Sunday, December 18, 2011

Have you gotten your wings?

Here's the homily I preached this past Sunday for the 4th Sunday of Advent.  I am now officially ready to start Christmas shopping :)  I hope you all have a blessed week in preparation for the great celebration!

“Look Daddy!  Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”  “That's right, that's right.  Attaboy, Clarence.”

            I would guess that more than a few of us could probably name the film that this line comes from.  For those who may not be able to, it is a line from the end of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life.  It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic film for the holidays that tells the story of George Bailey who, after building a successful life in small-town America, falls on hard times and on Christmas Eve has become so depressed that he believes that life in general would have been better without him.  As he stands on a bridge, ready to throw himself into icy waters, an angel intervenes to show George what life would have been like without him.  This “assignment” for the angel was a test that would prove whether or not the angel was ready to “get his wings.”  Hopefully, I won’t ruin the plot too badly for you by telling you that the angel, Clarence, was successful in his task of making George realize just how valuable his life had been, and so at the end of the film, when a bell rings, the little girl quotes her teacher and George realizes that Clarence indeed has made it.

            Now, the word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos,” which means “messenger,” “envoy,” or “one that announces.”  And so the irony of the movie, which is mostly—and, I would say, rightly—overlooked, is that Clarence achieves his full-fledged angel status by doing exactly what it is that angels do: bringing a message of hope to George, reminding him that his life was truly valued by the people around him and, at least implicitly, by God.  Angels are sent to carry important messages from God.

            Of course, the most important messages are going to be sent with the most important messengers.  Therefore, we see that it is Gabriel, an archangel, who is sent to carry God’s most important message to Mary.  For it was Gabriel who was sent to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, to announce the conception of John the Baptist and it is also thought to be Gabriel who spoke from the tomb of Jesus, announcing that “the one they were looking for was no longer there; but that he was risen.”  Scholars have argued that this evidence indicates that Gabriel is indeed the “archangel of archangels.”  Yet, it is not his particular abilities that make him great, but rather it is the greatness of the message that he carries that sets him apart.

            Gabriel’s message, as we’ve heard in today’s Gospel reading, is that the beginning of the fullness of time is at hand.  He is announcing that, after generations of waiting, the Promised One of God is about to appear.  You know, the amazing thing about the annunciation is that so many things had to line up for it to happen.  Kind of like a supernatural game of chess, God had been waiting for all of the pieces to line up so that he could enact his perfect plan for the salvation of mankind.  Ever since the first sin of Adam and Eve, God had been moving among us, revealing himself and his plan for the salvation of man to us and encouraging us to learn to walk in his ways.  He waited as our sinful inclinations caused us to drift away from his plan and then he waited as his grace slowly led us back into it, so that, in his perfect timing, his favored one, Mary, could be born free of sin by an extraordinary act of grace and thus be ready to receive the message that the angel Gabriel would bring to her on that glorious day.

            The angels, too, waited anxiously for God’s perfect plan to come to fruition.  And so when it came time for this great message of the Incarnation to be delivered to Mary, the angel Gabriel arrived in haste to deliver it.  When he greeted her, Gabriel did not do so as if his message was some sort of subpoena proclaiming that she must comply with God’s will.  Rather, his greeting came with an acknowledgement of her sublime dignity as one highly regarded by God.  Mary, on her part, received the message with surprise, unaware of the dignity that God had bestowed upon her.  And while certainly the message that God’s only Son was to become man and be born of Mary is the primary message that Gabriel carried, it seems also that he carried a secondary message of significant importance: “O lowly handmaiden of the Lord.  Rejoice!  You have been highly regarded by God.”  This angel, who already knows the blessing of being regarded by God, was eager to bring this message of great joy to Mary.  And so we see that the message itself is a blessing, a blessing that opens the door for an even more abundant blessing: the Word become flesh in Mary’s womb.

            In many ways, we are experiencing another time of waiting, much like the ancient Hebrews experienced as they were waiting for the coming of the Messiah.  Christ, the promised one of God, has come and has brought us salvation through his life, death, and resurrection.  He ascended into heaven and waits now, until the fullness of time comes to completion—that is, until all of the pieces of God’s wonderfully mysterious plan come into place—when he will come again to usher in a new heaven and a new earth and to call his chosen ones home.  This anticipation of his coming is what we have been remembering in these past three weeks of Advent.  As we turn now and focus our attention on our remembrance and celebration of Christ’s first coming, we find ourselves with a perfect opportunity to cooperate in putting into place those pieces that will lead to Christ’s second coming.

            You see, part of our calling as Christians is, in some sense, to be angels of the Lord.  There are many people around us who have never heard the message that Mary received from the angel Gabriel: that they are highly regarded by God.  Yet, I suspect that every day we are given the opportunity to give that very message to someone.  In the book of Genesis, it tells us that “God looked at all he had made and said, ‘It is very good.’”  Therefore, in a special way, because each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, God looks on us with favor and invites us to all to receive a message similar to the one Gabriel carried to Mary: “Hail, favored one!  God desires to dwell in you, if only you would let him.”  Now, I don’t believe that I exaggerate when I say that each and every day God gives us a chance to say to someone, “You are important here.  Your life matters, because God has a beautiful plan for your life.”  Perhaps even now we are aware of someone who needs to hear that message.  If so, then I invite you to make a commitment right now to carry that message to them this week.  If not, then I invite you to pray this week that God will reveal to you who he wants you to bring this message to, the joyful message of Emmanuel, God with us, in this coming week.  And when you feel the prompting of the Holy Spirit—in other words, when you feel moved to share this message with someone that you encounter this week—I encourage you to respond just like Mary did: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, Let it be done to me according to your Word.

            My sisters and brothers, as we complete our preparations to celebrate our remembrance of the coming of Christ—that is, as we prepare not only our homes, but our hearts as well—let us also heed our call to be angels of God’s mercy to those around us.  If we do, perhaps then on Christmas Day a bell will ring also for each one of us.

~ Given at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Carmel, IN. – December 18, 2011.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Are you "tired" of Christmas already?

Hey Folks!  Here's the homily I preached for the second Sunday of Advent at my ministry parishes in Jeffersonville, IN.  I have many, many more things to say about the much maligned season of Advent, but this is all I can bear to write now.  May God bless your Advent season with joy-filled expectation (instead of resentment) of Christmas!
~ Given at Saint Augustine and Sacred Heart parishes, Jeffersonville, IN – December 3rd & 4th, 2011.

          Last Saturday marked the end of the liturgical year.  In the Gospel reading for the Mass of the day on that last day of the Church year, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life….” (Luke 21:34) It’s no accident that that particular reading is read on the last day of the Church liturgical year.  After 34 weeks of Ordinary Time—when we focus on growing spiritually and morally in the context of our daily lives—the Church realizes that most of us probably do have hearts that have “become drowsy”—perhaps from drunkenness and carousing, but most likely from the anxieties of daily life.  And so there is a certain genius on the Church’s part to place that reading right on the cusp of the new liturgical year.  It reminds us that perhaps our hearts have become drowsy and then it ushers us right into Advent, a season designed to help “wake us up.”

          Our first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is a beautiful reading—full of awe and wonder.  While the reader did a great job reading it, I think it would require a method actor to really convey the joy-filled expectation that these words express.  Listen to some of these again:

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
 says your God.
 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
 that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated…

And still further:

…Go up on to a high mountain,
 Zion, herald of glad tidings;
 cry out at the top of your voice,
 Jerusalem, herald of good news!
 Fear not to cry out
 and say to the cities of Judah:
 Here is your God! 

These are words of great joy and expectation and are simply wonderful to ponder.  Perhaps, however, we are unable to see the joy that these words convey, at least not in our current situation.  Perhaps, even after one week of Advent, our hearts are still drowsy—tired, weary, and numb—from the anxieties of our daily lives.  Of course, one need not look farther than the newspaper to understand why: violence and drug use continue to escalate in our cities and neighborhoods, jobs continue to be scarce and an economic recovery continues to be lethargic, national politics remains, it seems, disconnected from the daily struggles of individuals and families, and there are countless other reasons as well.  And so no, it’s not surprising that our hearts may have become drowsy and we are unable to relate to the awe and wonder expressed in today’s first reading.

          Yet, when we listen to the Gospel reading, we see that the Jews living during Jesus’ time also seemed to be struggling with the same problem.  Now, the Gospel of Mark is notoriously slim on narrative details and so we’ll have to read between the lines a little bit to see that their hearts were also drowsy and in need of awakening.  The Gospel begins by quoting our reading from the prophet Isaiah and then essentially equates it with John’s proclamation in the desert, calling for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The Gospel states that “people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him.”  In other words, the whole Jewish nation heard of John’s proclamation and began to come to him to be baptized.  Perhaps many of them were reluctant at first, unable to see the “awe” in the awe-filled proclamation that John was making.  Eventually, perhaps, through the witness of seeing others go out to the Jordan River or of speaking with others who returned from there, these reluctant ones could see that their hearts indeed had become drowsy waiting for the coming of God that Isaiah had promised.  With “hearts awake,” however, they could experience the joy-filled expectation that the coming promised by the prophet was now at hand.

          And so we encounter these readings here today in this season of Advent for the same purpose: to call us to recognize the drowsiness of our own hearts so that we too may awaken to the experience of joy-filled expectation for the second-coming of Jesus.  Just like those ancient Jews, it feels like Christ’s promised return is long-delayed, but when we recognize—as Saint Peter reminds us our second reading today—that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day,” it makes it easier to see that Jesus’ delay is, ultimately, for our benefit.  Christ wishes that all of us should come to repentance, as Saint Peter reminds us, and so every second that he delays—which is as nothing to him—is a gift of opportunity for us to wake up our drowsy hearts, so as to be ready when he comes.

          My sisters and brothers, Jesus did not tell his disciples to “beware that their hearts not become drowsy” because he is an exacting master, demanding strict discipline so as to never sin.  Rather, he was instructing them—and so us through the preservation of his words in the Gospels—to remain vigilant so that they would not be asleep and miss out on the joy of witnessing his return in glory.  My sisters and brothers, this is what the season of Advent is doing for us.  It’s as if the season itself is saying, “Take comfort, for this time of suffering is at an end and the time for Christ’s return is near!”  If it hasn’t done this for you yet, then I encourage you to spend time praying with these readings in this coming week and to ask God to awaken in your heart a joy-filled expectation for his coming.

          And if it has?  Well, I think the Gospel then shows us what to do.  All of the people from the Judean countryside and the city-dwellers of Jerusalem came out to John to receive the baptism of repentance and to acknowledge their sins—to “make straight a path” in their hearts for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, the one Isaiah promised.  We too, then, are called to repent and acknowledge our sins.  For the fully-initiated, that means the sacrament of reconciliation—confession—and it is why the Church encourages all Catholics to celebrate this sacrament during the season of Advent.  As we hear the readings reminding us of how the ancient Jews prepared the way of the Lord in their hearts at the sound of John’s proclamation, so we too are called to prepare a pathway for Christ to come into our hearts by reconciling with both God and our neighbor through the sacrament of confession.

          Friends, beware that yours hearts do not become drowsy from the oversaturation of “Christmas Spirit” that the world outside of these walls is drowning you in.  Rather, use this time of Advent to prepare well your heart for Christ’s second coming and the best gift you will receive on Christmas day may very well be the joy of the Lord in your heart.