The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 204 have the anointing that comes from the Holy One,
and you all have knowledge.
I write to you not because you do not know the truth
but because you do, and because every lie is alien to the truth.
I usually go to bed around 9:30 pm, but on New Year’s Eve I make an exception and go to bed at 8:30. I’ve seen many midnights and they all look the same.
I go to bed and sleep my way into the New Year assured of the anointing that rests upon me. And, as Saint John says, I have knowledge.
Some translations of that twentieth verse read, “You have all knowledge.” I like that -- not because I am so clever but because the Holy Spirit does have All Knowledge.
I may not be as smart as the internet but I have access to it. Likewise, I may not have all the all the knowledge of God but the One who guides me does, and that’s good enough for me.
If I had to be the master of my fate and the captain of my soul, as William Ernest Henley thought I should be, I would be very worried about 2013. I would not be able to foresee what is coming, nor would I be able to control it. Will America fall off the fiscal cliff into another recession? Will the nation remain in political gridlock? What scandal will erupt in the Roman Catholic Church this year? Can I, with my aging body, fading hearing, narrowing vision and diminished capacities, rise to the challenges of another year? As a hospital chaplain I see just about everything that can go wrong with old male bodies. It’s not pretty!
I can’t. God can.
God has all knowledge. All I have to do is obey the Captain of my soul as he calls the plays. What could be wrong with that?
Happy New Year!

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Lectionary: 17

…his mother kept all these things in her heart.
Four times in Saint Luke’s story of Mary we hear of her practice of reflection: 
  1. “Mary was deeply troubled and wondered what (Gabriel’s) message meant.”  
  2. Her hurried trip to Jerusalem may also be translated as “she traveled thoughtfully.” 
  3. And then we learn "All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." 
  4. Finally, we hear again of her keeping all these things in her heart, as the boy grew in wisdom and grace.

In 21st century America, parents are not expected to be contemplative or meditative. Pondering is not on the job description. Parents are often too busy with the responsibilities of their own career, parenting their children, and caring for elderly parents and grandparents. Some even dare to “get a life” aside from all that.
But I hear the lament about that lack of contemplation. There is a country western song about the fellow who realizes he has neglected his son as his father neglected him. 
Grandparents tell me they enjoy the the opportunity of watching their grandchildren grow, a pleasure they missed with their own children. Teachers also speak of the joy of watching young minds blossom between September and June – a flowering the children’s parents never notice.
On this feast of the Holy Family, as the year comes to an end, we should resolve to notice, enjoy, contemplate and thank God for the beauty of human life, especially as we see its development in our children. They will not always be children but, if we practice our faith well, they will always be beautiful.

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 202

"Lord, now let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you prepared in the sight of every people,
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel."
In today’s gospel the old man Simeon celebrates the end of an era in Salvation History, and the beginning of another. The hopes and expectations of the Jews were fulfilled in Jesus, whether they knew it or not. With his birth, teaching, miracles, Last Supper, passion, death, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost Jesus turned Judaism inside out and gave it to the world.
Christianity is not a sect, reform or destruction of the old religion. Rather, Jesus is the fulfillment and glory of Israel. As Saint Luke compiled the Acts of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles, he saw everything that is beautiful about Judaism fulfilled, satisfied, blessed and glorified. The new faith born of the old seed would spread like a tree in a wide open field to cover the Earth, enclosing both Jews and gentiles.
As we approach the end of the calendar year, we do well to thank God for the blessings of the past. They have been more than we ever expected or deserved. We realize we have often stood under a waterfall and complained of being thirsty; that is, we have failed to receive many of God’s freely-given graces. But, if the past was wonderful, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” The best is yet to come.
“Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” And so we open our hearts to the New Year, 2013, blossoming before us.

Holy Innocents

Lectionary #698

Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler's snare.
Had not the LORD been with us?
When men rose up against us,
then would they have swallowed us alive,
When their fury was inflamed against us.
Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler's snare.
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us;
The torrent would have swept over us;
over us then would have swept the raging waters.
Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler's snare.
Broken was the snare and we were freed.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

Two weeks ago the United States was again thrown into confusion and grief by the massacre of children and adults in a Connecticut school. The story has become familiar to us despite its incomprehensible sadness.

My mother had a stroke which left her mentally disabled during the last four years of her life. I happened to be visiting her shortly after the school shooting in Columbine. Knowing how her mother's heart felt for children, I sat down with her to tell her the sad news. But she asked only one question, "Why?" I could say nothing.

It is evil; there is no explanation for evil. It does not pretend to make sense. Journalists perform autopsies on these stories in their search for meaning but discover nothing of any worth. They fill the airwaves with the story for several days after each incident, providing the public with something to talk about. Their coverage may be a mourning ritual for the nation, but they cannot offer the hope of redemption and promise of eternal life. They cannot offer the usual condolence of a violent death, that the innocent have not died in vain.

Saint Matthew, to emphasize the singular importance of Jesus, placed this all-too-common story of innocents slaughtered in his Gospel. Jesus is the Star of Bethlehem which shines in the bleak darkness of despair. 

His meaning is in his citation from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
Perhaps he intended his hearers to understand in their hearts and take comfort in Jeremiah's next words:
Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country. (Jeremiah 31:15-17)
Even as the Holy Family is fleeing from Bethlehem, Jeremiah's promise of return sounds in their ears.

Personally, when I think of the martyred children of Columbine, Sandy Hook and the Amish children in Pennsylvania, I recall the Book of Revelation:

... I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God. They cried out in a loud voice, “How long will it be, holy and true master,before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”
Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little while longer until the number was filled of their fellow servants and brothers who were going to be killed as they had been.
(Revelation 6:9-11)
I also hear the consolation of today's responsorial psalm:
Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler's snare.
The children have not died in vain. They are in God's hands, and nothing will snatch them from the Father:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’ (John 10: 27-30)
I have a video reflection on this tragedy at our Province website. You may view it at

Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Lectionary: 697

Des Plaines River
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
Traditionally the Church has honored Saint John, apostle and evangelist, as the author of the Gospel, three New Testament letters and the Book of Revelation. Recently, scholars have pointed to significant differences of theology and style and tell us another John – “John of Patmos” or “John the Seer” – wrote Revelation.
Even the name John never appears in the Gospel or the Letters. It is a name assigned from the list of twelve apostles (or disciples) because the “eyewitness” who wrote the account remains anonymous in the Gospel. He was simply the “other disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
But even that is a literary device, akin to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “The disciple” and Horatio witness and tell their respective stories. 

“John” is, in effect, you, the faithful disciple of Jesus. You are the one who, hearing the Gospel proclaimed, know who Jesus is and what he is doing. You learn who has betrayed Jesus although no one else at the Last Supper does; and when you see his empty tomb you believe he has risen from the dead while Peter is still bewildered by the whole scene.
This beloved disciple is one of three people in John’s gospel who know what is going on. John the Baptist and “the Mother of Jesus” are the others; but they know from the outset and you only see with the eyes of faith as it happens.
The Gospel is presented as a kind of play, with all the actors on the stage. You are both actor and audience with the privileges of both. You witness each scene immediately, as it happens; you are amazed by what you see; and your faith is deepened. You re-experience the story scene by scene, each time afresh – like Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) in the movie Groundhog Day.
Finally, you as witness and disciple belong to Jesus through your Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. These mysteries are explored deeply in the Gospel. Being of the fellowship you are the holiness of God, a sacred presence:
…what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father
and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Saint John, read and reread and studied over the course of a lifetime, takes us beyond understanding ideas like this into the very heart of Christ.

Feast of Saint Stephen, proto-martyr

As they were stoning Stephen, he called out
"Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
The Feast of Saint Stephen, by its placement on December 26, seems to jar us out of any Christmas complacency. And yet its message is just as peaceful as the great holiday, for amid the screaming, shouting violence of a savage mob our first martyr enjoyed the reassuring presence of Jesus.
How did he manage to do that? Saint Luke, who told us of the first Christmas night, the shepherds and angels, tells us,
filled with the Holy Spirit,
(Stephen) looked up intently to heaven
and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
The key phrase, I think, is he looked up intently.
Someday I should do a word search of the New Testament to see how often the authors urge us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. I think of several passages:
  • Saint Peter walked on water so long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. (Matthew 14:29-30)
  • Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2)
  • You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:19)
  • Behold the Lamb of God! (John 1:29)
  • Saint Stephen was certainly aware of the brutal punishment that descended upon him, but he was utterly fascinated by what he saw above him:
    "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man
    standing at the right hand of God."
    When the scriptures urge us to look intently that doesn’t mean glance at it on your way to somewhere else. It’s not even like, “Have you seen the morning paper?” It’s more like, “Stop everything, sit down, slow down, be calmed and gaze on the Lord your Lover; and see how beautiful he is.
    As you sit and rest before your own Christmas crèche, as you gaze on that beautiful baby, you might notice that Saint Stephen is sitting beside you, as happy and as peaceful as you are.

    Christmas 2012

    Lectionary #15

    When the kindness and generous love
    of God our savior appeared,
    not because of any righteous deeds we had done
    but because of his mercy,
    He saved us through the bath of rebirth
    and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
    whom he richly poured out on us
    through Jesus Christ our savior,
    so that we might be justified by his grace
    and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

    At Christmas we love to give gifts. That is a most appropriate gesture because Christmas celebrates the enormous gift that God has given to us.

    1.       So what is it about gift you don’t understand?
    a.       It is freely given. Sometimes, when receiving a gift, people say, “Oh you didn’t have to do that?”
    b.      (You’re right, I didn’t have to. I wanted to.) 
    c.       Or they say, “I don’t deserve this!”  (Right again. You don’t deserve it.)
    d.      It’s a gift I choose to give to you! I am the one who has taken the initiative; I am the one who decides to whom I will give my gifts, and I have chosen to give you this because I love you.
    e.      Y­ours is to receive the gift.
    f.        This gift is a grace, a word meaning free. I don’t have to give you anything. I owe you nothing. But I freely give you this gift out of my love for you.
    i.      Although so much of our training is about earning, deserving and even fighting to get ahead, Christmas is about receiving the free gift of Jesus.

    2.       So what is it about gift you don’t understand?
    a.       We should try to prove ourselves worthy of the gift.
     i.      If you give a boy a powerful sport car and he tears out of the driveway, burns rubber up the street and the police come by a half-hour later to take you to the hospital, he was not worthy of the gift.
     ii.      I know a woman who was given a graduation gift of a wonderful car, but her aunt had only made the down payment on it. The new graduate had to finish the payments over the next several years.
    She loved that car and she respected her aunt and she learned the discipline of huge monthly payments.  She said it was one of the best gifts she ever received because it taught a flighty young woman maturity.
    iii.      We can grow into worthiness.
    1.       A young couple getting married will have to prove their worthiness as they work out their relationship.
    2.       New parents will have to prove their worthiness as they learn to make habitual, daily sacrifices for their children without complaining!
    3.       I was certainly not worthy of the priesthood when I was ordained; I only hope that I am growing and maturing toward worthiness.
    4. Although I don't think I am worthy, and I am convinced I am not worthy, I let God make that decision. God is the judge who decides my worth.

    3.       So what is it about gift you don’t understand?
    a.       Finally, gift is about “Thank you.” Until you say thanks, you have not received the gift. You’ve only taken something from someone. It’s more like a theft than a gift.
    b.      But, we freely give thanks. Gratitude comes from the same root as grace; it is something we freely do.
    c.       Living our lives in grateful obedience to God’s mercy, we are not driven by fear. Rather, we are moved by joyous, energetic gratitude. We can never do enough -- but we try!
    d.      With gratitude we prove our worthiness.

    4.       So what is it about gift you don’t understand? To summarize...

    a.       A gift is freely given although we have neither earned it nor deserved it.
    b.      We strive to be worthy of the gift, and finally;
    c.       Set free from the fear of never being worthy or able to earn the gift, we graciously accept it.

    May God bless you and all your loved ones at Christmas Time,
    Fr Ken

    Christmas Eve 2012

    Lectionary #200

    A Watch Tower
    He promised to show mercy to our fathers
    and to remember his holy covenant.
    This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
    to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
    free to worship him without fear,
    holy and righteous in his sight
    all the days of our life. 

    The other day, before Mass, I set my telephone to buzz silently, lest it should disturb the assembly. The next morning, I used the same device to time my thirty-minute meditation, forgetting that it was set on silent. What I like to do is set the timer and sit before God, trusting the timer will go off and let me know when I have to get up and go about my chores.
    On this particular day, I found from the outset my body was impatient and my mind, irresolute; so I was prepared to wait it out. And I waited and waited; and then I waited some more. “I did set that alarm, didn’t I?” I was sure I had. “I am really impatient this morning; it seems like an awfully long time! Never mind, I will not judge myself or my impatience. Thank you Lord for this time to love you.” and so on -- and on -- and on. Finally I stirred out of my meditation and checked the alarm; it had been buzzing silently for twenty minutes. I had a fifty minute meditation and was running late! This was another of the Lord's practical jokes on me. 

    I was reminded that we are creatures who wait. It may be the most important work we do, and the most difficult. I watch our Veterans waiting patiently, and sometimes I remind them they are patients. They must be patient with the technicians who draw their blood, the nurses who handle them with TLC, and the doctors who visit occasionally and never stay very long. Waiting impatiently for all these services, patients sometimes forget they are actually waiting to heal -- which seems to take forever. And, of course, some of them wait for Sister Death, and even that requires a certain kind of patience.

    As we wait God comes to us with reassurances and promises: “I am with you until the end of time.” and “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” 

    The Christian religion stands head and shoulders above all others because it recognizes this fundamental fact about human existence: God has promised great things to us and we must wait for those promises to be fulfilled. We must be absorbed by this waiting even as God Himself waits for the moment when "the fulfillment of time" arrives. 

    Christmas reminds us of the particular promises God made to his beloved Jewish people, promises faithfully recorded though partially understood, in the Hebrew Scriptures. We have seen the promise of a Messiah fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is a Messiah far beyond anything we could have expected. As one writer put it, he is the Taj Mahal when we expected nothing more than pothole repair. We looked for a human savior, we did not dream God himself would come to deliver us. 

    Can we imagine what the fulfillment of all human longing, his Second Coming, will be like? Not even remotely. Saint Paul said it best, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love him." 

    Fourth Sunday of Advent

    Lectionary #12

    When Christ came into the world, he said:
    "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
    but a body you prepared for me;
    in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
    Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll,
    behold, I come to do your will, O God.'"

    When I was ordained, there were guidelines for leading public prayers that often used the phrase, "these or similar words." They might have been called rubrics but they weren't printed in red, like the rubrics of the missals. (The Latin word for red, rubra/rubrum.)

    During the first week after my ordination, I freely extemporized my own words in place of the Opening and Closing Prayers of the Mass. After a week, I realized I was repeating myself. I wasn't all that creative. So I fell in line and read the approved texts -- with some modifications. And so it went for more than thirty years. 

    I experimented in other ways with the liturgy, often accommodating the gestures and the prayers to the congregation and my own style. Only once did a fellow priest chew me out for doing so. He thundered at me, "It's not your Mass!" I respected the man greatly and eventually accepted the rebuff, though I grumbled at the time. I knew he was absolutely right. 

    But my conversion to a strict reading of the rubrics and prayers was slow. When rumors appeared in the Catholic press that certain Roman officials were preparing a new English translation of the liturgy, I accepted the general suspicion that somebody was trying to cramp the free-wheeling, free expression of priests like me. 

    By the time the new translation finally appeared, I had decided to follow the rules precisely, and let the chips fall where they will. If the words were sexist, I would read them as printed. If the syntax was tortured, it's not my fault.  To paraphrase the Letter to the Hebrews, I would read it as written... in the scroll. 

    This has been my own very personal decision. In what I suppose is the latter half of my priestly career, I have decided to obey and pray by the book. I don't want to come between the congregation and the Lord; or, for that matter, between the congregation and the bishops of the Church. 

    I hope that, in reading the Mass this way, I am imitating the obedience of Jesus, and one of his truest disciples, Francis of Assisi. I don't suppose the sacrifice of my style is one of the great offerings in the history of the Church; but I do hope that the mystery of the Mass appears more clearly through my administration of the Sacrament. 
    Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (I Corinthians 4:1) 
    I tell this personal story because Christmas is all about the mystery of the Incarnation. God could not become one of us -- the Incarnate Son of God -- if we were not subject to laws human and divine, secular and religious. 

    ...when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law...
    In my youth, I bought the romantic ideology of change, progress and determinism. Things are getting better and better and my generation will improve on the ethos, customs and religion of the past. Why should I conform to the ways of the past when the future is the Kingdom of God, and I can see it so clearly? 

    Somewhere along the way, I realized my future is past, and good riddance. 

    As a young priest, I also searched for that originality that made me an individual. Or, as Frank Sinatra sang, "I did it my way." Again, good riddance to bad rubbish! 

    I don't believe Jesus was speaking of change, progress or individuality when he announced the Kingdom of God. Nor do I suppose he would overthrow the past. Rather, his obedience permitted him to be overwhelmed by human life as it is, with all its confusion, complexity, irrationality and viciousness. His journey to Jerusalem, his suffering, passion and death made no sense to anyone. It was nonsense to the Greeks (the rational mind) and a scandal to the Jews (the religious mind.) (I Corinthians 1: 23)

    Even when raised from the dead he would not call upon his followers to overturn The System and its ways. His kingdom might appear in this world but it is not of this world. 

    As we celebrate Christmas 2012, we ask the Lord to show us what we must do in a turbulent world that was always dangerous, and always will be.  

    Saturday of the Third Week of Advent

    Lectionary 198

    He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.

    The American Psychiatric Association has recently listed hoarding in its DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Hoarding has been defined in various way, but here is one:

    • The acquisition of, and failure to discard, possessions that appear to be of useless or of limited value;
    • Living spaces so cluttered that using the room as intended is impossible;
    • Significant distress or impairment to function.
    Calling hoarding a mental illness should come as no surprise. Mental illness is usually an individual's expression of what the entire culture suffers. If the culture is insecure, millions will be so anxious they can't sleep, eat, work or lie down. If the culture is jaded by too much excitement and dreads sorrow, the mentally ill suffer depression. If the culture believes the old DuPont slogan, "Better living through chemistry," you can bet on a pandemic of drug addiction. A culture that trashes the Sacrament of Marriage will have sexual paraphilia with more species and sub-species than the Saint Louis Zoo. 

    Hoarders acquire more stuff than they know what to do with, and cannot let it go. Everyone knows someone like this. I knew one fellow who never threw any mail away until he had opened and read it. He was several years behind! When he died the family had to go through the pile, paying his unopened bills and cashing his unsigned checks. I knew a woman who saved dirt in her one-room apartment, along with all her garden implements. I helped clean out a fellow's home that was stacked with newspapers to the ceiling. 

    But hoarders only do what we tell them to do: "Treasure stuff!" And the Hoarders' National Holiday is Christmas. Let's all give each other stuff until it overflows our houses! 

    Common sense will tell you, "If you consistently put things into a limited space and take nothing out, it will fill up, fill out, and overflow." In other words, every time you get something new, you have to discard something old. That means, when you give someone  a gift, you might not be doing a favor; because he might not have anything of less value to discard! 

    Now there's a Christmas conundrum worthy of Doctor Seuss! What do the Whose of Whoville do when the Grinch gives them too much stuff? Do they say, "Go away! No thanks! We cannot keep any more?" 

    Today we hear the song of the impoverished woman who, when she bore a son, laid him in a manger. Her only treasure was faith, which may have infinite value in some places but cannot be banked or borrowed against. She managed to provide swaddling clothes for the infant, but no secure roof. And when trouble approached, she fled with him into a foreign country where she knew no one except her faithful husband. 

    Mary's only treasure was God and because of her we celebrate God's mercy to us. 

    Yesterday, after a week of silence, the NRA made a statement in response to the Connecticut massacre. They propose that Congress should sponsor armed guards in every school in the United States. It is a declaration of war. They do not intend to back down even an inch, but rather to march forward into the schools. Who will protect the children from their guards when the guards go berserk? 

    Friday of the Third Week of Advent

    Lectionary 197
    A vista of hasta

    Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
    Sing joyfully, O Israel!
    Be glad and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter Jerusalem!

    Our Lectionary offers a choice of first readings; one from Song of Songs; the other from the prophet Zephaniah. During the last two years I have focused on the erotic imagery of Song of Songs; this year I direct your attention and mine to the equally delightful image of Zephaniah’s “Daughter Zion.” 

    The passage accompanies our gospel passage from Saint Luke, Mary’s arrival in Jerusalem and the house of her cousin Elizabeth. Both women represent faithful Jerusalem, the holy city. One is elderly and barren, but suddenly with child! The other is young and incredibly fruitful; she too is with child, although a virgin! Their unexpected fertility is an unmistakable sign of God’s abiding, merciful presence. 

    Jerusalem had ample reason to expect infertility. Called to be the Holy City of God, the city was too much like other provincial capitals of the Roman empire. Although it boasted one of the most beautiful temples in the world, which was consecrated to the God of the Jewish People, there were dozens of other buildings, rooms and corners dedicated to pagan deities. These had been built by foreign merchants, tradesmen and scholars who found the city congenial to their alien beliefs. 

    Nor were the morals of the city exceptional. The poor were hungry; disabled begged for food; widows and orphans suffered destitution. Some women, boys and girls survived by prostitution. Slaves were everywhere. The wicked prospered as the honest struggled. Government officials colluded with corrupt businessmen who collaborated with religious leaders, each feathering his own nest, while God’s poor, the anawim, hoped to share with the dogs the scraps that fell from banquet tables. 

    Jerusalem was like every major city in human history, except that God had chosen it for his own purposes. True to his promises and his purposes, he would restore its innocence and its fertility in the persons of Elizabeth and Mary. 
    O daughter Jerusalem!The LORD has removed the judgment against you,he has turned away your enemies;
    Mary, who is the New Jerusalem, invites us to Penance because she signifies God’s purifying, healing mercy. As we turn back to the Lord during Advent God restores our innocence and makes us whole. And more -- God makes us worthy to be His Holy People. 

    Thursday of the Third Week of Advent

    Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
    let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!
    King Ahaz, in an uncharacteristic and ill-timed moment of piety, swore he would not ask the Lord or his prophet Isaiah for a sign. More likely, he intended only to brush off the prophet. But the Lord gave him a sign anyway, one which we shall always treasure.
    The Virgin Birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy; it is indeed as deep as the nether world and as high as the sky. It is a mystery whose meaning and weight are beyond our comprehension. 
    Even before disbelieving skeptics consider the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, they trip upon the stumbling stone and are scandalized by the absurdity of the Virgin Birth of Jesus.
    Literal-minded Christian fundamentalists and secular scientists often interpret the sign as a point of faith. They might say, “You must believe this or you are no Christian.” Even Catholic tradition has sometimes been distracted by the challenge of Mary’s virginity, explaining it with graphic biological detail that is not fit for the pulpit.
    Our better traditions understand Mary as the “flower of her race.” Almost two millennia before she was born the Lord chose Abraham and Sarah as her ancestors. Their covenant with God passed from one generation to the next, through a tortured, complicated history. At times the people acted as if they had forgotten entirely the God who chose them. Their rituals were insincere; their morals, tainted; and their fidelity, as reliable as quicksand. 
    But at times it seemed God had given up on them. When Jerusalem was overwhelmed, the temple looted, people murdered and survivors enslaved, how could they not suppose that God had abandoned his Chosen?
    But neither party could forget the covenant. The people still remembered God and kept to his ways. They honored the traditions, worshipped in their homes and taught their children the stories and prayers. And the Lord continued to shower them with blessings. Finally, at a time when the nation was “filled with expectation,” Mary was born, the Immaculate Conception. No one knew her by that name, of course. If anyone noticed her holiness, it was left to the Angel Gabriel and Saint Luke to make it public.
    She was the virgin who conceived a baby, 
    not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
    The Lord “overshadowed” her as the Cloud of Glory (Shekina) had overshadowed Zion, Jerusalem and the Temple for hundreds of years. But this astonishing mystery, deep as the nether world, (and) high as the sky is hidden from the wise and the clever and revealed only to little ones. 
    Only the faithful comprehend what happened to her. In the blessings God showered upon Mary, we see our virginity restored. She is the holy city, the sanctuary and temple; the highest mountain raised above the hills. She is the virgin daughter of my people.
    And yet, even this marvelous sign is not God’s final blessing. It is simply the Dawn before the Daystar of Christmas.
    Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!Mary the wheat, Christ the Living Bread;Mary the stem, Christ the Rose blood-red!Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood!Mary the temple, Christ the temple's Lord;Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven's Rest;Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!Mary the mother, Christ the mother's SonBy all things blest while endless ages run. Amen.