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Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Mass of Day

(Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18)

War was never far removed from the experience of Israel, and few indeed would have lived out their lives without having had some experience of its campaigns: not only those waged on foreign soil, but also those undertaken to repulse attacks on the homeland. Certain individuals might even have been caught up in a siege, when the enemy camped outside city walls wherein crowds -- swollen by refugees and suffering shortages of food and drink -- had to hold firm despite mounting hazards for public health and gradual draining of public confidence.  Someone might, indeed, even have personally experienced, or heard an eye-witness account of, an occasion like that pictured for us by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading where anxious watchmen on the look-out had observed a single figure in the distance, running towards them with vigour in his stride and joy in his bearing, a runner who -- when within hailing distance -- shouted out glad tidings of victory or news of relief forces, near to hand, bringing security and promising hope:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things.
Isaiah even went on to picture for us others on the walls running to whatever sector where the messenger was said to be visible, in order to glimpse him for themselves, before breaking out into loud shouts, raucous singing, and perhaps even claiming they could already hear his voice:
Hark!  Your sentinels raise a cry, together they shout for joy, for they see directly, before their eyes, the Lord restoring Zion.
What news did the messenger bring?  Isaiah has him report the supreme message of good tidings and joy: "Your God reigns!"  Whereupon, having already seen and heard the excitement of those on the walls, the whole heaving population crowded inside the city walls bursts out, with one great sigh of relief and thunderous explosion of joy, into a paean of praise:
Break forth into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem!  For the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem.  The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations.
The ultimate reason for such exultation, was that a victory had been won or a danger averted: not an ordinary victory that might be reversed when armies went out to war again next season, but a victory of universal and eternal significance and validity, as Isaiah explains:
            The LORD has made bare His holy arm in the sight of all the nations;
a victory of such magnitude that:
            All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Now, why does Mother Church, in her great wisdom, put before us on Christmas Day’s high feast these words of Isaiah evoking past experiences of war?
Because she wants us to rejoice on this most wonderful day of Our Lord’s Incarnation with a joy so deep and heart-felt that it can only be evoked by the joy of those saved from death, of those from whose shoulders have been lifted heavy burdens of oppression and scorn, whose minds and hearts -- long terrorised by anxieties and fear -- have once again been able to experience some security and peace, and to entertain fresh hope.  All of which means that, to best appreciate our Christmas celebration and receive most fully the comforting of God through the ministrations of Mother Church, we must have a deep, indeed acute, awareness and appreciation of the unheard-of freedom and wondrous hope Mary’s new-born Child brings for mankind.  Our celebration today is, indeed, much, much, more than a cosy ritual with some traditional, sentimental, associations readily on tap.
For, all the torments of pain and suffering, of exploitation and oppression, being endured in the world today, all the greed, hypocrisy, and jealousy of society in general, and all the envy, selfishness and indifference of our individual lives, all, that is, that so ravages the peace and integrity of human experience, riddling it with countless regrets and endless anxieties, is the work and result of personal sin.  For sin is the most terrible enemy of mankind and indeed of the whole of creation, and only those who have come to recognize, and have the will to whole-heartedly reject, the evil that threatens them, can fittingly and fully embrace this Christmas feast, where the die is so beautifully and definitively cast against the power of sin.  For, in Bethlehem that night, sin was totally and absolutely excluded: for the shepherds were told of, and the angels acclaimed, a Child All-Holy, the very Son of God Himself, together with His spotless, maiden-mother; and we, like them, praise and glorify our divine Shepherd and holy Redeemer Who still comes ever-anew into our midst at this most holy season to receive the welcoming embrace of the Church, His Spouse and our Mother, whose true children no longer fear the devil’s former o’erwhelming power of sin and death, because they can now hope and aspire to mount with Christ His tree of life.
With such an understanding in our minds we can now allow the second reading to fill our hearts with the wonder of this occasion of which Isaiah the prophet spoke, and which Mother Church now invites us to share:
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, Whom He has appointed heir of all things, through Whom also He made the worlds; Who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, uphold(s) all things by the word of His power.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Mother Church today announces this glorious news of salvation to us and invites, indeed urges and exhorts, all of us her children to respond with heart-felt joy and gratitude to her proclamation of the Gospel.  For she not only authoritatively proclaims God’s Good News, she infallibly shows forth the splendour of His Glory and the beauty of His Truth:
(God’s co-eternal) Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. 
How blessed are we who are privileged to hear such tidings of salvation!  For, as John said:
            No one (absolutely no one) has (ever) seen God at any time.
It is true, John allows, that God’s Law had been given through Moses to prepare God’s people, but God Himself was only clearly revealed and truly known when:
The only begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, declared Him; (for) grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
You also heard, in our second reading, the following words so rich in significance:
To which of the angels did He ever say: "You are My Son, today I have begotten You"? 
Now this is the second and confirming reason for our great rejoicing at Christmas;  for to each and every one of us gathered here as true children of Mother Church and bearing faithful witness to Christ, God the Father is saying:
If you will hear (My) voice aright:  today I have begotten you.   I will be a Father to (you) and (you) shall be a son to me (a child of mine).
And that is the comforting spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said:
Break forth into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem!  For the LORD has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem.
Words still most appropriate and true today!  For, all of us whom the Father is now comforting and calling, all He has chosen in His Son, cannot fail to recognize that we, like those shut up in some threatened and besieged city of old, are indeed today in “waste places”: this world, even our own society, is evil to an extent that can disgust us; nevertheless, because it is our society, our world, it also draws on our heart strings, thus threatening to besmirch us with something of its own filth.  And, being in this condition, since we might fear this renewed coming of the Holy One of God to do battle with the evil and filth around us and within us, He comes as a Child, for He is well aware of, and full of compassion for, our weakness.  Moreover, surrounding Himself at His Birth with shepherds from the midnight fields He assures us that He Himself comes as Shepherd into our darkness in order to search out those of His sheep who have strayed and, disregarding the mud that may cover their feet and flanks, the thorns that may entangle their wool, He wills to take them up in His arms and carry them back to the flock which He is leading to that heavenly fold where the Father already awaits them, Himself looking expectantly into the distance to see His own dear Son, Jesus our Lord, at the head of the flock He is leading with joy towards the eternal pastures of salvation.
Therefore, the joy Mother Church would inspire in us needs to be a joy arising from the depths of the human heart and truly expressing and promoting human fulfilment; and that is why she has chosen her words from the centuries’ long history of Israel’s journeying along the way traced out for her by God.  But since the peace and hope supported and proclaimed by such joy are more than earthly,  they must bear witness to a little babe indeed, but One Who is divine, God’s Only-begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ Himself;   One, to be found wrapped in swaddling clothes, but also heralded by an Angel of the Lord, a visible display of divine glory, and the grateful song of a worshipping multitude of the heavenly host praising God for this Child Whose very Being, Person, and destiny proclaim: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Third Sunday of Advent (B)
(Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; 1st. Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Advent is a time of expectation … what are we to look for, what should we prepare ourselves to expect?
On reading today’s Gospel I was somewhat surprised at St. John’s version of the contre-temps between John the Baptist and the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, because John does not give us those words of the Baptist reported by all three of the Synoptic Gospels, saying that though he himself baptized with water, the One to Come would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and also -- according to Matthew and Luke -- with fire.
Now the cause of this omission is not something I do not want to discuss here, but the result of it might be significantly helpful for us today, for, undoubtedly, the mention of the Holy Spirit suggests supreme, sublime, power, while that of fire confirms the impression of power and colours it, so to speak, with one of threat.  John’s Gospel, on the other hand, simply reports the Baptist as saying:

I baptize 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.
There we have it: just pure expectation … indeed, tantalizing expectation because the expected One is already present, among them at that very moment -- someone wonderfully holy -- and yet, they are not seeing Him!!
And here, Mother Church, in her Spirit-gifted wisdom, comes to direct our expectancy this Advent, for she sets before us a most beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah:

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 lowly, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, and to announce a year of favour from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.

According to that, we are expecting One the Lord has endowed with His Spirit to bring glad tidings to the lowly, bestow healing, restore liberty and grant freedom: all favours from the Lord in vindication of His people.  No threatening mention of power, nor one of destructive -- though purging -- fire …. Just Someone wonderful, coming peaceably with so much that is totally desirable and longed-for in those days and in our present state.
Now notice what joy, gladness, and blessing results for the recipients:

All who see them shall acknowledge them as a race the LORD has blessed.  I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; For he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, Like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels.  As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, So will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.

How wondrously does Isaiah who begins:

All who see them shall acknowledge them as a race the LORD has blessed

continue with words referring to but one … a woman most beautiful … as if he knew, prophetically, that indeed, only one, Mary the Immaculate, would be able to fully receive and possess all those blessings from the Lord.  Nevertheless, she represents us, and all faithful disciples of Jesus do indeed receive their measure of His blessings; of this Mother Church assures us with her choice of the second reading taken from St. Paul’s exhortation to his converts in Thessali:

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in all circumstances give thanks.  May the God of peace make you perfectly holy: (for He) the One Who calls you is faithful and He will also accomplish it.

Without doubt, I believe, all of us will wholeheartedly agree that Mary, our Mother, is indeed rejoicing in the Lord as depicted by Isaiah and in accord with all our readings today; but the question is, does she represent us therein, does our experience of the Christian faith and of life in the world today cause us heartfelt rejoicing as Mary’s true children?
Again, without doubt, it did and does bring such joy and happiness to God’s saints and Mother Church’s most committed members; again, it can bring and does offer such joy and happiness to all faithful disciples of Jesus and sincere members of the Church.  But why, indeed, do we come across so many lapsed or lapsing Catholics, hear so often of Christians, who are unsure disciples of Jesus, or dissatisfied with their experience of faithful living?
We should look again at Isaiah’s reading today, for he rightly foresaw and portrayed the great glory and abounding goodness and generosity of the One to Come; however, he also was prophetically endowed and enabled to appreciate that only a unique individual -- the Immaculate Mary of Nazareth -- would be able to receive and possess, would allow the Lord to freely bestow on her, all those heavenly blessings.  What then, hinders us and so many Catholics and Christians, from being faithful enough, willing enough, open enough, hungry and empty enough, to follow in the steps of our Mother, the handmaid of the Lord?
Let me just give you a short passage from a recent book about the experiences of one journeying in the Caucasus (the area of Grozny in Chechnya) where there are lots of Christian sects to be found:
Before going to church, Sergei explained how he would call on those in the community whom he thought he might have offended. He would ask their forgiveness.  It took time but he didn’t mind because he loved to talk and he was able to go to church happy.  “It’s difficult in those services because they’re so long.  They go on and on, for hours!  You stand and stand and you can hardly go on standing.  But then afterwards you come home and you feel not just clean in your soul but in your body as well and you’re all dressed up and your wife looks beautiful and everything else looks beautiful too.”
In our modern, affluent, Western society many do not experience their own Church-going as did Sergei: they seem to find regular Sunday observance a burden, even when they do not find it also a bore.  Perhaps this difference is because Sergei made “going to Church” something special: for him, it involved being at peace with others, and required that he take greater care with his dress for the honour of God.  Many members of our Western culture, on the other hand, having their minds filled with money matters and the many varied opportunities available to them for their enjoyment of it, easily find themselves not even noticing harm done to others in the general struggle for success; and, thinking that they are doing God a favour by attending Church on Sunday, would scoff at the very idea of what they would call “dressing up” to come before His Presence.
Now, that is not something I want to enter into here, but there can be no doubt that the joy and peace Sergei experienced after Church on Sunday was, as I said, in some way related to his efforts to make that day special; and that is in perfect accord with a dictum of St. John of the Cross: ‘where there is no love put love and you will find love’. 
Yes, People of God, during Advent the true disciple not only hopes for future joy, but can even aspire to experience, here and now, something of that joy which is described by the inspired words of the prophet Isaiah.
However, John the Baptist, giving clear testimony to the Lord, used words that express precisely why many contemporary Catholics find too little joy in their religious observance:
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.

John’s words: “there is One among you Whom you do not recognize” are, sadly, still too true for many Catholics and Christians, although in a manner somewhat different from that intended by John.  John was saying to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan, where he was immersing penitents in the waters flowing by, that they did not know, were not aware of, could not recognize, the Holy One standing in their midst.  Most Catholics and Christians today, however, do know, are aware of, Jesus, in that sense.  Where they fail in knowledge of the Lord however, is in the fact that they have no personal relationship with Him: their minds know of Him, but their hearts are not attuned to Him, nor are their lives lived with Him or for Him.  Their knowledge of the Lord in their midst is objective, not personal. 
Now, it is indeed necessary to know the truth of and about Jesus, because any relationship with Him has to be based upon reality open to our minds, which is why Mother Church insists that her catechetical, scriptural, and dogmatic teaching be based on accurate scholarship, backed up by philosophical and scientific truth, and exemplified by authentic Catholic and Christian spirituality.  Such true teaching about the reality of faith, however, is meant to enable us to aspire and attain to personal contact and living communion with the Lord in and through the Scriptures and sacraments of Mother Church, and the intimacy of personal prayer; for only such sincerity and commitment can lead to real love for, and joyful fulfilment in, the Lord Jesus.
In our modern sophisticated social structure, money and education are readily available, and consequently we are inclined to self-satisfaction; and, having no real, basic needs of a material kind, we easily imagine that we have no spiritual needs either.   Because our experience of the world seems to offer everything for relatively easy taking, many are unwilling to make efforts to satisfy spiritual needs of which they are almost unaware.  Therefore they do not search for Jesus: their Bible is rarely opened let alone studied; their reception of Holy Communion is routine and perfunctory; and since the house of God is no house of prayer for them Jesus is left in splendid isolation in the tabernacle. It is because of such things that the divine truth in the Church’s teaching, and the heavenly grace available through her sacraments, bring forth but little fruit in the lives of many.
However, it is lack of personal prayer that is the most fundamental failing in most nominally Christian and Catholic lives, and St. Matthew, quoting Isaiah the prophet, gives us the reason:

Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.

Gross, coarse, are the hearts of too many to hear the Lord speaking with them, guiding and encouraging, admonishing and warning them. For a society where normality it too often considered boring, and excess routinely craved, where joy is inconceivable without pleasure and peace unbearable without excitement, there is no opportunity for the voice of the Lord to be heard, no possibility that He will be appreciated or understood; too little good soil into which the divine seed can fall and take root, no humble mind or longing heart where divine love can take hold and flower. 
People of God, seek Jesus more and more; Advent is a time for joy, peace, and hope.  His promises are true and His coming is at hand; it is we ourselves we must indeed attend to but not despair of, because He comes with gifts to offer: not to those worthy to receive them but to those wanting and willing to accept them; to those wanting and willing to turn away from themselves and embrace Him, to those able to forget self and serve their neighbour.
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Refrain from every kind of evil.
He Who is to come shall come; he will not delay.  But my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.  (Heb. 10:37-38)