Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas, Cycle C - December 25, 2015

Cycle C
December 25, 2015
St. Margaret/ Parish, Bel Air


I Heard the Bells

One hundred and fifty-two years ago, Christmas of 1863, our nation was deeply divided by the Civil War.

On that Christmas, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was feeling very down.  He was worried about our country and about his son who had been wounded in battle.

With those feelings, Longfellow scribbled these words: “In despair I bowed my head; `There is no peace on earth,’ I said.  `For hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to all.’”

Very soon after writing these words, Longfellow heard the sound of bells from a nearby church.  And the peeling of those bells suddenly awakened his hope.

So, in a matter of minutes, Longfellow rewrote his words: “Then peeled the bells more loud and deep: `God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!  The wrong shall fail, The right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to all.’”

As you know, Longfellow’s words became our popular Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.   

I Heard the Word

Those bells reminded Longfellow of God and of what Christmas is all about.

They awakened his faith and hope.  They helped him to see the possibilities that Christmas proclaims.

Tonight, the Scripture readings – like the bells – awaken our faith and hope in the possibilities that the birth of Jesus brings.

A Possibility: Reverence for Human Life

For starters, tonight’s gospel proclaims that God has taken on our humanity in the birth of Jesus. 

God now works and is present in and through our humanity.  In this way, God has made it clear just how sacred human life is. 

And so, Christmas lifts up the possibility of living with reverence for the life and dignity of each person.  This is so important for our day and age.

For example, Christmas moves us to provide thoughtful care to our aging parents or grandparents.  It moves us to be sensitive to the life of the unborn and to all children who need a secure environment.

And Christmas moves us to do what we can to alleviate the suffering maybe of a troubled teen in our family or maybe, on a bigger scale, of desperate refugees from Syria.  Christmas lifts up this possibility of living with reverence for human life.

A Possibility: Respect for Differences

And then, tonight’s gospel tells about shepherds coming to the manger in Bethlehem.

A few verses after this passage, we hear that three wise men from the East also come to see the newborn Savior.  In this way, Jesus draws to himself the poor, uneducated shepherds from nearby, and the wealthy, educated wise men from a distant land.

And so, Christmas lifts up the possibility of living with a respect for differences.  This again is so important for our day and age.

For example, Christmas moves us to affirm the differences in children and teens, with some of them good at sports and others good at music, with some going to college and others going to technical school.  Christmas also moves us to accept differences in religion or race or culture.

This year especially, it moves us Christians to resist stereotyping and work at understanding our Muslim brothers and sisters.  Christmas lifts up this possibility of living with respect for differences.


And so, tonight, this Christmas of 2015, may we allow the bells of Christmas and our Christmas gospel to awaken our faith and hope.

May they awaken us to the possibilities that the birth of Jesus proclaims. 

Wednesday of Late Advent, Cycle C - December 23, 2015

Wednesday of Late Advent
December 23, 2015       8:30am

In the background to today’s gospel, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son.
Zechariah questions and does not at first believe.
Because of this, Gabriel says that Zechariah will be mute, unable to speak until the child is born.
One commentator says that rendering Zechariah temporarily mute was not a punishment, but rather an opportunity for him to reflect.
He needed to reflect on his faith and his relationship with God.
He needed to come to place more trust in God and God’s word.

Then, in today’s passage, Elizabeth gives birth and the issue of naming the child arises.
Elizabeth says that the child’s name will be John.
This is the name that Gabriel had told Zechariah to give the child, but there is no indication that Zechariah ever communicated this to Elizabeth.
So Elizabeth’s naming the child John is another indication of the hand of God at work.
In some way, God also communicated this name to Elizabeth.
Then, Zechariah confirms this name and immediately, he is able to speak.
The idea is that in the months of being mute, he has reflected and grown in faith.
His confirming the name John is in effect an act of faith.
And now with faith, he is able to speak.

Perhaps the insight for us is that without faith, what we have to say is quite limited.
We are all in effect mute if we lack faith and trust in God.
With faith and trust in God, we have much to say and much to offer one another for the journey of human life.

That is my reflection on this morning’s beautiful gospel story.

Tuesday of Late Advent, Cycle C - December 22, 2015

Tuesday of Late Advent
December 22, 2015       8:30am

So, Mary is visiting her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth declares how blessed Mary is.
We heard yesterday in the gospel.
Mary then responds with the prayer or canticle of praise that we just heard.
This is usually called the Magnificat.
That word Magnificat is the first word in the Latin version of this prayer.
It literally means magnify, so Mary is saying that her “soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord.”

The word magnify means to make something larger.

Obviously, Mary does not make God larger, but she recognizes that God is larger than herself.
She humbly looks to God as the almighty One.
She listens and accepts God’s message as the direction her life is to take.
She sees herself as a servant of God on this earth.

Mary also magnifies the Lord by making other people larger.
Specifically, she is sensitive to the lowly persons on this earth.
In her prayer, she discerns that God is turning things upside down.
Mary says, “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.”
Mary magnifies or makes larger the lowly ones of this world.
She is alert to this from God’s treatment of her.
She implicitly foresees how her son will treat the last, the least, the little, and the lost of this world.
She implicitly foresees the parable on the Last Judgment about the separation of the sheep and goats and that our treatment of these persons, our decision to magnify them or not magnify them, this will determine whether we are sheep or goats.

So, there is a beauty and a depth to the prayer that Mary offers here today – the Magnificat.

Monday of Late Advent, Cycle C - December 21, 2015

Monday of Late Advent
December 21, 2015       8:30am

One of our Scripture scholars gives us a good insight about the word “blessed” in our gospel passage today.
Twice Elizabeth calls Mary “blessed.”
But in the original Hebrew, there are two different words here that get translated as “blessed” in English.
And there is a difference in the meaning of these two words.

First, Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women.”
Here the original Hebrew word means consecrated, specially selected by God for a special role.
So in calling Mary “blessed” here, Elizabeth extols Mary as extraordinary or even unique.
The word “blessed” here refers to how different Mary is from us.
God has set Mary apart for a unique role and purpose.
She deserves, therefore, a recognition and even veneration beyond what we give to all other human beings.

And then, second, Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Here the word “blessed” signifies “happy” or “fortunate.”
It is the same word that Jesus uses in the Beatitudes.
For example, “Blessed are the merciful.”
In this way, Elizabeth recognizes Mary as a person like herself or like us.
Elizabeth recognizes the ordinary, human side of Mary.
She came from an insignificant town and knew suffering and understood uncertainty and confusion.
Elizabeth is in effect saying that this “blessedness” or “happiness” or “good fortune” that Mary has is available to all of us who believe and follow God’s Word.
Mary then offers us a good example that we ought to follow.

So, it seems that Saint Luke carefully recalls this incident and uses these two words that we translate as “blessed.”

They convey some of the richness of Mary and of her spiritual role for all persons of faith.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle B - December 20, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent
Cycle C
December 20, 2015      9:00 and 11:00am
Saint Margaret Parish, Bel Air


A Soldier and a Woman


Last year, the Boston Globe carried a memorable story.

It takes place at the Denver airport.  A 46-year-old woman is sitting near the gate where she is waiting to board her plane.

She glances up and sees a young man in front of her.  There are a number of empty seats in the waiting area, but he nods his head at the seat next to her.

Her suitcase is blocking that seat.  She is mildly annoyed, but she moves the suitcase.

The young man sits down and drops his duffel bag at his feet.  He is wearing a U.S. Army camouflage uniform.

He asks, “Where you headed?”  She responds, “Home.”

He then tells her that he has just returned from Afghanistan and is heading to Florida to surprise his mother.  He hasn’t seen her for five years.

The woman notices that when he looks at her, his eyes show need – some need.  He wants something from her, but at first, she doesn’t know what.     

She also notices that he keeps scanning the terminal.  He says that it’s hard to stop scanning for danger.

Yesterday he was in the desert.  Some fellow soldiers had been killed.

Today, he is in an airport where the biggest issues are waiting for a latte or being upset over a flight delay.  He admits that he doesn’t know how to be here in this place.

The woman now senses what he may want from her.  So she opens her heart a bit and tells him that just last week, her friend’s teenage son had died suddenly.

She shares that she is a mother and she has felt so disoriented and distant from the everyday world.  With that, the soldier seems to relax.

They had made a connection.  The woman writes: “He had seen the raw and the unbearable.

“He knew that it was not the time of the flight, or a latte that was his concern.  But he did not know how to tell me.

“This was what he needed from me – what we all need.  He did not want the seat beside mine.   

“He wanted to sit with me.  He needed to feel safe and understood for a while.”

Mary and Elizabeth

That soldier and that woman and their visit together, and the visit of Mary and Elizabeth in today’s gospel have an important lesson.

Mary travels to visit Elizabeth.  She knows that she needs time with this older woman – for Elizabeth’s sake, and for her own sake too.

Elizabeth is surprised by Mary’ unexpected visit.  But she welcomes it and gives herself to it.

The soldier seeks out this woman at the airport.  He knows that he needs someone at that moment and senses that he will feel safe with her.

The woman is a bit annoyed at first.  But she is there for him in a remarkable way.

Remember What Is Important

I see a simple, but important lesson here, especially at this time of year.

Let’s be aware of the persons in our lives.  Let’s take the initiative to be with them and to share what is really going on with us.

In turn, let’s be open to the family member or friend or just someone we know who reaches out to us.  Let’s be alert and give that person some attention.

Underneath all the glitz and busyness of these December days, this is what’s really important.  In fact, this is what our celebration of the birth of Christ is all about – a person, and in him, each person.

So, let’s make persons first.  Maybe some very needed personal support will occur. 

Maybe a relationship will get enriched or reconciled.  These connections with one another are Godly moments. 

Mary and Elizabeth sit with each other and end up seeing the hand of God at work.  The soldier and the woman sit with each other and a God-filled experience happens for both of them. 

So maybe the question for this Sunday before Christmas is this: With whom do I need to sit?  Or, who needs to sit with me?