Homily: The Holy Family


The Holy Family (Sunday within the Octave of Christmas) (Year A)
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

I had Brussels sprouts this year for the first time (and last time). I always avoided them, but I was recently at Bully’s, and they just came as the vegetable for that entree. So I thought, ok, given how delicious and savory the food is at Bully’s, this is giving Brussels Sprouts the best possible chance of success. If I don’t like them here and now, they blew their chance, and that’s that. A fair, even favorable, trial was held, and the verdict was rendered: Never again. Right down there at the bottom of my list with oatmeal raisin cookies. 

How did I escape my childhood without ever having had Brussels sprouts? That is one of our great family traditions. The story, as I remember it, is that when my parents were newlyweds, they figured out that neither of them liked when they were forced to eat Brussels sprouts as kids. And so, embracing their autonomy as a new family, they declared that they never had to eat Brussels Sprouts again. And so, my sister and I reaped the blessings, as we in our childhood innocence were preserved from the abomination of Brussels sprouts.

That was good. It’s a family’s prerogative to set up their home in the way that brings happiness, peace, and order. When I moved out on my own, I did the same thing, dropping some things I had grown up with, adopting some new things. But with that comes the responsibility to persevere in things that you don’t like, but you need to do. When I moved out I stopped going to church. I was much more interested in worldly pleasures. Life was not that good during that time. A lot of it was fun. But it wasn’t good. And some very bad habits were picked up along the way.

I’ve had a lot of parents lament to me that they’re worried that their children don’t go to church, and maybe their grandchildren aren’t even baptized. Young adults are declaring their independence. But as often happens, not always in a good way (especially in the long term). Parents, having gained wisdom, can more clearly see the dangers their children with blissful ignorance are heading toward. As one of my favorite sayings goes, “Good judgment comes from a lot of experience. And a lot of experience comes from bad judgment.” Young adults don’t always recognize the long term effects of their choices… bad habits they pick up, good habits they drop, like dropping their religious faith. Parents struggle with, “How much do I give my advice? How far do I let my kid go off the rails? How hard do I press that they need to practice their faith? How much do I give to help them?”

Among the many tensions in our society is the generation gap. As a card-carrying member of Generation X (well… we never got around to making the cards), I do get some enjoyment at sitting back with a bucket of popcorn and watching the liberal millennials and the conservative boomers fight it out over social media. It might be tempting to interpret this tension as just another facet of the rancorous left-right divide. But then there’s the old quote, “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a conservative when you’re middle-aged, you have no head.” The generational crisis, like the immigration crisis, like the church crisis, are important issues that need to be attended to. But these are also persistent tensions that flare up from time to time in human history. As Mark Twain quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I take some comfort in our readings today on the feast of the Holy Family, because they tell us that generational tension has always been a thing. Parents aren’t necessarily going to feel respected by their children, and children aren’t necessarily going to feel respected by their parents, but both are called to love, respect, and forgive one another. That’s what makes a family a holy family.

God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her children. Whoever honors his father atones for sins… When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother he who obeys his father brings comfort to his motherMy son, take care of your father when he is old… revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten…” Being respectful of one’s parents is an act of righteousness, which mitigates against sin; an act that invests treasure in heaven. The Old Testament books of Wisdom aren’t necessarily bound by culture, time, and place. Wisdom is universal and eternal. There’s something essential about the good of human nature that is tied together with family bonds, even if the humans involved aren’t that good. God gave us the blueprint for a family: a holy marriage of man and woman faithfully living out their vocation to self-giving nuptial commitment, together as the parents to their children. Now there’s lots of variations of that. Some of that is good, like adopted children and foster families. Some of that is tragic, like infertility, disease, or death in the family. Some of that is sinful, like cohabitation or other romantic partnerships that aren’t healthy. We forsake God’s blueprint at our own peril. And when we oppose God’s plan, we don’t just damage ourselves, but others as well. Love isn’t enough. It takes everyone involved to love with divine grace: selfless, forgiving, patient love. Sure, a good, loving, stable family doesn’t necessarily require Christian faith. But the graces of the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of marriage and living out those graces: That’s what makes a holy family as an icon of divine love.

Our lesson continues in our second reading from St. Paul. Let’s get the last little part out of the way first. “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.” It sounds kind of denigrating to women, especially strong-willed, intelligent, type-A personality women. But if we combine this with Ephesians 5, yes, women are to love their husbands as the Church does Christ. But husbands are also to sacrifice themselves in loving service to their brides as Christ does for the sake of the Church. So it’s a submission to each other that is mutual but different, not in dignity, but in design. A husband is to submit himself to his wife in a masculine way that serves her and the family in self-giving love. A wife is to submit herself to her husband in a feminine way that serves him and the family in self-giving love. Neither one is slave or master. Both lovingly serve God by lovingly serving one another with devotion, faithfulness, and humility.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Parents, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” Again, we have the admonition to respect and obey one’s parents. Again, the generational gap has always been and will always be a source of tension: parents wanting to keep their children safe and on the right track, and children looking to spread their wings and venture out into the big open world. How each family virtuously and lovingly navigates that tension will be unique to that family. But it must be done virtuously and lovingly, with trust, patience, and compromise on both sides.

The larger first part of the second reading is Paul’s guide for living in holy relationship with others. This reading is sometimes used in the blessing of family homes. It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt (and children), and nowhere is the holiness and goodness of relationships tested more than in the trenches of everyday family life. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. If one has a grievance against another, as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love… in all wisdom teach and admonish one another… And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…” If you could read this instruction every day as a family, and strive to live it out, and constructively help each other live it out, that would be key. Our Lord Jesus is of course the key to the holy family.

The Holy Family of Nazareth gives us a great model of the virtues we need as a holy family, especially in a crisis situation. Jesus is the incarnation of God. Mary is the Immaculate Conception. And then there’s poor, normal Joseph, in charge of them. Joseph was chosen because of his character: he is just, he is faithful, he is virtuous. Joseph is not only entrusted with the holy family of Mary and Jesus, but he is also patron saint of fathers, and families, and patron and protector of the Church, God’s entire family of the brothers and sisters of his only begotten Son. Joseph pours himself out in loving service to his family. Mary, seeing how good Joseph is, how beautifully he gives himself, willingly serves him, not in any way detracting from her own dignity. Jesus selflessly loves, humbly respects, and is obedient to, his parents, even though his dignity is infinitely beyond theirs.

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Lastly, in our gospel reading, we continue with the beginning of the book of Matthew. The Holy family is still in Bethlehem. The magi have just left, not returning to Herod because they picked up on his malicious intent. Joseph again receives his instruction from God through an angel in his dreams: Flee to Egypt, King Herod wants to destroy Jesus, whom he sees as a threat. “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.” Our reading skips a few verses, in which we have the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” Herod’s order to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem two years old and under.

A lot of people use the plight of the Holy Family in relation to the contemporary political problem of immigration. Certainly, the fairly common journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem or Jerusalem is not a good analogy. But the flight to Egypt is a stronger parallel. Without getting into the political quagmire, the Church’s steadfast teaching is that we have a preferential option for the poor, suffering, and vulnerable. As such, we not only need to advocate and work toward a functional and compassionate immigration and asylum policy (and practice), but also we need to tend to the human needs and dignity of all people at all times. Those who venture to leave their dangerous or impoverished familiar homes with the hope of something better somewhere else, especially those who do so with young families, do so with courage and trust against great risks. It is also the host country’s right to reasonably vet those seeking immigration to promote the health and safety and flourishing of its citizens and guests. It’s a complex situation which requires a great deal of resources. Again, our role is to promote and assist in an adequate and just handling of immigration which respects the dignity and safety of all persons involved, especially the most vulnerable.

An unknown amount of time later, Joseph again receives an angelic visit in his dreams. “‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there… he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’

Herod Tetrarchy3Herod the Great, in power at Jesus’ birth, was well known for his cruelty and insecurity, a dangerous, corrupt combination. After his death, his son Archelaus became king, but only of Judah (Judea), not all of Israel. He was just as brutal. So Joseph understood that the angel hadn’t meant to return to “Israel” in the general sense, but the northern territory of Israel specifically (under Herod Antipas), avoiding the southern territory of Judah, where Bethlehem and Jerusalem were. So Joseph went back up to Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had been before the census sent them down to Bethlehem.

Here, as Matthew tells us, Jesus grew up as a Nazorean, as the prophets foretold. Except Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament at all. Most likely Matthew is referring to the text we read about the shoot, or branch, growing out of the stump of Jesse, the father of King David. The Hebrew word for shoot or branch is almost the same word as Nazareth. So Matthew is connecting Jesus with the prophecy of one who is a new shoot or branch, a netzer, from Nazareth, a child who is one of the “Branch.”

Image result for domestic churchIn today’s society, there are many sinister attacks on God’s plan for the family, both the holy family in the home, and the holy family of the Church (in other words, the hierarchical church, and the domestic church). Those sinister attacks come in the same form as the Enemy has always used: abuse, broken trust, lust, greed, and pride. If we are going to resist these attacks on the family, we need to increase our devotion to the Holy Family, especially to Saint Joseph, and ask for his intercession.

Holy Child Jesus, have mercy on us.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.

St. Joseph, patron saint of fatherhood, and patron and protector of the family, and of the Church: pray for us.

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Midnight Mass
Isaiah 9:1–6
Psalm 96:1–2, 2–3, 11–12, 13
Titus 2:11–14
Luke 2:1–14
Mass at Dawn
Isaiah 62:11-12
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:15-20

As we are gathered in this most solemn celebration, we’re like the shepherds. They were just doing their thing, when the world changed in a dramatic way. It wasn’t a change that could be seen or heard, or even felt. It was a spiritual shift in the very nature of creation. And a huge shift, a monumental change. It wasn’t a change that could be sensed, but it was a change so immense, that a heavenly multitude of angels were sent to proclaim the good news, especially to those who were poor, vulnerable, humble, and who would be the most receptive to believing the message, acting on the message, and spreading the message. What was the message? That God, the Creator, has humbled himself to enter into his own creation to free humanity from our sinfulness, to show us and lead us on the way to the gates of paradise, and to plant his kingdom among the nations of humanity. The newborn king has been born to us! Christ the King!

So then, are we like the shepherds? Have we allowed God to interrupt our status quo, our daily plans and activities, to stop and be amazed at his glorious light? Well, we are all here right now, we took time out of our preparations and gift wrapping and cookie baking and everything else, which itself is an exception to the ordinary routine of the rest of the year. So we’re here. And that is good.

When God interrupted their life with a choir of angelic multitudes, I very much doubt that the shepherds were the same after that. An encounter with the heavenly reality would be life-changing. One would be absolutely compelled to live life differently after such an encounter, after having all the hubbub of religious tradition taken flesh and visible and verifiable. The angel gave them a sort of sacramental message: an outward visible sign that makes present the invisible spiritual reality it communicates.

The invisible spiritual reality is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises of the long-awaited messiah, who is God himself: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord!

And the outward visible sign of that is what they were instructed to go see: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Now personally, I’m not sure I would need to go see the baby for proof. I think the fear-inspiring sight of an angel appearing with the glory of the Lord shining all around, and a heavenly multitude praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest…” That would be enough for me to be able to say, “Ok, I believe you!” And no doubt the shepherds did believe at that magnificent visitation of the angel choirs. Still, the shepherds went to behold for themselves the sign, the newborn king.

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So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed.” That’s the power of sacramental reality: outwardly, in the visible reality, it’s a baby wrapped in cloths lying in an animal feeding trough. In the true, spiritual reality, invisible to us, it’s God come as the long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David, the savior who is Christ and Lord.

And of course, how could the shepherds be the same after that? “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

So then, are we like the shepherds? At every celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we have that same invitation as the shepherds! I am so inspired each year as our 2nd graders are close to receiving their first communion! They’re so excited, so full of anticipation and joy! If only we would approach the Eucharist each and every time with that same awesome desire, that same reverent appreciation and humble awareness that we don’t fully understand, but we know, that this is God… the Eucharist is Him.

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So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we anxiously seek with such joy and humility God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus, God who saves his people from their sins? Do we have the eyes to see through the bread and wine, as they saw through the flesh and swaddling clothes, to truly see the concealed reality of the true flesh and blood of him who is Christ and Lord? Do we make a beautiful throne for him with our hands or our tongue, reflecting the royal throne we have prepared for him in our hearts, in the center of our lives, from where he reigns supreme over us as his loyal and loving holy people?

So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we drop what we’re doing, and go to seek him about whom the prophets have spoken, and angels sing? And upon beholding him for ourselves, and experiencing the fulfillment of the promise of our forgiveness, our healing, and our redemption, do we return to the world glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen?

Of course we know this miraculous coming of the Lord at Christmas points us toward that even greater appearance of Our Lord on the day of his resurrection… which itself points forward to his resurrected and transfigured flesh and blood, soul and divinity, appearing through the power of the Holy Spirit every time the Holy Liturgy of the Mass is celebrated. So that for all ages, not just in spirit, but in the fullness of his humanity, spirit and flesh, he is Emmanuel, God with his people, that his people themselves (we) may be sacramental signs of his (presence in, and) love for the world.

How could we not go to behold him? How could we put other things before the supernatural importance of Sunday Mass? The weekly celebration when God comes to us anew, concealed in the swaddling clothes of the sacrament of the altar. He was underwhelming to the senses as a newborn infant. He’s underwhelming to the senses, appearing as bread and wine. Yet he is fully present as Christ and Lord. (Lord we believe, help our unbelief!)

Bethlehem in Hebrew means “house of bread,” and in Arabic it means “house of meat” (so I’m told). The Eucharist, the bread of heaven, the sacrificial oblation for the forgiveness of sins and thanksgiving to God, is also the meat, the flesh, of the incarnation of God most high. His supernatural flesh is true food, our holy communion with him, and with the whole mystical body of Christ, the Church. And then we go out rejoicing, spreading the good news of how we ourselves have been forgiven and healed.

So then, are we like the shepherds? Let us resolve that we are. Let us be sent from our heavenly encounter fully engaged, the thrill of hope, rejoicing, glorifying and praising God. That’s the shepherds. That’s the Good news. That’s the substance of the Christian life. That’s the meaning of Christmas. God bless you.

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Homily: Fourth Sunday of Advent

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4th Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 7:10–14
Psalm 24:1–2, 3–4, 5–6
Romans 1:1–7
Matthew 1:18–24

There’s a popular image that floats around social media, often shared by pro-life advocates, that says, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” The message of course is that if Mary had reacted to her unplanned, crisis pregnancy the way many women are advised to do so today by those who mistakenly believe that abortion is a legitimate option that simply makes the problem go away, then the Christ child would have been killed in the womb, and sinful humanity would have remained in the darkness of sin, having aborted its hope for redemption.

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But let’s go back to that saying, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” A friend of mine, and former parishioner in Hanover, Paul Oakes, had a very insightful response, that really ties our readings together beautifully (he gave me permission to quote him). He said:

“I have noticed several posts floating around lately that call Jesus’ birth an ‘unplanned pregnancy.’ However, I offer up to you that it was very much planned. Please hear me out!

If it were unplanned, God would have simply impregnated Mary without her consent and, then, 9 months later, she would have been like “Oh my gosh, I’m having God’s child!” Could you imagine the devastation that would’ve had on the Holy Family? How hurt and betrayed Joseph would have felt? How ashamed and used Mary would’ve felt? IF it had gone down that way?

But it didn’t. God planned it. The angel Gabriel told Mary about God’s plan. She said yes (her fiat). And when Joseph learned the truth, he accepted it too. At every point in history, God gives each of us free will. Mary and Joseph could have just as easily said “no” to God’s plan for their lives. He wasn’t going to force either of them to choose His way. But because they understood that Christ’s birth was bigger than their own plans, they accepted. Even if they didn’t have all the answers at first, they trusted God in faith and hope. They loved God above everything else and willingly submitted themselves to His plan. This Advent season, imagine what the Lord could do in our lives if we just said “Yes” to His will.”

That message “One unplanned pregnancy saved the world” is a pretty interesting insight, but that response just blew me away.

Most of the time when we hear the story of the birth of Jesus, we hear readings from St. Luke, who is sometimes called “St. Luke the Physician,” because certain details of his gospel reveal not only a very intelligent use of Greek, but also suggest evidence of medical training. One theologian pointed out the surprising connection that it is St. Luke the Physician who gives the most detail about the miraculous virginal conception of the Lord in the womb of the Blessed Mother. But in our new liturgical year that started with the first Sunday of Advent, we’re now in the year of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and from St. Matthew, we hear Joseph’s side of the story.

So we have some things to unpack that Matthew’s first century Jewish readers would have known right away, but are culturally unfamiliar to us. First, Mary was betrothed to Joseph. That does not mean they were engaged. They were married. Betrothal was the initial stage into the marriage, while the bride remained in her family’s home and the bridegroom established a home for her. Then they would have the wedding feast, and he would take her home and they would consummate their marriage. So for Joseph to find Joseph and Mary talkingMary returning from her visit to Elizabeth, Mary now at least three or four months pregnant, and Joseph knew it was not by him, he’s got a dilemma. Jewish law required that a woman who committed adultery would be publicly stoned. But Joseph, being a just and righteous man, struggled with the tension of being just and being merciful. So to preserve his righteousness, and her life, rather than denounce her publicly, he decided to divorce her privately, and she could go off and live somewhere else. Such was his intention.

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David.’” Joseph was a descendant of David, but Joseph would have been called, Joseph, son of Jacob, his father’s name. So whatever the angel is about to tell Joseph, it has to do with his lineage all the way back to King David. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” To confirm what we said earlier, the angel calls Mary his wife. And he is to continue and fulfill their betrothal, and the wedding celebration, and take her to their new home.

For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Now that’s gotta be a tough pill to swallow. Perhaps Joseph struggled with that. I mean, this is a dream, and as people have been pointing out for 2000 years, it’s much more likely that the child has a human father than a divine father.

And the angel continues, and perhaps this is enough to sway Joseph from his doubt. This is a pretty well-developed dream, and maybe it really has angelic inspiration to it. “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” In the bible people’s names are often given or changed by God, or they get titles, that in Hebrew have a particular meaning, and then usually that meaning is explained as their role in the divine plan. For example, the patriarch Abram, which means “exalted father.” God says, “No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” Abraham means, “father of a multitude.” The best example is probably the first chapter of the prophet Hosea, in which God tells Hosea what to name his children, as a series of messages to the people of Israel. And of course we know of Simon the fisherman, whom Jesus renamed Peter, based on the Greek word for “rock,” saying, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

In our gospel reading we have this twice. First, the Hebrew name “Jesus,” (actually “Yeshua”) means “God saves”. The angel tells Joseph to name the son, Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Then immediately St. Matthew cites this angelic instruction as the fulfillment of a key prophecy from Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” And we’ll get to that in a moment. So Jesus, who will save us from our sins, is connected to the promise that God is with us.

Also, it’s significant that the angel tells Joseph to name the child. Mary had also been told by the angel to name the child Jesus (in some translations it says, “and you shall call the child Jesus,” with the added significance that the child had been divinely named Jesus, and they were to call him by the name he already had). In Israelite culture, the father would take the child upon his knee, and give the child his or her name, as an expression of claiming the child as his under the law. I’ve never been a fan of the modern habit of calling Joseph the “foster father of Jesus,” because foster father means one thing, and legal father means something much more permanent and important. Jesus is conceived by Mary while she is Joseph’s wife. Joseph claims Jesus as his son, with the legal and hereditary rights as the first-born son. As Fr. Cornelius Lapide (whose rich 16th century commentary I rediscovered last week) says:

Joseph was the true and lawful father of Christ, after the manner which I shall explain presently. Christ was the heir of David’s throne and scepter, not through Mary, but through Joseph, according to God’s promise to David. The scepter, therefore, of Judah devolved upon Jesus Christ, not only by the promise and gift of God, but by the right of hereditary succession. For if, by common right, sons succeed to their fathers’ inheritance, when they are only accounted their sons by common repute, how much more was Christ Joseph’s, His father’s, heir, since He was the Son of his wife, by the power and the gift of the Holy Ghost? Wherefore as Joseph had a parent’s right over Christ, indeed, all rights which parents have over sons, so on the other hand, Christ had, with reference to Joseph, all the rights which sons have in respect to their parents. He had therefore a right to the kingdom of Israel after Joseph’s death. Hence the question of the Magi, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”

(I hadn’t really considered that at the time of Jesus, Joseph was really the true heir to the throne of David; I just thought Joseph was one of many valid descendants of David, who was chosen by God to be Mary’s husband. But if Joseph really is the one with the true claim, then Jesus really is—by both his divine father and his human father—the King of the Jews!)

Joseph then awakes from his dream, fully confident in Mary’s innocence and the miraculous importance of her unborn child, and does as the angel instructed him, taking Mary his wife into his home.


The prophecy that St. Matthew quotes is, conveniently, our first reading from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. But inconveniently, our reading doesn’t really give us much context to understand it. After King David’s son Solomon, Israel broke into the small southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and the king was of the Davidic dynasty, and then the larger, more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel. Then they had their neighbor, Syria, which was an on-again/off-again relationship, and the great and powerful empire of Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh, which was a brutal tyranny that extorted huge tributes from their conquered nations, which included Syria and Israel (hence Jonah’s hostility toward his mission to preach to and save the people of Nineveh, and his anger when they actually listened and God forgave them). So Syria and Israel had decided not to pay the tributes to Assyria anymore, and wanted Judah’s help to battle Assyria. The king of Judah, King Ahaz, saw this as a stupid idea, and said no. So Syria and Israel turned around to attack Judah. Now Ahaz is being told by his court advisers to ask Assyria for help (which was also a stupid idea), which is like making a deal with the devil. And then the prophet Isaiah confronts Ahaz, who is not particularly courageous, virtuous, or faithful, and Isaiah tells Ahaz that God is with them, will defend and uphold them, as long as they remain independent and not solicit the help of Assyria.

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God says to Ahaz through Isaiah, “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!” So God gives Ahaz a blank check. Ask for anything to prove to you that I will protect you, and I will give you that proof. But Ahaz had already made up his mind to go to Assyria. So faking to take the pious route, Ahaz answered, “I will not ask!  I will not tempt the LORD!” Now, Isaiah knows what kind of person Ahaz is. It’s like a politician with a track record of consistently promoting legislation antithetical to church teaching suddenly announcing what a faithful Catholic he (or she) is. Neither Isaiah nor the LORD are impressed by Ahaz’s hypocrisy. Isaiah responds, “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?” Oh, you descendant of the great King David, on his throne, how far you have fallen. It’s not enough for you to patronize me. But to mock faith in God as well. The sign to be given is no longer to persuade Ahaz, but will now be to confirm the truth of what the prophet has spoken. It’s no longer to fortify Ahaz’ faith, but now to shame Ahaz’s failure to be faithful. And indeed, Judah is almost completely wiped out, with Jerusalem itself being besieged.

Last thing: The prophecy itself. The word being translated as “virgin” is the Hebrew word alma. Critics of Christianity love to point out that alma doesn’t exactly mean virgin, as in a woman who has not had relations with a man (our modern use of the word). But alma is better translated into English as “maiden,” which is a young woman, unmarried, and presumably chaste, and so by extension, a virgin. It could apparently also refer to a young woman who was married but who had not yet had her first born. That wasn’t as common, but it’s this usage that is key to this issue. Christianity originally used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the translation of alma into the Greek was parthenos, which literally means virgin (as in the Parthenon, the Greek temple of the virgin goddess Athena). The prophecy of Isaiah, in context, is that Ahaz should not panic but rather trust in God, because by the time a young woman gives birth and “before the child learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.” Which in the general sense, means in less than a few years. But specifically, in Israel’s conscience, Isaiah was prophesying the birth of King Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz and his young wife Abia (like Mary, the young wife of Joseph), and Hezekiah was a great and holy king. And so it is Hezekiah that Isaiah is calling the sign of God’s fidelity to Israel, Hezekiah is the living sign of Emmanuel, God is with us (historically, this is anachronistic. Ahaz ruled for 16 years, and Hezekiah was 23 when he succeeded his father. So Hezekiah had been born before Ahaz had ascended to the throne. But centuries later, that detail was overlooked, and Hezekiah was held to be the one spoken of in Isaiah’s prophecy)

Isaiah most likely didn’t know that his prophetic words meant more than that, something infinitely more important, 800 years after him. Yet when the Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to use those words, the Spirit already knew that he would also inspire Matthew to grab hold of those words, and that while they were fulfilled directly by the birth of the royal son of David, Hezekiah, they were ultimately intended to be perfectly fulfilled by the royal and divine son of David, Jesus.

Isaiah was faithful in speaking the words the Holy Spirit inspired in him. Mary and Joseph were faithful in accepting their role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan he had known since the foundation of the world. Ahaz had not been faithful, he had already made up his mind despite God’s plan, and it did not go well for him or for those around him. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re asked the same question again: Will we be faithful in accepting God’s plan, or have we made our plans without God? Are we willing to throw our plans away to accept God’s will for our life, that might be completely different than our plan? That’s the effect Jesus has, to the extent that we allow him in our hearts, and give him our permission to rule in our hearts. We know God is with us. The question is, are we with God?

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Homily: Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday)

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3rd Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 35:1–6A, 10
Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-1

Every Mass has an Entrance Antiphon, like the refrain to the responsorial psalm, which we would say or sing it at the beginning of the Mass, which sets the theme for the Mass. For Sundays, the Entrance Antiphon is replaced by singing the Entrance chant or hymn, which often reflects the same theme. The Sunday half-way through Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, because the Entrance Antiphon begins “Gaudete in Domino semper” (which means, “Rejoice in the Lord always!”). It is one of only two days when the liturgical color of the Mass is rose, with rose vestments; also, the rose candle of the Advent wreath.

The other rose day is Laetare Sunday, which falls half-way through Lent. Laetare is from the beginning of the entrance antiphon of that day, “Lætare, Jerusalem” (which means, “Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Both of these rose-colored days of rejoicing fall in the middle violet-colored seasons of preparation and penitence… not necessarily as a break from the penitence, but to remind ourselves that our penitence itself ought to be joyful: we’re suffering our penitence to more fully experience the mercy and glory of God.

I could never remember which one was in Advent and which one was in Lent. But I finally figured out which antiphon is chanted in which season, because “Laetare” and “Lent” both begin with “L” … and in Advent we chant no “L”. 😊

I noticed that both words mean rejoice, so I looked up the difference. The Laetare joy of Lent is an outward joy, which fits the outward direction of Lent, toward external expressions of penitence (prayer, fasting, almsgiving), which prepare us for the joy bursting forth at the Resurrection of the Lord, and the message to go out to all the world and share the good news. The rejoicing of the Advent Gaudete Sunday is a more internal joy, which fits the inward progression of Advent from the universal day of judgment at the end of time, toward focusing into the intimate, silent night of Christ’s birth, and the message that we need to prepare the path for Christ to be born in our hearts, especially with so many holiday distractions.

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song… they will see the glory of the LORD.” As the prophet Isaiah paints this image of green, flowery vegetative life, you might imagine that it was even more beautiful to a people living in a dry desert. In the eschatological (the end-time consummation of the world) sense, Isaiah is alluding to a new exodus to the new Promised Land, a restoration to Eden, with its lush growth and abundance of life. But in Isaiah’s direct sense, he’s not talking about vegetative growth. The “desert” and “parched land” weren’t the wilderness around Israel; it was the corrupted hearts of the people of Israel, that had turned away from God, the source of life and goodness. But to those who would be faithful, God himself would come to refresh his people with streams of living water, making their hearts fruitful and flowing with life.

Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God… he comes to save you.” We see through Isaiah a promise from God of healing, of restoration, of reassurance: hands that are feeble will be strengthened to do good works, knees that are weak will stand with confidence and assurance, and hearts that are frightened will be filled with the Holy Spirit, which casts out fear with the blessing of divine love.

God would come to save his people! “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” That’s the key to the reading: God himself is coming to save and heal and restore his people.

Look at our responsorial psalm. First, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help.” Which is to say, nothing of this earth will save us; nothing will do all of what God has promised us He will do. To put our faith in things of this world is disordered and weak, and ultimately will fail. The whole psalm is about the coming of, not just God in a general way, but when you see the words LORD in all capital letters, that’s a textual substitution for the most holy personal name of the most holy God of Israel, the God who has revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, the God who is going to come in person to save his people. So if you look at that Psalm it begins by saying: Praise the LORD, O my soul! Not an abstract divine entity, but the personal God who cares for us, His people. It is the LORD, it says, who secures justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the captives free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down… The LORD upholds the widow and the fatherless. He defends and lifts up those who are vulnerable.

Last week, in our gospel reading, we had John active in his ministry, and near the beginning of Jesus’. Now we have Jesus active in his ministry, and near the end of John’s. And John “sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” This seems rather odd, if we remember that John baptized Jesus, and immediately acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps John is no longer sure that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps it was easier for John to believe before he was suffering in prison. Jesus hasn’t gone to Jerusalem to reign over Israel as king. He hasn’t set the captives (including John!) free, and he hasn’t baptized the repentant with the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t seem to be the Messiah that John was expecting.

But the better interpretation is that John not only knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but also knows that he himself is about to die in prison. The 16th century Jesuit priest and commentator Cornelius à Lapide says:

John then, a little before his martyrdom, sent these disciples to Christ that they might learn from Himself that He was the very Messiah, or Christ, that when John was dead they might go to Him. John sends his disciples, and asks Jesus whether He be the Coming One, i.e., the Messiah, not as doubting about Him, but because, being near death, he wished his hesitating disciples to be instructed concerning Him, that they might be led to Christ. He in his own name asks Jesus if He be the Christ, because his disciples would not, of themselves, have dared to propose such a question. John, when he had fulfilled his office and ministry, resign it to Christ. And, as the dayspring dies away into the rising sun, so did John pale before Christ. He was ambitious not of his own glory, but of God’s and Christ’s glory. Wherefore he said, “It behoveth Him to increase, but me to decrease.”

You’ll notice that the question isn’t, “Are you the Messiah?” but, Are you the one who is to come?That is an allusion to Old Testament prophecies of the coming one, the coming of God, prophesied by Isaiah, such as in our first reading. Also, from that heavenly vision of the prophet Daniel: “As I watched, Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire… I saw coming with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, He received dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed.”

And in response to the question from John’s disciples, Jesus doesn’t say “I am the Messiah.” He asks the disciples, in a sense, “Do you have the eyes to see, and the heart to understand?” Then go tell John what you see. And he gives a list of criteria that should tell the disciples who he really is. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have good news preached to them.

We’ll come back to this in a moment, but Jesus then asks the crowds, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” In other words, John is not a reed, that blows this way and that with the wind. He had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, and continues in his conviction. “Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.” John was clearly not about compromises with this world, He was eating locusts and honey, wearing a hair shirt and leather belt. Much like the great prophet Elijah. John is not soft and delicate. “Then why did you go out?  To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.”  This is a reference to the book of the prophet Malachi. Malachi doesn’t say anything about the Messiah, but rather about Elijah returning to herald the coming of the God of Israel himself.

And to stress the point even more, Jesus adds that the lepers are going to be cleansed and that the dead will be raised. You might remember when we talked about the healing of the leper Naaman the Syrian. His king sent a letter about Naaman to the King of Israel, and I pointed out his response, which was, “Am I God that I could heal a man with leprosy?” So the assumption was that there are some miracles that only God himself could do. The same thing is true when he says “that the dead are raised up.” There he is alluding to Isaiah 26, one of the two places in the Old Testament that refers to the resurrection of the dead. And when is that? When God comes, the dead are going to be raised.

And then last, but not least, Jesus says “and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them”. That is a prophecy of the Messiah that alludes to Isaiah 61, which is the scroll that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth: the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed (messiah) me to preach good news to the captives and to the poor.” So Jesus is combining these two prophecies of the coming of God and the coming Messiah, to tell John, and everyone, that he is more than the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David. He is the God of Israel, the Good Shepherd himself, who has come to heal and save his people. This is whose birth, whose advent (“coming toward”), we are preparing ourselves to receive in his royal birth, the Newborn King, about whom the angel choirs sing.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will

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At the end of our gospel reading, Jesus, having affirmed who he is, then affirms who John is.Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Now especially as Catholics, we can struggle with this saying. Jesus is born of woman. Is John greater than he? The Blessed Mother is born of woman. Is John greater than she? I think the way to understand this is to point out that at the time Jesus was speaking, John would die in prison before Jesus manifested himself in his death and resurrection. He was the last of the Old Covenant prophets announcing the coming of the Messiah, and John was the greatest of them, because he announced not just the Messiah, but the divine Messiah. He was the precursor of the coming of God himself. Yet John was of the Old Covenant. The “least in the kingdom of God”, we who are of the New Covenant, are more than just born of women… we are born of water and the Holy Spirit…of the Holy Spirit and fire. We are reborn in grace. 

Perhaps this is also a reminder to us, reading this gospel, that the evangelists (gospel writers) wrote decades after Christ, even after Paul’s letters. So the evangelists are writing to their own Christian communities, enduring persecution, suffering, and martyrdom, and recording for their encouragement the origin story of their faith: the life, words, and actions of Christ. And so St. Matthew is writing to a community who has already lost members to martyrdom, that as great and holy as everyone acknowledges John the Baptist to have been, they, too, will be great and holy (even more so than John!) if they persevere in the faith in the face of their suffering and martyrdom. 

Jesus also tells the disciples, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Now why would he add that? Because there are going to be a lot of people who take offense. He’s revealing that he is both the Messiah and God himself. But he’s going to challenge long-held interpretations about the Law and the Temple; he’s going to lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty; he’s going to be simple, poor, suffering, and crucified. The phrase “take no offense” in the Greek is skandalon: the root of our word, “scandal.” It means a “stumbling block.” Someone who causes scandal introduces a stumbling block for others. The cross is going to be, and has been, a scandal, a stumbling block, for many.

There’s a certain importance to the reality that Jesus, or at least Jesus in the gospels, doesn’t explicitly answer “Yes” to the questions of “Are you the Messiah? Are you the one who is to come?” Instead, the reader is presented all the evidence, given the truth, and then the reader is asked, “Do you have the eyes to see, and the heart to understand?” The reader is required to be the one to make the declaration for themselves. The gospel isn’t about Matthew confessing his faith: it’s about him leading his reader to confessing that same true faith. We know Jesus healed the blind, and the deaf, and the lame, and healed lepers and raised the dead. We know these were given by the prophets as signs of the One who is to come, the Messiah, God himself. So can we do it? Will we do it? Will we make the profession that YES—I believe and confess JESUS CHRIST IS GOD, He IS the One who is to come. Matthew, and Jesus, don’t spoon feed it to us. They make us say it for ourselves.

Next Sunday evening (December 22) at 7:00 p.m. we have our parish Advent Penance Service. If you haven’t been to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a few months, or a few years, or a lot of years, we’re going to have a bunch of priests here, you can go anonymously, you can go face to face, but go. Going to the sacrament of Reconciliation is the best way to prepare yourself, your family, your children, for Christmas. It is the removal of the obstacles in your heart to experience Christ’s coming. It’s preparing the way for him in the wilderness of a heart disordered by sin, fear, guilt, and shame, that our God who comes to us to connect our humanity to his divinity may heal you, and renew you, and restore you to communion with himself.

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Homily: 2nd Sunday of Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 11:1–10
Psalm 72:1–2, 7-8, 12–13, 17
Romans 15:4–9
Matthew 3:1–12

In the time since I began seminary, I’ve learned about many interesting and beautiful Catholic traditions that I didn’t know about: St. Joseph’s bread, holy relics, St. Blaise throat blessings, the Angelus, and related to today’s readings, the Jesse Tree.

The Jesse tree is an ancient Advent tradition that has its source in today’s first reading from Isaiah: “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him.” As we read the Old Testament by the light of the New Testament, we know that Isaiah was writing about Jesus, even if Isaiah didn’t know it when he wrote it. Jesus is the one that Israel has been waiting for, the fulfillment of the long-awaited hope for the Messiah, the Son of David, to come and begin the new age of the Messiah, which Isaiah writes about so beautifully in his book.

King David had been given a promise by God that his throne, his royal descendants, would rule forever, not just over Israel, but over the kingdom of creation, a kingdom that would have no end, geographically or temporally. But so many of David’s descendants were corrupt, weak, and faithless, that their poor example and leadership led Israel into corruption, weakness, and faithlessness. And God allowed their sinful choices to lead to the suffering of the Babylonian Exile. After the exile, the Dynasty of King David’s family was no more. Obviously, that presented a problem for the ancient hope that one of the kings of David’s line would be the great king of Israel’s future glory, foretold by the prophesy. David’s line had been cut down. It was not like a mighty tree, but a dead stump. There were descendants of David, but they weren’t kings. And after the return from the Babylonian Exile, Israel’s kings weren’t from the line of David, son of Jesse.

Yet God is true to his promises. So, through Isaiah, he gives Israel this reassurance of their hope: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse”. Sometimes it happens that when a tree is cut down, it doesn’t die. It begins to regrow, starting with a little shoot from the seemingly dead stump. A new hope for the mighty tree. In the Gospel of Luke, the genealogy starts with Jesus, and ends all the way back with Adam.

As a way to celebrate Jesus as the long-awaited Son of David, son of Jesse, the tradition of the Jesse Tree developed in Catholic art, especially in artistic biblical manuscripts and stained glass windows beginning in the 11th century. The “shoot” that will sprout is the Hebrew word netser, which also can be translated as rod or branch (or flower, as it was by St. Jerome in the Latin Vulgate bible of the Church). Ancient images of the Jesse tree show a branch growing upward from Jesse, often through David, then through Mary, and then flowering at the top as Jesus. And the space all around is filled with the historical figures or events that lead up to Jesus.

Related imageThe Jesse Tree in modern times is a beautiful Advent tradition, especially for children. Each day, a symbol from Old Testament history is put on the tree, starting from the bottom, starting with images from Genesis, and a little reflection is shared about the image. Each day another symbol is added, with the reflection about its importance, all the way up to Christmas eve, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament with the arrival of Jesus, the Son of David, Christ the newborn King.

This would be a wonderful tradition for our parish families, who want to help their children grow in their spiritual awareness of the Old Testament leading up to Jesus, and their spiritual appreciation of Advent as more than shopping and decorating.

Isaiah describes the shoot of Jesse as filled with the Spirit of God. Then he gives us what we call the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, good counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord). “Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide.” This connects to last week’s gospel about two people working, and one being taken and the other left. That is, that Jesus knows the secrets of the heart. Even those who appear to be good, or bad, or the same as others, outwardly, the divine Judge, Jesus, knows fully, and judges perfectly. Isaiah then goes on to describe the world of the Messiah, an image of peace throughout all creation, as a restoration of the Garden of Eden. And peace among humanity, as even the gentile nations will seek out the Messiah. “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.

Our Gospel reading today reflects the progressive focus of the Advent Season: The first week our focus is on the Second Coming of Jesus, to remind us to prepare ourselves for Jesus coming in glory to judge the world. The second and third week our focus is on St. John the Baptist, to prepare us for the ministry of Jesus as he manifests his Messianic identity and mission to bring the fulfillment of God’s mercy to those who respond to the invitation to faith. And then the fourth week of Advent our focus is on the unfolding of the events immediately leading up to the birth of Christ. So our Advent season of preparation is designed to spiral us inward from the grand scheme of Christ’s coming to the laser focus on the actual celebration of the holy feast of Christmas.

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” John the Baptist baptized with water, inviting people to acknowledge and repent of their sins. He didn’t baptize with water and the Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of those sins. That would have to wait until the coming of Christ. But clearly people were responding to John’s message. And his message was that we need a savior, and that being aware of our need for a savior is essential for preparing ourselves to desire him and receive him.

I always found it interesting that Isaiah’s message, without modern punctuation, could be read,

A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord’

and could also be read,

“A voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’

We’ll finish then with this beautiful message from Fr. Cantalamessa, the preacher for the papal household.

The heart of the baptist’s preaching is contained in that phrase of Isaiah that he powerfully repeats to his contemporaries: “The voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight his paths!”

Isaiah, to tell the truth, said: “A voice cries out: in the desert prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). It is not, therefore, a voice in the desert, but a way in the desert. The Evangelists, applying the text to the baptist who preached in the desert of Judaea, modified the punctuation, but without changing the message’s meaning.

Jerusalem was a city surrounded by desert. As soon as a road was traced out, it was soon erased by the sand blown by the wind. When a procession or an important person was coming to Jerusalem it was necessary to go out into the desert to make a more dignified road; brush was cut away, holes were filled, obstacles were flattened, bridges were repaired. This is what was done during Passover, for example, to receive the pilgrims. This is what inspired John the Baptist. Someone who is greater than everyone is about to come, he cries. A road must be made for him in the desert so that he may arrive.

But this path is not made on land but in the heart. To build this road is to engage in conversion. “Straighten the pathways of the Lord!” — this command presupposes a bitter reality: Man is as a city invaded by the desert; he is closed in on himself, cut off by his sin.

Isaiah and John the Baptist speak metaphorically of ravines, mountains, twisted roads and impervious places. We just need to call these things by their real names, which are pride, sloth, lust, gluttony… (the sins and vices that St. Paul talked about last week).

The word of God does not burden us with duties without at the same time giving the assurance that he will do (together with us) what he commands us to do. God, says the prophet Baruch, “has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God” (5:7). God makes low, God fills up, God builds the road.”

My brothers and sisters, our advent task is to cooperate with God’s work in us; to trust ourselves to his work of preparing us to welcome the birth of Christ the King into our hearts. Come, let us adore him.

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