Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Homilies

During these days of the Christmas Octave, I won't have any homilies to post. Because I have three different homilies to give--Christmas Midnight, Christmas Day, and Holy Family--all in the span of about three days, I just don't have the time nor the ganas to go through my usual composition and editing process.

This is actually pretty dangerous, because it's when you don't prepare well that you end up preaching too long and too randomly. One of my favorite quotes to apply to homiletic preparation is from Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

That's my definition of elegance. It's good to keep in mind when it comes to the curious intersection of theological reflection, salesmanship, and theater that is preaching in the assembled Body of Christ. You don't want to be one of those priests who suffer from the dreaded 'banana problem,' named for the little girl who said, "I know how to spell 'banana,' but I don't know when to stop."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The New Temple

(4th Sunday of Advent, B)

The first reading we hear today from the second book of Samuel contains two momentous events in the history of the people of God: First, we hear the beginning of the reflection that will lead to the construction of the great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Second, we hear David the king receive the everlasting, royal covenant from God. These two great moments in the history of salvation help us to understand what God is doing in the human birth of his Son, the annunciation of which we hear in today’s Gospel.

By the time of king David, the people of God had settled down. David had captured Jerusalem and united the people. As the Scripture says, David notices that he lives in a palace, while the Ark of the Covenant—the presence of God for the Israelites—continues to dwell in a tent, as it had when the people were in the desert. So David starts to think that he should build a kind of palace for God, a temple where prayer and sacrifices can be offered. But the word of God that comes back to David through the prophet Nathan is a little ambivalent. God says, “…should you build me a house to dwell in?” As God also says through the prophet Isaiah, “What kind of house can you build for me?” In fact, God turns the reflection around on David, and says that it is God who will build David a house, by which God means that he will establish David’s dynasty in everlasting grace and favor. This is the royal and everlasting covenant.

Now we know from history that the Temple did get built eventually, not by David but by his son Solomon. David, who, as you remember, who made himself a conspirator to murder in order to commit adultery, didn’t turn out to be God’s man for the job. But Solomon was, and he built the great Temple of Jerusalem. It stood for a few hundred years until it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in the year 586 B.C. Two generations later, when the Jews returned from the Exile, the Temple was rebuilt. This Second Temple stood in Jerusalem for another five hundred years until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D, around the time the gospels were being written.

So what does all this ancient history mean for Christmas, much less for us? A lot, I think. The birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment of God’s promise in the first reading. It is not us who build a house for God, but God who builds a house, a Temple, for us. Think of the very end of the Bible, the two last chapters of the book of Revelation. The New Jerusalem descends from heaven and is joined to the earth. But the narrator notices that this New Jerusalem doesn’t seem to have a Temple. What gives? As Revelation says, God himself and the Lamb are the Temple. So now, as Jesus is born, the new and eternal Temple of God appears. Remember, what is a temple? It’s a place where prayer and sacrifice are offered to God, and in his incarnate life, the Son of God becomes this Temple for the world, offering prayer to the Father on our behalf and becoming on the Cross not only the Temple where sacrifice is offered but the perfect sacrifice itself.

In his Risen Body, Christ continues to do this through the ages. His Risen Body is the Temple where prayer and sacrifice is offered to God. And where is this Risen Body? It is us, brothers and sisters, all of us gathered together by our baptism into Christ’s death and our Holy Communion with his risen Body in this Eucharist. In this we are made into God’s house in the fulfillment of his promise to David. And we become the Temple where sacrifice is offered to God. That means that all the joys and pains, the sufferings and the loves of our lives are consecrated through Christ and offered to God. That’s the good news of Christmas; that by the Word becoming flesh, our humanity is given the opportunity to live in communion with God, such that everything about our lives becomes a consecrated and holy sacrifice, pleasing to God in every way.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Clothed and Adorned

(Gaudete Sunday, B)

In the midst of this season of “joyful expectation” we arrive at this especially joyful day, the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. This name comes from traditional entrance antiphon for today, Gaudéte in Dómino semper: íterum dico, gaudéte. Dóminus enim prope est, which sings St. Paul’s imperative from the fourth chapter of Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice. The Lord is near!”

And that is exactly why we are invited into this mood of rejoicing today, because the Lord is near. But why should we be so happy about the arrival of the Lord in the coming feast of his Nativity? The second part of the reading we hear from the prophet Isaiah says it all: God “has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.” Listen to force of these verbs! ‘Clothed me,’ ‘wrapped me,’ as Isaiah says, made beautiful as a bride. Who is he talking about? It’s us, brothers and sisters. For when the Son of God is born as one of us, in our humanity, yours and mine, our humanity is clothed with the blessing of God, wrapped in salvation, and restored to the original beauty God has meant for us all. That’s the good news of Christmas; not just the miracle of the Word made flesh, but all the miracles of our humanity being lifted up to God. As the priest says when he prepares the chalice, “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The Son of God becomes flesh in order to establish a union between our humanity and God. It is us who are given the opportunity of changing from water into wine, friends.

This is the great work of God of which our religion is meant to be a celebration. As St. Paul puts it in the second reading today: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” This is God’s passion and desire—to take on our humanity in the Incarnation, so as to lift us up to perfect holiness. Too often we think of holiness as something we have to accomplish by our own agonistic effort. No! As Paul says, it is God who will make us holy and prepare us for the end and goal and purpose of creation. By uniting himself to us in the Lord whose human birth we will soon celebrate, all of the holiness of God becomes available to our human nature.

So rejoice, brothers and sisters. And if this time of year finds us a little more tired or even a little more blue, be encouraged. The true Light to which John the Baptist witnessed is coming into the world. In whatever darkness we find in our own hearts or our own families or in our society, let us fix our gaze on this Light that is coming into the world. The mystery of Christmas teaches us that it is in these places of darkness that the Light wants to be born. This Light from Light—as we say in the Creed—is the hope for each of us. For God’s great work of uniting himself to us in Christ means that we will be clothed in comfort and wrapped in salvation.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Think Again

(2nd Sunday of Advent, B)

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God!”

So St. Mark begins his gospel, which we will be reading over the course of the coming year. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” And how does this gospel, this “good news” begin? It begins with the appearance of the Forerunner. This is John the Baptist, who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that a cry of repentance will precede the appearance of the strong arm of God which will be the comfort of God’s people. We know that this arm with which God reaches out to us is our Lord Jesus Christ. And we know that the Comfort Isaiah prophesied is the coming of the Comforter himself, the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord by proclaiming a “baptism of repentance.” This word we translate ‘repentance’ is one of the great New Testament terms—metanoia. It means, perhaps more literally, ‘to think again,’ ‘to have second thoughts,’ or even ‘to change your mind.’ Those who thought again and changed their minds received the baptism of John for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus himself receives it on our behalf, with the humanity he had borrowed from us through our most Blessed Mother. Having repented through John’s baptism, the people were prepared to hear the good news of the arriving Kingdom of God.

As it was then, so it is now, as we prepare once again for the coming of the Lord. Each us is called to repentance, to have second thoughts about our selfish ways, to change our minds, bending them once again to God. Each of us is also called to the vocation of the Forerunner, to the work of John the Baptist. We are to proclaim the need for repentance, the need to think again, in the wilderness of the unbelief of our culture and the despair and depression of our secular society. By our own repentance we are to prepare a place for the Light from Light to be conceived anew in our own hearts. And by the proclamation of the coming Lord through how we live our lives, we cry out to the world around us its need to do the same.

We know well that the reward and the end of this work is the full baptism that Jesus brings, the baptism with the Holy Spirit which we have received in Christ. And our prayer and our hope during this Advent is that the whole world will be plunged into baptism with the Holy Spirit, that all creation might emerge as a full and complete Resurrection.