Monday, November 28, 2016

November 27, 2016
Advent Sunday
Many of us have our own special Christmas memories. Don’t we wish that we could have “been there” as they say, and seen the scene of the first Christmas? I sure do. It was then that God came in the birth of Jesus to visit and redeem His people. It was there that God entered history to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. To save us!
For me, one of my many memories is of the Miracle on 34th. Street. I never tire of the movie. Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn tell the story of Santa Claus, if you will. It captures the spirit of Christmas if anything does. Anytime I see the excitement in a child’s eye at Christmas time, I no longer doubt Santa Claus. Neither did the real St. Nicholas have any doubts in the birth of Christ.
There, through a little boy born in a stable, God’s will, God’s idea, God’s intention, God’s Word, God’s purpose and God’s love became flesh and blood and came to live among us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) This is the miracle of Christmas.
As we begin a new Church year on this day, I will not be focusing on the readings we have, but I hope to reflect a bit this Advent in a special way to help us awaken within us the Holy Spirit and gain some true devotion for the season. We’ll call it an Advent Study, much like Bible study, but on a shorter topic. In all of the hustle and bustle at this time of year, we tend to lose focus of the real meaning of the season. Yes, we hear those who say “Jesus is the reason for the season”, but let’s face it; there is a growing segment of the population who are celebrating the holiday with little to no religious connotation to it with the exception of some of their decorations.
Advent is a time to help us prepare and be in the right spirit. Let’s start with a little story I read that will help set the mood for the first week of Advent.
His name was Joey. Joey was nine years old and in the fourth grade. He was so excited because his teacher, Miss Thompson, had chosen him to be in the annual Christmas Play. Joey was going to be one of the Christmas Angels, and he was more than a little nervous, because he had a speaking part in the play, and memorizing lines was not his strong suit. He had only one line, but Miss Thompson told him that it was one of the most important lines in the whole story.
Joey was to play the Angel of Christmas, and at the most dramatic moment in the pageant, he was to say, “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.” This was a problem for Joey, because he didn’t know what those words meant. He had never in his whole life said the word behold, and the words glad tidings were also not to be found anywhere in his nine-year-old vocabulary.
Miss Thompson sensed Joey’s frustration, and she said to him, “Joey, simply imagine that you have just heard the most wonderful news, and you have run to tell your friends all about it. That’s what ‘Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy’ means.” Joey took in her explanation and he went to work. Finally, he mastered the line, and he could say it with dramatic flair and boldness, “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy!”
And when the night of the big performance came, Joey was ready. At least, he was ready until the curtains opened and he saw all those people out there, and then there were those bright spotlights shining directly in his face. Joey got a classic case of stage fright and his mind went completely blank. For the life of him, he could not remember what Miss Thompson had told him about running to tell his friends some wonderful news, so when it came time for his line, instead of saying, “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy!” Joey blurted out, “Boy, oh boy, do I have good news for you!” The audience laughed loudly and gave Joey a standing ovation.
Joey’s got the words all wrong, but got the spirit right. Christmas does have good news for us; incredible news, the greatest news the world has ever heard.
Christmas has some wonderful lessons to teach us. We see, for example, in the first chapter of Luke, a scene where Mary, the expecting mother of Jesus, has gone for a visit with her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting a child. Elizabeth, although quite old to be having a baby, will soon miraculously deliver a baby boy who will grow up to be John the Baptist. The forerunner who will prepare the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. God blessed both Mary and Elizabeth with miracle births and He will bless the world with the miracle of Christmas. We might notice that God first sends his Angel to Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, then to Mary and Joseph and then to the shepherds. And in each case the Angel basically says, “Boy oh boy, do I have good news for you!”
There are three significant things further. First, let’s look at Mary. Mary had a strong, unflinching and unwavering faith. Like the song asks; did she really comprehend who her baby boy was? Did she realize what her Son would do in the world and for the world, the miracles He would perform, or the good news He would bring? Did she know that He would be the perfect Lamb? Did she know that the child sleeping in her arms was the great I Am?
There is much to learn from Mary. She has so much she can teach us about real faith. When we see her beautifully portrayed in Christmas pageants and on Christmas Cards, Nativity scenes and even postage stamps, she looks so serene and lovely making the whole matter seem so simple and easy.
However, let us think realistically for a moment. Consider what Mary went through.  The whispers behind her back. The finger pointing. The false accusations. The raised eyebrows. The questions. The gossip. The criticism. The family pressures. The crude jokes. The cruel laughter. The poverty. The heavy taxes. The journey back to Joseph’s place of birth all because of a census all the while she should not have been traveling in such a manner. The birth in a stable, with no doctor, midwife, no medicine and no anesthetic. (Sounds like something right out of a secular job!) She had nothing but faith in God.
Mary was a teenage girl from a poor family who lived in an obscure village, which was under the rule of a despised foreign power. Then one day, out of the blue, an Angel came to her with a message from God, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” And all of this was going to happen without Mary being intimate with a man!
Now be honest; would you have believed that? An Angel! An Angel of God of all things, comes to you and tells you that message. The remarkable thing is that Mary did. That’s real faith! She is willing to hear God’s word, obey God’s will, and entrust her future to God’s hands. How would she explain this? How would she explain this to her parents? How would she tell Joseph? They were legally betrothed. They had not yet consummated their marriage, but they were considered as good as married, and in those days when you became formally engaged as they were, the only way you could be separated was through divorce. Doesn’t sound like any of the debates about marriage we have in this day and age, now does it? The government had nothing to do with it back then. How could she tell Joseph that she was going to have a baby? How would he handle it? What would the neighbors say? Fortunately for her, they did not have telephones or television then.
The whole thing was a tough situation. Any one of us in this room would probably have told God to find someone else for the job. Not Mary. She did not know what was ahead of her and her Son, but her answer to the Angel was a model of faith, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” She basically said, Lord I trust you completely, so your will be done!
Secondly, when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, it is very heartwarming to see how Elizabeth responds. No jealousy, no skepticism, no cynicism or suspicious questions. Just a loving affirmation with positive reinforcement. We all need someone like that.
We all need positive reinforcement and that is one of the many great messages of Christmas. God, through the gift of the Christ child, reaches out to us with love and encouragement and affirmation. He wants us to live in the spirit as Elizabeth did. God wants us to celebrate one another and to give one another the positive reinforcement, love and encouragement we need.
Let’s put into perspective. Some years ago at a university in the Midwest, some students in a psychology class were studying the power of positive reinforcement, the impact it has on a person when you give encouragement, and the debilitating effect that comes when positive reinforcement is withheld. The psychology professor was called out of the room for a few moments one day. Now, leaving psychology students alone even for a few minutes is risky business, as the professor soon found out. The students decided to have some fun with the professor and, at the same time, to test his theories about positive reinforcement.
The professor had the habit of pacing back and forth across the front of the classroom as he lectured. So the students decided, without the professor’s knowledge, to try an experiment on him. Every time the professor moved toward the radiator in the classroom, they would give him dramatic positive reinforcement. They would say, “Yes! All right! Amen!” They would applaud and smile and nod and take notes like crazy. With verbal expression and body language they affirmed and encouraged him as he walked toward the radiator.
But when he moved away from the radiator, the students would do the opposite. They would moan and groan and yawn and stretch and put their pencils down. They would look out the window and nod off as though they were about to fall asleep, and they would look and act as if they were bored to tears. Now, they never told the professor what they were doing, and he never figured it out. But by the end of the week, he was giving his entire lecture sitting on the radiator!
We all need positive reinforcement, and this is one of the great messages of Christmas. God, through the gift of the Christ Child, reaches out to us with love and encouragement and affirmation, and he wants us to live in that spirit, as Elizabeth did. God wants us to celebrate one another and to give one another the positive reinforcement, love, and encouragement we all need.
Lastly today we think about the gracious, loving, forgiving, seeking, and saving action of God. This is the good news of Christmas! God will not give up on us. God will not desert us. God will not let us go. God comes to where we are, looking for us with His amazing grace and His sacrificial, redemptive love.
Let’s look at a true story to illustrate. In 1989 an earthquake hit Armenia, and over 25,000 people lost their lives. One area hit especially hard had an elementary school in it. After the tremors had stopped, a father of one of the students raced to the school to check on his son. When the father arrived on the scene, he was stunned to see that the school building had been leveled. Looking at the mass of stones and rubble, he remembered a promise he had made to his little boy, Arman. He had told him, “No matter what happens, Arman, I’ll always be there for you.” Remembering his promise, he found the area closest to his son’s classroom and began to pull back the rocks. Others had also come, and they said to the man, “It’s too late. You know they are all gone. No one could survive that! You can’t help them now.” Even a policeman urged him to give up and go home.
But that father refused to quit. For eight hours, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and then thirty-six hours, he continued to dig through the rubble. His hands were raw and his energy gone, but he would not give up. Finally, after thirty-eight wrenching hours, he pulled back a boulder, and he heard voices. He recognized his son’s voice. He called out to him, “Arman! Arman!” and a voice answered him, “Dad, it’s me!” And then the boy said, “I told the other kids not to worry. I told them you would come save us because you promised, ‘No matter what, I’ll always be there for you.’ I knew you would never give up.”
This is the good news of Christmas. God comes into the rubble of our lives and seeks us out and saves us. We see the miracle of Christmas in the faith of Mary and the encouragement of Elizabeth, but most of all, we see it in the saving action of God.
Begin observing Advent this year, by reflecting on the tidings of great joy that arrive each Christmas. Think about how you are transformed by the birth of Jesus. Do you have some joy in your everyday life? Further, think about the good news of our Savior’s birth each day this week, and see if you can recognize ways that you can share the message with others.
Let us pray.
Father God, help us to have faith like Mary. Although everyone’s life is somewhat different, each of us go through trials and tribulations that challenge our faith. During these times, Lord, let us feel Your loving presence ever the more so that we do not lose hope. Help us to trust that You have a plan and it will all work out in the way that is best for those who trust in You.
Help us to offer more support and reinforcement to those in our life so that, they too, can feel the warmth of Your love flowing thru each of us to others. Help us to always trust that You will always be there for us. No matter the situation, good or bad, You are always there alongside of us.
Lastly, we thank You for miracles, and for being able to share the good news of Jesus with others. Help us grow in faith and in love. Prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus, that we may experience the joy and blessings of Christmas. We ask all this, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.