As you can see from the beautiful decorations we are very near the celebration of Christmas. This year the decorations were once again provided by our parish Filipino Community who are celebrating Simbang Gabi It is a Christmas novena, something like the Posadas which are celebrated in Hispanic Community.
This year with the Christmas celebration so near we find our world in a time of confusion and darkness. We've been made aware of the terrible weapons of mass destruction which exist in Iraq and other countries. We've also seen some of the images of the strikes against Iraq. I do not intend to give a personal analysis, but I want you to be aware of the concerns of our Holy Father. You may have heard that he was quite critical of the strikes. Not that he does not realize the menace of Saddam & his weapons, but for two principal reasons:
1. The inevitable civilian casualties. Do you remember that it was only well after the last Gulf war that we realized how extensive was the death & destruction to the civilian population of Iraq?
2. The unilateral nature of the strikes. There was not enough consensus from other nations for such a serious action. I would like to read to you from the Vatican's statement: "The Holy See agrees completely with what the Secretary General of the United nations stated that it was a 'sad day' for the UN and the world. Naturally the Holy see hopes that his aggression ends as soon as possible and that international order is re-established."
I know it is almost instinctive for us as Americans to rally around our soldiers. I do too. My niece's husband is soldier. But as Catholics we also have to take into account the serious concerns of our Holy Father. His words on this matter* are not a question of faith & morals which would bind us a Catholics, but still what he says must be part of our prayerful reflection. They can help us in forming our prayers during these final days of Advent.
Very soon we will be celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace. The Old Testament reading and the Gospel direct us to the inner meaning of Jesus' birth. We hear the prediction in Isaiah that the Virgin would be with child and give birth to a son whose name is Emmanuel (God with us). This prophecy was fulfilled seven centuries later when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and told her she would bear a son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
One of the central articles of our faith is that Jesus was "conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." That statement is so important that each Sunday we are instructed to bow at that point when we say the Profession of Faith. At our Christmas Masses this week will we make an even more dramatic gesture by genuflecting on one knee. This doctrine is sometimes called the virginal conception of Jesus.
Medical science can help us understand more deeply this teaching. In recent years medical researchers have learned many things about the beginning of human life. We have of course all seen the wonderful ultra-sound pictures of the unborn child, the heartbeat, the developing organs and so on. Besides showing us these images, doctors can tell us a great deal about the days when the child is microscopically small. In fact, scientists know a lot about the first moment, when the ovum is fertilized. They say that at the instant of conception, our DNA molecules contain more information than an entire sent of the Encyclopedia Britannica!
I'd like to help you imagine that. I have a friend who about ten years ago bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. he decided he was not just going to leave it on the shelf for reference, but to actually read them. I was still down in Peru when he wrote to tell me about the project. At that time he had gotten, appropriately to the word Addiction. He has since spent about 15 minutes a day, reading four or five pages and he is now up to the letter "P". (I suppose for "persistence" or "perseverance.") His decade long project still has not involved as much information as the DNA of a newly conceived human being.
What an incredible work is each human being! Science helps us appreciate what we always have known by faith--conception is the key moment, the first moment, in the existence of every human being. The same was the case with Jesus. That is why the Apostles creed speaks about Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation began at that moment when he took flesh from the Virgin. This is a great miracle--but in a sense no more astounding that any other divine intervention in our world. The God who created the world in an explosion of light and energy could surely organize a particular combination of genes and DNA in a Virgin's womb. All this happened, as we hear in today's Gospel, "by the power of the Holy Spirit." The Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, overshadowed the Virgin and thus Jesus was conceived.
God did something physically in Mary that he desires to do spiritually in each one of us, beginning with her spouse, St. Joseph. Now you can imagine that when he found out that Mary was pregnant, he was hurt, confused, probably angry. But he loved Mary too much to take his anger out on her. Instead, as the Gospel says, he decided to divorce her quietly. This is the point where the Holy Spirit intervenes in Joseph's life. He sends an angel with the words, "Do not fear." In others word, "I have a plan. Be patient. And do what I tell you."
Joseph obeyed and the Holy Spirit gave him peace and joy. He didn't remove all the confusion, but he gave him enough peace to move ahead. Joseph lived the paradox of faith: joy in spite of sadness, peace even in the midst of confusion. I am no St. Joseph, but I had a powerful experience of that about five months ago. Most of you know that this year past year has been marked for me by the death of my dear friend, Fr. Mike Holland. I've been thinking about him so much because of his dramatic gesture last year. On December 12, in the presence of the entire congregation, he knelt down before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He said that altho he did not understand why he was stricken with incurable cancer, he wanted to dedicate what remained of his life to her. Then he sang, solo, the beautiful Marian hymn, "Buenos Dias, Paloma Blanca." "Good morning, White Dove, I come to greet you..." Tears flowed freely in the congregation.
On July 24 of this year, early in the morning, Fr. Holland died. He was surrounded by the parish youth group who prayed the rosary. At his funeral, Fr. Paul Magnano went over to the same image where Fr. Holland had prayed seven months before. He led the congregation in singing, Buenos Dias, Paloma Blanca. At that moment I naturally felt a deep sadness at the loss of my friend. But I also felt something else. Those of you who have had a similar experience will understand. I was filled with an inexplicable joy, a joy beyond what a human being can grasp. It was the Holy Spirit.
This joy of the Holy Spirit is related to the Virgin Mary and the conception of Jesus within her. Our confirmation candidates had a little glimpse of it on Dec. 8. At our evening Mass in honor of the Immaculate Conception of Mary they were consecrated to her and received what is called the miraculous medal. The people who were present that evening were impressed to see these young people, juniors and seniors, mainly young men, take that step. For all of us it is a sign of what we want to celebrate this Christmas--the coming of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like St. Joseph let's put aside our doubts, our hurts and draw close to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the Child she brings us--by the Power of the Holy Spirit.
*A more complete version of the Holy Father's statement:
"Peace once again is threatened in the Middle East. Reconciliation, based on dialogue, justice and the rights of each person and every people to live in security and respect for the specific character of each one, is more urgent than ever."
The pontiff did not enter into the merits of the bombings, but limited himself to some general principles: "It corresponds to the international community to favor solutions which lead to harmony and renewal of life within a society and to assume its responsibilities, in order to avoid uncontrollable options which make victims out of civilian populations," he explained recognizing implicitly that this type of decision cannot be taken by one nation unilaterally.
Vatican spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, declared, "The Holy See agrees completely with what the secretary General of the United Nations (Kofi Annan) stated that it was a 'sad day' for the UN and the world. Naturally the Holy See hopes that this agression ends as soon as possible and that international order is re-established."
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