The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (December 31st, 2017)

Today the Church celebrates the Holy Family- the relationship of the Lord Jesus to his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary and her spouse, Saint Joseph.

It is my perception, that as a general rule, the emphasis of preachers in regards to today’s celebration is moral- how the faithful can enhance their own relationship with Christ and the members of their own families by imitating the virtues of the Holy Family. Be obedient as the Christ Child is obedient. Be humble as Christ’s Mother is humble. Be stalwart and just as Saint Joseph is stalwart and just.

All this is true. In terms of the virtues of family life, Christ’s family serves as a model and guide. Imitating their virtues, aspiring to be Christ-like or Mary-like or Joseph-like would go a long way in helping families to thrive in their relationships with one another.

However, as important as the moral lessons of the Holy Family are, it is not the moral lesson that is of primary significance for discerning the meaning of today’s celebration.

Instead, the meaning of today’s celebration is discerned through the great revelation of Christmas- the revelation of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

The Incarnation of God in Christ is the stunning fact that God has, in Jesus Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. God in Christ’s acceptance of a human nature was so total and complete that he experienced for himself the limits of a physical body- even to the point that he accepted the experience of suffering and death. God in Christ immersed himself in ordinary course of growth and development that make all of us human- God gestated for nine months in the womb of his mother. God was born into the world as a baby. God accepted the dependency and vulnerability of having to be cared for by others. God immersed himself in the process of learning how to do the practical tasks of daily living. God grew from infancy, through childhood and adolescence, and faced for himself all the challenges of coming to maturity as an adult.

God became human in Christ.

This descent into our humanity is his gift for us and imparted to our humanity a dignity that we could never give to ourselves. Through his Incarnation, God met us face to face in what is raw and real for us- he met us face to face.

This astounding fact has a tendency to get lost in the culture’s annual celebration of Christmas, which has become over time more and more a winter festival, than a distinct and unique expression of the Church’s profession of faith. The customs of Christmas are cherished and honored, even adopted and adapted and appreciated by those who do not profess or practice the Church’s faith, but the substantial reason for all the fuss is no longer at the forefront of what we are doing. And when Christ is mentioned, it is often to done so to cite him as a great man of history, a person of influence whose main contribution was to provide a life to be imitated and to impart moral values toward which we should aspire.

None of this is wrong or evil, but it is incomplete, because it misses the point of who the Lord Jesus reveals himself to be- God, the one, true God, who has remarkably and unexpectedly, accepted for himself a human nature and lived, like us, a real, human life.

And lest we get caught up in flights of fancy about the human life that God in Christ lived, that somehow because he is God that is must have been easier for him that it is for us, consider carefully how those who knew him personally described his life- the manner of his conception which would have exposed his mother to accusations of madness and promiscuity; his birth in straw poverty; the degrading burden of living in a region of the world that was governed by cruel tyrants and subject to invasion at any moment; and do not forget the manner in which he suffered and died- tortured and killed by the very people that he called his own, abandoned by his friends, and bereft of any consolation, even experiencing for himself what it feels like to be abandoned by God.

Sure, there were mysteries of his experience of human life that were joyful and glorious, luminous with his divinity, (it wasn’t all a pain-filled slough through suffering) but his divine identity did not make things easy, but more complicated and difficult. He is truly, as the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews testifies- like us in ALL things but sin.

And being like us in all things means that God in Christ was born into the world at particular time and in a particular place and accepted as his own a particular family.

The family he experienced in its immediacy, is his Holy Mother, Mary and her husband, Joseph. Mary accepted becoming Christ’s Mother knowing it would make her life difficult, not easy. Joseph accepted the Christ Child as his own son, even though he knew that he was not. Mary and Joseph reared the Christ Child in accord with the customs of their Israelite culture, making sure he knew himself not just as their child, but as a Child of Abraham, and as a member of a people with an extraordinary mission in the world- which was serve as a living witness to the Law of the one, true God.

And it is also true that the family of the Lord Jesus, God’s family, extended into a vast network of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and from there the bonds of kinship worked their way through the whole culture- God’s family, in Christ, was literally the family of Israel, which is why two of our great Gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin, not with stories about the Lord Jesus or lists of his teachings, but with genealogies, that is, family histories, that show us God in Christ’s family’s relationship to the family of Israel- and through Israel, to the family of humanity.

All this is meant to demonstrate that the revelation of God in Christ in the world is not just a myth and that Christ is not just a legendary figure whom we value so much that we make a god out of him. No. Instead, God revealed himself in Jesus Christ in reality, a reality so concrete, that we can point to his place in a specific family, in a specific culture, in a specific time. All this is meant to say that God has in Jesus Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real human life.

Today is first and foremost about what God has done in Christ- to himself.

Now, because humans are practical minded, the realization and acceptance of what God has done in Christ provokes us to think about what we have to do about it. If I accept God has done something as extraordinary as living a human life like my own, what should I be doing as a result?

This is where the call from preachers to imitate the virtues of the Holy Family comes from, and as I said, such an invitation is a good thing. We lose the point however, if moral imitation is all we get out of this extraordinary revelation.

God became human in Christ, he accepted a human nature and lived a real human life, so that the human nature he accepted and the human life that he lived, could become for us an invitation to know him, to love him, to serve him and to become his friends.

An invitation to a personal relationship, to friendship with God in Christ, is what the Incarnation is about. God didn’t want our relationship with him to be superficial, or based solely on culture, or even on kinship, he offers himself to us through Christ a way to become his friends.

As such, the challenge to today’s celebration of the Holy Family, is whether or not friendship with God in Christ is what we have accepted or is even something that we want.

Friends want to be with one another, and they want to know one another. Friends want to share their lives with one another.

This is what God offers to us. But is it what we have accepted from him?

How well do we know God in Christ? If we met him face to face (which one day we all will) would we even recognize him? Is Jesus Christ merely a distant, historical figure whose teachings we basically agree with? Or is he truly and really a living, divine presence in our lives? Is our relationship with Christ personal or is it merely a cultural expectation? Have to come here to today because you want to know Christ and be with him, or has your presence here become merely a habit, something forced out of custom or obligation? If someone asked you who Jesus Christ is for you, whom or what would you describe- someone whom you know as a friend, or merely an idea or a feeling? Would you speak about those truths that Christ himself gives you in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments or in the lives of the Saints, or would you contrive something from opinions that you heard about from CNN or FOX news or that you cobbled together from a “world religions” lecture you heard long ago?

You see, the challenge for today’s celebration of the Holy Family goes further than the imitation of virtue. The challenge for today’s celebration is to consider how God in Christ relates to you and how you relate to him.

God in Christ relates to you Divine Person to Human Person, Body and Blood and Face to Face. God in Christ wants to relate himself to you friend to friend.

The challenge for today’s celebration is to ask yourself whether or not the relationship you have to God in Christ can even be vaguely described as something like being his friend.

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The Nativity of the Lord (December 25th, 2017 0

The Church’s Gospel proclamation from the Gospel of John for the Mass of Christmas Day comes as a surprise to many.

There is, in this Gospel, no reference to the Holy Child laid in a manger or to the Virgin Mother or to Joseph her husband. There is no mention of a crowded inn or angels or shepherds or a star. Instead, we hear a poem or what sounds like the text to a hymn that speaks of Christ as the Word and that this Word became flesh and as such was his glory as God revealed- in the flesh.

Those seemingly cryptic references to Christ, far less accessible to us than the story of the Holy Child laid in a manger, lulled to sleep by the angels, worshipped by shepherds and kings, and bathed in the radiant light of a star, but they tell us the same truth, refer to the same revelation.

This truth, this revelation, is that the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God, and it is this truth, this revelation, that discloses the great mystery of Christmas: that in Jesus Christ, the eternal God has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real human life.

How this is possible remains utterly inexplicable. Why this has happened is easier to understand, even if it remains hard for us to fully accept.

God did this, he allowed himself to live in this world as a man, being born first as a baby, is because the one, true God is a personal God, meaning that he is a not just an idea in our minds or a feeling in our hearts, or some kind of cosmic force. Instead God is a living, divine person, who created us for communion, that is, friendship with himself. And to make this communion, this friendship possible he does not just send us an invitation at a distance, but in Jesus Christ he meets us, quite literally, face to face.

The communion or friendship that the one, true God seeks with us is such that God accepts from us a human nature and in doing so offers us a share in his divine nature- opening for us possibilities that are way beyond what our humanity alone can accomplish or achieve.

The ancient sages of the Church called God’s gesture, his willingness to be born into this world and live and die as a man, a marvelous exchange. This means that God accepts a human life for himself so that we can receive from him a divine life. This the heart of the Gospel and its revelation is the deep mysticism of the Christ’s revelation- he accepts a human life so that we can have a divine life and by this divine life is meant that we can share communion or friendship with God.

How this happens for us is as strange and wonderful as God being born into this world, and living, like us, a real, human life. Looking at that Holy Child in a manger, few would have understood that the Child gazing back at them was the eternal God made flesh, and yet there God was, in the flesh, sharing communion with us and offering us a reason to become his friends.

The same strange experience happens in our reception of the Sacraments of the Church. For the Sacraments of the Church are not merely expressions of culture or a means through which we give religious significance to important events in our lives. The Sacraments of the Church are encounters with the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself- they are the privileged means, in this world, in the here and now, that God makes communion or friendship with him possible. The Sacraments serve the same purpose as the human nature of the Lord Jesus- they are his privileged means through which he makes himself known to us.

At the beginning of the Advent season I spoke from this pulpit about the coming of Christ in the world- that God in Christ comes to us in history, in mystery and consummation of all things that we refer to as the end of the world.

The first and the last, history and the end of the world, receive the most attention from us. History offers us the story of the Holy Child in the manger, a story that we love to hear over and over again. The end of the world captures our attention because it is something that we all fear. However, in our preoccupation with these two, we can lose sight that Christ comes to us now- in mystery, which means in his Sacraments, particularly in the Blessed Sacrament that we call the Eucharist.

The Eucharist delivers to us the true and living presence of the Lord Jesus himself. The same divine presence that rested in a manger becomes for us a source of divine life and nourishment. In fact, the revelation of the Holy Child resting in a manger, a feeding container for animals is a foreshadowing of how God in Christ will feed us with his divine life in the Blessed Sacrament.

Thus, on the very day the Church commemorates the birth of God in Christ in the world, the faithful are called to, not a play or performance or a pageant, but to a Mass- the Christ Mass, an event the culture has come to call Christmas, but what the faithful know as the Mass.

The Mass, this Mass and every Mass, is the occasion where God does for us now what he did in Bethlehem centuries ago- he shares communion with us and invites us to be his friends.

It is here that we can be the recipients of the “marvelous exchange” where God in Christ gives us a share in his divine life while asking us to give him a share in our own lives.

Giving Christ a share in our lives is what he asks of us, and in exchange he gives to us, through the Blessed Sacrament, a share in his life. This is what holy communion is. This is how friendship with God in Christ happens.

Christ who came to us in History and will come again into this world at the end of time offers himself to us right now in this Mass- the Christ Mass.

In this mystery of the Blessed Sacrament we see and can receive the very same divine life and presence that revealed himself to the world centuries ago as the Holy Child of Bethlehem.

For his Word is even now made flesh and blood, and makes his dwelling place among us and we can see his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth…

Here today for us in mystery…

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Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24th, 2017)

Today’s first scripture from the Second Book of Samuel concerns the desire the King David to build a temple. This temple would render glory to God as serve as the spiritual, cultural and political focal point of the Israelite nation.

David was the greatest and mightiest of the Israelite kings, the progenitor of a dynasty that would endure in power until 587 BC, when it would fall before the armies of the Babylonian empire.

David united the disparate and fractious tribes of the Israelites into a single kingdom and gave this kingdom status among the nations. Christ the Lord would be born into a family descended from the Royal House of David and it is near to impossible to understand the identity and mission of Christ with David as a reference point.

Remember, the Church does not present the scriptures of the Old Testament to us as a means of teaching us history or to impress upon us the importance of literature- the Church presents the scriptures of the Old Testament to us, which includes the story of King David as a means of helping us to understand who the Lord Jesus is and what he is all about.

In today’s scripture, David expresses his desire to build a great temple to God- a noble endeavor, one of which you would think God would be pleased to accept. However, David’s advisor, the prophet Nathan, speaks the Lord’s word of truth and that word crashes into the king’s desires.

The Lord does not want David to build him a temple. The temple will be built, but not by David. A successor of King David will do this, and the temple he will build will be one of the great wonders of the world.

Now, David’s son, Solomon will build an extraordinary temple, and it seems that this is the temple that the prophet Nathan refers too, but even this is only a pale foreshadowing of how Nathan’s prophecy will be fulfilled.

You see, God will himself be born into the family of King David and the temple he will build for himself will not be a structure of wood and stone, but of flesh and blood. The temple God will build for himself is the Body of Jesus.

Remember who precisely the Lord Jesus is- not merely a prophet or philosopher or humanitarian, but God, who accepts for himself a human nature and in doing so, lives, like us, a real human life. In Christ Jesus, God has a human body, a body through which he makes himself known and it is this body, the human body of Jesus that is the great and magnificent temple.

This revelation, the revelation of God’s body in Jesus, what Advent prepares us to appreciate and understand. This revelation of God in Jesus Christ, accepting a human nature and living a real, human life is what Christmas (or better put, the Christ Mass) is all about.

And it is the meaning of our second scripture, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. The letter to the Romans is St. Paul’s “magnum opus” and its purpose is to present the theological and doctrinal content of the Apostolic Faith- meaning what the Apostles, the 12 chosen by Christ, those men who personally knew the Lord Jesus and were taught by him, believed about who the Lord Jesus is and what he asks of us.

The Apostle Paul speaks of the “revelation of a mystery”, a “secret”, “manifested through the words and writings of the prophets”- and what is this mystery, this secret, this prophecy? It is Christ the Lord. And who is Christ the Lord? Christ the Lord is God, who has accepted a human nature and revealed himself to the world as a man. This is what the Apostles who knew the Lord Jesus personally came to understand and believe about him. And this is what we Christians, who have come to know Jesus personally through testimony and Sacrament, understand and believe about the Lord Jesus.

Finally, the Gospel of the Lord invites us to consider the precise moment God “took flesh” in the womb of his virgin Mother- a moment that the Church recalls as the Annunciation. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, his acceptance of a human nature, does not begin with his holy birth in Bethlehem, but with his miraculous conception in the womb of his holy mother.

Christ’s mother accepts as her mission to be God’s route of access into our world. God effects his conception in the womb of the virgin Mary so that he can reveal himself to us as a man.

This means that God enters into the world, into time, into history, into our humanity in a manner like all of us. He will experience for himself gestation and growth in the womb. He will be born into the world as we were all born. He will grow from infancy into childhood. He will experience for himself the changes of adolescence and the transition to adulthood. And when the moment comes, he will suffer and he will die. And all this is true, it is real. It is not a myth or a legend, but a fact of real flesh and real blood.

And remember: It is not simply a great man, a figure of historical importance, who knows and experiences these realities of our existence, but it is God.

You see, God is not for us Christians a distant, cosmic force or a feeling in our hearts or an idea in our minds. God is personal, a living divine person who is not only interested in us, but who loves us and desires to share his life with us.

God is the one who reveals himself in Jesus Christ by accepting for himself a human nature and living a real, human life. This is how God, the one, true God, makes himself known and invites us into a relationship with him.

And so the great revelation of Jesus Christ is not of a text, or of an ethic, or a feeling or an idea, but of a person. The revelation of Jesus Christ is the one, true God himself.

Advent directs our attention towards the revelation of God become man in Christ. Christmas celebrates this revelation and through our celebration, proclaims the wonderful surprise of Jesus Christ to the world.

In just a matter of hours, Advent will end and Christmas will begin.

In these final moments of Advent grace, let us remember who the Lord Jesus really and truly is.

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Second Sunday of Advent (December 10th, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the prophet Isaiah. The Book of the prophet Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible and likely sounds cryptic, even unintelligible to our ears. The prophet speak of events, circumstances and people that have long since faded from the memory of nearly everyone except scholars and historians. As such most preachers will try to derive some abstraction from the text if they speak about it at all.

This can be helpful as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough. The Bible is not a book of abstractions but a book about how God acts in the real world, in real lives, in real events and circumstances. The God of the Bible (your God!) is not a cosmic force, feeling in your heart or idea in your mind. The God of the Bible is a living, active, divine person who seeks a relationship with his creation and in particular a relationship with us. This relationship happens, not just in a far away heaven, but in the here and now of this world.

And so, what is this first scripture about?

Basically, the prophet Isaiah is reassuring the Israelites in the face of one of the most cataclysmic events in their history. Around 720 BC the armies of Assyria invaded the territories of the Israelites, cutting the nation in two and driving 10 of the 12 tribes of the Israelites out of their ancestral homeland. These 10 tribes would be lost forever. In 702 BC the armies of Assyria were at the gates of the city of Jerusalem where the remaining Israelites had taken refuge. The Israelites were facing sure and certain destruction.

The prophet speaks words of courage and consolation to the Israelites, insisting that God would come to fight on behalf of his people. God would come to set a world gone wrong right. Isaiah presents God as a mighty warrior who hearing the distress of the Israelites, will come into the world with the full force of his power and deal with the enemies of Israel.

Oddly enough, the armies of Assyria would withdraw, forced into retreat by a plague that breaks out and takes the lives of many in the Assyrian army. Isaiah understood this plague to be God’s intervention.

What does this have to do with us?

This prophecy from Isaiah highlights one of the great expectations of Israel- that God would intervene in the midst of their real life struggles and set a world gone wrong right. The Israelites, who were so often besieged and beleaguered by other nations, hoped that God would come into the world as a warrior and fight on their behalf, defeating their enemies.

It is our faith as Christians that this is precisely what God does in Christ. God comes into this world in Christ ready for a fight, prepared for a showdown with all the dark powers that have opposed God from the beginning- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil (and all who serve them). Thus, this prophecy from Isaiah is proclaimed during Advent so that we Christians can remember just who Christ the Lord is- he is God the Warrior, who comes into this world to set wrongs right and wage war against the powers of sin, death and the devil.

This is why in a world in which so much is wrong, we Christians continue to heed to the words of the prophet Isaiah- and seek comfort and consolation in God who in Jesus Christ, fights on our side against the dark powers and comes into this world to set things right.

Christ coming into the world is the concern of our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament Letter of Peter.

In this letter, the apostle Peter warns us not to become too preoccupied and enamored of this world and the things in it. We are only here a short while and the things of world, being finite, will one day all pass away.

The apostle then evokes a dramatic and terrifying day when God in Christ will come in the fullness of his power and bring his creation to an end. But that end will itself be a new beginning, the occasion for a new creation.

This frightening text from the apostle Peter is meant to highlight for us one of the great truths, the great revelations of Christian faith- that God in Christ has come into this world, but this is not his last and final revelation. God in Christ will come again, and he will come, not as he did as the tiny baby of Bethlehem, but with the full force of his divine power, a power that made creation and can also unmake creation.

This would terrify us into complete paralysis if not for the truth Christ reveals that when he comes again in the full force of his power, and not as a baby, he still comes as he did the first time- as our Redeemer and our Savior. His final battle is not so much with us, but with the dark powers that continue to afflict us. We need only turn to him in the midst of this conflict and he will fight on our behalf and rescue us from the power of sin and death and the devil that rage against us. God in Christ loves his people so much that he will upend creation itself if that is what it takes to defeat the dark powers and to save us.

That’s the lesson from Letter of Peter.

Finally, in Christ’s Gospel, we hear the voice crying in the wilderness, the voice of the wild man himself- John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was a priest who had gone rogue. Distressed and disgusted by the ruling elites of his time, in particular, the dynasty of King Herod, who had presented himself as Israel’s long awaited messiah and the true successor to King David, John had left his service in the Jerusalem Temple and retreated to the wilderness, where he called the Israelites away from the Temple (which had been rebuilt and financed by King Herod as a sign to the Israelites that he was their one, true king) and insisted they repent- because John believed that God’s coming into the world was imminent and when he came, he would deal with the ruling elites of the Israelites and set what was wrong right.

And on that day the Lord arrived, you didn’t want to be between those elites and God- you wanted to be standing with God.

And so, John’s message is get away from Jerusalem, get away from the Temple, get away from the Herodians and the ruling elites, because when God gets here, he is going to deal with all that and you don’t want to be in his way.

It is John the Baptist who sees correctly that Christ the Lord is God who is come into the world to set things right. And in his own way, Christ the Lord will deal with Jerusalem, the Temple, the Herodians and the elites, but he does so in a way John did not expect. He wages his war against the powers that prop up all the world’s corruption- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil.

Sin, death and the devil are real, and God comes into the world in Christ to deal with them.

He comes into our lives to deal with them as well, for these dark powers do not just afflict the world, they afflict us, personally and individually. We cannot of our own power or will defeat them, and that is why Christ comes to us repeatedly, personally and individually, through the Sacraments of the Church to defend us and to defeat the dark powers that subvert us.

And there is the lesson of today’s Gospel. Get ready. Christ the Warrior comes. Get out of his way. He has sin, death and the devil in his sights. And he has come for a fight. On our part, we have to make a decision, when the fight against the dark powers comes close- whose side will we be on?

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