Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B Luke 1, 26-38)

Modern rationalists deny even the possibility of miracles. But while it is reasonable to ask for evidence before believing in miracles, it’s both closed-minded and irrational to deny the possibility of miracles beforehand. Miracles are possible because God, who is the author of natural and scientific laws, has the power to suspend these laws. It takes faith to believe in miracles, but this faith is not unreasonable. Faith gives access to knowledge that is beyond, but not contrary to reason.

In the Bible, we see that miraculous events and other signs of God’s providence accompanied the conception and birth of such figures as Isaac (Genesis 18,10-14), Samson (Judges 13, 5), Samuel (1 Samuel 1, 20) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:24), among others. But the conception and birth of Christ are absolutely unique to show that Jesus Christ is truly God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and that he was not conceived through a human father. St. Joseph cared for Jesus as his adopted father.

In the Gospel, the angel Gabriel says to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High overshadow you”. (Luke 1, 35)

The word overshadow was familiar to Mary, who knew the Scriptures well. Often in the history of Israel God’s presence was revealed in a bright cloud whose shadow covered the people: the pillar of cloud that led Israel to freedom through the desert; the cloud in which Moses spoke with God; and especially the bright cloud which symbolized God’s presence in his temple.

So when we hear these words, we are meant to think of the Lord’s presence in his temple. We are meant to see that in this moment in the little town of Nazareth, God is making for himself a new temple, so that in his Son, born on earth of the Virgin Mary, he can be present with his people forever

2 Samuel tells the story of King David’s plan to build a temple for the Lord, but through the prophet Nathan God tells David that instead he will build a ‘house’ for him

“Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Samuel 1, 11-16)

The ‘house’ God speaks of is a royal house, a dynasty from which the king of the world would one day come. In today’s Gospel we see this very prophecy being fulfilled.

The fulfillment of this prophecy came when the Archangel Gabriel says to Mary “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." (Luke 1, 31-33)

Mary consents. Mary’s “Yes” reverses the “No” of Eve. Through Eve sin and death entered the world. Through Mary’s “Yes” grace, love, life and truth enter the world in Jesus Christ. Jesus is conceived, son of Mary, son of David. The Divine Word becomes flesh. (cf. John 1,14) He is king forever; and in him God is present among his people more wonderfully than in any temple.

All this is made possible because a young Jewish girl says yes: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1, 38) Mary opens her life and her whole being in welcome to the Lord, and so becomes the mother of our Savior. She is the perfect image of what Advent and Christmas should mean for us, for we too are called to make of ourselves a house where the Lord can dwell among his people.

Saint Augustine in his comments on this Gospel he said a striking thing: Mary is blessed beyond all women because she received the Son of God in her body; but she is even more blessed because she first received the Word of God in her heart.

He also says of Mary “Him who the heavens cannot contain, the womb of one woman bore. She ruled our ruler; she carried Him in whom we are; she gave milk to our bread.”

Mary’s role is Mother of the Savior and Mother of God is absolutely unique, but like Mary, we are called to in give a home in our hearts to Lord. St. Paul reminds us that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. Therefore we are called to live holy lives, lives of integrity and goodness. He writes “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)

So in this final week before Christmas, let Mary be our example of faith. Like Mary we are called to welcome the Lord into our hearts. May we live lives of holiness and more fully reflect the image and likeness of God. May remember our high calling to be temples of the Holy Spirit and not offend God by committing serious sin.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Homily for Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent Year B)

Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J. wrote powerful reflections on Advent before he was hung by the Nazis on February 2, 1945.

Advent is a season of hopeful expectation. The season is divided into two parts. In the first part we focus on our preparation for the time when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Science points to the fact that the universe began with a “Big Bang” and continues to expand. As the universe had a beginning, so we believe that it will also have an end, when Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

When will Christ return? Jesus deliberately left the answer to this question vague so that in every age people would wait for him with eager expectation and not fall into a life of sin.

Today we begin the second half of Advent which focuses more on preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem. Nine months before we celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, we celebrate the Annunciation on March 25. The fact that these great events of our salvation almost certainly occurred on other dates is far less important then the importance of remembering and commemorating these great events which led to our salvation.

On the Feast of the Annunciation, we celebrate that at the moment Mary said yes to the message of God delivered by the Archangel Gabriel, the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Each time we say the Hail Mary we acknowledge that Jesus is true God and true man. Jesus went through all of the stages of development that we went through. He was a tiny zygote, an embryo, a fetus, an infant, an adolescent and an adult.
By taking on our human nature, Jesus gave new value to each and every human being who is made in the image and likeness of God from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death including life in the womb.

During Advent we wait with Mary and prepare to joyfully celebrate his birth in the stable at Bethlehem. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is a Latin word which means “Rejoice”. We are to rejoice that the Lord is near. The Solemnity of Christmas is drawing closer and our own redemption is drawing nearer. A Christian should neither fear death, nor cause death. God alone is the Master of Life. Only he has the power to give a human life. Only he has the right to take an innocent life to himself.

St. Paul commands us to rejoice always in 1 Thessalonians. How is it possible to rejoice, if we just don’t feel like rejoicing? If the focus of our life is merely on our passing emotions and external circumstances it is impossible to rejoice always. But the rejoicing that St. Paul command is born of deep faith and hope of eternal life. This type of rejoicing is not dependent on the state of our health, the economy or the experience of any sort of loss.

I met a priest last week, in Indiana, who has terminal cancer, but you would never know it by his attitude. He wants to live, but he is also prepared to die and go home to meet the Lord when he calls, not at a time of his own choosing.

In 1944, Fr. Alfred Delp was a 38 year old priest who was preparing to take vows as a Jesuit. He was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis and helped Jews to escape from Germany. He was arrested on July 28, eight days after Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assasinate Adolph Hitler. He was falsely accused of being a part of this plot, but his involvement in the Kreisau Circle was enough to have him convicted and sentenced to death. The Kreisau Circle hoped to reorganize Germany according to a Christian world view.

Fr. Delp was imprisoned during Advent and was able to secretly write down his reflections and say Mass with the help of some sympathetic guards.

He said that Advent was a time for rousing. Because his world had been shaken, it helped him to see things more clearly. He entered Advent more intensely and alert than ever.

He was reminded of a gift he had been given once of an Advent Angel. The Angel carried a banner which said “Be of good cheer. The Lord is near.” Both the gift and the giver were destroyed by a bomb. St. Augustine wrote in the fourth century “Whether any of us here present will see the end of the world, I don’t know. Even so, the time is near for us, for we are mortal.”

Through his suffering in a prison cell, awaiting execution, Fr. Delp came to fully appreciate the true meaning of Advent. He wrote “May the time never come when men forget about the good tidings and promises, when so immured within the four walls of their prison, they see nothing but gray days through barred windows placed too high to see out of.”

Fr. Delp reminds us to be attentive to the message of the cheering words of the angel, and to rejoice always, not just when things are going well for us. The virtue of hope is more just optimism or positive thinking. Hope and Joy are rooted in the promises of Christ who doesn’t promise us ultimate happiness in this life but in the next.

In the meantime Fr. Delp said that we had work to do. He wrote “There is so much despair that cries out for comfort; faint courage that needs to be reinforced; perplexity that yearns for meaning…. God’s messengers who have themselves reaped the fruits of Divine seeds, even in the darkest hours, know how to wait for the fullness of the harvest.”

Fr. Alfred Delp fought against the culture of death in Hitler’s Germany. He was executed by hanging on February 2, 1945. Before he died, Fr. Delp secretly professed his vows as a Jesuit. He died on the Feast of the Presentation. Candles are blessed on this feast to recall the prophecy Simeon made that Christ is the Light of the World. St. John the Baptist in our Gospel today reveals to us that he was called to give testimony to the Light. We who have been baptized into Christ are also called to be a light which shines in the darkness and to rejoice no matter what are external circumstances are.

In fact, the darker the world becomes, the more the world is in need of the Light. Don’t be afraid to give witness to the truth about the sanctity of human life. The right to life is the most basic human and civil right that we have. Don't be afraid to be a voice for unborn children. They have no voice but yours. Don't be afraid to denounce pro-abortion politicians, even when everyone else is singing their praises. Don't be afraid to stan up to the perversion of physician-assisted suicide. Doctors should use their skills in the service of life. Treat pain, but not by killing the patient. Don’t be afraid to proclaim the truth that the family is the foundation of society and that marriage consists of a man and a woman who are committed to one another for life and open to the transmission of life. The more it’s denied, the more we need to affirm this truth. Don’t be afraid to challenge young people to be chaste. Some may not listen, but others will. You’ll be helping them to find true happiness and avoid spiritual, physical and emotional pain.

Like John the Baptist and Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J. we need to be a voice in the desert, preparing a straight path for the Lord, As we wait with Mary to celebrate the birth of her son Jesus Christ, let us pray and work toward the day that when the violence of abortion will be unthinkable and every child will be able to celebrate their birthday and human life will respected and protected in every stage of life.

Rejoice always, even when the power of the culture of death or personal problems seem overwhelming, because it will not always be so. Our hope is rooted in Christ who by his life, death and resurrection has defeated the power of death and given us hope of eternal life and hope too that justice will ultimately prevail.