Readings: 1st- Is. 2:1-5; 2nd- 13:11-14; Gospel- Matt. 24:37-44
Stay Awake: Can this just be another advent for you?
Here comes another advent! What difference does it make? Maybe, just that this is 2019. Is that how it feels? It is just another year, and perhaps a different feel. That can be true if we don’t pay attention to the message of the Scriptures if we don’t understand the uniqueness of the opportunity that Christ gives to us. It can feel that way if we focus on the celebrations of the festive period only. We busy ourselves with how much shopping we are to do, how tall our Christmas trees would be, how much lighting to have inside and around the house, how many gifts we are going to wrap, and how much cooking we are going to do. There could be a lot more. Hence, it is possible to celebrate Christmas without advent. What is the difference? Advent is the process while Christmas is the content.
Think about it this way- cooking in your house and eating out aren’t the same thing. It might be exciting to eat out but you don’t always get your choice/favorite taste. When you cook in your house, you pay attention to the ingredients or the recipe you are using. When you eat out, you eat what you’re presented with. The waitresses in the restaurant presents the menu and you make your choice. Sometimes, you end up receiving what isn’t very pleasing and tasteful to you. Yet, you have to eat it and say the food is very delicious. You are not part of the process. You are not part of the preparation, so you can’t control what is used in the cooking. You consume the content.
The readings of today tell us about being part of the process of the coming of Christ; stay awake! Staying awake means being part of the process both physically and spiritually. It is an invitation to climb the mountain of the Lord as echoed by the prophet Isaiah. This mountain is established as the highest of the mountains with everyone streaming to it. It is a mountain requiring strength and vigor. Those who walk on the Lord’s mountain convert their weapons of war into tools of witnessing for God, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.” Nations will cease fighting against another with everyone concentrating on the mountain of the Lord. God’s people will simply walk in the light of the gospel.
Saint Paul reminds us about the uniqueness of our salvation story by using a paradox of night and day. The night is ordinarily a time for sleeping and relaxing. It represents some form of laziness and in some cases, a time of carrying out negative and evil activities. Saint Paul uses the image of the night to invite Christians to an awakening from their spiritual slumber. That the night is far gone, and the day at hand points to what theologians refer to as the “already and the not yet of our salvation.” We are part of the dawn brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. We belong to the day, not to the night. While living in this Light of Christ, we are still waiting for his second coming which is uncertain. Paul invites us to throw off everything that belongs to the darkness and put on the armor of light. He states, “let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy” (Rom. 13:13). Only then can we put on Christ who himself is the Light of the world, the Light of love, joy and peace.
Christ says, “Therefore, stay awake.” “So, too, you must be prepared.” The people of Noah’s time failed to recognize that. They were taken unawares by the flood. They kept themselves engaged with eating and drinking, with partying and merriments. Christ warns us that it can still happen in our time if we don’t pay attention to the gospel. It does not matter whom we are connected to -husband or wife, friend or relative, colleague or boss. What matters is only how we conduct our lives in relation to our spiritual good. The relevance of advent is, therefore, an opportunity to stay awake, to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah. While we get physically and materially ready for the Christmas, we also need to get spiritually ready. How do we get prepared? I will suggest some ways for you:
- Have you ever considered attending a retreat during the advent? Advent has four weeks in it. It is possible to attend a retreat with your family, just one retreat. Maybe, a retreat will cost you some money because you must pay for it. Can you set aside a day of spiritual recollection in your house? Just a few hours of prayer. I can give you some schedule to do it if you want. Call me and we’ll work it out.
- Have you ever considered reading the Scriptures as a family? Think about a Bible sharing twice every week for the four weeks of advent? You might take one of the gospels or the Psalms as your focus. That might help your family members to deepen your knowledge about the mystery of the incarnation, life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the end, you might have some questions that you would want to ask. Feel free to contact a priest or someone who might help you and talk about it.
- Have you ever considered volunteering for some charity? Maybe you’ve been so busy with work and family schedules that you don’t have the time to do something out of your busy schedule. Look for some opportunity to volunteer during these four weeks. An opportunity to serve might be a way to deepen your commitment to the human course in view of Christmas.
- Make out time for confessions during this advent. Within these four weeks, get a priest and confess your sins. You might not have gone for a long time, it does not matter. Go to a priest, tell him that you’ve forgotten how to do it. I’m sure he will help you. Even if you think you don’t have mortal sin, go. Confess those little ones -bad thoughts, bad talks, bad looks, upsets on the road, flashes of anger at rough drivers, lateness to activities. There’s a lot of things we do on a daily basis. Do not be afraid. Go and be cleaner. Wear a new spiritual robe for Christmas.
- Have you ever set aside something specifically for charity to the poor? Can you dedicate one-tenth of your budget for Christmas shopping and do something for the poor. It might be winter clothing, socks, hat, or some other thing that might keep the man/woman in the streets warm. Give it to someone at the end of the advent. It would make a difference in a person’s life.
- Have you ever visited a homebound or someone in the hospital without knowing who the person was? Do you know the joy someone in the hospital bed feels by having someone walk in and say, “I just came around to support you during this time? I came to see how you’re doing, to tell you that you’re being thought of in a special way this time. Take courage, Jesus loves you.” Even if the person is not conscious, meeting with the family and offering some words of encouragement makes a huge difference. Do that within this advent. It might be something new.
Trying one of these might be the uniqueness of your 2019 advent. You need not do all, just one. Do it conscientiously, that means with the intention that it is part of your advent journey. It might not be easy as you start but it gets easier along the line. Let’s do something for the spirit, that’s the invitation from today’s readings at the beginning of advent. Saint Paul states, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval” (Rom. 14:17-18).
May God help us to stay awake at the coming of Christ.
Mary’s Surprise Gift to Elizabeth
Readings: 1st- Micah 5:1-4; 2nd- Heb. 10:5-10; Gospel- Lk. 1:39-45
On December 20th, Pope Francis stated in his homily, “God lowers himself, God enters history and does so in his original style: a surprise. The God of surprises surprises us (again).” He was alluding to the incarnation of Christ and the encounter between the angel and the Blessed Virgin Mary at the annunciation. The Pope pointed out that Christmas presents us with series of surprises from God. One such surprise is the pregnancy of Elizabeth at a very old age, then the visitation of the Virgin Mary which is the story we hear in the gospel of today. God lowers himself to visit humanity through the incarnation. Divinity lowers himself in the womb of Mary to visit John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth.
In the first reading, the prophet Micah speaks about the coming messiah. Bethlehem, considered as one of the smallest clans of Judah produces the great king. What a surprise! Micah remarks that this king shall stand firm as the shepherd of his flock surrounded by majesty. His greatness will reach the ends of the earth. About his rulership, not with sword or spectacle of power, rather, “He shall be peace” (Mic. 5:4). This title is similar to the prophecy of Isaiah about the birth of a messiah for Israel put this way, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us… They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:5). Bethlehem hosts this Prince of Peace just as the Virgin Mary hosts the Son of God. A surprise!
The drama of the visitation begins this way, “Mary sets out” to experience the joy of the miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth. The Lectors’ workbook for 2019 recognizes four actors in this drama: “the Old Testament, personified in Elizabeth; the New Testament, represented by the young Virgin; divine Grace incarnate, present in the Virgin’s pregnancy, and John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb.” We might consider two things in this great encounter: one is the surprise emanating from the visit; the other is the acknowledgment of the unborn child.
Regarding the first, we see Elizabeth who represents the old history depicted by barrenness. Here, this old history is encountering the light of God’s grace and favor represented by the Virgin Mary. Elizabeth’s story changes, she is transformed. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth declares how much of her history becomes past. She connects with Mary’s favor, “Blessed are you among women.” Then she echoes the privilege arising from that favor, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Lk.1:43). Elizabeth partakes in the newness of God’s love irrespective of her old age. She represents the prophecy of Isaiah which states, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (9:2). This corroborates the angel’s message to Mary about her, “…and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God” (Lk. 1:36-37).
John, who will later describe himself as the “voice” leaps and dances for joy at the encounter with Grace Incarnate. John the Baptist seems to be the greatest beneficiary of the visit as Jesus’ forerunner. He leaps with joy at the presence of the one whose sandals he will not be fit to undo. John dances before the Ark of the New Covenant, the Blessed Virgin Mary. He embraces the great Light right inside his mother’s womb.
Mary’s visit offers Elizabeth the greatest gift ever, gifts wrapped in simplicity and affection of the Blessed Virgin. The joy of Elizabeth is captured in the dance performed by the infant in her womb. Mary, on her part, carries God’s surprise for her cousin. The infant Jesus is the Gift, the reason for the dance.
Equally, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth shows the value and dignity of the unborn. The encounters here depict the respect which both Elizabeth and Mary show to their unborn babies. Mary hears the angel’s message, sets out to visit Elizabeth. Elizabeth recognizes the child in Mary’s womb, John leaps in the womb. Here, we see series of affection and appreciation of the dignity of the human person right form the womb. Elizabeth greets not just the Virgin Mary but mostly the child in her womb as she exclaims, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk. 1:42). The incarnation of Christ reminds us of the sanctity of the unborn child. Like John the Baptist, infants in the womb share in their parents’ joys as well as in their sorrows. We must realize not only the biology of pregnancy but its spirituality. We must anticipate and promote freedom for the unborn. The unborn is blessed. The unborn is a gift. The unborn is a source of joy and in turn wants to be joyful. The unborn needs to be listened to, appreciated like Elizabeth and Mary appreciated the infants Jesus and John the Baptist. We must protect the unborn.
As Christmas comes very close, let us emulate Mary and Elizabeth in communicating joys to those around us. Let us appreciate the need to be with one another during this time. Mary reminds us to share gifts and presents with loved ones, to reach out to those in need. We all have been blessed by God in various ways. It is not all about material or monetary gifts. It is mostly about our comforting and positive presence. Think of what you do to another person during this season. The best gift is to make others leap for joy. It doesn’t matter how little it is. What matters is the impact of such. Let us be that symbol of joy to one another. Let us be the surprise that others would experience. If God has surprised us, we must in turn, surprise others.
Doing the ordinary things!
Readings: 1st- Zeph. 3:14-18; 2nd- Phil. 4:4-7; Gospel- Lk. 3:10-18
The readings of today commend us to the joy of the coming Messiah. Being sons and daughters of God offers great joy. The prophet Zephaniah speaks in the first reading of the end of Israel’s exile and the return from Babylon. The prophet announces joy to Jerusalem after a painful experience, “The Lord your God has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the king of Israel, the Lord is in your midst, you have no misfortune to fear.” The prophet Zephaniah presents two images of the Lord’s compassion for the people: First, God is turning the negative judgment against Israel and has dispersed their enemies. Second, God declares his constant presence to his people and promises never to abandon them anymore.
The theme of joy becomes more pronounced in the letter of Saint Paul in the second reading reminding the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say to you again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near.” The reasons for Paul’s invitation to rejoice is clear, “The Lord is near.” God’s nearness calls for great rejoicing because it evokes a feeling of comfort and safety. It also calls for greater acts of love, compassion and service. Our joy should come ultimately from the Lord. We rejoice for good not for bad or evil. Paul puts it this way, “Your kindness should be known to all” (Phil. 4:5).
This week, two things left a remarkable image/impression in my head: One is a message which my friend sent to me while she was driving back after an event in Baltimore. She wrote, “There is a lot of homeless people in Baltimore. I need to do something, like the sock thing- that is, sharing a bunch of socks for them).” That touched me. The second was my Facebook post on Monday morning and the reactions to that post. I wrote, “if you love your wife, show it. You love your husband, let him feel it. You don’t hurt someone in the name of love. Marriage isn’t a rehearsal bed where one experiences hurt, then waits to experience love afterwards. You either start loving and love all the way or you lose your opportunity to love.” This post received a lot of buzzes with about fifteen shares. It told me that people need to be encouraged to do good.
The challenge that John the Baptist sets for those who come to him in the gospel of today narrows down the call to do ordinary things. The crowds come to ask John, “What should we do?” His reply is, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Tax collectors came to ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” His answer, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also ask him, “And what is it that we should do?” His response, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages” (Lk. 3:10-14). Aren’t those answers simple? Maybe those different groups are expecting some extraordinary answers from John. But what do they hear and what does such response say to us? All are invited to do simple things that promote the joy of others and increase the welfare of those in need.
Today, I’m only adding my voice to that of John the Baptist to remind us of the need to do just ordinary things as we await the Lord at Christmas. Just as my friend recognized the presence of the needy and the homeless in Baltimore, we must recognize the presence of the needy around us. We must be the source of their joy.
Let’s go home reflecting on the questions we need to ask within this time, “What shall I do?” Husband, wife, daughter, mother, father, mother-in-law, son-in-law, brother, sister, friend, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do? Employer, employee, government official, security personnel, medical practitioner, clergy, office clerk, should ask, “what shall I/we do?” Salesman/woman at Walmart, Costco, Amazon, BestBuy, Sears, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do?” Public servant at MVA, IRS, Post Office, Verizon, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do?” School teacher, counselor, social worker, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do?” The answer is to promote the joy of your customers. Do not manipulate anyone. Do not market bad products. Do not tell those you serve lies. Do not take advantage of your subjects. Do not look for unusual profits at the expense of your consumers. If you are in any relationship, do not cause pain to your partner. Do not cause heartbreak. Do not hold malice and grievances against family members and friends. Those answers appear simple, yes. But that’s real conversion. That’s what the Lord wants of us. Let your kindness be seen by all. We all need to rejoice at the coming of Christ.
DAVID BUILDS A HOUSE, GOD BUILDS A DYNASTY
Readings: 1st- 2Sam. 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; 2nd- Rom. 16: 25-27; Gospel- Lk. 1:26-38
So, what was David thinking? He was such a successful king, a strong military commander. David was a great political strategist who won several battles. He must be enjoying some peace from his victory as a result of his policies. Hence, he had to plan the next step in growing his kingdom- building a house for God. Despite its religious significance, that would add to his achievements. He envisaged a Jerusalem that is the center of worship. This provides the background for today’s reading whereby David summons the prophet Nathan to express his desire, “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent” (2Sam. 7:2). Nathan, on his part endorsed David’s idea, “Go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you” (v.3). David thought that he was the one who has been responsible for the victory Israel enjoyed in his time. He thought that he was the victor.
But God revealed to Nathan the true story behind Israel’s success, “Go and tell my servant David, “Should you build a house for me to dwell in?” It was I who took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of my people Israel” (2Sam. 7:9-10). God wants David to acknowledge his supremacy. What type of house is David to build for God? David plans to erect a structure, man-made costly house that will last for some time. That’s not the type of house that God wants. Then came the revelation, “I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me”. This prophecy has both immediate and future fulfillment. Solomon was the immediate heir to David while the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy was in Christ Jesus, the begotten Son of God.
Christ is the house that God erected for human salvation, the dynasty that would last forever, whose throne will have no end. While explaining the parable of wicked tenants, Jesus explains the meaning of this house to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?” (Matt. 21:42). God’s dynasty is the eternal kingdom that will accommodate everyone on the journey towards salvation.
In the gospel, we see God’s Master plan laid out. The angel Gabriel is the divine contractor sent to survey the land for the building. Our Blessed Mother the Virgin Mary is God’s land prepared to house the eternal structure. The annunciation is the groundbreaking ceremony for this building. The angel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” tells us exactly that God is the Architect of the entire plan. The angel said, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Lk. 1:32). The angel attests to the nature of God’s building. The Son to be born will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom will have no end. Mary accepts God’s offer. Is this structure to be like any other building made by man? She asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” God’s building is different. The angel made explains to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35).
Mary is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and overshadowed by divine presence. She understands that and makes herself available. Whereas David thought he was the builder, Mary made herself available for God to build. Ironically, David thought that the ark of God should dwell in a magnificent structure. Did God really intend to live in a costly place? Maybe David was thinking about majesty defined in human terms. In the fulfilment of this prophecy, David was proven wrong. The Ark of God dwelt in a manger, a poor, lowly place. Mary was a young maiden who lived in simplicity and virtuous poverty.
Mary’s obedience to God is a great lesson for us. Most times, we feel that we are over-achieving and attribute success to ourselves. Although we might produce results that are great, we need to recognize that God is the one who plants the seed of eternal growth in our lives. That is the reason for Christ’s coming in human form, dwelling in such a humble state. He meant to possess us in a special way. We have to open up and let him reign.
Mary’s response is, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word”. It is a statement of commitment, availability and openness. God needs us to just be available for him. He builds. Those who are available for God do not fret about things. They rarely let anxiety eat them up. They do not panic about results. They are not taken aback by disappointments. They are not possessed by material things. Archbishop Fulton Sheen calls it the “long span of voluntary obedience” when he wrote, “By this long span of voluntary obedience, He revealed that the Fourth Commandment is the bedrock of family life. In a larger way, how else could the primal sin of disobedience against God be undone except by the obedience in the flesh of the very God who was once defied. It was Lucifer who said, ‘I will not obey,’ and Eden caught up that echo”. Obedience to God's will builds a dynasty that lasts, not a house that collapses. It makes us understand the true value of our lives and what we have. It makes us understand that everything belongs to God, and that material things will always fade.
Christmas is a time of saying yes to the will of God in our lives. It is a time to recognize that God is the Architect, he lays the plan. We must be open in order to obey God. He leads and we follow. We just have to be present to his desire. Saint Paul enjoins us to “obedience of faith”. It is the best way to accept Christ in our lives. Just learn to be present. Give it to him. Let God reign. Let him rule. Let him decide for you what you need to do. Make him your coach and play according to his game-plan.
THE ERA OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Readings: 1st- Is. 61:1-2, 10-11; 2nd- 1 Thes. 5:16-24; Gospel- John 1:6-8, 19-28
The period preceding Christmas can be described as John the Baptist era. John does two things in today’s gospel: 1. He clarifies his own identity. 2. He turns our attention to Christ. The gospel opens up this way, “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (Jn. 1:6-8). John is sent by God, he is the voice of the one crying in the desert urging believers to prepare the way, and baptizing them with water. John is not the Christ.
In today’s gospel, different groups exert pressures upon John regarding his identity and role. The Jews from Jerusalem pressure him asking, “Who are you?” They think that John must be either Elijah, the Prophet or the One who is to come. Some Pharisees also pressure him asking why he should baptize if he is not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet. “What have you to say for yourself?”, they quiz him. John’s response is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord”. John is unambiguous in explaining his position, “I am not the Christ”. That defines the meaning of his era; a period of preparation and waiting.
The second part of John the Baptist’s mission is to turn our attention towards Christ. John bears testimony to the light so that that all might believe in Christ through him. John is like the altar server. The altar server usually leads the procession, announces the commencement of the liturgy. John the Baptist announces the beginning of the Liturgy of salvation made manifest in Christ Jesus. He says, “I baptize you with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (Jn. 1:26-27). John’s role is to bear witness to Christ, “the light of the world” (Jn.8:12).
One of my professors told us a story of her experience in school. She said she was in for her final exams in the fall. They had all 5 of their course exams (all comprehensive) on one day. Then the first professor met them in the class at 8am, gave them their exam and waited for them to be done. When they went to turn in the test, they were given another for the second class, and so on for all 5 exams. They were exhausted and sleep-deprived. Somewhere a few hours in, one of their classmates who had actually taken a 10minute nap (in the middle of the exam!) lifted up her head with sleep lines on her face and shouted, "y'all, Christmas is coming. No matter what, Christmas is coming." You know what that means for a student in such a tensed atmosphere. It means more than just enduring exams to get to the holiday break. It means that no matter how difficult and painful life gets, no matter how tired the students are, the Messiah is coming. This world can be tough, a brutal place where the innocent suffer and the undeserving are oppressed; 2017 might certainly have been no exception. Yet there is great beauty in the season.
The prophet Isaiah’s message in the first reading is given to a people on their return from exile. Israel come back to find that their land is in ruins and that injustice and poverty had pervaded the land. The prophet foresees great things happening to the people. He foresees a jubilee year, freedom and liberation. And he writes, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is. 61:1-2). This is what the coming of Christ announces; what Advent reminds us of, that we are not only suffering. We are also working. We are still waiting. We are altogether preparing. Ultimately, we trust the Redeemer to complete what we cannot do, to come back for us, to heal us, redeem and set the captives free.
Saint Paul invites us to do three things within this period: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:16). Can we just do those things? –Rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! We must rejoice each time recognizing the love of God in our lives. We must pray to God who is the reason for our joy. And we must give thanks at all times remembering always the great favors that God bestows on us. Saint Paul states, “for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus”. God wills to free us from the entanglements of worldly nightmares.
John the Baptist era reminds us of the great coming of Christ. He announces the good things that await us in Christ Jesus. Like the student in my professor’s story, I say to you, "y'all, Christmas is coming. No matter what, Christmas is coming." Christmas is coming, and must come. No matter what you face, Christmas is coming. No matter what you fail to accomplish, Christmas must come. Some of us live in anxiety. Some live in fear. Some live in uncertainty. Some, in anger and sadness. Works, family, children, health, relationships, politics, etc. There’s always something driving us crazy at one time or the other. Those things cannot compare with the joy brought to us by Christ. They cannot deprive us of the Christmas joy. The will of God for us is joy and happiness. God wants us to bear witness to the light that Jesus brings at Christmas.
The era of John the Baptist is the era of announcement, of preparation, of waiting. It is the era of constant reminder that Christmas is coming. It is the era of bearing witness to the light of God’s goodness by our words and actions. The needy need to hear the voice that Christmas is coming. Captives need to hear that Christmas is coming. The broken-hearted need to hear that Christmas is coming. Prisoners need to hear that Christmas is coming. The sick need to hear that Christmas is coming. The bereaved need to hear that Christmas is coming. Let us bring glad tidings to those around us. Like John the Baptist, we must bear witness to the light. Christmas is coming! God wills us to be joyful.