Friday, December 23, 2016


Homily for December 24th, 2016: Luke 1:67-79.

          The Old Testament has a number of stories about women unable to conceive who become pregnant through God’s intervention. The one which most resembles the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist, is the story of Sarah and Abraham. In both instances the parents are long past the age of childbearing. Three visitors come to Abraham and tell him that when they return next year, Sarah will have a son. From the tent nearby, where she is preparing a meal for the visitors (as required by the oriental law of hospitality for strangers), Sarah overhears the conversation and laughs at the absurdity of an old woman of her age giving birth. Whereupon God asks, “Why did Sarah laugh?” To which Sarah replies, “I didn’t laugh.” And the Lord responds, “Yes, you did.” (Genesis 18:1-15)

          In the case of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, an angel brings the message to Zechariah while he is performing his priestly duty of offering incense in the Temple, that his aged wife, Elizabeth, will have a son. The angel also says that the boy will be called John. Zechariah is unable to believe the news. Because of this unbelief, he loses the power of speech  – and, as we learn later, his hearing as well. Thus he is unable to tell his wife about the angel’s announcement or the child’s name.

          This explains why, when they come to name Elizabeth’s baby, people are astonished to hear his mother say he will be called John; and her husband  -- still unable to speak, or even to hear what his wife has just said – writes on a tablet the words Elizabeth has just spoken.

          Immediately Zechariah’s speech and hearing are restored. We might expect a conversation between him and Elizabeth about how they had agreed on the same name. Instead Zechariah immediately breaks out in the hymn of praise that we have just heard, called ever since the Benedictus, because that is the first word of the hymn in Latin.

          What does all this tell us? It says that in our relationship with God praise and thanksgiving come first. We come to Mass first of all to worship. We come, that is, not to get but to give. And all experience shows that those who give most generously also receive most abundantly.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Homily for December 23rd, 2016: Luke 1:57-66.

          At the circumcision of John the Baptist, eight days after his birth, “they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,” Luke tells us. Scholars tell us that in New Testament times a child’s naming was the right of the father. The naming of Mary’s Son was an exception: he had no human father. That was why the angel Gabriel told Mary in advance, “You will give him the name Jesus.”

          John’s father Zechariah had lost his power of speech when he failed to believe the angel’s message to him that his wife, though long past childbearing age, would have a son, “whom you shall name John” (Lk 1:13). He had thus been unable to tell Elizabeth that the angel had already disclosed the name of the son she would bear. We now learn that Zechariah is not only mute but deaf. So he cannot hear his wife saying: “He will be called John.”

          To get confirmation of the name, the bystanders must question the deaf father by writing him a note. Imagine the astonishment when he confirms the name already chosen by his wife by writing: “John is his name.”

          “Immediately his mouth was opened,” Luke tells us, “his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God.” Those final words are significant. With his speech restored, Zechariah speaks first of all to the Lord God, blessing and thanking him for the humanly impossible gift he and his wife have received. “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel because he has visited and ransomed his people.” The Latin word for “blessed” is benedictus. So the canticle or hymn which Zechariah speaks is known by Catholics as the Benedictus. The Church incorporates Zechariah’s words into her daily public prayer, in the Office of Lauds or Morning Prayer.

Happy are we, if we do the same: by praising and thanking God for the blessings he has already bestowed on us, even before we start asking for fresh blessings.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Christmas Mass during the day.  Heb. 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18.
AIM:   To explain the Incarnation and its significance for us.
It=s a strange gospel for Christmas, isn=t it?  Where, we ask, are the shepherds, the manger, Mary and Joseph?  Where is their child?  Instead of these familiar Christmas figures we have heard about abstractions: light and darkness, the Word becoming flesh.
Let=s start with another word: Aincarnation.@  It means Ataking on flesh,  embodiment.@ This building is the incarnation of an idea in the mind of the architect who designed it. It is the incarnation or embodiment too of the sacrifices that made its construction possible. Children are the incarnation of their parents= love. And Jesus is the incarnation of God. 
We cannot see God. Jesus shows us what God is like. That is why this Christmas gospel calls Jesus God=s Word. A word is used to communicate. Jesus is God=s word because he is God=s communication to us: not a lifeless, abstract statement, but God=s living and breathing utterance and self-disclosure.    
When we listen to Jesus, we hear God speaking to us.  When we look at Jesus, we see what God is like.  What do we see when we look at Jesus? We see that he preferred simple, ordinary people. He came to the world in a provincial village where nothing interesting or important ever happened. Jesus moved not among wealthy or sophisticated people, or among scholars and intellectuals, but among ordinary people. They were the ones who welcomed him most warmly. The rich and powerful and learned had difficulties with Jesus. Many were hostile to him. That was true then. It remains true today.
Jesus was of the earth, earthy. In his youth he worked with his hands in the carpenter=s shop. His teaching was full of references to simple things: the birds of the air, the wind and the raging waves, the lilies of the field, the vine, the lost sheep, the woman searching for her one lost coin, leavening dough with yeast, the thief breaking in at night. Those were images that everyone could understand. Jesus taught also in parables: stories so simple that they capture the interest of children; yet so profound that learned scholars are still studying them today.
In preferring simple people and simple things, Jesus was showing us what God is like. He who is God=s utterance and word, God=s personal communication to us, is saying through all the circumstances of his life that God loves humble people. God is especially close to those who feel that they are not in control of their lives; that they are the victims of circumstances; that their lives are a tangle of loose ends and broken resolutions.
In his earthiness Jesus shows us God=s love for this world and everything in it.  Often we think of God and religion as concerned only with some higher, spiritual realm.  That is wrong! God loves the earth and the things of earth. He must love them, because he made them. And God does not make anything that is not lovable. As John, the writer of today=s gospel, tells us in a later chapter: AGod so loved the world that he gave his only Son@ (Jn 3:16).

It is because God gave us his Son at Christmas that we give gifts to one another.  The greatest gift we can give cannot be bought in any store. You cannot order it from an 800-number or over the Internet. You cannot wrap it. You cannot send it through the mail, by UPS or Federal Express. It is the gift God gave us at Christmas: the gift of himself.  Even as a baby Jesus is God=s personal word and communication to us. In the words of our second reading, he is Athe refulgence [that means the shining forth] of [God=s] glory, the very imprint of his being.@

Look at Mary=s child: helpless, vulnerable, and weak, as all babies are. He is God=s way of saying: >This is how much the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, loves you; enough to be become tiny, insignificant, vulnerable.= Jesus, the personal utterance and word of God, is God=s gift to you. He wants you to share this gift with others. You do so when, like God himself, you give yourself to others: when, like Jesus, you too love the company of ordinary people; when, like him, you remain close to the earth and the things of earth.

In a few moments we shall be offered our greatest and most important Christmas gift: the body and blood of our Lord, of Jesus who is God=s personal word to each one of us. The consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist are Christ=s body and blood: all his power, all his goodness, all his love. He offers all this to us:

C         not as a reward for services rendered;

C         not because we are good enough (for none of us is);

C         but because he is so good that he wants to share his power, his goodness, and his love with us.

Jesus gives us this greatest of all gifts under one strict condition: that what we here receive, we generously share with others.      


Christmas, at Dawn. Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:15-20.
AIM:  To instill a sense of wonder and joy at the incarnation.           
The world=s great religions, someone has said, are all about the same thing: our search for God. To this general statement there is an important exception. Christianity, and its parent, Judaism, are concerned not with our search for God, but with God=s search for us. At Christmas we celebrate God=s search, and his coming to us, in a special way. The readings at this Mass give us answers to three important questions about God=s coming. They tell us how God comes, when he comes, and why.
How does God come?
He comes in very ordinary and humble circumstances, to very ordinary and humble people. There was nothing dramatic about the birth of Mary=s child at Bethlehem. Few people took any notice C only a few outsiders, and three crackpot eccentrics from God knows where.
Shepherds were outsiders in the ancient world. Without fixed abode, like gypsies today, they were mistrusted by respectable people. Since they frequently grazed their flocks on other people=s land, shepherds were considered too dishonest to be witnesses in court. Because their irregular lives made it impossible for them to observe the strict Sabbath and dietary laws, observant Jews held them in disdain.     
The so-called Wise Men, whose visit we commemorate at Epiphany, were eccentrics: astrologers of some kind from God knows where, who set off on a madcap journey, following a star. We call them wise. To their contemporaries they were screwballs who were not playing with a full deck.
Nor was the scene which these visitors found at Bethlehem as attractive as we make it appear in our Christmas cribs. If Jesus were born today, it would probably be in a cardboard shack with a roof of corrugated iron in Africa, or somewhere in Latin America, without electricity or water: smelly, drafty, and cold.
How does God come? He comes in ordinary and humble surroundings, to people who live on the margin of society. That is how God came on the first Christmas. It is how he comes today.
When does God come?
He comes when we least expect him C when people have given up expecting him altogether. Matthew and Luke emphasize Jesus= descent from the great King David, and Jesus= birth Ain David=s city@ (Mt 1:17; Lk 1:27, 2: 4 & 11). They wanted to show that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, whose birth Aof the house of David@ the prophets had long foretold.
Almost six centuries before Jesus= birth, however, David=s royal house had come to an end. The revival of his long extinct dynasty after so great an interval was, humanly speaking, impossible. Moreover, the imperial census, which brought Joseph and Mary to David=s city, Bethlehem, was a humiliating reminder to their people that the nation over which David had once ruled as king was now governed by a foreign emperor across the sea. Rome, not Jerusalem, was the center of the world into which Jesus was born. At the very moment in which that world was set in motion by an imperial decree from its center, God was acting in an unimportant village on the edge of the empire in an obscure event from which we continue, twenty centuries later, to number our years.
Unthinkable? Impossible? Precisely! That is how God normally acts. He comes to us when we are least expecting him; when we have ceased expecting him at all. He comes in ways that stagger the imagination and demolish our conception of the possible. The creator of the universe comes as a tiny baby, born of a virgin. 
Why does he do it? Why does God come at all?
To these questions our second reading gives us the answer: AWhen the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, [he saved us] not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.@ 

God=s coming is not a reward for services rendered. He chose to come to us at the first Christmas for the same reason he comes to us today: not because we are good enough, but because he is so good, and so loving, that he wants to share his love with us, his unworthy, erring, and sinful children.

This explains too why he chose outsiders and eccentrics as the first witnesses of his coming. Before him we are all outsiders, all eccentrics. Before God we are all marginal, as the shepherds were, and the wise men. It is His love, and His alone, which draws us in from the darkness and cold of the margin to the light and warmth of the center.

It is because God gave us his love at the first Christmas that we give gifts to one another at this season. The love God gave us then, and continues to give us today, is neither distant, nor abstract. God=s love is a person who is very close to us. His name is Jesus Christ.


Homily for December 22nd, 2016: 1 Samuel 1:24-21: 24-28; Luke 1:46-56.

          Hannah, who appears in our first reading, is one of many women in the Old Testament who suffer for years because of their inability conceive a child. Accompanying her husband Elkanah on one of his annual visits to the sanctuary at Shiloh, Hannah prays for a child with such intensity and fervor that Eli, the priest on duty there, thinking she must be drunk, rebukes her and tells her to sober up.

          I’m not drunk, Hannah replies; “I was only pouring out my troubles to the Lord.” Reassured, Eli sends her on her way with the prayer: “May the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” God answers this prayer, giving Hannah a son, Samuel, who would be the first of Israel’s prophets. On her next visit to Shiloh, Hannah thanks God, praising him in the words we prayed together as the responsorial psalm. She praises God who lifts up the poor, while humbling the rich and powerful.

          Mary’s words in the gospel, praising God for making her the mother of his Son, echo these words of Hannah: “My spirit rejoices in God my savior… He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

          Some three decades later Mary’s Son would speak words remarkably similar to those spoken by both his mother, and Hannah. We call them the Beatitudes, because each is introduced by the Greek word makarios, which means “blessed” or “happy.” The Beatitudes proclaim the reversal of all earthly values. Where worldly society says: “Blessed are the rich,” Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Society says, “Blessed are those who know how to live it up and have fun.” Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Where society says it is the powerful who are blessed, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” And when Jesus says, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” society says: “Be sure you get a good lawyer.” 

Jesus wants us to use the Beatitudes as a mirror; to ask ourselves, ‘Am I poor in spirit? Am I humble and merciful? Am I pure of heart? Do I hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness? Am I a peacemaker, or do I contribute to conflict through gossip, cynicism, and hate?’

Think about those questions, friends, and pray about them. Doing so is the best possible preparation for Christmas.


Christmas Midnight.  Lk. 2:1-14.
AIM:   To help the hearers make room for Jesus Christ.
We have less hard information about Jesus= birth than most people suppose. We don=t even know the date: December 25th was not selected until the fourth century. Nor do we know exactly where Mary gave birth to her child, save that it was not in what then passed for an inn at Bethlehem.
The innkeeper was a busy man in those days. The roads were full of travelers, because of the Roman-imposed census, which required people to return to their native town to be placed on the tax rolls. There was much to do at the inn, and money to be made. According to the age-old law of supply and demand, guests were doubled up, and prices raised. When Mary and Joseph appeared at his door, the innkeeper saw at once that these humble travelers were not the kind of guests he was looking for. He might have said, AYou can=t afford it.@ Instead he told them, a bit more tactfully, ANo room@ C and slammed the door. The innkeeper never knew it. But with those two words, ANo room,@ he had missed out on the greatest opportunity life would ever offer him.
It would be unfair to portray the Bethlehem innkeeper as a bad person. His words to Mary and Joseph, ANo room,@ would be repeated often in the next three decades. For the world to which Jesus came had in truth no room for him, though it was his world. As we shall hear tomorrow, in our third Christmas gospel: AHe came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him@ (Jn. 1:11).
The ancient world into which Jesus was born had in Rome a temple called the Pantheon, with room for a hundred gods. But for the Son of the one true God there was no room in Rome=s Pantheon. Nor was there room for him in his own country C until people finally found room for him: on a hill called Calvary. 

Has the situation changed in two thousand years? Would there be room for Jesus Christ if he were to come to the world today? to St. Louis? A person would have to be bold indeed to be confident of an affirmative answer to that question. Down through the centuries, and still today, the innkeeper=s words resound: ANo room, no room.@ And doors are slammed at his approach.
Why is there no room for Jesus Christ? Because people are afraid C afraid that if they give him room, he will take too much room; that little by little this man will take over their lives, changing their interests, their priorities, their plans, until they are no longer recognizable. 
Is this fear justified? It is. If we admit Jesus Christ, he will indeed change our lives, and us. He will take all the room there is. No wonder that people are afraid. AIt is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,@ we read in the letter to the Hebrews (10:31).
There is, however, something even more fearful. It is this: to try to shut out this guest. For unlike other travelers, Jesus will not go away. He will continue to knock on our door, no matter how often we tell him, ANo room.@ The hand with which he knocks bears the print of the nails which pierced him in the place where, finally, people did find room for him. His persistence, like his patience and his love, are more than super-human. They are divine. He is the personification of the love that will never let us go.
Today, in this hour, Jesus Christ is asking for room in your life. He asks one thing, and one thing alone: that you open the door. 
Some verses of an old hymn, little known to Catholics, say it best.
O Jesus, you are standing, outside the fast-closed door,
In lowly patience waiting, to pass the threshold o=er.
Shame on us, Christian people, his name and sign who bear,
Shame, thrice shame upon us, to keep him standing there.
O Jesus, you are knocking, and lo, that hand is scarred,
And thorns your brow encircle, and tears your face have marred.
O love that passes knowledge, so patiently to wait.
O sin that has no equal, so fast to bar the gate!

O Jesus, you are pleading, in accents meek and low,

AI died for you, my children, and will you treat me so?@

O Lord, with shame and sorrow, we open now the door;
            Dear Savior enter, enter, and leave us nevermore.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


 Homily for December 21st, 2016: Song of Songs 2:8-14.  

       “Hark, my lover – here he comes springing across mountains, leaping across hills … My lover speaks, he says to me, ‘Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come!’”

       These words from our first reading come from a short book called The Song of Songs. It is a collection of love poems portraying, in the form of an allegory, the love between the soul and God. In the passage we have just heard the human lover calls out to God, the Beloved. Christians have always understood the Beloved to be a figure for Jesus – which is why the Church gives us the passage, just four days before Christmas. The one calling out, “Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come,” is Jesus. His love for us is passionate. He longs for us to be close to him always.

       One of the great interpreters of this book is the twelfth century French monk, St. Bernard. He begins his commentary on the Song of Songs with the book’s opening words, addressed by the soul to God: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” The kiss, Bernard explains, is the Holy Spirit, who binds Father and Son together in love. The kiss may also be understood, however, as Jesus Christ, who with his kiss unites divinity and humanity. Since we are sinners, we cannot raise ourselves all at once to the Lord’s mouth. We must first fall at his feet, kissing his feet in repentance. Then, as the Lord’s stretches out to grasp and steady us as we rise, we kiss his hands. “And finally,” Bernard says, “when we shall have obtained these favors through many prayers and tears, we humbly dare to raise our mouth to his mouth .... not merely to gaze upon it but – I say this with fear and trembling – to receive his kiss. ... And whoever is joined to him in a holy kiss becomes, at his good pleasure, one spirit with him.”  

               We don’t read the Bible like that today. Some people still do, however. Let me tell you about one of them, a Jewish psychiatrist before he was baptized at age 27 and became a Trappist monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey in western Massachusetts, where he died in November 2006 at the age of 97. A true son of St. Bernard, Fr. Raphael Simon (his monastic name), left us these beautiful lines:

 “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances.

            To seek him, the greatest human adventure.

            To find him, the highest human achievement.”                           

Monday, December 19, 2016


Homily for Dec. 20th, 2016: The Annunciation. Luke 1:26-38.

          “Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel says to Mary. Girls married very early in those days. Mary may have been only 14 or 15. To be visited by an angel was no ordinary experience. Mary did not know what was happening to her. Of course she was afraid – “greatly troubled,” Luke says. To reassure her, the angel calls Mary “full of grace.” Grace is God’s love, poured into our hearts through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. How wonderful for this young teenager to hear that she was filled with God’s love – the greatest and most powerful love there is.

          Only after speaking this reassurance does the angel tell Mary that even before her planned marriage to Joseph she is going to be pregnant. No wonder that she asks, “How can this be?” In response Mary hears the stunning news that the father of her child will not be Joseph. He will be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Hence, the angel says, “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

Did Mary understand that? How could she? Only later, decades later, did all this start to make sense to her. At the time she understood only this: that in a little village, where gossip was rife, and everyone knew everybody’s own business, she was going to be an unmarried mother. Without hesitation, however, Mary responds in trusting faith: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

More than thirty years later, the Son whom Mary bore would say, not once but often, what the angel had said to his mother, at the time he was conceived: “Be not afraid.” Jesus spoke those words to his disciples in a boat, when they saw him coming toward them on the water in the midst of a storm (Mt 14:27). He spoke the same words to Peter, James, and John on the mountain at his Transfiguration (Mt 17:7 and parallels). He repeated them to Jairus, the synagogue official who, after asking healing for his little daughter, was told that the girl had already died (Mark 6:50).

The Lord is saying those same words to us, right now: “Be not afraid.” Trust me. I am with you. I shall be with you – always. On this day when the gospel tells us about Mary’s acceptance of the Lord’s call, we ask her to pray for us, that like her, we too may say our yes to God, in good times, but also in bad.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Homily for December 19th, 2016: 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.”