The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI on Christmas

The Pope on Christmas. Here's a link to the Holy Father's address at his weekly audience -- December 17 -- in which he takes up the theme of Christmas as an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our existence.


The following is my homily for this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year B:

For children Christmas is always a time of surprises. Growing up in my family the surprises began when we returned home from church on the first Sunday of Advent. My mother would hang up advent calendars, and every day for the next four weeks we’d each get to open one of the little windows and be surprised by what was behind it. Ah, yes, we were simple little souls.

And what about surprise snowfalls, the ones we prayed for? How great it was to wake up to a world transformed by a thick white blanket.

My dad surprised us every year with a huge Christmas tree, anywhere from 12 to 18 feet high. But a tree like that was expensive, so Dad would wait until about a week before Christmas when the dealers would sell it at half price. And every year, just when we thought we’d never get a tree, he'd show up with an enormous one tied to the roof of the car.

Our mom would decorate the house with all sorts of wonderful things that had been in the family for generations. It was always the same, but a surprise nonetheless. And I can still remember my surprise when my parents decided I was old enough to attend Midnight Mass. I think I made it through the offertory. Then there was the surprise of Christmas morning. The opening of the presents. And not just our own, but watching my parents’ surprise as they opened the remarkably useless gifts we had given them.

Yes, Christmas has always been a time of surprises, and rightly so, because the Incarnation itself was a surprise. We even see this manifested in the Old Testament in some of the earliest hints of a Messiah. Today's first reading is a good example.

King David, experiencing a respite from warfare, starts thinking about how he's living in a splendid cedar palace, and yet God’s tabernacle is still housed in a tent; and so he decides to build a temple for God.But that evening, God speaks to the prophet, Nathan, and instructs him to "Go back to David and tell him he is not to build a temple for Me. Rather, I will build a house for him, and David's son will build the temple."

What a surprise this must have been for David. And what a house the Lord would build for him. For from that house, God promised to raise up an heir, a King of Kings."I will be a Father to Him," God tells David, "and He shall be a Son to Me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever…" Though David doesn't say it, much like Mary in the Gospel, his attitude is: "Do to me according to Your word; whatever You say, Lord."

But God had more surprises in store for His people. A thousand years later, the Jewish people, suffering under Roman occupation and rule, still cling to God's promise to David. God had promised them a king, so they watched and they waited, looking for the one who would rise up and restore Israel to its former glory. Perhaps they should have known better. For God had promised a kingdom that would endure forever, surely no earthly kingdom. But they believed what they wanted to believe.

Once again God takes the world by surprise and brings a very different kind of King into the world, in a way no one could ever expect. He chooses a poor, teenage girl, from a tiny village in a remote corner of occupied Palestine, a backwater of the Roman Empire. And to announce His surprise to the world, to reveal the mystery He had kept secret for endless ages, He sends His archangel Gabriel.

Talk about a surprise! Try to imagine how Mary must have felt.Suddenly, this humble young woman, barely out of childhood, is face to face with this magnificent heavenly being. And it's not a social visit.

"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."What is she to make of this greeting? "Full of grace," he calls her, no room within her for anything else but God's saving grace. For God has prepared the Mother of His Son for all eternity and made her unique among humanity -- sinless, immaculately conceived, the only vessel worthy of His Son. But Mary doesn't know this yet. Is she afraid? Probably. So Gabriel takes pains to reassure her, and calls her by name:"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." And with this any fear she might have experienced suddenly evaporates, overwhelmed by God's love for her.

Then the great surprise, the unthinkable, God's secret revealed at last -- not to prophets or kings or theologians, but to this simple, Jewish girl."You will conceive and bear a Son, and you shall name Him, Jesus -- Savior."

That's not all. God piles surprise upon surprise. "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of David his father, and He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of His Kingdom there will be no end."

Now Mary, like any Jewish girl of the time, had been exposed to the Hebrew Scriptures -- the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms – and knew exactly what this meant: the thousand years of waiting were over. God's promise was fulfilled. But she was a virgin. So how can this be, she asks Gabriel.

His answer is even more startling than the question, an answer that reveals everything. Another surprise:"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."

It couldn't be clearer. She would bear God's Son. God's Son would be her son.The Father doesn’t command this of Mary. Rather, He gives her a choice, and awaits her answer. Not only God, but the whole world, the entire span of human history, awaits Mary’s answer. For in that decisive moment, God places the salvation of the human race, past, present and future, in her tiny hands. She need utter only one word to embrace the living Word of God in her womb.Her response, straight from the heart, brings a sigh of joy from all creation: “Let it be done to me according to Your word.”

It is a choice of total abandonment to God’s Will. Mary trusted and believed. She said “Yes” to God’s Word and acted on it.

And so, what does Mary offer us in these final days of advent? She shows us how to receive Christ, for He comes to us every day. He comes to us as He first came into the world, in poverty and powerlessness.

This is not pious rhetoric, but God's Word. Jesus comes to us in the hungry, the homeless stranger; in the sick, the imprisoned. Mary saw that even before Her Son proclaimed it. In her Magnificat, her song of joy after Gabriel’s glad tidings, Mary rejoices that God has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.

The hungers of the human family still cry out to us: hunger for bread; hunger for freedom from persecution; hunger for peace; hunger for God.It's more than a human cry; it's a cry from the Gospel itself, from God's own Word. And as Jesus’ disciples, we have no choice but to listen to that Word and act on it in the circumstances in which God places us.

One thing is certain: God isn’t telling us to do nothing. Just as He gave Mary a choice, He gives us a choice, the same choice the Apostles made when Jesus said, “Come, follow me.”It's a choice founded on the certainty of God’s promise of eternal life. It's a choice founded on faith and hope, the hope of Jesus’ return when He comes in power and glory. For this is the other Advent we celebrate today.

The good news is in another promise: the promise of Jesus given to the Apostles at the Last Supper: “Whoever loves me will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

So, you see, brothers and sisters, Christ wants to dwell within us, to make us God-bearers like Mary, so we can carry Him to others.With Christ deep within you, and seeing Christ all around you, your life can become a ceaseless Advent, a visible sign to the world of His surprising love.All you have to do is join with Mary’s voice and say, “Whatever you say, Lord.”

And do you know something else? It’s never too late. He continues to call us to Him all the days of our lives…and He's full of surprises…for as Gabriel reminded Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

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