Uncertainty is not a good emotion. Being uncertain about a certain thing, or a certain person we know, leaves room for a little too much doubt.
As human beings, we like knowing answers. And if we don’t know the answer about a certain something or someone, we do our best to try to figure out the answer.
In hospital ministry as a priest, I learned quickly that doctors and nurses do not always have the answer to a certain medical condition a loved one or friend may be dealing with. As a result, there are times when people get angry or frustrated when doctors cannot inform a patient or their family what the prognosis is. We come to realize at times that the human body that God has created is so complicated and profoundly complex that not only do doctors not know every disease and illness, or how to diagnose it, but what they don’t know – these extremely bright and gifted people – is more than what they do know. It’s not a knock on their dedicated, hard work. It’s more an observation of the infinite creative imagination of God. There is much room for uncertainty in the field of medicine. As there is much room for uncertainty in the world of relationships.
In this birth narrative from Matthew’s Gospel that was just proclaimed, there is a high level of uncertainty on the part of Joseph. Mary knows what’s going on. She had her dramatic meeting with Gabriel the Archangel. He told her everything she needed to know for the time being; “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Mary is given all the knowledge she needs at that time to understand the purpose of the angel’s visit to her in Nazareth. But Joseph is left in the dark. He’s uncertain as to what Mary’s pregnancy means, or how it happened. He needs a visit from an angel to clarify things. As his relationship with Mary is about to go south – the same direction a lot of folks will head after the New Year – Joseph, a righteous man, is attended to by an angel. His dream results in the removal of uncertainty about Mary, and why her belly is getting bigger and bigger. And therefore, the removal of any uncertainty about this child is granted to Joseph; “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” The light goes on Joseph’s head. “Ah, that’s why her belly is growing.”
The news to Joseph parallels a patient coming to find out what’s going on inside their ill body. And, how to address it.
Joseph addresses his uncertain thoughts by taking Mary his wife into his home. Once it becomes clear to Joseph what he is facing, the correct plan of action proceeds. But there will be more uncertainties for the two parents of Jesus. A flight into Egypt to escape the murderous hand of Herod; losing their Son for 3 days in the Temple when he was 12 years old…”Where is he? We can’t find him in the caravan!” A parent’s worst uncertain nightmare; the uncertainty of why he is nailed to a Cross. People, and some with faith, still can’t figure out that one to this very day.
In the celebration of Christmas, at the heart of Jesus’ birth, we are freely given the capacity to remove certain uncertainties that can bog us down spiritually.
Such as any uncertainty of why we have been born, why we live, and why we are going to die as mortal beings. Jesus’ birth, where God becomes one of us in every way but sin, is a birth that offers us the understanding and peace that our trust and faith in this child washes away the greatest uncertainty of all; what happens after we die. His birth is forever connected to our death and beyond.
The atheist will loudly proclaim that we die and that’s it! They stake their claim in an eternal void after death. That there is no soul. And if there is, it dies with the body. They seem to be pretty certain that God’s promise to us is a false promise.
Others will say, “Yes, there’s probably something after we die, but it can’t be as good as Christians make it out to be. They smoke some peace pipe that is more of a dream than a reality. It’s way too good to be true. And if God’s promise of everlasting peace is way too good to be true, then it can’t be true!”
Jesus’ birth officially removes the greatest uncertainty of all. The uncertainty of how much our God loves us, which is unconditionally. He offers us the certainty that he is now a Creator who walks with us in our struggles and torments, being ever-present. Jesus’ birth removes all uncertainty regarding our worth, our value, and the dignity of human life.
And, Jesus’ birth grants us the certainty of a reward for faith in him. That after we leave this temple of the body that is dying each day, we are given full awareness that his promises are real. That there really is lots of meat on the bone of eternal life.
Joseph had some uncertainty with the way things went down with Mary his wife. We have uncertainties also in relationships, and sometimes in the world of medicine.
But Christmas blots out – for those with faith – any uncertainties of our everlasting dignity before the living God. And for this offer praise and thanks to Him alone.
One of my nieces gave birth just a few days ago to a bouncing baby boy. Another great-nephew; another Baptism. Keep them coming!
Anyway, they named him Lincoln, being his first name. I’m not sure if he’s named after Abraham Lincoln, which, being a Civil War buff, I certainly wouldn’t mind. Or, if he was he named after Lincoln Square which was named after Levi Lincoln of Worcester, a former Governor of Massachusetts from the 19th century; or was he named after Lincoln Street, our old neighborhood, or the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, hoping he will be a great musician; or Lincoln, Nebraska; do they want him to take on a Midwestern personality? Or, maybe he wasn’t named after anyone or anyplace. Either way, I’m hoping one day we will have our first St. Lincoln in the Church, because, without checking, I would bet the house that there is no present St. Lincoln in the Communion of Saints.
It was almost a miraculous birth in that my niece Randi was in labor for a whopping 8 minutes. Now, I’ve never been in labor, but I did work for UPS for 20 years. And I would think that an 8-minute labor is a Godsend. We’ve heard of 12 hour labors, 18 hours of labor; even 24 hours of labor, and such. But 8 minutes? That’s a child who was ready to be born! And, a mother who was ready to give birth.
And that’s where we find ourselves on the 4th of Advent; a mother who is ready to give birth, and a child who is ready to be born. Someone the world has been looking for since Adam and Eve ate the bitter fruit.
The 4th Sunday of Advent is as close to celebrating a Marian Feast Day – a day of Mary – without it being a Marian Feast Day. But if we have a healthy and accurate understanding of our Catholic theology, we know that all things Mary point to the Son of whom she is about to give birth. Mary never stands on her own in salvation history. She must always, and does, point to her Son, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Now, my great-nephew’s birth, like the birth of every child, is a copy of what we are about to celebrate in a few more days. A husband and wife giving their love to one another, eventually bearing the wonderful fruit of that spousal love, and naming him Lincoln. Which I hope and pray one day will be St. Lincoln. (If there can be Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, there can be a St. Lincoln!). It’s a most excellent copy from what humans can deliver. In fact, it’s the ideal. And I really wish our secular world would go back to promoting such ideals of family, because our world and its people would be a much more joyful and happier. However, my great-nephew’s birth is a shadowy copy of what we see in today’s Gospel.
In the Gospel, we give our attention to Mary’s Annunciation. The circumstances at the beginning are famously different from my niece and her husband. Lincoln – the future St. Lincoln – is the fruit of his parents love. The house of Lincoln was built through Spousal love. The House of David will be built through Mary and the power of the Holy Spirit overshadowing her. What an intensely holy and powerfully loving image that is. To be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the 3rd Person on the Trinity. To be covered with Divine Love from head to toe, so strong and so present, and so unique in the history of mankind, that the overshadowing is so all-consuming, that she, this most beautiful woman of Israel chosen from the mind of the living God, will become pregnant. All I can say is, “Wow!” It tells of the singular love that God has for this woman who is full of grace.
And although such Divine Love is singular – any of us here been visited by Gabriel?- It’s very singular to Mary, and then to Joseph in a dream. But Gabriel’s visit to Mary is not in a dream. It’s face to face. Although this overshadowing is singular to Mary, what Mary proceeds to do from that moment on is to share the overshadowing. First, in a small way to Elizabeth her cousin, meaning John the Baptist is present as well as poor Zechariah who is struck speechless for not believing the angel Gabriel. But then, Mary shares the overshadowing with the entire human race. From small to all.
Why is Mary so thoughtful and generous? Why doesn’t she just keep her child to herself? Because, in the words of the angel, “You shall name him Jesus. He will be great and be called Son of the Most High. He shall save his people from their sins. And his Kingdom will last forever.” This is the House that God has built for us through his servant David. Would you like to live in this House? Would you like to move in? And I mean, forever? Immaculate Conception is a perfect start to living in this House forever.
As Mary is overshadowed by the power of the Most High, meaning there is no one higher than God the Father, who is equal to the Son and Spirit, her overshadowing is the result of her Spousal Love with the God of Israel. We don’t lessen the importance and the role of Joseph. Joseph is the perfect husband for Mary and the perfect father for Jesus. God made the perfect choice for both wife and Son. But this most excellent Spousal Love between the Most High and the most beautiful woman in Israel, in fact in the entire world from the beginning of time, is an overshadowing gift for us.
Lincoln Marhefka has arrived into the world, after 8 minutes of labor. He couldn’t wait to get here on the afternoon of December 16. Jesus of Nazareth is about to arrive into the world; not sure how long the labor will be. But we do know that this child will labor for the salvation of our souls. And for this we give praise to the Most High.
Let the earth bring forth a Savior.
Our Christmas Mass schedule will consist of two Masses; Wednesday December 24 at 4:00 p.m., and Thursday, December 25 at 9:00 a.m. We wish all our parishioners here at Immaculate Conception and all those who are visiting family and loved ones a Merry Christmas. May the newborn child lead us to the glory of heaven promised to all who believe.
As we prepare for the birth of Jesus in a short time, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, like last week’s Gospel, brings us into the presence of John the Baptist. Back to the River Jordan we go.
John is an interesting character, to say the least. He would be the number one topic of conversation at any Christmas party where everyone in the room knew about him. “Did you see that funny looking guy baptizing people down by the river dressed in camel’s hair, eating his grasshoppers and drinking his wild honey? What a wild-looking guy! He reminds me of that guy I work with. The one whose elevator doesn’t go to the top.”
Well, John’s elevator didn’t go to the top either. Rather, it went skyward all the way to heaven. Because that’s where he wishes to take us one day.
Last week I touched on John’s words regarding his unworthiness to stoop down and loosen the thong on the sandals of Jesus. Talk about someone who fully understands who he is before the Lord! What a self-analysis grounded in humility! And as I said last week, God has found us worthy to serve Him and praise Him in the midst of the Church. Even though John was not worthy to be the forerunner for Christ, and we fall short in all attempts on our own to serve Jesus in our brothers and sisters, our Lord’s overflowing abundance of grace makes us worthy to accomplish the good that we do in his name.
In John’s self-critique of unworthiness of who he was before God, identifying his unworthy capacity and role allowed him the grace to fulfill his role to perfection. Such is the power of humility cloaked in honesty. I know of a few folks who could use a good dose of it.
Whereas unworthiness was the theme for the John the Baptist Gospel last week, this Sunday the Church’s message is to rejoice. “Rejoice always,” St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians.
In a world where we have everyday events of violence and terror, where we have enemies as both Christians and Americans by virtue of what we believe and who we are, the message all the more says “Rejoice.” Don’t allow the countless acts of evil and threats and bad stuff to steal from you the capacity to “Rejoice always.”
Rejoicing is so tied in with the reality of fear, in that rejoicing in the Lord’s presence casts away all fear. That’s the connection. It reminds me of, amazingly enough, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,. There he was, this mad, conniving, out of his mind green monster dressed up like Santa Claus, stealing all the toys and presents, bringing them to his abode up on the mountain away from Whoville, putting forth his best effort to make life miserable for an entire village on the day of the Lord’s birth, so that when they woke up on Christmas morning, they would out of their minds like he was. The Grinch was trying to turn the good people of Whoville into himself; angry, fearful, filled with rage and vengeance, commit acts of revenge, and so forth. All the while taking them away from their ways of peace, from their love for one another, destroy their community of harmony, and turn them into something they were not. Instead, when they woke up and found no gifts, they rejoiced, because the Green Monster couldn’t take away the gift of Jesus Christ.
As we prepare for Jesus’ birth in the midst of another busy December, allow the purpose and meaning of this upcoming birth to penetrate our hearts and souls. As life tries to drag us down for any one of a thousand different reasons that the Grinch can perpetrate in our lives, especially the Grinch called the Nightly News, let us not forget in the midst of any attempts at fear that we are a rejoicing people.
John the Baptist has these priests and Levites coming out to question his actions and motives. They seem to want to put fear into him. They sell and push fear. John doesn’t buy it. The Baptist is so grounded and accepting of his mission, that any fear that originates in this world bounces off him and returns to its source.
Like the old saying, “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” That’s the Baptist. This is how we are to protect our rejoicing. Even in the midst of family loss, may we not lose sight of the truth that Jesus’ birth leads to our eternal peace.
As they go after John and question him like prosecutors; “Who are you? Why you doing these things? By whose authority are you baptizing these people? Are you Elijah of the Prophet?” and on and on and on. As they gang up on John, he stands his ground of rejoicing in Jesus his Lord.
Our lives in today’s world are always on the cusp of fear. Fear is always lurking, looking for an opening. It is forever trying to drag us into its ugly net, and keep us there. The message on the 3rd Sunday of Advent is, “Don’t go there! Stay tuned for a birth that destroys fear, shaking its foundations.
What replaces fear is love. As in, “God is love.” And where there is love, there is rejoicing. Just ask any married couple on their wedding day. This is the invitation to the followers of Christ. Let us rejoice and be glad, for he is appearing soon.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
The language of unworthiness regarding “preparing the way of the Lord” I remember back in seminary days. Seminarians studying to take the place of the Apostles and John the Baptist in “preparing the way of the Lord” would like to say often, “I’m not worthy to be a priest. I’m not worthy to stand at the altar of sacrifice where some pretty incredible spiritual events occur during the course of every liturgy. I’m not worthy to put on the shoes they wore at the Last Supper, and offer the many good faithful Catholics the Bread of Life and the Blood of Eternal Redemption. I’m not worthy.”
And when arriving in the Parish as a priest, I’ve noticed over the years that seminarians did not corner the market on unworthiness as it relates to the faith of Jesus Christ. I’ve heard some good, faithful Catholics say, “I’m not worthy to be an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. I’m not worthy to be a Eucharistic Minister (same thing). I’m not worthy to hand out Communion. I’m not worthy to handle such treasure. I’m not worthy.”
And then I’ve heard spoken words such as, “I’m not worthy to have my sins forgiven. It’s not possible that God could forgive me of the sins that I have committed. Those wretched, awful, ugly, self-centered sins. It’s not possible that God is so merciful that I could be worthy enough to clean the slate of my soul. I’m not worthy of such love and forgiveness. Therefore, God must not be worthy enough to extend His gentle touch of mercy. I’m just not worthy.” Even though the Gospel clearly reveals to us otherwise.
What do we see happening in this Gospel? “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem (a very populous city) were going out to meet him.” Him being John the Baptist. Why? To be baptized as they acknowledged their sins. Sounds like they all felt worthy in the midst of their guilt.
The list of unworthiness in Catholic circles is…long.
One area where I have yet to encounter such remarks of unworthiness is with the ministry of Lector. I cannot remember a potential Lector saying, “I’m not worthy to proclaim the word of God at the holy sacrifice of the Mass.” They believe they are worthy. Maybe we should take a cue from our Lector’s and extend it to the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins, and whatever else makes us unworthy in the faith.
I blame all the talk of unworthiness on John the Baptist. All because he didn’t feel worthy enough to stoop down and loosen the shoelaces of Jesus’ sandals. Thus began the ideology of spiritual unworthiness as it relates to Jesus Christ. With a shoelace! Can you believe it? A shoelace! No wonder why we think we’re not worthy to handle the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ! No wonder why we may carry within our hearts that we are not worthy enough to have our wretched sins forgiven! Was that sinful woman, who many believe was Mary Magdalene, was she worthy enough to cry on the feet of Jesus, and wipe his holy feet with her hair? Jesus didn’t say, “What are you doing, woman? Are you crazy?” No, he commends her for her great love. Her tears were holier than our own holy oils we use for the Sacraments. In fact, out holy oils are an extension of her tears.
If John the Baptist – the one of whom no one was born of woman greater than he – is not worthy to touch a shoelace, a relic of Jesus, then where the heck does that leave the rest of us when it comes to the miraculous works of Jesus? Where does it leave us? “I’m not worthy.” That’s where it leaves us. In other words, we remain stuck on John the Baptist.
Granted, there is truth in the proclamation that we are not worthy. We are not worthy to have our sins forgiven. But God says, “Come to my mercy nonetheless.” We are not worthy to handle the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior. But God says, “Come to my banquet nonetheless.” Pope Francis, Fr. Riley, and every other priest in the world are not worthy to stand at the holy altar and be in Persona Christi, in the Person of Christ, where ordinary bread and wine become the true presence of Jesus Christ. But God says, “Answer my call nonetheless.”
We’re no longer stuck on John the Baptist. And John the Baptist would be the first person to tell us that. “I baptize you with water. But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is John’s invitation and push to go beyond him, and enter the world of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
As we move through the Season of Advent in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we are instructed by John to prepare for all the spiritual and very real gifts that arrive for us in the Bethlehem stable. They don’t arrive in a UPS truck, or a Fed-Ex van, or from the USPS. They all do good work. And, they work hard, especially at this time of year. Rather, our good fortune of eternal salvation arrives in a common stable that no one else in overcrowded Bethlehem wanted to occupy.
It was not below the dignity of the Creator of the universe, the King of kings, to be born in a meaningless stable. That place was worthy of where his assignment on earth was to begin. From the beginning, Jesus’ life was not stuck on John the Baptist, the great forerunner. We may believe we are unworthy to receive and desire the many gifts of our loving God who comes to us. And that we are unworthy to offer ministry, or offer charity in the name of Jesus Christ. But in the bigger reality that stretches past the life and purpose of John the Baptist, God has found us worthy. Otherwise he wouldn’t have shown up. In fact, the Lord commands us to be worthy, even in our wretchedness. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
We love John the Baptist, who perfectly understood his role. But we live for Jesus Christ. By doing so, we prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths.
A shoelace! C’mon!
Masses for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a Holy Day of Obligation, are Monday at 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.