The Comfort and Consolation of Christ’s Coming in the Sacraments, Second Tuesday of Advent, December 9, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Immaculate Conception Parish, Westerly, RI
Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent
Memorial of St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin
35th Anniversary of the Death of the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Sung Mass for the Members of Westerly/Pawcatuck Circle of St. Thérèse
December 9, 2014
Is 40:1-11, Ps 96, Mt 18:12-14

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

 

The following text guided the homily: 

Advent Dynamism

Advent is a season in which there’s a double-dynamism. We focus on Christ’s coming to us in history, mystery and majesty — history in his incarnation, his birth in Bethlehem, his life, passion, death and Resurrection; mystery in his Word, in events, in others and most especially in the Sacraments; and majesty when he comes on the last day or on our last day on earth, whichever comes first — and we prepare for that coming and even more importantly seek to run out to embrace him as he comes. Today as we come together to celebrate this Sung Mass at the end of the Circle of St. Therese’s months’ long study of the Mass with the help of my old classmate Ted Sri’s A Biblical Walk through the Mass, it would be very useful for us to ponder Christ’s coming to us in mystery and how we’re called, like the wise Bridesmaids in Jesus’ Gospel parable, to run out out with lighted lamps to meet Christ the Lord.

Encountering Christ in His Advent in the Sacrament of His Mercy

We can ponder first how we’re called to go out to meet Jesus who is coming to us in the Sacrament of his Mercy. That’s the obvious message of today’s readings and a crucial part for our ever to participate fully in the divine liturgy, which begins with our confession that we’ve “greatly sinned” by our own “most grievous fault,” in which we cry out to the Lord not once, not twice but three times, “Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie eleison,” in which we invoke Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sins, and then which humbly admit that we’re not worthy to receive him under our roof but beg him to say the word so that our souls may be healed. That word takes place in the formula of absolution whereby the Lamb of God, through the ministry of the same priests through whom he gives us his Body and Blood, forgives us our sins, heals our souls, and cleanses our souls so that we might be a fitting tabernacle to receive the King of Kings.

This is the message of the readings. For the second time in three days, the Church has us listen today to Isaiah’s prophecy about the comfort God seeks to give us. “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” God tells Isaiah with regard to the Jews who would be suffering in exile during the Babylonian captivity. The consolation would take on a specific form: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that … her guilt is expiated.” He has Isaiah get them ready for the coming of the Lord through works of conversion, “A voice cries out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord!,” by filling in valleys, leveling mountains, smoothing rugged land, straightening crooked ways.” And then he has Isaiah foretell of the Lord’s coming: “Go up onto a high mountain [and] … cry out at the top of your voice, … ‘Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God,’” before describing what God himself will do upon his arrival: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” That is the comfort God wants announced. That’s the consolation God himself brings. God will bring expiation from our sins. He will gather us, carry us, guide us, feed us. These rich and consoling words of Isaiah’s prophecy provide the dominant lyrics for the first part of Handel’s famous Messiah, the part that gets us ready to appreciate Jesus’ coming as our Messiah. It’s fitting that these words have been set to some of the most beautiful music ever written.

But the “lyrics” get even more beautiful and powerful in the Gospel. Jesus is that Good Shepherd who will gather and carry the lambs next to his heart and tenderly lead the ewes, but that’s only the start. He’ll also go out in search of the lost sheep, leaving everyone else behind, all the way to laying down his life for every single one of his wandering flock. Jesus asks, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?  And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.” From it he draws a lesson, “In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” This is an unforgettable lesson of God’s mercy: God cares for us in such a way that he doesn’t want to lose any one of us, but that he wants to forgive us all. Pope Francis said in his homily this morning in the Vatican that many of us don’t understand this logic of love. We approach the subject like a “good businessman” who says, “Ninety-nine sheep, if I lose one, it’s no problem for the balance sheet, for gains and losses. It’s fine, we can get by.” God doesn’t permit that type of attrition, however, on his fatherly and shepherdly heart. He cares for 100 out of 100.

During Advent, we celebrate the coming of a Savior who comes in search of us when we by sinful choices turn our back on him and wander from communion. We celebrate the coming of Him who took our own flesh in history to come to comfort us and expiate our guilt by paying the price of our sins on the Cross, who created the Sacraments to comfort us in mystery with his Mercy and his very Presence, who promised to come for us at the end of time in majesty in order to separate us as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and, we pray, lead us to the eternal sheepfold in verdant pastures to give us repose. God doesn’t want any of us to be lost. He wants all of us to experience his consolation. But as Isaiah told us today, and St. John the Baptist reiterated on Sunday, we need to heed the voice of Jesus crying out in the desert to make straight his paths by our own conversion. We need to use our freedom to make it possible for God to come as the Lamb of God to take away our sins. God never stops searching for us but we need to stop hiding, to come out of the darkness into the light, to leave behind our crooked ways and make them straight, to level the mountains of our ego and fill up the valleys of spiritual minimalism. The only way we will receive his consolation is through this hard work of conversion. The only way we will be comforted is by recognizing we really are sinners in need of a Savior and allow that Savior to do his saving work. “The Lord our God comes with power,” we prayed in the Responsorial Psalm, but St. Paul tells us that he doesn’t come with spectacular displays of worldly power, but rather the “power and wisdom of the Cross” (1 Cor 1:23-24). The Cross was the mountain Jesus climbed in order to fulfill Isaiah’s words about God’s coming with power, the power to cleanse us eternally of our sins. During Advent we are all called to make straight the paths so that we may run out to meet him who is running toward us as a shepherd, as a Father of a Prodigal Son or Daughter.

Becoming Isaiahs and Sharing God’s Message of Mercy

But the depth of God’s consolation doesn’t end there. God loved us so much that he wanted us to experience an even greater comfort, the comfort of helping him bring his consolation, expiation and merciful power to others. He wants us to become other Isaiahs announcing the consolation of his mercy and going out in search of the lost sheep. He wants us to become other St. Therese’s praying for the conversion of modern Henri Pranzini, the triple-murderer who was about to be executed without conversion. Jesus could have stayed in our world as the Good Shepherd in order to go hunt down every lost sheep himself. But he didn’t. When he ascended into heaven, he was himself making an act of great trust in us that we would actually go for him and with him to hunt down those who are lost, to announce to them the message of mercy, to gather them in our arms, hold them close to our heart, and lead them back to him and to his fold. There’s nothing more consoling than paying forward the Lord’s mercy, than being an instrument in helping someone turn his or her life around, than helping someone experience the true joy that comes from living in God’s pure love. God wants to give us all that comfort. That’s the comfort St. Therese had when she got news that before Pranzini was guillotined, he turned to the chaplain, asked for a Crucifix which he then kissed, and embraced the power of God’s mercy. Therese wrote, “The day after his execution I hastily opened the paper…and what did I see? Tears betrayed my emotion; I was obliged to run out of the room. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing or receiving absolution, and…turned round, seized the crucifix which the Priest was offering to him, and kissed Our Lord’s Sacred Wounds three times. …I had obtained the sign I asked for, and to me it was especially sweet. Was it not when I saw the Precious Blood flowing from the Wounds of Jesus that the thirst for souls first took possession of me? …My prayer was granted to the letter.” It was in this prayer that Therese was translating to prayer her theological realization she once wrote in a poem that was put to music by Sylvie Buisset that I heard for the first time in 1997 and have never been able to forget: “Moi si j’avais commis tous les crimes possibles, je garderais toujours la même confiance car je sais bien que cette multitude d’offenses n’est qu’une goutte d’eau dans un brasier ardent, n’est qu’une goutte d’eau dans un brasier ardent.” “If I had committed all possible crimes, I would still have the same confidence because I well know that this multitude of sins is just a drop of water in a burning furnace.” Even the misery of a triple murder is nothing compared to the mercy of God’s burning heart. Even someone so lost in sin is not totally lost for God who continues to hunt us down hoping that, like the Good Thief, they may turn finally to Christ’s mercy on the Cross and receive his prayer to the Father for all those who in sinning really didn’t know what they were doing.

This message of the consolation of God’s mercy is particularly fitting today as we mark the 35th anniversary of the death of the greatest Catholic preacher in the history of the United States, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen whom we pray will soon be beatified. He was one who really grasped today’s Gospel and preached with all the skill God gave him so that all of us might embrace the lesson of divine love it contains and make that loving pursuit of God the magna carta of our life. In his great commentary on the Gospels, Life of Christ, and throughout his preaching he made plain that what distinguishes Christianity from other religions is that the natural religious desire is man’s search for God, but in Christianity we begin with God’s search for man. God comes as a shepherd in order to search for us when we alienated ourselves from him by sin. And Archbishop Sheen shared that great passion. For many years he was the head of the Propagation of the Faith in our country and crisscrossed the world in search of those who were yet unaware of God’s saving passion, raising money for the missions through his media work and other opportunities so that none would be lost. He grasped that the essence of the Gospel was God’s mercy and with all his talents he tried to echo the voice of Jesus crying out in the desert to make straight the paths for God to find us and for us to find salvation.

Today we also celebrate the feast of St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the 57-year-old man chosen by Mary 483 years ago today to participate in a special way of Christ’s mission of consoling love for an entire continent. When the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, she identified herself as “your Merciful Mother” and sent him on a mission to the Bishop of Mexico City in order to have a teocalli, a temple, build on Tepeyec Hill where she was appearing to him. She was on a mission of mercy, to help bring not just a country but an entirely new continent to her Son. She appeared dressed as a pregnant mestiza of European and Indian features, about to give birth to Christ in this hemisphere. She is a figure, therefore, of the Advent of her Son. And after the miracle of the Castillian roses that blended into Juan Diego’s tilma and produced the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, over ten million converted in the first decade, whereas only a trickle had been brought to experience the saving name and relationship with Jesus over the previous decade since the Franciscan missionaries had arrived with the Spanish conquistadors. And the mission she gave St. Juan Diego is a significant one: to have a temple built, a temple where people would be able to come to experience the salvation of her Son, to experience her own maternal consolation, and to experience the comfort of Christ’s mystical body the Church. Every Catholic Church is supposed to be a place of comfort and consolation, a family home that we can go on good days and bad days, a place where we will always be taken in with love, a true field hospital for sinners to nurse them back to health. It’s a place in which we long for the return of 100 out of 100 — and not just the physical return, but the true, full spiritual return through conversion and the adoption of a holy life — and rejoice when it happens. Mary wanted the people of this hemisphere to experience the comfort of God in the Church, in praying together with others, in strengthening others in the family of God. And she sent Juan Diego on that mission to help get a Church built. Today she wants to send all of us on a mission to build up the Church on living stones, to help us all build roads the confessional for people more easily to come to receive the Lord’s comforting gift of mercy.

Encountering Jesus in his Advent in the Holy Eucharist

But there’s a second encounter with the Lord Jesus in mystery to which St. Therese, St. Juan Diego and the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen all point, which is the encounter of the Mass. The Mass was the great center of their lives. It was what strengthened them to carry out their mission of mercy. It’s what consoled them each day. It’s what each of them would beg God that we likewise make the source and summit, the root and center of our lives.

There’s great meaning to the fact that Juan Diego met our Lady when he was on his way to daily Mass. When the Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill on this day in 1531, he was a simple, humble, 57 year-widower known for walking with his head down and shuffling his feet. He had been baptized only seven years before by the Franciscan missionaries who had arrived in Mexico with Cortés in 1521 and was a fervent believer. Every Saturday and Sunday he would walk 15 miles each way to Mass. As he was journeying one cold Saturday morning, he heard a voice calling from the top of a hill, “Juanito,” “Dieguito,” “Come here!” He scaled the rocky slope, where at the top he saw the Blessed Virgin Mary arrayed in splendor. The rest, we can say, is history. On the days Mass was offered, he would shuffle back and forth more than the length of a Marathon, because Mass was worth that much. Few of us would need to walk 30 miles round trip over mountains in frigid December temperatures to be able to meet the Lord Jesus who comes to us on the altar. We can get into our cars, place on our heater, get the windshield wipers moving and drive to Mass. But the same love is meant to draw us. We’re far more open to receiving and fulfilling the mission God has for us when we are actually going out in search of the Lord who comes for us every day, when we’re overcoming spiritual inertia and moving toward the Lord. St. Juan Diego teaches us about this love. Mary asked for a teocalli to be built so that on Tepeyac Hill someone more powerful, more important than she, could appear, her Son, where he comes down from heaven to the altar every day and remains in the Tabernacle.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s love for the Mass was legendary. The reason for his enormous spiritual fruitfulness, he openly admitted, was because he began each morning with a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Mass. Jesus told us that if we abided in Him the Vine, we would bear much fruit (Jn 15:5), and Sheen did both. Every morning he abided in Christ’s real presence and then welcomed Him within. That was the fuel for the supersonic engine that powered his whole priestly life. On my way here tonight I was listening to some of his retreat talks to priests and lay people. He told a story about celebrating in Africa when he was the head of the Propagation of the Faith. He was brought over to give a leper Holy Communion. Her arms were lost below the elbow and her legs before the knees. After Mass, Archbishop Sheen asked her where she lived and she said about four miles away in the bush. He asked her how she had gotten to Mass and she described that she had used her limbs to crawl to Mass the four miles. Sheen was touched. He said that the following day he and the local priest would take bicycles and bring her Holy Communion in the bush after Mass. But when he came out to celebrate Mass she was there. He spoke to her after Mass and asked her whether she remembered that he had promised to bring her Holy Communion so that she wouldn’t have to crawl for eight miles round trip again. She thanked him for his willingness but said, “I couldn’t wait!” Archbishop Sheen also said that when he would give classes to Protestant converts and would get to the part explaining the real presence of Jesus in Holy Communion, the Protestants would tell him that they can’t understand how Catholics don’t make the effort to get to Mass every day on their knees. Once one truly grasps the gift, it’s impossible not to order one’s whole life to it.

That love for Jesus in the Eucharist was the constitutive reality of Archbishop Sheen’s life, which led him to continue his adoring love for Jesus outside of Mass. On the day of his priestly ordination, Sheen made a commitment to make a Holy Hour every day in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Sixty years later, he thanked God for giving him the grace to keep that promise, and confessed that “the hour that made my day” was the source of his fidelity and his fruitfulness. “It is impossible for me to explain how helpful the Holy Hour has been in preserving my vocation,” Sheen wrote in his autobiography. “Scripture gives considerable evidence to prove that a priest begins to fail his priesthood when he fails in his love of the Eucharist. … The beginning of the fall of Judas and the end of Judas both revolved around the Eucharist. The first mention that Our Lord knew who it was who would betray Him is at the end of the sixth chapter of John, which is the announcement of the Eucharist. The fall of Judas came the night Our Lord gave the Eucharist, the night of the Last Supper.” “The Holy Hour, quite apart from all its positive spiritual benefits, kept my feet from wandering too far. Being tethered to a tabernacle, one’s rope for finding other pastures is not so long.” He added that the Holy Hour “became like an oxygen tank to revive the breath of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the foul and fetid atmosphere of the world. Even when it seemed so unprofitable and lacking in spiritual intimacy, I still had the sensation of being at least like a dog at the master’s door, ready in case he called me.” It was in this daily holy hour that Sheen’s booming voice was silent as he listened to gentle whisper of his Master. It was here that he discussed with Jesus his homilies, difficulties, hopes, projects, and potential converts. It was here that his heart was set on fire. “Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain.” So convinced was he of the connection between the Eucharist and fruitful fidelity that he judged the success or failure of every retreat he preached on how many retreatants he could convince to make a Eucharistic holy hour every day for the rest of their life. If Sheen were alive today and preaching at Immaculate Conception Church here in Westerly, he would doubtless try to convinced us to grow in “Eucharistic amazement” and make the Eucharistic Lord the “magnetic pole” of our whole existence. He would urge us to make a daily commitment to come to adore Christ, on the inside by receiving him worthily in Mass, and on the outside in the Monstrance. That was the open secret of his enormous success. And he would want it to be ours.

And we know of St. Therese’s great love for Jesus in the Eucharist. She never ceased to tell with wonder the story of her first holy Communion. “At last,” she wrote, “the most wonderful day of my life arrived, and I can remember every tiny detail of those heavenly hours: my joyous waking up at dawn, the tender, reverent kisses of the mistresses and older girls, the room where we dressed … and above all, our entry into chapel and the singing of the morning hymn: ‘O Altar of God, Where the Angels are Hovering.’ … How lovely it was, that first kiss of Jesus in my heart — it was truly a kiss of love. I knew that I was loved and said, ‘I love You, and I give myself to You forever.’ … Long before that, He and little Thérèse had seen and understood one another well, but on that day it was more than a meeting — it was a complete fusion. We were no longer two, for Thérèse had disappeared like a drop of water lost in the mighty ocean. Jesus alone remained — the Master and the King. …And her joy became so vast, so deep, that now it overflowed. Soon she was weeping, to the astonishment of her companions, who said to one another later on: ‘Why did she cry? Was there something on her conscience? Perhaps it was because her mother was not there, or the Carmelite sister she loves so much.’ It was beyond them that all the joy of Heaven had entered one small, exiled heart, and that it was too frail and weak to bear it without tears. As if the absence of my mother could make me unhappy on the day of my First Communion! As all Heaven entered my soul when I received Jesus, my mother came to me as well. … It was joy alone, deep ineffable joy that filled my heart.” She urged others, “Receive Communion often, very often…there you have the sole remedy, if you want to be cured. Jesus has not put this attraction in your heart for nothing…” She added, “It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that He comes down each day from Heaven, but to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our soul in which He takes delight.” And that, she said, is meant to lead us to long for Jesus in adoration: “Do you realize that Jesus is there in the tabernacle expressly for you – for you alone? He burns with the desire to come into your heart… Go without fear to receive the Jesus of peace and love.”

Pulling out all the stops

Doubtless St. Therese is very pleased that the members of her Circle have spent these last months getting to know the Mass better so that they might be able to pray that weekly or even daily encounter with the Lord in a more profound day, so that each of us might receive Jesus Christ in the Mass with the love with which not only we received him in our First Communion but with which she received him on her first Communion. She delighted to be a sacristan so that, with lots of little gestures, she could adorn the sanctuary to welcome the King of Kings. How pleased she would be that you want to adorn not merely the sanctuary but the liturgy with the best you can bring, with all the love you have, with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,” as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (Eph 5:19).

Singing is a great sign of joy and happiness and that is what is supposed to radiate throughout the Mass. As Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, then executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy said in a powerful speech to liturgical musicians a few years ago, “Maybe the greatest challenge that lies before us [in the implementation of the new translations] is the invitation once again to sing the Mass rather than merely to sing at Mass.” That summons to “sing the Mass” rather than merely “sing at Mass” was made in the liturgical reforms of and after the Second Vatican Council but has yet to be acted upon in many American parishes. “Musicam Sacram,” the Church’s instruction on music in the liturgy, stated in 1967, “Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it. Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the Liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly Liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem. Pastors of souls will therefore do all they can to achieve this form of celebration.”

That’s what you’re doing tonight. I’m grateful that your pastor, Fr. Giacomo Capoverde, has wanted to host this celebration of the Sung Mass, which is something that we hope will be augumented by the singing of the angelic choirs, SS. Juan Diego and Therese, and, we pray, with Archbishop Sheen. The Lord Jesus is indeed coming to meet us here in the mystery of the Eucharist. And he’s doubtless so pleased that we’ve made the opportunity to come out to meet him. More than all the saints combined — including the Blessed Virgin Mary — have hungered to receive Jesus in Holy Communion, he has hungered to give himself to us in Holy Communion. It’s here that his love meets our love in the Sacramentum Caritatis! This is how the advent dynamic leads to the reality of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 is 40:1-11

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
The rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

A voice says, “Cry out!”
I answer, “What shall I cry out?”
“All flesh is grass,
and all their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower wilts,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.
So then, the people is the grass.
Though the grass withers and the flower wilts,
the word of our God stands forever.”

Go up onto a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
Cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.

Responsorial Psalm ps 96:1-2, 3 and 10ac, 11-12, 13

R. (see Isaiah 40:10ab) The Lord our God comes with power.
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Sing to the LORD; bless his name;
announce his salvation, day after day.
R. The Lord our God comes with power.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
Say among the nations: The LORD is king;
he governs the peoples with equity.
R. The Lord our God comes with power.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice.
R. The Lord our God comes with power.
They shall exult before the LORD, for he comes;
for he comes to rule the earth.
He shall rule the world with justice
and the peoples with his constancy.
R. The Lord our God comes with power.

Alleluia

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The day of the Lord is near:
Behold, he comes to save us.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel mt 18:12-14

Jesus said to his disciples:
“What is your opinion?
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.”