Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Advent

The photo above is the church as it looks today (taken in the spring rather than today).  St. Mary's Church in Plymouth, PA is the site of All Saint's Parish which represents an amalgamation of St. Vincent's (Irish), St. Stephen's (Slovak) and St. Mary's (Polish).  The Agnes flood in '72 necessitated significant remodeling which was later replaced by a rather unattractive remodeling years later.  The church today is a combination of the 130 year-old altar and baptismal font from St. Vincent's, statues and Stations from St. Stephen's and a refurbishing of St. Mary's building.  The work took place between the first Sunday of Advent 2006 and Holy Saturday 2007.  Going into the church for the first time to prepare for the  Easter Vigil (I was a deacon then) was a truly jaw-dropping moment.  The ceiling had been cleaned of over 75 years of candle soot and incense.  The altar restored the church closer to what it looked like before the flood.  

I was an altar boy in this church.  The coolest part of being an altar boy was being able to walk in the passageway behind the altar.  It takes little to impress a nine year-old.  Below is the homily from the 8:30 Mass.  Back to D.C. tomorrow to finish cleaning, packing and preparing homilies for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; both of which will be given at the Visitation Monastery next to Georgetown.  

4th Sunday of Advent
19 December 2010
Is 7:10-14
Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Rom 1:1-7
Mt 1:18-24

All four candles are lit on the Advent wreath. On Friday evening we begin the great Feast of the Nativity of the Lord. How did we get here? Where are we going? A quick review is in order. 

The Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent emphasized being awake, being alert and being prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. This is not the only time we will be advised to be ready for Christ’s coming, to be ready for His coming into our world and into our lives. The admonition to be awake, to be alert, to be prepared will be repeated several times throughout the year. 

Will we recognize Jesus? Will we recognize Him in the little child; the child who is born and the child in the womb who is yet to be born? Will we recognize Him in the face of the poor; those who are financially poor and those who, despite having plenty of money, are spiritually bankrupt? 

Most particularly, will we recognize Him in the breaking of the bread at the Eucharistic Feast? Will we choose to follow Him? In the end it always comes down to choosing.

The Gospels for the second and third Sundays of Advent spoke of John the Baptist, the herald of the Son of Man, the voice crying out in the wilderness.  John’s appearance was the beginning of the end and the beginning of the beginning. He was the bridge from the old to the new, from the old Law to the new Covenant.  He was an important bridge.

A bridge permits continuity. It does not destroy or invalidate the past. It brings the past into the present and propels it into the future. We can never fully understand the New Testament if we don’t understand and appreciate the Old Testament.  Indeed, the New Testament makes no sense if it is read out of context from the Old. 

Today’s Gospel is a shift from the previous three Sundays.  Matthew’s account of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth is much shorter than Luke’s.  It does not recount the Annunciation or the Visitation. Matthew does not include the exquisite prayers found in Luke: the first part of the Hail Mary, the Canticle of Zechariah, and the Magnificat. Luke’s account is mystical. Matthew’s is full of human reality and pathos. We hear of Mary’s fear and of Joseph’s consternation. Behind Mary’s fear and Joseph’s plan to divorce her was a rigid legal system that outlined the marriage process in great detail. The marriage process in the Ancient Near East was complex. It involved the families more than the couple. Engagements had a specific legal status and involved the exchange of a contract. They were usually long, from one to several years. Only after a period of engagement, did a woman leave her father’s house and go to her husband’s. This is where today’s Gospel began.

Joseph is the focus of this Gospel. Joseph, Mary’s husband. Joseph,whose anxiety and concern were put to rest by an angel who appeared to him in a dream. His role was crucial. “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 

That salvation is the future.
It is the fulfillment.
It is our redemption. 

Mary will bear a son of the House of David, the house to which Joseph belonged. A son foretold by the prophets. 

Not one word in scripture is attributed to Joseph. We know that he was righteous only by his actions, only by his willingness to do what God commanded. “Let it be done unto me according to your word.” Mary’s yes at the Annunciation changed the history of the world. Her yes continues to reverberate today. Joseph’s yes was silent but no less important. Today’s Gospel suggests  that things would have gone differently had Joseph not said yes to God. 

Joseph  was righteous because, like Mary, his obedience to God was immediate and unquestioning. There was no quid pro quo. He did not argue with God the way Ahaz did in the first reading. He did not weary God. He did what had to be done. The period of engagement was at an end. He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary into his house as his wife. Later, an angel would again come to him in a dream. In his obedience Joseph would take his young family to Egypt for an extended period of exile until Herod’s death. 

The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not easy. The trip to Egypt was worse. The Feast of the Nativity of the Lord is human and humane. Mary and Joseph struggled as we do, they were as stressed as we are, they experienced the same emotions: fear, anxiety, great joy and tremendous sorrow. Just as we do. Mary and Joseph both acted with the obedience of faith. Because of that faith Jesus Christ, the mighty King, the prince of peace, came as flesh and blood into this world.

And so it is with great joy that Friday night we will sing: 
Venite adoremus. 

Oh Come Let Us Adore Him. 

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