Today’s homily explores the 8-day period following Christmas that the Church calls the “Octave of Christmas.” Christmas is much too big of a celebration to fit into just one day, so we stretch it out over eight. However, the octave of Christmas is filled with more than just shepherds and angels. Many of the days a filled with bloodshed and martyrdom. This is no accident. Understanding the celebrations in the Octave of Christmas can do a lot to help us understand what Christmas is really all about.
With these famous lines from the beginning of “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens goes to great pain to repeat and make clear that a man is dead. The reason for his insistence will become clear in just a few pages when this same man, who was “as dead as a door-nail,” appears seemingly alive again and talking with Scrooge in his bedroom. A wonder indeed!
After the story of Christmas related in St. Luke’s gospel tonight, perhaps the second best known story of Christmas in English is the story of “A Christmas Carol.” Just the name Scrooge brings to mind one of the greatest Christmas villains of all time. In a spiritual sense, we could say that Scrooge too was “dead… as dead as a door-nail” or at least close. Yet, at the heart of this timeless story is conversion, redemption and mercy. As we celebrate Christmas this year in the Jubilee of Mercy, I see three key lessons from the story of Scrooge that can benefit all of us.
1 ) Scrooge was bad and he didn’t hide it. He didn’t try to fake it, pretending to be a good person. He hated Christmas and everyone knew it. Like Marley who was repeatedly said to be dead…before he was alive again…we have to acknowledge where we are dead. We have to acknowledge how bad things really are in certain areas. Recognizing our fallenness and need for mercy is the critical first step, “or nothing wonderful can come of the story” God is going to work in our lives. Scrooge was not so good and, in many ways, neither are we. That is the truth.
2) Scrooge couldn’t save himself. In fact, he didn’t really even know how bad his life had become. This is why Marley was sent to him in the first place, to warn him. In addition to the ghost of Marley, Scrooge is visited by three “spirits” who use the past, present, and future, to help heal him. This is a beautiful example of God’s mercy. Scrooge couldn’t do it on his own and neither can we. Providentially, we too have guardian angel spirits and saints in heaven to intercede and help us. We need to call for help and beg God to visit us with his mercy precisely because we can’t save ourselves.
3) The future can be better than the past or the present. Scrooge finally realizes what his selfishness has done not only to all those around him, but to himself as well. When he has this amazing conversion, his most earnest wish is that his future can be different. This is the greatest gift of God’s mercy: It doesn’t matter what has been our past or what sins presently afflict us. Scrooge is given a new beginning. “Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” God gives us this same chance each day, and especially during the Year of Mercy. As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, we really can expect “a future full of hope.”
The Year of Mercy should not be understood as a time to become complacent, thinking that it doesn’t matter how we live, that God will have “mercy” on us. The gift of the Year of Mercy is a special opportunity to experience what Scrooge did, to recognize our need to change, to earnestly beg for the grace of conversion, and then to joyfully write a new story for our future. The time before us is our own. May we all experience the joy of Christmas with a purified and thankful heart just as Scrooge did.
When John the Baptist began preaching his message of repentance, people were willing to travel a great distance to the Jordan River in order to be baptized. There was something special about John. His message was urgent. People needed to change and they needed to do it right away. John was of course urgent in his message because the Messiah was coming. The most special time in all of human history was about to begin, a time that had been prepared from the beginning of the world.
Like the people in the time of John the Baptist, we too should live our life with a certain urgency. The Messiah has come, but he’s coming back. It could be any day. Pope Francis has just inaugurated the Year of Mercy. In doing so, he has called us the recognize this as a special time for repenting and receiving God’s mercy, a call not unlike that of John the Baptist.
In symbolizing this special opening to mercy available this year, the Holy Father has opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica and other churches in Rome. He has also ordered that holy doors be opened at various churches in every diocese around the world. While God’s mercy is always available, this is a special time. The time if more urgent and the need mercy great. People crossed the Judean wilderness to get to the Jordan River as a sign of their repentance. I encourage you take advantage of this Year of Mercy to begin a new journey with God, maybe even going through one of the holy doors to mark your new beginning. There are so many graces that God is making available at this time. Don’t miss out. Go through the door!
Advent is a very spiritual time. It’s a beautiful time for prayer and reflecting on the mysteries of Christmas and the coming of Jesus. Our faith offers an abundance of refreshment for the soul. Yet, we are more than just spirits. We have bodies and exist concretely in the world. The story of Christmas is not just an idea. When God chose to dwell among us, he really came among us…became one of us. God had always been present “spiritually” in the world, but at Christmas he actually became a part of our physical world.
So, while Advent is a spiritual time, it can’t just be an idea in our head. We need to do some actual concrete things this season to prepare to welcome Jesus. The Scriptures today use the example of preparing a way for God. Leveling mountains, filling in low places, making a smooth highway for God. To make this spiritual idea a reality, it means that we’ve got to do some spiritual road construction on our lives. We’ve all got some potholes that need some attention. Let’s use the time we have left to start taking some concrete steps to make some real changes. Let’s fix those potholes before they get too big.
The opening collect of today’s Mass asks God the Father that we would have “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming.” As we begin this Advent season of preparing to meet the Lord, are we truly making an effort to run forth or do we fit better the description Jesus warns against in the gospel, “drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life?”
Advent is a reminder that that Jesus really is coming back and we need to be ready. Much as students need to prepare for finals, so we too need to prepare for the “final final.” We can’t just stall and try to run out the clock in life. It’s time to stir up our efforts. No more sitting around. No more putting things off. It’s time to run forth!
Our readings today remind us of God’s reign from before time began, throughout all time, and unto eternity. God always was and always will be. Today we honor Jesus with the earthly title of king. Yet we are reminded by the gospel that Jesus himself tells us that his true kingdom is not here in this world. We pray in the Our Father prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom and that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. We honor our king Jesus by trying to make this world as much as possible conform to the way that Jesus truly is king in heaven. As we do so, we know that this world will never be perfect. Rather than a cause to despair, these imperfections keep us longing for the day when the king will return in glory and everything will be made right. May we all eagerly await the coming of that day, the return of the king.
In ancient Roman times when emperors acted like gods and believed too often in their own immortality, one of his servants was given the job to walk beside him in procession and whisper the words “memento mori,” that is, “remember death.” Today’s readings and the entire month of November give us a change to remember death. How do we see death? Are we scared? Do we look forward to it? Perhaps most times we don’t even really think about it. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris perhaps have us a little more mindful these days about death. Today’s homily gives some insights into death and what we might expect.
Both the widow in our first reading and the widow in the gospel seem to have nothing. One has no food and is about to die and the other has only two small coins. Yet both of them are willing to give up even the little that they have. What amazing trust these women have in God! They have figured out the secret: God will not be outdone in generosity. In today’s homily I share a couple stories from the World Series and the subway where I encountered people who also found this secret.
Today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews uses language describing the priesthood of the Old Testament and the offering of animal sacrifices. God taught his people over the course of centuries that sin required sacrifice to make atonement. The priests of the Old Testament offered various sacrifices including animals in atonement for sins. The problem with these sacrifices was that the priests offering them were themselves sinners and the animals weren’t really capable of taking away sins.
In the New Testament, Jesus doesn’t do away with the idea of priests and sacrifice. Rather he perfects the old law and shows us a deeper meaning. Jesus is sinless and has no need to offer sacrifice first for his own sins and then for others. He is the perfect priest. Then, in an amazing development, the sacrifice he offers is also perfect because he offers himself. No longer are imperfect lambs offered over and over, but the perfect Lamb of God becomes the perfect sacrifice that once and for all takes away the sins of the world.
This is what we are doing when we come to Mass. This is how our sins today are taken away by the one sacrifice of the Lamb of God 2000 years ago. This is why the Mass has traditionally and rightly been called, “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
We don’t like suffering. We often go to great lengths to avoid even the smallest suffering. Despite our attempts, suffering will eventually come, and normally with some frequency. The key is knowing what to do with suffering when it comes.
Today’s homily looks at the various sources of suffering and what our response should be to each of these. When we know the secret, suffering need not harm us and can actually make us spiritually powerful. We accept, we endure, we even embrace suffering…and we never despair.