Mary Mother of God (Year B) – January 1

Here we are, concluding the Octave or ‘eight days’ of Christmas which began on Dec. 25th, with the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus, with a celebration on January 1st – the celebration of Mary Mother of God.

Our society immediately moved along from the celebration of Jesus’ birth as soon as the 25th was over – Christmas music was no longer heard on radio stations on the 26th at 1:00 am, stores began removing their displays – even people who went to great lengths to decorate their lawns and houses dismantled all of the lights and decorations, as if the season itself was no longer relevant.

But as Church, we continue to celebrate that great mystery of our faith, of God entering into our humanity as one of us; entering our reality as any of us would – being born of a woman.  He comes as one of us, so that we can become like Him.  That is the depth and greatness of His love for us; the Almighty sets aside His grandeur to become like us in meekness and humility.  We continue to celebrate that as a people of faith throughout the week, and we end the Octave acknowledging the role that Mary, in her faith and obedience, plays in this most incredible gift to us all. We celebrate that Mary did not simply give birth to another human being; in this feast we acknowledge by honouring Mary with the title ‘Mother of God’, who we truly believe Jesus to be – fully human and fully Divine.

It is as if, in a sense, the Church uses this liturgical celebration of the week as a warm embrace; one arm being the Feast of the Nativity, and the other the Feast of Mary Mother of God, surrounding all of her children in an embrace of love, joy and celebration.  It is a bit tragic that our society denies itself this embrace, rushing headlong into a frenzy of buying and feasting and abruptly ending the celebration to go back to ‘business as usual’.  Perhaps this is, at least culturally, one reason why we seem to lose the sense of ‘peace on earth’ so quickly after Christmas Day.

Participation in this feast reminds us that our joy at Our Saviour’s birth is not something that happens for one day, once a year, but continues with us so long as we observe and celebrate it – and not just because, for us, this is a holy day of obligation.  Of course, Christmas season for the Church doesn’t end today – it continues through the feast of the Epiphany – so while we may be tempted to remove the decorations, the lights and music, as a people of faith let’s not surrender to the rush to ‘put Christmas away’.  Let’s continue to gather in the warmth of that embrace of the Season of Christmas, as we share that warmth and embrace with all whom we encounter in the coming days.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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Christmas – Feast of the Holy Family (Year B)

Here we are, in the midst of our Christmas celebrations, marking this Sunday the feast of the Holy Family. It is certainly fitting that we celebrate this feast at this time of year, a time traditionally set aside in our culture for gathering of family – whether it be children away at college or universities returning home for the break, or grown children and grandchildren returning home for visits and meals and celebrations with parents and grandparents. We feel drawn, no matter our circumstances, towards these gatherings of family, to draw on these moments as something very important in the lives of our families, especially as people of faith when we see the institutions of family and marriage constantly under attack in recent years in our society. To me, it seems surreal to see how the commercial media celebrate the gathering of ‘family’ over the ‘holidays’, and at the same time downplay the traditional institutions of family as ‘outdated’ or ‘out of touch’ or unimportant.

For Christians it is so important for us to celebrate the institution of the family. The Church refers to the family as ‘ecclesia in ecclesia’ or the ‘church within the Church’. This statement reflects a deep and profound truth- that the very foundation of the corporate Body of Christ; the primary unit within the entire body of worship of all believers, is not the individual – but the family; that parents are indeed the first teachers of their children – not just in matters of social behaviour or motor skills – but in matters of faith, in the life of the Church. For parents, it is knowing that their example is the means by which their own children will measure their decisions in life –good or bad – as they continue to grow and develop.

It is important for us to know and celebrate this particular feast, because it reminds us that God chose the family unit as the means by which He would introduce Himself into human society and culture. God has a purpose in all things; had God wanted to, He could have picked any means by which He could have come into the world, and any way He could have participated in human life:
He chose the family.

Our Gospel passage from St. Luke recounts some of the few writings we have into the life of Jesus as a child. Yet even in this episode we see reflected a deep and reverent relationship between the members of this little family and with God; we see with the dedication of Jesus in the Temple, how Mary and Joseph recognize the ‘giftedness’ of the infant Jesus in their lives, and how in an act of surrender, they dedicate Him to God in the Temple. While naming and circumcision were prescribed under the Law of Moses, the presentation in the Temple was a different matter. Under the law, the parents made a financial offering to ‘redeem’ their first born from God; Luke does not mention this offering of money however; Mary and Joseph dedicate Jesus to God, reflecting the reality of whose Son Jesus really is. It is an act of recognizing that Jesus is not theirs to possess, but is a gift granted through God’s goodness and generosity. In this act of presentation, they hold up Jesus to God, to be shared with all of humankind for our redemption and reconciliation.

During this feast day, we are invited to continue to pray for all families, but particularly our own; for healing and reconciliation where necessary, for strength and consolation when required, and for gratitude and thanksgiving where it is upheld and cherished. We pray also, that our own families will be places where, like that little family in Nazareth, we will live a life of gratitude that Jesus, God’s most precious gift to us all, is revered and shared.

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Praised be Jesus Chris, now and forever!

Christmas Day (Year B) – Christmas during the day readings…

When my children were small, they would say something at some point on Christmas day that I recall saying each Christmas when I was a little child myself; I wish it was Christmas every day…of course, at the time, my motivation was a little different, thinking of presents and lights and Christmas dinner….and I remember my parents telling me that if it was Christmas every day, then Christmas wouldn’t be special…that if it was an every day thing, it would become boring and routine….

In the mid 1990’s I served a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia, and was away from my family for six months. My wife Kathi shared with me, how for several weeks after my departure, whenever she would ask one of our children to help set the table for a meal, they always set one place too many…a place for me, as if I was still there. They got used to this difference over time though, and when I returned, for several weeks after, whenever one of them was asked to set the table, they set one place too few. The routine had become ordinary for them; unless we reminded them of my absence or return in an extraordinary way by telling them directly how many places to set, they continued with the new routine. I think we have all had experiences where we are so used to having things done a certain way, a routine, or having certain people around us, that we don’t quite appreciate them as much as we should perhaps, until they are no longer present to us. Having family return for visits, particularly at this time of year, reminds us of how much we enjoy their company and miss that company when they return to their own homes or schools or jobs.

Sometimes we need the extraordinary event to remind us of the wonderful things we have in our ordinary lives. So it is too during the time of Advent leading up to Christmas. Over the last four weeks we have heard passages of sacred scripture talking about the ‘old routine’ of humanity, of the chosen people, of Israel waiting for the Messiah – with terms like ‘stay awake’ or ‘living in darkness’ as if the ‘old routine’ was one of disconnect or ignorance of God…

Today we hear from the Gospel of St. John, the words of the gospel’s prologue; In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being’

Here we have God with us through all of our short history, and despite speaking directly through His prophets and His inspired Word, His chosen people – all of humanity really, got so used to Him being in the background, that they completely forgot about Him….that He was always present to them…….and so in the fullness of time, God directly intervenes again in human history, and is born among us, in the person of Jesus, as a baby in a manger at Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, or as this Gospel says,

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory”

An extraordinary event to be sure…..but then aside from the shepherds that the angels announced the birth to in St. Luke’s Gospel, or the wise men who followed the star in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the birth of this child seems to have been largely ignored by everyone else…in their midst, a very ordinary event, and everyone in Palestine went about their day-to-day business.

The fact that the gospels tell us nothing of Jesus childhood and young adulthood, points to the ordinary-ness of His early life on earth – He lived in a home, with his family, learned his step-father’s trade, was obedient to his parents, made a living…His presence in the ordinary that would not be noticed unless people looked more closely at this child from Nazareth. In much the same way, we too, can go about our lives, our ordinary day-to-day existence without seeing Christ’s presence among us, unless we take the time to look more closely for Him in the events and people that surround us.

Why should we want to? Well, it speaks again to our understanding that from the very moment of our existence, our souls instinctively know that we are drawn to God, to the good, and that we can never be completely or truly happy until we are reunited with Him; and that was the whole reason for Christ being born among us as one of us; that in the person of Jesus, the Son, God was not content to sit in the background and wait for us to accomplish something we could never accomplish on our own; to return to union with Him; the Word who waited from the beginning, would no longer wait, but was born as one of us; into our ordinary existence in an extraordinary way.

We have spent weeks preparing for this day in a number of ways, as various and unique as people gathered here. For some it has been hectic, stressful – for others, a chance to consider faith and family – for still others a time to reflect over past joys or sorrows; yet in all these, the idea of preparing for the coming of the Lord, for Christmas, has been a part of our ‘routine’ now both in the sacred and secular worlds.

It is important for us, though, to remember that the acceptance of Christ coming among us as one of us, is not the end of a journey, or the culmination of all this preparation; really, it is a new beginning – a chance to renew our acquaintance with God in our midst in the person of Jesus Christ; a chance for a daily fresh start in the company and presence of this child of Bethlehem; today could be a start for some, a renewal for others; of considering our prayer lives, of receiving Christ in the Sacraments; of participating in the life of the Church. In January we will begin a program called Catholics Returning Home, and there will be further details of that in the bulletin.

We can either let Christ fade again into the background, as humans have done for centuries, or we can all use today as another start to bring Christ back into the foreground in our lives; to not let the fact that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen His glory,” become something we take for granted to the point of ignoring it, but something we celebrate and rejoice in and look to as a tremendous gift and source of joy that is given to each of us from God. It was St. Iranaeus who said; “The Word of God, Jesus Christ, because of His great love for us, became what we are, so that we may become what He is.” And just what is that? That is becoming a child of God, completely united with Him in all things, entering into His glory.

And as children, when we say I wish it was Christmas every day; when we seek and find Christ our Lord each day in our own homes, or relationships, or workplaces or schools, then we really have kept Christmas alive every day throughout the year. It is on this wonderful feast that we recall that extraordinary entry of God into our humanity – that we look to this extraordinary event to remind us that He is ever present with us, in our ordinary lives; that this extraordinary event becomes our ‘new’ ‘routine’. And it is in this new routine, that we will not forget to include Him, that we will remember to set a place for Him at the table of our hearts.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

4th Sunday Advent (Year B)

As a society we seem to have lost our sense of amazement, of wonder. Sometimes, when I have watched a large aircraft – like a 747- take off, I consider how I may or may not understand the scientific principles of thrust and aerodynamics and lift that can bring this aircraft up off the ground and into the air; but whenever I see one of these large planes actually leave the ground, I am always amazed that something so big and so heavy can actually fly.

That sheer delight at looking around us, at all of the marvels and movements and sights and sounds in our world seems to be reserved to very small children; the simple; the unsophisticated.

And yet, wonder is one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  We might know it by other names – awe, or fear of the Lord.  But that sense of awe, a truly deep sense of the greatness of the work of God in our own daily existence, is something that perhaps as a people, we tend to diminish, to repress, or even belittle. But wonder can lead to a sense of innocence and purity, which in turn leads to humility, which in itself opens us to a deeper sense of trust that with God all things are possible; and that there is wonder in everything around us; everything is a gift from God.

Sometimes we forget how much we depend on the goodness of God, and how often God has worked in and through our own lives.  And when we forget that, we lose that sense of wonder.

A very wise and dear friend once told me, “Grace is remembering; sin is forgetting.”

It  sometimes helps us to be ‘put in our place’ to gain a proper perspective, and to approach in humility and gratitude, the truly amazing gifts that God pours out on us, both individually and as a people of faith.

Take for example our first reading, relating how King David wanted to build a temple to house God; the God of the desert who had travelled with the children of Israel, and whose ark containing the law was kept in a tent – David reasoned that if he was the king and lived in a palace, then he would use his royal ‘greatness’ to build something great for God.  But it was God, speaking through the prophet Nathan who said to David, ‘you’re forgetting something here…I’m God; I have given you and your people everything that they have; and while you may be a king, you are still one of my creations – what kind of a house could you possibly build for me? What kind of structure could you make that would contain the Almighty – the Eternal – the Creator of All?”

Although well intentioned, the danger in what David proposed was that in building a structure to ‘house’ God or ‘contain’ God, was that – human nature being what it is – there might be a temptation for David to think that he ‘owned’ or could ‘claim’ God; as if somehow humans could control or direct God.  What may start as an attitude or gesture of thanksgiving and praise – could just as easily slide into arrogance and pride.

Contrast that attitude with the response of Mary in St. Luke’s Gospel; when told by the angel that, although a virgin, she would conceive and bear God’s Son, she didn’t propose conditions, or bargain with the angel – she didn’t try to constrain God’s action or attempt to place restrictions on how and when God should or could act in her life;  her response was simply, “Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word,”

Mary in her simple, humble response illustrates for each of us, the attitude of trust and thanksgiving that we are all encouraged to adopt in our own spiritual journey; we are invited to deepen our sense of wonder at God’s work in our lives and to see in that how truly everything we have and are is a gift, freely given by a God who holds nothing back in His love for us.

This particular time of year provides us with constant reminders of the giftedness of God’s love in the Incarnation of His Son; it provides us with reminders, particularly in the faces of children, of the wonder and beauty in things that perhaps as we have grown into adults, we have taken for granted and lost a sense of amazement at.

But the season of Advent, particularly these readings, also serves to remind us that even if we have lost that sense of wonder and gratitude at all that God has done for us, it is never too late to recapture it, to revive it; to open our hearts to it.  Because as the Angel said to Mary, ‘nothing will be impossible with God”.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

3rd Sunday Advent (Year B)

Have you ever been on a long drive with children in the car? Usually within the first half hour of travel, the question that every parent dreads hearing is asked….are we almost there? Here we are celebrating the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, as we continue preparing for the coming of Jesus. We light the rose-coloured candle, of the Advent wreath, almost as a sign of encouragement, that this season of preparation and penance is almost passed. So for the children among us, and for the child in each of us, as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, of Christ coming among us, it’s a symbol that, ‘yes, we’re almost there….but we’re not there yet.” The readings today bear out that feeling of nearness, that excitement of the ultimate event of God intervening directly into human affairs, of His coming among us as one of us. From the prophet Isaiah, the theme that the ‘Lord has anointed me to bring good news…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ – we hear this and read it and know the prophet is speaking of an event of incredible importance for every human being in the history of the world. It might be hard to remember this in the parking lots and stores right now, but St. Paul tells us in the second reading that we are to always be joyful; even in this season of Advent, which is a penitential season; a season of penance to prepare and cleanse our hearts to receive Jesus, as God makes His dwelling among us. It seems though, the closer we get to an event, the more we prepare for it, the greatest temptation is for our preparations to distract us – to even derail us in our focus on the reason for all this preparation; We say we are preparing the way of the Lord, for the coming of Jesus – for Christmas. But with all the decorating, and the cleaning and the buying and the selling and the parties and celebrations, the great temptation is to put all of our energies into ‘getting ready’, so that when the actual point of all this preparation arrives, we’re either too exhausted to enjoy it, or the actual event almost becomes anti-climactic or a none-event. Our plans and preparations take first place; if He’s fortunate, sometimes Jesus comes in a very distant second to those plans. We sometimes celebrate Christmas and forget to invite the guest of honour. Do we spend so much time and energy in preparing for Jesus, that when He arrives, we just sit around and look at Him and say, ‘well, that’s nice.” And then start thinking of Easter? Perhaps the greatest temptation particularly at this time of year, is that although Christ is always in our midst ; we become so preoccupied, that our plans and our goals, as well-intentioned as they may be, prevent us from seeing Jesus when he is right in front of us, in the poor, the lonely, the sick and suffering; those who have fears or doubts…. For the past two Sundays we have read in the Gospels about the mission of St. John the Baptist; preparing the way of the Lord. Today’s Gospel according to St. John the Evangelist picks up on a discussion between the Baptist and the Levites. They put John on the spot, and demand to know who he really is – is he the Old Testament prophet Elijah, somehow returned from heaven; or is he the Messiah? John the Baptist had a following; and he might have been tempted to answer the Levites that He was the Prophet , or he was the Messiah – the Baptist enjoyed some public popularity, and his followers would have no doubt supported such a claim in the interest of political power and prestige…he could have put himself first; the world certainly wouldn’t fault him for that, and the world might even encourage him to do that- to take what he could because he had the opportunity….yet the Baptist knew that this was not what God was calling Him to do. His preparations were not meant to take precedence over the one He was preparing the way for. In our society, putting ourselves second is foreign – confusing; even ridiculed. Our society says we cannot be happy if we don’t put ourselves first, if we don’t seek our own fulfillment, our own satisfaction – and if people become a means to that end, well then so be it. But God had called John to prepare the way for the coming of His Son, the Messiah; and John, in following this call of God, set himself in the subordinate position, not laying any claim to first place; he came to testify to the light – he was not the light; he prepared the way, and then stepped aside; later in this same Gospel, the Baptist would tell his own followers that he must decrease as Jesus must increase; decreasing in importance so that not only Christ would increase, but that others could increase in coming to know Christ; and we don’t have to think that only the greatest of Biblical characters knew anything about decreasing to allow God to increase…we have practical, realistic examples in our day to day lives. A truly loving relationship is all about decreasing to self so that the other may increase. In an ideal marriage, for example, it is not about a wife only decreasing to build up her husband. It is not about a husband only decreasing so that his wife may increase. It is about a sharing, a mutual decreasing of self interest, of a greater other-centeredness – so that each party is building the other up. And in this mutual self-giving, both husband and wife actually increase in their relationship. Or consider parenting…it’s been said that a parent’s ultimate job is to render themselves redundant, so that their child will be equipped to go out and make their own way in the world. Through the years, the ideal parent decreases in their own interests and ambitions to some degree, putting the development, rearing and growth of their child first – in other words, the parent decreases that the child may increase…Or look at those with elderly parents whose health is failing to the point that they eventually require greater assistance from their children… the ideal loving child puts their interests on hold to provide care for their parent…the child decreases that the parent may increase….. This decrease is a gift of self; the greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of self; and nowhere is this more clearly shown to us than in the Eucharist. Jesus continually gives Himself to us in Holy Communion, so that as we receive Him and the more we remain open to Him, the more He increases in us…and as He increases in us, our self-centeredness decreases; and there is the paradox – because as our self-interest shrinks, and Jesus grows in us, we become more fully human and holy, and move closer to that true holiness, that union with God – and we can’t increase any more than union with our almighty creator. God desires to give all of his children the gift of His love, and this gift was particularly shown in the person of His Son Jesus. Jesus is the light of love coming into a darkened and fearful world, dwelling among us, a reason to be always joyful. That’s what we prepare for every day as Christians. It is this joy in the knowledge that He grows in each of us, just as He did in a physical way in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When we are open and allow His presence to grow in us, although we allow our self interest to diminish, we actually are built up in Him. And there is a tremendous joy in that. It’s not a joy the world understands; but then, the world didn’t understand that the Lord of the Universe would be born in poverty – just as the world today doesn’t understand that Jesus is really and truly present to us in the Eucharist. The question for each of us becomes, then, what part does God call me to play in preparing a way for Christ to enter into the realities of my daily life? In what way am I called to decrease so that He may increase? Not just during this season of Advent, but throughout the entire year?

And as we continue to focus on opening a welcoming heart to receive Jesus, we can ask ourselves, ‘are we almost there?”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Advent 2nd Sunday (Year B)

Here we are in the second Sunday of Advent, a time of preparation for the great feast of Christmas. Yet it seems as if our secular culture has already moved ‘into’ Christmas season and hasn’t given a thought to Advent being a season in itself. Perhaps we have done the same. In our Gospel from St. Mark, quoting the prophet Isaiah in pointing to St. John the Baptist; a voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”

We spend this time preparing; and that preparation takes all kinds of forms – shopping and baking and decorating and visiting; or maybe we spend time reflecting on the Christmas story, of that little manger in Bethlehem.

The difficulty in leaping into Bethlehem, though, unprepared, is that we may miss Advent, and the entire point of God coming among us, as one of us- as ‘Emmanuel’. In the secular we think about our shopping carts – in the sacred we think about Bethlehem; and whether we realize it or not, these two points of focus can have something in common.

Often this time of year, those who have the means to shop, do so filling their carts or baskets with all kinds of treats and desserts and ‘junk foods’ to celebrate with – yet, if that’s how we shop, then there is little or no room in the cart for the things we really need; foods that are nutritious, healthy and necessary. In the same way we can consider the Inn that was noted in St. Luke’s gospel narrative; the Inn where there was no room – no room to accept the Holy Family, no room for Mary to give birth to her son, no room for Jesus.

This is not a judgment on the innkeeper or the shopper; it’s more an invitation to reflect on the ‘fullness’ of an inn that was accommodating travelers, or a shopping cart that’s filled with ‘junk’; an invitation to reflect on what ‘preparation’ during Advent really means.

If our hearts are filled with anxiety or anger, with worry and distress; if we need to seek mercy or to show mercy; if we need forgiveness or to forgive; if we seek compassion or are asked to be compassionate, this is the time of year most ‘geared’ towards seeking that disposition in our hearts.

A heart that has no room for justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness or compassion has no room for Christ, just as the Inn at Bethlehem had no room for Him – much the same as an overstuffed shopping cart full of ‘extras’ has no room for what is truly necessary.

Perhaps we can spend a bit of time in this season of Advent, emptying out those shopping carts that are our hearts, that accumulate and gather pain and sorrow, grief and anger, and letting them fill with the things that we need the most; maybe we can open up the Inn of our hearts, asking those more difficult guests like impatience and selfishness, pride and ignorance to leave, so that there will be room for the One whose arrival we claim to be preparing for in the first place; Christ our Lord.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!