Anyone who has ever raised a child, especially a teenager, should be able to identify with Mary and Joseph’s anguish over the disappearance of their son.
When a child fails to come home – the universal response is to fear the worst.
Just as parent’s today worry about child trafficers, random shootings, and hit-and-run drivers ---- so in Jesus’ time there were similar predators who targeted the young.
Given the fact that Jesus was missing for three days ---- Mary thinking Jesus was old enough to be walking back to Nazareth with the men ----
and Joseph thinking the boy, not old enough to be considered a man --- was walking home with his mother and the women ---- one can only begin to imagine the panic that set in when they actually discovered that Jesus was with neither group.
And so the frantic search began. And relief came only when they found Jesus in the temple.
Mary then reprimanded her son letting him know of the “great anxiety” he had caused.
On this feast of the Holy Family, it is important to know that struggles are part of everyone’s life.
However we define “family”, holiness is always worked out by engaging with struggle and conflict and misunderstanding – not avoiding these things. Problems don’t go away just because we refuse to talk about them.
From his parent’s perspective – Jesus behaved rather thoughtlessly.
And from Jesus’ perspective, his parents should have known his whereabouts.
Somewhere in this clash of viewpoints and perspectives – in spite of the pain and confusion and struggle --- LOVE PREVAILED. And that’s what made this family unit – holy.
O loving God, help us to love in the midst of family struggles --- so we, too, can be holy.
It cannot be said enough – in this year of stress and turmoil --- Merry Christmas!
On the feast we come to know that nothing is impossible to God ---------- so at least for a day – we turn over all our worries and anxieties over to God – and enjoy a day nurturing our relationships with family and friends ---------- either in person, by zoom, or with a phone call.
Mother Theresa once said – If you want to practice world peace -------- go home and love your family – and that will be a good start.
May we do just that as we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. And now a story. . .
Joey had waited years to step into the lead role of the 4th grade Christmas pageant. He thought he would be a shoe-in for one of the top performers: after all who was more natural for the lead of Joseph, the father of Jesus --- than a boy with the same name?
So as the days grew shorter and the wind blew colder and the days of Advent lessened: Joey grew more excited.
The day finally came for the roles to be assigned and Joey left for school that morning very excited – but returned very sad.
His mother quickly picked up on his mood and to address the elephant in the room said to him: “I guess you never got the part you wanted.”
“NO”, Joey said, almost in tears, “Ben got the part of Joseph this year. My role doesn’t even have a name. . . I’m just the third shepherd on the left. . .
I don’t even think I want to be in the play this year!”
Sometimes a mother has to think pretty quickly of what to say in order to heal a wounded ego ---but what should Joey’s mother say to him?
-- we don’t always get what we want, that’s just life --- so get over it. . . That may be the truth – but was it going to be helpful?
--Or -- Keep studying the lines and hope that Ben gets sick the night of the performance then you can step in. That doesn’t sound too kind. . . or even realistic. . .
--Or should she say: I’m sure the costume worn by the third shepherd on the left will be so stunning and eye-catching – everyone will be looking at you and not at Joseph.
Joey’s mom did not think any of these seemed like the right thing to say.
So difficult though it was --- this is what she told him.
“You know Joey, I guess the teacher thought Ben had more of what it took to be Joseph. . .
“If you haven’t noticed yet, no two people – not even you and your sister both from the same family – have the same gifts. So instead of feeling jealous of Ben’s gifts and talents which landed him the part of Joseph – it’s important for you to discover what your own gifts are.
“And then hard as it may be for you now and up to the night of the performance – you need to celebrate Ben’s gifts of being Joseph – celebrate from right where you are standing on the stage: the third shepherd on the left.”
Joey’s mother was trying to teach him a most important lesson in life. . .
It’s not about titles or roles or fame or attention that make us important. What’s important is the person God has created us to be – and to go about being that person as best we can.
In life we may not be named in the playbill, or be in the spotlight – we may be just one of many in the chorus – or someone working off stage. We may, in fact, be a simple shepherd of shepherdess -- who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to do the right thing.
But our lives are neither random nor accidental – we are part of God’s plan. Our role has been written in purposefully, and we must step up to play our part in salvation history.
There are countless saints whose names we do not know – who lived quiet, normal, unremarkable lives but who have been good people.
Just think – century upon century and nation upon nation of people who led faith-filled, mundane lives who are now Saints among the Saints in the halls of heaven.
Moms, grandpas, first responders, poets, migrant workers, waitresses, bus drivers and mechanics --- the entirety of human history must be accounted for when we wonder how full heaven might be.
These “ordinary saints” are just as surely heavenly residents as any of the great names we invoke in our litanies – and there are lots of them.
So no matter how you felt when you walked in the door tonight – happy, sad, feeling good about your life and your family, despondent, depressed – hopeful or hopeless, tired, wearied, worried or full of enthusiasm ---------- when you leave this place may you feel a little more joyful and triumphant ------- knowing that you have encountered the living God in this place – the wonder-counselor, God-hero, Father-forever, the prince of peace ------
Who out of his kindness and generous love – came down to earth to save ------------ you –
The one who created the unique person who you are and calls you to go about being that person as best you can.
All of us have our role to play in salvation history –and my role is not yours – and your role is not mine. Everyone in a Christmas pageant – whether it is Mary, or Joseph, a magi, or the third shepherd from the left – and everyone in life – is important – and no role is any more special than any other.
After all, the 3rd shepherd from the left was the precise individual who was led by the angels to the stable and who was one of the first to see the newborn Christ. . .
As Christ invites us to journey through another liturgical year – may we come all the more to an understanding of who God has call us to be.
The greatest gifts God has given us is our life and our faith --- may we live them both to the fullest. And be filled with gratitude for the unique blessings God showers down upon us.
O come let us adore him, o come let us adore him, o come let is adore him – Christ, the lord.
I don’t know about you, but these days of Advent have just flown by. . . Usually when you are watching and waiting – time seems to go a little slower – and perhaps it does – just not in December of 2021.
We began our journey with the hope that by the time Christmas arrived – we could be both a little more joyful and triumphant!
We’ve tried to achieve that by turning our worries and fears over to the Lord --- and --- having the motivation to live a more simple life, so we can be more generous. . .
This last Sunday of Advent, gives us our final way of the season to come to Bethlehem, to come to Christ, joyful and triumphant:
Which is to get our focus, our attention, our energy – off of ourselves – and on to others – by valuing our relationships.
We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav-lers on the road; we are here to help each other / walk the mile and bear the load.
Mary, as soon as the angel Gabriel was finished telling her the good news of the son to be born to her – Mary was so overjoyed – she had to tell someone about it – and so she set out – and traveled to the hill country IN HASTE to a town of Judah to tell her cousin Elizabeth the news she had just received ----- only to find out that Elizabeth, herself, had some good news to share about the birth of her son who will be named John.
That’s what family and friends are for – to share our good news with, as well as to comfort each other through bad news, and to stick together no matter what. . .
The late actor, Robin Williams, once said that family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you no matter what.
We are not on this journey of life alone – so if we value our relationships: with God, with family, with friends --- then we have to spend time nurturing those relationships.
Way back in 1990 – hard to believe that was 31 years ago – the first Mrs. Bush to live in the White House, Barbara --- gave a commencement speech at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts.
In that speech she spoke of three choices everyone should make in their lives:
First, to believe in something larger than oneself – which is a choice each of us has made in being followers of Jesus Christ and belonging to this parish of St. Patrick.
2nd – which is very appropriate for us this Advent season – is to make the choice to have JOY in your life – life, Mrs. Bush said, is supposed to be fun and meaningful --- so enjoy it.
The 3rd choice Mrs. Bush said one should make in their lives – is to cherish your human connections: your relationships with family and friends.
She told the graduates – that for several years, they have had impressed upon them the importance of their careers and dedication to hard work – which of course they should have.
But, she said, as important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer, or business leader will be, you are a human being first – and those human connections – with spouses, with children, with friends – are the most important investments you will ever make.
At the end of your life, she said, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal.
You will regret time not spent with a husband, child, a friend, or a parent.
To be joyful and triumphant during this Advent, when we get to Christmas, and throughout our lives – we must value our relationships. And if we value them – we spend time nurturing them.
But it’s not just our relationships with family and friends. . .
Pope Francis reminds us many times in his homilies and public comments that “we will be judged for our relationship with the poor.”
Pope Francis said that the first question Jesus will ask at the final judgment will be: “how did you treat the poor? Did you feed them? Did you visit those in prison, in the hospital? >>
Did you help the widow and the orphan? Because that was me: you either reached out to me – or ignored me.”
The Pope continues by saying: “If you want to honor the body of Christ – do not scorn it when it is naked; do not honor the Eucharistic Christ with silk vestments at Mass – and then leave the Church neglecting the other Christ suffering from cold and nakedness.”
I want to thank you for your generosity shown to the poor and the needy through our giving tree this year. . .Your donations and gifts help families in our school and those in El Salvador.
You help support young mothers and their newborns through Mother’s Refuge. And you will help the parish reach out and help the poor throughout the year with your donations to our Nottingham Society.
But what Pope Francis thinks will affect us the most is not just donating our money – but having a personal encounter with someone who is in need – even if it is just acknowledging their presence by speaking to them and listening to their story, and calling them by name.
May we never forget how blessed most all of us are – and how we need to share with those who have less than we do.
Just having a sense of gratitude and a generous heart ---- will go a long way in helping us be more joyful and triumphant.
And as the Trappist Thomas Merton would once said: “A Christian is committed to the belief that Love and Mercy are the most powerful forces on earth.”
So if we practice love and mercy during these last days of Advent and into the Christmas season and the New Year --- we will be joyful and triumphant.
Let’s end our Advent journey as we began it. Please join me in singing: O come all he faithful, joyful and triumphant, o come ye, o come ye – to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels; O come let us adore Him. O come let us adore Him. O come let us adore Him: Christ, the Lord!
Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be; and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘twil be in the valley of love and delight. . .
During these days of Advent – we are being called and invited to journey to Bethlehem joyful and triumphant!
But worry and fear our two things that can rob us of our sense of triumph and take away our sense of joy. . . and so can the desire to always want MORE!
Isaac was a simple man who lived all alone in a small cabin near a forest. He had a few animals and a small garden and was relatively content with his life. He liked taking long walks in the forest, spending afternoons fishing at a nearby lake, and spending the evenings tending his garden and the animals.
Although he was happy with his life, he often wished he had more things – like his neighbors did.
Perhaps a bigger house, nicer possessions, and the latest gadgets.
One day he was out digging a hole for a new fruit tree he wanted to plant – and dug up a chest. And when he opened it, lo and behold --- it was filled with silver and gold coins --- enough to build a few rooms onto his cabin, enough to buy nicer stuff, even enough to buy the biggest television on the market. And he still had lots of coins left over – which he hid in a box down in the basement.
After enjoying his bigger cabin and all his new possessions for a few weeks – Isaac noticed that his life had changed.
He no longer went for long walks in the forest, fearful that someone would break into his bigger cabin and rob him of his nicer stuff.
He forgot all about fishing, worrying now not so much about the catch of fish he could have – but the catch of things someone else could have ---- if they came across his cabin without him protecting it.
Isaac’s garden became overgrown with weeds and the animals were neglected all because he was afraid to be out of his cabin and then someone could rob him of his possessions.
Isaac even lost all kinds of sleep, fearful that every noise he heard was a thief coming in the night.
Isaac began to wonder how he could just get back to the life he had before he found the treasure in the field. His joyful life of taking long walks in the forest, spending afternoons fishing, and spending his evenings once again tending to his garden and the animals. . .
John the Baptist has a solution for Isaac – and for all of us willing to listen: SIMPLIFY your life and be GENEROUS with what you have.
--John told the crowds --- if you are blessed to have two cloaks, share with the person who has none. Those who have food should do likewise.
--And to tax collectors – John told them to quit taking more than the actual tax – just so they can skim off the top to fund their lavish lifestyles. In other words, don’t live beyond your means.
And to soldiers, John told them to be satisfied with what they are paid – and to stop thinking that having more will make things better.
SIMPLIFY your life: or as a popular phrase tells us – live simply so that others can simply live.
But our whole society works against us reordering and simplifying our lives. Ours is a very cluttered, and complicated world.
Advertisements-- no matter how they come: on television, radio, on-line, or on bill boards -- have one major goal --- to make us discontent, woefully dissatisfied with who we are and what we have.
So we will buy what they offer – and so buy is what we do. . . trying to buy happiness with things ---- instead of cultivating joy.
The watchword of our consumptive society is very loud and clear: MORE. Enough is never enough. As one bumper sticker I saw expressed it: “All I want is just a little more-- than I have right now.”
And so we acquire, and we keep, and we accumulate. . . which leaves us strained and fretful, and worn out -----and far from heeding the advice of John the Baptist. . .
One of the greatest causes of anxiety, negative thinking, and a sense lethargy – a lack of energy and enthusiasm and I will also add a lack of joy --------- is self-absorption.
Selfishness inclines people toward failure because it keeps them in a negative mental rut.
That’s the reason Dr. Karl Menninger responded the way he did when someone asked him, “what would you advise a person to do, if they felt like they were at the end of their ropes and ready to have a complete breakdown?”
Most people expected him to reply, “consult a psychiatrist,” since that was his profession.
But to their astonishment, Menninger replied:
“Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.”
Irish journalist and writer, Kevin Myers, says:
“most people are too insecure to give anything away. Most people focus all their attention on themselves do so because they feel that they are missing something in their lives, so they’re trying to get more.”
Developing a giving spirit, as Dr. Menninger implies, helps a person to overcome some of those feelings of deficiency in a positive and healthy way. That’s why he says: “Generous people are rarely mentally ill people. Because a person is less likely to focus on themselves if they are trying to help someone else.”
The chief motive of a selfish, ungrateful person is to get. . . while the chief motive of the dedicated Christian is to give.
Getting. . . or giving? Which will it be for us?
It probably began like any other day. . .
There were prayers to be said. Chores to be done: bread to bake, clothes to clean or sew. Water to draw from the well.
We don’t know what the weather was like. Perhaps there was a storm which kept her indoors that day. Or the sun was warm and she wanted to get out for a walk.
But at some point – in an otherwise forgettable day in an ordinary town in an overlooked corner of a vast empire --- a Jewish girl name Mary made history. An otherwise forgettable day became unforgettable – and the world has never been the same since.
And Mary did it with just a few words: May it be done to me according to your word.
Put another way – Mary said YES.
And so here we are, 20 centuries or so later – remembering that moment, honoring the young woman who is at the center of it all ---- and celebrating God’s extravagant wisdom, generosity, and love.
And we do this because this moment in time did not just happen. This feast we celebrate, the Immaculate Conception – remembers a great mystery and a miracle: that God so loved the world that not only did he send us his son. . . but God also gave us Mary.
God planned for Mary to be the perfect vessel for Jesus – for Mary was conceived in her own mother’s womb as sinless and pure – untouched by what happened in the Garden of Eden.
The miracle of creation brought us to another miracle of creation – the Annunciation we just heard in the Gospel of Luke.
But before going forward – let’s go back to that key phrase at the heart of this Gospel – which is also at the heart of this feast:
May it be done to me according to your word.
This is where everything began. Here is the complete and selfless desire to do the will of God – offered with humility and a sense of purpose.
And I have to ask myself – and you should ask yourself: can I say anything close to this? Can any of us be so bold and be so willing to surrender to God as eagerly and so completely as did Mary?
In an age when personal freedom is prized above all else, including the safety of others – when the culture tells us you don’t have to do anything that is uncomfortable or inconvenient to you --- this girl named Mary – says something most people living today would find altogether shocking.
To an angel of the Lord – and to the God who created her and sent the angel – Mary says: if you want it --- I will do it.
Her son would later put it another way in a prayer we pray most likely everyday: Thy will be done.
But Mary’s words carry the added weight of history being written. Think of what came about because of her YES:
Bethlehem. Egypt. Calvary. ….
Easter came about because of these words. Our salvation was made possible because of these words.
Because of that moment – we are here today – hearing God’s word proclaimed, receiving the Eucharist, worshipping God in faith and hope and love.
It all began with that one YES.
And yet this feast of the Immaculate Conception also reminds us it began even before that – when Mary, herself, first began.
What a wonder to ponder in this season of joy and hope of Advent:
The life and sacrifice of Mary serves as a model for each of us – and a bold challenge. Because the reality is: like Mary, each of us is called to be a vessel for Christ.
Each of us is called to bring Jesus into the world. To take him to others. To announce him. To sacrifice for him. To surrender to him. To love him. To live our lives in such a way that we can, as did Mary “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.
Know this: God had a plan for Mary before she was born – and God has a plan for everyone in this Church. God has a dream for each one of us ------- our job is to discover what that dream is and to cooperate with God to make that dream come true.
So today, overwhelmed once again by the humility and trust of Mary – her ability to say YES to what God had planned from the first moment of her immaculate conception --- we should carry these questions in our hearts:
--How can we be more like Mary?
--What is God asking of us?
--What is God’s dream for us?
--What particular gifts has God given to us? What plan does God want us to fulfill?
--How can we cooperate with God and make God’s dream for us come true?
I would hope we can begin to answer these questions by beginning as Mary did – with a response on an otherwise forgettable day in an ordinary town in an overlooked corner of a vast empire which change everything:
May it be done to me according to your word
Be not afraid, I go before you always. Come, follow me: and I will give you rest.
During these days of Advent – we are being called – we are being invited to journey to Bethlehem joyful and triumphant!
But there are many things that can rob us of our sense of triumph and take away our sense of joy: Worry and fear are two of these things.
The German word for worry means “to strangle.” And the Greek word means to “divide the mind.” Both are accurate. Worry is a noose around our necks and a distraction of the mind – neither of which is very conducive for joy.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus told us so many times in the Gospels: do not be afraid! Although as someone much brighter than I said:
Worries and tensions in one’s life are like birds – we can’t stop them from flying near us – but we can certainly stop them from making a nest in our minds and hearts. . .
Worry and fear our reactions --- to put them behind us we must chose to be bold and courageous.
How do we go about doing that???
And now you must forgive me for this very poor imitation of James Earl Jones, or someone else with a very deep voice, making an ancient version of a movie trailer – enticing us to read the Gospel of Luke:
In a world filled with fear and torn by strife and discord, comes a man – born to elderly parents who had given up all hope of having a child.
A man: whose father is told by the angel Gabriel that he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
A man who will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of parents toward their children--
and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous – to prepare a people fit for the Lord.
A man who will lose his life – as well as his head – for the sake of the kingdom of God.
And the man’s name is. . . . JOHN.
John the Baptist is a big guy in the Gospel of Luke – mentioned 23 times.
John – who is born six months before Jesus – and the first on the scene in Judea proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
What a message for the ears of those who are suffering and stewing in their faults and failings --- and what a message to the Jewish authorities who think they have control over who is in--- and who is out of favor with the lords of the Temple –
but not necessarily, to their surprise – out of favor with the lord of the Universe.
John is the ultimate and extreme warm up act – and spends his whole life pointing NOT to himself – but to Jesus.
To be effective in his ministry, John the Baptist – must be bold, and fearless, and courageous --- and without worry of the results or the repercussions that come from his message. John challenges us to discern what is of value so that we can proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.
I suspect that John knew well that worry and fear are two things that can so easily keep us, or anyone else, from being the bold witnesses of the Gospel that we are all called to be. . . being Debbie Downers and worry warts – instead of being JOYFUL and TRIUMPHANT.
So how do we make that choice of being joyful when there is so much strife and discord in the world around us – so much to fear and worry about?
I think one way, and perhaps the only way --- is to remember that we are not in this alone --- Yes, Jesus tells us many times in the Gospels to not be afraid. . .But Jesus also tells us:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened – and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me – for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves for my yoke is easy, and my burden light. [Matthew 11: 28-30]
We are not in this alone: we are to yoke ourselves to Christ – allow Jesus to will lead and guide us on our journey of life. For no matter what we face, or how far we stray: God will bring us back – borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones if we have Jesus at our side.
Each Sunday, after we say together the Our Father – asking God’s kingdom to come and God’s will be done in our lives – I say this prayer on behalf of us all:
Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin,
and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
I don’t know about you – but I need that prayer – and I need to have faith enough to live that prayer.
I need, and I am going to be so bold as to assume that you also need --- to be delivered from all evil and kept safe from all distress – through the mercy and grace of God –
so that you and I can always leave this place and go out and be as bold as John the Baptist, joyful and triumphant --- in proclaiming the kingdom of God.
I need that prayer – because it is so easy to be fearful in our world that can be such a cold and cruel, divisive and self-centered --- place.
I need that prayer because in making decisions I’m often too worried about what other people are going to think or say – when I’m trying my best to put into practice the love, mercy and forgiveness of God – so that all may give glory and praise to God.
I need that prayer, and I am so bold as to assume that you need it to --- so that we can be free from worry and fear and all the other things that hold us back so that we can be filled with JOY – and allow the Lord to do great things – in us-- and through-- and with us.
My sisters and brothers – why should we be fearful – why should we have worries or doubts – why should we not feel triumphant ---
because we believe in a God that can command every lofty mountain to be made low – and the age-old depths and gorges to be filled to level ground – so that we, God’s chosen people --- so that we – can advance securely in the glory of God – so that we – can be led in joy by the light of God’s glory – with mercy and justice for our company.
So that we – can be joyful and triumphant when we leave this place – and allow others to see the salvation of God – working in us---- through us--- and with us.