Christmas greetings from Ireland, where, like most places in the northern hemisphere and much of the world, Christians awaited the joy-filled moment when we enter once more into the Ancient Promise. Here in the safety of the west, there was also heard the jingle of coins, haggling over trees, and the bright
expectation of children that Santa will visit during the night, bringing the toys they hoped for. In Iraq and Syria, Christians were hard-pressed even to find an intact church in which to celebrate the coming of the Messiah. Mary and Joseph would understand.
Perhaps it is too easy to disparage the low, material competition that threatens to eclipse the bright promise of eternal life, a gift that surpasses the imagination of children no less than of adults. For it is the season of giving, of grace, and in the light of the Incarnation, nothing truly human is beyond the scope of God’s redeeming love. Christmas gifts, no matter how small or uncostly (and perhaps especially those) are sacraments of the great Gift we commemorate. And what child’s yearning is not a herald of the deep heart-longing only God’s own eternal Presence can fulfill?
May God bless you abundantly now and throughout the coming year!
And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. John 1: 14
Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became human so that men and women might become God. St Augustine, Sermon 13
Our Saviour is born today, beloved. Let us rejoice and be glad. Today is the birthday of Life; there is no place here for sadness. He who is born today is the Life that destroys even the fear of death; he comes to make us happy with the promise of eternity. No one is prevented from having a share in such happiness; everyone here should be able to find cause for joy. Our Lord, who destroys sin and death, finds no one free from guilt; but he comes in order to set each person free. If you are a saint, exult! — the palm of victory is near. If you are a sinner, rejoice! — you are called to life. St Leo the Great, Christmas Homily
Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men and women should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make men and women gods. Moreover, when he took our flesh he dedicated the whole of its substance to our salvation. St Thomas Aquinas, Opusculurn 57, in festo Corporis Christi.
Eternal salvation is open to those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church but seek God with a sincere heart, and under the inspiration of grace try in their lives to do his will, made known to them by the dictates of their conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the aids necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet reached an explicit belief in God, but strive to lead a good life, under the influence of God’s grace.
Whatever goodness and truth is found among them is seen by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel, and as given by him who shines on all men and women, so that they may at last have life. Lumen Gentium nn.2.16, (Constitution on the Church), Second Vatican Council.
We live in uncertain times, for sure. Events can shift in earthquake fashion as Americans in the United States have seen with the elections of 2016. But elections in other lands as well as seismic shifts that are real earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, wildfires, and human violence whether in the form of war or of civil discord or even street mayhem, remind us that our hold on civilization and sometimes even life itself is tenuous. We are too easily lured into thinking that we do have an abiding city here on earth, even though the witness of scripture argues against it.
And so we turn to the Word of God for light, hope, and reassurance that the City of God awaits. But the New Jerusalem has yet to descend from on high. In the meantime, patient endurance and the daily struggle to preserve peace, love, and justice continues.
Occasionally, there are signs that such hope is not illusory. And that was not unheard of in ancient Israel or even the Palestine just before the birth of Jesus.
Even though he was afraid to ask for one, a sign was given to Ahaz, and a sign was also promised to all humankind. A young woman, just a girl – almah – was with child who would in turn be a sign of God’s presence and favor in our midst. A pregnant girl, the birth of a child in poverty and exile. What kind of sign is this? What kind of God gives such signs to kings and presidents and premiers? A God hungry for justice and peace and love among women and men. A God weary of war, oppression and the great lie.
It is not recorded whether Jesus cried when he was born, or whether his young mother suffered in her labor to give birth to the Word of God. But it could hardly have been otherwise. Jesus cried out when he left this world in death and was first-born into a wholly new life. And of his mother it was said that a sword would pierce her soul. From the time of Eve, mothers suffer to give birth.
Perhaps it was some premonition of this suffering that caused Mary to be afraid at the angel’s word. Perhaps it was just the angel himself — they have a way of scaring people. But the angel’s message — not only to Mary, but to Joseph, to the shepherds, to the women at the tomb, to Peter and to all of us — is not to be afraid. There is good news to tell in a world of sadness. There is hope against the gathering darkness. Like Mary, if our hearts are clean of the world’s clutter, of the selfishness, greed and bitterness that beget the world’s pain, we can hear the angel’s word and keep it. We can conceive the Word of God in our hearts and give birth in our lives to Emmanuel — God with us– in our words and actions, those sacraments of God’s presence on earth, now and always. Amen.
The Third Sunday of Advent used to be called Gaudete Sunday, from the first word in the entrance verse, which was taken from St. Paul’s letter to Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). That was when Latin was still used in the liturgy, of course. Calling it “Rejoice Sunday” somehow lacks a certain elegance. But that is the message. Traditionally, the violet vestments
of Advent were lightened to rose, as well. Sometimes they still are, although a few years ago a pastor I know threw them out because he hated pink. It isn’t pink, I protested but in vain. Not his happy color. But colors aside, why should we have to be told to rejoice? That, if anything, should come naturally, especially to those of us who live in what so many people in the world still regard as the Promised Land.
Nevertheless, there it is. We are ordered to rejoice. And, as you might have guessed by now, there is a reason. We have to learn all over again what it means to rejoice, perhaps especially on a day like this, and our best teachers speak to us in today’s readings.
The first reading, from Isaiah 61, repeats the injunction several times, first in the imagery of a desert suddenly blossoming with wildflowers after a long drought. The message quickly shifts to one of encouragement to those who are weak, frightened, and oppressed by disease and economic or political hardship — the blind, the deaf, the lame, and slaves. The word of joy and gladness is given to those in sorrow and mourning. It’s easy to miss that.
In Jesus’ inaugural sermon according to Luke’s Gospel, he expands upon today’s reading from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Then he observes, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, as then, our proper response to such a message is joy! And, accordingly, our job is now to spread the good news. But to evangelize means first of all to announce the good news of salvation to the poor, the marginalized, the weary, and world-forsaken. And that news is still that the Reign of God is already among us. Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing.
Again, in the responsorial psalm appointed to be sung today, we find ourselves confronted by the oppressed, the hungry, captives, the blind, strangers, orphans, and widows. The word “joy” is not found, but securing justice and thwarting the wicked are very much in the psalmist’s mind. Then the Letter from James talks about patience, hardship, and suffering. “Don’t grumble at each other,” he says. Not quite the same as rejoicing, but important, especially for people who have every reason to grumble. The gospel tell us that Jesus’ response to John’s question is simply this: “the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and, above all, the poor have the good news preached to them.” He couldn’t have missed the point.
And by now, we should have gotten the point as well. Hearing good news really means something to people who are used to hearing mostly bad news. And so our models in faith are the poor, the oppressed, the suffering. Their joy is rooted in their deepest longing. They know what they need.
Imagine, if you will, what good news might mean to those who are homeless on the streets of Chicago or even Oak Park this Christmas. In years past, “homeless” might mean one of those chronically poor men and bag ladies who used to sleep in cardboard boxes on the Lower Wacker Drive or haunt the access routes to the expressways. Today, their number includes returned veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and families who have lost their homes to the banks. Or fire. People who are often just out of work, out of money, and out of luck. Or perhaps just out of prison. It might be helpful at this time of year to recall that our nation has the highest proportion of imprisoned citizens in the entire world.
All want to hear some good news. Even if it’s just some loose change.
In his letter, James tells again today to steady our hearts because, he says, help is coming. Not just assistance, not just loose change, but salvation — a promise of hope, and a counsel of something more. “Patience” or “endurance” is how it is usually translated, but the word James uses means something more like “great-heartedness.” Hang in there, he says, continue to look ahead to a better day. The Lord IS coming. And that’s the good news, especially if you are poor, desperate, out of work, and sick. What Jesus tells John in his prison cell is that “the reign of God has begun. Look around you.”
Let’s grant that those rich in worldly goods often no longer know what their deepest heart’s desire is. So what God is telling us in these readings is that if we really want to hear good news, we must first own up to the bad news — which may just be a failure to look around and see real want, both in ourselves and in others. To become rich in Christ, to know what true joy is, we must face our poverty, our suffering, our oppression, and illness. Lacking real treasure, we have to learn again to long.
That is why Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing. And why, amid all the material bounty of this land, to hear his Gospel, God’s good news, requires continuous conversion — changing our way of thinking by putting on the mind of Christ; and repentance — changing our way of living by loving and aiding our neighbor as Christ loved and aided us. Healed and forgiven, we’ll truly have something to rejoice about.
Let us pray, then, that in this joyful season, on this Rejoice Sunday, we will steady our hearts, enlarge our spirits, and in mercy and love continue looking ahead to the fullness of Christ’s presence.
Donald Trump’s consideration of retired General David Petraeus for Secretary of State provides an ironic statement on gender issues, not say the game of thrones or at least cabinet chairs. Having been fined and placed on probation for criminally sharing classified information with his paramour, Petraeus retains the confidence of Trump and many members of Congress (unlike his paramour, who was demoted and has received an official reprimand from the military, freezing her career). The irony is that it was her inadvertent inclusion of classified information in private emails (never assigned illegal status after the FBI’s microscopic investigation) as Secretary of State that supposedly rendered Hillary Clinton unfit to serve as President in Trump’s view, even warranting jail time. At least Petraeus can cite precedent. (Of course, Hillary did, too: Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice also used private email servers. No one seemed to mind then.)
As a rule, Americans don’t like to wait for things. For anything, really. We want it now. Some people can’t even wait to be president. Christmas decorations are up and Light Fights are raging even before Advent begins. Wreathes and festively ornamented trees appear even before Thanksgiving. Holiday greeting cards are in the mail or, increasingly, in our inboxes. But Advent is primarily a time for waiting. That may be why it is no longer popular. We want Christmas now. I suppose a lot of it has to do with the stuff under the so-called “holiday tree.” From the time we are children, our longing and yearning at this time of year especially has more to do with Santa Claus than with Jesus. And the fat guy in the Santa suit (once known as St. Nick) arrives at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade. Given how many boys and girls he has to visit by Christmas Eve, that may be a good thing for the reindeer and elves.
When the Puritans first came to America, they abolished Christmas because they felt it had become a pagan holiday. They were wrong. But, you might say, by only three hundred years or so. Today, as the Chicago Tribune remarked approvingly a few years ago, the holiday season is all about buying and selling. Christmas sales have become our leading economic indicator.
The readings from Scripture, on the other hand, are all about waiting and yearning and longing. Ad-venire means that – “coming towards.” And Isaiah and Paul and Matthew look ahead to the coming of the Kingdom of God — an era of peace, yes and prosperity, but above all, of justice. In this country, we tend to take peace and justice more or less for granted, or used to, especially if we are rich, comfortable, and white. It’s hard for people of privilege to imagine what it is like to long for an end to violence, oppression, prejudice, hatred, and systemic injustice. Being poor, homeless, and a person of color might give us a clue. But for those of us who are not, there is another possibility.
Imagine that you are a Christian, perhaps a Catholic like so many of the people I met in northern Iraq, who are living each day in fear of their lives, unable even to go out shopping for food and other necessities. Imagine not knowing when insurgents or loyalist soldiers or bombs or rockets will completely disrupt your life, perhaps killing your family and yourself. Imagine wondering if the church where you have worshipped all your life, and where your ancestors worshipped for many hundreds of years, will collapse from a terrorist bomb before Christmas. Imagine just being unable to find a Christmas tree or gifts for your parents or children.
Matters are even worse for the Christians and Muslims of Syria. And now imagine what Advent means to these people, people just like us. Imagine what longing for peace and justice and prosperity means after twenty-five years of war, sanctions, and civil discord. If you have a pretty good imagination, you have an inkling of what Isaiah and John the Baptist were talking about. That yearning is the ground of our hope for a redeemer, a savior.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah describes the character of the redeemer and the signs of his coming. The seven-fold Spirit of God would rest on him. He would be wiser than Solomon, more courageous than David, and more just than all the Kings of Israel and Judah put together. He would appear out of nowhere, literally out of the sticks, but there would be no mistaking his divine calling and rule.
But then Isaiah seems to veer off course and begins to speak in poetic terms about timid and ferocious animals grazing side-by-side, the child and the cobra somehow getting along playfully. What he is saying is that God’s rule brings peace, wholeness, and even ecological harmony among brute animals and between animals and humans, not least among them defenseless and trusting children. He is describing a transcendent peace that St. Paul alludes to in his Letter to the Romans: “May God, the source of all patience and encouragement, enable you to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” Transcendent, but not beyond our grasp.
John the Baptist’s cry in the wilderness is a response to Isaiah. “He’s coming!” John preaches. “Make ready the way of the Lord!” Metanoia, the gospels call it. But metanoia doesn’t really mean repent. It means, as Jesus also proclaims, “Change your way of thinking!” “Change your heart!” Do not think like the world thinks. Put on the mind of Christ, as St. Paul will later say [1 Cor. 2:16]. See the world as God sees it and it will start becoming a Realm of Harmony and Peace. Justice will flourish, and, as the psalm has it, God will rescue the poor when they cry out, and the afflicted where there is no one to help.
John foresaw the terrible consequences of rejecting God’s offer of forgiveness and regeneration. But the picture he paints of division and judgment is only the other side of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah describes, the divine harmony held open to those who chose love and mercy over selfishness, greed, and oppression. The choice is ours. It is always ours. It’s a matter of priorities.
Commercially, there are twenty-one shopping days left before Christmas, counting Sundays. But liturgically and spiritually, Advent is really a time for spiritual preparation, for mind-changing and stock-taking, a time to remind ourselves why we have cause to celebrate and give gifts. It is the fast before the feast. It is a time for quiet, joyful reflection on our deep need for salvation, the longing of the human heart for redemption.
Advent is also a time for decision. Christ asks us to put our money where our hearts should be — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, support peacemakers, assist the poor, especially those who are aged and ill. Helping to close the terrible gap between the very rich and the very poor will foster the surpassing harmony Isaiah and Paul long for. That kind of generosity and care will make Christmas matter. And then we can give gifts with a full heart and receive them with grace, not to redeem the economy, but to express the joy of salvation.