Homilies - December 2011

Select a homily to read:
Second Sunday of Advent: December 4, 2011 by Fr. Christopher
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception: December 8, 2011 by Abbot James
Third Sunday of Advent: December 11, 2011 by Fr. Boniface
Birthday of the Lord (Midnight Mass): December 25, 2011 by Abbot James

Second Sunday of Advent

  • December 4, 2011
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Christopher
  • Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
    2 Peter 3:8-14
    Mark 1:1-8
  • Daily Readings

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“We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” The poetic imagery of these words from the lament of the prophet Isaiah is particularly appropriate for us in the northern temperate zone as we make the transition from fall into winter. The glorious spectacle of the colors of deciduous trees signals the inevitable denuding of their branches, leaving them exposed to the ice and snow, to the cold winds of dark winter.

During that winter the signs of life in the flora are hidden. Then predictably the daylight increases, the sun rises higher in the sky, and signs of life spring up even under the snow. That spring will come in three or so months is predictable; that is, barring an apocalyptic event that shakes up the earth on its axis and in its orbit.

What Jesus spoke about in the gospel with his sobering words, “Be watchful! you do not know when the Lord is coming will be far more cataclysmic than that .” The spiritual dimension of our life is more susceptible to radical change of direction than the orderly movement of the planets and galaxies of the universe. The change comes first from God’s grace, God’s love, rending the veil of our blindness that prevents us from seeing God at work in the world. Secondly the possibility of change comes from God giving us the freedom to accept or reject his offer of salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ. May his name be blessed forever.

As the liturgical year came to an end yesterday and Advent begins today we hear the message again, in a seamless transition. Jesus alerts us to be ready, like loyal, dependable servants staying up, keeping watch for the return of their master, who may come any time of day or night. The church has been announcing the final coming of the risen Lord for more than two thousand years. He is certainly taking his time, we might be inclined to say.

We heard the prophet Isaiah pleading, even centuries before the incarnation, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Why? Because many of the chosen people had wandered from God’s ways, had hardened their hearts, and lost their fear of God’s wrath for their having broken their covenant commitments. The prophet pleaded for mercy trusting in God’s faithfulness in spite of the people’s unfaithfulness. But when the Son of God comes will he sadly find that charity has grown cold? Will he find faith on earth?

Karl Rahner writes of Advent as a liturgical time when we delve deeper into the interpenetration of the past, present and future times. For the generations that lived from the time of Abraham to John the Baptist, the awesome mighty deeds that God wrought for their well being and deliverances were reassuring evidence that God would fulfill his promise to send them a Messiah. Past experiences of God’s mercy gave the reasons to hope for God’s future blessings.

What reasons do we have to believe that Jesus will come some day, and transform this groaning, often heartless world into a new creation, something beautiful for God? You know what the main one is, that kairos moment in human history, the fullness of time, when the Son of God became the Son of Man. For the generations that live after that earthshaking inbreaking of God into human history, the witness of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives even more assurance that what God has promised He will bring about. God is faithful, Paul assures the Corinthians. We have hope for the future, and should not be discouraged by the harsh realities of the world we live in. We are no longer slaves to an endless cycle of seasons, the relentless succession of hour after hour, day after day, year after year, with no possibility of growth and change, nothing new under the sun.

Those who accepted and recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the divinely promised Messiah understood that he came to free the chosen people not from political tyranny; “My kingdom is not of this world.” He came that they and we and the people of all nations, races, and tongues might be set free from the spiritual tyrannies that can enslave us and do so for many. I mean those deceitful seductions of Satan that sin, disobedience of God, is no big deal, that life is meaningless, that death is utter annihilation, that if there is a God he does not care a hoot about puny you and me.

Not so, the church says. “Lex orandi, lex credendi:” The way the church prays is the way she believes. In the opening prayer of this first day of Advent the church prays that Almighty God grant ‘the faithful’ a resolve to run to meet Christ with righteous deeds. ‘Resolve to run’ is not exactly the mind of a couch potato just watching and waiting for God to do something. We need to act on the conviction that God wants us to be a partner in bringing about his new creation by a spiritual conspiracy – a conspiracy of love.

The opening prayer continues, giving the reason why we should want to run to meet Christ with our good deeds, namely, that we may be gathered at his right hand and worthy of having a place in his heavenly kingdom. The allusion to being gathered at his right hand reminds us of the final judgment scene described in Matthew’s gospel we heard last Sunday, when the Son of Man coming in glory will separate sheep from goats. There we were told plainly the righteous deeds that are the criteria for whether one end up on the right or the left. In doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy we are ministering to the judge himself, he says. Life here in this broken, wounded world gives us plenty of opportunities to do some of those righteous deeds. We just need to open to them and step out in faith, take the initiative.

Dame Maria Boulding in her book “The Coming of God” offers us another perspective on the appreciation of Advent. She ponders on God’s longing for us to come to Him, which is antecedent to our wanting Him to come to us. Our longing is expressed through the prophets like Isaiah and the psalmist’s, “O God, …for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting.” God pleads with us through the prophet Hosea speaking sentiments in his name, “Come back to me with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart.” God reveals His heart’s desire to have those made in His image and likeness come to live the Trinitarian life of consuming love. In this mutual longing for loving union, God has taken the steps to meet us more than midway. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die but may have eternal life.”

As we continue with the Mass, offering back to God the gift of the beloved Son, whose passion and death are the only adequate satisfaction for our sins, we bring into the present moments the effects of what God did in the past. In our communion in the body and blood of Jesus, who has provided to be with us always, we begin to share in the promised future heavenly banquet.

Then every tear will be wiped away, every wrong made right, all creation will be subject to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Son will then hand over his kingdom to the One who is the source of all being, so that God may be all in all. AMEN.

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

  • December 8, 2011
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James
  • Genesis 3:9-15, 20
    Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
    Luke 1:26-38
  • Daily Readings

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When we honor Mary each year on this day, the patronal feast of our entire country, we appropriately focus not simply on the doctrine of her having been conceived without Original Sin but, even more importantly, on our conviction that her entire life was sinless. It is also worth reflecting on what that might have looked like to those who knew Mary during her life on earth: first of all, her parents and other relatives, then her neighbors, including childhood playmates, and finally that wider circle of acquaintances that make up the largest number of persons that enter any of our lives. To what extent do you think that any of those persons would have recognized something genuinely extraordinary or unusual about Mary’s behavior, the way she related to other persons, the way she spoke about others, the manner in which she carried out the requests of her parents or other persons who were in any way her superiors? Do you think any of them would have said that Mary was a living saint? Obviously we cannot answer such a question with any certainty, but the very question is a good entrée into thinking about sanctity or sainthood in general—and with regard to our own lives. After all, as a modern spiritual writer once wrote, “The only tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” What might this mean?

A few decades ago the prominent religious writer Romano Guardini published a little book called The Saints in Daily Christian Life. Painting with broad strokes, he gave a summary of different attitudes toward holiness at various periods of Church history. St. Paul clearly expected all of his correspondents to be holy, for he regularly addressed them in his epistles as “the saints”— hoi hagioi. But, Guardini goes on to say, after the time of the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, when becoming a Christian no longer meant taking a serious risk but was instead a prerequisite to public advancement in a society where Christianity had become the state religion, people now began to limit the word “saint” to persons who had fulfilled to an extraordinary degree the great commandment of loving God with all one’s mind, heart, and strength. These were, first of all, the martyrs but also those who served God and God’s people in other striking ways, such as Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi with their embrace of ultimate poverty, St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Vincent de Paul with their immense love of the poor, St. Boniface and St. Francis Xavier with their missionary zeal for souls.

Such holiness will, of course, always earn our respect and even our awe, but Guardini suggested that in our own time the very notion of sanctity is undergoing a transformation such that the notion of the exceptional or extravagant is no longer necessarily involved. Much more is it a matter of doing even small, unobtrusive acts in the perspective of fulfilling God’s will. He writes:

It is hardly a matter of anything of consequence at all—except, and it is in this that its significance lies, it is a person who acts with God, and for God. There is nothing to call attention to the person. We might even work beside such a person, walk with him, and note nothing special. But [someone] whose spirit is attuned to see these things will notice a quiet freedom, a calm assurance, a spirit of love and orientation to the divine, a heart that remains joyous and glad in all cares and trials.1

This, I believe, is what most characterized the life of Mary, from the very beginning of her life up to the time of her death, including in a special way her quiet, patient acceptance of having to behold the cruel death of her beloved son and her willingness to suffer along with him. It is surely in this unobtrusive life of true holiness that Mary is most of all a model for any of us—and not just a model but an encouragement. As Guardini wrote in one of the most inspiring passages of his book, if we could but once really put all our heart, all our soul, all our strength into any action,

we would immediately sense the almost unlimited possibilities for progress that are latent in the world and in ourselves. There are possibilities in us which could lead us ever farther, out beyond the horizons, to a place where we would have to start over and over again the process of clarifying our intentions, … shedding light on [our] interior dodges and dishonesties, conquering the rebellion and meanness in our hearts. These are the possibilities of which Christ has spoken in his ‘All.’” 2

Through the example and intercession of Mary, his mother and ours, and by the grace of this Eucharist, may we come ever closer to that fullness of holiness that we see in her: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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1Romano Guardini, The Saints in Daily Christian Life (Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Books, 1966), 62-63.
2Ibid., 55.

Third Sunday of Advent

  • December 11, 2011
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Boniface
  • Isaiah 61: 1-2
    1 Thess. 5:16-24
    John 1:6-8, 19-28
  • Daily Readings

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[Jesus] came to Nazareth… and entering the synagogue…he stood up to do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed him…he found the passage where it was written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, therefore he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted…to announce a year of favor from the Lord” (Luke 4:18,19).

With these words Jesus announced that in his person the messianic era had come. ‘Rejoice, O Israel! Rejoice O Jerusalem! Rejoice ye nations! For your God has come to save you and bring you to a glory and splendor greater than you have ever known.’

The Isaiah whom Jesus quoted, known as Third Isaiah, was commissioned by God to be a prophet to the Jewish people after their return from exile. This prophet was called by God to console a dispirited and oppressed people. Some scholars place his writings at a time when the restored Jerusalem was no more than a miserable village inhabited by a mixed population.1 The prophet is called to bring the good news that God is about to return to Zion, restoring Jerusalem, inaugurating God’s sovereignty. This gospel of good news is addressed to the poor, the oppressed, the little ones to whom justice has been denied, to those whose spirit has been broken, to those who mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. God’s restored rule will usher in a kingdom of righteousness and justice.2 It will be a time of unrestrained joy.

The prophet pointed not only to a future that lay more or less near with the physical renewal of Jerusalem and its temple, but pointed down through the ages to a new creation and the kingdom of God come among us in the person of the Christ, the Anointed One par excellence. He will inaugurate the New Jerusalem by his passion and death. This is the New Jerusalem where “God shall dwell among human beings. He shall dwell with them and they shall be his people and he shall be their God who is always with them. He shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). And this will be a home for all nations where all peoples will worship at the altar of the Lamb. In the coming of Christ this kingdom has already come among us. The foundations and buildings of the New Jerusalem are already being built up even as we worship here together.

Note that the people to whom both Isaiah’s and Christ’s message are addressed are the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, those in need of healing, those who mourn. The term “the poor” inspires and explains the other terms. “The poor of God” is basic to both the Old and New Testament. The Hebrew word for “poor” literally means “bowed down. “ It describes an attitude of humble submission. The “poor of Yahweh” stand before God, whose kindness they recognize, whose mystery they adore, and for whom they wait with utter confidence. It is the cry of these poor – the persecuted, afflicted, and broken-hearted that we often hear in the psalms. As friends and servants of God, they can count on God. It is to them that the kingdom of heaven belongs. Jesus calls them and those who become like them “blessed.”3

The poverty of which Scripture speaks is more than a material phenomenon. The disadvantaged may count on God’s help in a particular way, but the hearts of those who have nothing can also be filled with greed for material things. Rather, the poverty and broken-heartedness here is a witness that possession is all about self-giving in service, and openness to God’s ways.4

The response to this good news, whether it is the rebuilding of a destroyed Jerusalem or the coming of the heavenly city and the initiation of the Messianic kingdom is one of joy. Today, on Gaudete Sunday, the liturgy calls us to rejoice “always.” Many people, including the poor mentioned above live in sorrow and anguish. The joy to which we are called is not the feeble attempt at an external joy that tries to hide a broken heart. That would ignore the fact that Christian joy is a fruit of the Spirit which cannot be separated from the other gifts of the Spirit: love, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness and chastity (Galatians 5:22). It is founded on the certitude that Christ opens for us the “Way of salvation,” that he has opened the kingdom of God and will take us with him into glory.5 I am sure we all know people who have suffered greatly in one way or another and yet are possessed of a deep peace and joy, because their hope is in Christ.

Today, Gaudete Sunday, marks the mid- point of Advent, and our liturgy points us to the dawn of Christ’s coming. At this time we are busy about many things getting ready to celebrate Christ coming among us. As we write our cards, wrap our gifts, get the tree and hurry about the many tasks associated with the observance of Christmas, we need to contemplate the way the Lord came among us, divesting himself of his very Godhead, humbling himself, obedient even to death on the cross. He came out of love to serve. It was for this he was anointed. We, who await his coming, were also anointed at our baptism to continue Christ’s mission. That is our joy, and that joy is witness to the world. Come, Lord Jesus, and do not delay!

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee, Bruce, 1965) 402.
2 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 (N.Y., Doubleday, Anchor Bible, 2000) 223-335.
3 Days of the Lord: Volume 1, Season of Advent, Season of Christmas/Epiphany (Collegeville, Minn., The Liturgical Press, 1991) 107-108/
4 Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (N.Y., Doubleday, 2007) 77.
5 Days of the Lord, 109

Birthday of the Lord (Midnight Mass)

  • December 25, 2011
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James
  • Isaiah 9:1-7
    Acts 14:16-17,
    22-25
    Matthew 1: 1-25
  • Daily Readings

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I expect a lot of you, like me, receive many unsolicited emails, some of which can indeed be infected by viruses and others not especially worth reading even if they are not malicious. Happily, still others are very fine. A week ago I received a message from a friend that included a story that has apparently been making the rounds on the Internet for a couple years and that is worth repeating, even if some of you may have heard it before. Somewhere out west a mother went to the dress rehearsal of the “Winter Pageant” of the school where her son was in kindergarten. Thirteen members of his class lined up in the center of the stage and were supposed to hold up, in turn, large letters that would eventually spell out the words “Christmas Love.” As each letter was held up, the entire class would sing a line for which that letter stood: “C is for Christmas,” “H is for Happy,” and so forth. About halfway through, one little girl mistakenly held up her letter upside down, leading the pupils in all the other classes to start laughing, but the girl didn’t even realize they were laughing at her so she kept proudly holding her letter aloft. When the thirteenth and final letter was held up, no one in the audience laughed anymore and all took notice, for the little girl’s supposed “M” looked like a “W” instead, making the entire phrase indicate why the holiday is celebrated in the first place. The message read not “Christmas Love” but “Christ Was Love.”

This is, after all, the reason why so many people were drawn to Jesus during his life on earth. As one of our contemporaries has written, “Drawn to him not only for his charismatic powers but for the compassion they sensed in him as well, [the people] surrounded him, flocked about him, followed him. He stands by the Sea of Galilee and they press so hard that he has to speak to them from a boat. He sets out for the day and a crowd of several thousand accumulates, … staying on until suddenly they discover that they are famished.”1 That his followers eventually came to speak of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God was based primarily on their sense that they saw in him one like God in human form, as we hear in the opening chapter of the Fourth Gospel: “And we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

This glory, this splendor, is not unambiguously manifest, of course, for otherwise Jesus would never have had any who opposed him. The late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had it right when he once wrote: “The splendor of Christ [then and now] is present in the mode of hiddenness and requires eyes that have adapted to it to be perceived. The glory of the Son can be seen only by one who believes.” This is why we ought always to be deeply thankful for the gift of faith, one of the most precious gifts we could ever receive. And having received it means that we are called to live accordingly, really taking to heart Jesus’ own teaching that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to him.

It is beyond question that not all of us will do that in the heroic way that we see in the lives of saints and of those who may one day be canonized as saints, but these are the people who help keep us moving in the right direction even if we don’t rise to the level of their observance. To give an example of what I mean, consider the following account from the memoirs of Catherine de Hueck Doherty. She herself was someone who, having experienced much hardship in her escape from Communist Russia, decided to devote the rest of her life to serving the poor, but she also learned in a vivid way how, in doing so, one can always take ever more seriously the teaching of Jesus. On one occasion, Catherine came down from Toronto to visit Dorothy Day at a Catholic Worker house in New York City. The two women were already doing very similar kinds of work and so quickly became the friends that they would remain for life. But there were also differences. Here’s the way Catherine described their first meeting:

I found Dorothy in a storefront very much like ours, feeding a breadline in the same way we did—by prayer and begging….

She invited me to spend the night with her. I was to sleep with her in a double bed in a room that was filled with cots. People literally had to climb over one another to get to the beds near the walls. She was providing hospitality to women who were homeless due to the Depression….

As we were preparing for bed there was a knock at the door. A woman (definitely a woman of the streets), without a nose and with active syphilis, walked in and asked if we had room for her. Dorothy welcomed her like a queen and said, “Of course we do.” Turning to me, she said, “I have a mattress, Catherine. I will put it in the huge bathtub, and you will be [comfortable there]. I will share the bed with this lady.”

Speaking as a nurse, I took Dorothy aside and warned her, “This woman has active syphilis. Make sure you have no cuts on your body. You might easily contract the disease through such a cut.” Then I received my first lesson from Dorothy. Usually so mild, gentle, and kind, Dorothy suddenly [rose up] and in a spirited voice said, “Catherine, you have little faith. This is Christ come to us for a place to sleep. He will take care of me. You have to have faith!” [Catherine continued:] I was dumbfounded. This was one of the many lessons she was to teach me by her witnessing and by her example.” 2

As Dorothy Day herself once wrote in her great Christmas reflection entitled “Room for Christ”: “It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ…. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes…. And to those who, [at the Last Judgment] say, aghast, that they never had a chance to [serve Him], that they lived two thousand years too late, He will say again what they had the chance of knowing all their lives, that if these things were done for the very least of His brethren, they were done to Him.” 3

Mindful of the message that the kindergarten children held up at their pageant, mindful that their message, “Christ Was Love,” was only another way of saying what we find in the First Letter of St. John—“God is love”—let us resolve this Christmastide to let such love be reflected ever more keenly in our own lives, our own words and behavior. And may our sharing in the sacramental body and blood of Christ at this Eucharist deepen that resolve, for there could be no better way of showing that we have really grasped what the celebration of Christmas is all about.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 328.
2Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Fragments of My Life (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1979), 108.
3 Dorothy Day, “Room for Christ,” quoted by Mark and Louise Zwick, “The Incarnation Impacts the World,” Houston Catholic Worker (Nov.-Dec. 2011), 9.