The world waited for Mary's reply, St. Bernard says:
St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation to Mary, read today at Mass, follows the announcement of the birth of John to Zechariah in yesterday’s advent readings. Mary receives the angel so differently than the priest Zechariah. (Luke 1, 5-25,)
In the temple where great mysteries are celebrated, the priest won’t believe he and his wife can conceive a child. They’re too old. He doubts.
In Nazareth, an unlikely place for a great revelation, the angel approaches Mary with a message far more difficult to grasp. “ The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Mary believes and does not doubt, and so by God’s power she conceives a Son who will be born in Bethlehem. “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word,”
Medieval artists assumed that Mary was at home in prayer when the angel came, so they put the scene we have above at the beginning of books of prayer. Prayer enabled Mary to believe and accept what would come.The Annunciation scene pictured above was followed by the words beneath it in latin: “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
Isn’t that true for us all? Prayer helps us discern and say yes to what God wills. “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
My community, the Passionists, like other communities begins our prayers by reciting the Angelus, a prayer that repeats this gospel story. “The angel of the Lord declared to Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit….”
Prayer opens the way to mysteries beyond us. As a woman of faith, Mary knew that, and we can learn from her.
At Mass today we pray: “O God, grant that by Mary’s example, we may in humility hold fast to your will.” Open our eyes to see and our lips to say yes.
From December 17th until Christmas, we read on weekdays from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke to prepare for the Christmas feast.
Today’s gospel is Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ, tracing his ancestry as “the son of David and the son of Abraham.” Jesus’ descent from Abraham fulfilled the promise God made to him: “in your descendants all nations would be blessed,” As a descendant of David, Jesus is a royal Messiah.
Matthew’s genealogy offers a Messiah whom Jew and Gentile can claim for their Savior. His roots are worldwide, his ancestors reach beyond Palestine.
He’s not just a Jewish Messiah in Matthew’s listing. His bloodline includes women like Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba– foreigners, but also women with questionable backgrounds. In his humanity, Jesus didn’t come from perfect ancestors or untainted Jewish royalty ; he’s rooted in all humanity. His bloodline includes saints and sinners, or can we say he comes from a line of sinners and some saints? He shares our human DNA.
Matthew obviously wants us to look at Jesus’ family tree and see it as our own. We can be at home there. The Tree of Jesse, based on Matthew’s genealogy was a favorite subject for medieval artists working on illuminated manuscripts or creating stained glass windows for churches. A great way to see the humanity of Jesus Christ.
Luke in his genealogy goes further and sees Jesus beyond Abraham, descended from Adam. He becomes the new Adam. We are born from his side, we share his blood; he is the first born of many like us. So we pray in today’s opening prayer:
“O God, Creator and Redeemer of human nature…your Only Begotten Son, having taken to himself our humanity, may you be pleased to grant us a share in his divinity.” (Collect)
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
Prophets like Isaiah promised that all nations would come to Jerusalem, to the house of the Lord. And so the temple in Jerusalem provided a Court of the Gentiles, an extensive place surrounding the Holy of Holies (above) where foreigners as well as Jews could come to hear the word of God,
Them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers the dispersed of Israel:
Others will I gather to him
besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56)
It’s significant that Jesus in a symbolic act when he arrives in Jerusalem at the end of his public life cleanses the temple as a sign that that time had come. The Gentiles are called; he calls them to himself. In John’s gospel, read today, Jesus speaks from the temple, most likely from the Court of the Gentiles. He’s the One whom John the Baptist has pointed out and his mission will be confirmed by his Father who will glorify him in his Kingdom.
The Advent and Christmas seasons are not only celebrations for believers, confined to a church or the homes of believers. They take place in the “Court of the Gentiles”, they bring light to the world beyond Christianity. We may not realize it, but the world listens and sees, however dimly that may be. The light of our celebrations shine in a dark world that needs hope.
In the Advent and Christmas seasons, Jesus speaks in the “Court of the Gentiles”.
Too strict, not strict enough. That’s the judgment in public opinion Jesus and disciples faced in their day, today’s Advent reading from Matthews’ gospel seems to say. That’s often the way our church is looked on in the marketplace today.
Public opinion then– Jesus likens it to “children in the marketplace”– saw him and his disciples in two derogatory ways. For some, Jesus and his followers were not strict enough. Jesus ate too many meals with the wrong kind of people, among other things. Others saw this movement as too strict. Like John the Baptist, they were crazy eccentrics, out of step with the real world, the world of the marketplace.
Too strict, not strict enough. We would like to answer that criticism of our church with a better public relations campaign and all that goes with it –better catechesis, better homilies, better media, but those responses don’t seem to be on the horizon.
But listen to the promise our Old Testament readings offer:
“Those who follow you will have the light of life, O Lord.”
Thus says the LORD, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I, the LORD, your God, teach you what is for your good,
and lead you on the way you should go. If you would hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river,
and your vindication like the waves of the sea. (Isaiah 48:17-19)
Isaiah 26:1-6: On the day of the Lord those who depend on God will enter God’s city.
Matthew 7: 21-24-27: Build your house on rock.
Ancient peoples often built their cities on rocky heights because they were the safest places to live. With water and food and strong defenses, they were less likely to be invaded. That’s why the Jews chose Jerusalem, built high on rock. It was a safe place.
But Isaiah warns against depending on natural resources or human skills and plans alone. Don’t rely on them; they can’t always save you. The strongest city becomes “a city of chaos” that falls apart without God.
God builds the strong city, the prophet says; he is our Rock, our strong city, and he admits into its gates “ a nation that is just; one that keeps faith.”
Build your lives on rock, Jesus says in the gospel. Don’t rely on a token faith (Lord, Lord) to save you or be like fools who build on sand .
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise person who built a house on rock.”
A secular society like ours often sees religion as a destructive force or a brake on progress. It turns to “human reason” alone? How can we depend on God in society today?
How do you build your personal life on rock?
In the church calendar revised after the Second Vatican Council an effort was made to reduce the celebration of saints’ feast days and emphasize the celebration of the mysteries of Christ in seasons like Advent and Christmas. Why then, are we still celebrating feasts of the saints, for example, St. Francis Xavier (Dec 3), St. John Damascene (Dec 4), St. Nicholas (Dec 6), St. Ambrose (Dec 7) and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (Dec 8)?
It’s because saints are signs of holiness, and holiness is not found only in biblical times, but in every age. Holy people are not only people of bible times, they’re found yesterday, today and tomorrow. They reveal God’s plan unfolding in time. Expressing the mystery of Christ in their time and place, saints ask us to do the same in our time and place.
St. Francis Xavier (December 3) in his time fulfilled a message powerfully proclaimed in Advent, especially by the Prophet Isaiah– God wills his saving message be brought to all nations. Francis says to us “Portuguese merchants and officials brought me to the Indies in the 16th century. How are you bringing the gospel to all nations today?”
St. John Damascene (December 4) is an 8th century saint of the Eastern church whom the Roman church included in its calendar as a doctor of the church in 1890 during the pontificate of Leo XIII. By recognizing him and his teaching, the Roman church recognized the holiness and teaching of the Orthodox churches. John Damascene is a sign that God works, not just through one church, but through other churches as well. He asks us now: “How do you recognize God’s teaching in churches other than your own?”
John Damascene defended the use of images against those who saw them as impediments to knowing a transcendent God. He validated the work of Michelangelo and Bach and generations of Christian artists. We might not have Christmas creches today without him.
There’s probably not a saint more closely connected to Christmas in the popular mind than St. Nicholas, Santa Claus (December 6). The delightful story of Nicholas throwing pieces of gold into a house where three poor girls are threatened with slavery is a story that mirrors the story of the Incarnation. Jesus, the Word made flesh, a gift of God’s mercy, comes hidden as an infant into our poor world and quietly gives us eternal life, humbly asking nothing in return.
Nicholas, Santa Claus, asks us to give quietly, humbly, in our time, as Jesus did.
St. Ambrose (December 7) was born in the 4th century into a Christian family and became a lawyer and high official of the Roman government in northern Italy. He was called by popular acclaim to be bishop, though not yet baptized! Eight days after his baptism he was ordained bishop and became one of the great Christian bishops of our church
He immersed himself in the scriptures and preached God’s word. He wrote once to another bishop: “Drink from Christ, so that your voice may be heard…He who reads much and understands much, is filled. He who is full refreshes others.”
One of those Ambrose refreshed with his preaching was St. Augustine, whom he awakened to the beauty of God’s word. He baptized Augustine and his friends and was an example to them. His voice was heard, the voice of Christ.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is remembered in a number of feasts in Advent and she has an important role in Luke’s Gospel which we read towards the end of Advent. She helps us understand so much about the coming of Jesus Christ. That’s the reason to celebrate her in Advent and Christmas.
Saints are signs of Christ, yesterday, today and forever. They tell us to be signs of Christ in our time.
“The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (Isaiah 11,1)
It takes a child to believe the astounding promises Isaiah makes. Adults, hardened by the experience of life, struggle with the prophet’s words. That’s why Advent invites us to become children, not physically, of course, but spiritually.
Become like little children. That’s what Jesus told his followers, and he praised the childlike:
“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike.” Luke 10
Only the childlike believe in great promises.
What does being “childlike” mean? Here’s what St. Leo the Great said about Jesus’s teaching on spiritual childhood: To be a child means to be “free from crippling anxiety, to be forgetful of injuries, to be sociable and to keep wondering at all things.”
A little child in its mother’s arms has no worries. It’s a good place to be, free from anxieties and a mother’s voice promising all will be well. Advent brings that grace back to us; a grace we can lose so easily.
Jesus experienced that grace in Mary’s arms. Herod’s soldiers, like Isaiah’s Assyrian armies, were on their way. It’s a poor place where he’s born, no room in the inn, but the Child in his mother’s arms has no fear. All will be well.
Injuries would come. The world can turn hostile. The promises may seem far away, but from infancy to his death, Jesus knew he was a child of God, his Father, in God’s caring hands and destined for God’s kingdom.
The Advent wreath– a good Advent devotion– originated in the folk practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples who gathered wreaths of evergreen and lit fires during the cold December darkness as a sign of hope for spring and new light.
Christians kept these popular traditions. By the 16th century Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany used these symbols to celebrate their Advent hope in Christ, the everlasting Light. From there, the Advent wreath spread to other parts of the Christian world.
Traditionally, the wreath is made of four candles in a circle of evergreens. Each day at home, the candles are lighted, perhaps before the evening meal– one candle the first week, and then another each succeeding week until December 25th. A short prayer may accompany the lighting.
Prayers for an Advent Wreath
The day the wreath is lit the leader may say:
Our nights grow longer and our days grow shorter.
We look at this candle and green branches–
and remember God’s promise to our world:
Christ, our Light and our Hope, will come.
Here are the words of Isaiah the prophet:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
on those who lived in a land as dark as death a light has dawned.
You have increased their joy and given them gladness;
We rejoice in your presence.
Let us pray:
O God, we rejoice as we remember the promise of your Son,
His light shines on us,
brightening our way, guiding us by his truth.
May Christ our Savior bring light into the darkness of our world,
and to us who wait for his coming.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Emmanuel, Jesus Christ,
Desire of all nations.
Savior of all peoples,
Come and dwell with us. Amen.
O King of all nations, Jesus Christ,
Joy of every heart,
Come and save your people. Amen.
O Key of David, Jesus Christ,
Open heaven’s gates,
Come and let your people enter. Amen.
O Wisdom, Word of God, Jesus Christ,
You know all things,
Come and show us the way to salvation. Amen.
Santa’s coming to town for Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Parade. From the parade he’ll go into the store for Black Friday and be there for the rest of the days till Christmas.
But Santa Claus is more than a salesman, isn’t he? He’s a saint– Saint Nicholas. He reminds us Christmas is for giving rather than getting. His story of quiet giving mirrors God’s love shown in Jesus Christ.
Telling his story is one of the ways we can save Santa Claus from being captured by Macys and Walmart and all the rest. First, take a look at our version for little children. Then, you might want to go on to our modest contribution for bigger children– like us: