God-saves Coming to Save Us With Outstretched Arms, December 18, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
December 18 Mass
December 18, 2014
Jer 23:5-8, Ps 72, Mt 1:18-25

(Today’s homily was not recorded) 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today’s O Antiphon influences how we’re supposed to live this day of Advent longing and how we’re supposed to hear and receive the Word of God announced to us in Mass. The Latin is O Adonai et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachia extento, which is literally translated, “O Lord and Leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come to redeem us with outstretched arm!”
  • We ponder here how the God is both “leader of the house of Israel” and “God,” which means not just of Israel but of everyone, pointing to how Jesus came to redeem not merely the Jews but all nations. We remember how this God revealed himself as Lord of all to Moses in the burning bush, identifying himself as “I am who am” (Yahweh in Hebrew), the one gives existence to every creature. We also know how he specially blessed the Jews with the Covenant on Mt. Sinai featuring the commandments. Therefore, we turn to him, both Jews and non-Jews, and we ask him to redeem us with his outstretched arm. The image is of someone saving us from falling off a cliff, or reaching in to the water to pull us up as we’re drowning. And the three-fold way the antiphon implies he will save us is through prayer (dialogue with God as seen in the burning bush), the moral life (shown in the commandments which train us to love), and ultimately the Cross (when Jesus stretched forth his arms to save us).
  • These thoughts help us to approach the real drama contained in the readings. In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah describes how the Lord has declared that he will raise up a “righteous shoot” to David. “In his days,” Jeremiah says, “Judah will be saved.” Just as God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, so he would redeem Israel again from the “lands of the north,” which refers not only to Assyria and Babylon to which many of the Jews were forcibly brought after conquering Israel, but much more broadly to those in other lands, since with the exception of Egypt, most of the other known inhabitants were located north of the Holy Land. Likewise in the Gospel, when the Angel reveals what St. Joseph is to call Mary’s son, he says that the child will be called “Jesus,” which means “God saves,” precisely because “he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus was coming to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, in order to save us. He was coming to rescue us at the last second with outstretched arms, as if we were hanging for dear life off the roof of a tall building.
  • This point about salvation is really important. To relate to Jesus means to relate to him as Savior of our sins. Whenever we call upon his name, we’re remembering our need for salvation. We can’t truly call out to him in prayer unless we are remembering who he is. To say the name “Jesus” is to say, “God who saves.” Many times since Pope Francis’ election people have come up to me to tell me, when I’m in airports, in stores, even at sporting events, that they really love Pope Francis. When I have a chance to chat with him, I try to engage them in conversation like Jesus engaged the Rich Young Man. I ask them what they like about him, and they’ll say various things that have impressed them. But then I’ll often ask, “Do you like him enough to do the one thing he’s asking everyone in the world to do?” They’ll often look quizzically and say, “What’s that, Father?” I’ll reply, “He’s constantly preaching about God’s mercy, saying God never tires of forgiving us even though we tire of asking for forgiveness.” Then I’ll get to the punch line, which I’ll say with a tender exclamation point: “So if you really love Pope Francis and think that he is truly a man of God, I’d encourage you to do what he’s asking all of us to do and to come to approach God to receive his mercy!” To relate appropriately to Pope Francis, we need to see him as the Vicar of God-who-saves-us-from-our-sins. To relate to any priest, we should see him as someone acts in the person of God-who-saves-us-from-our-sins. That’s the first point from today’s readings seen within the context of today’s O Antiphon. Unless we know that we’re sinners in need of a savior, unless we recognize that we’re like people drowning in the middle of the ocean who put out an SOS for the Coast Guard to come to rescue, we don’t really grasp who Jesus is, who we are, and how much he has shown his love in giving his life to save us from death.
  • The second point from today’s O Antiphon and readings is that this redemption “with outstretched arm” doesn’t mean that we will just be pulled to safety and live peacefully and happily ever after. The redemption will cost us. We will need to trust in our Savior. We will need to cooperate with this plan of salvation. We see that in today’s Gospel in the suffering of Mary and Joseph. As soon as Mary had received the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel saying that she would become the mother of the Son of God, she “went with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth and care for her at least for three months through the end of her pregnancy and likely for a few months afterward. Despite much Christian art to the contrary, it’s highly unlikely that St. Joseph accompanied her, because that would mean he would give up his carpentry work at the very time he was supposed to be working to provide a home for both of them so that they could begin to live together. (In Jewish matrimonial customs, a couple was first engaged, then they expressed consent before a rabbi or priest and were married, but they wouldn’t live together for at least another year or so until the husband had earned enough money for their cohabitation and for their eight-day wedding reception. This time between the betrothal [marriage] and their “living together” was precisely the time when Gabriel appeared). So Mary almost certainly didn’t travel with Joseph, but likely traveled with others from her village who were making the 60 mile trek to Jerusalem, since Ein Karim, where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived was only a couple of miles beyond that down hill. When she returned three to six months later, Joseph would have been shocked to see that Mary was very pregnant with child. We can only imagine the sense of betrayal he would have initially felt as he would have thought she must have become pregnant while she was away. Doubtless they talked about it. Joseph naturally would have been as slow to believe the story that his wife was actually still a virgin — that she was not impregnated by a man at all, but that God had sent an angel to announce that the Holy Spirit would impregnate her — as you would be if your daughter or granddaughter came home and told you the same reason for why she was now pregnant. St. Matthew tells us that St. Joseph was a “righteous man,” he was a man who lived by the law, but he was at the same time unwilling to expose her to shame or the penalty for adultery which would be death by stoning. So he decided to divorce her quietly, which was a response of justice and mercy. That’s when an angel appeared to him in a dream and confirmed for him that what Mary had told him was true.
  • What’s the point? Precisely this: When the long awaited Adonai and Leader of the House of Israel came into our world to save us, he didn’t make everything tranquil. He disturbed. He made things terribly inconvenient for Mary and for Joseph. What he asked of them made them suffer. Salvation wasn’t easy. It was going to involve their sacrifices, their misunderstandings and being misunderstood, their leaving their homes, their escaping to Egypt, their having their own hearts pierced with spiritual swords and so much more. And that’s a truth that all of us have to grasp. When Mary’s Son eventually grew up and began preaching — even though he was the Prince of Peace, even though the angels at his birth had proclaimed “peace on earth to people on whom his favor rests” — he said that he had come not to bring peace but the sword and from now on houses and families would be divided, three against two and two against three (Lk 12:52). He was going to bring difficulty. Salvation is messy and the Savior will involve us in his messy messianic work.
  • So as we get ready to celebrate Christmas, we shouldn’t anticipate that we’re in for an easy ride. We may have to struggle with bosses who want us to put work above faith and family. We may have to struggle with family members, who want to turn Christmas into a commercial holiday focused on receiving gifts rather than the great Gift of God and making ourselves gifts to Him. We may be called to be inconvenienced for Christ, by getting up in the middle of the night for Midnight Mass, by volunteering to help out with something at Church or in our families, by covering for someone so that that person can celebrate faithfully with his or her family. But we need to be ready, as we’re saved with outstretched arms, to stretch out our arms in love toward God and toward others. We need to get ready to struggle to make the time to talk with God not in a burning bush but in a Monstrance or Tabernacle. We need to battle to live by the commandments at all times, which are summarized by our loving God with all we’ve got and loving our neighbor as God loves us.
  • In a few minutes, as soon God-with-us-to-save-us-from-our-sins appears on this altar, we will proclaim the mystery of faith. We will turn to him and say, “Save us, Savior of the world!” The redemption we long for and pray for is actually fulfilled here at every Mass. Today as we proclaim that great mystery, let us recommit ourselves to our prayer, to our living the covenant by keeping his commandments of love, and by stretching out our hands to him who stretches his out to us and through us to a world very much still in need of redemption!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JER 23:5-8

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David;
As king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah shall be saved,
Israel shall dwell in security.
This is the name they give him:
“The LORD our justice.”Therefore, the days will come, says the LORD,
when they shall no longer say, “As the LORD lives,
who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt”;
but rather, “As the LORD lives,
who brought the descendants of the house of Israel
up from the land of the north”–
and from all the lands to which I banished them;
they shall again live on their own land.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 72:1-2, 12-13, 18-19

R. (see 7) Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king’s son;
He shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.
R. Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.
For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out,
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save.
R. Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous deeds.
And blessed forever be his glorious name;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
R. Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.

Gospel
MT 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill
what the Lord had said through the prophet:Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son,
and he named him Jesus.