Homilies - December 2010

Select a homily to read:
Feast of the Holy Family: December 26, 2010 by Fr. James
Christmas at Midnight Mass: December 25, 2010 by Fr. Simon
Third Sunday of Advent: December 12, 2010 by Fr. Christopher
Second Sunday of Advent: December 5, 2010 by Fr. Hilary

Feast of the Holy Family

  • December 26, 2010
  • by Fr. James

Not too long ago I officiated at the wedding of a young cousin up near Philadelphia. As is often the case, the music at the reception was ear-splittingly loud, so much so that at one point I just left the room and walked around outside for a while. There was, however, a very nice touch at one point in the proceedings, something that I believe has become fairly common at wedding receptions. In addition to the usual kind of dancing, there was a kind of line dance at which the relatives and friends of the groom grouped together on one side of the dance floor and those of the bride on the other, and then a person from one side would pair up with a person from the other and dance down a center line doing all sorts of gyrations, immediately followed by a similar pair, and so on, while the whole group sang the decades-old song “We Are Family.” This was a very effective way of saying that there was no longer just the Moller family all by themselves and the Raia family as a totally separate entity, but that through the marriage of Jeff and Maria a larger family had come into being. We—all of us present—were now one family.

Beyond that, the fact that at a celebration like this morning’s Eucharist we speak of one another as brother and sister shows that we understand ourselves also to be a family, one brought about not through the celebration of a wedding in the normal sense of the word but rather through the fact that we are all members of the church, which in the New Testament is, after all, called the bride of Christ. This is one important reason why the Lectionary readings from the letters of St. Paul often and rightly begin with the address, “My brothers and sisters.” This is also why Paul and many other writers of the early church were so anxious to ensure that nothing should break up the unity of the church, whether it be backbiting, jealousy, apostasy, or whatever. This family, which Paul once calls “the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10), is called to live as one, bound together by one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (Eph 4:5). So we, too are called to be “a holy family.” Although St. Paul did not use this particular phrase of the church, he was well aware of the reality of our deep unity, as when he once spoke of his anxiety for all the churches and then asked: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant” (2 Cor 11:29)? If we take seriously this truth of the one family of the church, we ought to be asking the same kind of question and, in addition, be doing whatever we can to make right anything that disrupts the unity of the church.

There is still a third level to which we can go, beyond the uniting of two families at a wedding or the union formed in virtue of being members of the church. This time of year we hear many Scripture readings from the final chapters of Isaiah in which God is spoken of as our redeemer. This word “redeemer,” however, is not a fully adequate translation of the Hebrew word go’el. Literally, this word refers to a relative who acts as an avenger. It comes from that very basic need in nomadic societies for families to be able to protect themselves from marauders. If and when an enemy inflicted harm on the family or clan—stealing some of their sheep, injuring or even killing one of their members—the go’el was called upon to set things right. When God is called Israel’s go’el, then, it means that he is really seen as the next of kin, the one who has the ability and duty of protecting all those who belong to his family. When you think about it, this is a truly remarkable claim. It means that God is not just a distant creator and lawgiver but one to whom his people are intimately related, one who shelters them with a fatherly and motherly love and concern beyond their wildest dreams.

If anything, this truth is intensified in the New Testament in the momentous claim that the eternal Word of God took flesh and became a member of the human family, taking our nature so that, as is said at the Offertory of every Mass, we may in turn share in his divine nature. This means that as we celebrate today’s feast of the Holy Family we should think not only of the family at Nazareth—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—but of all of us, of the church throughout the world, called to be one universal holy family with ties of kinship not simply to one another but also to our saving Lord.

But let us not stop even there, lest our awareness of belonging to the church lead us to place other persons simply in the category of “the Other,” those outside the pale, those wandering about in religious error “in darkness and the shadow of death.” Let us instead take seriously the meaning of the phrase “the human family,” which one finds occasionally even in our liturgy and which implies that the words “brother” and “sister” apply there as well, to every member of the human race regardless of creed, nationality, or race. It goes without saying that some persons both within and outside the church do not behave in the brotherly or sisterly way, but we must never write anyone off as being beyond the possibility of a change of mind or heart, of conversion in the deepest sense of the word. The example of the saints shows that such change will normally best come about not through aggressive confrontation but rather through sincere attempts to see things through others’ eyes and to be as sensitive as possible to their feelings. The Apostle puts this beautifully in our second reading when he writes: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another. As the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do” (Col 3:12-13).

Needless to say, one doesn’t have to go to other parts of the world to practice this. There are sharp differences of opinion in our own city and country over all sorts of issues, from the definition of marriage to the public expression of religious faith, from the proper treatment of prisoners to the appropriate limits of biomedical intervention. None of us can be an expert on all such issues, but we must also beware of retreating to a ghetto and leaving these matters simply up to elected officials. Just as in an individual household the various members all have some responsibilities, varied though they be, so too in the wider families of church, city, country, and world to which we also belong. Whatever our walk in life, whatever our abilities, perhaps the best guideline is what we heard in that same reading from the Letter to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:17). If we really take that injunction seriously, we will not simply avoid doing grievous harm, we will end up doing a great deal of good that will build up the human family into one that can more and more honestly be called a holy one, one in which voices in various languages and dialects can begin singing together, “We are family.”

Fr. James Wiseman
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Christmas at Midnight Mass

  • December 25, 2010
  • by Fr. Simon
  • Isaiah 52: 7-10
    Hebrews 1: 1-6
    John 1: 1-18

It is always frustrating to preachers when they have to preach upon a mystery which seems so rarified that they cannot quite get their heads around it. The scripture reading does not quite throw enough light upon what they think they want to say, so they drift back to St. Thomas Aquinas or some safe source, or they start combing through old university notes of 20 years ago thinking they could just about remember what old professor Schikelgruber once said, but they just can’t remember the punch-line. Today, of course, there is eternal assistance from ‘Divine Wikileaks.com’. The word “incarnation” seems easily explainable until you start to explain it, so “nativity” comes more easily – it’s translatable into a more homely and picturesque jargon.

Well, thanks to an excellent selection of readings for tonight’s celebration, I think we see this particular mystery laid bare. Do not the words of scripture apply to all God’s people all the time, so are we not now those people who walk in darkness? Many may walk more constantly in a more intense darkness than others, but in darkness, even aided by an automobile, we certainly came here tonight. I know that it is dark at 5.00 p.m. when many pastors now elect to have their “midnight Masses” – “for the children” who, I suspect, would far rather stay up for the excitement – but there is something very special about coming out for midnight; the mystery is more intense, the drama of this very special night is enhanced. God gave us adrenaline to cope with the fatigue. Yes, darkness of soul, darkness of mind, our own, political, social or simply cosmic darkness is the ambience from which we walk or drive into this mystery tonight.

We do not come in dejection and faithlessness; we come because a light is flickering in our souls, like a lamp that needs priming, a light lingering from our primeval ancestors. And because we seek the light, Isaiah tells us that that light has indeed shone; it is already here where we now are. A pure light of faith outshining all the candles and vulgar electric devices we can assemble, cutely symbolic though these may be.

Like his paradigm of the heavenly banquet in his 25th chapter, Isaiah now gives us one of his very material illustrations of how it is when the light has shone and the joy has increased: “It is like men rejoicing at harvest time, dividing the spoils”, laughing and joking and having a beer.

Yet this is at the expense of someone else who has taken on the burden, someone who doesn’t mind because he opted to do it from the beginning; he knew it would come to this, and his name is God. He is not now the God of clouds and heavens but the God of flesh, like us, a very special child because he has extraordinary powers, powers which he will share with us: yes, “Wonder Counselor, Mighty God” for we will become divine, and we will share the same “Eternal Father”, and we will reign with him who is “Prince of Peace. Even more will he be like us because he will do all this in jealousy, “the jealous love of the Lord of Hosts”.

Well, Isaiah is the poetry, the myth – not a word indicating less real but simply the veil behind which is concealed for a time the full reality. And how extraordinary is this reality as it begins to unfold some six centuries later than the prophet Isaiah. St. Luke, it is, the most down-to-earth story-teller of the New Testament, who places our salvation right where it is, ever in mystery, yet now in history: yesterday’s history, today’s history and all history to come.

Beginning with the purely demographic reason why Joseph had to go to Bethlehem in the first place and in whose reign and jurisdiction it took place, we have it all from Luke detail by detail. For Luke and the community he was writing for this child, born in a manger in Bethlehem, is the one spoken of by the prophet. And whilst Isaiah might have been less specific about the place of origin of the Messiah, the later prophet Micah was not: “And you Bethlehem of Ephratha, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel”. But Micah also warned them that “the Lord is going to abandon his people – on account of their sins — until she who is to give birth gives birth”. That it was to be this particular maid and this particular child could only be discerned by direct revelation from the heavenly Father of this child. And so in most unimaginably humble circumstances the long-awaited Messiah is born of quite improbable parents, but God does not know what “probable” means – surely a defect of his education.

Most of your Christmas cards will, I hope, still carry tasteful illustrations of this Lucan scene, Mary – often modeled by some renaissance beauty – Joseph, elderly and worthy, and a child, often far too big for the reality of the scene and child. The scene is irresistibly beautiful. No other maternity in history has attracted so much attention in paint, stone, wood or glass from the greatest artistic geniuses of any day than our Madonna. Understandably, musicians have tended to make more of the of the song of the angels and the great throng singing “Glory to God in the highest heavens!” around a group of terrified shepherds who in most pictures have already sought shelter in the cattle stall. This written scene can hardly be called “high theology”, yet its truth is evident in the simplicity of its narrative features. No need to look up St. Anselm, who wrote a fine treatise on the Incarnation. What is depicted in Luke – and I deliberately say, depicted, that is painted – because Luke’s language is picture language and tradition has it that Luke was an artist and painted the first and only picture of Jesus – yet, what is here depicted simply needs no explanation. Children get it at once and become instant theologians and lovers of Jesus. How sad that so many of today’s children, even Catholics, are no longer exposed to the evangelical wonder which is the crèche.

The choice of the second reading from St. Paul to Titus is a master stroke by the liturgists for this sums up, in case we still had any lingering doubts or were too immersed in the straw of the manger, what it was all about for us adults, and how we are to conduct ourselves in this completely new era of light, that we may benefit from this extraordinary coming. For us adults – because children usually get it right away – we need to be reminded of what the birth of the savior is for and what it requires of us.

Paul is blunt and tells us that the coming of the savior is to save all, to train us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, and that we may “live temperately, justly and devoutly in this present age”. This is a very moralistic and ‘do-goodery’ text but Paul is talking not only to his beloved disciple Titus but also to all of us, who like Titus, are actually intent upon doing the good, upon living like Christ, upon walking in his ways. It is by living in such a manner that we please and give glory to God, and not live simply to avoid hell. It is in this that we show gratitude, while “we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ”.

Well, so much for the readings; they give us the standard text for salvation. In fact, however, most of us are more familiar with Christmas carols. Only the other day, when someone was preaching or reading here my mind flashed from the spoken word to the words of one of our favorite carols, “Oh little town of Bethlehem” which we will be singing at Communion tonight.

In my hymnbook it appears alongside “Once in Royal David’s city”, usually recalled by that shrill soprano which Kings College, Cambridge, seem able to reincarnate every year, and which rings out everywhere from W.E.T.A. to the fruit and vegetable aisle in the Giant.

My mind was first and foremost on the first of these two, and I became transfixed by these words which I have sung perhaps a thousand times before ever noticing their message:

“No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in”.

Well, that’s St. Paul to Titus in 19th century verse. But it continues in verse 4: “Cast out our sins and enter in, be born in us today”. I realized that there in the shortest of phrases was the whole meaning of the incarnation, the Word made flesh. St. Paul said, “Now it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”. It’s the same message. A long boring sermon was really unnecessary but you got one because you paid for it, as it were. These words of your own countryman, Philips Brooks, the 19th century Episcopalian Bishop of Massachusetts, say it all. That, in the tiniest verbal nutshell, is what Christmas is all about: not that Christ was or may be born in a manger in Bethlehem but that he is to be born in us today…. Or on any day of our choosing for God may indeed be jealous but he is also remarkably patient.

Indeed, as I read on, I came to see that those two carols are the most complete and memorable Christmas catechism we could ask for. No need for the Catechism of the Catholic church; these two hymns are your catechism, your lectio divina and your affirmation of faith all in one. They are magnificent. Find a text and pray over them this Christmas. I am sure that meditating on those words and the words of “Once in Royal David’s city” by Mrs. C.F. Alexander will make this Christmas more special than any before because you will come to understand, like the three magi, where the Christ is to be born. He is to be born in us, he is to be born in you. Do not stifle Him, do not abort him. Cherish Him; He is yours to own and you are his.

Dom Simon McGurk
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Third Sunday of Advent

  • December 12, 2010
  • by Fr. Christopher
  • Isaiah 35: 1-6, 10
    James 5: 7-10
    Matthew 11: 2-11

GAUDETE IN DOMINO SEMPER; ITERUM DICO GAUDETE. This is Gaudete Sunday, a name taken from the phrase in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the lord always. I say it again rejoice.” As the psalmist says: “This is a day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” We heard that sentiment echoed by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading: “Those … ransomed will … enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy. They will meet with joy and gladness.” Some find it hard to accept these invitations, given the way the world of political, economic, and social trends seem to be headed.

This is the third Sunday of Advent, the season when we plead in song and prayer for the Lord to come and finish definitively what he did partially when he first came as a man in the fullness of time, healing the sick, preaching the good news to the poor, releasing captives – the works he pointed out to the disciples that John the Baptist sent to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come?” Yes, he is the long-expected Messiah but that first time he came in humility, empting himself taking the form of a slave; the next time he will come in majesty and glory. Who can withstand that coming of God in a blazing, blinding light of glory, who is a consuming fire, and who will come to judge who is worthy to dwell in his kingdom forever?

I remember the last time I visited my grandmother in her eighties within a few months of her death. As we talked about the inevitable, about her going to meet the Lord, she said: “I’m willing, Christopher, but I’m not ready.” I did not think to ask her how much more time she thought she would need in order to be ready. I suppose she meant by ‘ready’ having a sense of being thoroughly cleansed of all the effects of past sins and human weaknesses, and totally surrendered to God’s will. One has to be really pure of heart, we are told, in order to see God.

If I ask myself how much more time do I need in order to be ready to meet my Savior when he comes in his glory, I guess the answer would have to be that I humbly submit my whole life to God, and willingly accept his just judgments as to what more it would take to make me worthy to stand in his presence with unveiled face. Fearsome as Jesus’ final coming and judgment is going to be, we cannot quench the longing for God to come fulfill his promise to save us. We know we cannot save ourselves or bring about an end to all the injustices and horrors of man’s inhumanity to man, nor master the violent upheavals of nature. Only God can command the wind and sea to be still, the volcanoes to go dormant, the tectonic plates to stop moving and earthquakes to cease. Only God can subdue and change mankind’s rebellious and haughty hearts.

So in Advent we call on God to fulfill the prophecies inspired by the Spirit centuries ago, to enlighten those in darkness, to embrace in prodigal love repentant sinners who come home, and to establish the peaceable kingdom where all of the creation will live in harmony and peace. Those are God’s doings. For our part we have our work to do in the actions repeated so often in our hymns, psalms and prayers of Advent season: to yearn, wake up, and listen; to repent and prepare a way for the Lord; to wait, be patient, and to hope. We need to open our hearts to receive graciously God’s gifts and to give generously in return. We cannot help but anticipate rejoicing in the God who has promised to come again and transform our lowly earthly bodies into a pure reflection of Jesus’ glorious resurrected body. God is trustworthy and he will do it.

We can pray that he not delay but come soon, before charity grows colder and he will find no faith on earth. Meanwhile as we wait for his coming again we turn to the altar to offer the perfect victim, God’s own beloved Son, as a most pleasing sacrifice in atonement for our sins. Let us unite ourselves with Jesus in his dying to self and total surrender to the Father’s will. In that way will we draw closer to being ready to meet our God without fear when he comes again. Rejoicing in the Lord will be our strength while we strive to attain that perfect love that casts out all fear. Praise God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit now and forever. AMEN.

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Second Sunday of Advent

  • December 5, 2010
  • by Fr. Hilary
  • Isaiah 11:1-10
    Romans 15:4-9
    Matthew 3:1-12

When I looked over today’s readings a couple of days ago, I first read them straight through. My first reaction was, “hey, here we have something like a celestial badminton match, powerful players on each side, shuttlecocks blasting back and forth!!! Take for example the near-final words of the Gospel. They are from John the Baptizer, like Elijah the Tishbite wearing “hairy clothes with a leather girdle about his loins,” sternly addressing the people, saying: “I am baptizing you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” “I am not worthy to carry his sandals?” John the Baptizer feels that? Wayyyy down the list I am struck by a shuttlecock.

In the post-Vatican II formulation of Advent, the first two weeks look forward to the second coming of the Lord. This second coming is anticipated in the Old Testament prophecies, as we have heard symbolically in today’s first reading. Jesse was the father of David. Isaiah prophecies that from Jesse will come a shoot, a successor, a saving figure who “shall judge the poor with justice, and decide the right for the land’s afflicted,” in a beatific age.

The responsorial psalm continues the theme with the refrain, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.”

In the second reading St. Paul advises the Romans on activities that lead to hope. Hope looks to the future and so, ultimately, to the final coming of the kingdom of God. One activity is the reading of the scriptures “written for our instruction;” the other is what is translated here as “endurance.” I have reason to know that the Greek word for this is hupomone, which most literally means ‘standing under.’ In context it can be translated ‘fortitude, ‘steadfastness.’ ‘patient endurance.’ So we quote,

“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But the game flies back to the opening prayer. In a way the Opening Prayer takes us from here to there: The remembering of the ultimate finality, God’s kingdom of total love and justice, strengthens us in our personal struggles, but also calls us to do something, or at least try, to help those people who walk in darkness, the darkness of hunger, the darkness of war and civil violence and poverty, among other ills. .

So, we pray to God the Father, “God of power and mercy open our hearts in welcome.” To me that’s something like saying, or praying, “welcome us home!”

Then we pray, “Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy” Is there a better description of the Mass than “receiving Christ with joy”? Is not sharing in the liturgy of the word and in the liturgy of the Eucharist a sharing in the wisdom of Christ, as the prayer requests? The prayer concludes with the expectation that this sharing in Christ’s wisdom will lead us to “become one with him when he comes in glory, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.”

Staying on the surface of the liturgy can be a hindrance. Praying together we can celebrate with mind and heart truly attuned, listening deeply, penetrated by the Word we hear, and so sharing in the wisdom of Christ, offering ourselves at the table of the Word, in response to the Word, and so led into our sharing, as God’s priestly people, the table of the Eucharist.

Toward the end of his Encyclical “On the Mystery of Faith,” Pope Paul the Sixth states, in one very long sentence,

May the all-good Redeemer who shortly before his death prayed to the Father that all who were to believe in him would be one, even as he and the Father were one,
deign speedily to hear our most ardent prayer and that of the entire church,
that we may all, with one voice and one faith, celebrate the Eucharistic mystery
and, by participating in the body of Christ, become one body, linked by those same bonds which he himself desired for its perfection.1

Fr. Hilary Hayden
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1. Quoted in The Eucharist Today: Essays on the Theology and Worship of the Real Presence, edited by Raymond A. Tartre, S.S.S., 1967; pp 239-240.