greek scriptures, almost exclusively meant God, who of course is the true king, of Israel, and of the world, the king of kings. So Elizabeth cries out, “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my kyrios should come to me?”—the mother of my king, my God! In human flesh! In your womb! Here! It’s hard to imagine her excitement—and humility!

And secondly, Mary was the younger relative, so she was lower in esteem than Elizabeth. It normally would have been Mary deferring and honoring Elizabeth. But not only does Luke have this unexpected reversal, where Elizabeth exclaims the honor of Mary, but the older unborn infant, John, honors his younger unborn relative, Jesus. So again, we as Catholics can take some heat from non-Catholics about the honor we give to Mary, but it’s completely based in Scripture. After all, it says “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice.” So shouting the praise of Mary as the Mother of the divine king, the mother of our Lord: that’s from the Holy Spirit.

At the end of our gospel reading, we have Elizabeth blessing Mary a second time, saying, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Mary is the one who lives a constant “Yes” to the will of God, with all her mind, all her heart, all her soul, and all her strength. She gives us the example of the life of the beatitudes, which are based on the life of her son. She is the first Christian: the first in time, in that she was the first to receive and accept the the Good News of the Messiah; and the first in priority, in that she lived out her Christian vocation perfectly, without sin, without any imperfection in following God’s plan in Christ.

She not only complied, but did so with joy, and with urgency. With alacrity and foresight. In these last few days of the Advent season, let’s make sure that we are not falling victim to the Advent devil, getting distracted and stressed, and missing the real meaning of this time of preparing to receive our king and our God. Let us make some time to also be collected and quiet, with prayer, peace, and gratitude. Mary gives us our example. She was focused. She obeyed the Holy Spirit. “And she went with haste.”

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Homily: Prepare the Way


The Old Testament book of Proverbs has a beautiful image of Lady Wisdom setting herself up, and preparing a feast for those who would accept her invitation to partake of her blessings. “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns; she has prepared her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table. She has sent out her maid-servants; she calls from the heights out over the city: “Let whoever is naïve turn in here; to any who lack sense I say, ‘Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.’”

Back in March, we joined Mary at the Feast of the Annunciation, when she received the Angelic greeting, “Hail, Full of Grace!“, and she conceived her child when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. In the infancy narratives of St. Luke, we will notice the repeated refrain, “And Mary pondered these things in her heart.” Mary, by the light of her immaculate heart, grew in the wisdom of the mysteries of her divine son. In the Litany of Loreto, one of Mary’s titles (going back to St. Augustine) is, “Seat of Wisdom.” And now, in this second Sunday of Advent, we join her again in her last month of pregnancy. Mary, Lady Wisdom, is almost done preparing her feast, the choicest meal and wine—which, of course, is the body and blood of her Son, the Word and Wisdom of God, whose flesh is real food, and whose blood is real drink. Lady Wisdom is preparing her feast, the sweet bread and choice wine of heavenly joy, and she is nearly ready!

Our Mass readings today are about preparing. Clearing the clutter and obstacles, the rough patches, out of the way, and preparing to welcome the Son of God and Son of Mary into our hearts again at the completion of our Advent season.

Our First Reading, from the short book of the Prophet Baruch, tells of a more ancient image of the Mother of the children of God: not Mary, but rather the city of Jerusalem (indeed, in many Marian feast days, the Old Testament reading or psalm praises Jerusalem, because of this connection between Mary and Jerusalem as two images for the “Mother of the children of God”). Baruch says, “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever! …Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One! … Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you… For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the… gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.

Our readings today share not only the theme of anticipation and preparation, but of exodus. The people of God were led away in exile, in shame, as a consequence of their sin. But while they were in exile, they repented, rededicated themselves, and in our first reading, are being brought back to Jerusalem, who waits for them with deep longing. Not just those who were sorrowfully marched to Babylon, in the East, but also those who earlier were dispersed to every nation by the Assyrians. This isn’t just the return of Judah, but the restoration of all Twelve Tribes, the whole people of God. And because the Northern Lost Tribes had dispersed to every nation, all nations will be part of the promise of restoration, of calling Jerusalem (and later, Mary) their mother.

Our Gospel Reading, from this upcoming year’s exploration of the Gospel of Luke, begins by setting the context for what he has to say. Luke isn’t retelling a myth, it’s not storytime. He’s presenting a historical fact. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” Mythical stories don’t normally start out so dry and detailed. They start with “Once upon a time…”. The 3rd-century writer Origen points out that in Jewish histories, they establish the place and time by naming the Jewish rulers in power at the time (“In the days of Uzziah, king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel…”). But Luke isn’t giving us just a Jewish history, but a global history, and so Luke begins giving both the Roman and the Jewish rulers. St. Gregory the Great points out that Luke identifies both kings and priests, because this is the beginning of the history of Jesus, who is the true and eternal king and high priest.

John the son of Zechariah, St. John the Baptist, “went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Why the Jordan? Because the Jordan River is the threshold of the Promised Land. Ancient Israel had been on their exodus from captivity and slavery in Egypt, and crossed the Jordan River to enter into the Promised Land. Part of the expectation of the Messiah was that he would inaugurate a new exodus. And as we saw in the first reading, this expectation was deepened (and partially fulfilled) in Israel’s exodus back from their captivity in Babylon. But as we also saw in the first reading, this expectation was not just the return of the exiles in Babylon, but the return of the exiles dispersed through all the nations: a restoration of the unity of Israel, a new Kingdom of God (a fulfillment of the kingdom of David, and the Son of David—the highpoint in Israel’s history) and which now would include all nations.

And so John the Baptist is out at the Jordan calling for what? For people to repent. Because it was the sinfulness and corruption of Israel—their betrayal of their covenant with God—that caused the Exile, and caused the dispersion of the Lost Tribes. And it is the repentance of Israel—the return to fidelity to God—that brought about the return from Exile, and will bring about the restoration of Israel and the new Kingdom.

So John is out at the Jordan, calling the people of God to prepare themselves, because the time has arrived for the Messiah and the New Exodus and the Kingdom of God. How does one prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah and his new Exodus? By clearing the path, paving the royal road, pulling down the mountains, filling up the valleys, making the winding road straight, and the rough road smooth. But not a physical road. Because this isn’t going to be a physical exodus, because it isn’t a physical destination. It’s a supernatural destination, the new kingdom of God. It’s a new state of being, the fulfillment of the promise of Emmanuel, “God with us,” in our new hearts, in our healed souls. God within us, within all humanity, in all nations. So the preparation we, too, are called to enter into, to get ready for the coming of the Messiah, is to turn away from sin and turn to a life of grace: repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s the condition that makes Israel ready to meet her Messiah, because it’s sin that exiles us from God. It’s sin that, in a sense, drives us away from the promised land that God made to be our home.

Something that struck me as I was reading this about John, is that the people John is calling out to are already people in the covenant. They’ve already had their baptism, so to speak, into the Promised Land. What John is requiring of them is to come to the Jordan again to be forgiven of their sins after their entrance into the covenant. That sounds like we are being invited, not to the sacrament of baptism; but the sacrament of reconciliation! We have already entered into the Church, the covenant, by our baptism. But we are being called to renew our baptism—which we have betrayed by our sinfulness, our neglect, and our worldliness—by the repentance and forgiveness of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which some of the saints have called “a kind of second baptism.”

There are many ways in which each of us can interpret in our lives and our spiritual condition the images of valleys to be filled in, hills to be brought down, crooked ways to be straightened, and rough ways to be smoothed. For example, in the commentary on this Gospel reading by Dr. John Bergsma, he says: 

“Every valley shall be filled” refers to hope, encouragement, and new life being granted to the poor, the oppressed, the lowly—people who feel they have been forgotten by God or are not worthy of God’s attention.

“Every hill made low,” refers to the humbling of the proud, the repentance that the strong and arrogant must undergo in order to receive God’s salvation.

The “winding roads” and “rough places” refer to the twists and turns of the human heart, contorted by sin (Jer 17:9).  The human heart needs to be “simplified” or “straightened” by honest and truthful confession of sin.

This is how we prepare the way for the coming of the Lord: by repentance and conversion. We prepare for the upcoming celebration of the first coming, the humble birth, of the Lord in in Bethlehem. We prepare for his second coming in glory and judgment. And in between, we prepare for his sacramental coming at every Mass, as wisdom’s feast, the bread and wine that Lady Wisdom has made and invites us to; Lady Wisdom, who is the Church, who is Mary, who has spread her table, and invites us to the feast she has made. Let us now prepare to receive him.

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Homily: Immaculate Conception

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 “Chaire, kecharitōmenē, ho kyrios meta sou!”

“Ave, Gratia Plena, Dominus tecum.” 

“Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.”

The feast of the Conception of Our Lady was celebrated during the 7th century in Palestine. The feast spread as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to Italy by the 9th century, in England by the 11th century, and in France by the 12th century.

One notable 16th century theologian said, “It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.” That was actually a quote from Martin Luther (his sermon, “On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God,” 1527). The Christian faith in the Immaculate Conception was well established long before Martin Luther, and long, long before it was declared as an essential article of the true Christian faith—a dogma of the faith—by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

Catholic writer Stephen Beale says the Church had always believed in the sinlessness of Mary. St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus, from the 2nd century, identified Mary as a second Eve, as the one whose humble obedience reversed Eve’s disobedience. In the third century, Origen, one of the earliest Church Fathers, called Mary “immaculate of the immaculate.” St. Augustine, in the 4th century, skirted around the question of sin in Mary, out of reverence for Christ. The dogma was implied, but not defined. Why did they stop short of declaring Mary conceived without sin? Because they couldn’t figure out how Mary was saved by Christ if she didn’t have sin, and therefore wouldn’t have need of a savior… and that didn’t seem correct.

Resolving this difficulty took a big step forward in the 11th century by a Benedictine monk named Eadmar. Eadmar provided an arsenal of arguments in support of the belief in the Immaculate Conception. For one, he said, St. John the Baptist was purified from sin in the womb, and Mary is far greater than any other saint, including St. John the Baptist. In another argument he says, God preserved the angels from sin from their first moment of creation, and Mary is the queen of angels. And building on the earlier work of St. Irenaeus he says, Mary is the “new Eve,” in a unique position to restore humanity from the Fall by her perfect obedience in place of Eve’s disobedience, and so that parallel requires Mary to begin with the same original innocence that Eve enjoyed before the Fall. The Church always had a sense of, but struggled to articulate, Mary’s particular privilege of divine favor—that the angelic greeting “Hail, full of grace” held a special mystery that was not yet fully understood.

It was the brilliant 13th century Franciscan, Blessed John Duns Scotus, who discovered the key of how to affirm the sinlessness of Mary without excluding her from the need for the Savior. He argued that Mary was “preserved” from original sin, rather than freed from it. It is one thing to have someone be soiled by sin and to cleanse and redeem them, but it is a greater thing to preserve them from the stain of sin from the beginning. In other words, if I found you stuck in a big mud puddle, you would be thankful if I got you out of it. But you would be even more thankful if I preserved you from falling into the big mud puddle in the first place. It is the normal human condition to be conceived, born, and live in sin until we are rescued by the grace of Christ in baptism. It is a special privilege to be the one whom Jesus inoculates from the stain of sin from the first instance of her existence. Mary is still saved from sin only by the grace of Christ. She is immaculate only because of her savior. But in her unique privilege, she was not washed, but rather kept clean, from the stain of sin.

So I’ll end with these two questions. First question: Mary was conceived long before Jesus, her son, was crucified. How could Mary be the Immaculate Conception as a result of the Paschal mystery of Jesus? The answer is that Jesus is God, and his Paschal Mystery transcends time, and its grace available to all of time. From our perspective within time, the Immaculate Conception was, you might say, purchased on credit, and was paid for along with all the sins of humanity by the Paschal Mystery.

The second question is, so what? Good question; glad you asked. It was in wrestling with this question about Mary’s privilege of being the kecharitōmēne, the person who is the Immaculate Conception (and also with the question about why the Church has always baptized infants), that it was understood that it isn’t that people are born with sin, but we are born lacking saving grace. Sin isn’t a thing, it’s an absence of a thing that ought to be there. When we commit a sinful choice, it’s not that we get a thing that is sin stuck to us, but that we lose the thing that is grace that we need to have. And so this affects the whole understanding of sin and grace. We talk about the Immaculate Conception as Mary conceived without sin, which is true, but as the angel said, it’s really Mary conceived with the fullness of grace.

Another point is that, in the modern philosophies of the 18th and 19th centuries, which are still influential today, the concept of original sin, the default lack of saving grace in the human soul, is completely rejected. The belief is that, it is the disorders of society that corrupts the human person, and not the other way around. And from that came the idea of the noble savage, the human person uncorrupted by the sinful effects of society. This idea is very active, for example, in how Thanksgiving has been treated lately: Imperial Christian Europe, with all its sins, corrupted the pure noble humanity of the Native American (as though the Native Americans hadn’t been involved in centuries of brutal wars among themselves long before the first European explorers). But individually speaking, this error would also lead one to think that everyone is immaculately conceived; that we just need to legislate away the sins of society, like bigotry, racism, and greed, and then all humanity is returned to its original noble sinlessness. Yes, we truly do need to avoid social and personal sins, but we as humanity still need the grace of Christ and his Paschal Mystery to be saved and have a hope for heaven. We cannot get there on our own efforts, without grace. Score another one for Martin Luther.

Related imageIn 1858, a few years after Pope Pius’ proclamation of this dogma, the Blessed Mother appeared to a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in Lourdes, France. Bernadette asked this “beautiful Lady,” who appeared before her, who she was, and the Lady responded, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette didn’t understand these words, and she went to the priest to repeat what the Lady said. The priest was convinced Bernadette couldn’t have understood what it meant, and would not have been able to have made it up. Mary herself thus confirmed the dogma of her Immaculate Conception, the truth that Pope Pius IX defined when he promulgated the 1854 decree Ineffabilis Deus:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

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