The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Genesis 3:9-15,20  +  Ephesians 1:3-6,11-12  +  Luke 1:26-38
December 8, 2022

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

In the beginning, God had a plan.  God’s plan was for mankind to live a blissful life in this world, and at the end of that earthly life, to rise body and soul into Heaven.

But mankind did not cooperate.  You know how Adam and Eve brought sin into the world.  They did not cooperate with God’s plan, and so God came up with a “Plan B”.  In this “Plan B”, God would show His love for mankind by sending His only Son to earth, knowing that man would crucify this Son, yet also knowing that the Crucifixion of His Son would destroy the power of sin and death.

In God’s “Plan A”, one man and one woman were to begin God’s plan.  They failed.  Adam and Eve instead brought sin and death into human experience.  Adam and Eve changed a human paradise into a valley of tears, full of suffering, doubt, and at time, even despair.

In God’s “Plan B”, one man and one woman were to begin God’s plan.  These two obeyed.  They fulfilled God the Father’s Will.  And so through there two—Jesus and Mary—you now have the opportunity to live a life here below filled with hope and joy.  Those virtues and all the rest of the virtues will be fulfilled in the perfection of Heaven if we cooperate with God’s grace to the hour of our death.

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Today the Church throughout the world celebrates the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Our Blessed Mother is the one creature in all of God’s Creation who obeyed God unfailingly.  Our Blessed Lady is the one human person who has been completely open to accepting Jesus into her life.  God knew that Mary would be such a woman before her life began.  That’s why He gave her a gift at the moment that her mother, St. Anne, conceived her.  God kept Mary from inheriting Original Sin, so that Mary would be the best possible mother for His Son.

We hear of Mary’s faithfulness in today’s Gospel passage.  “Gabriel was sent from God… to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph… and the virgin’s name was Mary.”  She asks how she, a virgin, can conceive.  But God’s messenger assures Mary that God’s Son will be conceived in her womb by the Power of the Holy Spirit.

Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus reflects God’s omnipotence.  God can create something out of nothing.  In the beginning, God created the universe out of nothing.  Similarly, in the nothingness of Mary’s virginity, God creates, and His Son is conceived as a human being in Mary’s womb.  But these two acts of God creating out of nothing—God’s creation of the universe, in the beginning; and God’s creation of Jesus’ human body and soul, in the fullness of time—both foreshadow an even greater miracle on God’s part.

Likely you have heard the saying, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the Cross.”  This saying isn’t literally—historically—true, but its truth lies in pointing out that Jesus’ conception and birth were a means to a greater end:  that end being Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.  As another saying puts it, “Jesus was born into this world, so that he might die from this world.”

Through Mary, God’s Son comes into the world to destroy sin and death.  Jesus’ vocation is fulfilled more than three decades later, according to the same pattern by which God created in the beginning, and in Mary’s womb.  God creates… out of nothing.  So it is with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  Human sin is a failure to love.  Human sin is an absence of grace, an absence of love.

You and I, as human beings:  how do we respond when someone doesn’t love us?  In our sinfulness, we usually respond in kind.  If someone gives us the cold shoulder, we do the same.  We respond to an absence of love with a further absence of love.  That’s how sin works:  it spreads like a spiritual and moral cancer, destroying the love that God meant, in the beginning, for our human life to be all about.

Thanks be to God, God does not respond to sin as you and I do.  If God did, then when we wandered far from Him, God would have (metaphorically) turned His back on mankind, and left us to wallow in sin, finally to die and exist forever separated from Him.  Thanks be to God, God responds to the nothingness of sin by choosing to love.  Down into the midst of a human race of sinners, God chose to send His only-begotten Son.  On Calvary, in the midst of the nothingness of rejection, rebuke, scourging and mockery, Jesus offered His life for the forgiveness of sin.  In the midst of the nothingness of sin, God “re-deemed” the world.

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Thanks be to God for His act of “re-creation”.  Thanks be to Our Blessed Mother Mary for saying “Yes” to her part in God’s plan.  And thanks be to God for preparing Mary to say “Yes” to His will for her life.  Those are the three truths that the Church celebrates today on this Holy Day of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

First, God from all eternity, knowing that man would reject Him, planned to re-create the human world through the offering of His Son.  Second, God chose Mary to be the Mother of His only-begotten Son, and Mary chose perfectly to accept this vocation.  Third, knowing from all eternity of Mary’s fidelity, God prepared Mary for her vocation be means of a unique grace:  the grace that we call the “Immaculate Conception”, preserving her at the moment of her conception from Original Sin.

This gift was given to Mary not only for her own sake, but for the sake of her Son, and for the sake of all those who would become members of her Son’s Mystical Body, the Church.  You and I celebrate Mary’s fidelity today because she is our Mother.  We honor her as the first and best disciple of Jesus Christ.  We also honor her because of the unique gift of holiness that God gave her through her Immaculate Conception.  During this Season of Advent, Mary’s life shows us best how to receive Jesus into our lives.

St. Ambrose, Bishop & Doctor of the Church

St. Ambrose, Bishop & Doctor of the Church
Isaiah 40:25-31  +  Matthew 11:28-30
December 7, 2022

To whom can you liken me as an equal?

Today’s First Reading from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah proclaims the unique majesty of the Lord God.  This proclamation highlights the radical distinction between the Creator God and each of His creatures.  In Isaiah we hear God ask a rhetorical question.  “To whom can you liken me as an equal?  says the Holy One.”

This question evokes the rhetorical question posed by one of God’s greatest creatures:  Saint Michael the Archangel.  The name “Michael” is literally a question:  “Who is like God?”  It’s not a coincidence that St. Michael is the angel who thrusts down into Hell Satan and all the evil spirits [see Revelation 12:7-9].  After all, Satan and the other fallen angels were thrown down from Heaven for believing that they were like God in His majesty and power.

By contrast, God the Son, who is equal to God—indeed, who is God—in every way, did not deem equality with God something to be clung to [see Philippians 2:6].  The humility of Jesus’ Incarnation at the Annunciation is complemented by the humility of the surroundings at Bethlehem.  Yet these forms of humility are but preparations for the humility of Calvary, where the Creator God dies in order to offer His creatures the chance of eternal life.

The Third Sunday of Advent [A]

The Third Sunday of Advent [A]
Isaiah 35:1-6, 10  +  James 5:7-10  +  Matthew 11:2-11
Catechism Link: CCC 2559
December 11, 2022

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.

Born and reared as a Kansan, I have always loved traveling throughout the state.  As I have had the chance to travel through other parts of the world, however, I have had to admit that the beauty of our state is not exactly the same as the beauty of other parts of God’s green earth.  The beauty of our state is simple, subtle, and understated.  It’s no wonder that when the first explorers came to this area, their report to those back east labeled this part of our continent “The Great American Desert”.

However, the beauty of Kansas is a lot like the beauty of Advent.  Both are rooted in the virtue of humility.  There are many virtues through which we grow in our spiritual lives, but each virtue has its proper place, and humility is the virtue of those journeying through a desert.

After all, the spiritual life on earth is itself a journey.  We begin that journey the moment we are conceived, and end that journey only beyond the door of death.  In between those moments of conception and death stretches a long path along which we exercise virtues such as temperance, fortitude, justice, prudence, faith, and hope.  Each virtue offers some spiritual fruit for us to appreciate, some spiritual fruit to nourish us as we travel along that path that often winds through territory that is like a desert:  barren and filled with trials and suffering.

But all of these virtues, and everything that’s good in our lives, leads ultimately in only one direction.  Every virtue leads us in the direction of the goal of life:  that perfect love which is called charity, or in Latin, caritas.  Saint John tells us that this love is the very nature of God:  God is love, he says simply [1 John 4:8].  Saint Paul tells us that this love is the greatest virtue, without which every other virtue is empty and meaningless [see 1 Corinthians 13].

This perfect love is the goal of our lives:  we hope to live in the Presence of this perfect love forever in Heaven.  This perfect love is also the goal of our lives here on earth.  The only thing that we should ever worry about trying to do well is loving God and our neighbor:  the great command of our Lord Jesus.  This doesn’t necessarily mean doing great things.  Even though it is the greatest virtue, love can be profoundly simple.  Perfect love can express itself through very simple acts, as the Little Flower teaches us.  Perfect love can even blossom in the midst of what seems like a desert of suffering.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that this perfect love is the goal of both daily life and our entire earthly life, we sometimes have to return to the basics.  Advent—this season of plainness and of the desert—offers us a chance to rediscover what Saint Augustine called the foundation of all other virtues:  the virtue of humility.

As the foundation of all other virtues, humility is a virtue that we cannot ever outgrow.  If we think we can, we probably find it easy to sing the old song, “Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”  In fact, all of the other virtues of our moral and spiritual life grow out of the “spiritual soil” of humility.  Humility is laying ourselves bare:  it’s really nothing more than honesty about who we are and where we figure in the scheme of things, which is to say that we are nothing without God.

This is why Advent is a penitential season.  We seriously examine our consciences, go to Confession, and are reconciled with God and neighbor because only by admitting how much we are in need of God’s grace can we be ready to accept God the Father’s gift of His Son.  And only with this virtue of humility as a foundation can we hope to draw others into the sweep of God’s love.  If we allow ourselves to be loved by God and admit what a beautiful thing that love is, we want others to share in that love.  But you cannot force God’s love, or throw His love, into the lives of others.  The only way for people to be drawn into the mystery of its simple beauty is by starting with humility.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent

Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11  +  Matthew 18:12-14
December 6, 2022

“… it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”

It’s always comforting to think of the Good Shepherd.  But why does the Church evoke this image today on a weekday of Advent?

In today’s brief Gospel Reading, Jesus speaks to the motive of His Incarnation.  While there have been theologians who have speculated that the Son of God would have become human even had mankind never sinned, in the actual course of salvation history, man did sin.  In response to man’s sin, God could have freely chosen to abandon His fallen creature.

Instead, God chose from Heaven to act like a Good Shepherd.  He descended from the perfection of Heaven in order to enter a world of sin and darkness.  The sacrifice of His whole self—Body and Blood, soul and divinity—within that world reflects the love of God’s divine nature, which through the Incarnation you and I have the chance to enter into for eternity.

Monday of the Second Week of Advent

Monday of the Second Week of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Luke 5:17-26
December 5, 2022

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.

In today’s First Reading from the thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, “the desert” is a focus.  This focus is apt for the first two weeks of Advent, when St. John the Baptist is so often at the forefront of the scripture passages we hear.  The desert, after all, is where John the Baptist dwells.  In the desert he carries out his ministry of preaching and baptizing, both of these for the sake of repentance.

Yet in spite of the desert’s connection with solitude and penance, and as fruitful as this point can be for our Advent meditation, today’s First Reading describes the desert for a different purpose.  Isaiah describes the desert for the sake of illustrating, in a phrase, the “reversal of fortune” that the Lord’s merciful love will effect when He comes.

The desert is a place where little to nothing grows.  Yet when the Lord come, “the parched land will exult”, “will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.”  This is not the only reversal of fortune that Isaiah foretells in this passage.  Through the Lord’s power “the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared”, and “the lame leap like a stag”.  The Lord brings life to what seems dead, as the birth of Jesus offers hope for new life to fallen man.

St. Francis Xavier, Priest

St. Francis Xavier, Priest
Isaiah 30:19-21,23-26  +  Matthew 9:35—10:1,5,6-8
December 3, 2022

… they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.

This morning’s Gospel Reading bears imagery that foreshadows Lent, the Sacred Triduum, and Eastertide.  Catholics instinctually understand that Advent prepares Christians for Christmastide, and that Lent prepares them for Eastertide.  Less understood is that Advent and Christmastide, considered as a single block of time, prepares Christians for Lent and Eastertide.

The evangelist tells us that the crowds were “like sheep without a shepherd”.  Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd [see John 10:11,14].  His noblest act of shepherding took place on Calvary, when He sacrificed His life for His flock.

Jesus’ vocation of Self-sacrifice on Calvary is the chief reason why God the Father sent His Only-Begotten to earth.  It’s important not to lose sight of this during Advent and Christmastide.  God the Father sent His Son to be both shepherd and sheep.  Indeed, He shepherds us by becoming one of the sheep:  by being born as one of us, so that on the Cross He could offer to the Father the sacred humanity He received from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Friday of the First Week of Advent

Friday of the First Week of Advent
Isaiah 29:17-24  +  Matthew 9:27-31
December 2, 2022

The Lord is my light and my salvation.

Advent corresponds roughly with the final weeks when the day grows shorter (at least, in the Northern Hemisphere).  There’s a great deal of imagery in the scriptures and liturgies of Advent that relates to the human struggle with darkness.  For example, the feast day of Saint Lucy—whose name comes from the Latin word for light, and whose feast is celebrated in many countries with a brilliant display of candles—falls close to the midpoint of Advent.  On the following day the Church celebrates the feast of St. John of the Cross, a Doctor of the Church whose writings explore the “dark night of the soul”.

The refrain to today’s Responsorial is:  “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”  To reflect upon the Lord God Himself as “light” is infinitely more significant than reflecting upon the earth’s annual descent into darkness, or even upon the human darkness that one experiences while undergoing spiritual purification and growth in the divine virtue of faith.

The notion of the Lord God as light transcends any other notion of light that human persons experience.  One way to appreciate this difference is to notice how Psalm 27 continues its description of the Lord.  This Lord whom the Psalmist has just described as “light” is the object of the Psalmist’s sight.  Consider how unusual that is.

In ordinary human life, light serves to illuminate physical objects.  A man would be thought odd if he stared at a light bulb, and reckless if he stared at the sun.  But in Psalm 27 the Psalmist describes the Lord as the focus of his sight:  “One thing I ask of the Lord; / this I seek: / To dwell in the house of the Lord / all the days of my life, / That I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord / and contemplate his temple.”  One might consider these verses as the Old Testament’s clearest description of what the Church calls the “Beatific Vision”.  To be a saint in Heaven is to gaze forever at the Lord, who is pure light.

Thursday of the First Week of Advent

Thursday of the First Week of Advent
Isaiah 26:1-6  +  Matthew 7:21,24-27
December 1, 2022

“… only the one who does the will of my Father ….”

The Apostle Paul is sometimes quoted in order to create a false division between faith and good works.  St. Paul makes clear—so it’s said—that salvation in Christ is based upon faith alone.  Good works play no role—so it’s said—in reaching salvation.

Against such misappropriation of St. Paul’s words we have the explanation of Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  Should we take Jesus’ reference to someone saying, “Lord, Lord” and equate it with faith, which some say alone bears salvation?  One might argue that point, and it’s a point worth debating.

However, one cannot doubt that Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading is making a sharp contrast.  Nor can one doubt that when Jesus declares that only the one who does the will of His Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus is speaking about the performance of good works.  At the same time, we ought to be precise about Jesus’ words about this point:  in order to be good works, works must be done according to the will of God the Father.  Not just any old good works will do.

Finally, we ought to note something about those who say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord”.  Jesus doesn’t say here, and the Church does not teach, that salvation is reached by good works alone.  Note whom Jesus is speaking about when He declares:  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven.”  He is speaking about a general set of people:  all those who say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord.”  Within that set, there is a smaller sub-set.  Among those who say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord”, only those who also do the will of God the Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

During this holy season of Advent, then, our good works can help us not only prepare one day to enter Heaven, but also to celebrate Christmastide fittingly.  This celebration begins with allowing the newborn Christ to bring us from Heaven a bit of His divine life.

St. Andrew, Apostle

St. Andrew, Apostle
Romans 10:9-18  +  Matthew 4:18-22
November 30, 2022

“And how can they hear without someone to preach?”

There are many things about a man entering the seminary that are misunderstood.  One important point that many people do not understand is that a man enters the seminary in order to continue to discern the calling that the Lord has made to him.  He does not enter the seminary because he has already made a decision to be a priest.

The Lord calls out to every young man, “Come after me….”  What differs from one man to another is the phrase that follows “Come after me….”  For some, the words that follow are “Be my faithful disciple, and serve me wherever you go in the world.”  To others, Jesus says those words by which we hear him calling Simon and Andrew:  “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  The prayer that a man offers while in the seminary asks the Lord for help in clarifying just which call it is that the Lord has made to him.

“Fishers of men.”  This is a metaphor, of course:  one that speaks to Simon and Andrew, whose lives as adults had been given to the livelihood of being fishermen.  Regardless of the livelihood which they had chosen for themselves, the Lord’s words mean “Come after me.  I chose you to be the servants of my Church.”  No matter the Christian, and no matter the vocation to which the Lord calls him or her, the root of each vocation is service.