Friday, December 18, 2015


Homily for December 19th, 2015: Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a; Luke 1:5-15.

          When the angel Gabriel visited the young Jewish teenager, Mary, to tell her that God wanted her to be the mother of his Son, Mary asked, quite naturally, how such a thing could be possible. To which the angel responded: “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

          Both of our readings today show God doing the impossible. In today’s first reading, the recipient of a gift impossible for anyone but God is identified simply as “the wife of Manoah.” The Bible nowhere gives her name. She is unable to conceive a child. Numerous contemporary articles and books by unfruitful wives testify eloquently to the grief experienced by women whose dreams of motherhood remain unfulfilled.  Manoah’s wife is visited by an angel who tells her that she will have a son who will free his people from their enemies.

          The woman in today’s gospel reading is named: Elizabeth, wife of the Jewish priest Zechariah. Both are far beyond childbearing age. This time the angel bringing the news that she will conceive and bear a son appears not to Elizabeth but to her husband. Zechariah is unable to believe that such a thing is possible. In consequence, the angel tells him, he will lose the power of speech until the promised boy is born. 

          In one of his sermons (293:1-3) St. Augustine uses a play on the two Latin words vox (voice) and verbum (word) to explain the reason for this. Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, was called, Augustine says, to be a voice: vox – for the word, verbum: Jesus, God’s personal utterance and communication to us. While still in his mother’s womb, John’s voice was silent. Only when John, the voice for the Word, was born, was his father’s power of speech restored.

In a different but similar way, we too are called to be voices for God’s Son, the Word: at least by the witness of our lives. St. Francis of Assisi has said it best: 

“Preach always. If necessary, use words.”

Thursday, December 17, 2015


Homily for December 18th, 2015: Matthew 1:18-25.

Luke’s gospel tells us that when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that God wanted her to be the mother of God’s son, Gabriel also told her that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, though far beyond child-bearing age, was also, as they say in England, “in a family way” – six months pregnant, in fact. With typical generosity, Mary decides to go and visit Elizabeth. She couldn’t start right away. It was a man’s world. A woman, especially a young teenager like Mary, could not travel alone. She must have at least one chaperone.

Organizing that took time. Since the whole purpose of the visit was to help with the birth of Elizabeth’s son, Mary was away from home for some months. By the time she got back to Nazareth, she was visibly pregnant. A film I saw a few years ago – I think it was called The Birth of the Messiah – shows Mary’s encounter with Joseph after her months’ long absence. The look on his face is unforgettable.

          According to the law of that day, an unmarried woman who got pregnant could be stoned for bringing shame on her family. Though Mary had been unfaithful to him, Joseph still loved her and did not want to be responsible for her death. Rather than bringing public charges, Joseph decides simply to break off the engagement quietly.

Then something unexpected happens. An angel visits Joseph in a dream and tells him: the baby growing in Mary’s womb has no human father. He is God’s Son, the anointed Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, whose coming Israel’s prophets have predicted for centuries. Then Joseph wakes up and realizes it was only a dream.

Or was it only a dream, Joseph wonders? Suppose it’s true? With great courage, and almost super-human faith, Joseph decides to go ahead with his long planned marriage. For the rest of his life, whenever Joseph had doubts or second thoughts about the life he had chosen, all he had to go on was the memory of a dream when he was only a teenager.

          Friends, we too have staked our lives on a dream: that God exists; that he is a God of love, justice, and mercy; that he has called us, as he called Joseph, to be friends and  servants of Mary and of her Son Jesus.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015


 Homily for 4th Advent Sunday, Year C. Luke 1: 39-45.
AIM: To present Mary as the model of faith, and to explain why we invoke her prayers.
How many people here are already tired of Christmas? It is only two days away. But outside of church you=d never know that. Long before Thanksgiving we started hearing Christmas carols: on the airwaves, in shopping centers and department stores, in the oozy wash of Muzak that tickles our ears in elevators and stores, and even comes over the telephone when we=re put on AHold.@
We all know the reason for this commercialization of Christmas. It=s Agood for business.@ Many retailers make a good part of their year=s profit during these final weeks of the year. We deplore this commercialization. Do we realize, however, that it has a Christian origin? We give gifts to one another at Christmas because it is the time when God gave us the greatest gift of all: his Son.
The Church hasn=t even begun to celebrate Christmas. Here it is still Advent.  The central figure in today=s gospel is not the Lord whose birth we shall shortly celebrate, but his mother. We heard her cousin, Elizabeth, call Mary, ABlessed among women.@ That phrase has been dulled for us Catholics by constant repetition. It is worthwhile pausing on this fourth Sunday in Advent to reflect on what Elizabeth=s words mean.  
Elizabeth called Mary Ablessed among women,@ and we repeat those words in the Hail Mary today, because of Mary=s trusting faith. ABlessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled,@ Elizabeth said at the end of today=s gospel. She was contrasting Mary=s attitude with that of Elizabeth=s husband, Zechariah. He had not believed the angel=s message, that he and his wife would have a son in their old age. Who can blame him? It seemed impossible.
Mary received the news of an even greater impossibility: that she would conceive a son while remaining a virgin. Like Zechariah, Mary questioned the angel: AHow can this be, since I do not know man?@ (Lk 1:34). The angel replied that her child would be conceived Aby the power of the Most High,@ for whom Anothing is impossible.@ Unlike Zechariah, Mary accepted the angel=s momentous news, and with it God=s call, though the reasons for both remained mysterious to her.
  Why was Mary=s child conceived without a human father? Was it because sexuality and procreation are sinful B or at least second-rate? Not at all. Sexuality and procreation are among God=s greatest and holiest gifts to us. And God does not make anything second-rate, and certainly nothing sinful. Jesus was conceived without a human father because he does not come, like all of us, his mother included, from within humanity. Jesus comes from outside humanity. He took human nature from his mother. But he had God for his Father. The Catechism says: AMary=s virginity manifests God=s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father@ (No. 503).
Did Mary understand all that in advance? Holy Scripture suggests very strongly that she did not. In the one recorded incident from Jesus= childhood, his parents= search for their twelve-year-old son, and their finding him in the Temple at Jerusalem, Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph Adid not understand what he meant@ when he told them: AI was bound to be in my Father=s house@ (2:49f). How then could Mary have understood the far greater mystery of her Son=s miraculous conception? 
There would be much more that Mary did not understand, and could not understand. At the wedding feast at Cana her Son seemed to speak roughly to her. Yet Mary went on trusting, as she had from the start, telling the servants: ADo whatever he tells you@ (John 2:5). Mark seems to suggest that Mary even joined Jesus= other relatives in thinking he was out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21). 
The accounts of the Last Supper indicate that there was no place for Mary at Jesus= farewell meal with his friends. Yet when those same male friends Aall forsook him and fled@ (Mk 14:50), Mary remained faithful. We find Mary at the cross where her Son died. Our final glimpse of Mary in the New Testament shows her continuing faithfulness, as she joins Jesus= followers after his resurrection and ascension to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus had promised (cf. Acts 1:14).
It is the age-old conviction of Catholic Christians that this prayer did not cease with the end of Mary=s earthly life, but that it continues in heaven. How often, when we are in difficulty or facing some crisis or suffering, we ask others to pray for us. Priests receive such requests all the time. A stewardess on an airplane said to me: AFather, will you pray for me?  I=m forty and I haven=t found a husband.  I=m getting impatient.@ And more recently the man who came to inspect my car before I turned it in at the end of the lease said, as he handed me the report: AWould you put in a word for my mother? She=s battling alcoholism.@ I have prayed for both of those dear souls, and shall continue to do so.
If it is right to ask our earthly friends to pray for us, how much more fitting to ask, as we Catholics do constantly, for the prayers of our heavenly friends, the saints; and especially of the woman who is now closest to God in heaven; who never gave up when things grew dark and she could not understand; who trusted and believed that God could accomplish in her and through her not merely the difficult, but the impossible. The Catechism speaks of the prayers of our heavenly friends for us when it says: AThe witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. ... When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were >put in charge of many things= (cf. Mt 25:21). Their intercession is their most exalted service to God=s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.@ (No. 2683) 

The best loved and most frequently used Catholic prayer, after the Our Father, combines the angel Gabriel=s greeting to Mary with the salutation of her cousin Elizabeth from today=s gospel. What better preparation could we make for Christmas than to pray this prayer all together? I invite you to do so now: not just rattling it off, but slowly, thinking about the meaning of the words; with devotion and with deep reverence.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.  Amen.


Homily for December 17th 2015: Matthew 1:1-17.

          To come to Mass eight days before Christmas each year and to hear this long list of mostly strange sounding names – a challenge to any priest or deacon reading them – is discouraging, to say the least. And when we get to the end and find that Jesus’ ancestry has been traced not to Mary but to Joseph, his legal but not his biological father, is jarring. What can we say about all this?

          The list contains both saints and grave sinners. They symbolize all of us, with our strengths and weaknesses, who need the saving power of God. Jesus came, humanly speaking, from some great and talented, but equally from the poor and insignificant. God, this list tells us, writes straight with crooked lines. He has certainly done that in my life. Which of you could not say the same about yours?

          Especially interesting are the women in the list. The first mentioned is Tamar, a Gentile outside God’s Chosen People, who seduced her father-in-law, Judah, so that she could have a child. The next woman is another Gentile outsider, a prostitute named Hagar, honored by the Jews despite her sinful way of life, because she hid and thus saved from execution the Jewish men sent out by Moses’ successor Joshua to spy out the future home of God’s people. Then there is Ruth, another outsider, though not a grave sinner. Bathsheba, also a Gentile, is not even mentioned by name. She is identified simply as the one “who had been the wife of Uriah.” She was the one who committed adultery with David – whose advances she could hardly refused, given the absolute power of a king in those days. And at the end of her life she would scheme to make sure that one of her own offspring would inherit David’s throne.

          The late great American biblical scholar Raymond Brown writes: “The God who wrote the beginnings on crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of these are own lives and witness.” Christianity is not just for the talented, the good, the humble and honest. No one is so bad, so insignificant, so devoid of talent that he or she is outside the circle of Jesus Christ." And that includes all of us here today.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Homily for December 16th, 2015: Luke 7: 18b-23.

AAre you the one who is to come,@ John asks from his prison cell. AOr should we  look for another?@ John=s question reveals a crisis of faith. Was Jesus really the one John had believed and proclaimed him to be -- a man who would come in power and glory? Like everyone who tries to live by faith, John had to discover that faith is not a once-for-all affair. It=s not like learning to ride a bicycle, or memorizing the multiplication table. Faith must be constantly renewed. 

Is that surprising? Don=t we see the same in every relationship based on faith? Marriage is such a relationship. So is priesthood and the life of the vowed religious Sister or Brother. In all these cases promises are made solemnly and for life. But they need to be daily renewed and reaffirmed. For me that means getting out of bed when my clock radio goes off at 5.45 in the morning. Only if I get up then can I be in church by 6.30, so that I can spend a half-hour waiting in silence on the Lord before Mass at 7. Without that time with Him I=d just be spinning my wheels. 

We are gathered here around the Lord=s twin tables of word and sacrament to receive from the One who alone can give it to us the strength each of us needs to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, and to the life of trusting faith to which he has called us. 

From his own crisis of faith John learned that faith must be constantly renewed. From Jesus= answer to John=s question the Baptist learned something more: that faith is always free. It cannot be compelled, any more than love can be compelled. To his question, AAre you the one who is to come?@ John expected a Yes or No answer. Jesus did not give it to him. Instead he gave John the evidence he needed to work out his own answer: Jesus= miracles of healing.

As people of faith we are called to live in this world aware that we are also citizens of another world: the unseen, spiritual but utterly real world of God, the angels, the saints, and of our beloved dead: our true homeland. Being obedient to that call is difficult. It requires patience. We gather here at these twin tables of word and sacrament so that the Lord can renew our patience when it has worn thin and threatens to give out.


Monday, December 14, 2015


Homily for December 15th, 2015: Matthew 17: 9a,10-13.

          When the President comes to town, he rides in a bullet proof limousine (a sign of the violent and dangerous age in which we live). Preceding him are numerous policemen on motorcycles, and others in police cars. This almost military procession is more than is actually needed to protect the Chief Executive. It is done to prepare people for the one who is coming.

          Jesus’ people, the Jews, also expected that when the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah, came he too would be preceded by an entourage, including a prophet who would prepare the way for the Lord’s servant. The Old Testament speaks of this in a number of places, especially in the book of the prophet Malachi, who writes: “Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom” (3:23f).

          In the gospel reading we have just heard Matthew tells us that Jesus’ disciples recalled this tradition about Elijah coming. Where is he, they want to know? He has already come, Jesus replies. But people did not recognize him. In fact, they killed him. Then Matthew writes, “the disciples understood the [Jesus] was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”

          Mark’s gospel tells us that John’s message was twofold. He preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And he proclaimed that the one who was coming after him would be greater than himself, baptizing not with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:1-8). That is exactly what the gospels record. Though Jesus accepted baptism himself, there is no record of his ever baptizing anyone else. Instead, immediately after his resurrection, Jesus “breathed on [the disciples] and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound’” (John 20:22f. )

          Was that just in ancient times? Not at all. That is still happening today. Jesus is still breathing on us and giving us the Holy Spirit. And in the sacrament of penance or confession he is still forgiving our sins through the men, themselves sinners, whom he has empowered to do this in his name. I made my own confession just a week ago, knowing that it the best possible preparation for Christmas. If you have not yet done that, I hope you will. Then you will be ready for the coming of your Savior and Lord, who is also your elder brother, your lover, and your best friend.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Homily for December 14th, 2015: St. John of the Cross.

          The Church celebrates today one of the great men of the 1500s, a century which brought both the disaster of the Reformation, but also great saints. The previous century witnessed repeated demands for Church reform in head and members. No one imagined, however, that reform, when it came, would result in the departure from Catholic unity of whole nations, and the setting up of altar against altar. The fruits of these divisions remain with us today in the form of literally thousands of Christian denominations which greatly weakens Christian witness to the world.

          At the very time however, when this disaster was unfolding, God raised up men and women of heroic faith: Ignatius of Loyola, the founder the Society of Jesus; his fellow Jesuit and missioner to the Far East, Francis Xavier; Philip Neri, the apostle of Rome; Charles Borromeo, born to wealth and privilege and made a cardinal at age 22 by his uncle by Pope Pius IV, but a champion of Church reform nonetheless.

In Spain the century witnessed the birth of St. Teresa of Avila, whom we celebrated on October 15th, and her fellow Carmelite whom we commemorate today, St John of the Cross. Both dedicated their lives to deep prayer, and to reform of the Carmelite order, encountering bitter enmity from their fellow Sisters and Friars. For St. John this included imprisonment and torture.

          Though 17 years younger than Teresa, John of the Cross was her confessor and spiritual director. The writings of both on prayer are spiritual classics. A frequent theme in the writings of John of the Cross was the importance of silence. Here are three quotations from his writings which give an indication of his spirituality:

-- “A soul enkindled with love is a gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul.”        

-- “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this    

     great God with our appetite and with our tongue; for the language he hears
     best is silent love.”
And finally, my personal favorite:

--  “In the evening of life, we will be judged by love alone.