23 December 20184 Advent

Homily from Father James Gilhooley
4 Advent
Fourth Sunday of Advent - Cycle C
Luke 1:39-45

The story is told of an unbeliever accosting a Christian. "If I told you that an infant was born of a virgin in this city, would you believe me?" "Yes," replied the Christian, "if he lived as Jesus did." Have you ever wondered how a physician might handle today's Gospel of the Visitation? If affirmative, you are in luck. Today's homilist is John Willke, MD. I found his thoughts in a paper titled "Mary's Pregnancy." The Church speaks thousands of words each week on abortion. "But how come," you ask shrewdly, "the Gospel is silent on the question as to when human life actually begins?" In fact, it is not. Mary we know conceived of the Holy Spirit. But what did she conceive? Was it but a fertilized ovum which in turn became an embryo? Then did the embryo become a fetus which only weeks or even months later developed into a person? Doctor Willke asserts that today's Gospel answers those questions. He posits that Luke, a fellow physician, is telling us Mary conceived the person of the God-Man Jesus from day one of her pregnancy. Luke tells us that right after the angel's visit Mary made an impromptu trip to her cousin Elizabeth out in the back country. The trip took almost a week. The young woman was pregnant about ten days. Did Mary believe she was pregnant? By faith, yes. She had said to the angel, "Be it done unto me according to thy word." But she had no physical proof of her pregnancy. Humanly speaking, she had to wonder whether as a virgin she had truly conceived.

Traditionally we say Mary went out to help her older cousin during her pregnancy,. But that is only half the tale. Some of her reasons for going out there were not quite that altruistic. Was her cousin pregnant she wondered as the angel had said? If affirmative, then the angel could be trusted as an authentic messenger from God. And so she herself would indeed be expecting a child. Breathlessly she reaches her cousin's door. At six months, Elizabeth is obviously pregnant. The excited Mary concludes then she herself is pregnant. But her aunt had not been told of her niece's pregnancy. And after but ten days Mary was hardly "showing." Yet, Elizabeth impulsively shouts, "Blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of my Lord?" At the time, Jesus was hardly the size of a pinhead and had only been just implanted into the lining of Mary's womb. Yet His mother's cousin was moved to call Him "my Lord." So, Mary was hardly carrying a personless embryo that would become a fetus and then a person.

Rather, Elizabeth was inspired to realize that in the early days of her pregnancy her niece, says Dr Willke, "was already carrying the person of the God-Man Jesus." But the story is not done. In response to her niece's salutation, Elizabeth said, "For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy." Her babe was of course John. He would be known to history as John the Baptizer. Thus, John, himself already a person, salutes not merely a ten day old personless embryo but another genuine person. What is today's Gospel telling us through Elizabeth and her unborn son John? Yes, you are correct! Human life, "alive, sexed, and complete," is present in every mother's womb from the beginning of her pregnancy. The visit of the Christ to Elizabeth in the early days of His development is a far greater witness to the sanctity of human life, says Dr Willke, than all of the scientific facts and pictures that one can conjure up. Dr Willke concludes every abortion then is the killing of a living, fully human being. Jesus has clearly taught us that abortion is wrong, he declares, by the decisive facts of His early days in Mary's womb. We are in debt to Luke and John Willke, physicians both. Both doctors would remind us that though infants die by chance, they should never die by choice.

Homily from Father Joseph Pellegrino
4 Advent
Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Excitement

The gifts are wrapped, hopefully. The cards are sent and received, except for those we missed. The food for tomorrow is in the fridge. The relatives have arrived, and Mom is trying to keep them out of the fridge. The children are looking up the chimney, and begging Dad not to start a fire no matter how cold it gets. With the children we are all bursting with anticipation. Is there anything more exciting in our world than children waiting for Santa? Sure there is: a pregnant woman waiting for her little love to be born. Today's Gospel presents two such women. Mary and Elizabeth are bursting with anticipation, with expectation. Mary is a young girl, newly married, with a baby announced by an angel and conceived miraculously. Elizabeth is an older woman, one who thought her chance to have a child had passed. Her baby, conceived naturally, was also announced by an angel, the same angel in fact, Gabriel. The women knew that not just their lives would be changed, but the world would be changed. They greeted each other, and the baby within Elizabeth, the future John the Baptist, recognized the presence of the Messiah within Mary.

Elizabeth was overwhelmed with excitement as she realized that her child would have a vital role in God's plan for His people. Both women proclaimed their gratitude to God for working His wonders within them. Perhaps, as a final preparation for Christmas, we can spend a few moments reflecting on the great Gift God has given us and focus on the gratitude we owe Him. The great gift of Christmas, of course, is the gift of His Son. The Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard told a parable to help explain this gift. Once upon a time there was a king who was rich and powerful. The King was very unhappy, though. He wanted a wife to be his queen. Now a political marriage could easily have been arranged with another country but that is not what the King wanted. He wanted someone whom he could love and who could love him. Only real love could fill his vast, empty castle and life. One day the King was riding through the streets of a small village kin a remote corner of the kingdom when he came upon the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. He immediately fell in love with her. But there was a problem: she was a peasant girl, and he wanted to win her love, not buy her love. One of his counselors told him to just command her to be his wife. Any girl, especially a peasant girl, would jump at the opportunity. But the King would not do that. He could not command love. Besides, for the rest of his life he would wonder if she was a loving wife or a loyal subject. Another counselor told the king to that he should call on the girl as her King, shower her with presents of diamonds and gold and silk gowns, and give her the opportunity to realize that he truly loved her. But the King would not do that. For the rest of his life he would wonder if she loved him or his wealth.

A third counselor told the king to dress as a peasant so she would not be overwhelmed, and gradually reveal his power and position until she was ready to join him in the castle. The king did not like the thought of deceiving her. If their relationship was based on deception, how could she ever love him? Finally, the King knew what he would do. He renounced his royal robes, his power and authority. He became a peasant in that remote village, living and working and suffering beside the other peasants. After a number of years, he won the heart of the beautiful young girl. He took his new wife to another village in another country, where no one could have guessed who he was. After many years, he became sick, and his loving wife cared for him. He died a peasant, but at his funeral the people looked at his wonderful, caring and in many ways extremely beautiful wife and said, "That man married a queen." God is the King. He is the Divine Lover. We are the object of His love.

Only God would love so much that He would become one of us to win our love. St. Athanasius, an early doctor of the Church, wrote, "Because of his great love for us, Jesus, the Word of God, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself." (The Incarnation of the Word by St. Athanasius) This is the mystery that excites us. It is the same mystery that excited Mary and Elizabeth. They realized that they had each in their own way been chosen to be vehicles of God's plan of love. Elizabeth's son, John the Baptist, would point to this Love become flesh. Jesus, Mary's son, would be this love. We also have been chosen to be part of this plan by the One who loves us and who calls us to make His Love a reality for others. With deep gratitude we pray: Lord of all love, you have come to us so we can come to you. You have become physical so we can become spiritual. You have embraced us with your Love so we can embrace others with your love. We thank you for choosing us to be part of your plan. We thank you for allowing us to join Mary and Elizabeth in the excitement of your Coming Presence. We ask you now to give us the strength and the courage to proclaim your Presence with our Lives.

Homily from Father Phil Bloom
* Available in Spanish - see Spanish Homilies
4 Advent
Fourth Advent Virtue: Meditation
(December 23, 2018)

Bottom line: Meditation brings together and makes possible the other Advent virtues.
We've reached the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Each Sunday we saw a different virtue. Today we have the virtue that ties the others together and makes them work. Before saying what it is, I will summarize the first three virtues. We began with the virtue is patience. Without it we cannot sustain a relationship with God or with any person. Love is patient; patience is love. To grow in patience we should consider fasting. In the bulletin I've written something about that biblical practice. It seems counter-intuitive, but as we celebrate Christmas and look toward the New Year, this is a good time to reflect on the role of fasting in the Christian life. Fasting is delayed gratification, patience.

The second virtue puts patience into practice. It's the virtue of generosity: not so much spontaneous giving, but thoughtful and consistent generosity - what Jesus calls Stewardship. Last week we saw that patience and generosity become the building blocks for the third virtue: happiness. It surprises people to hear that happiness is a virtue, a duty we owe to others. Yet St. Paul says, "rejoice in the Lord always". We do have some control over personal happiness and it's one of the greatest gifts we can give to the people we live and work with. For that reason we should pursue happiness. Not so much pursuit of pleasure, but happiness. As our Founders understood it to pursue happiness means to realize ones potential. So pursuit of happiness is really pursuit of excellence.. So these three virtues: patience, generosity and happiness. We now come to the fourth Advent virtue, the one that ties the the three together and makes them work: meditation. Meditation could always be called the virtue of prayerfulness or maybe even, mindfulness. Meditation involves setting aside time to focus on what matters most. For us, that means God - or Jesus. Studies have shown that meditation improves a person's well being: emotionally, psychological and even physically. A new field of research called brain science demonstrates this positive impact. We know that certain activities can damage the brain: opioid drugs, excessive alcohol and pornography.

Viewing porn forms neural pathways that lead to physical addiction. That's the bad news. There is, however, good news. Meditation can actually rewire neural pathways. Scientists have reported the positive effect of repeating some phrase or mantra to the rhythm of breathing. Let me give an example of a mantra. You may have noticed Sister Barbara and I wore a wristband from the Year of Faith 2012. It has these initials: LJC SoG HMoM aS. The letters stand for Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner. Repeating that phrase, as you slowly breathe in and out, brings a peace that restores the soul and body. Some monks - especially in the East - repeat that mantra throughout the day: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner. Thus they fulfill the command, pray always. Now, I don't claim any great spirituality. My mind is often jangled, but I know meditation brings peace and restoration. You can find many good articles and books explaining how to take advantage of what they call neural plasticity. Instead of exploding to take a deep breath and connect with your true center. Meditation can help manage impulsivity.

We Catholics have a way that worked for centuries. I have it right in my pocket - the rosary! Studies suggest that one the best forms of meditation for its effect on the brain is the rosary. The rosary involves repeating certain Scripture verses, including the one we heard today: Blessed are you among women and blessed in the fruit of your womb. The rosary brings peace in desperate situations. Last week I mentioned Immaculee Ilibagiza. During the Rwanda genocide, she hid in a small bathroom with 7 other starving women for 91 cramped, terrifying days. She had with her a rosary her dad had given her. She began to pray the rosary constantly. It carried her through and eventually enabled her to forgive the men who had killed her parents and siblings. Her story - Left to Tell - became a New York Times best-seller. She has since written a book specifically on the rosary. It's one of many books testifying to the power of the rosary.

The power ultimately comes from the prayer to God asking Mary's intercession, but it does also have natural power, as modern brain science shows. The question is: Why not try it yourself? Make the rosary part of your daily meditation. Even a single decade can have good effect. So the fourth Advent virtue is meditation. Mary is the supreme model. As we will hear during the Christmas season, she kept all these things, turning them over in her heart. That's meditation. It brings together and makes possible the other Advent virtues. Meditation enables a person to practice patience and generosity. - to pursue happiness in the true sense, not pursuit of pleasure but pursuit of excellence. As our Psalm says, "Lord, make us turn to you." Meditation like all virtues is a gift. None of us can achieve it on our own power. We'll see that more clearly on Christmas Eve. Ultimately only Jesus can lift us from darkness and misery. "Lord, make us turn to you. Let us see your face and we shall be saved". Amen.

Homily from Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pa
Saint Vincent Archabbey
4 Advent

Homily from Father Alex McAllister SDS
4 Advent
Fourth Sunday of Advent

We are now in the final phase of the Advent season, the immediate preparation for the feast of Christmas. In the Gospel reading we are presented with the account of the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. Superficially there is no significant action; Mary simply visits her cousin and then goes home. What Luke gives us is the conversation between the two women and this is very revealing. Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant, though further on in her pregnancy, with John the Baptist. Both have experienced an annunciation and a miraculous conception: Mary while remaining a virgin and Elizabeth when she was already past childbearing age. God's decisive intervention in the history of the world is now well underway and the two women seem to be well aware of this and fully realise that they are strategic players in the great cosmic drama which is now unfolding. As soon as Mary comes into view the child leapt in Elizabeth's womb. This is a strange word leapt or jumped.

A baby moves in the womb, this we know, but to leap is most extraordinary. Elizabeth actually tells Mary that the child within her leapt with joy. We are being told that the two children, even though enclosed in their respective mother's wombs somehow managed to recognise each other. John the Baptist whose eventual role was to identify and proclaim the coming of the Messiah seems to be already doing this even though he is not yet born into the world. It is as if his whole existence is defined by this recognition. So, although the account is ostensibly about the meeting of two mothers it is actually about the meeting of two unborn children. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, echoes this recognition by greeting Mary as 'the Mother of my Lord'. She recognises the importance of the event and expresses her joy and humility in being involved in the unfolding of God's plan by saying, 'Why am I so favoured.' The acknowledgement by Elizabeth of the importance of Mary and her role comes out in her exclamation, 'Blessed are you among women'. Many members of other Christian denominations wonder why we Catholics honour Mary and give her so much devotion and proclaim her blessed status. Well, in this, we are only following in the steps of her cousin Elizabeth. And her words are validated by the fact that they were uttered under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. If Elizabeth expresses her honour and respect towards Mary at such a vital moment then we can safely follow her and ought to hold Mary in equally high regard. The tone, of course, of the whole passage is one of joy. The prophecy made by the angel concerning the birth of John the Baptist earlier in the Gospel comes true, 'He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth'. (Luke 1:14)

The angel also made the prediction: 'Even from his mother's womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit'. (Luke 1:15) This prophetic recognition by John of the Messiah even while in the womb is therefore under the direct inspiration of God and has been foretold by his messenger. This is an important passage in Luke's Gospel and worthy of deep study. We call the collection of stories concerning the birth and early years of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the Infancy Narratives. And many scholars regard them as Gospels in miniature. Here we can see a good example of this. An important part of the main Gospel is taken up with the role of John the Baptist, his preaching and his task of preparing a way for the Lord and eventually the sending of his disciples to Jesus. These events are all prefigured here in this in the account of John leaping within his mother's womb in recognition of the Messiah. As we have said the basic tone of this text is one of rejoicing. This rejoicing comes about because Elizabeth and Mary realise that the events so long foretold are now coming to pass. The Messiah has arrived and is entering the world. They are rejoicing also because they realise that they are personally involved in these events. This basic tone of joy should not simply pervade our scriptural text it ought to pervade the lives of all Christians. In our case, it should permeate our lives even more than that of Elizabeth and Mary because, while they were there at the beginning, we have seen the fulfilment of all that was promised. We have witnessed, albeit at a distance, the working out of that great drama of the salvation of the world.

They were involved in the early stages but we have seen the end of the story. We know that it was concluded successfully and indeed gloriously. So, our fundamental attitude is one of deep joy and satisfaction that God has achieved his purpose and that the salvation of humanity was brought about through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is Good News and we rejoice in it. This is not like an 'I've won the lottery!' type of rejoicing, it is something altogether quieter, more restrained and perhaps understated. Our tendency is to be rather discreet about our rejoicing, especially since we have a whole lifetime of it. If we carried on like a lottery winner for the whole of our lives we would be utterly exhausted and everyone else would be sick of us! But one has to say that some of us Christians keep this joy so discreet and so well hidden that you would wonder if they knew there was any Good News at all! Advent has been a sober season; we have been doing a bit of spiritual spring-cleaning. Many of us have already taken advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If we haven't then there is just enough time to put that right.

But in this last week the tone of Advent has changed, it has stepped up a gear; now is the time to express some of this joy, time to be a bit less sober. I heard on the radio someone saying that more alcohol will be consumed this coming week that at any other time of the year. Fair enough, you might say, at a feast the wine should flow. And I certainly wouldn't disagree! But this is not the kind of rejoicing we are talking about. Our Christian joy stems from our realisation that good has won the victory over evil; that Christ has rescued us from the jaws of death and that he raises us to a truly fulfilling life. The values of Christ are love, goodness, truth, justice, hope, fidelity, service and holiness and these are the qualities that ought to characterise our Christian life. Our joy is not that of an empty vessel making a lot of noise, but a deep, abiding, satisfying happiness and contentment in the knowledge that the victory has been won. Yes, there is still plenty for us to do and many tribulations that we must yet endure. But the knowledge and the joy that we possess keeps us faithful and true to Christ throughout our lives and in the life to come.

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