Advent 2 A - Conversion

Introductory Stories:

From Father James Gilhooley

A millionaire announced to Mark Twain, "Before I die, I will go to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read aloud the Ten Commandments." Twain observed, "I have a better idea. You could stay home and keep them."

I introduce this homily on sin with an illustration from a layman precisely because many people do not like priests speaking on sin. Many Catholics no longer buy into the concept of personal sin.

We live our lives in an era which has dry cleaned sin away. How else can one explain that so few of us go to Confession? 

Eg, a university professor was arrested for collecting his mother's social security for six years after her death. He didn't understand what was wrong.

Nowadays you must feel guilty about feeling guilty. If you send people on a guilt trip, God help you! No one else will. You will be called a killjoy. ----


A Catholic professor in a private college told freshmen that in ethics there is no right or wrong, only points of view. Can you imagine what John the Baptist would have to say to him? Infinitely worse, what he would say to us who tolerate this nonsense?

To airbrush sin away is to turn religion into cherry vanilla ice cream. To bury sin with socio-economic buzz words is to sell

Christ out. It makes John the Baptist retch.
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Thomas O’Loughlin,
Introduction to the celebration


Christmas is coming! If you are not already busy preparing, then you will have at least heard many people telling you it is time you started getting ready. As the people of God we too need to start thinking about the welcoming of the Christ and the preparations that we are called upon to make as disciples. We must prepare the way for the Lord to enter our lives, to enter the lives of those around us, and to enter into our world with his word of peace and forgiveness. 

Michel de Verteuil
General comments

This is a long passage with many themes worked into it. Identifying the different themes before starting your meditation will help you to enter into the passage.

Verses 1 to 5 summarise the story of John the Baptist, but even in this section there are various points being made: the fact that John preached in the wilderness; that he appeared ‘in due course’, meaning at the time fixed by God; that he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah.

The text of Isaiah in verse 3 is often misunderstood. What it is saying is that prophets always announce to people who are experiencing lostness and abandonment that they can relax because God is going to show himself to them.

In verse 4 the Baptist’s garments are symbolic: they are the traditional garments of the prophets. His diet is simple and taken from the environment.

The rest of the passage gives us individual teachings of John the Baptist, each of them symbolic and a typical teaching of a prophet.

In verse 7-9 the mentality of all who are complacent is exposed, one that we will certainly recognise as typical of us who are religious people.

Verse 10 expresses dramatically an experience of a ‘coming of the Son of Man’.
Verse 11 gives us an insight into the spirituality of John the Baptist, as of all who are involved in a work of God. There is deep humility combined with trust in our particular vocation.
Verse 12 is another dramatic image of God’s coming and its effects. In your meditation you can enter into it as a message of comfort in a time of fear.


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Homily notes

1. Do you know this rhyme?
Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny
in the old man’s hat.

A few simple comments on this little rhyme can provide a checklist for people to remind themselves of what we celebrate during Advent.

2. Christmas is coming.

This is a time when preparation is everywhere in the air: preparations for holidays, for all the festivities, buying presents, sending cards, arranging food, everyone is ‘ getting ready’. Everyone is looking forward to the period around 25 December. ‘Looking forward’ and ‘getting ready’ are basic Christian activities: we are looking forward to the coming of the kingdom, we are looking to the return of the Christ in glory. We are looking forward to the life of the world to come. We are always getting ready to be better disciples, to be witnesses, to be the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus. What we are looking forward to right now and working so busily to prepare for is ‘Christ Mass’: the Christian feast. The feast that proclaims that the Son of God has come among us, walked with us, talked with us, suffered with us, and offered us adoption as daughters and sons of God. He is coming among us now, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. 

3. The goose is getting fat.
If God has sent his Son among us, then this is a cause for joy. We as Christians can be truly party animals for we are celebrating the depths of the Father’s love. It is right that we should have the great party that the thought of a fat goose brings to mind. We are a loved and redeemed people: we have more to celebrate than we can even imagine.

 4. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

But if we rejoice that the Father loves us and has sent his Son among us, then it also make demands on us. Being disciples means we have to be doers. We cannot be indifferent to suf­ferings and needs of others. God loves us, we must love others; God has forgiven us, we must forgive others; God provides for us in our need, we must provide for others. We cannot party with honest hearts until we have sought to relieve suf­fering. The image of the old man with his hat on the ground in front of him begging reminds us of all the work we must do to bring about the kingdom.

We Christians rejoice as we wait for the Lord when he comes again in glory to say:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the king­dom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you wel­comed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (cf Mt 25:34-40).

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John Litteton
Reflection
 

John the Baptist was the last in a long line of prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. He prepared the way for the Messiah by alerting God’s people to the Messiah’s impending arrival and by challenging them to change their lives by repenting for their sins. A radical abandonment of sinful living was required because God was going to communicate with his people directly through his Son, Jesus, the Messiah.

John’s ministry focused on preaching conversion and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Repentance is a fundamental change of heart, or attitude, which results in leaving sin behind and embracing God’s freely shared life and love. Such change is only possible with the gift of God’s grace. There was urgency in John’s preaching about repentance. The time for repentance, he said, is now, not in the future. Repentance through prayer, fasting and charitable works leads to conversion, and conversion is an important aspect of people’s preparation if they are to meet Christ when he comes.
John understood from his own experience in the wilderness, where he spent a long time in prayer and reflection, that repentance and conversion were absolutely necessary. Otherwise their hearts would remain closed by sinful preoccupations and they would not be able to recognise the Messiah when he arrived. And, if they could not recognise him, neither would they be able to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of God’s promise to liberate his people. Without a ‘change-of-heart’ (metanoia in the original Greek), a turning back towards God, there could be no appreciation of the Messiah’s presence among them.

We learn from the gospels that John fasted and did penance, wore camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. So there was a strong witness dimension in his efforts to prepare the way for Christ to come into the people’s lives. He was courageous and unapologetic in how he spoke. This witness and courage provided him with great credibility and, consequently, many people felt invited to consider seriously the relevance of his message because they noticed how he had taken it to heart himself. But his preaching made him unpopular with some people because they could not accept the truth, and remained unrepentant.

In what ways are we repentant people? How do we demonstrate our sincerity as witnesses to the teaching of Christ and the Church? What does it mean to be courageous and unapologetic about our convictions? The reality is that some of us are unrepentant for our sins. We are reluctant to speak about our faith and share it with others. Advent challenges us to become people of hope and expectation as we await Christ’s coming.
As we prepare for Christmas, how will we prepare ourselves and help others to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah? If we follow the example of John the Baptist, we will truly be Advent people.
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Scriptural Prayers
Lord, we thank you for conversion experiences:
- a parish retreat;
- a serious illness;
- one of our friends telling us off;
- meeting a great person.
At the time we were drifting, wrapped up in our own concerns.
Then this John the Baptist appeared;
he spoke to us in our wilderness and his message was simply this:
we must re-think our values totally.
We recognise that this was the experience the prophets spoke of
when they said that no matter how desolate the wilderness we find ourselves in,
you will speak to us there.
In fact, we can prepare for your coming. Thank you, Lord.


Lord, we thank you for what is happening in South Africa today.
We thank you for the great leaders who in due course appeared in that wilderness,
Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak.
Like John the Baptist they wore the garments of the ancient prophets,
nourishing themselves from the resources of their culture,
and proclaiming that a decisive moment has come
and the country must take a new path.
We thank you that the people responded.
As in the time of John the Baptist, when Jerusalem and all Judaea
and the whole Jordan district made their way out to him,
so today the people are abandoning their passivity,
confessing that they have played their part in the system,
and committing themselves to the new South Africa.
Naturally some are coming forward like the Pharisees and Sadducees
only because they wish to escape from the violence that is coming,
but your leaders are challenging them
and calling on them to produce the appropriate fruit.

“We wish to remind all how crucial is the present moment, how urgent the work to be done. The hour for action has now sounded. At stake are the peace of the world and the future of civilisation.”   Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 1967
Lord, we thank you that recent popes have been John the Baptist,
preaching to the wilderness of the modern world
that a moment of decision is at hand,
that even now the axe is laid to the roots of our civilisation
and if it does not produce good fruit it will be cut down and thrown on the fire.
Lord, don’t let us Christians presume that we can escape this retribution
because we are the children of Abraham;
remind us that you can raise children for Abraham from stones.

“The great problem for the church today is not survival but prophecy.”         Thomas Merton
Lord, as a church, we often wonder why more people don’t make their way to us,
ask for baptism and confess their sins.
Perhaps it is that we do not wear the garments of the prophets,
and we do not nourish ourselves from the simple wisdom of our culture.

Lord, we thank you for those who bring the gospel message
in areas of society which are looked down upon
– the worker priest;
- those who work with gay people or with prostitutes;
- Alcoholics Anonymous.
They proclaim in the wilderness that you are there
and all people need is to open themselves to your presence.

Lord, we thank you for the deep joy of knowing, like John the Baptist,
that we are the humble servants of your great work,
that others will follow us who will be more powerful than we are,
and so we can be content to baptise with water for repentance
because others will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Lord, evil discourages us
– the evil within ourselves, in our church community, in society.
We thank you that every once in a while you send us people like John the Baptist
who remind us that you are there with your winnowing fan in your hand
and you will clear your threshing floor.
All that evil which frightens us, you will burn in a fire that will never go out,
whereas goodness which seems so frail to us
is your precious wheat which you will gather into your barn.

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HOMILIES:

1.     From the Connections: 

THE WORD:

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptizer makes his appearance this Advent season, preaching a baptism of repentance and conversion of life.

Matthew’s details about John’s appearance are intended to recall the austere dress of the great prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1: 8).  The Jews believed that Elijah would return from heaven to announce the long-awaited restoration of Israel as God’s kingdom.  For Matthew, this expectation is fulfilled in John the Baptizer.  Through the figure of the Baptizer, the evangelist makes the “Old” Testament touch the “New.”

Matthew reports that John strikes a responsive chord in the people who have come from throughout the region to hear him at the Jordan River.  He has strong words for the Pharisees and Sadducees who step up for his baptism but have no intention of embracing the spirit of conversion and renewal to make their own lives ready for the Messiah who comes.

In proclaiming the Messiah’s “baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire,” John employs the image of a “winnowing-fan.”  A “winnowing-fan” was a flat, wooden, shovel-like tool, used to toss grain into the air.  The heavier grain fell to the ground and chaff was blown away.  In the same way, John says, the Messiah will come to gather the “remnant” of Israel and destroy the Godless. 

HOMILY POINTS:

In our own baptisms, we take on the role of prophet of Christ: to “proclaim” in our ministries, in our compassion and our kindness, in our commitment to what is right that Jesus the Messiah has come.

John’s message calls us to “live” our baptisms every day of our lives, growing in the “knowledge of the Lord” (Isaiah 11: 9) and living as “wheat” rather than lifeless straw (Matthew 3: 12).

Advent is the season for realizing Isaiah’s vision of the “peaceable” kingdom: for seeking common ground, for recognizing the humanity we all share and building upon our common interests, values and dreams. 

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2.     Fr. Charles Irvin  

Here we are with Christmas just two and a half weeks away. The shops and malls are loaded with goodies. Christmas songs fill the air. Parties are being arranged and delicacies prepared. Thoughts of home, of family, and of a lovely time fill our hopes and imaginations. 

With all of these lovely sentiments in our hearts and minds we come to church today and hear about a weird guy living in the desert, wearing scratchy and horribly smelling clothes made of camel’s hair, eating locusts, calling people a bunch of snakes while telling them that fire and brimstone will come down on them, all the while threatening them with axes that will cut them down. The gospel picture ends with John the Baptist threatening the Sadducees and Pharisees with hell. 

Aren’t you glad you came to church today just before Christmas to hear all of that? Well, John the Baptist reminds us that it’s likely we all need to pay attention to a few things that perhaps we have neglected in our lives, things that revolve around the presence of Christ… or His absence. 

Take for instance those with whom we live -- our wives, our husbands, our children, our parents, our friends. How have we loved them? How have we failed to love them? Who have we downright neglected or not treated as we should have?

Too often we take those around us for granted. We give them little, if any, of our time, our attention, our affection. Maybe we haven’t cared for the very well at all. It seems strange that we sort of assume that they know we love them without our ever actually telling them or showing them that we do love them… dearly love them. Daily routines, concerns about our work, and our habits can cause us to pay attention to material things at the expense of giving our families and friends our real attention, care, concern, and love. Maybe this Christmastime we can actually give them more of our selves as we prepare to celebrate the love of God for us made real in Christ Jesus.

What about our parents and our grandparents who live some distance away from us? Have we neglected them too? And our friends? Are there some changes we need to make because of our neglect? 

Then there are those with whom we work. Our attitudes toward them are expressed in the ways we treat them or otherwise relate to them. Attitudes are the sources of human behavior. If we want to reform the way we treat others we have to begin with our attitudes toward them. We need to hear John the Baptist’s message as it applies to us.

Then, too, we should pay some attention to the way we have neglected our own selves. Are we physically out of shape? Overweight? Do we over indulge ourselves? Do we drink too much… drink too often… or eat too much? Do we care for our selves?

What is at issue is the way we have failed to love, failed to love and respect others, and failed to have love and respect our selves, selves that God gave us when He brought us into life in the first place. John the Baptist’s words ought to raise questions we should face and answer. 

Finally there is the matter of Christ himself. We profess our faith in Him and our love for Him. But talk is cheap and words are easily spoken. It’s what we do that gives substance to love. Today we need to take an honest look at what we are actually doing in our daily lives that reveals our faith and love in Christ. Just how real is our relationship with Jesus Christ? 

Repentance means change. And change is something we dislike. If you are driving to a destination and make a wrong turn, you can’t just say “oops” and continue on driving in a wrong direction. You have to turn around and get back on the right path. You have to make a change that makes a difference. Change has its demands, demands that go beyond mere words of regret. Advent calls us to make some changes in our routines.

Advent has more to offer us, however, than that. Advent has a Savior for us. Beyond our own efforts to recognize sin and failure in our lives, beyond our confessions and admissions that lead us to repent, Advent presents us with what we truly need – a Savior. For if we’re honest with ourselves we will admit that we cannot deal with sin, repentance, and conversion all on our own. We can’t manage our lives all by ourselves.

So I’ll leave you with the first three steps of the famous Twelve Steps found in Alcoholic Anonymous. Of the twelve, the first three are the most vital and critical. They deal with what John the Baptist is talking about. So, substituting the word sin for the word alcohol the steps are: 

1 – We admitted we were powerless over sin – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2 – Came to believe in a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. 

The only thing in life that is constant is change. The only certitude is this: that there is life where there is change. Something that is changeless is dead.

 Change is hard on us all – on you and on me alike. It’s very difficult for everyone because who or what guarantees that things will be better as a result of change? A life lived close to God is the only real guarantee we have. 

The wonderful thing about Advent is that in the end we are given the certitude of God’s presence in our lives in Jesus Christ. Advent is all about our expectant faith in the God who loves us enough to send us His very best… His only Son. And if we receive Him in our hearts and souls, deep down within and not simply with good wishes and nice thoughts, then the change that we enter into will move from incertitude into the certainty of God’s abiding love deep within us to empower us to deal with our selves, and to love ourselves and those around us as He would have us.

 3.     Fr. Ray E. Atwood

Endurance and encouragement

Purpose: Advent is a season of expectation and preparation for the coming of the Lord. We are to repent of sin and live in God’s peace so that justice may flourish. For many, the Advent Season is a sad and troubled time. One Christian response is to offer words and deeds of encouragement and consolation. The Eucharist strengthens us in this task. 

Someone once described encouragement as “oxygen to the soul.” A few years ago, a television newscaster came upon a man dressed up in a silly-looking Spiderman suit. He had placed suction cups on his hands and feet in order to climb the side of the tallest building in the world. He climbed one hundred twenty five stories. When he reached the top, there was thunderous applause, as well as police and reporters, waiting for him. They asked him, “Why did you risk your life to climb this tall building?” He thought for a moment and replied, “I love to hear the applause.”

People love applause, affirmation, affection, attention, support, praise, and esteem. While we have to be alert for pride to slip into our minds and hearts, at the same time, there is nothing wrong with building one another up in love.

Today’s second reading is addressed to Jews living in Rome. In chapters 14 and 15, Paul describes two factions that are part of the Jewish community: those who are strong in faith, and those who are weak in faith. Paul addresses the Jewish community as “brothers and sisters,” indicating that those who embrace Jesus as Messiah form a family. Families in that part of the world were often torn by dissension and conflict, which sometimes led to blood feuds and death. So the Christians were challenged to be people of integrity, mercy, harmony, and reconciliation. They were to encourage one another in the Faith, and strengthen the family. 

To encourage others is to lift them up, to inspire them, to reinforce the good qualities we see in them. To encourage also means to challenge others to be the best persons they can be, to be the kind of people God wants them to be. Lots of people have written about the encouragement. Someone once said: “A compliment is verbal sunshine.” William James said: “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to feel appreciated.” Samuel Goldwyn once said: “When someone does something good, applaud! You will make two people happy.” When we encourage others, we build a Christian community of love and joy.

In June 1993, the police in South Windsor, Connecticut, pulled over motorists in larger numbers than usual. But not because there was a crime wave. One person stopped by a patrolman was Lori Carlson. As the policeman approached her vehicle, she wondered what she had done wrong. To her amazement, the officer handed her a ticket that read: “Your driving was GREAT—and we appreciate it.” On Wednesday, June 9, the authorities in this Hartford suburb had begun a new program to give safe drivers a two-dollar reward for obeying the speed limit, wearing safety belts, having children in protective car seats, and using turn signals. “You are always nervous when you see the police lights come on,” said one resident pulled over for good driving. “It takes a second or two to adjust to the officer saying, ‘Hey, thanks for obeying the law.’ It’s about the last thing you would expect.” The police in South Windsor had a great idea. They reinforced good behavior through encouragement, praise, and support.

By remaining faithful to the Covenant and living by God’s commands, the Jewish people were a light to the Gentile nations. And that’s what Christians are to do: be a beacon of light and hope to a dark world. And we can be that light when we encourage one another to be the best person he or she can be.

Advent is a time to buy presents for those we love: friends, colleagues, and others. May we offer the gift of encouragement as an expression of our love for Christ. Mary, Mother of Consolation, pray for us. Amen. 

4.     Fr. John Speekman 

[Logan Tom found the children barricaded behind the heavy iron-sheeted door on the fourth floor. It was locked. The children had become wary of strangers and would not open the door. He pleaded with them for some time but they refused to let him in. Finally the leader of the children said she might open the door if he gave her a reason. Logan called out ‘What can I tell you that will help?’ - ‘Tell us everything’ came the reply. ‘We will know if you are telling us the truth, so don’t lie.’]

This passage (my précis) from Volume One of Terry Brooks’ novel Armageddon’s Children brought me to a halt. It was a reprise of a discussion I had been having with some friends only the night before. ‘We will know if you are telling us the truth.’

My first response was to the beauty and power of the image - an impenetrable door whose lock would only surrender to the key of truth. It made me think somehow of the hymn for Morning Prayer in the Divine Office:

May what is false within us Before your truth give way.

My next thought was ‘How would those children know that what Logan Tom is telling them is true? In fact, how would they even come to imagine that they could spot a lie?’

Judge Judy, with her vast experience, is pretty good at lie-spotting but children are even better, especially teenagers. They can sense dishonesty from a long way off and especially contradictions in behaviour and word, perhaps the most obvious lie. I once asked a teenager why she didn’t practise like her mother who went to Mass every Sunday. She replied, ‘Mum doesn’t really believe.’ She turned out to be right.


There is something within a lie that draws attention to itself because it basically doesn’t ‘belong’. A lie is a red flag in a field of green; a wiggle in a straight line; a false note in a lovely tune. As much as it wants to hide it can’t, at least not for long. Perhaps that’s why the children wanted Logan Tom to tell them ‘everything’. Eventually a lie will betray itself, self-destruct. A lie has no future.

The truth, on the other hand, is eternal. It appears, like John the Baptist, on the horizon of our lives and we, like the people of Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole Jordan district, are irresistibly drawn to it.

And why is this? It is because we know that in truth, and in truth alone, is security, peace, wholeness and life. In truth is every good to be found.

I once met a man about to appear in court for a very serious offence. He was beside himself with anxiety. He asked me what he should do to avoid going to prison. I told him ‘Tell the truth and trust in God.’ The judge rewarded his truthfulness with a mere 300 hours of community work. Truth always attracts mercy.


On various occasions people ask me why I believe Catholicism to be true. It's a good question, perhaps the question, for so many. The Faith is made up of many different elements including – the Bible and its many books, Tradition, the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, Encyclicals and various Apostolic writings, the Liturgy and, very importantly, my own experience. All of these elements form one huge whole, without contradictions, without dissonant notes, without confusion. All fold seamlessly into one peace-giving wholeness. The truth is one, or as the one Master would say, ‘I am the Truth.’


John the Baptist comes in the name of this truth, to prepare his way; the way for the Way. Not only does he preach this truth but he lives it; herein lies his power to awaken within his listeners their love for the truth. People listening and watching catch no hint of masquerade of any sort and obey the message; they repent and confess and are baptised.

The Pharisees and Sadducees cling to a lie, namely: we are children of Abraham. A lie which is half true is still a lie because the truth cannot be divided. Is it important to be a Catholic? Of course it is. Does being a Catholic get you to heaven? No. God can make Catholics out of the stones on the ground as easily as children of Abraham. Having accepted the truth we must allow it to have its way in our lives – we must allow it to ‘make his paths straight’ – what is false within us must before your truth give way.

Advent is a time of restoration and renewal for ourselves. It is a time for us to put an axe to the root of every tree in us which is not bearing the appropriate fruit. You don’t need me to tell you what these might be. Just close your eyes tonight before going to bed and ask the Lord of truth to show you what things in your life you need to stop doing, and what things you need to start doing. He will tell you because he wants one day to be able to gather you into his barn.
 

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ILLUSTRATIONS:

1.     From Connections: 

Playing Santa

A chronically ill toddler could not always go along with her brother and sister on their various adventures.  But at Christmas time, Mom and Dad assured her that she would get to meet Santa.  For weeks the little girl spoke of nothing but her coming visit to Santa; Mom prayed for a Santa who would live up to her daughter’s expectations.

Finally, on one of the sick little girl’s better days, Mom decided to take the chance.  In order to avoid lengthy lines, they arrived just as the mall was opening and Santa was settling into his big chair.

When the little girl saw him, she squealed, “Santa Claus!” and darted past the assistant elves toward Santa.  The slightly startled Santa greeted her with a big smile and swept her into his ample lap.  She snuggled in, stroked his beard and uttered in joyful awe, “Santa!”  For several minutes, Santa and the little girl talked and laughed like two old friends, oblivious to the small crowd gathering to share in the magic of the moment.

The toddler’s mother stood nearby, her eyes filled with tears of joy.  Just then, a man edged over to her and, to her surprise, she noticed that his eyes were as moist as hers.  “Is that your little girl?” he asked quietly.

The woman nodded.

With a catch in his voice and quiet pride, the man said, “Santa is my son.” (Ruth Dalton, Catholic Digest) 

The coming of Christ invites all of us to become “Santa,” to bring the joy and hope of this season into the lives of everyone.  Taking on the role of “Santa” is not confined to this season alone but to every season of every year.  Playing Santa as the Santa in the story is much like our baptismal call to becoming prophets of Christ like John the Baptizer, bearing witness to God's presence in our own time and place.

2.     Andrew Greeley  

Background:

Advent and  Christmas represent a very special intervention of God in the human condition, a revolution indeed because it revealed to us just how much God loves us, one that, as G.K. Chesterton said, turned the world upside down and, astonishingly, when viewed from that perspective the world made sense. God, in the words of the Irish Dominican poet, Paul Murray, loves us so much that if we should cease to exist, he would die of sadness.   

The Christmas stories reveal to us that God loved Her human children so much that He took on human form so that he could show us how to live and how to die, even walking with us down to the valley of death itself. The stories today tell us that even from the beginning it was not easy to be the special light of the world. Jesus was under threat all his life. The threats would finally catch up with Him as they catch up with all of us. But from Christmas we learn that finally the darkness can never put out the light.

 Story:

When Mollie Whuppi and her friends were in eighth grade, they discovered at one of the parks in their neighborhood a game called women’s softball. It wasn’t really sixteen inch softball like we play in Chicago but smaller softball which is played in most of the rest of the country which is not as civilized as Chicago. Anyway, they liked the game and decided that there should be a women’s team at Mother Mary High School So the first week of their Freshman year in high school Mollie walked into the principal’s office and demanded that their be a team. The principal had yet to learn that Mollie was the boss, so she said. Go organized your team Mollie. We don’t have money for coaches or uniforms or a team bus but we can buy a couple of bats for you. Mollie said that was just fine. She’d be manager and coach too and they’d save money to buy their own uniforms.  

So, even though she was busy with other things  like being class president and president of the chess club  and chairman of the social action committee – and lots of other things besides, she organized the softball team. Now as everyone knows young women are much more serious about sports then young men so they practice very hard. Mollie told them it would take three years of experience before they could win city.

The first year, they were terrible, the second year they were pretty good and the third year they surprised everyone by getting to the city finals. They had to ride across town in their parents’ SUVs and the reception was very unfriendly. The crowd booed them. Boys shouted bad words at them. The other team snarled and made fun of their uniforms. But with Mollie on the mound Mother held the others scoreless and hitless for six innings.  

In the first half of the seventh Mollie hit a home run so going into the last of the seventh (softball games last only seven innings) Mother Mary was up 1-0. Mollie struck out the first two batters. Then she pitched three straight strikes to the last batter. But the umpire, who made no secret of which side he was on, called them balls. Everyone knew that Mollie’s four pitch was a strike too, but the ump waved the batter down to first based. Then the next batter hit a long foul ball – everyone knew it was a foul ball, but the ump called it fair. The tying run scored. The throw from right field was slow but Mollie caught it and ran to the plate to tag the hitter out by a mile. The ump called her safe. The crowds went wild with laugher.  

The winners stalked off the field.  

The Mother Mary players didn’t curse, they didn’t shout. They just cried. All except Mollie. Chill out, she shouted, we’re still on our game plan.  

Next year we will play them at home and we’ll win, just like we planned.  The players from Mother Mary stalked out of the field chanting, “Wait till next year” the battle cry of defeated sports teams and political parties – a hint of the Christian Hope that next year will be better even when this year is the last year of our life.

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3.     A number of years ago a couple traveled to the offices of an Adoption Society in England to receive a baby. They had been on the waiting list a long time. They had been interviewed and carefully scrutinized. Now at last their dreams were to be fulfilled. But their day of happiness was another's pain.

 Arriving at the offices of the Society they were led up a flight of stairs to a waiting room. After a few minutes they heard someone else climbing the stairs. It was the young student mother whose baby was to be adopted. She was met by the lady responsible for the adoption arrangements and taken into another room. Our friends heard a muffled conversation and a few minutes later footsteps on the stairs as the young mother left. They heard her convulsive sobbing until the front door of the office was closed. Then, there was silence.

The lady in charge then conducted them next door. In a little crib was a six week old baby boy. On a chair beside it was a brown paper bag containing a change of clothes and two letters. One of these, addressed to the new parents, thanked them for providing a home for her baby and acknowledged that under the terms of the adoption each would never know the other's identity. Then the young mother added one request. Would they allow her little son to read the other letter on his eighteenth birthday? She assured them that she had not included any information about her identity. The couple entrusted that letter to a lawyer and one day the young man will read the message which his mother wrote on the day, when with breaking heart, she parted with him.

I wonder what she wrote? If I had to condense all I feel about life and love into a few precious words what would I say? I would have no time for trivia. I would not be concerned about economics, politics, the weather, the size of house or the type of car. At such a time I would want to dwell on the profundities, on what life was all about and what things were absolutely essential. 

John in the desert was in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He was aware that time was running out. In his burning message he had no time for peripheral matters. He was not playing Trivial Pursuit nor was he prepared to splash about in the shallows. Soon the sword of Herod's guard would flash and his tongue would lie silent in the grave...
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4.     A few years ago, when Etsy and Ebay were first battling it out, an Ebay commercial urged people to buy Christmas gifts on its website. It started off with comedian Jim Gaffigan saying something like "Hand-made gifts for Christmas? Who wants that?" Then he mentioned all the "it" gifts you can buy on Ebay (electronics, sports equipment, etc). The commercial ends with Gaffigan holding a pair of hand-knitted mittens, smelling them, wrinkling up his nose and saying . . . "Smells like church."
The online discussion that followed showed widespread indignation. How could Ebay do this . . . to Etsy? How could Ebay mock and make fun of . . . the homemade, the homespun, the handmade tradition of gifts? People were offended by Ebay's slam on homemade items. Only a couple registered displeasure at the slam on the church.

Welcome to the 21st century.  

Every year there is the "it" gift - the big score, big cheese, the big dog goodie that is sought out and sold out long before Christmas Eve. The "it" gift is, of course, age-related, although increasingly it seems that the greatest wish lists of ten year olds, thirty year olds, sixty year olds, and eighty year olds, have a lot more in common than not.  

[Note: If you can find any of these and hold them up for everyone to see, or get their owners to hold them up before the congregation, so much the better.]

 The "it" gift in 1929 was a "Yo-Yo" - high tech for its time.

In 1943 the must have toy was a strange doo-dad called a "slinky."

Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, at Christmas we were greedy for gifts of the stuffed animal, dolls, action-figures variety: Cabbage Patch dolls and Care Bears, Elmo ("Tickle Me," "Live," or "Let's Rock"). Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles headed the list. 

But the Barbie (1959) and BMX Bike (1982) eras have long been replaced by a wish list that is governed by microchips. Ever since the appearance of the Game Boy in 1989, electronic gadgets and games and gizmos have dominated the "it" list of must have gifts. 

This year "kids" of all ages want the Apple Mac Book Air, the iPhone 5s, the Xbox-One, a Kindle Fire, or Play Station 4.

When you look back on Christmases past, what were your best gifts? Were they any of those "it" gifts from childhoods past? Do you really think that any of this year's 2013 "it" gifts will be remembered in the future as your "best gift ever?"  
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5.     Are You Swapping Heaven?

 The great old evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, used to tell a legend about a beautiful swan that alighted one day by the banks of the water in which a crane was wading about seeking snails. For a few moments the crane viewed the swan in stupid wonder and then inquired:

"Where do you come from?"
"I come from heaven!" replied the swan.
"And where is heaven?" asked the crane.
"Heaven!" said the swan, "Heaven! have you never heard of heaven?" And the beautiful bird went on to describe the grandeur of the Eternal City. She told of streets of gold, and the gates and walls made of precious stones; of the river of life, pure as crystal, upon whose banks is the tree whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations. In eloquent terms the swan sought to describe the hosts who live in the other world, but without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the crane.

Finally the crane asked: "Are there any snails there?"
"Snails!" repeated the swan, "No! Of course there are not."
"Then," said the crane, as it continued its search along the slimy banks of the pool, "you can have your heaven. I want snails!"
"This fable," said Moody, "has a deep truth underlying it. How many a young person to whom God has granted the advantages of a Christian home, has turned his back upon it and searched for snails! How many a man will sacrifice his wife, his family, his all, for the snails of sin! How many a girl has deliberately turned from the love of parents and home to learn too late that heaven has been forfeited for snails!"

Moody spoke those words a century ago, but people are still swapping heaven for snails. How about you? John the Baptist's words are for each of us: Are there some changes that need to be made in your life?

Moody's Anecdotes, Page 125-126, adapted by King Duncan
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6.     It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Snoopy of Charlie Brown comic strip fame is typing a novel. He begins his story, "It was a dark and stormy night ..." Snoopy always starts his stories in this manner. Lucy looks at what Snoopy has written. She goes into a tirade, putting down Snoopy for such a silly beginning. Doesn't Snoopy know that any good story starts with the words, "Once upon a time ..."

The last frame of the comic strip has Snoopy starting his story again. Now he is ready. He types, "Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night." Do you feel like Snoopy sometimes? No matter how you begin your story you somehow revert to "a dark and stormy night." If you feel that way today you are not alone. Most of us are struggling in one way or another to overcome the dark side of our existence.

The Advent season leading to Christmas should be a time of joy, anticipation and hope. But, the very fact that it is supposed to be such an upbeat time only compounds the problem.

Richard A. Hasler, Empowered by the Light, CSS Publishing Company
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7.     I Will Be There

In her wonderful children's picture book "We Were There: A Nativity Story," Eve Bunting (illustrator: Wendell Minor) turns Christmas upside down for us in ways that are revealing.

The simple story shows us first a slithering snake, then a warty toad, a scary scorpion, a shiny cockroach, a swooping bat, a hairy spider, and a furry rat all on a journey. Each creature introduces itself and then concludes with the words "I will be there."

As the book ends we are shown more common nativity creatures: fuzzy lambs, doe-eyed donkeys, gentle cows. But as those traditional figures in the stable stand around the manger in which the Babe has been laid by his mother Mary, we see in the corner, unnoticed, that small gathering of the snake, toad, scorpion, cockroach, bat, spider, and rat.

Bunting has found a lyric way to remind us that the coming of the Christ is not all about the traditional and cozy trappings in which we have for too long ensconced the Christmas story but that this is a story for all creatures and that Jesus came to embrace and renew the good, the bad, the ugly; the expected and the unexpected.

A simple children's story like this reminds us of the paradoxes and unexpected twists of the season, rather the way John the Baptist can shake things up for us if only we take time to listen to his message.


Scott Hoezee, Comments and Observations
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8.     We Need John

When our children were small, a nice church lady named Chris made them a child-friendly crèche. All the actors in this stable drama are soft and squishy and durable - perfect to touch and rearrange - or toss across the living room in a fit of toddler frenzy. The Joseph character has always been my favorite because he looks a little wild - red yarn spiking out from his head, giving him an odd look of energy. In fact, I have renamed this character John the Baptist and in my mind substituted one of the innocuous shepherds for the more staid and solid Joseph. Why this invention? Because, over the years, I have decided that without the disconcerting presence of John lurking in the shadows of our manger scenes, the Jesus story is mush - nothing but child's play, lulling us into sleepy sentimentality.

Susan R. Andrews, Sermons for Sundays: In Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany: The Offense of Grace, CSS Publishing Company
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9.     The King Is Coming

Can you imagine complete silence? It's hard to in our culture today in which televisions, radios, etc. are constantly blaring. But in this morning's text a silence of 400 years is broken. Don't misunderstand me, not everyone was silent during this period. Women and men were talking.. Boys and girls were talking. But there was no prophet speaking the Word of the LORD. No one was truthfully saying, "Thus says the LORD..."

In reality two silences are broken in this morning's text. For one, the 400 year period without a Word from God and for another, a gap of approximately 30 years in the life of Jesus. Matthew skips directly from his birth and infancy narrative to an event that occurs approximately 30 years later: the ministry of John the Baptist. Both of these silences are broken by the sound of a voice.

The voice which breaks the silence is the voice of John the Baptist, who may rightly be called the last of the Old Testament Prophets. He is functioning as a Herald by announcing the coming of the King. In the ancient world, a herald was one who went ahead of a king's chariot to prepare the road. He would command a crew which would smooth out the usually rough roads of that day by filling potholes and removing boulders. The herald would also go before the king shouting, "Make way, the King is coming!" One commentator noted that such "efforts to make a road level and smooth were restricted to times when royalty was on its way" (Robert Mounce, Matthew NIBC, 23).

This was the function of John the Baptist.

Steve Weaver, The Herald of the King
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10.  Time to Prepare

Christmas season. A time of preparation. Most Americans prepare for the holidays with lights and gifts, cards and good cheer. But the Church reminds us to prepare spiritually. What does that mean? In Matthew's gospel, John the Baptist gave us a direction. Matthew's gospel presented the Baptist in the context of prophecy about him, his arena and audience, his place in the religious pecking order, and his reason for preaching.

Larry Broding, Spiritual Preparation
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11.  Taking the Fun Out of Christmas

We prepare for Christmas by repenting. Repenting in the Biblical sense is more than having a change of heart or a feeling of regret. It is more than a New Year's Eve resolution. Repentance is a turning away and a turning back. A turning away from sin and a turning back to God.

Bishop Joe Pennel of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, once attended a Christmas worship service in Bethlehem at a place called Shepherd's Field. As he heard the songs of the season, he thought to himself and later wrote: "I did not look to God and say: See how virtuous I am. I did not utter: God, pat me on the back for all of the good things I have done. I did not pretend by saying: God, look at all of my accomplishments, aren't you proud of me? Indeed, I found myself asking God to forgive me of my sins. That is how it works. The more we turn away from Christ the more enslaved we become to the power of sin. The more we turn to Christ, the more free we become from the bondage of sin. Turning toward Christ enables us to repent."

Someone once said half jokingly: If we are not careful, John the Baptist can take all of the fun out of Christmas. I disagree. I think that it is John's message that puts the joy into Christmas. For it is his message that calls us not to the way that Christmas is, but that the way Christmas ought to be. Christmas ought to be free from guilt and self-absorption. For that to occur there must be repentance.

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12.  Recognizing our Need to Repent

One critic said he had gone to many churches and heard the preacher say, "Don't try to impress God with your works" or "Don't attempt to please God with your merits" or "Don't try to keep the rules and regulations and thus win your way." He looked around at nearly slumbering collections of utterly casual Christians and wondered, "Who's trying?"

Martin Marty
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13.  What the Future Holds 

Have you seen ancient maps of unexplored portions of the world? Maps that portrayed the prevailing ideas of what lay beyond, the unexplored lands and the uncrossed seas? Maps from before the adventures of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan? How grotesquely inaccurate those maps were! How vastly they differed from what the explorer eventually found! How fantastic were the notions the ancients had about what was out there - a dropping-off-place, mammoth sea serpents to swallow up ships. But as things turned out, it wasn't that way at all. You know, if Columbus had believed half the maps and legends of his time he would never have lifted an anchor!

Well, we are all traveling into the unexplored land, and we ought to be careful how we map it until we've traveled there. Certainly we shouldn't let the future do things to us it never meant to do. It is my faith that the future means to be friendly; and I don't think we ought to treat it as an enemy. If we do, and start in to do battle with it, I can tell you this: it's a battle we can never win. Let's not suspect it of standing over us with a club waiting for a chance to clobber us into the ground, or of lurking in the shadows to pounce upon us around the next dark corner...
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From Father Tony Kadavil's Collection:

1: Accept divine forgiveness by true repentance: An attempt was made in 1985 by some fans of O. Henry, the short-story writer, to get a pardon for their hero who had been convicted a century before of embezzling $784.08 from the bank where he was employed. But a pardon cannot be given to a dead man. A pardon can only be given to someone who can accept it. Back in 1830 George Wilson was convicted of robbing the U.S. Mail and was sentenced to be hanged. President Andrew Jackson issued a pardon for Wilson, but he refused to accept it. The matter went to Chief Justice Marshall who concluded that Wilson would have to be executed. "A pardon is a slip of paper," wrote Marshall, "the value of which is determined by the acceptance of the person to be pardoned. If it is refused, it is no pardon. Hence, George Wilson must be hanged." For some, the pardon comes too late. For others, the pardon is not accepted. Today’s readings remind us that the Advent is the acceptable time for repentance and the acceptance of God’s pardon and renewal of life.

2: John’s invitation is to practice the octopus evangelism of mega-churches as opposed to the sponge evangelism of traditional churches: Most traditional churches are pretty good about sponge evangelism. We soak up visiting folks with warm welcome, ushers offer them seats of their choice, many members greet them with miles of smiles. But octopus evangelism of mega-churches is something else. It means reaching, stretching, finding, touching, drawing in those who are in need of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ and may not have even realized it yet. Mega-churches are growing, not primarily because of their programming or preaching, buildings, video screens or cute, thirty-something pastors. They are growing primarily because members are actively inviting others to join them in worship. Eighty percent of all first-time visitors to a church come because a friend or neighbor invited them. It's the active verb...inviting, reaching, gathering...which makes all the difference. A mega-church is a non-denominational, Bible-centered Christian congregation that draws thousands of people to its weekly services. The phenomenon started about thirty years ago as a way to bring people back to the basics of Christianity - a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You may have heard of Rick Warren, pastor of a mega-church in southern California whose book, The Purpose-Driven Life, has over 20 million copies in print. You may also have heard of Joel Osteen, author of two national bestsellers, who runs a mega-church in Houston, Texas that attracts 38,000 people to its Sunday services and 200 million households to its television broadcasts. You may even have heard of Bill Hybels [HIGH-bills], the founder of what many consider the first mega-church ever - Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago, Illinois – that currently has more than 100 ministries operating out of its home base. These are just some of the better known mega-church leaders, but mega-churches are springing up throughout North America, and they are even sending missionaries abroad. One little known fact about these mega-churches is that more than 25% of their members are former Catholics whom nobody in their former parishes actively invited to the liturgical celebrations and whom nobody involved in various church ministries. 

3: The artist’s reconciliation: Leonardo da Vinci painted the fresco (wall painting), "The Last Supper," in Santa Maria delle Grazie  church in Milan in three years (1495-1498). A very interesting story is associated with this painting. At the time that Leonardo da Vinci painted "The Last Supper," he had an enemy who was a fellow-painter. Da Vinci had had a bitter argument with this man and despised him. When Da Vinci painted the face of Judas Iscariot at the table with Jesus, he used the face of his enemy so that it would be present for ages as the man who betrayed Jesus. While painting this picture, he took delight in knowing that others would actually notice the face of his enemy on Judas. As he worked on the faces of the other disciples, he often tried to paint the face of Jesus but couldn't make any progress. Da Vinci felt frustrated and confused. In time, he realized what was wrong. His hatred for the other painter was holding him back from finishing the face of Jesus. Only after making peace with his fellow-painter and repainting the face of Judas was he able to paint the face of Jesus and complete his masterpiece. Be reconciled with your fellow human beings, says today's Gospel. (http://www.lifeinitaly.com/art/last-supper.asp)

4: Waiting for the Lord to be reborn in our lives: Waiting, an inevitable and even necessary aspect of human life, is not something that most of us relish. We wait in lines: in order to purchase groceries; to be served at popular restaurants; to be assisted in a bank; at stop signs and traffic signals; at amusement parks; to see a play or film. We must also wait for flowers to grow and bloom; for babies to be born; for wounds to heal; for bread to rise and cheese to age; for children to mature; for friends to call; for love to deepen. Statisticians have estimated that in a lifetime of 70 years, the average person spends at least three years waiting! Today’s readings invite us to wait for the rebirth of the Lord in our lives with repentant hearts and renewed lives.