Homilies - December 2015

Select a homily to read:
Feast of the Immaculate Conception: December 8, 2015 by Fr. Michael Hall
Third Sunday of Advent: December 13, 2015 by Fr. Philip Simo
Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 20, 2015 by Fr. Gabriel Myers
Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 20, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Christmas Mass at Midnight: December 25, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Christmas Mass during the Day: December 25, 2015 by Fr. Michael Hall
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: December 28, 2015 by Fr. Boniface Von Nell

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

  • November 2, 2015
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Michael

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Fr. Michael Hall
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Third Sunday of Advent

  • December 13, 2015
  • Year
  • by Fr. Philip
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Fr. Philip Simo
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Fourth Sunday of Advent

The advent wreath, (ours is boxwood and cedar, with fragrance), carefully tended and freshened by Br Isaiah, is not simply a decoration whose function will be finished this week. The advent wreath is a symbol for the season. But what exactly does it symbolize? That is hard to say. The best symbols, a cross or butterfly or crown of thorns, are symbols instead of concepts, because they can’t be nailed down in words. There is a glorious ambiguity to them. Symbols allow us to meditate from a variety of angles, and see something new each time we revisit them. A symbol allows us to deepen our insight if we let it.

So let’s explore. At bottom we might say the advent wreath is simply a way of marking the time. Candles burn down as days pass. X-ing off the days of the calendar in anticipation of a special event. But maybe the advent wreath is more like candles on a birthday cake. We add one for each year in recognition that the more we live the bigger and brighter our experience becomes. Until at last we are ready to be born into a bigger world, the world of eternity.

Advent and Christmas should remind us that life is meant for more than just marking off time. We are created for eternity. We are given earthly life to get ready for and appreciate eternity. In little doses we get to know the God we are meant to spend eternity with. So we are getting ready for more than Christmas. We are getting ready to meet God in a way that will excite us. Jesus comes down to live with us, so that we might learn how to enter heaven and live with him. The advent wreath reminds us of time, the preciousness of it, and encourages us to use it well. For our lives, like the season of Advent, are beautiful, filled with precious things, and so short. The gradually increasing light of the advent wreath reminds us of time.

It is obvious to say that the circular wreath at the bottom has no beginning and no end. That is like God, like eternity, like the world beyond time where God is. But circularity also hints at unity or wholeness. A circle is perfect and unbroken. We know this is not the way the world or our lives are. There are jagged edges, pieces missing, and deep crevices which seem impossible to jump over. One task in life is to come to terms with these flaws, injuries, ugly imperfections. This involves both acceptance and willingness to work towards healing. The serenity prayer expresses the challenge beautifully. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. If we allow ourselves to be changed by that prayer, we will gradually find the right balance between action and acceptance. We will know when to do God’s work for him; we will know when to let go and let God. The circle is about eternity and wholeness.

Some churches give a theme to each candle: the prophecy candle, the baptist’s candle, the shepherd’s candle, and one for the angels. There are variations on the scheme. But such precise explanations are artificial and limiting. It’s not like you can leave prophecy behind after week one, and become an angel in week four. So I like to think of the four candles as pillars for a house. In the house of my soul, I think of the people who as pillars raised up my house so that I could live in it. I think of my family, my teachers, my friends. If I’m really pushed to admit it, I also think of neighbors, co-workers, religious community, and not-so-friendly friends who make me what I am today. What I’m trying to say is that the people who inspire and co-create me are not all easy to get along with. Some of them really try my patience. But each of them has something important to teach me. Often the most valuable lesson comes from someone I find difficult. But if I put up with that person long enough, if I learn to make peace with my antagonist, I learn that they came into my life for a reason. They make my house strong.

Thus, for Jesus the pillars were the happy memory of his parents Mary and Joseph in Nazareth. They were the challenging message of his mentor John the Baptist, who met death rather than submit to false compromise. They were the friendships he formed with his twelve disciples and the women providing financial support and companionship on his journey to Jerusalem. Lastly, they included his antagonists and betrayer, who enabled him to accomplish his life’s work at Calvary. This idea makes us squirm. How can enemies help us do what we are meant to do; why do they have a contributing role in our mission? If we look hard enough, we see that learning to forgive them is the most powerful tool we will ever formulate, one that holds the roof up. The candles represent the pillars of our house.

Finally, the flickering flame on the wick atop the candles. Those who are good at making connections will think backwards from Christ’s birth to the burning bush. There Moses heard the voice of God and knelt down on holy ground. This reminds us of our faith heritage. But you can also fast-forward from Christmas to Pentecost. Enter the first experience of the Holy Spirit, when the word of God came out of the apostles’ mouths in many languages, and they felt the heat of the Spirit in little flames upon their heads. The flames could represent the hearth which draws the family together, and where the meals are cooked for both body and soul.

There is an exquisitely moving prophecy in Isaiah 42 describing qualities of the messiah. “I have put my spirit upon him so that the bruised reed he will not break and the dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will not stop until justice is established on earth and distant coasts accept his law.” This takes our breath away. The messiah is powerful, able to transform world history, in the words of Dr King making its arc bend towards justice. But simultaneously messiah is gentle—he will not crush us who are bruised, bent, and dim.

The flames flicker because they are alive. They burn only for a time. They represent us, alive now, but only for a time. So when you look at an advent wreath, don’t see the birth of Christ just as a past historical event. Look at the flame and see your own life there as part of the nativity scene: your life being warmed, illumined, made to glow, being simmered into a complex, delicious stew. All are effects of welcoming the Christ child. The child was given not only long ago to Mary and Joseph. Jesus is being born now, right in this minute, to you.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Fourth Sunday of Advent

  • December 20, 2015
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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The following homily was given at the Caldwell Community at CUA

The beautiful Gospel reading that we just heard already came up about a half-year ago, on the feast of Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. I once read a commentary by someone reflecting on that Gospel, and he assured his readers that, in his words, “when charity called upon Mary, she thought of no dangers or difficulties in so painful and long a journey from Nazareth in Galilee to the southern part of the mountainous country of Judea.”1 What we have in such a statement is the unspoken assumption that when a holy person performs a virtuous deed, this almost inevitably requires overcoming obstacles in a particularly arduous and painful way. I call this the grit-your-teeth understanding of virtue, and I suspect that it has a lot to do with making religion unattractive to many people. A while back I heard a young Catholic mother say that when she was leaving her house to attend a weekday Mass, her little boy said, “Have a good time, Mom.” She replied that she wasn’t going to church to enjoy it, to which her son astutely replied, “Why not? The Baptists do.”

Well, I’ve never asked any Baptists if they really enjoy services at their church, but I hope they do, just as I hope all of us have gotten beyond a mind-set that equates doing good with straining against the goad. To his credit, the editor of a more recent edition of that commentary on Mary’s visitation omitted the phrase about the “dangers or difficulties of so painful and long a journey” and simply noted that it was “a visit of charity.”2 That has it exactly right. It was indeed a loving thing for Mary to visit her older relative in order to be with her in the final months of her pregnancy, but there is every reason to suppose her journey south was rendered easy, even joyful, by her anticipation of soon being with Elizabeth, and that their months together were marked by many pleasant conversations. After all, the best of our tradition has regularly taught that the virtues—of which the greatest is love—are what make possible the ready and easy performance of actions that lead to good ends. The more virtuous we are, the more we will positively want to live according to the pattern bequeathed to us by our great teacher, Christ Jesus, and the more delight we will experience in this way of life. St. Benedict of Nursia, the author of the monastic rule under which I live, expresses this memorably at the end of his lengthy chapter on humility, where he writes: “After ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear [1 Jn 4:18]. Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally … out of love for Christ, good habit, and delight in virtue.”3This is why the French writer Leon Bloy once wrote that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.

It is also encouraging to note that the kind of behavior the church holds up to us in this Gospel passage is not the sort that would ever make headlines, for this puts such activity within the reach of us all. Visiting a relative or friend is surely among the most mundane things any of us might do, but the fact that St. Luke’s Gospel makes a point of noting Mary’s visit to her cousin is a way of saying that even relatively small deeds are important in the eyes of God if they are done with a loving heart. Let me therefore conclude this homily with some brief reflections on love.

Critics of Christianity occasionally say that our religion preaches love but doesn’t tell us clearly enough just how to practice it. Such critics may be well-intentioned, but I think they’re on the wrong track. If we had a list of precise things to do, such that fulfilling them would prove that we loved other people, there would be a terrible danger that we would become “bean-counters.” In other words, we would be keeping track of all sorts of precisely defined duties and so be led to think that we had thereby done everything that God wanted of us. It’s more risky, but in the long run more invigorating and even exciting, to leave our practice of love open-ended, ready to respond to ever-changing situations in the most generous and creative ways possible.

Many of these ways will include precisely the kind of activity that Mary models for us in today’s Gospel. All of us have relatives or friends who, because of sickness or old age, live in nursing homes or as shut-ins and receive few visitors or even none at all. Such persons can easily feel forgotten and unloved, one of the worst feelings imaginable. What is to stop us from taking the time to pay them a visit, to let them know that someone really cares about them? Somewhere recently I read an account of what such a visit can mean to a person. It went like this: An elderly woman was so ill that she was permanently bed-ridden. When a friend visited her, she said how thankful she was that she was still able to see. When the friend asked how she would feel if she lost her sight, she said that she would be grateful for still being able to have a conversation with her visitor. And when asked how she would feel if she then became deaf, she said, “Oh, I would be so happy that you came to visit me.”

Or perhaps we know someone grieving over the breakup of a marriage or the death of a loved one. How easy it would be for any of us to extend a heartfelt expression of sympathy, to ask if there is anything we can do to be of assistance. Maybe all we can do is give the person a hug, but that might make all the difference. As one of my high-school teachers used to say, “It takes so little to make people happy.” Or again, consider that in our day one in every 138 Americans is incarcerated. These prisoners are truly among the most forgotten persons in society, the living embodiment of the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Yet the Gospel could not be clearer about how such persons are to be treated, for one of the ways in which we serve the Lord Jesus in the least of his brothers and sisters is to heed his words, “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:36). There could, in fact, hardly be a better way of following the example of Mary’s visitation.

My point is simply that to be truly loving followers of Jesus, we don’t so much need a list of precise activities to be undertaken as rather a lively conviction that there are countless ways to show our love for others if only we keep our eyes wide open looking for opportunities and our hands wide open, ready to help. If we live in this way, we will indeed be following the Lord’s new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34), and then we may hope one day to hear from him those other words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…. [For] I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, that you did for me” (Matt 25:34, 40).

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints: Complete Edition, ed. Herbert Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1956), 3:6.
2 Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Full Edition, revised by David Hugh Farmer, May (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996), 176.
3 RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English, 7:67-69, English-only edition, ed. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1982), 38.



 

Christmas Mass at Midnight

  • December 25, 2015
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Abbot James Wiseman
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Christmas Mass during the Day

  • December 25, 2015
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Michael

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Fr. Michael Hall
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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

“Son, why have you done this to us?” It is too easy to idealize the Holy Family. After all, Mary was sinless, God’s fairest creation, Joseph was a righteous, holy man, known for his swift obedience to God, and Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. What could be more perfect? They seem to be so far from our experience.

The Scriptures tell us differently. Mary was pregnant with Jesus before her marriage to Joseph. There was talk of divorce and then there was the birth of Jesus in a far off less than desirable place. One day Mary would be at the foot of a cross.

Only two days ago we celebrated the entry of the Word into our human condition with liturgy, poetry and song. The images of choirs of angels, adoring shepherds, wise men from the East and a guiding star are still with us as we sing our hymns of thanksgiving to the Father for his great gift to us.

Today’s gospel leads us on our first steps to Jerusalem and the cross. Surely it also leads to the resurrection, but neither Jesus nor we arrive there without going through the cross. In one of our Advent hymns we sang: “Be seen, O God omnipotent, // Enthroned on wood of crib and tree, // Be foremost now in sacrifice, // Surrendered, slay iniquity.//” The sweetness of the manger stands always in the shadow of the cross.

The Holy Family had its difficulties and tensions, as evidenced by today’s gospel. Mary and Joseph lost their child and spent three anxious days looking for him. They had no news of his whereabouts. Amazed, they found him in the temple with the learned doctors of the Law. Mary’s reprimand shows how pained and anxious she and Joseph were: “Son, why have you done this to us?”

Jesus’ blunt and seemingly unfeeling remark surprises us: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? (Or as another translation has it ‘my Father’s business’).

A missionary I once heard, felt that this was an expression of the teenage Jesus’ rebellion. He was making a definite statement of what he was all about. It was not a sinful rebellion. He who was always obedient to Mary and Joseph was now showing a prior obedience, obedience to his heavenly Father, one that would characterize his whole life. It would lead him unfailingly to his passion and cross, an obedience he had learned at the feet of Mary and Joseph. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be It done to me according to your word.”

We understand that he who came forth from the Father would obey the Father’s will. What surprises us is his answer bordering on rudeness. Mary and Joseph had lived in agony for three days. Could he not have let them know somehow that he was detained and for good reason? When teaching teenagers, I learned that the synapses in a teenager’s brain are not completely connected which explains some of their behavior and forgetfulness. Let us not forget that Jesus was totally human as well as divine and at this age that means a ‘totally human teenager.’

I remember an incident from my own teenage years. My parents were to be at a school function and I had neglected to tell them. At supper, the evening before the event, I casually mentioned it. To my mother’s annoyed, “Why didn’t you tell us?” I replied, “I didn’t think you were interested.” The look my mother shot me was priceless.

There are other levels of meaning in St. Luke’s story. First of all, we notice in Jesus’ reply a distancing from his parents. He is totally dedicated to God separating himself from all else, even the ties of relationship. The will of God is paramount as it must be in Jesus’ disciples. When during the ministry he was to assume, someone would tell him that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him. He replied “Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mathew 12:50). On another occasion he said

“ Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). The gospels were not meant to be a biography but to preach the Good News which includes the cost of discipleship.

Other scenes in this story foreshadow what was to come. The three day search for the child Jesus evoke the three days Jesus spent in the tomb. His mother’s distressed “Son, why have you done this to us?” parallels that anguished cry on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His birth, his ministry, the cross, the resurrection, all were done in obedience to God. The famous hymn in Philippians 2 begins; “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God something to be grasped at, but empties himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men.” This, of course, is what we are celebrating these days. The hymn continues “he humbled himself and became obedient even unto death even death on a cross.

What in Jesus seemed at first glance like disobedience to his parents was in reality an expression of his obedience to his heavenly Father. We too may be called to obey God against the norms of our culture and sometimes even laws. Witness the martyrs, a St. Agnes, or a St. Thomas More, who gave their lives in obedience to God in opposition to civil laws. Even now Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere are being executed for their obedience to God. In the nineteenth century Christians opposed the government by smuggling run-away slaves to freedom in Canada.i Normally, however, our obedience is shown in the little things that make up our everyday life, the hidden things in which God is present to us.

After this episode showing Jesus’ obedience to God, he returned to his normal life of obedience to Mary and Joseph. Hans Urs von Balthasar reflecting on this story wrote: “God and obedience to him stands at the center of this family and constitutes the glue that holds it together, creating a bond tighter than the physical bond between the Mother and the Son” (Light of the Word – Reflections on Holy Family Sunday, Year C)1 May we as families and individual follow in the footsteps of the Holy Family.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 http://stmaryvalleybloom.org/homilyforholyfamily12.html
2 http://stmaryvalleybloom.org/homilyforholyfamily12.html