By: Fr. James Gross
I want to begin with a special welcome to our guests. As your families rejoice in having you home, we rejoice that you are here with us, and we wish you safe travel when you return to the places from which you came.
Has it ever occurred to you that the proclamation of Christmas is a bold act? Perhaps you haven’t, since so many people mark this holiday, whether they are believers or not. The very idea of what happened on Christmas Day was inconceivable to any number of groups of people around the world, because they couldn’t imagine that what they understood as “the Divine” would humble Himself to associate with us this way.
The literal meaning of the name Emmanuel is “God is with us.” Do we understand how unique and special that is? How can our God, who is transcendent, before all, and above all, be with us physically and tangibly? The only answer is Jesus. He provides the bridge that no other religion can cross. People who form the idea of an exalted, higher power come to discover a huge gap between God’s greatness and our lowliness. Because of this lopsided situation, God becomes the one who is “out there somewhere.” And what results come from this belief? Either God becomes the great clockmaker who build creation, winds it up, and leaves us to fend for ourselves. Or God becomes an over-arching tyrant, an instrument of justice who peers down at us only to mark down our faults and mete out punishment. In either case God becomes distant and is foreign to the concept of a tender relationship. There is a boss firmly in place, in charge, but there’s no sense of communion with His creation.
Looking at it historically, what set the religion of the Jewish people apart? The God of the Israelites desires to bless and redeem humanity: He longs to abide in the hearts of every man and woman. Gods and goddesses of neighboring nations were mastering natural phenomena, like the wind or fire, or wrapped up in silly, dramatic exploits. The God of Israel, the one true God, loves me and shows Himself to me. It’s not that I merited this on my own; He does this so that He may be known and loved in return.
And yet this fellowship was not enough. God outdid even this in sending His only Son, His beloved, to be born of woman. The man Jesus became one with us. The Lord of all things is really here in our midst. Once upon a time in history Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Since that time Christ has been present in his Church whenever 2 or 3 gather in his name, anywhere on earth. The Savior for whom we hoped is born, and our hopes are now so much more within reach.
A few years ago Pope Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical that spoke about the hope we have as Christians, and how this stands apart from merely human enterprises. The Holy Father discussed two examples from modern history: the French Revolution of the late 1700’s and the revolutions stemming from Communism and the political philosophy of Karl Marx. In both cases the protagonists claimed to have hope—that they could solve the problems they faced and improve the world. This so-called hope fueled their evil actions. And in both cases Christians suffered grotesque persecution.
The new regime in France carried out what came to be called the “reign of terror,” slaughtering priests and sisters at the guillotine, confiscating church property for civic use, destroying the Blessed Sacrament, and oppressing the faithful who did not consent to their reforms. As for Communism, what started out as an appeal for economic equality and triumph of the common man quickly became hostile whatever would not promote its goals. Religion, according to Marx, was a drug for the people, an impediment to social progress. Christianity and religious liberty, in pre-World-War-I Russia, for example, were no longer rights but threats. Churches and synagogues could no longer serve as houses of worship, but were confiscated and turned into cattle barns and granaries. Grave markers containing religious symbols were defaced. And that’s to say nothing of my dear German ancestors who did not flee the Volga River valley or Black Sea regions for America or Europe—the untold thousands who were slaughtered, starved to death, or relocated to the frozen remoteness of Siberia.
We must never forget the legacy of appalling destruction that ensues when people hope in themselves and not God. The pursuit of reason and freedom, when detached from God, does not triumph. Rather, it collapses into a blind rage.
Here Pope Benedict concludes that neither science, politics, or any humanist philosophy can redeem humanity; only love can. A hope based in God, one that does not use human skills as an end in themselves, will improve civilization rather than to destroy it. The following quote serves as the Holy Father’s summary: “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive. His Kingdom is present wherever He is loved and wherever His love reaches us.”
With a lively faith and hope the Church rejoices that Christ has indeed come. We pause to marvel at the tiny Infant born in Bethlehem, knowing that now that he is with us, we can fully hope in God’s greatest gifts, and the unending joy of heaven. Will we have greater trust in this Holy Child who grew up and offered his very self as our saving sacrifice? O come, let us adore him. Alleluia!
By: Fr. James Gross
St. Joseph has been a very important person in my life. As I like to put it, he’s followed me around. Now before that starts to sound a little creepy, let me explain. When I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, it was time to go on to what’s called “major seminary” for Theology studies. Bishop Sullivan decided to send me to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio—in other words, the “seminary of St. Joseph.” One of the perks about that was each year the Feast Day of St. Joseph, March 19th, was a day off from classes, a sort of bonus vacation day.
When I graduated from there, I came back to be ordained a priest with six other classmates. None of us knew in advance what our first assignment would be. Bishop Sullivan liked to spring it on us on Ordination Day. My first assignment was to Devils Lake and, you guessed it, St. Joseph’s Parish. Personally, I’ve given St. Joseph a lot of attention, and that’s a good thing.
As Catholics we naturally focus quite a bit on Jesus and on Mary, his mother. But these days of Advent and Christmas present St. Joseph to us in a powerful way. Joseph is the silent rock. We don’t remember him for what he said, but for what he did and the steady, consistent way he did it. Because his actions, not his words, do the talking, I think that for some of us he slips into the background. And so we need to pull him out to the front of the stage, so to speak, and see what he has to teach us.
First of all, it’s difficult for me to fathom the holiness of Joseph. Every day he looked into the face of Jesus who is both God and man. He held Jesus in his arms; he passed on to Jesus his carpenter’s trade and showed him how to speak to and deal with other people. I can only imagine how overwhelmed I would feel if God had entrusted that same duty to me. And indeed, in today’s Gospel, we see just what Joseph was made of.
Before beginning their lives together as husband and wife, Joseph learns that Mary is with child, and he knows that he is not the father. Matthew doesn’t give us the scene of how Joseph received this news, but instead shows us Joseph’s nighttime deliberations. It’s easy to picture him tossing and turning in the darkness, restless and confused.
Here we see that both justice and charity are very strong in St. Joseph. We hear that to divorce Mary was a real option. In fact, it is chilling to think that, for Mary, a much worse fate than marital separation might have been in store. If a husband were to accuse a woman in Mary’s position of adultery, the law carried a maximum sentence of capital punishment by stoning. Joseph knew that such an outcome, even if farfetched, was still possible in that society.
But here’s where Joseph’s strong inclination to charity comes in. Certainly we can presume that he had seen glimpses of Mary’s outstanding holiness and virtue. Of course there would have been something special in a Godly way about the young Mary of Nazareth. Any act of infidelity to her betrothed simply didn’t add up. We can almost hear him saying, “What about the gentle, pious girl I’ve come to know and love? I can’t give up on her.”
When at last sleep overtook Joseph’s grieving heart, the angel of the Lord spoke this to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” This particular moment must have been such a joyous relief to him. He could be both just and charitable, without short-changing one for the other. He thinks, “That’s it! Mary conceived her son by a miracle of God’s doing. Now is the time for nurturing her, not punishing or discarding her. It is right to provide this blessed boy and his mother a fitting home. I have to go to her and hear her side of things. God will make it all turn out okay.” As he would do so often in his life, Joseph listened to and obeyed God’s advice.
St. Joseph is a wonderful model for all kinds of Christian men. He is obviously a model to fathers because of the care he provided for Mary and Jesus, as well as for the spiritual headship he exercised in his household. St. Joseph is also a model for engaged men, as we see in the reading at this Mass. He was concerned about what was best for Mary, and listened carefully to God’s guiding voice. Many engaged men are thinking about all sorts of other things, not ever bringing God into the picture. “How am I getting ahead in my career? What will my buddies and I do this weekend?” He shows men that being a man of prayer is the only solid foundation to loving and honoring one’s fiancée.
St. Joseph is a tremendous guide for us priests, as well. He is the patron of the universal church, and we priests look to him as a model of caring for Christ as we tend to Christ’s Body, the Church here on earth. His chastity as husband of the Virgin was not cold and detached, but filled with the warmth of devotion and a complete gift of self.
We have a treasure in St. Joseph. As Christmas approaches, we ought to be thankful, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for the beautiful family God provided for His Son. They are a source of inspiration for every family. What’s really inspiring is the way Joseph received the guidance of God and acted on it, without looking back. That’s the kind of courage our world is sorely lacking.
By: Fr. James Gross
A middle-aged woman whose children are graduated from high school spends every day at a monotonous job with no prospect of a promotion, and thinks to herself, “There has to be more to life than this.” A young man finds himself drifting along through life, working during the week and partying hard on the weekends, and thinks, “There has to be more to life than this.” A young woman from a wealthy family coasts through classes at an elite school and an abundance of luxuries and thinks, “There has to be more to life than this.”
It’s an age-old question, and some of you may feel as though it applies to yourselves right now. As human beings we search for meaning and satisfaction. We just know deep inside that it’s meant to be. But what do we do to meet those needs? How do we make sure that what we’re pursuing doesn’t end up destroying us?
Many of the people who tracked down John the Baptist were searching for something more to life. Here was a man who was speaking to the very center of their hearts: What can I do about the burden of my sin? What is the best way to live my life? How can I be strong even when I perceive such weakness in myself? John was passionate about all those things. His demeanor was anything but soothing or affirming. He sounded like a radical and looked the part even more. But John cared about the big questions in life. He never proposed a quick fix that involved escaping from the human condition. He held out firm hope that God would send an “anointed one,” a Messiah, who would redeem our frail humanity. Although John was the appointed forerunner, the one to come after him was so great that he couldn’t carry his sandals. He had to decrease, and the Messiah would have to increase.
When he preached in the wilderness, John was like a blowtorch, but his was a limited mission. John found his mission hampered even more when King Herod threw him in prison. When Herod chose to take his brother’s wife as his own in an adulterous fling, John confronted him about it both publicly and privately. Desperate to retain the kingship, Herod treated this bit of spiritual direction as an affront and an act of political disobedience.
Sometimes we presume that everyone in the time of the Gospels anticipated exactly what would happen, as though everything was pre-determined. Obviously that’s not true. John expected that Jesus would bring more of the same ominous predictions about the judgment of God being like the unquenchable fire burning off the chaff or the orchard owner swinging his ax at the rotten trees. But it wasn’t quite turning out that way. John was convinced that he received his message from God and he was sure that he got it right. While behind bars, John couldn’t witness for himself what was happening “out in the field.” And so we come to today’s Gospel, and the visit his friends pay to Jesus and the Apostles to figure out what’s going on.
In several places in the Gospels, Jesus uses the cliché, “by their fruits you will know them.” In other words, the evidence of one’s character is found in what results come from their actions. What was Jesus’ evidence? Miracles! Those with leprosy are cleansed, the blind can see, the paralyzed walk again, and even some who have died were brought back to life! No one else was able to do such things. We try to capture a sense of that joy and wonder of the people of Palestine by the use of rose-colored vestments at this weekend’s masses.
But there’s more to it that the healings and wondrous signs. All these people experienced exclusion from families and towns because of their infirmities. They didn’t rank as equals, although their given maladies were the only difference between themselves and everyone else. Jesus declared to them all, “God is your Father, too. He does not desire to exclude you from His family.”
Here’s how I like to describe it. John’s emphasis was to shrink the list. He weeded out all the pretenders and challenged “casual believers” to take their faith in God more seriously, if they wanted to be on board with what God was doing in their midst. Jesus, on the other hand, caused the list to grow, inasmuch as the hopeless—the blind, the lame, the ill—had found hope in him. John was all about chasing people away from evil and proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Jesus then drew them in and steered them to the Truth.
Naturally Jesus spoke very forcefully about the principles of living a life of holiness. How often, when someone would ask him a question, would Jesus answer by saying, “You know the commandments, don’t you?” But suddenly, all sorts of people for the first time in their lives really believed that they had a place in the Kingdom of God. The Church expresses her identity most fully in her defense of the dignity of the poor and needy of this world.
This visit from John’s friends leads Jesus to address the crowds with this beautiful little discourse: “What did you go out to the desert to see?” His attitude is playful here, as he jokes with the people. “Why go through the trouble to go there and see a cattail blowing in the breeze—you could do that anywhere? Were you looking for some dignitary—why would they be in the desert in the first place?” All those listening to Jesus who first sought out John at the Jordan River began answering the question in their own minds. “We went out there because the path we used to be on led us in circles. We went out there because there had to be more to life than what we had known. We went out there to learn about God’s plan for us.”
Jesus ends by saying, “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Here Jesus is pointing out the difference between the time before Christ and the time of the Church. John stood at the gates of heaven but could not enter because the gates were closed. Now they are open because of the sacrificial death of Jesus, so the least member of the Church, through baptism and grace, is better off than John was. That’s a powerful idea to carry with us today.
Jesus Christ is the answer to what we really, deeply want. He is the one people are searching for, whether they know it or not. We know we can find him right here; let us not desert him.
By: Fr. James Gross
We live in a world abounding in sin and sinners. But it is a world that denies the existence of sin. Why is that? Because sin is an offense against God, and many choose not to believe in God. Therefore, if there is no God, there cannot be any sin. But we are surrounded by sin and read about it and see it in the news media every day, in cases too numerous to count. Because of original sin and the inclination to sin known as concupiscence, in various ways we all offend God, some more gravely than others. Today, however, we celebrate the feast of one of us, one woman, who never committed a sin—Mary of Nazareth, the Immaculate Mother of God.
What is the meaning of the term “immaculate conception?” It refers, not to the conception of Jesus, but to the conception of Mary in the normal way through the marital embrace of her parents, Saints Joachim and Ann. Because of the first sin of Adam and Eve, all human beings are conceived without sanctifying grace, the life of the soul. Since the coming of Christ, we can attain grace through baptism, but we are conceived and born without God’s grace. The Church teaches that God endowed Mary’s soul with grace from the first moment of her creation, so she was never under the power of original sin.
“Immaculate” means without stain. Since sin is a stain on the soul, which should be pure in the sight of God, the Church believes that Mary was conceived without the stain or original sin, which means the lack of God’s grace. One proof of this is taken from the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary in this Gospel: “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Because she was full of grace, Mary was most pleasing to God in all she was and did.
The prayers of today’s Mass stress that Mary was “preserved” from sin. Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead, and accomplished our redemption. He is the fountain of supernatural life for us. We partake of that through faith, baptism, and the sacraments. So the Church teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin by the foreseen merits of Jesus, her Son and her redeemer. Mary is, therefore, the first redeemed, the first Christian; she is perfectly redeemed in every way—in soul, body, and emotions.
Mary had a special mission in the redemption of humanity. So God created her as a fitting dwelling place for his Son Jesus, who crushed the head of Satan. Satan never had any power over him. Jesus was to be born of a woman who was totally free from sin, never under the devil’s spell. Just as God prepared a sinless paradise for Adam and Eve, so Mary is a second sinless paradise where the Son of God dwelt nine months before his birth in Bethlehem.
The Church fathers compare Mary with Eve. In their view, based on divine revelation, Eve is the mother of all the living—she gave us both life and death. Mary is the true mother of all the living—those who live spiritually forever through her Son. That is why she is also called “Mother of the Church.”
Children naturally tend to imitate their parents. We see in Mary all the virtues of a perfect Christian. We should strive to imitate her, since she is our mother, as well. We should strive to imitate her faith, her hope, and her love—her love for Jesus and her willing cooperation in his work of redemption, even to offering him to the Father on Calvary. We should strive to imitate her sinlessness by avoiding all mortal sin and all deliberate venial sins. We should ask her to obtain for us the grace we need to be a fitting dwelling place for divine grace.
In the New Testament Mary’s last recorded words at the wedding in Cana are “Do whatever he tells you.” If we love God, we should try to do just that. When we receive God’s son and Mary’s son in Holy Communion today, let us say to him, “Be it done to me as you desire.” O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.