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There is a singsong pattern to today’s Gospel reading. Jesus begins each passage with the phrase: “You have heard that it was said…” and then continues: “But I say to you…”
Jesus did not come to upend or disagree with the law but rather to fulfill it. He did, however, come to argue the point with those so called experts of that time who were the official interpreters of the law. They were the ones doing all the “saying”. But it was Jesus who would have the last word.
For example, he stated that ‘you have heard that it was said that you should not kill’… which I would say is a pretty good saying. I like that one. We shouldn’t kill. But Jesus takes it one step further by saying ‘but I say to you that harboring anger against another will subject you to a harsh judgement’. Jesus sets a high standard.
Later on, Jesus reminds his followers: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’”
Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
I found myself wondering as I contemplated this passage over the past week… this directive from Jesus… whether I myself consistently meet this high standard. Do I always mean what I say and say what I mean?
A lie is a lie, sure. But then there are those little white lies. There’s spin. There’s misrepresentation. There’s withholding certain information. There’s coloring the truth a wee bit. There’s exaggeration, embellishment, and evasion. We can all get rather clever in this regard and despite the black and white clarity of: “”Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.'”, there can be many shades of gray here when it comes to fulfilling Jesus’ wishes for us.
Jesus is doing more than holding us to a very high standard, however… he is keeping us from going down a treacherous path… for when we bend the truth, even just a bit, we become more and more comfortable doing so. We push the limits and we broaden our deceptions. It happens. It happens all the time. And sadly, we find ourselves lying to ourselves. Living in denial. This is a treacherous path.
Dostoyevsky once wrote: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
The sacrament of reconciliation (also known as penance or confession) is offered as a way to stay off of that path… or to walk back from it once we find ourselves upon it. It is an opportunity, inside of a holy and sacred and safe place, to state… to confront… to embrace… the truth.
Jesus was wise enough to warn us about this danger. His church was wise enough to offer us this sacrament… as a shield… as a remedy.
Let us contemplate in our own lives whether our Yes means Yes and whether our No means No. Whether we are on or near that treacherous path. And if so, then let’s do something about that…
What part of your body… what organ… do you use to see? Most of us would respond by saying ‘our eyes’. And we would be right. But not entirely right.
I was at a meeting with health care professionals this past week and the speaker noted that there are patients whose eyes are intact and perfectly healthy, yet who suffer a brain injury and become completely blind. They cannot see at all. So, we could say that we need our eyes and our brain to be able to see. And we would be right. But not entirely right.
I’d like to suggest that we also need perspective, knowledge, experience and faith. We need these to be able to truly see.
For example, what do you see here?
If you saw this for the very first time, your eyes and your brain would tell you that this is someone who is sad, forlorn. And when you learn that she was orphaned and left to live with a mean stepmother and two mean stepsisters, you would understand why she was so sad. But of course, we know the rest of the story. We know that this young woman is hopeful, optimistic, positive despite her hardships. She sees the good in everyone, even her mean stepmother and stepsisters. She has a certain kind of inner beauty that leads to a magical night at the grand ball and eventually, Cinderella will become a princess.
What do you see here?
If you saw this for the first time, your eyes and your brain would tell you that this is a young man who looks lonely, who lives in a desolate place with little hope. That’s what your eyes and your brain would tell you. But we know that this young man is filled with a sense of wonder, of adventure, and that his faith would one day lead him to save the galaxy. More than once. And this December in the next installment of Star Wars, we will most likely see that this Jedi Knight, now an older man, will once again have an opportunity to be a great hero.
And finally, what do you see here?
This was meant to be a terrifying visual, a warning not to do anything wrong or against those in power during that time. This was meant to scare off anyone who would considering doing whatever the person was doing who earned this fate. According to our eyes and our brain, this is scary. But we know the rest of the story. We know that we cannot step into a church or Catholic school without seeing this symbol. But it is not a symbol of despair, it is our constant reminder of triumph. Because we don’t see pain and death; instead we are reminded of resurrection, eternal life and the deep love of the one who hung upon it for us.
We can see with our eyes and our brain.
Or we can learn to really see. Through perspective, knowledge, experience and faith.
Today’s Gospel is all about learning to see. And the teacher is Jesus himself.
Our eyes and our brain see the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who are hungry and thirsty. And we are told that we ourselves are lifted up… not by wealth or comfort. Not by power or position. Not by the rewards of success in this life… but rather by the very opposite of those things.
Jesus came to teach us to see.
To love those who are unloved.
To give shelter to those who seek it.
To give voice to those who do not have one.
And to remember that those without this faith, who don’t see things this way, will always try to convince us that we are wrong. But we know better… because we know the rest of the story.
I myself think back upon some of the most important influences in my own life and right up near the top of that list is the fact that I spent 16 years in Catholic School environments. Twenty, if you include the time I spent preparing to become a deacon. So, with the exception of Peter Pan Nursery School and Boston University grad school, I have always been guided in my own process of learning to see through faith.
To the faculty and administrators at Blessed Sacrament School, thank you for your excellence. For guiding our children forward and helping them to understand and appreciate this gift of faith.
To the parents who have decided to send their children to Catholic school, I applaud your commitment and sacrifice. You are taking the long view for your children.
And to the children who are at Blessed Sacrament School, please remember two things: first, that it’s incredibly important to be guided by faith, to really and truly see. To remember that what looks like a little baby born in a barnyard is actually the savior of the world and that the apostles and friends of Jesus, who were sometimes doubters, sometimes arrogant and short of temper, and oftentimes not necessarily the smartest people around… could get together and through faith, build a church and change the world forever.
And that second thing to remember? Remember that… it’s a great day to be alive!
Yes or no? How will you answer the question?
Have you ever wished you lived back in biblical times? Times when great seas were divided, when a man from Nazareth walked on water or fed thousands from just a small amount of food. Or when people would make incredible, life changing and risky decisions based on what came to them during a dream. How could you not have faith in the lessons that these great and awesome miracles taught? How could you ever have any doubt at all?
Every year, in the time leading up to Christmas, we reflect upon the incredible yes that Mary gave when asked to carry and raise the child of God. In today’s Gospel, we consider Joseph’s yes… the one that came to him after a great and miraculous dream.
Joseph was informed by his betrothed Mary that she was pregnant. When asked who the father was… well, you know the rest. Image how her answer must have sounded to Joseph. We know how things eventually worked out, so it’s easy to under-appreciate now just how that must have felt to him in that moment.
I would like to share with you that my own sense of Jesus and faith changed pretty dramatically when I began to shift my view from merely marveling at his divinity to one that also truly appreciated his humanity.
Jesus… as God… well, that’s pretty hard to relate to. But Jesus… as human…
Jesus experienced embarrassment and frustration. Hopes and anxieties. Bruises and stomach aches. Now I can relates to those things. He was, after all… human.
I’d like to suggest that we might also do well to reflect on the birth of Jesus through a similar lens. One that does not merely marvel at the divinity but one that also appreciates the humanity.
Mary was asked to participate in an extraordinary mission. How must that have felt to her as she considered that request?
Joseph was confronted by an incredible response to his question from the one to whom he was betrothed. A dream instructed him to proceed. To go ahead and marry her anyways. But what if that dream was not of the biblical miraculous and awesome sort but instead much like the kind of dream that you or I might have? What if Joseph woke up from it wondering what it meant or whether he even had it at all? And what if he wasn’t completely certain what to do next? What if he faced a lot of doubt and uncertainty? What if he had to pray about it? And in the end, what if he had to take a leap of faith… even after that dream?
We often hear the story of the birth of Jesus and conclude that we need to have faith that it happened in the first place. In reality, it is because of faith in the first place that it even happened at all: the faith of Mary and the faith of Joseph, two pretty ordinary people who said yes, who took a leap when asked. In turn, they helped bring Jesus into the world, changing it forever. God’s great plan of revelation needed the faith of two ordinary people in order for it to happen.
The story of the birth of Jesus is also the story of our faith too. The question posed first to Mary and then to Joseph is also posed to you and to me. We are asked whether we, all of us some pretty ordinary people, are willing to also say yes. Whether we are willing to help bring Jesus into this world.
Yes or no? How will you answer the question?
I begin by asking the children if they know why Fr. Joe and I are wearing pink vestments this week and assuming none of them have the right answer, I call on Fr. Joe to explain the meaning of Gaudete Sunday (third Sunday of Advent). The operative word I’m looking for is joy. This is a story about joy…
Once upon a time, there were two children who did not know each other but who spent an entire afternoon together one day at the park. This is the story of Sunny and Felicity.
Sunny lived in a gigantic mansion, a huge house, with his mother and father and many brothers and sisters. They had servants, people who lived at the mansion night and day and who served Sunny and his family delicious meals, made sure their mansion was kept spotless clean, did all of their laundry, drove the children to school and soccer practice and dance rehearsals, and… pretty much did everything that Sunny and his family asked of them. They had a dog named Merry and it was the servants who took care of him. There were ten television sets, all the latest video games, and an indoor swimming pool in Sunny’s house… and it was wonderful. Sunny and his family were happy.
Felicity lived with her grandmother and brother in a small home on the outside of the city. It was very nice and the grandmother and Felicity and her brother kept it clean and tidy. There were no servants there and they had only one television set and they did not have any of the latest video games. They had a cat named Charm and it was Felicity and her brother’s job to take care of her. No one drove them places… they rode buses everywhere. Or walked. Felicity and her family were filled with joy.
On one particular day, the school that Sunny went to had a field trip to the park and so off to the park they all went. On that same day, Felicity’s school had a field trip to the same park and off to that park they also went. Sunny was taken in a special car all by himself and Felicity went there with her classmates in the school bus.
After playing in the park for a while, Sunny decide to rest so he went over to a park bench to sit down. Right about the same time, Felicity decided to do the same thing. She looked around at all the benches and saw that there was only one place to sit and that was right next to… Sunny. So, she went over and sat next to him.
After about five minutes, they started talking to each other. Sunny introduced himself and Felicity did the same. It was a little awkward at first since they did not know each other, but after a little while, it was ok. They were telling each other about their lives.
Sunny said: “I live in an awesome house… it’s huge. I can watch tv while I’m eating lunch and taking a bath and any time I want to. I have a driver who takes me places, wherever I want to go and whenever I want to go there. And I can play video games at night when I’m supposed to be sleeping. I have a swimming pool in my house too. My parents are super busy, so I usually talk to the people in my house who clean it and who make us food. And my brothers and sisters are busy too because they also have their own drivers and go a lot of places whenever they want. We have a dog named Merry. I don’t have to clean up after him but he never likes to sit with me. He always stays with the people in my house who take care of him.”
Felicity said: “I live in a really nice house… it’s perfect for us. I can only watch tv in the family room but that’s ok. I usually walk places or take a bus and I don’t play a lot of video games. We don’t have a swimming pool but I do like to swim. My grandmother takes care of me, she tells me stories at night and I help her cook supper. She is teaching me how to make chicken piccata and stuffed olives and I’m getting really good at it. She is also teaching me how to make mittens and how to grow tomatoes in our garden outside. My brother and I started the garden together and we always work in it after school in the spring and summer. We have a cat named Charm and she always sits 0n my lap.”
After a little while, both Sunny and Felicity had to go back to their classmates and then return to their schools. They had fun that day at the park and both of them really enjoyed meeting each other. Sunny thought a lot about what Felicity said to him.
That night, Sunny approached his parents and said: “I am very happy here, but I would like to learn how to make chicken piccata and stuffed olives. Can you teach me? I want to make my own mittens and I want to make some for both of you too. I would like to start a garden that my brothers and sisters and I can work on together, not the people here who help us. We will do it. I would like us to start taking care of Merry, taking him out when he has to go and feeding him and cleaning up after him. And I want us all to spend more time together.”
The mother and father looked at each other. They were moved by what Sunny told them. Deep down inside, they had been thinking about this too but never talked about it until Sunny brought it up. They knew that they wanted some of those things that Sunny was suggesting and so they agreed.
And that’s when joy came to their home and their family.
There is a big difference between happiness (like what Sunny experienced) and joy (which is what Felicity had). A famous writer named Henri Nouwen described it this way. He said that happiness mostly comes from what is outside of us… it comes from what surrounds us in our lives, oftentimes things we have little control over. It comes from what we want, which we sometimes can have but sometimes cannot. Joy comes more from within. It comes from knowing that no matter what is going on around us, we will always be loved, cherished. No matter what we do, we will be forgiven. We will be consoled… and we will be comforted.
Joy and happiness sometimes go together, but not always. Nouwen said that Jesus came to bring us joy and the knowledge and confidence that his heavenly father will always love us, always forgive us, always console us, always comfort us… no matter what.
On the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, we remember and celebrate this fact. We remember that this is the God who made us. Who adores us. Who will never forget us. Who sent his son to us in the form of a tiny baby on Christmas day. This is Advent. And this is joy.
I certainly appreciate the various brief but always impactful and typically dramatic appearances of John the Baptist in the Gospel narrative. Something important always seems to be happening whenever he is around. But there was a time in my life when I would never had said that I found him to be particularly inspiring.
For example, in today’s Gospel, John is announcing the coming of Christ the Savior. We have the odd description of John wearing camel’s hair clothing and eating locusts and honey. We also have his fire and brimstone admonition of the Pharisees and Sadducees who he referred to as a “brood of vipers”. Brood of vipers: that’s harsh. Last week’s Gospel was about being ready. This week, John seems to be continuing the exact same message. This is all well and good, sure… but personally, I just have not found it all that… inspiring.
But then maybe a decade ago, I was buying a plain nylon canvas cover for my bible and saw one that simply said John 3:30 on it. I was in a religious store where there were about a thousand bibles around so I grabbed one and looked that verse up. The line was simple: “He must increase; I must decrease.” It was a line stated by John, the one called the Baptist.
That was curious to me. I had heard the line before but honestly never spent a great deal of time reflecting upon it. But having purchased that bible cover, I now am reminded of it all the time.
John, though seemingly a strange guy living out in the outskirts, was clearly doing something right. He was very popular. The Gospel today states that the whole region around the Jordan were going out to be baptized by him. Throngs of people leaving their homes to head out into the desert to encounter this man… to be inspired by his words… and to be baptized.
But when questioned, he stated that the one coming after is the greater and that he himself was not worthy to even carry his sandals, a lowly task indeed. In the third chapter of John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus and his followers were baptizing and elsewhere John and his followers were baptizing, and some were even wondering whether John himself was the messiah. This resulted in John’s comment that Jesus must increase and that he himself must decrease. It was time for Jesus to take center stage and for John to exit.
This is worth thinking about as we prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. We hear an instruction to be prepared but it may not necessarily be completely clear exactly how it is that we are to be prepared.
John tells us.
When I look at my bible cover, when I see the citation of John 3:30, it places me in a proper and beautiful frame of mind to encounter what is inside the cover. Whoever thought to design a bible case with that verse on it was genius.
Preparing for the coming of Christ requires the creation of some space for him in our lives. That space should be filled with contemplation, study, prayer, and silence. For Jesus and his message of consolation, love, forgiveness, redemption and hope to take root, it has to find a place within us. Yet how many of us actively open up such a space?
I believe I am a better follower of Christ, a better disciple, a better deacon, a better father and husband and a better person when I decrease the me in me. And in its place, I let Jesus in.
Advent is a good time to think about this.
And I’m grateful for John the Baptist’s inspiration.
It is Advent.
Now sometimes it’s complicated, needs to be studied, assessed, debated, dissected and interpreted. But… sometimes, it just is what it is… right there in black and white. Clear as day.
You might feel that today’s Gospel message from Matthew is neat and tidy in that manner. Jesus said to his disciples that you never know precisely when he, the Son of Man, would return and so it’s best to always, and I mean always, be prepared. Jesus cites some fairly terrifying examples to make the point: two men out working in a field and suddenly one is gone. Two women grinding at a mill and then just like that, one disappears. It sounds more like a “Twilight Zone” episode than a Gospel reading. In any event, we don’t know when that precise moment will come, so we need to be prepared.
Advent is about preparation, so we would certainly do well to heed this warning. We must be prepared. Simple. But life happens. We have our work to do, our challenges, our disappointments, our joys… and so we can get distracted by all that. We can forget.
Don’t forget! Do you want to be the star of a “Twilight Zone” episode? Tie a piece of string around your finger, write the words “it could happen at any moment” on a post it note and stick it to your bathroom mirror, put an alarm on your phone… heck, it’s so important and this particular Gospel is so incredibly clear about it, get a big black tattoo with Matthew 24: 37-44 on your left forearm so that you never, ever, ever forget. Done.
Advent is about preparation. Preparation for the coming of the Son of Man. We just had Black Friday and tomorrow is Cyber Monday. We have to get ready for Christmas, we have to decorate, make plans, buy gifts, do all those thing we have to do to get ready, to be prepared, right?
Yesterday, I watched my neighbor hang some Christmas lights out in front of his house and it occurred to me that although I love Christmas lights, they are a poor representation of the true light that Jesus brings into the world and into our lives. Advent and all those things I mentioned about preparing for Christmas are poor representations of what it really means to prepare for Christmas.
So… you can take that string off your finger, pull down the post-it note, delete the alarm on your phone and for goodness sake, get that ugly tattoo on your arm removed (I mean, what were you thinking?).
True preparation in this season calls for quiet reflection… consideration of the true light that entered the world.
It is Advent.
Today, instead of going home to prepare a shopping and to do list for Christmas, why not go home are prepare a… let’s call it a “Real Christmas List”? It might include a few of these items:
Make a true confession for all of our sins, including those we have been unwilling to say out loud or admit, maybe even to ourselves.
Contemplate our charity and generosity to those who have less than we do.
Consider whether we make judgements about others when Jesus is quite clear on the matter of whether we ought to do that or not.
Think about all of the relationships in our lives that need mending. Those who we need to forgive. Those to whom we need to ask for forgiveness.
Be honest with ourselves about whether we kind of like being overly busy this time of year or even just in general because sometimes that is easier than taking a step back and really focusing on our prayer life, our relationship with Jesus.
Now that is a Christmas list. That is being prepared. And that is Advent.