Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 22, 2013
Is 7:10-14, Ps 24, Rom 1:1-7, Mt 1:18-24
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here:
This was the written text that guided the homily:
Lifting High Our Gates
We are three days before Christmas and the response that the Church is trying to provoke in us is encapsulated, as it normally is, by the Responsorial Psalm. “Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.” Throughout this Psalm 24, it takes about raising gates: “Lift up your heads, O gates; rise up, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter.” This points to the fact that the gates of the Temple of Jerusalem were too small to permit the entrance of the Ark of the Covenant, which was interpreted at the time as if the people in Jerusalem were not yet ready to receive God into their temple. And as we prepare for the great feast of the Lord in three days, the Church is seeking to make us ready to welcome the Savior. Many times we only open ourselves up a little to receive God. The Psalm today is exhorting us not to hold back, but to open ourselves totally to accept God as he comes. The two great ways that he wants to come to us at Christmas are shown in the two names given to us by God himself by which we are to refer to him. Like any name, it allows us to be able to call upon the Son of God and have a personal relationship with him. And these two names help us to ground our relationship with him on what he seeks to do in us.
The first name we encounter is Emmanuel. There’s a dramatic scene in today’s first reading. Isaiah the prophet goes to see King Ahaz of Judah during the time when the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, is being sieged by the kingdoms of Israel (Ephraim) and Syria. Ahaz is about to make an alliance with the brutal kingdom of Assyria so that the Assyrians will come to liberate Jerusalem. Isaiah goes to Ahaz to tell him not to seal that Alliance, but to have more trust in God than in the King of Assyria. Ahaz doesn’t want to listen to God’s word through the prophet, instead seeking lots of other prophets to tell him what he wants to hear. That’s why God tells Ahaz through Isaiah to ask for a sign as “deep as the netherworld or high as the sky.” All of a sudden Ahaz, who has been presumptuously tempting the Lord through preparing to make this alliance, gets religion. “I will not ask!,” he replies. “I will not tempt the Lord!” He didn’t want to ask for a sign because then once it would be granted it would be much more difficult for him to ignore what the Lord was telling him. After complaining that Ahaz was now wearying God just like he was wearying his people, Isaiah told him that God would give him this sign: “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel.”
That sign was not altogether remarkable. On the surface it seemed anything but an extraordinary miracle as high as the sky or as deep as the netherworld. It’s not particularly rare that a virgin conceives a child. Throughout the centuries, there have been many children have been conceived on honeymoons, the first time a virginal wife makes love with her husband. The sign value for Ahaz would be more in the name given to that child: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” That child would be a sign that God is on the house of Judah’s side, that we don’t have to act as if God has left us alone. We don’t know whether there was an immediate first fulfillment of this prophecy: some scholars have said it was Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, but Hezekiah was already not only conceived but nine years old by this point; others that it might refer to one of Isaiah’s children, but Isaiah’s wife had already conceived several children by this point. But regardless of that, Ahaz did what he was determined to do. He ignored God’s counsel through the prophet and formed the alliance with the King of Assyria. After liberating Jerusalem from the kingdoms of Israel and Syria, Assyria made Judah a vassal kingdom, sieged Jerusalem himself, and after Assyria was defeated by the Babylonians, the Babylonians took possession of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, murdered many residents and transported those who survived off as slaves.
The true and definitive fulfillment of the sign given to Ahaz, however, we see in today’s Gospel. Seven centuries later, in describing the miraculous events of Jesus’ conception and birth, St. Matthew wrote, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God-is-with-us.” From the time the prophecy had been given, it was always linked to the coming of the Messiah, because a short time later in Isaiah, there’s the description of a “child born to us, a son given to us,” who would have dominion on his shoulder and be called by others “Wonder-counselor, God-hero, Father-forever, and Prince of Peace.” But they never fathomed that the fulfillment would be anything more than a sign of the God who bears all of those attributes, that God would literally fulfill that prophecy in two ways: that a virgin would conceive a child and remain a virgin; and that “God-with-us” would actually be God with us, that God would take on our nature and come to abide with us, that he would be “descended from David according to the flesh” (today’s second reading) and the very Son of God. The fulfillment of this prophecy would not just be a sign that God was on their side but actually the signified presence of God at their side. This would make the sign announced by Isaiah a sign for all times. We’re tempted, like Ahaz, to go through life as if God is not really there for us, as if he is not really present. But God has given this enduring sign that even when we’re experiencing tremendous human difficulty, we’re never abandoned.
Pope Francis on the meaning of Christmas
Speaking this week to a huge crowd assembled for his Wednesday audience, Pope Francis said that because God has chosen to give us this sign, Christmas is a “feast of trust and hope that overcomes uncertainty and pessimism,” no matter the size of our problems. “The reason for our hope is this,” Pope Francis continued. “God is with us and God still trusts us! Think well on this: God is with us and God still trusts us. … He comes to abide with mankind, he chooses earth as his dwelling place to remain with people and to be found where man passes his days in joy or in sorrow. Therefore, earth is no longer only ‘a valley of tears’; rather, it is the place where God himself has pitched his tent, it is the meeting place of God with man, of God’s solidarity with men.”
“God,” he went on, “willed to share in our human condition to the point of becoming one with us in the Person of Jesus, who is true Man and true God. There is something, however, even more surprising. The presence of God among men did not take place in a perfect, idyllic world but rather in this real world, which is marked by so many things both good and bad, by division, wickedness, poverty, arrogance and war. He chose to live in our history as it is, with all the weight of its limitations and of its tragedies. In doing so, he has demonstrated in an unequalled manner his merciful and truly loving disposition toward the human creature. He is God-with-us. Jesus is God-with-us.”
Then Pope Francis stopped his audience, as he frequently does, to make sure that what he was saying wouldn’t remain just words. “Credete questo, voi?,” he asked. “Do you believe this?” There was a smattering of “Si’s,” or “yes.” He asked again, “Credete questo, voi?” There was a much louder response. But that’s a question Pope Francis wants to reverberate around the Christian world, including to all of us here. “Do you believe that Jesus is with you, in your real world, in all your joys and sadness, in your triumphs and disappointments? Do you believe that he has come to meet you in your valleys to raise you up to life eternal?” After he asked the crowd whether they believed, Pope Francis led them in an act of faith. “Together let us profess,” he said, “Gesù è Dio con noi. Gesù è Dio con noi!” “Jesus is God with us! Jesus is God with us always and for ever with us in history’s suffering and sorrow.” Yes, indeed, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and that is why Christmas is such a feast of trust and hope that is meant to overcome every Ahaz’s and our uncertainty and pessimism!
Acting on our faith in God-with-us in a Eucharistic life
We are called to lift high our gates to let Emmanuel, God-with-us, to enter and be with us full-time. Jesus of course is with us in many ways — through creation, through grace, through Sacred Scripture, through his image in others, through those he ordained to act in his very person, through his mystical body, the Church. But there is one way above all others by which Christ remains with us, and we have to confront with joy the practical consequences of this as we approach Christmas. Jesus is truly and substantially present for us in his body and blood. The Eucharist is Emmanuel, God-with-us. The same God who was in Mary’s womb we receive in our bodies at Holy Communion. The same Jesus whom the wise men traveled such great distances over several months to adore we have the same privilege to worship — and all we have to do is hop in our cars and drive short distances. The question is whether we take that presence of Jesus as seriously as they did, or whether we take it for granted.
Last week, Fr. Larry Villone came from Nebraska to preach to us about perpetual Eucharistic adoration which we are trying to begin here at our parish. I know that some of you were not present because of the snow we had and so I’ve printed a transcript of his homily in the bulletin so that you can hear what he was saying on behalf of the Lord and respond just like those at Mass last week did by signing up to spend an hour with Jesus each week, at whatever time is most convenient to you. The most moving part of Fr. Larry’s homily for me was when he very deliberately communicated what our arranging our schedules to spend at least an hour with Jesus each week in heart-to-prayer prayerful adoration says about us. By doing so, he stated, “we witness and acknowledge to the world that we… really … believe … that … He … is… here!”
Being able to be with Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is the greatest privilege this side of heaven, when we have the chance to do something that those present in Bethlehem couldn’t even dream of. They were able to worship the God-man on the “outside,” in the stable. We have the chance not only to do that before the same Jesus in the Holy Eucharist but also to receive and adore him on the inside. Jesus established the sacrament of the Eucharist so that he who is God-with-us could be with us in a communion of love. But do we respond to this unbelievable love of God-with-us? The Church says that God-with-us in the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” the beginning and the end of any existence that is truly Christian. If we truly believe that God-is-with-us in the Eucharist, both on the altar and in the tabernacle, then our weekly and even daily schedules will bear witness to it.
I think all of us here, if we were present 2,000 years ago around Bethlehem, would have rearranged our priorities to go to the manger where Jesus was surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Magi and angels. The same Jesus who was there then is here now. He’s present in the tabernacle. We have a change to adore and receive him at Mass every day. From heaven, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men, all look down with loving adoration for God-with-us in our midst. The joy we will experience at Christmas is directly dependent upon whether we strive to come to be with God who did so much and became so humble to be with us. That’s the first name, Emmanuel, and our call to lift high our gates to let him enter our lives much more fully in his Eucharistic presence so that we may live truly a Eucharistic life.
Pope Francis said on Wednesday that there is a clear purpose to God’s presence, and that leads us to the second name of the Son of God that we need to ponder. “The Birth of Jesus,” Pope Francis said, “reveals that God ‘sided’ with man once and for all, to save us, to raise us from the dust of our misery, from our difficulty, from our sins.” God-with-us doesn’t come among us to leave us where he finds us. He has come to lift us up, literally to raise us from the dead, not just later after our funeral is celebrated by right now. He was born so that we might be reborn and live a new life with him. This is attested to in the name the angel tells St. Joseph to give to the son of Mary: “You are to name him Jesus.”
This name, Jesus (the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua) means “God saves,” and the angel tells Joseph quite clearly what God through this infant will save the Jews from: “He will save his people from their sins.” God-is-with-us, therefore, for the purpose of saving-us-from-our sins. The Son of God didn’t become God-with-us merely to “hang with us,” as the teenage colloquialism goes, but to hang for us. He took upon our human nature so that he could give that nature as expiation for our sins. And this is something that is constantly present tense. Emmanuel means “God is with us,” not “God was with us.” Jesus means “God saves,” not “God saved.” Not only does the name Jesus interpret the name Emmanuel, but the name Jesus also makes possible Emmanuel, because Jesus saved us from our sins so that we could be much more fully with him who came to be with us. Our sins prevent communion with God and hence Jesus, in coming to save us from them, was making possible the fulfillment of the prophetic name Emmanuel. Our sharing in the mystery and joy of Christmas, therefore, depends on whether we enter in the present into this saving, forgiving presence.
Living our faith in God’s saving presence
So we’re called this Advent to lift up our gates to allow our Merciful Redeemer in. As I’ve been stressing throughout Advent, Jesus founded a sacrament on Easter Sunday evening to save us from all the sins we’ve committed after baptism, but we need to respond to that offer of saving love. So many Catholics have been given that divine gift but leave it as an unopened package in the corners of their lives. That’s one of the reasons why their celebration of Christmas isn’t nearly as joyful as God wants it to be. Our appreciation for Jesus’ coming into the world is directly dependent on whether we realize we need him — that we’re sinners in need of so great a savior.
Jesus is like the world’s greatest oncologist walking into a cancer ward. The path to healing is for each patient to allow the doctor to treat him and seek to heal him. This may involve surgery, or chemo, or radiation. In a similar way, we need to allow the divine physician to operate on us in the confessional and then to follow his instructions to eliminate the various carcinogens that put our life in danger. Jesus, who created us without our will, won’t save us against our will. Each of us must recognize that need for salvation and come to receive it in the way that Jesus himself set it up.
Two weeks ago, I moved the beautiful statue of our patroness from beside the tabernacle as a sign that she’s constantly praying for us before the Lord to beside the confessionals, as an indication that she’s begging the Lord for the grace that we might receive his saving mercy this Advent. If you haven’t yet made a good confession this Advent, please know that St. Bernadette is continuing to pray for you, that you will not be afraid to come to receive what Christ came in the world to give you. Don’t let St. Bernadette’s prayers go in vain. The divine physician, through two of his priests, will be seeing his patients again tomorrow night at 6 pm. Our Christmas joy will be directly proportional to our realization of Jesus as savior and our reception of Jesus as savior.
God’s excessive generosity
As we prepare for Christmas, it’s not only a time to prepare gifts for others as a tangible expression of our Christian love for them. It’s also a time when we focus most on the gift God wants to give us and prepare ourselves to give him a gift in return. What gift does the divine Birthday Boy want from us? He doesn’t need anything material — after all, he created the heavens and the earth. He wants from us whatever part of us we haven’t yet given to him. He wants us to receive the two great gifts that he established for us and our salvation, the two gifts corresponding to his two names: the gift of his presence in the Holy Eucharist (Emmanuel, God-with-us) and the gift of his saving forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Jesus, God-saves).
At this time when kids are finalizing lists for Santa Claus, every one of us should ponder what should top our list for God. In the first reading, God through Isaiah told Ahaz, “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God: let it be deep as the netherworld or high as the sky!” If we were given by God that same privilege, what would we request?
The patron saint of priests, St. John Vianney, pondered that question during his catecheses with his people. He said that if we asked God for what we wished for in our dreams, even our dreams would fall short of what God has actually given. And the two things that the holy Curé of Ars talked about correspond to the two ways we’re being called to lift high our gates to allow Jesus-Emmanuel to enter.
About the Sacrament of Penance, St. John Vianney said, “My children, we cannot comprehend the goodness of God towards us in instituting this great Sacrament of Penance. If we had had one favor to ask of our Lord, we should never have thought of asking him [to have his Son to take away our sins]. But he foresaw our frailty and our inconstancy in well-doing, and his love led him to do what we should not have dared to ask.”
And about the Holy Eucharist, he added: “We would never have thought of asking God for his own Son. But what man couldn’t say or conceive, what he never would have dared desire, God in his love has said, conceived and done. We would never have dared to say to God to have his Son die for us, to give us his body to eat, his blood to drink. Since all this is true, however, man cannot imagine the things that God will do. He went further in his designs of love than we could have dreamed.”
As we prepare for Christmas, we’re preparing for God’s gift of himself in ways that would have exceeded anything we would have ever asked. He didn’t give us a sign in response to our yearnings, but he gave us a sacrament, a sign he instituted to bring about what the sign indicates: God’s presence with us in all our difficulties in the Eucharist and God’s saving us from our sins in Confession. Let us ask the Lord for the grace as we prepare for Christmas to lift up our gates to receive these gifts with faith and to be strengthened by him to help others lift their gates high as well. This is the real, enduring meaning of Christmas! Credete questo, voi?
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
PS 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness;
the world and those who dwell in it.
For he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?
or who may stand in his holy place?
One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
who desires not what is vain.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
He shall receive a blessing from the LORD,
a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks for him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,
called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God,
which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh,
but established as Son of God in power
according to the Spirit of holiness
through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Through him we have received the grace of apostleship,
to bring about the obedience of faith,
for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,
among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;
to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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 conceive 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.