December 25, 2019
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Psalm 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
It is very difficult to see in the darkness. We can stumble over things and get hurt in the darkness. We can become agitated by our imagination when we are in the dark. The darkness can make us feel isolated and lonely, not seeing and not being seen. Yet, our eyes can soon grow accustomed to the darkness and we can become satisfied with stumbling around a room in the dark. We can soon numb our imagination’s turbulence simply by imagining that “there’s no need to be afraid of the dark.” The darkness can begin as our acquaintance, soon become our companion, and end up serving as a friend of our convenience.
The shepherds kept watch over their flocks in the dark of night. They paid attention and kept watch amid the darkness in order to protect their flocks from very real dangers that they knew prowl in the dark of night to prey upon the flock — dangers that their experience had taught them were not simply figments of their imaginations. The shepherds paid attention in the darkness of night. Their attentiveness to their watch prepared them to hear the angels sing and to see God’s glory in the Christ Child born in circumstances familiar to them including the dark dank of a stable, probably where many of them had been born or seen their children born.
They were accustomed to the dark and how to pay attention in the dark, but their encounter with the Christ Child revealed to them that they don’t belong to the dark, nor would the dark prevail. They recognize in the Child that, even more than the Child belonging to them in their poor circumstances, they belong to the Child who is born as the Light of the World in the midst of darkness — so that they might become one with this light of the world.
This idea of “keeping watch” is a central theme of Jesus’ message as presented throughout Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel begins with shepherds keeping watch and awake in the dark of night. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks his Apostles present to keep watch with Him and to stay awake and attentive in the dark of night. The shepherds are watchful people because in their poverty they cannot offer God only a small part of their lives. They depend totally on His Providence; it’s all or nothing and so they are watchful for Him. The shepherds cannot afford to befriend the dark. As Pope Benedict XVI once observed, “Only a watchful heart can instill the courage to set out to find God in the form of a baby in a stable.”
We are here tonight in this cathedral amid darkness because God has given us the grace to pay attention as the shepherds paid attention to the light amid darkness. We are here because in the same Christ Child born anew amid the darkness, we see by the Light of the world the real and unconditional love of God. The Christ Child has brought us here so that our eyes can no longer remain accustomed to the darkness nor can we settle by living alone and isolated with the figments of our imaginations. We realize in the dark of night in this cathedral that there is no need to be afraid of the darkness. Only when we live as children of the Light, the Light is never extinguished and casts no shadows.
Unlike the figments of our imagination stunted by the dark, the Christ Child is not imaginary. He is really born of Mary. Christ is the Light of the World, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. A proverb holds that you become what you love. Adam and Eve loved the darkness and so human beings became dark. Yet, God loved human beings, and so He became one of us that we might be one with the Light and no longer of the dark. The real presence of God’s love outflanks and undercuts the pretense of human imagination.
Our entrance procession for the celebration of this Mass began with the hymn “Adeste Fideles.” We translate this roughly as “O Come all Ye Faithful,” but “Adeste” more truly is translated as “Be Present, Be Attentive.” We are attentive to two messages of the mystery of this night: the historic and the prophetic. There is the historic and real scene of the crib, the compelling scene of the poor shelter of the stable protecting Mary and Joseph, the birth of the Christ Child, shivering in the cold and swaddled for His warmth and protection, the baby Jesus sleeping where animals feed. Everything about this scene grabs our attention: the night, the cold, the poverty, the injustice, the indifference, the solitude; and, then, the incomparable message of the angels, the arrival of the shepherds, the light casting away the darkness.
Our faithful attention should also turn next to the second message of Bethlehem, the prophetic message of the Christ Child. The Child born tonight is Christ the Lord who is our Savior, sent by the Father to deliver us from the darkness of sin and fear. We are attentive to His birth as the Light of the World, and because of this, we are attentive to His mission that He generously offers us as our mission of light into darkness. Thus, we leave tonight obliged in love to be attentive to His presence in others who are affected by and accustomed to the darkness — so in need of the light that now has shone upon and in us. Our attentiveness has brought us to the stable tonight with the shepherds to see the Christ Child; our attentiveness must guide us out of this cathedral tonight to see the same Christ Child present in the poor, in the unborn, in the refugee, in victims of crime, in those wounded in battle, in those who are ignored and overlooked in a society that has grown accustomed to the darkness and indifferently imagines the darkness to be inevitable and not all that bad.
The vulnerable baby in the manger, the Word made flesh, proclaims in the wordlessness of infancy that He requires of us only our love. As Pope Saint Paul VI reminded us on Christmas night many years ago, “Is not that power which is Christ exercised completely for us, for our benefit, for our salvation, for our love? Christ came for us, not against us. He is not a competitive rival to us. He is not an enemy. He is a guide for us on our way, He is a friend. And that means for all of us: each and every one of us can rightly say: the Christ Child has come for me.”
|The Dream of Saint Joseph|
Antonio Palomino, 1697, Public Domain
December 22, 2019
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
King Ahaz was a clever politician. He had been invited by two other hostile but larger kingdoms to enter an alliance against the super power of the Assyrians who had crushed all other smaller and neighboring kingdoms. He refused the entrance into an alliance against the Assyrians not out of fidelity to God but out of a recognition that such an alliance could not overcome the Assyrians. These two smaller kingdoms then decided to march against Ahaz and his kingdom of Judah and threaten the life and existence of Ahaz and Judah. So, Ahaz decides to outdo his enemies in cunning and negotiates a truce with the Assyrians that guaranteed the protection of Judah by the Assyrians against these enemies, but also demanded that Judah worship the false gods of the Assyrians. Ahaz cuts a deal for survival. Ahaz trusts more in the power of a king than in the power of God. What Ahaz truly has is a problem of faith and not a political problem. What Ahaz lacks is the gift of the Holy Spirit that is known as the “fear of the Lord.”
Advent in many ways is about this gift of the Holy Spirit, the “fear of the Lord.” The Blessed Virgin Mary sings of the fear of the Lord in her Magnificat recorded in Luke’s Gospel, “He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.” As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Perhaps this is a phrase with which we are not very familiar or perhaps we do not like it very much. But "fear of the Lord" is not anguish; it is something quite different. It is the concern not to destroy the love on which our life is based. Fear of the Lord is that sense of responsibility that we are bound to possess for the portion of the world that has been entrusted to us in our lives.” It is the sense that we are accountable to God and we do not want to fail Him because He loves us. The fear of the Lord offers us the willingness to do whatever God asks of us.
Ahaz is unwilling to ask God for a sign in the face of an attacking enemy. He has made up his mind, and he is unwilling to seek recourse with God. Ahaz is unwilling to listen to the prophet Isaiah who tells Ahaz not to fear the two smaller kingdoms, but to remain faithful to the true and only God. Isaiah challenges Ahaz to ask the Lord for a sign; Ahaz refuses to do so with pious language but not out of authentic piety — he refuses out of his unwillingness to trust in anything but his own political bargaining. Yet, Isaiah declares the sign of contradiction as the sign of the Lord, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God is with us.” Because of his lack of willingness, Ahaz sees the prophesy of Isaiah as a riddle and not as a mystery — he has no time for mystery. Ahaz dies as a defeated king, the result of his own idolatry.
Joseph is a descendant in the line of Ahaz. Joseph is a just man. He is rich in faithfulness to the Law. Not simply compliant, he fears the Lord, the God of Israel. Joseph possesses the richness of fidelity that manifests confidence in the Lord’s faithfulness to Israel expressed in the Law of the Covenant. The richness of justice in the old covenant included a sense of authentic piety in the face of mystery. Joseph is confused by Mary’s situation precisely because he is a just man and not only procedurally compliant. Joseph knows Mary. Joseph knows Mary to be truly who Mary is — pure and undefiled — even if he does not fully understand the cause of the purity of Mary. Joseph encounters a mystery. He is not baffled by a riddle, so he decides on the measured course of the Law so as not to presume upon God but to rely upon God. He proposes to himself a quiet divorce because he is unwilling to expose Mary to the treatment of the Law which Joseph knows Mary does not justly deserve, though he does not know why she doesn’t deserve such treatment.
God speaks to Joseph the just man, filled with righteousness, in a dream. He is told in his dream by God through an angel not to be afraid to take Mary into his home as his wife because it is through the Holy Spirit that Mary has conceived her child, whom Joseph is entrusted with the mission of naming him Jesus. As a righteous and just man, faithful not to his own negotiating skills but to God, Joseph is able to recognize what Ahaz was unwilling to do. Joseph recognizes the sign of Emmanuel, the sign promised by Isaiah the prophet — a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. There is no chance for the bargaining with a false god in the disposition of Joseph who becomes the husband of Mary, and through the marriage with Mary becomes the foster father of Jesus and the guardian of Jesus and Mary. The fear of the Lord prompts Joseph to enter into the mystery of redemption. The entrance into this mystery involves a willingness to trust God and not simply a mistaken course of pride not to rely on God’s love and faithfulness — the course that Ahaz chose out of pride though expressed deceptively in pious language.
Karl Marx once said that human beings are not free if they owe their existence to the goodwill of someone else. If human beings are not autonomous, they are not free, they are dependent. Marx’s words underscore the problem that we are faced with today when we treat the mystery of God’s salvation of us as a riddle to be mastered by us and not a mystery for us to enter into with fear of the Lord — to live as Marx suggests is to see faith as naiveté, to see hope as wish, and to see love as slavery.
Advent is about our preparation for entering into the mystery of Christmas, not about the solving of a riddle through a course of pious compromise. Advent is about asking God for the willingness to do as He asks us to do without self-assurance but with reliance upon the confidence of love. The annunciation of Mary and the annunciation of Joseph of which we read in today’s Gospel show us how we should enter into the mystery of our redemption by Emmanuel. Mary’s annunciation is direct. She converses through the angel Gabriel directly with God. There is no room for doubt about the reality of Grace and the clarity of her call and of the freedom of her “yes” to God to be His Mother. By comparison, Joseph’s annunciation happens in the fog of a dream. He hears God’s mission conveyed through the angel, but he does not converse with the angel. Joseph responds with silent obedience, a characteristic of the fear of the Lord. Obedient silence is required for entrance into so profound of a mystery.
Joseph represents the faithfulness of the old covenant which manifests God’s fidelity. Yet, it is a faithfulness that in itself lacks the saving power of Grace — the Grace that fills us with God’s life because Mary was first filled with God’s Life, full of Grace, totally dependent on God. Faithfulness to the law and dependence upon Grace are both required of us for our willingness to be saved by God as God desires to save us through the humanity of His Son. As the theologian Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “The human agents who bear the promise are of great importance: Joseph and Mary. Joseph stands for God’s faithfulness to His promises to Israel, but Mary embodies the hope of mankind. Joseph is father according to the law, but Mary is mother with her own body: it is on account of her that God has been able to become one of us.”
At every Eucharist, we approach the mystery of our salvation. We don’t solve the riddles that baffle us in our efforts at achieving autonomy. At every Eucharist, we receive God’s uncompromising love for us through an act of faith and a sacrifice of hope that seals for us our participation in the new and eternal covenant of perfect love. In this sacrifice God fulfills the righteous fidelity of Saint Joseph that is brought about through the truly free and grace-filled “yes” of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At every Eucharist, we tremble at the gift and mystery of Emmanuel, who nourishes us with His Body and Blood that we might reject the idol of self-serving compromise and instead receive the grace of willingness to live in the mystery of God’s salvation of us through unconditional love.
|Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli, 1503, Public domain|
December 16, 2019
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
We are blessed to be able to come together this evening to pray and to thank God for the gift of His Son, who in turn gave us the gift of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Blessed Mother is so central to what we celebrate during Advent, this liturgical season of hope. Every time we pray vespers, we pray the Magnificat, the song of praise sung by our Lady at the visitation with her cousin Elizabeth. Her song is a song of hope and it reveals her to be filled with God’s grace, her complete dependence and communion with God in her response to His call at the annunciation speaks also to our own reliance on His grace in our own vocations.
Like so many other graces from God, we can take for granted the message of the Magnificat that we pray every day. We are here at the end of the first semester of your respective schools. We have arrived also at the end of the calendar year. We have worked very hard to arrive here and our zeal can soon become impatience because we can forget that we rely on God’s power for everything and that we are only instruments in His hand. We can forget that we are powerless over so many aspects of our own formation and we require His grace to form us as human beings, as Christians, and for some of us, as priests. While it is true that each of us are agents of our own ongoing formation, this agency is always in response to God’s grace, a response born of the fear of the Lord and never forged out of a sense of self-sufficiency.
The Blessed Virgin Mary sings of the fear of the Lord in her Magnificat, “He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.” As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Perhaps this is a phrase with which we are not very familiar or perhaps we do not like it very much. But ‘fear of the Lord’ is not anguish; it is something quite different. It is the concern not to destroy the love on which our life is based. Fear of the Lord is that sense of responsibility that we are bound to possess for the portion of the world that has been entrusted to us in our lives.” It is the sense that we are accountable to God and we do not want to fail Him because He loves us.
Fear of the Lord always brings authentic hope. The virtue of hope is entirely necessary for our salvation. We receive it at Baptism and again at Confirmation. Hope is the bridge between faith and charity. We can lose sight of the virtue of hope in our culture influenced by evangelical Christianity on the one hand and secularism on the other hand. These influences prompt us to emphasize a sense of assurance in place of hope. Luther thought that faith alone is all that is necessary to offer us the assurance of our salvation. This approach frequently leads us into sins of presumption or despair. In response to this, the Council of Trent clearly taught that faith without hope cannot offer us a share in God’s life.
What is there about God that prompts us to hope? The scholastic theologians wrote a lot about this question because it is a question that very much concerns what makes the Good News so good. They came up with different answers. Saint Bonaventure thought that it is God’s faithfulness that prompted us to hope in God. Others thought that it is God’s mercy. Yet, Saint Thomas Aquinas, with a greater deal of clarity in thought, identified the motive for our hope as being God’s omnipotence. “Nothing is impossible for God,” especially when we accept our powerlessness. “He has shown the strength of His arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit; 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; He has come to the help of His servant Israel for He has remembered His promise of mercy, the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham, and his children forever.”
Hope in God is the calm for all our fears. Hope in God is the answer to our futility and limitations. Hope is the door that God opens to the prison of our powerlessness and lack of control. As Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote with hope, “everything is a grace.” Hope is better than assurance because it brings us closer into that right relationship with God who is love. To rely falsely on a sense of assurance can lead us to see the intimate relationship that God offers us simply as a matter of convenience or usefulness. The God in whom we believe offers us love through the virtue of hope. We cannot love without hope. “All generations will call me blessed.” This means that the future brought about instrumentally by Mary’s “yes,” what is to come, belongs to God, it is in God's hands, that it is God who conquers our enemies and brings us home to Him.
December 15, 2019
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10
Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
What do you want for Christmas? Perhaps, you have been asked this question recently and with urgency. Yet, today in this cathedral and after listening to our readings of this Liturgy, I ask a more pressing question. What do you want for Advent? There aren’t many days of Advent left so the question is even more important for our ongoing conversion.
The Protestant minister and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned by the Nazis because of his resistance to their oppression, once described Advent in this manner, “A prison cell in which one waits, hopes, and is completely dependent upon the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside is not a bad picture of Advent.” John the Baptist prophesies to that truth in our Gospel reading today by sending his disciples from the dark of his prison cell to Jesus, the Light of the World, who can open the door of his cell and every cell. Jesus responds by instructing John’s disciples to give witness to what they see in His works and report them to John. They see that those blinded by darkness now see in the light, the light of day, the light of freedom, the light of truth. They rejoice.
What do we want for Advent? Do we want an open door to our prison cell of sin and fear — the door that we cannot open ourselves but that can only be opened by God’s gift of grace? Once the prison door is opened, what shall we do with our freedom? Do we come into the light of Christ, or do we stay in the dark of prison? Do we really want an open door, or do we prefer a revolving door where we can hide in the darkness but have enough light so that our eyes made dim by complacency and mediocrity are not hurt by the light of discipleship with Christ?
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Today our Liturgy calls us to rejoice in hope. John the Baptist prophesies and is the watchman for hope. Mary, who is full of grace, is filled with hope. Hope has as its object God Himself, not simply the many other gifts that God offers, but rather the gift of God Himself. Hope requires the reliance on grace in our relationship with God as Mary’s relationship is filled with grace.
To be honest, we prefer assurance over hope. We frequently seek the assurance that God’s okay with us and that we are okay with God. We want to be assured that our lives are acceptable to God so that we can be comforted that God will assist us in opening our own doors of prison when we want to open them. Assurance offers us only a utilitarian and distant relationship with God. We don’t have to change our way of life when we think we have assurance.
Hope brings about conversion. Hope engenders in us an ongoing relationship of dependent trust upon God watered by the conversation of prayer. If we only require assurance of our salvation from God, we soon act like we don’t need God unless He is useful to us. We prefer assurance that we are okay with God so that we don’t have to bother Him and then He will leave us alone, too. The height of our expectation of God becomes mutual coexistence but not love. If this the way things fall between God and each of us, it soon becomes the way that things fall between each of us and our spouses, between each of us and our children, between each of us and our families, and between each of us and the Church. We remain in our prison cell pretending that we can open the door if we so desired.
Hope recognizes that God does want to bother with us, opens the door of our prison of sin, and invites us to step into the light of the world, the gift of His Son. Advent is the season when God leads us out of the darkness of our demand for assurance into the light of hopeful trust. What do you want for Advent?