Our Mass schedule for the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, a holy day of obligation, will be a vigil Mass on Tuesday, December 31, at 4:00 p.m. and Wednesday, January 1 at 9:00 a.m. On behalf of all our staff here at Immaculate Conception, we wish all our parishioners and visitors a Happy, Holy, and Healthy New Year. Please pray for peace in our world.
The time came for Mary to have child.
Mary, like all mothers who are arriving at the 9th month, was ready to finish the conception that was granted at the time of Gabriel’s visit to her. In that visit you’ll remember that Mary proclaimed the words, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” It was the word of the angel that culminates in the Word becoming flesh, with Mary as the tabernacle of the Holy One.
I would think it’s not so easy being almost 9 months pregnant and having to travel to another town in Israel for the purpose of enrolling in a census. Joseph taking Mary on the road was not exactly the best news that Mary wanted to hear at that moment in her pregnancy. “Excuse me Mary, but we have to hop on the donkey and take a ride down to Bethlehem. I hope you don’t give birth on the way!”
But the timing of it all fulfills the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in the city of David, known as Bethlehem. As we like to say, God works in strange ways at times, at least strange to us. And Mary hitting the road with her husband so close to giving birth can be counted among the strange actions of God.
But even the more mysterious actions of God are accomplished and moved forward for our benefit and for our eternal good. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is a heavenly event on earth inviting each and every one of us into the fold of the manger.
I’m sure for those of us who are Red Sox fans, every one of us would have loved to have been on the green, green grass of Fenway Park after the 6th game of the World Series on October 30. No fan would have refused the invitation to dance with Big Papi at home plate in celebration of a championship. Unfortunately, none of us were invited to do so. Probably for safety’s sake. However, all of us are invited by God to dance in the stable of this holy child. And there’s plenty of room for everyone!
We may be restricted from the field of Fenway Park, but we are never held back, kept behind the ropes, of the field where shepherds were watching over their flocks, receiving the message of the angel that proclaims good news of great joy that today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you. While earth places restrictions on where we may go or not go, heaven says “Welcome” to all of us.
What does Jesus’ birth mean for our lives?
First, it means that our weaknesses and our sin have been overcome in his birth. That Jesus is the Way to a life of fulfillment and joy, knowing that God has favored the most cherished part of his creation, the human person. That what comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem is the gift of mercy and forgiveness.
This is at the heart of the message of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. While the media outlets and other so-called experts are telling us through their words and their writings, and missing the boat on his message in many respects on what Pope Francis believes, his message is one of God’s mercy. That God’s mercy that comes to us in the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is a divine mercy that challenges us to take time out and reflect upon our lives, and seek the rich mercy of God that is so abundant. Jesus’ birth is universal and for all of us because we are all in need of God’s mercy. And that there is nothing that God will not forgive. Or, in the positive sense, God forgives everything that is in need of forgiveness.
And second, Jesus’ birth means that we are loved. That we are loved probably more than our hearts can possibly know. To drink God’s love leads us to a place in our lives where bitterness and anguish, those awful emotions that invade us, are overcome.
In the birth of Jesus, we are presented a new way of living and relating. It’s too easy to be caught up and overpowered by the fast pace of our world today. Jesus’ birth in a simple stable comes with no address, no mailbox, no windows, no fireplace, and no heat. This tells us that God comes to us with no pretentions. With no judgments that vilify us like kings of the earth will do. With no pushing us aside to make room for the new child. We are all invited into God’s life because we are simply loved by our Creator. And as Christians we are to carry God’s love and share it with those we meet. This is the first proof that we have accepted this child into our lives.
So, Joseph takes his wife Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census that is required by the civil law of the time. As the earthly requirement of a census is fulfilled in their arrival in the city of David, the greater fulfillment of our salvation also arrives in the birth of Mary’s Son.
Jesus’ birth opens the door to all of us searching for the truest and deepest meaning of our lives. Our meaning and purpose is found in Jesus Christ, who comes to us so that we may return the favor of going to him. Allow the Spirit to move you this Christmas, and continue to break open the loving person God has created all of us to be. Merry Christmas.
This is one of the few days of the year when the opportunity to address the person of Joseph presents itself. Joseph we know as husband of Mary, stepfather to Jesus, and a carpenter in the town of Nazareth. Joseph speaks no words in any of the Gospels, which can lead us to believe that his role in the Scriptures and the story of salvation history is somehow unimportant or lessened because of his apparent silence. But Joseph’s “silence” in Scripture probably tells us more about him than if he had spoken a couple sentences worthy of being recorded by the Gospel writers. I said during this past week at a short homily for this same Gospel at a weekday Mass, Joseph’s silence is not a sign of unimportance. Rather, his silence is deafening.
As we prepare for Christmas in ways connected to our Catholic faith aside from the way of purchasing gifts in like manner of the Three Wise Men, we take note of the varied and strong emotions, along with the profound level of love found in the heart of this Gospel of close preparation. It is necessary to heed the true message of this Gospel by way of entering this scene in order to capture the fuller and truer message of Christmas.
The problem is that if we’re not careful, we can get too locked in to the image of the Three Wise Men, with all due respect to them, presenting gifts to honor Jesus’ birth. It’s a wonderful approach to Christmas and the birth of our Savior. But our present day culture has the power to narrow our hearts and minds regarding this religious celebration. The gift-giving is a true act and representation of Jesus’ birth. But when we go deeper into the meaning of Christmas, the gift-giving is a reaction to what happens in the stable in Bethlehem. It’s a reaction to an event. A holy event. If Jesus is not born, if we were still waiting for the Messiah to arrive, then the Three Wise Men would have remained in their country, studying the stars rather than following a certain star that leads them to the manger. Also, the U.S. economy would have to come up with some other event of great magnitude that would give reason for millions of people to spend billions of dollars to somehow replace the birth of Jesus and its effect on gift-giving at this time of the year.
What we have in this Gospel, prior to any material gifts, is an incredible story of love. A story that prepares us for Christmas. A story of love between a man named Joseph and his wife named Mary. And what we heard proclaimed is a story with chaos and intervention. The chaos in Joseph’s heart of now knowing that Mary is with child, along with knowing that he, Joseph, is not the father. Thus, the intervention of heaven in the appearance of Gabriel in Joseph’s dream to settle this whole matter in the heart of a husband whose love for his wife cannot be surpassed. If all husbands loved their wives as Joseph loved Mary, in total freedom, then all would be good in the world of marriage.
First, the chaos. Joseph finds Mary is with child. The result of this discovery? Probably the words upsetting, confusing, troubling, uncertainty, lost, a heart that is torn apart. Yet, Joseph’s reaction to the discovery that Mary is with child is not a reaction that gives in to these words. Instead, Joseph maintains a true sense of love. To divorce Mary quietly is to not shame or humiliate Mary. It is an attempt at avoiding all the potential harmful reactions that would follow in the Hebrew culture at this time in history if people, including the religious authorities , came to the knowledge that Mary was with child, but not by her husband. Joseph’s love for Mary is so deep that he will risk his own reputation, and possibly his own life and livelihood, by protecting Mary from public scorn and death. This is a love story.
Why does Joseph take this route and not another? Why does he not just follow the customs of the Law and expose Mary to shame and ridicule? Because Joseph, in his sincere devotion to God and in his personal holiness, knows in his heart that Mary’s pregnancy is somehow of God. That it is God’s work. Even though at first he can’t explain it, or understand it fully, he knows Mary. And what he knows is that Mary is the handmaid of the Lord, and that her being with child is somehow a holy event. Joseph’s chaos is overshadowed by his love for Mary. And in his knowing the holiness of Mary. Thus…the intervention.
Because of Joseph’s personal holiness and unwavering dedication to the God of Israel, he is deserving of full understanding of the Power behind Mary’s conception. The dream Joseph is granted as a favor by God reveals to him two insights; first, that Mary’s holiness supersedes his own, since Mary is the one giving birth to the Son of the Most High. “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” And second, that he Joseph is to take on the responsibility of husband to Mary and father to Jesus until the end of his life. He is to protect them, lead them to safety, to provide a home, to raise this child with Mary, and to love them both with the divine love that Jesus has for his own Father in heaven. A love that is pure to Mary and Jesus. A love that is obedient to God’s will for him.
Before the birth, it is of the utmost importance for us to possess a deeper understanding of this love story. The gift-giving is great. They symbolize and imitate the Three Wise Men. But to really prepare for Christmas, away from the questions, “What do you want for Christmas?” or “How is the U.S. economy doing this Christmas Season?” The proper preparation for the birth of our Savior is to first understand and wholly embrace the love story that is Joseph and Mary.
Christmas pageant moved to Sunday December 22nd at 8:45 a.m. in the Church. Breakfast with Santa after the 10 o’clock Mass in the Church basement.
Stay safe in the snow!
It’s fair to say that we all want the best in life. And, we want the best for our children and grandchildren. Or, in my case, for my nieces and nephews who are like my sons and daughters. There are times where I have to work through my siblings, who have done a good job producing sons and daughters who look to make a positive difference in our world. This would be one of those times.
We want the best for them. And we pray that in their numerous encounters and choices they will make – thousands of them , from friends to schools, to employment and all relationships, that they make wise choices. Some choices will raise them up. Other choices will bring them low, hopefully with an attitude of starting over again and not giving up. We’ve all had our hearts broken, probably more than once. We know what that’s like. But we want what’s best for them and for us. For most adults, our satisfaction is realized through the success and joy of the generation or two coming up behind us. Their success fills us with great joy. As they say, “Shoot for the stars. Dream big. Go beyond yourself. Push yourself. Be the best that you can be.” Sounds like a commercial for the Marine Corps!
Now, let’s bring all of this into the world of our Catholic faith in Jesus, which is really the beginning and ending of our lives.
John the Baptist is in prison. John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says there is no one born of woman greater than he, was not married and never had children or grandchildren, according to tradition. We find nothing of John ever being married in any of the voluminous Church writings. He sounds like Fr. Riley. Except for his imprisonment. I’ve only been in those places on the correct side of the bars to minister. So John is in prison, locked away from what’s going on out there, but he needs to know what’s going on out there. He sends out some of his disciples, instructing them to go to Jesus, who in turn tells them to hear and see. Hear what’s being proclaimed, and see what’s in front of you. And then Jesus instructs them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” But before they return to John in prison, Jesus gives them a laundry list of what they hear and see; all the miracles connected to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and the dead, and the good news proclaimed to the poor. Jesus gives them a list of events that are not so common. And words spoken that never before carried such weight.
I think of the speeches that we raise up to glory and admiration in our nation today. Speeches over time like the Gettysburg Address that so many students had to memorize in school. Or, John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address; “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” Or, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington. All great speeches given by brilliant minds and influential hearts. But as good as they are they cannot hold a candle to the eternal words and teachings of our Lord, such as “The Beatitudes.” Or, “The Bread of Life Discourse” in John, chapter 6. In fact, if there is any good that comes out of great speeches by those whom history has raised to a higher platform, of which there is much good, then they must flow from the divine teachings of Jesus Christ.
What John the Baptist is seeking is a certain approval to his work as a Prophet. Just as we search for approval in our work. John has a sense of fear that all of his good work at the Jordan River may have been wasted. But what we discover in John’s request of “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another manger?” is that John’s prophetic work is fulfilled only in the best. The best being the life and ministry of Jesus.
And the same goes for our work. And for our children and grandchildren. And nieces and nephews who are like sons and daughters. That it is in Jesus that our lives become fulfilled, satisfied, and a difference maker.
In our preparation for the coming of the Lord, physically and spiritually, the 3rd Sunday of Advent leads us to what is best. Not second best, or maybe best, or possibly best, or “I’ll think about what’s best.” But what is best. What is best for our lives from start to finish. What is best for our personal decisions, for any choices made outside of the body of Christ will certainly lead to dismay and frustration. And there’s a lot of frustrated people in our world, and some are Catholic. What does that tell us about where they searched for answers? It’s quite possible to see the power of God at work before us –“Tell John what you see” –…. and not see it.
Rather, the hope found at the heart of this week’s Gospel is for all people. The dead are raised! The dead will be raised! All physical ailments and pain are overturned! Where can we find such power and love in this world? Is it found in the Gettysburg Address? Or in “I Have A Dream?” Certainly somewhat. But not totally. Is such power and love found in the blessings of our goods, or our capacity to reason, unlike any other animal? Somewhat. Where we can find the fulfillment of such power and love is in the Person of Jesus Christ. Our first, our last, our forever, and our best.
In our preparation for Christmas, Advent’s 1st Sunday addressed the virtue of love, in word and in deed. This is how God distinguishes one person from another; one who will be taken, and one who will be left. Our 2nd Sunday was an invitation to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for the times where we fall short. Come to God’s Ministry of Healing. This week’s message is to embrace what is best. There’s one place to search and find; in a manger in Bethlehem.
“Tell John what you see.” Parents, grandparents, single adults, Fr. Riley, teenagers; if you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord, then tell those you love what you see. For what we see is the best.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Last week I spoke about preparation in the context of Jesus’ words of “being ready,” and “staying awake” by way of the virtue of love. That when we love, when we choose the better half of two choices placed in our midst in any given situation we may encounter, that the choice of love on our part is the choice that best reflects the presence and actions of our Savior, whose birth we prepare for at this time of year. So, when Jesus says that one will be taken from the field, or from the grinding mill, or from the breakfast booth, when there are two or more people sitting or working side-by-side performing the same task or satisfying one’s hunger in the breakfast booth, and one is taken off to God’s glory and the other is not, what decides that judgment and what distinguishes one from the other in the eyes of God, is the virtue of love. How much or how often did such and such a person choose the better part of our humanity? Or, how little did they choose? Little love leads to little glory, if any. A loving person is brought home, for, as the Letter to the Hebrews states, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
This all leads to a second way of preparing for the Lord this Advent Season. It’s an appropriate Sunday for the second way of welcoming the holy child into our arms and hearts, since our 2nd grade class just received their very first Reconciliation.
The second way, and really essential way, to prepare for the Lord’s coming, is in the words of John the Baptist form today’s Gospel, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Now, I’m sure that most of us are not in need of sacramental confession at this time. Actually, I’m not being serious in that statement. I’m sure that all of us are in need of sacramental confession at this time. And Advent is one of those proper times, along with Lent, to allow our humility and love within to reveal itself and claim a victory for our souls.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We all know the first part; to repent. It’s extremely rare that someone would go to confession and say, “Father, I really don’t have any sins to confess. I just came in to say hello and to wish you a Merry Christmas. Or a Happy New Year. Or a Happy 4th of July. Or a Happy Groundhog Day. Puxatawney Pete saw his shadow!” This has happened. And I can say so because there is no seal of confession as a result of no confession being offered. But we all know the first part. We all agree that repentance is a necessary act on our part as Christians. As Christians, a fundamental aspect of our devotion to Jesus is to reflect on our actions, our inactions, our words, and our funny faces, and maintain a disposition to resolve those internal battles. Battles of hatred and anger. Battles of greed and lust and lack of mercy. Battles of worshipping material goods and pride. “I’m better than he/she is! Look at how they dress! They look foolish!” This is the person left behind, because God’s sees and judges the heart, not outward appearances.
We all have the awareness that repentance in our lives is a necessity, at some point. If we choose to wait until our deathbed, I can only saw “Good luck,” and…. “Don’t do that!”
The second part of John the Baptist’s statement to the good people of Israel, however, is much more forgettable for us folks today. It can be too easily lost in the memory of our faith; “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Someone rang the doorbell to the rectory over a week ago shortly after I returned from a day off. And then they went around the side to the other doorbell. And then they went to the other side and rang the third doorbell. (There’s way too many doorbells for one rectory!). And then they went back to the first doorbell. And back to the second doorbell. Then back to the third doorbell. And then slammed on the back door. And then went back to another doorbell. The door wasn’t answered promptly, which I normally do, because I was occupied in such a way where I did not want to leave what I was doing. And no, I was not in the bathroom.
After initially admiring the persistence of the person ringing and banging, thinking of the Gospel story Jesus tells of the person who arrives at his friend’s house at midnight, knocking on the door for food, my admiration turned into something else. I finally answered the door, and by the time the conversation was finished, I knew I needed to go to confession. I was aware of that. What I wasn’t aware of, and what I forgot in the moment, was that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We can forget this Christian truth in the moment. A truth that is always before us, but we don’t always see and react to it. So I went to confession two days later down at LaSallete Shrine, in my clerics, face to face, where the priest made a point or two in my favor, but in the end I couldn’t accept his good reasoning. I had forgotten that God’s kingdom is now. That we are already living in it.
I share that story because it is the second way of preparing for the Lord. The Sacrament of Reconciliation allows God to see a good heart, in case you happen to be sitting in a breakfast booth with a few other people.
I suppose I could approach this second way in the manner of John the Baptist and say, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Maybe an old fashioned fire and brimstone homily from 50 years ago on the need for confession would do it. But not today. Not anymore. Maybe one day again it will work. Rather, I extend a humble, loving, concerned, merciful approach to the second way of preparation.
One thing is for sure; the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the second way to ensure that Jesus’ birth will reach the core of our souls. To go that deep, spiritual cleanliness is a necessity.
May God move us and grant us the courage to seek His mercy and love in our preparation for the coming of His Son.