No fun

Being a Christian can put you on the receiving end of some odd stereotypes. Some of them even contradict each other. Most of them make no sense at all. 

A common one?  That Christians are grim. Dull. With no sense of humor. 

That being a Christian means never having any fun. That having faith means having a horrible, creeping fear that someone, somewhere is enjoying themselves. 

Which is nonsense. 

Like I need to tell you that. You already know that your faith has been and will be the source of some of the most joyful moments in life. 

But there are things we should be sad about, upset about. If we really understand what they mean.

We see a glimpse of that in Sunday's first reading. 

More on this Thursday.  

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Comparisons

(by request, my homily from Sunday)

Comparison is the thief of joy.

It is so easy to get bent out of shape, when you start comparing yourself to other people.

We all do it. Whether it’s somebody we grew up with, a relative, or just someone we know in passing, we all do it.

You and I look at what they’re doing and what they have. And without really thinking about what we’re doing to ourselves, we stack up what they’re doing and what they have, against what we’re doing and what we have.

They’re building a new house.

I’m fixing a leaky toilet.

They’ve got a new Mercedes.

Your F-150 is old enough to drive itself.

They’re going to the Mexican Riviera.

You and I are going to the County Fair.

Keep it up. And before we know it, we’re miserable.

Maybe we spend money we don’t have, trying to keep up. Maybe we resent them for their success.

How come I didn’t get the promotion? How come they hired her and not me? How come he gets all the breaks?

The thing is, it doesn’t matter how good you and I are doing. There will always be someone doing better than we are.

Someone who has more money. Or a better job. Or more talent. Or a nicer house. Or more opportunities. Or a newer car. Or more lucky breaks. Or cuter kids. Or a better education. Or more followers on social media.

Or whatever it takes to make you and me feel like we’re falling behind.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

And it’s exactly what St. Paul is talking about in today’s reading.

Look at the list, the list of all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Nobody gets all of them. God gives each one of us different gifts.

If you’re looking at someone else’s gifts, how they’re using gifts that you don’t have, and saying “I wish I could do what they do” – you are setting yourself up to be miserable.

Those are their gifts. Not yours.

Now, if you’re looking at someone who has the same gifts as you, how they’re using gifts that you do have, and saying “I wish I could do what they do” – you are still setting yourself up to be miserable.

That’s what they have been called to do with those gifts. Not you.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with wanting to do more. Or wanting to do better.

There’s nothing wrong with having a vision, a dream. With having goals. With wanting to use what God has given to you. That’s why God gave them to you.

But your gifts, the gifts that God has given to you, they have to come first. Your vision, your dream, your goals need to be grounded in the gifts that God has given to you.

If it’s not, then you know it’s not from God.

Because God is not going to call you to do something, not without also giving you the gifts you need to do it.

How do you know what God is calling you to do?

For some of us, it can be one of those moments like St. Paul had on the road to Damascus. Clouds parting, blinding light, knocked to the ground moments. Where God’s like,

“Now that I have your attention, I’m going to tell you just how this goes. In words of one syllable. So even you can follow along.”

What if you haven’t one of those moments? What if God hasn’t knocked you to the ground and spelled it out for you? Does that mean God isn’t calling you to do something with the gifts He’s given you?

No. It just means that you’re not as much of a blockhead as St. Paul.

Understand that God is shameless. God will do what it takes to get through to you.

The fact that God hasn’t knocked you to the ground - yet - is a good sign.

So how do you find out what God is calling you to do? Without getting knocked to the ground?

Get in agreement with God.

Get in agreement with God by taking up your birthright, the birthright you received at your Baptism. The birthright of grace that God has prepared for each one of His children through the Sacraments.

Receive the grace of Reconciliation. Receive the grace of the Eucharist.

Grounded in the peace that only comes from God’s grace, like Samuel, say to God “speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

Then, grounded in God’s peace, listen from your heart. You won’t be disappointed.

Trust God to know His children.

God speaks to each of us in the way that we best can hear Him. And we hear Him best when we are in agreement with God, when we are in God’s peace.

If you’re bold enough to listen, God may give you the whole thing.

Or just the next step.

He may plant a deep desire in you to take on something that seems way too big.

Or a sudden impulse to do something that seems very small.

Then what? Then, as Mary says in today’s Gospel, “Do whatever He tells you.”

This, beloved, is how the world changes. This is where saints come from.

Not when somebody else does something. Not when things get better. Not when something happens somewhere else.

But when you “Do whatever He tells you.”

When you do. When you start using, really using, the gifts that God has given to you. To do the things that God has called you to do. The things that only you can do.

“Do whatever He tells you.”

When you do, it will change you.

And you will change the world.

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The time in between

A Moment before the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s January something. After New Year’s and before…anything. The dead of winter.

The time in between.

Christmas is gone. Everything is put away. Even the Catholics have finally let go of it.

The church feels empty. In the time in between.

But the time in between is not barren.

The externals are gone. For a reason.

The time in between is a pivot moment.

Everything shifts in the time in between.

There is movement. It’s subtle at first. Almost too small to see.

But move it does.

Away from the distractions. And towards our deepest nature.

Towards the gifts we have been given. Towards the things only we can do. Towards who God made us to be.

Towards God’s plan.

Towards our purpose.

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Where is God when it hurts?

Where is God when it hurts? How come I can’t feel God’s presence when I’m suffering?

That absence is something that happens to everyone at some point.

But why? If God’s very nature is love, why is God absent when love is most needed?

When my daughter was in grade school, she had a terrible, terrible day at school.

Our family was dealing with some difficult things back then.

And in the horrible ways that children are cruel, when her classmates found out, they attacked her. For something she didn’t do. Something she had no control over.

Even the ones who said they were her friends.

When I got home from work, she was crying unconsolably in her room.

I just stood there in the doorway. With my heart breaking for her. Watching her sob. Wishing I could make it all just go away for her.

They had hurt her so much that she was lost in her grief. She was crying so hard that it was several minutes before she realized that I was there.

Before she looked up and came over to me. So I could hold her while she cried.

It’s the same kind of thing with God.

We get so hurt by the things that happen to us, that sometimes we get lost in our grief. And we can’t see anything but the thing that hurt us. Not even God.

Where does God go when we’re hurting?

Nowhere. God is right here. Where He always is.

With the love that He has had for you since before you were born.

With His heart breaking for you.

Waiting for you to look up. So He can hold you while you cry.

That’s where God is when it hurts.

Even if you can’t feel it right now.

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Out of ideas

About 3 months after everyone else (at least that’s what it feels like), even the Church has stopped Christmas-ing. Finally. 

Everything’s green. ‘Cause we’re out of ideas. See you at Easter. 

No.  Not even close.   

Last Sunday (the Baptism of the Lord) took us from the soft focus images of Christmas to a different view of Jesus. 

Not just Jesus as adult. But Jesus in action. 

That’s what the season after Christmas is all about. Getting to know the one who came at Christmas. 

Finding out who Jesus really is.

And what that really means for our lives.

Turns out there’s a lot going on between now and Ash Wednesday. 

More on this Thursday.

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Labels

I made a mistake this week.

I told a someone that I was Catholic. And that I was a deacon.

And that was all she needed to know.

What she said next made it clear that I hated women. That I was trying to take the world back to the Dark Ages. And that if I wasn’t personally sexually abusing children, then I was involved in covering it up.

Of course, none of that is true.

But for her, knowing that I was a Catholic, and a deacon, that was all she needed to know.

She had labeled me. With that label, she knew everything she needed to know about me. No further thought needed.

The thing is, she’s not unique.

Truth be told, her approach to me – learn enough about me to find out what label to apply, and then deal with me according to her assumptions about that label, with no need for further thought – that’s normal for us.

You have to admit, it does make everything a lot simpler. The problem is, that simplicity comes at a price.

Soren Kierkegaard put it this way, “when you label me, you negate me.”

The price of the simplicity gained by labeling? The humanity of the person getting the label.

Even so, labeling people is normal for us.

Because labeling is so well-engrained into our culture, whether it’s politics or public discourse, fake news or real news, entertainment or social media, it’s hard to avoid people who are using labels.

And way too easy to do it ourselves.

Look at your own social media accounts. Twenty bucks says that in the last month you have, without really thinking about it, forwarded a rant against a label that you can’t stand. Or a joke that finds its humor in giving someone a label.

The thing is, I can’t take that bet. I checked my own social media. I’ve done it too.

And it’s not just that you and I do it to other people.

Because labeling is so well-engrained into our culture, you and I even do it to ourselves.

We’ll grab a label for ourselves – Republican, Democrat, conservative, progressive, traditionalist, feminist, libertarian, environmentalist, whatever – the specific label really doesn’t matter. But what comes next, that does matter.

We’ll grab that label for ourselves, and then act like that label – whatever it is – is the defining character of our lives. As if that one label fully expressed the totality of who we are.

Kierkegaard was right when he said, “when you label me, you negate me.” But there’s something else that’s true.

When I label me, I negate me.

Labelling ourselves comes at a price. The price of our own humanity.

And that includes our ability to empathize. To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. To see something in others that’s just like something in us.

When we label others and label ourselves, we lose the ability to see what we have in common with them. Unless they have our same label, we won’t be able to see what we share with them. Because we’re focusing on something that is only a small part of them. And only a small part of us.

Have you ever seen a river stone? A river stone is a stone that’s been in a river so long, that so much water has washed over, that it is completely smooth. So smooth that there are no corners or edges. When you turn it over in your hand, it’s perfectly smooth.

Really, it only has one side that wraps around in every direction.

You can call a river stone whatever color it is. And then you’re done. You’ve done a pretty complete, pretty accurate job of describing it. Because that’s all there is to a river stone, with its one side.

That doesn’t work with people. Because people aren’t river stones. People don’t have just one side.

People are more like diamonds.

Your basic diamond, an engagement ring diamond, has at least 58 sides to it. Tiny sides, called facets.

Together, all of those tiny sides make up the whole diamond. If one of those tiny sides was missing, you’d notice that something was off.

But each one of those sides is so tiny that no one of them can show you everything there is to know about that diamond. It is only when they are taken together that they can tell you what you need to know about that diamond.

People are at least as complex as diamonds.

Because of that, when we put a label on someone or on ourselves, even if we’re right in using that label, we aren’t saying very much. That label, even if it’s right, tells us 1/58th of what there is to know.

Probably less.

There is, however, one label that does matter. And we hear it in today’s Gospel.

As Jesus is being baptized, God says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.”

I don’t know whether you remember your baptism. Maybe you were baptized as an infant and don’t remember anything about it. Maybe you were baptized as an adult, and were so busy remembering to go here, and say these words, and stand there, that you didn’t hear it.

I know when my kids were baptized I was so worried about godparents, and who was going to bring grandma, and getting pictures, that I didn’t hear it.

But when I did my first baptism here at St. Al’s, I heard it.

I heard what God said at that first baptism in the Jordan.

It’s what God says at every baptism.

It’s what God said at your baptism.

And what God is still saying to you today.

“You are my beloved child; in you I am well pleased.”

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Throwback to Advent

There’s the pop culture version of Christmas (Christmas!!).  And there’s the Church’s version of Christmas (Christmas!!).

Either way, there’s nothing like Christmas (Christmas!!). 

In the middle of all of the awesome that is Christmas, it’s easy to lose track of what led up to Christmas. Advent. 

There’s more to Advent than just waiting for Christmas. 

Advent is really about the reason for Christmas. And it’s about what happens after Christmas.

Which is why the readings for Sunday are a throwback to Advent. 

And why Sunday’s Gospel shows us just what John meant about the one who would come after him.

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Binge watching Advent

I love binge watching. Hardcore binge watching. A whole season (or more) at a stretch. 

Pick your show. When you binge watch, you always see stuff you missed if when you watched it one episode a week. 

And it’s not just the details. It’s the big picture too. When you binge watch, you get to see how everything fits together. 

The problem?  Finding the time to do it. 

During Advent, there was a lot of stuff going on. A lot of big picture stuff.

And in the run up to Christmas (Christmas!!), the big picture was easy to miss. And that’s the “why” behind the readings for this weekend. For the Baptism of the Lord. 

This weekend, we’re binge watching Advent. And we’ll do it all in one Mass.

More on this tomorrow.

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Beloved

I’ve known both them professionally for over 20 years.  

Until last week, I had never seen them together. They’ve got different last names.

I knew they were both married. I just didn’t know it was to each other.

So when I bumped into them together last week, and finally figured it out, I was stunned.

We’ve all seen people who are perfect together. Marriages that make perfect sense.

Theirs isn’t one of them. They are so very different. In so many ways.

Yet to watch them, it was obvious. To her, he was it. In his eyes, she was the one and only.

Today’s first reading starts with an odd word. “Beloved.”

It’s odd, because St. John is using “beloved” as a noun. As a proper name.

One that’s addressed to you and me, to each one of us.

Why?

To let us know how God sees things. How God sees each one of us.

In God’s eyes, you are it.

To God, you are the one and only.

Not because you and God are perfect together. Because you’re so great. Or because of something you’ve done to deserve it.

Even if there’s something you’re ashamed of. Something you’d rather forget. Something you pray no one ever puts it online.

None of that will change how God sees you.

Because in God’s eyes, you are the beloved.

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Still Christmas-ing

The Church is still Christmas-ing.

Seriously? After all, the secular version of Christmas took months and months to prepare for. And it only lasted a day. 

(That’s it? All tuckered out after just one day? There, there, you poor thing.)   

The Catholic version of Christmas starts with a month (Advent) of preparing for – more like obsessing about – Christmas. 

After all that, no way it’s done in a day. In the Church’s view, the more you prepare, the more you celebrate. Kind of like eternity.

There’s a lot more to Christmas than the Nativity. Which is why Christmas gets its own season, full of extra stuff.

This Sunday? It’s the last of the big days of Christmastide. 

More on this Thursday.

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Run

Good advice from St. John in today’s first reading. About trying spirits. About knowing which ones are from God. And which ones aren’t.

When you hear that, it’s easy to think of evil spirits. Demons. Stuff that sounds like it's right out of a horror movie.

For those kinds of spirits, really, most of us don’t need to figure anything out. We know where that sort of thing comes from. And it’s not God. I’m not denying the reality of those kinds of spirits. It’s way too obvious.

But for most of us, there’s another sort of spirit that plagues our lives. And it isn’t nearly so obvious.

It’s the sort of spirit that creeps up on us slowly. Almost like a mood. Or a feeling.

One that repeats itself throughout the day. Day after day. Until it becomes part of our normal.

In a thousand different ways, it’s a spirit that slowly comes between you and God.

It’s the spirit that keeps you too tired to come to Mass. Too busy to read the Bible. Too distracted to pray.

You may not see it coming. But you’ll know it when it starts working on you.

What does it feel like when you miss Mass? When you don’t receive the grace Our Lord gives us in the Sacrament?

What does it feel like when you don’t read your Bible for a while? When God’s Word starts to fade from your mind?

What does it feel like when you don’t pray? Especially when things get tough. And if you’re not praying, they will get tough.

That feeling? That’s what I’m talking about.

That feeling? That’s not from God.

It doesn’t feel right. And it shouldn’t. God never meant for you to feel like that.

Because you and I were never meant to do things by ourselves. Without God.

So what do we do?

The moment it starts feeling like that, call it out. Recognize it for what it is. Because it’s not from God.

Then drop it. And run.

Back to grace. Back to love. Back to God.

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In spite of me

Lord, I wanted to start the day with you.

But there was so much to do. So many things demanding my attention. Nothing that couldn’t wait. Yet all of it impatient.

There’s something I wanted to tell you. And I lost what it was.

 

Lord, I wanted to stop during the day to spend a moment with you.

But so much was happening. So many people demanding my attention. And the habits of busyness are so hard to shake.

There’s something I wanted to tell you. And everything else got in the way.

 

Lord, I wanted to close the day with you.

But I was so tired. So many errands to run and bills to pay. Meetings to go to and laundry undone.

There’s something I wanted to tell you. And I never got around to it.

 

Lord, forgive me for giving you back only this borrowed moment.

But there’s something I wanted to tell you. Thank you for holding me close, even when I didn’t know how far I had strayed. For picking up the pieces.

For loving me in spite of me.

 

Lord, thank you for not giving up on me. And for the grace to try again.

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Be who God is calling you to be

In today’s Gospel, people have all kinds of expectations for John the Baptist.

Their questions give it away. Some of them have pretty amazing ideas about him. Some of them think the worst. None of them get it right.

But look at how John responds. To all of them.

No matter whether it’s people who like him, hoping he’ll meet their expectations. Or people who hate him, hoping to tear him down.

He’s saying the same thing. Over and over.

Why? Because John knows who he is in God’s eyes. And John knows what God has called him to do.

That’s why John the Baptist is such a powerful witness. His message rings true. And lives are changed.

Because John is busy. Busy being who God called him to be.

That’s why John is the perfect example for us as we start this New Year.

Do you want your New Year’s resolutions to really mean something? Do you want to look back from December, and be amazed at what you have done this year?

Then follow John’s lead.

Take the time to know, to really know, deep in your heart just who you are in God’s eyes.

You are someone who God loves. So much that if you were the only one who needed it, Christmas, and the road to Calvary that follows Christmas, still would have happened.

Just for you.

Take the time to listen, to really listen to God, to know what God has called you to do.

And then get busy. Not with people who want you to meet their expectations. Or people who want to tear you down.

But busy being who God is calling you to be.

Not by yourself. But with God.

If you let Him, God will be with you. Every step of the way.

Do it.

I can’t wait to see what God does in your life this year!

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It begins now

A Moment before Mary the Mother of God

Some people accuse the Church of taking over pagan festivals and civil holidays. Usually it’s some bizarre claim about Christmas.

The thing is, they’re right. Mostly. They’ve got the right idea. Just the wrong holiday. It’s not Christmas.

But New Year’s? Guilty as charged.

The Church is definitely taking over New Year’s. That’s what the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God is all about.

Why? Because the Church gets the importance of the New Year.

Think about Morning Prayer for a moment. Why is the Church so big on it?

Because the Church knows that how you start the day sets you up for the rest of it.

The best way to start? By relying on God.

But even if yesterday was a great day, you cannot rely on it for today. There’s no carry-over from yesterday.

As C.S. Lewis said, “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day, as if nothing had yet been done.”

And New Year’s?

It’s like Morning Prayer. But for the whole year.

Just like each day, how you start the year sets you up for the rest of it.

So how do we start?

As we often do, we find our model for doing it right in Mary.

In the Gospel it says, “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

It seems like a small thing. An odd, passing detail.

But it’s actually the secret to starting things right. And keeping them there.

What are you pondering in your heart? What messages are you replaying for yourself over and over in your thoughts?

Are you choosing the message? Or is it just whatever pops into your head?

Because that’s what you are pondering in your heart. The messages that you are replaying for yourself over and over.

And the messages that you replay for yourself over and over are powerful.

The things that you ponder in your heart will shape your day. Your year. Your life.

You can’t avoid it. That’s the power of the messages that you are replaying for yourself over and over.

But I must warn you. Negative things are the loudest things.

And if you are not deliberately choosing the messages that are replaying for yourself over and over, it will be the negative ones that you hear. Because negative things are the loudest things.

Things like “can’t,” and things like “should have.”

Things like “failure,” and things like “not good enough.” 

If you let them, they will replay for you over and over. They will become the things that you ponder in your heart. And they will shape your day. Your year. Your life.

Nobody wants that. Nobody wants a day or a year, much less a life, shaped by “can’t” and “should have.” Shaped by “failure” and “not good enough.” 

So what do we do?

Look to Mary. And follow her lead.

What she is pondering in her heart?  

The promises of God. Like the Annunciation. God’s fulfillment of those promises. Like the Nativity.

None of it in the way she would have expected. Yet all of it better than she could have imagined.

Replacing man’s “can’t” with God’s “can.”

Replacing “not good enough” with a God who is more than enough.

Relying on the one constant running through it all. The love of God.

That’s what she’s pondering in her heart. And it will change the world.

So what do you want to change?

What kind of day do you want to have? What kind of year, what kind of life?

It begins now.

And you have the power. You get to decide.

What are you pondering in your heart?

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That’s enough Christmas for one year

Christmas is here at last! Aaaaand it’s gone. 

At least that’s what the stores look like. The after-Christmas sales are just about done. And all of the Valentine's Day stuff is coming out.

The Church took her time getting to Christmas. And she's in no hurry to leave. 

So while everybody else has Christmas trees on the curb, the Church is just getting started.

Which means?

All the Christmas stuff that was still in church last Sunday (Holy Family) was no accident. And it'll still be there this Sunday. 

Because there's a lot more to Christmas than Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. Christmas gets its own liturgical season (Christmastide).

And we’re only half way through it. 

More on this Thursday.

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Literally, God with us.

A Moment before the Feast of the Holy Family

Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Family. 

Sometimes called “There’s church on Sunday? But we were just there for Christmas.”

Christmas shows us how much God loves us. With the Incarnation, God is holding nothing back.  Literally.

If becoming one of us is what it takes to help us, God is more than willing to do that. 

The Feast of the Holy Family is all about the Incarnation. But it’s not just a re-hash of Christmas. 

“Emmanuel” (one of the names for Jesus) means “God with us.” Not just in the sense of God being for us. God being on our side. Although that’s true too. 

Emmanuel is a verb. It tells us exactly what God is doing. Not at a distance. But in the most intimate of settings.    

It’s God dealing with everything that each one of us deals with. All the good. All the bad. And from the very beginning.

Literally, God with us. 

All for the chance of getting through to us.

It’s that kind of love.

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A Moment for Christmas Day

Each of the Christmas Gospels gives us a different perspective on Christmas.  Together, they give us the whole story of Christmas. 

The Gospels for Christmas Eve and Midnight Mass focus on the people and details of the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, etc.

The readings are very human and very intimate. 

The readings for Christmas are different. They step back from the intimacy of the earlier readings. They give us the big picture of Christmas. 

The first reading tells about God intervening, acting directly to comfort his people and to restore them. 

The Gospel for Christmas shows Jesus fulfilling what the prophets foretold. 

It shows us that the child born to poor travelers is none other than the eternal Word.

That God with us, is one of us. 

Readings for Christmas Day

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A Moment before Midnight Mass

One of the mixed blessings of the “Holiday Season™” is Christmas specials. Mostly old-school stuff. Repeated endlessly. 

For the lame ones, it can be mind-numbing. But for the good ones? It’s amazing! 

One of the very best? “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” 

From the first time I saw it, I loved it. I still do.

It’s one of the reasons Midnight Mass means so much to me.

Here’s why. When Linus tells Charlie Brown “that’s what Christmas is all about.”

He’s just finished quoting the Gospel for Midnight Mass. 

Readings for Midnight Mass

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A Moment before Christmas Eve

Days run from midnight to midnight, right?

Sometimes.

For Sundays and things like Christmas and Easter, the day starts the evening of the day before, on the “eve.” Which means the evening mass on Christmas Eve is a mass of Christmas Day (the first of four).

Christmas Eve pulls together all of Advent. Especially with the first two readings. The first reading rejoices as all the prophecies a brought to fulfillment. The second reading recalls God’s promise to David and the words of John the Baptist about the one to come after him.

And then? Then the Gospel bogs down in the genealogy of Jesus.

Why? To show how God's promise to David is being fulfilled in Jesus.

There’s a saying that “Behind every great man there’s a great woman.” 

The Christmas Eve Gospel turns that upside down. Showing us the great man behind the great woman. And the silent “yes” to God behind the greatest “yes” to God.

Readings for Christmas Eve

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Come for Christmas!

The purple stuff is gone. And the Church has (finally) caught up with everybody else. 

There must have been some back-pressure from all that holding off during Advent. Because now it’s like Christmas exploded all over the church. 

What if you didn’t see all the purple during Advent?

Maybe you don’t go that often. Maybe it’s been a while. But you’re thinking about coming for Christmas. 

Yes, please! 

We would love it if you came for Christmas!

You can sit with me. 

If you haven’t been in a while, we changed a few words a couple years ago.

Mostly it’s nothing big, but that part where everybody says “and also with you?” Now it’s “and with your spirit.”

I got you. 

So I’ve got “my” (official) pew in the back. But for Christmas, it’s your pew too.

Just make sure we save room for this guy.

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