The Nativity of the Lord

The Nativity of the Lord
December 25, 2020

And the Word became flesh / and made his dwelling among us ….

When a person gives someone a gift, if it’s a good gift, it reveals something about the person to whom it’s given.  Christmas is about accepting a gift from God the Father.

One of the most beloved songs of the Christmas Season ponder what sort of gift this is.  It asks:  “What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”  In the next verse we hear:  “Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?”  What does this gift of the Christ Child say about us who are on the receiving end of this gift?

What child is this?  We ourselves speak the answer to that question at every Sunday Mass when we stand and profess the Creed.  About our “Lord Jesus Christ” we profess that He is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God … consubstantial with the Father”.  This tiny infant is God, and the fact that this tiny gift is God tells us something important about why the Father gave this gift to us.

On the other hand, just a few lines later in the Creed, we also say that Jesus “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  These words describe what today’s feast is all about.  That’s why every year, on the feast of Jesus’ birth, when we profess those words of the Creed, we don’t just bow as we do on Sundays:  we genuflect as we say these words.  But we also need to keep in mind that these lines of the Creed also tell us something important about why the Father gave this gift to us.

Jesus Christ is true God and true man.  From the first moment of His conception, Jesus was fully divine and fully human.  Still today as He sits in Heaven at the Father’s Right Hand, Jesus bears a divine nature and a human nature.  These two truths together tell us what we need to know about the first and greatest Christmas gift:  that is, the person of Jesus Christ.

These two natures which Jesus bears within Himself are the means and the end of what God the Father wants for us who are His adopted children.  The gift of Jesus is the means and the end of our life.  Jesus became human because we are sinners; and because Jesus is God we can become sharers in His divinity.  Jesus became tiny at Bethlehem so that we could become great in Heaven.

At the Annunciation, Jesus became human—the eternal Son of God took on flesh and blood within Mary’s womb—to help us overcome the greatest stumbling block preventing God’s plan for our lives from coming true.  Overcoming this stumbling block is our greatest need in this world.

Our greatest need is salvation:  the forgiveness of our sins.  That is why Jesus accepted the agony of His Passion and Death:  to open the gates of Heaven for us, by offering up His Body and Blood, soul and divinity.  In humility, Jesus was born into this world, so that some thirty years later he could die to open the Gates of Heaven.  As the saying goes, “the wood of the crib is the Wood of the Cross.”

Jesus wants us to accept the gift of His Cross, to wash away our sins.  But as great as the gift of His Death on Good Friday is, we must not confuse this means with the end.  That is to say, on the Cross Jesus offers up His Body and Blood in sacrifice for us:  to wash away our sins, to cleanse us, to prepare us.  But what does the gift of His Cross prepare us for?

New life.  Divine life.  The life of God the Son.  This is the end, the goal, the reason for Jesus being born for us today.

God the Father sent His divine Son down to earth so that the Father might adopt each of us as His children.  Through grace, each us becomes one member of Christ’s Body, so that we might live on earth, and die, and live in Heaven, in Christ.

Late Advent Weekday — December 23

Late Advent Weekday — December 23
Malachi 3:1-4,23-24  +  Luke 1:57-66
December 23, 2020

But who will endure the day of his coming?

Today’s First Reading is taken from the last book of the Old Testament, the Book of the Prophet Malachi.  There is a certain harshness or strictness to this passage that might seem out of place with the humble birth of the gentle Jesus.  Yet Malachi’s message is needed if we are to celebrate Christmas fittingly.

Many passages in the Old Testament’s eighteen prophetic books are apocalyptic in nature.  That is to say, they are prophecies not just about the distant future, but about the “end times” and what the Church calls the “Last Things”:  Heaven and hell, death and judgment.  Today’s First Reading is such a passage.

The Lord God speaks of the coming “day of the Lord” as “the great and terrible day”.  He speaks also about a purgation that will take place akin to “the refiner’s fire” and “the fuller’s lye”.  Yet what is the goal of this purification?  The answer to that question helps us understand the meaning of Advent and Christmastide.

Malachi prophecies that the Lord’s coming is about more pure sacrifice being offered to God.  He foretells that “the Lord whom you seek” “will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the Lord.”  This helps us as Christians to focus what we’re about during these holy seasons.  The Lord comes in the person of the infant Jesus so that He might grow up and offer His very Self on Calvary, thereby becoming the source of all our worship as Christians.  When we enter into this, Malachi’s prophecy can come to pass:  “Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord, as in the days of old, as in years gone by.”

Late Advent Weekday — December 22

Late Advent Weekday — December 22
I Samuel 1:24-28  +  Luke 1:46-56
December 22, 2020

“From this day all generations will call me blessed ….”

Yesterday’s Gospel Reading introduced the narrative of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.  In that passage the evangelist records only the words of Elizabeth speaking.  But today’s Gospel Reading consists almost entirely of Mary proclaiming a hymn of praise to God.  Every evening in the Divine Office the Church prays this hymn.  This hymn’s title is “Magnificat”, which is simply the first word of the hymn in Latin.

One way to reflect upon this hymn is to compare it to today’s Responsorial Psalm.  This comparison could be made verse-by-verse.  Another means of comparison would be to consider the narrative setting of each.  Consider the latter means.

Today’s Responsorial Psalm does not come from the Book of Psalms but from the second chapter of the First Book of Samuel.  The childless Hannah had prayed to the Lord for a son, promising:  “I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” [I Samuel 1:11].  After Samuel is born, Hannah fulfills her promise by leaving the child at the house of the Lord in Shiloh.  There Hannah offers a hymn of praise to God, from which today’s Responsorial Psalm is taken.

The narrative setting of today’s Responsorial Psalm gives us an example from the Old Testament of what the Blessed Virgin Mary lives out throughout Jesus’ life.  In turn, God calls each Christian to imitate this example of Mary:  not only praising God for His blessings, but more importantly, returning to the Lord His blessings, and in so doing, becoming instruments of His will so that His blessings might be multiplied for the glory of God and the good of others.

Late Advent Weekday — December 21

Late Advent Weekday — December 21
Song of Songs 2:8-14 [or Zephaniah 3:14-18]  +  Luke 1:39-45
December 21, 2020

“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Today and tomorrow’s Gospel Readings together form the narrative of the Visitation.  Whenever we pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, this event is the object of meditation for the second decade.  Today’s Gospel Reading is the more narrative of the two passages, focusing upon the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth.

Almost half of today’s Gospel Reading consists of Elizabeth’s words to Mary.  About these words, the evangelist tells us that Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice.”  This fact makes the scene more dramatic, drawing more attention not only to Elizabeth’s words, but also to what provoked her words.

In Elizabeth’s cry, we hear the word “blessed” three times.  These three instances focus for us the entire scene of the Visitation.  The first two occur in the same sentence, where Elizabeth cries to Mary:  “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Mary and Jesus are united in being “blessed”, yet Mary receives this blessing from Jesus when He descends from Heaven.  On the other hand, Mary and Jesus are united by their shared humanity, which Jesus receives from Mary in her womb.

The third instance of “blessed” in this passage describes Mary in a way that offers hope to each Christian.  Each member of the Body of Christ receives from Him a unique place among the Body’s members.  Not every Christian is “blessed” to be the Mother of God.  Yet God calls every Christian to be “blessed” by imitating that fidelity of Mary of which Elizabeth cries:  “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Late Advent Weekday — December 19

Late Advent Weekday — December 19
Judges 13:2-7,24-25  +  Luke 1:5-25
December 19, 2020

“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.”

St. Matthew and St. Luke are the only two evangelists to record any narratives about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ.  But St. Luke spends far more time than St. Matthew doing this.  While it’s true that the first two chapters of both Matthew and Luke are dedicated to these narratives, it’s important to recall that the chapters of the Bible do not have an equal number of verses.  The first two chapters of Matthew consist of forty-eight verses, while the first two chapter of Luke consist of one hundred thirty-two verses.

Each day from today—December 19th—through the morning of Christmas Eve, the Church proclaims Gospel passages from Luke.  Many of these passages are actually about the conception and birth of St. John the Baptist.  Yet St. Luke very artistically parallels these narratives with those about the advent and birth of Jesus Christ.

When people think of the word “annunciation” in relation to the Gospel, they likely think first—and perhaps solely—of the Annunciation made to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, three annunciations are narrated:  of the birth of Jesus to Joseph in Matthew 1, of the birth of John to his father Zechariah in Luke 1, and of the birth of Jesus to Mary in Luke 1.

Today’s Gospel Reading focuses upon the annunciation to Zechariah about John the Baptist.  We should be alert here to comparisons and contrasts both between Zechariah and Mary and between John and Jesus.  An obvious contrast is between the advanced age of Zechariah and the youth of Mary.

More significant, however, and more important for the Christian who hears these passages proclaimed during Advent, are the contrasting responses of Zechariah and Mary to their respective annunciations.  While both of them respond by questioning how what was announced could come true, Mary goes a step further by accepting God’s will faithfully with a reply of “Fiat.”

Toward the end of today’s Gospel Reading, the angel explains how Zechariah will be punished for not accepting God’s will faithfully.  Nonetheless, God’s will in not deterred by Zechariah.  God’s will may be detoured, but never deterred.  God’s providential will always is accomplished.

Late Advent Weekday — December 18

Late Advent Weekday — December 18
Jeremiah 23:5-8  +  Matthew 1:18-25
December 18, 2020

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.

Only the Gospel accounts of St. Matthew and St. Luke relate any of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ.  During the last eight days of Advent, the Gospel Readings come from the first chapter of Matthew and the first chapter of Luke.  In fact, only on December 17 and 18 do the Gospel Readings come from Matthew.

In St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel, the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary is not recorded.  Today’s Gospel Reading is St. Matthew’s only narrative about the events occurring before Jesus’ birth.  This single narrative records the Annunciation to St. Joseph.

Saint Joseph is one of four key figures in the landscape of Advent, the others being St. John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Lord Jesus.  Among these four, St. Joseph is the easiest to overlook.  None of the four evangelists records even a single word that Joseph spoke.  Yet in today’s Gospel Reading, the evangelist focuses upon Joseph’s faith and action.  St. Joseph puts his faith in what God declares to him.  Then Joseph works to carry out God’s will.  In both of these, Joseph is model for each of us Christians.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [B]

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [B]
2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-11,16  +  Romans 16:25-27  +  Luke 1:26-38
December 20, 2020

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”

Today’s Gospel Reading presents the Annunciation.  Notice that it’s a dialogue:  the angel speaks, and Mary speaks.  The angel brings the message of God’s plan for Mary’s life:  “You shall conceive and bear a son, and give him the name Jesus.”  But this is not a matter of Gabriel offering dictation from God to Mary, for God is not a dictator.  God’s respect for Mary’s free will is absolute.  The message of Gabriel demands a response from Mary, and the second part of the dialogue is Mary’s response.

Mary responds in two ways:  she asks a question, and gives a reply.  First, the question of Mary is very important for us to consider, since it shows us that Mary is a woman of purpose.  She does not arbitrarily accept God’s will any more than God arbitrarily imposed it.  Mary’s question:  “How can this be?”  does not show us a woman who doubts God’s Will, but who ponders it in her heart.  The angel’s answer to her question does not change her mind, because she was always of one mind.  What her question shows is that her mind always searched for God as much as her will.

Each of us can pinpoint some situation in one’s life, which very possibly was from God, which challenged one to respond in a Christian manner.  The first thing that the Annunciation shows us is that we should not worry about pondering it over, about asking questions.  God does not dictate our actions to us.  He demands that we ponder them in faith, asking the questions that need to be asked.

The second part of Mary’s response to Gabriel makes us realize that there was never any doubt about what Mary’s reply to God would be.  She proclaims, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”  The angelic word of message gives rise to the human word of consent:  “Fiat”, meaning “your will is my response.”  Certainly Mary’s question had not prejudiced her reply.  After all, Gabriel’s answer to her question was to point out that her cousin Elizabeth, an elderly woman, was in her sixth month of pregnancy.  Gabriel was simply heaping one miracle upon another.  He may have made it clear that God was at work, but he certainly didn’t make it clear how or why all this was going on.  And yet, Mary’s response was the same:  “Fiat”, “your will is my will.”

If we turn our minds back to those situations that challenge our Christian faith, we realize that God does often respond to our questions, yet not always in the way we would wish.  He can show us different signs that might convince us what His will is, but those aren’t necessarily going to explain to us why His will is what it is (and we should not expect them to do so).  We can ask questions of God to help us circle around or probe the questions in our minds, but once we are assured of what that will is, any hesitation becomes doubt.

Acting as Mary does in this scene, with complete faith, is an example for our own spiritual lives.  In many ways, God makes His plan for our lives clear.  Is our reply to God just as clear, however?

This last message of the Gospel before the Christmas Season starts helps us realize that as we search for God’s will, humility is the virtue we must have.  We cannot savor the joy of Christmas without living out the humility of Advent.  Advent is a season of humble expectation.

Our prayer then, in these last days of the Advent Season should be a prayer of petition, asking God to help us grow in humility.  For if we have prepared a straight path into our hearts for the Lord to travel, we still must meet Him there with humility, for fear of offending Him.  After His journey from heaven to earth, where He seeks to dwell at the very center of our hearts, what sort of response would it be to meet Him there closed to the plan He has for our lives?  May Mary be our model of simple and gentle acceptance, hearing and heeding the plan He has for our lives.

Late Advent Weekday — December 17

Late Advent Weekday — December 17
Genesis 49:2,8-10  +  Matthew 1:1-17
December 17, 2020

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

It’s obvious that today’s date—December 17th—begins the final week of Advent.  One week from today the Church will stand at the threshold of Christmastide.  What’s not so obvious is that the Church approaches this final week of Advent differently than the season’s first few weeks.  Beginning on December 17th, the Gospel Readings at weekday Mass shift from scenes set during Jesus’ adulthood to scenes set before His birth.

Today’s Gospel Reading is the first seventeen verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel account.  The very first verse tells us what this passage is all about:  “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  This genealogy of Jesus is different than the one recorded by St. Luke the Evangelist in Luke 3:23-38.  St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy goes back in history only to Abraham, while St. Luke’s traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam himself.

Nonetheless, the figures of David and Abraham help us understand the structure of the genealogy that St. Matthew records.  Today consider just the latter of these two persons.  The genealogy has three parts.  Abraham and Jesus stand at either end, revealing the most important truth of this genealogical record:  that Jesus fulfills what Abraham, “our father in faith”, could only foreshadow.  The shadows of the Old Testament are now giving way to the light of Him who soon will be born.

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent
Isaiah 45:6-8,18,21-25  +  Luke 7:18-23
December 16, 2020

“In the Lord shall be the vindication and the glory of all the descendants of Israel.”

Confusion sometimes arises from the question that John the Baptist in today’s Gospel Reading instructs his disciples to ask Jesus.  People wonder:  “Doesn’t this question—‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’—suggest that John the Baptist wasn’t really familiar with his cousin Jesus, and was even uncertain about the role of Jesus in the Lord God’s plan for Israel?”  The answer, of course, is “No.”  But why then does John instruct his disciples to ask this question?

By way of answering, we might point out that John isn’t sending his disciples for his own sake, but for theirs.  John wants each of them to encounter Jesus and hear Jesus’ answer to the question as a sort of initiation into a relationship with Jesus.

However, one might in response ask a further question.  “Why, then, did Jesus answer the disciples’ question by saying, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard ….’?”  The fact is that these disciples need for the time being to remain under the instruction of John the Baptist.

Jesus does not say to these disciples what He said to Peter and Andrew:  “Come, follow me.”  These disciples, like us during Advent, need to sit at the feet of John the Baptist and allow his message to sink more deeply into our hearts before we can be true disciples of the Lord Jesus.