Our Parish will hold 2 Christmas Masses: Christmas Eve, December 24 at 4:00 p.m., and Christmas Day at 9:00 a.m. We wish all parishioners and those visiting from other places a Merry Christmas. May God’s abundant blessings be upon you and your families during this holy season and throughout the New Year.
We all embrace a pleasant greeting, unless we’re Ebenezer Scrooge. “Good morning, Ma’am. Good morning, sir. Thank you for holding the door for me, even if it’s an automatic door. The intention was good. Have a great day (that’s a popular one!). May your day be blessed.” There’s much to be said for pleasant greetings, in contrast to greetings grounded in Bah Humbug.
On the cusp of Christmas just a few days hence, our readings on the 4th and final Sunday of Advent lead us to greetings. Both human greetings, which can go either way, and divine greetings, which go one way, always in our favor, with Jesus having been raised from the dead.
“The Lord spoke to Ahaz;” a divine greeting. “Ask for a sign, Ahaz. Make it deep as the netherworld. The large underground world where souls waited for the Risen Jesus to come and rescue them. Ahaz, make your sign as high as the sky. Don’t hold back.” That’s quite a greeting from the Lord to the mere mortal Ahaz. If the Lord greeted us personally, “Ask for a sign as big as you can imagine, a sign that will remove all doubt in our hearts and minds that God is not only close, but that your life is everlasting, could you request a sign big enough?”
Ahaz doesn’t accept the Lord’s greeting. “I’m too insignificant to ask for a sign. Why does he want one from me?” is the human response to this Divine greeting. This greeting had much potential, until Ahaz said, “Oh no, I can’t do that. I cannot tempt my God. I will not!” So, the Lord’s greeting bypasses Ahaz, landing on the lap of the Prophet Isaiah, who will answer, “The Lord himself will give you a sign; the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” The divine greeting that began with Ahaz ended with Isaiah. And it was all good, despite the fear of Ahaz. Don’t push away your divine greetings.
And then we have Paul’s human greeting to the Christian community in Rome, beginning with, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.” How’s that for a greeting! When’s the last time we greeted someone with the words, “I’m Fr. Riley, slave of Christ Jesus. Nice to meet you.” Wouldn’t we like to extend such a greeting to some relatives or friends who have lost their way with Christ Jesus? I believe that would capture their attention. Or, the deeply personal question to ourselves, “Are you, Fr. Riley, a slave for Christ Jesus?” Translated, “Are you living in the freedom he offers your life by being his slave, his disciple, and not a slave of the world?”
Paul’s human greeting is strong, attention-getting, in those few words to the Roman community of early Christians. Paul’s greeting is the penultimate greeting that we can extend to another person or community. A slave of Christ Jesus is the deepest sign, the netherworld-type of greeting that we can extend. It removes all doubt as to who we are close, and to who or what we worship. It’s the perfect set-up greeting a few days before his impending birth.
And, speak of removing all doubt, poor Joseph, like John the Baptist last week in prison wanting to know if Jesus was the one to come, Joseph is filled with doubt concerning his relationship with Mary. His love for Mary never lessens. Joseph loves Mary with all his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength. He sees her perfect beauty both inside and out. She is God’s perfect creature. The only creature created to perfection. But Joseph in his heart believes he spies an imperfection in Mary. Hmm, does he know something God doesn’t about Mary? Many people think they do. Joseph doesn’t know how it happened. His eyes do not deceive him. She’s pregnant, and he’s not the father. “You got that right bother!” Time to divorce her quietly. Why quietly? Why divorce Mary in the silence of the night? Because, he loves her unconditionally, and Joseph does not want the community of judges to judge her harshly by stoning her. “Time for another greeting,” says the Lord.
“Gabriel, go down and speak with Joseph. Please tell him this is all my doing. This is my plan from the beginning of time. My plan to bring my people from the netherworld, from depths unknown to the human mind. My plan that will raise them up so that they may be together forever in my presence and each other’s loving presence. Hurry Gabriel. Go forth and tell Joseph he needs to stay the Divine Plan of Redemption. Greet Joseph in his dream and tell the righteous man to hold fast and hold Mary by the hand. Tell him to be her husband for life and enjoy the beauty of her presence and companionship. Go Gabriel!”
The 3rd greeting on this 4th Sunday of Advent initiated by God personally, is the greeting that saves the day. It saves Christmas Day. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. Do not separate from her. Do not distance yourself from her. It’s through the Spirit – the Holy Spirit – that this child has been conceived in her. She is pregnant through the power of the Author of all Life. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
This Divine greeting saves the day, the world, and all creation. It’s probably a good thing Joseph didn’t know all this was somehow dependent upon his decision to take Mary his wife into his home, rather than divorce her, quietly or otherwise. It’s a good thing he lacked certain knowledge about these events.
But we don’t lack such knowledge in hindsight. Like Joseph, we embrace the 3rd greeting on the 4th Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for the greatest greeting of all time in an obscure manger in Bethlehem.
Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
We’re all here because we know in our hearts that he is the One to come, and if we look for another, we’re looking in some place of darkness.
Jesus is explicit in his words that were proclaimed in a Gospel this past week when he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Even those who raise families; those of us who work all sorts of overtime like a UPS driver at this time of year; all you run around throughout the day trying to accomplish this, that, and everything else; and those who sit back in later years without thinking about our final destination quickly arriving. Rest in Jesus through your faith and good works. Because, he is the one to come, and don’t dare go looking for another.
Poor John the Baptist finds himself in Herod’s dungeon in this Gospel. All for telling Herod the truth about his ungodly marriage. We see where the truth might get us against worldly forces who don’t like hearing God’s teaching. Anyway, there the Baptist sits below the earth, being cared for and waited on by his disciples. And this image of John in prison is useful for us, less than a couple weeks away from the birth of Christ. How so, you may ask?
We are to never grow tired of preparing for our Savior’s birth. Because prior to his birth, we too were in prison. We were locked up, underground, in the Netherworld, in the prison of our souls, with no hope of freeing ourselves from the wages of sin and death.
Except unlike John, who remains in prison, and dies in prison, we anticipate in the birth of our Lord to be set free. We have been set free. We didn’t sneak out of prison; we didn’t escape; we didn’t have to dig any tunnels, climb barbed wire fences, run past any guards, or hide in any forest. We sat there in prison, right about this time, waiting for the answer to the question, “Are you the one to come? Are you the one who is to open this dirty dungeon door where we are imprisoned in all our spiritual misery, and set us free into your Divine mercy and love? Or, should we look for another? Should we choose another? Should we hope that Herod will have a change of heart and decide to let us go?”
From those two options, one option is pure love and truth. The other option is pure hatred, evil, and lies. The first option blows up the entire dungeon without doing us harm. The first option of love and truth, of breaking free from the dungeon built by Beelzebul with some help from Adam and Eve; the first option is standing at the gate. And he’s judging we don’t belong in there. He loves us too much to stand there and watch us melting away like a POW. He must open that chained gate. And not just open it, but shatter it to pieces. And what breaks that prison door to smithereens, is his birth. The Word becoming flesh. Making his dwelling among us. Not in a prison, but in the freedom of his love and mercy.
We, my friends, have no business walking back into that prison. Yet, many do. Making decisions in their lives like his birth never happened. So tied up in the world of bad relationships, the world of greed, the world of politics being their false god, the world of materialism and individualism. They walk right back into the prison, sit next to John the Baptist, awaiting their spiritual execution. The people who look for another.
That’s not us. We’re about to be set free, again, for the 2019th time since his original birth in a stable. We prepare, again and again, for the birth of our Savior for the proper and correct reasons. The kids receiving toys are nice. A white Christmas is nice; Bing Crosby thinks so. Company profits for this season are nice; the one and only reason for the profits being the birth of Jesus Christ. But these, and much more, are mere distractions from the proper meaning of why it’s essential to prepare for his birth.
His birth is a celebration of our being released from the prison of sin and death, knowing we had no power to release ourselves from such torment. But there we are, sitting in prison, conversing with John, asking the same question as John, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” In other words, “Are you going to accept his free Christmas gift of being set free, or, are we going to stay with John and be executed by the forces of evil?”
The Judge is standing at the gate. He can see right into your cell, your dungeon. He’s going to open that wretched door for you. That ugly gate. But, it’s our decision as to whether we walk out into his merciful life, or stay in there with death and its misery. Staying in there means we live like he was never born. Walking out is to celebrate his upcoming birth, again.
It could certainly be classified or called a confrontation. Sometimes, not always, a confrontation is sought by two sides. One side is usually more aggressive, initially, than the other side. Very rarely do two sides run into the center of a battlefield and seek to destroy one another. You see that only in video games. One side is usually on defense. It’s one side that initiates, while the other side reciprocates and responds to the attack.
The confrontation, if you will, on this 2nd Sunday of the Peaceful Season of Advent, is between a group and one man. Which seems lopsided. The group consists of both the secular and religious leaders uniting to form one group. They are the Pharisees and Sadducees. And the one man, of course, is John the Baptist. And with the tone of John the Baptist, beginning with “You brood of vipers,” it appears the Baptist strikes the first blow in this battle of religious ways. Whose version of God is truer?
For that’s at the heart of this slightly heated discussion. This meeting of a group and one strangely clad Preacher is not husband and wife material. Like, “Are you gonna take the dog out before he goes to the bathroom on the new rug?” Or, “Honey, why did you talk to my mother that way?” Hopefully there’s some forgiveness before sleep that night.
No, John the Baptist and this group of influential 1st century leaders in Palestine is not relational stuff between each other. It would be nice if they got along swimmingly. But getting along forever and always, every day of the year, ended when Adam and Eve ate the unforbidden fruit.
Instead, this confrontation concerns “Who is God? What is he like? What does he want? What does he give to us? What do we believe about him and how do we relate to him?” And, not least, “How do we understand and accept his love for us?” This confrontation between the Baptist and this group concerns the most important topic of, “What is the true way of relating to the Lord, preparing for the Lord’s coming, and accepting his many graces?”
Without trying to easily shove aside the opposition here, the Pharisees and Sadducees are like those today who believe they know perfectly what God wants. But they miss the mark because of staunch rules, regulations, and extreme rigidity. They block themselves in religiously. They create their own barrier against God, and such barriers prevent this group from reaching their true leadership potential.
Imagine, as a parent or grandparent, having so many rules and regulations, and such rigid rigidity towards a child where they can hardly breathe? Or they’re afraid to breathe in the wrong direction? The intention may be good, but the process destroys. Imagine a student getting a 98 on a math test and the parent’s response is, “You could have done better!”
On the flip side, by no means do we allow the inmates to run the prison. Children are not administrators of their own lives. And human beings do not run heaven. We need good direction. And that good religious direction comes from John the Baptist. The Baptist is the perfect administrator. John doesn’t smother us with the things of God. He knows he is unworthy to untie the sandals of the One coming after him. As we prepare for the event in Bethlehem that changes all creation for the better, where all life is touched by his birth, our Lord comes to us by way of the truest freedom possible. Human freedom is taken away only by governments and groups, not by God.
The Baptist proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He does not follow that up with, “If you don’t repent, I will seek your death.” John blesses us in a twofold way; that our relationship with Christ is grounded in freedom. We can accept or reject. Or anywhere in between, such as lukewarm. And second, John blesses us with this perpetual truth, which is “Repent.” Whether we are close to Jesus or far away from him, the message remains the same. ‘Repent, because God’s kingdom is now at hand in the Messiah’s upcoming birth.” Meaning, that kingdom is now within you. Meaning, we have the capacity to represent God with truth and accuracy in our daily lives, starting with “Repent.”
John’s one word “Repent,” for those who choose to accept this spiritual assignment, will take the bad fruit that Adam & Eve consumed sinfully, and spit it back out. By spitting out the horrible tasting fruit, which all sin is, and accepting “Repent” into our mouths, then your life becomes a free statement that says, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
As good as the Pharisees and Sadducees could be in some respects, they could never take us to the spiritual plane of who God is, what is he like, what does he want from us, and what does he freely offer us. We are not a brood of vipers. We are not poisonous snakes. We are Christians. We are followers of Christ who fully accept what God has placed before us in our faith.
But to set our lives on the proper path throughout our days and years, John the Baptist is the one who sets us on the Godly path, the path of good fruit, with the word “Repent.” He wins this confrontation by a mile. Many Godly words and actions flow from the one word “Repent,”, as we prepare again for the first coming of Christ.
With the inclement weather coming at some point today, our Parish has decided in the spirit of the Advent Season to still hold our Concert at 3:00 p.m. for those who wish to come out and enjoy this fabulous performance as we prepare for the coming of our Lord’s birth. We hope to see you today!