The Fourth Joyful Mystery
At Christmastime Holy Mother Church gives us all five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. A few days before Christmas we hear the Gospel of the Annunciation, and then that of the Visitation, and of course on Christmas the Nativity Story, and in two weeks, on Holy Family Sunday, the story of the finding in the Temple. Today we hear the Fourth Joyful Mystery, the Presentation in the Temple. Of course I must remind all of you to pray the rosary every day, so as to fully rejoice in these joyful mysteries. Today let’s look a little more closely at the Fourth Joyful Mystery.
Joseph and Mary bring the baby Jesus to the Temple in obedience to the Law of Moses. They can’t afford a calf or a goat to redeem their Son, so they offer what they can afford, the offering allowed to poor people, two little pigeons. He who made the entire planet and sustains it in being at every moment was “redeemed” in his own Temple by two scrawny birds. Neither Joseph and Mary, nor the Lord Jesus Christ himself, were ashamed of their poverty. They knew they were sons of God, as St. Paul points out in the Epistle, heirs of God’s Kingdom. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, to ransom those under the law….you are no longer a slave but a son, and an heir…”
There is no shame in any kind of honest poverty since God took on the poverty of human flesh. Neither poverty of intellect, nor poverty of physical beauty, or poverty of money, or poverty of health or friends or social standing—no honest poverty is shameful. Shame is not found in either wealth or poverty, but in sin. We must recall always that we possess everything because we possess God, who has given himself to us. We need nothing more. “Take all that I have, O Lord. Grant me only your love and your grace,” prayed St. Ignatius, “that is sufficient for me.”
But back to our Story, the Fourth Joyful Mystery. Simeon, the old man in the temple, takes the baby in his arms (notice that Mary gives him the baby) and proclaims the Nunc Dimittis, prayed by all nuns and priests just before going to bed every night: “Now, O Lord, you may let your servant die in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation and your glory” he sings, gazing down at the baby.
The child’s father and mother, we read, were amazed at what he said about the baby, but Simeon goes on, and this is where today’s Gospel begins: “Behold, this child will be the rise and the fall of many in Israel, and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” A prophetess, Anna, also glorified God about the child to all who were awaiting redemption. These two prophets, Simeon and Anna, witnessed to Christ’s Lordship, joining the Magi and the Shepherds in testimony to Christ’s divinity.
Our Lady, witness in blood
Simeon, however, witnesses also to Mary, herself the greatest witness to Christ. Not only with words but by blood will she testify. Jesus will be a sign of contradiction, but Mary’s heart also a sword shall pierce. This piercing is a joyful mystery, because God permits her to share in his saving mission. Our Lady of Sorrows, prophesied here by Simeon, maintains deep in her wounded heart the joy of suffering with Jesus. So we too, must witness unto suffering, and unto death, if He allows us. A sword will undoubtedly run some of us through in years to come. Let us pray for the strength to witness to His Lordship, come what may. “By faith,” writes Pope Benedict, “across the centuries, men and women of all ages …have confessed the beauty of following the Lord Jesus wherever they were called to bear witness: in the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the exercise of the charisms and ministries to which they were called…. The Year of Faith will also be a good opportunity to intensify the witness of charity.” Let us pray through Our Lady to witness through charity to those with whom we live, those with whom we work, those with whom we share the freeways, that Jesus Christ is Lord!
First, I wish all of you a Blessed and Merry Christmas, and I thank you for attending the Midnight Mass, especially those brave enough to do so with little children in tow. During my boyhood in Pennsylvania, Mom and Dad would pile all six of us into the station wagon for Midnight Mass. We could see bright stars shining sharply in the cold black sky. We would crunch through ice and crusted snow to the church for a long Mass. Why, I complained, must we have Mass in the middle of the night? It’s too dark and cold! And my mother would explain that we go to Mass at Midnight because Jesus was born in the darkness, in the middle of the night. The Church celebrates Christmas Mass in the dark to underscore our liberation from darkness: we are no longer afraid of the dark. There is no darkness for men of faith because a child is given us, and we name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
True enough, the world is dark. The world without Christ is very dark. America celebrates Christmas this year with her flags at half-mast, watching the funerals of twenty schoolchildren, and wondering who will be next. Lurking in the backs of our minds is the fact that America kills thousands of children every day, with the support of the government and the approval of many Christian churches. The world is dark. Its movies are dark—I saw The Hobbit the other day and found it so much more dark and barbaric than Tolkien’s graceful tale of “there and back again.” So much of contemporary music, art, internet sites, news stories, clothing styles, and the rest of secular culture communicates gloom and desperation. We are a people addicted to anti-depressants, but it doesn’t permit us to evade the pervading fear and darkness.
No Longer Darkness
The world is dark, but God’s Kingdom is bright and beautiful. In the words of Isaiah, “To a people who walked in darkness, who dwelt in a land of gloom, a light has shown…. for a child is born to us.” The powers of this world fear and hate the child. They try to kill it, and they succeed in killing many children. But they cannot kill this Child.
St. Luke begins the Christmas story by acknowledging the powers of this world. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled….” Caesar had the power to command the “whole world,” even the Mother of God and God himself in her womb. They went obediently to Bethlehem to register with the government. No woman about to give birth should bounce on a donkey for three days, sleeping in strange places, exposed to cold and danger. And in the cold and dark she had her child, a child who would banish cold and dark forever. Cold is not cold for us, and dark is not dark, because God Is With Us.
Caesar will fail us. Governments that ignore the Law of God bring only darkness and suffering to their people. Our government used to acknowledge a power higher than itself, and we pray that it will again someday. We pray that the leaders of our Church will also submit to the will of God in everything, refusing to make bargains with the powers of this world. But no matter how dark it gets out there, our blessed hope shines brightly in here, close to Jesus in the Blessed Eucharist. No worldly power, no abuse of worldly power, and no cultural decline, can extinguish this light. No Caesar and no Herod can kill this baby. We must stay close to Him, our only hope. We must stay as close to Him as did his Holy Mother, and St. Joseph, and the Holy Shepherds and Kings from the East. We must be saints like them, because outside of Jesus, it is cold, and dark, and hopeless.
We join the Blessed Mother at the manger tonight, not at all mindful of the dark and the cold. We pledge ourselves this night to stay beside them, and to never let go. We can be merry this Christmas, and of good cheer every day, because today is born our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.
It’s no good, Mr. Obama. I saw you crying over the slaughter of the innocents in Connecticut. We all wept to see twenty little children cut down at their desks, and their wailing schoolmates. But it’s no good. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t define all morality as relative, and expect some folks not to take that deadly serious.
You won an election by promising us that we could have anything we wanted, as long as we found the money to pay for it. You told us that the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” (words we read as little children in the Declaration of Independence) do not apply anymore. You preside over a people that has enslaved herself to a dictatorship of relativism. Those who open fire at shopping malls and elementary schools simply dare anyone to impose a particular morality on them.
We can’t sell folks a culture of death and expect them not to kill. You have promised to keep abortion “safe and legal.” Your healthcare program pays for the destruction of innocent human lives. You can hardly expect people not kill children when the government pays for it under another name. If you cry over the deaths of twenty beautiful children, you should also cry over the deaths of thousands of beautiful children whose dismembered limbs are tossed into biohazard bags every day.
Our education system, our entertainment industry, and our government have trained these killers. How can we object to school shootings when we don’t object to movies, video games, and television soaked in blood lust? We’ve all been trained to do anything we can get away with, because there is no longer a God or a Natural Law. Forty public schools have been attacked since we threw God out of them, and each a cry of despair from someone who couldn’t face a world without the God of Nature and Nature’s Law.
Dear Mr. President, I don’t want to blame you more than the rest of us. We have all happily slid down this road. But you are presiding over us. No one more than you bears the responsibility to lead the way back to true freedom and dignity. We can’t have it both ways. Either we choose to respect every human life, with all the disciplined restraints that requires, or we choose a barbarian will to individual power, and its consequent culture of death. The choice couldn’t be more clear the day after the Connecticut massacre.
Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, we call “Gaudete Sunday,” so called from the first word of the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for the Mass, which is also the Second Reading:
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say it, Rejoice!... the Lord is near” (Phil 4:4).
The priest and the altar clad themselves in rose colored vestments to indicate the joy of these last two weeks before Christmas. The Prophet Zephaniah commands us in much the same words as St. Paul, “Shout for Joy, O Daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel!”
Joy in the midst of school massacres
We celebrate Guadete Sunday two days after a particularly terrible school shooting. First a young man killed his mother at home; then he went to the school and slaughtered 20 little children at their desks, along with some teachers; finally, he killed himself. This shooting was so sad that no one could speak of it on Friday afternoon without briefly faltering, without spontaneous tears. Even President Obama seems to have shed some genuine tears.
“What should we do?”
How can we rejoice in a world where sadness and horror leer at us from every corner? Many children of Sandy Hook school will never be able to trust anyone again, bearing the unconscious fear of someone appearing off the street to destroy them. And yet: the apostle insists that we “have no anxiety at all. The peace of God will guard your hearts.” The Prophet directs us: “fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!”
In the face of irrational, chaotic evil, many simply reject the Gospel as a fairy tale. Some express anger at this “opiate of the people” and seek to tear out manger scenes from public places. In the face of human and demonic evil, how can we rejoice?
Let’s turn to the Gospel: John is baptizing at the Jordan River, and everyone asks him: What should we do? He tells the rich person to share his wealth, the tax collectors to charge only what is fair, and the soldiers to stop extorting money. In other words, there are some things we can and must do to receive the Gospel joy. The joy of freedom from fear and sadness is not free. It cost God his only begotten Son; it will cost us too. We cannot simply follow the impulses of the flesh and expect freedom and joy.
First we must pray. Those who take the trouble to pray regularly—who go to Mass and confession often, who study the Scriptures, who make serious retreats—these radiate a deep, consistent joy. They are free men and women. In addition to prayer, we must practice justice and charity, as John the Baptist told the soldiers and tax collectors. In our time, the greatest injustices are committed against children and the elderly. What must we do to overcome the Culture of Death in the United States of America?
First, we must confront the fact that we kill not twenty but thousands of children every day through legal abortion. We can hardly expect people not kill children when our government subsidizes it under another name. We can’t sell folks a culture of death and expect them not to kill. Second, we must clean up the entertainment industry: the movies, television, and video games we pump out drip with blood lust and disrespect for the human person. The games we give our children train them to destroy. Third, we must defend the Judeo-Christian principles of our nation. Government schools have tutored our children in atheism, and most parents make no objection. Forty public schools have been attacked since we threw God out of them. Each school echoed a cry of despair from someone who couldn’t face a world without God.
We can rejoice, even today, indeed, in all circumstances. Let us turn to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Cause of our Joy, and imitate her purity.
The other day I joined a group of folks for Christmas caroling at an abortion clinic. It was cold. It was wet. It was depressing. A stream of young mothers entered an ugly building. Their expressionless faces belied the fact that they were carrying their own children in to be cut up and tossed into plastic bags for disposal. Within the hour, at least ten children would be destroyed.
The contrast between the Christmas carols and the abortion clinic struck me. “What Child is this, who laid to rest…,” we softly sang as the mothers loped into the clinic. “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed….,” we sang in perfect unison and harmony. The silver notes of “Silent Night” filled the parking lot as the mothers shut their ears, “Holy Infant so tender and mild—Sleep in heavenly peace.”
They were stopping their ears. A car pulled out of the lot, the windows tight shut, loud rap music pounding from within. The young lady at the wheel averted her eyes. We sang sweetly on. But not everyone sang. Rather than sing, some of the people called out to the fathers and mothers bringing their children into the clinic to die. “Hey, you. You’re a father. Take responsibility for your child!” Some, rather than sing, held up angry signs to cars passing by.
It seemed to me that we either sang or we frowned. There is certainly plenty to frown about. We pro-lifers have lost this war. No one is paying attention to us. America has re-elected the most pro-abortion president in history, who will appoint two or three Supreme Court justices. American Catholics are mostly pro-abortion, or at least refuse to defend human life. The media, the education system, the government—all the powers of this world are against us, and we have lost this war. There is no hope. So why am I standing out on this sidewalk?
And I realized: I am standing out on this sidewalk not to win a war, but to sing. I am not convincing anyone of anything—that is God’s work. My work is to sing of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. My job is to witness, and let God do the rest. And if I do not sing, I will despair. Christmas is a fact that secular advocates of death can change. A young mother, impoverished and unwed, gave birth to her child. It was the single decisive fact in human history. No one can change the fact of Life’s triumph in a world of death.
We can either give in to anger, or we can sing. Much better, especially during this Christmas season, to sing.
Joy of the Return
In another week most of us will return home for Christmas. How happy we are to come home to Mom and Dad, to our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, to drive the old roads and return to our old room. So much of life is an exile from those we love, and few are the times of return.
Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, writes from exile in Babylon in our first reading.
“The Chaldeans took Jerusalem and burned it with fire,” he writes tersely. But, one day, God will bring us home, Baruch assures us. As once He led his captive people out of Egyptian slavery, so will He lead a second Exodus out from this Babylonian captivity. “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever….” For “God is leading Israel in joy, by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.”
We can picture the Jews in long caravans, returning to Jerusalem in 540 BC. They rebuilt the city, but it wasn’t long before foreign armies burned Jerusalem again, and many times after that. Jerusalem is still on fire—the earthly “city of peace” pounded by Hezbollah rockets and ripped apart by suicide bombers. We are still waiting for God’s promise of an Exodus out of our cities of blood and despair into his Land of rest and joy. When will he come to lead us home?
Advent: A penitential season: Prepare!
In Advent we recall the fact that He has already come, and He comes again every time we make the effort to follow him along The Way. It is the way of “penance,” of choosing His will over ours at every turn. Penance is not a dreary obligation, but the brisk decision to tighten our belts and set out upon the road that leads home. Advent is a penitential season, not as strict as Lent, but certainly a time for greater simplicity, prayer, and fasting. John the Baptist calls us to a “Baptism of repentance.” As we have loosened up on Advent penances over the years, we’ve lost much of the joy of the season. December 8, for example, is rarely a Holy Day of Obligation any more, and in skipping this Feast we miss out on the joy proper to Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. The time before Christmas has become a hollow shell of what it once was, a secular holiday that celebrates it knows not what. God offers us perfect joy, but perfect joy on earth is wrapped in simplicity, prayer, and penance.
St. John the Baptist emerges from the desert, from his long Advent of prayer and fasting. “Prepare the way” for Him, he cries out. Every valley must be filled in, every mountain made low, every crooked way made straight, and rough ways smooth. No doubt, he refers to those rough ways in which we treat our family members during Christmas vacation. He must have in mind those mountains of pride we display in classroom discussions. Perhaps he knows our crooked ways of pretense and deceit, and the gaping valleys of our laziness? John the Baptist tells us to get the earthmovers out, the bulldozers, the caterpillars. Build my Messiah a temple, and a road, fit for his majesty, appropriate to your own dignity. This is the joyful penance and the bracing work of Advent.
Students’ Christmas Vacation: Some practical suggestions
Before you go home, I offer two practical suggestions. First, pray that you not get into the usual arguments with family members. You are different than when they last saw you, and misunderstandings often arise. Pray the rosary and commit yourself to acts of cheerful humility and understanding love. Second, make a written plan for prayer and study during your three weeks: when and where you will pray, and when and where you will study? This side of the grave, there is no such thing as an absolute vacation. We bring our work with us, and we never abandon the asceticism of true prayer.
In the rest of Advent, I recommend you pray one rosary every day. It’s the least penance we can do. Bring Our Lady with you on Christmas Vacation, and you will always have the joy and the affection of Christ Jesus. Since this will be the last Sunday Mass for many of you at TAC before vacation, I wish you all a blessed and merry Christmas.
Homily: Advent, a preparation for the Coming of Christ
Extraordinary Form Homily, December 2nd, 2012, 1st Sunday of Advent
Not a Christmas Carol
Luke 21: 25-33 “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
On this first Sunday of Advent, the Catholic Church, which invented Christmas, seems to squarely oppose the merry festivities gracing our living rooms and public squares since Thanksgiving. Do the Church’s chosen Scriptures speak of warm Christmas joy today? They do not. They bleakly foretell chaos, unparalleled distress, nations in dismay and people even dying of fright. Why does the Church try to ruin our Christmas parties with these scenes of cataclysm and catastrophe?
Because the Catholic Church, which invented Christmas, also invented Advent. And Advent is a preparation not so much for Christmas Day, but for the great Day of the Lord’s Second Coming. He came once as a little babe. He will come again upon the clouds in power and glory to judge the nations. And every eye shall behold him, yea, even them that thrust him through.
Which ought we to do during Advent? Prepare for Christmas parties that recall his First Coming, or prepare as He told us for His Second Coming? Only those who don’t believe in his First Coming would neglect to prepare for his Second Coming. And so we should prepare for both, but more seriously for the Second Coming. Holy Mother Church has designed Advent in two stages. Stage One, until December 16, trains our thoughts on Christ’s Second Coming. Stage Two, from December 17-24, prepares us to celebrate with appropriate joy Christ’s First Coming, so that we might be ready for the Second.
A Penitential Season
Romans 13:11-14 “Brothers: you know it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now … Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Advent is a penitential season: not as strict as Lent, to be sure, but certainly a time of greater simplicity and prayer. Indeed, it is the “hour to wake from sleep—our salvation is nearer now,” than Advent 2011. St. Paul urges us to, “conduct ourselves properly—not in drunkenness and promiscuity, rivalry or jealousy.” How many “Christmas parties” reduce themselves to promiscuous drinking parties, ending with jealousy and fighting? Advent is the time to “put on the Lord Jesus, making no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
Why does Jesus warn us about the end of the world in the first place? To frighten us? No, to protect us from the emptiness those feel who put their hope in what can never afford lasting joy. Jesus states unequivocally that Heaven and earth will pass away. Everything one can buy at a store, every earthly love and friendship, even our own bodies, will pass away. It will blow away as a bit of dust in the wind. The earth itself, and the sun, the entire galaxy and known universe, will eventually pass away. Only Christ and his Word will not pass away. The Church seeks to spare us the bitter pain of disappointment. Yes, this life is good, but it is not a lasting good. We all need a lasting good, a joy that nobody can take from us. If we keep hoping in things that continue to fail us, we end up forging a prison of disappointment and bitterness around our earthly lives. Advent frees us from that prison by fixing our hope on the only one who will never fail us.
Year of Faith
We enter Advent in this Year of Faith. During the last Year of Faith in 1967, the Church wrote a creed, the Credo of the People of God. I end with a line from that credo: “Christ ascended into heaven whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead, each according to his own merits. Those who have responded to the love and compassion of God will go into eternal life. Those who have refused them to the end will be consigned to the fire that is never extinguished.”
Brothers and sisters, our lives are a long Advent, a preparation for the Coming of Christ. He will come for us either on the day of our death, or on the last day of human history. Everything we do in this brief time on earth should be directed toward attaining eternal life, and avoiding that fire that is never extinguished. In every Advent, we turn to Our Lady. She holds out the baby Jesus to us. He grasps us in his tiny hands, and leads us unfailingly into eternal joy.