TEXT: 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent

December 18, 2016

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

 

These last four Sundays we’ve lit a candle

to count down the passing of the Advent season,

each candle reminding us that the celebration

of the birth of the Savior of the world

was coming that much closer.

Today, we enter the final week of preparation before the celebration begins.

It’s a celebration we mark spiritually by recalling

the events of that wondrous night when the world was changed forever.

We place ourselves in the presence of the stable and the manger.

We have pictures all around us of the star shining over Bethlehem,

the 3 kings and the shepherds,

the herds of sheep and the choirs of angels.

 

But in order to prepare ourselves in these last few days,

one thing remains left to do, and today’s Gospel does it:

we need to place ourselves in the presence of the 2 people

who understand what it means to prepare for the birth of Jesus

better than any one:

the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.

 

Not much is known about the early life of the Blessed Mother.

Scripture is silent about her childhood,

as are most of the early fathers of the Church.

Even so, Scripture and all the Fathers are unanimous

in their deep reverence and love for her,

and her unique grace and status in creation

is explicitly extolled from the earliest days.

 

And not all of the Fathers are silent about her childhood.

Those who wrote about her maintain that she knew from a very early age

that God had a special mission for her in life.

Think about it: the Church teaches infallibly that

she was conceived in the womb of her mother

without the stain of original sin,

which means she never suffered from concupiscence:

she could see very clearly the difference between

the good and evil around her;

and she never once committed a personal sin.

This is, in part, what the angel Gabriel meant when he said to her:

“Hail, full of grace!”

 

This was no ordinary child.

So it’s no surprise that some in the early Church believed

that when she was a very little girl

Mary made a vow of virginity to God:

consecrating and dedicating her whole life to him.

Some say that from the age of about 3 years old she was

brought to the Temple where she was educated by the holy women

until she was about 12.

Some talk about the fact that she would have had multiple experiences

of visions and inspirations from God.

 

In any case, between Mary’s

unique holiness, her clear intellect, and her complete love of the Lord,

combined with God’s unique love for her,

we can only imagine how splendidly she was prepared

to be His mother.

Think of God the Son, who existed from all eternity,

and imagine how sitting on his throne in heaven

he must have looked down with love and tenderness

on this young girl who he knew would one day become his mother.

Imagine how He would

provide for her and protect her from heaven,

how he would send his angels to defend her,

how he would speak to her lovingly,

even before he was born, or even conceived,

perhaps even as he spoke to Moses and the prophets.

 

This is the girl, who, when the angel Gabriel came to her

and told her that she would be the Mother of God himself,

did not run and hide from her calling.

Instead she responded:

“How shall this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

–in other words, “I’m a virgin, what am I to do? tell me, and I’ll do it!”

This is something else we certainly know about this young girl:

she was a virgin

–at least 3 times in today’s gospel, St. Matthew repeats this fact.

He’s insistent that she’s a virgin because he wants no doubt that

one, this is the woman that the prophets spoke of in the old Testament,

particularly Isaiah, when he foretold:

“the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,

and shall name him Emmanuel.”

–and two, that no mere man is the father of this child,

but that God alone is his true Father.

 

And when the angel told her this great news she responded:

“let it be done to me according to your word.”

Complete and utter faith, trust, and acceptance of God’s will.

 

This is the woman, who received her Lord in perfect faith and love.

Who held him in her womb;

who cared for and worried for her baby

as only as an expectant mother could,

and waited for him with joy and love beyond all telling.

 

What about Joseph?

If we know little about Mary’s childhood, we know even less about Joseph’s.

We know that, like Mary, he was a direct descendant of King David,

and that he was perhaps born in Bethlehem,

but more likely born in Nazareth

where he lived and worked as a carpenter.

His relative obscurity in Scripture leads us to conclude that he was humble man,

who taught his son, Jesus, to be a humble man

—to serve, not to be served.

 

Some of the legends about him say

that he was an old man when he married Mary.

Some suggest this as a reason he was able to be celibate with the Virgin

—personally, I think that degrades both the gift of celibacy

and the virtue of St. Joseph.

So I agree with others in the tradition

who accept him as a young man of marrying age.

But above all, we know he was a righteous man,

which, in the language of Scripture,

means a man who was exceptionally holy,

always following the will of God.

 

And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that it is the tradition of the Fathers,

and the “common teaching” of the Church,

that like Mary, he too was prepared from an early age

for his role in salvation history.

That Joseph, who unlike Mary, was not conceived without original sin,

nevertheless, like Mary never committed a personal sin in his life.

Indeed, some even believe that Joseph was purified from original sin

after his conception in his mother’s womb.

All of this because he had been chosen to stand in, on earth,

for Jesus’ Father in heaven,

to adopt Jesus, and to be a true father to him on earth.

To teach Jesus, insofar as he was human, how to be a man, a righteous man.

 

It is this Joseph who is married to the Virgin Mary.

Every once in a while I hear some Biblically ignorant minister or priest

say that: “Mary was an unwed mother.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While God would not protect her and her baby

from the sinful choices made by men,

he would do everything he could to protect her and the child

from the effects of those sins.

So, for example, when King Herod tried to have the infant killed

God warned Joseph so he could hide his family in Egypt.

In the same way, God gave Mary a husband from the beginning,

to protect her and his son from all harm.

 

And she would need that protection from the very beginning.

Here’s what we read today:

“When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,

but before they lived together,

she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.

Joseph her husband, …decided to divorce her quietly.”

Joseph was “her husband.”

And see how he says Joseph decided to “divorce” her.

One does not have to get a divorce if one is not married.

 

What you have to remember is that in ancient Israel

there were 2 stages to marriage:

the first was betrothal,

which was the commitment made between the spouses.

This isn’t like our modern day “engagement”

—when you were betrothed you were legally married.

The only thing left to do was as Scripture says:

“to live together,”

or for the husband to actually “take his wife into his home.”

And so after the angel appeared in a dream to Joseph and told him

the truth about Mary’s son

and that he, Joseph was part of God’s plan,

the Gospel concludes:

“[and Joseph] took his wife into his home.

But it was the betrothal that protected Mary from accusation of adultery

—and from being stoned to death

(which was the penalty for that crime)—

since everyone would naturally assume

that Joseph had already, previously, “taken her into his home”

and exercised his husbandly prerogatives.

The only way this could fall apart was if Joseph were to publicly denounce her.

 

But does Joseph publicly denounce her?

Most men in this situation would react in anger, even violence.

But not Joseph.

Instead, St. Matthew tells us:

“since he was a righteous man,

yet unwilling to expose her to shame,

decided to divorce her quietly.”

 

What was Joseph thinking?

Some think that he thought her guilty of adultery,

but loved her so much that he didn’t want her to be stoned,

so he was going to simply divorce her

without publicly denouncing her.

Maybe.

But it seems to me there’s a better explanation.

Perhaps, having been prepared by God for this moment from his birth,

Joseph is aware that something wonderful is going on here.

He knows that Mary is special,

perhaps he even knows she’s taken a vow of virginity,

And perhaps he suspects that she is the one Isaiah spoke of,

that she is the “virgin” who would be the mother of “Emmanuel.”

Maybe Mary told him what Gabriel had said to her and he believed her.

And in his great humility, not knowing what God has planned,

but simply believing that he is too unworthy to be part of it,

Joseph chooses to remove himself,

to get out of Mary’s way—and God’s way.

 

Judging by his reaction to the angel’s message to him

this seems the more likely case, at least to me,

since Scripture tells us that immediately upon awakening from his dream

“he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him,

and took his wife into his home.”

 

These are the Joseph and Mary that were prepared for the birth of Christ

from the earliest days of their lives

—chosen by God to prepare a place for Jesus in the world.

To welcome him with open and loving arms.

To serve him, even as he was to serve them.

To worship and adore him, even as they corrected his childish mistakes.

 

This is the Mary and Joseph who traveled on the rocky mountainous roads

from Nazareth in the North of Israel, to Bethlehem in the south,

during the cold month of December.

This is the Mary and Joseph, dedicated to their baby and to each other,

who wandered the streets of Bethlehem

looking for a place to lay their heads.

This was the Mary and Joseph who hastily cleaned the stable,

sweeping the floor, washing the dirty manger and laying out fresh hay.

This was the Mary and Joseph who watched in awe

the miraculous birth of God the Son

—who were filled with the immeasurable joy

at the coming of the Messiah.

This was the Mary and Joseph who loved our Lord

as only a new mommy and daddy can

—more than you and I could ever begin to.

 

While the best Christmas present is always saved for Christmas morning,

most of us get a few Christmas presents in the days before Christmas.

As we make our last minute Christmas preparations this week,

let us remember to open the wonderful gifts God gives us today:

the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.

Gifts he gives us to help us prepare for his greatest gift of Christmas—his Son.

Let us turn to them as examples,

and ask them, who prepared so perfectly for the coming of their son,

to show us how to prepare.

And as we a move into these last few days before the birth of their little baby,

let us stay close to them so that they may show us

the wonder, the awe, the joy and love that Christmas means.

TEXT: 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

3rd Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2016

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

 

This time of year life gets pretty hectic

–on top of the regular year-end busy-ness at work and school,

we have the ultimate craziness of what the secular world calls

“the Holiday” season:

everyone running around shopping or decorating,

or planning trips, or visiting family and friends.

There’s a lot going on, but even in the midst of the craziness,

there is a certain air of joy,

because most of what’s going on goes on

in an atmosphere of great expectation.

But we have to ask ourselves–what is it that we’re expecting?

 

In our Gospel reading today,

when Jesus speaks to the crowd about St. John the Baptist, he asks:

“What did you go out to the desert to see?

A reed swayed by the wind?

Then what did you go out to see?

Someone dressed in fine clothing?

…why did you go out? To see a prophet?”

 

Sometimes we go out expecting prophets,

and sometimes we go out expecting just to be entertained.

For example, about 19 years ago, I went to Rome with one of my priest friends,

to visit another priest friend who was studying there.

I’d been to Rome a few times already, and I always enjoyed it,

but this time we had several special things planned

that we’d never done before.

Most importantly, months before we had arranged to have permission

to celebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica,

on the very tomb of St. Peter himself.

Everything went as planned until the night before we were supposed

to say Mass on St. Peter’s tomb,

when we got a call telling us a Cardinal wanted to say Mass at the tomb,

and since Cardinals always have precedence over mere priests,

the arrangements months before were overridden.

 

You can imagine how disappointed we were,

and how it put a damper on the rest of the trip.

Until…the evening before we were supposed to leave… we got a surprise call

—apparently, my Roman friend had made a request he hadn’t told us about because he thought there was no way it would be granted.

But the phone call from the Vatican told us the impossible had happened.

And at 7am the next morning we found ourselves among a handful of priests

in the private chapel in the Papal apartments

concelebrating Mass with Pope John Paul II.

Amazing.

We walked in before Mass and there was the great man

kneeling before the tabernacle in absolute fervent prayer,

just 10 feet from where I would sit.

And then we concelebrated the Mass with him, so reverently.

And then to meet him and speak to him for a few moments after Mass.

It was truly one of the greatest moments of my life

–and it was completely unexpected.

 

I had come to Rome with one very high expectation, only to have it dashed,

but then found out God had something even greater than I had ever hoped

in store.

 

Jesus asks:

“What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

…Someone dressed in fine clothing?”

Pope John Paul was no reed swaying in the wind

–he didn’t move with the changing winds of what’s popular,

but consistently proclaimed the truth about Jesus Christ.

And he certainly wasn’t outwardly attractive

–by the time I met him his once strong body was now severely bent

and his once rich and bold voice now slurred

by the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease.

Even so, his mere presence radiated the faith, hope and love of Jesus,

like no other person I have ever seen.

We go looking for one thing,

and God gives us something so much more amazing.

 

Something similar, though much more spectacular,

happened to a poor indigenous Mexican named Juan Diego,

in the year 1531.

One day he was on his way to catechism class,

taking a short cut over a small hill outside of Mexico City called Tepeyac

when suddenly he came upon a magnificently beautiful young woman,

whose face and clothes shone like the sun.

And then an even more unexpected thing happened,

as the young woman said to him:

“I am the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God.”

A few days later, on December 12,

Juan Diego went to the Bishop of Mexico City,

with his cape, his “tilma”, filled with roses the Blessed Mother had given him

in that cold December as proof that she had appeared to him.

But when Bishop Zumarraga, came out

expecting to see a humble peasant with a bunch of roses,

instead, as the cape unfolded and the roses fell out,

he saw a picture of Mary appear miraculously on the tilma.

An image that would help lead to

the almost overnight conversion of millions of the indigenous Mexicans,

the first of 100s of millions more

as the New World converted to faith in Christ Jesus.

 

“What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

…Someone dressed in fine clothing?”

Today millions of people still flock to Tepeyac to see the miraculous image

of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Some go out expecting a kind of prophetic/spiritual encounter,

some go out not knowing what to expect,

but many go out expecting simply to see

an interesting part of Mexican folklore—to be entertained.

 

It wasn’t all that different, 2000 years ago,

when John the Baptist was all the rage,

and Jesus asked: “…why did you go out? To see a prophet?”

Most of the people that he was speaking to would have answered: “yes!”

But back then, lots of people claimed to be prophets:

most were usually false prophets,

but even these could be very entertaining.

So many people probably went out to see this prophet out of curiosity,

or even to be entertained, or amused.

Others probably went just to show their faces, to be able to tell their friends:

“oh, did you see the Baptizer…well, I was baptized by him.”

But others also went out with sincere hearts

hoping to hear some wisdom from a holy man,

hoping that he was truly a prophet.

So you can imagine what a shock it was for any one who went out

with even the slightest openness to the truth

as they encountered no ordinary entertainer,

or even an ordinary prophet,

but the prophet of whom Christ himself would say:

“[he is] more than a prophet.

…among those born of women there has been none greater

than John the Baptist.”

How sad for those poor people who came out just to be entertained,

but how wonderful for these people

who went out not knowing what to expect,

and found the greatest prophet

proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah.

 

For many of us Advent and Christmas

is a time when we go out expecting to find all the wrong things,

or maybe with our expectations a lot lower than they could be.

Sometimes we approach it looking for the glitter and fun,

for the gifts and the presents.

Sometimes we go a little deeper,

looking for the warmth and love of families and friends.

But what if we went out with hearts open

to encounter something even more satisfying

than the passing pleasures of seasons,

and more awesome than even the most wonderful human love.

What if we went out to be entertained, and instead encountered a prophet?

What if we went out to see a prophet

and instead found the greatest prophet announcing news of great joy?

What if we went out to see the great prophet of joy,

and found instead the perfect and boundless joy of God himself,

wrapped in swaddling clothes and in the skin of a new-born baby,

–and resting in the arms of his beautiful young mother!

 

Advent is a time to re-evaluate our expectations of joy.

To ask ourselves,

do I approach this season, and really the rest of the year as well,

expecting to find joy primarily in external and passing pleasures?

Or do I find my joy in the expectation of the day

which we read of in Isaiah today, when

“the Lord …will return and [we will] enter Zion singing,

crowned with everlasting joy;

[when we] will meet with joy and gladness,

[and] sorrow and mourning will flee.”

 

Sometimes, we don’t go out knowing that we’re going to see a prophet

–we haven’t a clue what gift God has in mind for us.

When I went to Rome 19 years ago

I found the excitement of visiting the Eternal City,

but I also found the unexpected joy of seeing the Gospel shine

through the face of St. John Paul II.

Juan Diego went out expecting to learn his catechism,

and Bishop Zumarraga went out expecting to greet a peasant

—but instead, both found the unexpected joy of finding the Mother of God,

sent by her Son, to bring Him to the New World,

and the New World to Him.

 

If we live our lives with low expectations of ourselves and of God’s generosity,

we may never know the wonderful gifts that God expects to give us.

And if we settle for the temporary joy we encounter

in the external trappings of Advent and Christmas

we will miss the life changing and eternal joy

that comes from meeting Christ himself.

 

Today–“Gaudete Sunday”, “rejoice” Sunday

–the voices of St. John the Baptist, St. John Paul II,

St. Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe,

and the whole Church,

join the voice of God himself in calling us to rejoice in the joy

that Jesus Christ alone can give us.

The joy that completely fulfills and infinitely exceeds

all of our most wonderful expectations.

 

“What did you go out to the desert to see?

A reed swayed by the wind?

Then what did you go out to see?

Someone dressed in fine clothing?

…why did you go out?”

TEXT: 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent

December 4, 2016

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

 

The last few days I’ve been reading the new book-length interview

with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, called “Last Testament.”

This got me to thinking of one of his best papal encyclicals

that has great meaning for us at this time of year

—the Encyclical “Spe Salvi,” Saved in Hope.”

If you haven’t read it I commend it to you as a wonderful way

to revitalize your understanding of Advent,

the season of looking back to the hope fulfilled

in Christ’s birth 2000 years ago

and forward in hope to His coming to us today

and at the end of time.

 

The coming of the Christ was greatly anticipated from the very beginning,

when God promised Adam and Eve

that He would send a savior who would have enmity with the devil

and would crush the serpent’s head.

This promise was renewed and explained

through the centuries by the Jewish prophets,

especially the great prophet of the Messiah, Isaiah.

As we read in both today’s first reading from Isaiah and in the Psalm,

God repeatedly promised that the Messiah

would come in the fullness of divine power;

he would judge justly, punish the wicked,

and bring an abiding and lasting peace to the whole world.

 

Based on these and other prophesies,

the faithful Jews of the Old Testament lived for centuries on hope

that one day God would take away all the hardships of life

and reestablish things as He had created them for Adam and Eve.

This was the hope that kept them going through

centuries of suffering and oppression.

As St. Paul writes in today’s 2nd reading:

“Whatever was written previously was …for our instruction,

that by …the encouragement of the Scriptures

we might have hope.”

 

You can imagine then, how the Jews 2000 years ago

were so excited by the coming of John the Baptist.

To many he seemed to be the great prophet that Isaiah had said would

immediately precede the Messiah:

“A voice of one crying out in the desert,

Prepare the way of the Lord.”

And here he was, proclaiming the fulfillment of the ancient hope:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

 

As many soon discovered through John,

it was Jesus of Nazareth who fulfilled the ancient hope of Israel

—in Christ, the kingdom of heaven came to earth.

And yet, today we recognize

that the prophesies still haven’t been completely fulfilled.

The leopard does not lie down with the kid,

and the earth is not filled with the knowledge of the Lord:

all the gifts God gave to man in creation are still corrupted by sin.

 

Still, Christ remains our hope, and the hope of all mankind.

Because His kingdom is not of this world, even though it is in the world.

In His first coming He established that kingdom

for those who choose to belong to it,

those who live with Him and love Him.

This kingdom, then, is already truly already “at hand”, even if imperfectly.

 

So we live in hope:

hope that no matter what evil happens to me today,

no matter who abandons me, no matter what

calamity or suffering befall me,

and no matter what small or terrible sins I have to repent,

Christ is with me, to strengthen me, sustain me, give me peace,

forgive me, and to love me.

And even though this world is

constantly filled with pain and injustice,

in hope, we know that one day Christ will come again in his glory

to establish a new heaven and new earth

of true justice and perfect happiness.

 

This is our hope, and the hope of all mankind –

the hope for now, today and the future.

The answer to every man, woman and child’s deepest desire:

to attain not only that which is good, but absolutely perfect.

The desire not only not to be hungry, but to eat

the most delicious food in abundance.

The desire not only to be busy, but creative and productive.

And above all,

the desire not only not to be hated or ignored,

but to be loved,

and even more: to be loved completely and always without question.

 

And the only “thing” that answers all these desires is

the One who is eternal life and perfect love Himself: Jesus Christ.

 

For 2000 years the Church has gone forth

like John the Baptist to bring hope to the world:

to proclaim not just the message, but the person of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, many have rejected that faith and that hope,

and placed their faith and hope in things of the world.

Sometimes this hope was in false gods or superstition.

Over the last few centuries more and more

have placed their hope in man himself

—especially in man’s reason

and his ability to solve to every problem.

This hope in man has been, in effect,

a quest to establish not the kingdom of heaven on earth,

but, what might be called a “kingdom of man.”

And it’s taken various forms over the years:

a belief in the purity of science as the solution of man’s problems,

or in political or economic structures

or a combination of two or all three of these.

 

The first major effort came in the French Revolution.

Then came the rise of Marxism, Communism, Socialism and Nazism.

And we’ve seen that each one of these has produced nothing

but more cruelty and misery,

from the Reign of terror in France, to Hitler’s War and Holocaust,

to Stalin’s gulags and murder of 10s of millions of his citizens.

We’ve seen the virtual political enslavement of 100 of millions of people

to totalitarianism,

and the poverty and ruin wrought of failed Marxist economics.

The failure of the kingdom of man.

 

One key flaw in each of these “kingdoms”

was that they forgot that John told us to “repent”

—they forgot that man sins,

and this corrupts his work and every

institution and program he establishes.

 

A second related key flaw

was their common focus on “materialism”:

focusing primarily on the material needs and wants of man,

as if things like food, housing, and money

were the only things man desires and needs.

As important as these are,

they forgot that in reality, man desires and needs, first and above all,

to be loved, and to love completely and without end.

Give a man food, and it will give him hope, until he’s hungry tomorrow.

Give a man a job, and it gives him hope, until he loses that job,

or begins to fear losing it.

But give a man Christ and His love,

he can go to Him and hope in Him

today, tomorrow and always – and never be disappointed.

 

So is it any surprise that each of these “kingdoms of men”

only added to men’s misery,

and robbed them of the one thing that sustains us when all else fails:

hope?

 

Now, you may have noticed I’ve left off my list 2 modern “systems”

that are near and dear to most of us: American democracy and capitalism.

I’ve done so because

historically Americans have never tried to keep faith out of public life.

Unlike the French or Bolshevik revolutions

the American Revolution began with the declaration of belief

in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”

and in the “self-evident” “truths”

“that they are endowed by their Creator

with certain unalienable Rights.”

And it is an incontrovertible fact that almost all Americans at the time

believed that the name of “Nature’s God”, “their Creator,” was “Jesus.”

 

Now, I’m not making an argument for the role of religion in government;

I’m simply pointing out how faith in Jesus has affected

how the American people implemented democracy and capitalism.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that it’s been America’s faith in Christ

that has kept American capitalism and democracy

from being overwhelmed by the materialism, and sin,

that has devastated other western nations.

 

Even so, to the extent Americans have placed their hope in man and not in God,

and placed material goods over spiritual or moral goods,

we’ve seen Americans and America

fall into the same trouble as other Western peoples.

 

Unfortunately, the reality is that this is becoming more the case everyday,

as fewer and fewer Americans place their trust in Jesus.

 

Sometimes this is in intentional but sort of obscure ways,

as our hearts and minds turn gradually in that direction.

Sometimes, though, it’s a little more obvious.

For example, more and more the mere mention of Christ

is often forbidden in public.

This time of year we see it most dramatically,

as Christmas manger scenes are banned or removed from public places,

and even the mention of anything Christian is forbidden:

Advent becomes “the Holiday season”

and Christmas Vacation becomes “Winter Break,”

and many treat the greeting “Merry Christmas” as an insult.

 

These are examples of obviously intentional efforts to

turns us from hope in Christ

to hope in man and materialism.

But often this comes in much less intentionally sinister ways.

For example, look at how Christmas is becoming

more and more about buying expensive gifts,

rather than focusing on the gift of Jesus Himself.

Now, giving gifts is a good and even necessary thing at Christmas.

But it becomes a problem when there’s more emphasis

on the gifts than on Christ.

When we shift from hoping in Christ to hoping in things,

from God to materialism.

 

Also, sometimes people, including lots of well meaning Christians,

say that the “season” should be “all about helping the poor.”

Now, again, that’s a great and necessary thing to do

—Christ was born in poverty,

and He came to proclaim the good news to the poor.

Even so, being financially generous to the financially poor at Christmas

is not, in itself, as some say, “the real meaning of Christmas.”

Once when St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was asked

why she and her sisters had come

to a country as wealthy as the United States,

she answered:

“my friend, there are many forms of poverty.

Even the wealthy can be poor.”

To Christ, the poor person is anyone lacking in necessities,

and the most fundamental necessities in life are not material goods,

but love, and hope in that love.

 

So, if giving hope in Christ to others

is not first and foremost in our hearts and minds

as we give our Christmas gifts,

whether it’s giving expensive useless gifts to loved ones

or even giving necessary things to the materially poor

gift giving can become a form of materialism:

placing hope in things, not in God.

 

Which brings us back to today’s Gospel

and its message of hope to us this Advent.

Like the Jews listening to John the Baptist,

each of us is called to be filled with joyful hope

at the news of the coming of the Messiah.

But also, like John himself, each of is called to proclaim that news of hope,

like a voice crying out in the desert.

Whether it’s by the charity we show in our kindness and patience with strangers,

or the gifts we give to our friends or to the poor.

Or by the manger scenes we put in our living rooms or on our front lawns.

Or in the time we take to actually tell people

about the coming of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus.

Whether we tell them through the gift of a good Christian book,

or by sitting down and having a long heart to heart talk about Christ,

or by the simple but heartfelt and bold greeting “Merry Christmas.”

 

Advent is a time for hope—a time to renew our hope and to offer hope to others.

A time to remember that we are Saved by Hope

—hope in our savior Jesus Christ.

Fr. De Celles’ First 2016 Advent Series Talk, “Grace: God’s Action and Our Response”, is now available on the website!

murillo-annunciation

Click here to listen the first talk in Fr. De Celles’ 2016 Advent series.

The topic of this year’s series is “Grace: God’s Gift at Christmas and Throughout the Year.”

The first talk, given Thursday, December 1, 2016 covered: “Grace: God’s Action and Our Response.”

There will be no talk next week, due to the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which is a Holy Day of Obligation.

Please join us for the final talk in Fr. De Celles Advent Series, “Hard Questions about Grace,” on Thursday, December 15th.

 

TEXT: 1st Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

1st Sunday of Advent

November 27, 2016

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

 

“So too, you also must be prepared.”

After seeing all the folks shopping on Friday—“Black Friday”—

this line spoken by Jesus is today’s Gospel

would seem extremely apropos today.

We’ve begun the “holiday season” and the next four weeks will be a mad rush

to shop, cook, travel and party,

all to be “prepared for Christmas.”

 

Of course, all this is strictly the secular—or worldly—perspective

of preparing for Christmas, and the “holiday season.”

At best it sees Christmas as all about sentimentalism:

remembering the good feelings of Christmases past,

sometimes even with a quasi-religious tone,

with vague notions and warm feelings about the baby Jesus,

and peace and goodwill among men.

At worst it sees Christmas as all about rank materialism and escapism

—buying, getting and using things to dull the pain of the rest of the year.

 

All this is often referred to as “the Joy of Christmas.”

But of course, at best this is just a mere reflection of the real Joy of Christmas,

and at worst it’s merely a shadow of that joy,

and sometimes a very dark shadow.

 

Because the true Joy of Christmas radiates from the Baby Jesus,

not as the object of mere sentimentality and warm feelings,

but rather as the personification, in the flesh, of God Himself.

As St. John tells us:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

…that the world might be saved through him.”

And so he would become the one of whom Isaiah prophesied:

“He was wounded for our transgressions,

he was bruised for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,

and with his stripes we are healed.”

Because we are sinners, he came to die on the Cross to save us from own sins.

Because we failed to love Him and each other as we should,

he loved us so much he was born to die for us.

And all this began when he came to us as the tiny innocent Baby Jesus.

 

This love is truly breathtaking: the source of the true joy of Christmas.

 

Now, some might be saying, Father that’s depressing

—talk of sin and death and all.

But it’s really not.

Because it’s only when we recognize that we are sinners,

and the depth and breadth of our own sins,

that we can realize the depth and breadth of the Love that God has for us

—the love that is compacted and contained

in the body of the babe born of the Virgin Mary.

It’s only when we open our hearts to sorrow for our offenses against that love

that we can feel the immensity of the joy of being forgiven,

and of living life surrounded and immersed in that love.

From the depths of our sins to the heights of His love

—this is what the Birth of the Baby Jesus brings us.

 

And also, the personalization of this love in the Baby Jesus.

This God of Love who, having saved us by his death,

seeks now to have a personal relationship with each of us:

to be our true friend and brother,

not for one day or month of the year,

but every single moment of our lives on earth,

and forever in heaven.

All this, this is the Joy of Christmas.

 

But, again, as Jesus reminds us: “So too, you also must be prepared.”

Christians must prepare for Christmas Joy by first

reflecting on our sins, confessing them, and repenting.

How can we rejoice in embracing the Baby Jesus

if we continue to embrace the sins he was born to die for?

 

But again, not mired in despair or sadness.

But rather in moving from sin to love, we move from sorrow to joy,

and we understand, appreciate and experience joy in a whole new way!

Like a man thirsting in the desert discovers a whole new appreciation

for the sweet taste of a cup of water.

 

And so we do penance in Advent.

Not like in Lent, but we should do some small penance to remind us of our sins,

and our need to place God above all things.

This can be hard to do during Advent,

with all the good things around us

—the cookies, candy, the gifts and parties.

But that also makes it the best time to do penance,

as even the smallest sacrifice can take on a certain heroic proportion.

 

And since sin is a lack or failure to love God and our neighbor,

Advent should also be a time of charity and good works,

Thankfully, the secular celebration around us can sometimes encourage this,

as most of society embraces the idea of charity during “the holidays.”

Unfortunately the secular celebration can also tempt us away from this,

as it simultaneously encourages both kindness and selfishness.

Think, for example, of all the advertising:

even as it encourages parents to give generous gifts to their kids,

it also encourages the children

to want and even expect those generous gifts.

So don’t give to charities because everyone else is;

give because you love your neighbor, even if he’s a complete stranger;

and give because you love Jesus and see his face in the face of the needy.

 

But if you really want to experience the true Joy of Christmas, one thing remains.

Christ came in the flesh to personally die for you and your personal sins,

because he loves you as a unique individual person.

How do we find the joy of living with Christ as your constant friend and brother

if you don’t talk to him, and listen to him.

So Advent must be a time of prayer.

 

That’s all prayer is: listening and talking to God, or His angels and saints.

So, take time every day in Advent to pray,

and if you already do that, pray a little more, or a little better.

I especially encourage you to pray by reading and meditating on Scripture,

especially the first chapters of the four gospels, where they talk about

the beginnings of Jesus, by reading holy books,

or a good biography of a saint.

Most especially pray the Rosary, particularly meditating on the Joyful Mysteries.

Pray it alone, or pray it with your spouse or family,

or with your friends, especially you boyfriend or girlfriend.

Even better, come to Mass more often – even an extra day during the week,

or every day.

 

Now, all of this might lead you to think that I think

all the shopping, gifts, decorations and parties in the next 4 weeks

are somehow bad, or at least inappropriate during Advent.

It’s true that I do believe those things can tend to conflict

with the preparation necessary during Advent

and a truly Christian celebration of Christmas.

But on the other hand, there are two things to remember.

 

First, the celebration that goes on around us leading up to Christmas

has truly Christian origins

and continues to at least reflect Christian culture and doctrine.

So to the extent we keep all this in the context

of the true meaning of Advent and Christmas

then it can be a good and holy thing.

So, if we remember that the evergreen Christmas tree represents the tree of life,

and if we see the ornaments as representing

the individual lives of Christians and angels, or other gifts from God.

Or if we remember that Christmas gift-giving ties us back to

The gift of God of His Son, or the gifts of the magi,

and the birthday presents we bring to Christ.

And so on.

If we remember all this, and teach our children all this,

then all these can be true signs of Christmas,

and they can be a good and holy thing during Advent.

 

But most of all, this celebration still serves to bring the world’s attention

to Jesus Christ, even if only superficially.

In today’s second reading St. Paul tells us:

“let us conduct ourselves properly …

not in orgies and drunkenness,

not in promiscuity and lust,

not in rivalry and jealousy.”

Think about how many so called “Christmas parties” he might be describing.

Whether an office party, or the party of friends coming back from school,

or even the most innocent of parties with family

and even friends from church.

Even the simple act of exchanging gifts can turn into the occasion

for what Paul calls “rivalry and jealousy.”

 

But imagine if we approached every Christmas party as Christians on a mission.

Think about it:

all those people getting together, seeking to discover the Joy of Christmas.

What if instead of drinking too much, you set a good example of temperance.

Or instead of taking part in gossip or off-color conversations

you encouraged a wholesome exchange of ideas and true wit?

What if you simply showed the love of Christ by being kind and attentive

to that person everyone was avoiding?

 

Or what if you tried in some way to even talk about Jesus

to those who seemed open to hearing?

For example, you might share how much you enjoyed going to Christmas Mass,

and maybe even invite someone to join you?

 

And even in the simpler events of “the season.”

Give your kids the game they asked for, but also give them a Bible,

or good book about a great saint

Or instead of asking for that piece of jewelry from your husband,

maybe simply ask him to pray the Rosary with you.

And when you think someone else got a better gift than you, don’t be jealous;

instead be happy for them, and thankful for what you got.

 

“So too, you …must be prepared.”

As we begin this Holy Season of Advent,

let’s not get all caught up in the externals,

especially in the materialism or bane sentimentality,

Don’t be tempted by the false joys of the world.

Rather let’s keep our hearts and lives focused on the true Joy of Christmas,

and spend time and effort preparing to experience and celebrate that Joy.

Let it be a time of remembering the awesome Love of the God

who was born as a tiny baby so he could grow up to save us from our sins

and so to offer us a share in his own life.

A time of penance, of charity, and prayer.

And a time of sharing the true Joy of Christmas with those around us,

by living the life of Love Christ calls us to,

and by telling everyone we meet about

the magnificent Love of God made flesh in the person of

the Baby Jesus.