Friday, January 20, 2017

Shining the Light

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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Yesterday I had to traveled Hickory for a meeting at the Catholic Conference Center. I had to be on the road early, so it was still dark when I went to put some packages in my mailbox. The sun had not come up yet, and there was heavy cloud cover, blocking out what little light the moon would have given. My front yard was nearly pitch black. As I cautiously walked forward, I could see the outline of a tree in front of me. Assuming it to be the tree that stands at the base of the steps leading up to our mailbox, I stepped up. I stumbled, however, discovering the ground was flat. This was not the tree by our mailbox. It was a different tree growing in the middle of our yard. I wasn't anywhere near where I thought I was. The near perfect darkness had left me disoriented even in a place as familiar as my front yard.

Later that same day I found myself again disoriented by darkness. It was after sunset as I left the Catholic Conference Center to come home. It is a drive I have made hundreds of times before, but I soon found myself in unfamiliar territory. I had missed my turn. It is a mistake I never would have made in the daylight, but which was all too easy to make at night on those poorly-lit rural roads.

Darkness is oppressive. It prevents us from seeing the world around us. It limits our knowledge of reality. It makes it much harder for us to know where we are supposed to go, and how we are to get there. In our scripture readings this week, the people of Israel are described as "a people who walked in darkness" (Is 9:1). Isaiah is not talking about literal darkness. The sun still rose over Israel. He is talking about a spiritual darkness. Before the coming of Christ, we had a very limited knowledge of God and therefore of reality. We didn't know where we were supposed to go, and we certainly didn't know how to get there.

Christ is often spoken about in terms of light. We speak of Him as the New Dawn. We speak of Him as the Day Star. When we light the Paschal candle at Easter, we proclaim "the light of Christ" that has risen in the world.

Like light, Jesus Christ is revelatory. He reveals God to us. By His light, we have a clearer picture of reality, and our place in it. We can see our sins more clearly (which is not always pleasant, but necessary for spiritual healing). But more importantly, we can see by His light the path we are to take for forgiveness of those sins. Jesus calls Himself the "Way" because by His light we see the way to God.

The nature of light is that it wants to spread out. Light does not want to be contained. When we turn on a lamp, it does not just light up one corner of a room, but the whole room. The sun does not just shine over one town or city, but over the whole world. Even light from distant stars and galaxies streams toward us from millions of light years away.

So, too, the light of Christ wants to be spread. During the Easter Vigil, the pinnacle of the Church's liturgical celebration, we light first the Pascal candle and then each Christian believer lights his or her own small candle from that single flame. The Exultet chant then proclaims the praises of the Pascal candle as being "a fire into many flames divided,yet never dimmed by sharing of its light." This is a beautiful and fitting symbol for the light of Christ, which is never diminished by being spread.

Many today still live in spiritual darkness. The light of Christ wants to be spread, and the way it is spread is through you and me. In our gospel reading after we hear Christ proclaimed as the light that shines on the people in darkness, the very next thing we read is Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow Him and be witnesses to His light. This is how the light is spread, by the witness of Christ's followers.

We mustn't think that the duty to spread the faith falls only on ordained ministers in the Church, or to monks and nuns (or campus ministers). The task of evangelization belongs to all the faithful, and in a special way to the laity, who live and work in the world. The Second Vatican Council points out that for lay people evangelization "acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world" (Lumen Gentium 35).

This is especially true on our college campuses. The best evangelizers on campus are college students. Christian students are in classes, in the dorms, studying, working, living and playing with other college students. It is here that natural relationships are formed. It is here that the witness of a student living a Christian life will be seen and felt. It is here that students will have opportunities to speak about the importance of their faith with their friends, who will be open to receiving that word because they are friends. A priest, a nun, a campus minister cannot do that. Only you can.

Let the light of Christ shine in your life, in your words, and in your witness. Let it burn in you brightly, illuminating the path before you. Follow that path toward holiness, toward peace, and toward God. And lead others down that path by Christ's light shining through you.

Friday, January 13, 2017

That He Might Be Made Known

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Last week we spoke about how Epiphany means "manifestation," or a making known. When the magi came to adore the newborn Christ, it was a manifestation of Jesus' universal kingship beyond the Jewish nation to the rest of the world. Traditionally, the feast of the Epiphany has been linked with two other events in the lift of Christ: the wedding at Cana and Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan. Each of these events represent a manifestation of the Messiah.

At the wedding feast in Cana, recorded in John's gospel, Jesus turns water into wine. This is His first public miracle, by which Jesus makes Himself known. John writes, "Jesus did this as the beginning of His signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed His glory, and His disciples began to believe in Him" (Jn 2:11). 

This past Monday we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and in this Sunday's readings we hear John give account of that baptism. "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon Him... Now I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God" (Jn 1:32-34). John's words call to mind the passage from Matthew's gospel that we read last Monday, recounting the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, and the Father's voice saying, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17).

There is an ancient heresy called Adoptionism which holds that at this moment Jesus was "adopted" by God as His Son, and became the Messiah. This is not true. The Church condemns this position, teaching instead that Jesus was always the Son of God, from all eternity. At His baptism God the Father does not "adopt" Jesus by these words, but proclaims for all who can hear what has always been true.

If Jesus was not adopted as God's Son at His baptism, we might ask, What was the point? What exactly was going on when Jesus was baptized?

When you and I are baptized, several things happen. We are cleansed from original sin. We receive God's sanctifying grace. We are united to Christ's death and resurrection, dying to our self and rising again a new creation. None of these things are applicable to Jesus. Jesus is totally without sin. Jesus is the source of grace. He is the resurrection and the life. Jesus's baptism was obviously for a different purpose than our own. 

So why was Jesus baptized? Theologians have put forth several different possible reasons. One suggestion is that He did it as a model for us to follow. Certainly in His baptism Christ sanctified the waters of the earth and instituted the sacrament of baptism as we know it, opening for us this channel of grace. One thing we know for certain -- Christ was not baptized for Himself, but for us. 

When John sees Jesus in our gospel reading, he says the same words that the priest says to us today before offering us the Eucharist at Mass. "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). St. Paul teaches that Jesus, who was without sin, "became sin on our behalf" so that we might become righteous (1 Cor 5:21). 

When the One who is without sin is baptized for the forgiveness of sin, it prefigures the suffering and death that the One who is without sin will later undergo as punishment for our sin. Christ rising from the waters of the Jordan prefigures His rising from the tomb. Christ's Baptism is therefore a manifestation of His mission -- His mission of salvation, His mission of dying and rising for the sake of us sinners. 

John the Baptist says that the reason he baptized the Christ "was that He might be made known to Israel" (Jn 1:31). But that knowledge is of no benefit to us unless we act on it. When we are baptized, we follow Christ into the waters of the Jordan and join ourselves to His work of redemption; we are joined to His suffering and death; we are joined to His resurrection and life. 

But baptism for us is only the beginning of our Christian journey, just as Christ's baptism marked the beginning of His ministry. Each day of our lives we have the opportunity to live united with Christ, making His mercy manifest in our lives, making Him known to others, and by so doing growing in holiness until that day when we join Christ in death and the hope of eternal resurrection. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

The King Made Manifest

The Epiphany of the Lord

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Epiphany represents the climax of the Christmas season. It recalls the time when wise sages from the east came to Bethlehem to adore a newborn king. It is an image remembered in songs and on Christmas cards, but do we really understand its meaning?

The only time we hear the word "epiphany" used outside of the Christmas season is when someone has a breakthrough idea. They have a moment of clarity that suddenly allows them to see a solution to a problem, or that reveals up a new way of seeing the world. Their eyes open wide and they cry out, "I've had an epiphany!"

An epiphany is more than a good idea. It's an eye-opening understanding. It's like having cataracts removed and seeing the world clearly for the first time. A synonym for "epiphany" is "manifest." To manifest something is to reveal it -- to make known what was hidden. When we read the origin story of a superhero, it's usually about the first manifestation of his or her powers. Through this manifestation they discover who they really are, as does the world.

Epiphany is the manifestation of the greatest superpower the world has ever known - Christ's unstoppable love for us. God desired so much to reconcile sinners that He came to be with us in person. Christ is the manifestation of God in the flesh.

We can think of Christmas as the manifestation of Christ to the Jewish people. For nine months since the annunciation of the angel to Mary, the Divine Son of God remained concealed in His mother's womb. It was not until Christmas day that His presence was announced to Jewish shepherds by choirs of angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest!"

But the manifestation of Christ does not stop at Christmas. Jesus came to the Jewish people, but He did not come only for the Jewish people. Christ came to redeem the whole world, which is why the feast of Epiphany is so important. On this feast we celebrate the fact that Gentile sages came to worship a Jewish baby who was King of the Universe. Their epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the world.

There is a popular phrase that circulates during the Christmas season: "Wise men still seek Him." This is true. We call these eastern sages "wise" because they were seekers of the truth. They sought the truth in the stars and something they saw in the sky at the time of Christ's birth led them to seek out a newborn King in Judea. They discovered the truth, and they followed where it led.

We are called today to be wise men and women. We are called to seek the truth. We seek it in religion. We seek it in science. We seek it in philosophy. We seek it in our lived human experience. All truth reveals to us -- if we have eyes to see -- the one who is Truth, Christ our God. May we have the courage of the magi to leave our comfort zones behind and follow where the Truth leads us; all the way to the manger, all the way to the cross.

By following the Truth as disciples of Christ, we continue to make Him manifest in the world. By living a life united to Him, we make Jesus manifest in our lives. We make Christ manifest in our relationship with others, in how we love our neighbors, care for the poor and sick, and lead others in virtue. As our celebration of Christmas draws to a close, let us pray that Christ be made more and more manifest in our hearts each day throughout the coming year.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Honoring Mary; Celebrating Christ

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

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On the octave of Christmas, eight days after the birth of Christ, the day when Mary and Joseph, following the Judaic law, would have presented their newborn Son to be circumcised, the Church celebrates a great feast of Mary, the Mother of God.

Do Catholics make too much of Mary? I heard a Presbyterian minister on the radio once complain of this. (I used to like to listen to broadcasts of his sermons because of his Scottish accent). He said the problem with Catholicism is that we have a "very small Jesus" and a "very big Mary." Is this true?

The mistake he made, of course, is in thinking our love to be a quantifiable thing; something that we have to take away from one pile in order to put in another. Of course any parent of multiple children can tell you this is false. You don't love one child any less because you also love another. Likewise we don't love Christ less because we also love Mary, Joseph, or any of the saints. In fact, we love these people -- as we love one another -- primarily because Christ loved them first. This is what it means to love God and love your neighbor. To love God means loving what God loves. In fact, the love we give to Mary and the saints pales in comparison to the love Christ pours out upon them. If you ever fear that you are loving Mary too much, just remember that you will never love her as much as Jesus does. 

All that being said, it is easy to see how those on the outside may get the impression that Catholics "go overboard" in their devotion to Mary. We do love our Mother and are not afraid to show it! But the key thing to understand is that our devotion to Mary is all because of Christ. We don't honor Mary for her own light, but because she reflects perfectly the light of her Son. Mary's consistent role in our faith is to point at her Son and say, as she did at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5).

The feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a perfect example of this. From the very earliest days of the Church, Greek-speaking Christians in the East had the habit of referring to Mary as the Theotokos, which means "Mother of God," or literally, "God-bearer."

Some thought this title attributed too much to Mary. How could Mary, a mortal woman, born in time, be the mother of the eternal God? How can a creature be mother of her Creator? This is impossible, they would argue. We can call Mary the Mother of Jesus or the Mother of Christ, but not the Mother of God. But devotion to Mary the Theotokos was strong and people were not willing to reject this ancient and revered title of our Lady.

Debate ensued, but the point of the debate was not about Mary, but about her Son. It all revolved around the question, "Who is Jesus?" Jesus is like no one else. His birth changed the world forever. He was born in a humble manger, yet that birth was heralded by angels. He was raised by a carpenter, yet foreign sages worshiped Him as a king. He is a man who could suffer and die. Yet He is also divine and will live and reign forever. Jesus Christ is like no one else and is at the very heart of our religion. How are we to understand this Jesus?

Some thought He was a man much blessed by God. Others thought He was God who took on the appearance of a man for our sake. Still others thought He must be half-man and half-God. All these theories about Jesus are flawed. All of them fall short of the full truth.

The truth about Jesus, as taught by the Church, is that He "is inseparably true God and true man. He is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and Lord, became a man and our brother" (CCC 469). The theological term for this is hypostatic union, from the Greek word hypostasis, meaning "person." We believe and profess that Jesus possess both a full human nature and a full divine nature, united perfectly in one Divine Person.

What does this have to do with Mary? Simply put, Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore Mary is the mother of God. When we call Mary the Theotokos, the Mother of God, we profess our belief in the divinity of Christ. We affirm that the Person Mary bore in her womb is a Divine Person.

To suggest that Mary is not the mother of God implies that Jesus is something less than God. In order to defend and uphold the Catholic faith in Christ's divinity, the Church declared at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, "If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the Theotokos (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema."

For the past week we have been in the "octave of Christmas." An octave is a celebration so great that it cannot fit into a single day, and so the Church celebrates that "day" for eight full days, as if it were one great feast. So the celebration of Christmas and the feast of Mary, Mother of God, are intimately linked. We began the octave of Christmas with the celebration of Jesus being born of Mary. We conclude it by honoring Mary and proclaiming that her Son is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Let us never be afraid to honor the mother of our God, as Jesus honors her. And let us pray always for a heart to love Christ as Mary loved her Son.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Hymn for the Child

The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

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St. Romanos the Melodist was a sixth century deacon who was renowned for his superb singing voice and for the elegant hymns and poems he composed. One of his most famous a kontakion (a poetic sermon) on the Nativity of the Lord. The entire poem is 24 stanzas long. Here is but an excerpt.

On the Nativity of Christ

Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

Bethlehem has opened Eden, come, let us see;
we have found delight in secret, come, let us receive
the joys of Paradise within the cave.
There the unwatered root whose blossom is forgiveness has appeared.
There has been found the undug well
from which David once longed to drink.
There a virgin has borne a babe
and has quenched at once Adam’s and David’s thirst.
For this, let us hasten to this place where there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

The mother’s Father has willingly become her Son,
the infants’ saviour is laid as an infant in a manger.
As she who bore him contemplates him, she says,
“Tell me, my Child, how were you sown, or how were you planted in me?
I see you, my flesh and blood, and I am amazed,
because I give suck and yet I am not married.
And though I see you in swaddling clothes,
I know that the flower of my virginity is sealed,
for you preserved it when, in your good pleasure, you were born
a little Child, God before the ages.


"For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Saviour;
it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,
but for the sake of all I implore you.
You have made me the mouth and the boast of all my race,
and your world has me
as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.
They look to me, those who were cast out
of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.
May all things understand that, though me, you have been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Dream of St. Joseph

Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

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During Advent we look for the coming of Christ in two directions. We look ahead, toward His coming in the future, at the end of time. This coming is emphasized more at the beginning of Advent. But we also look back, remembering His coming in the past, at the Incarnation. Here at the end of Advent, as we approach the great Christmas feast, it is this coming of Christ in history that receives the greater focus.

It is easy for us to take the great mystery of the Incarnation for granted. We forget how radical a thing it truly is, the Creator entering into creation, because it happened in such a humble way. Our God did not burst forth into the world in a great flaming chariot. He came as a baby, born of a woman, born in a manger; an event heralded by angels but noticed only by a few shepherds.

Our God chose a mother, Mary, who bore Him in her womb and nursed Him at her breast. She assented to be the Mother of God after being visited by the angel Gabriel at the annunciation. She, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, gave her fiat, her "yes," to do God's will and bear His Son. "Let it be done unto me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).

But what of Joseph? What must this have seemed like to him? He was a just man, as described in our gospel reading, concerned with doing what is right. He is betrothed to Mary, but has not yet taken her into his home. He finds Mary pregnant. He must have assumed that she had been with another. He must also have known this was not at all something Mary would do. He must have struggled deeply with this seeming contradiction. He must have brought the matter to prayer.

The gospel tells us that whatever else, Joseph did not desire to bring shame to Mary, and so resolved to divorce her quietly, without bringing her before the court. But before this can happen, Joseph has a dream. An angel appears to him and says:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
What on earth must Joseph have thought about this message? Imagine yourself in his position. Would you have dismissed it as merely a dream, or recognized it as a message from God? Would you have had the courage to follow the angel's command? Pope Benedict XVI meditates upon this encounter in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  The Holy Father writes:
Whereas the angel "came" to Mary (Lk 1:28), he merely appears to Joseph in a dream -- admittedly a dream that is real and reveals what is real. Once again this shows us an essential quality of the figure of St. Joseph: his capacity to perceive the divine and his ability to discern. Only a man who is inwardly watchful for the divine, only someone with a real sensitivity for God and His ways, can receive God's message in this way... The message conveyed to Joseph is overwhelming, and it demands extraordinarily courageous faith. Can it be that God has really spoken, that what Joseph was told in the dream was the truth--a truth so far surpassing anything he could have foreseen? Can it be that God has acted in this way toward a human creature? Can it be that God has now launched a new history with men?  
Our position now is not that different from Joseph's in this gospel reading. We, too, hear a message that is beyond anything we might dare to hope. We, too, must choose whether and how to respond to this message.

Joseph received God's word through a messenger, and so we receive His word through messengers--ministers in the Church, the bishops, priests, deacons and lay faithful who have passed this word down to us. We, like Joseph, must discern how we will receive this message, and what response it demands of us.

Joseph was given a task; to take Mary into his home and be a faithful husband to her and a father to her child. But Joseph was also given an invitation to participate in the great mystery of God. Pope Benedict XVI notes that the words spoken to Joseph by the angel -- "Do not be afraid" -- are the same words spoken by the angel to Mary at the annunciation. "By means of this same exhortation from the angel," the Holy Father writes, "Joseph is now drawn into the mystery of God's incarnation.'

We also have a task. We also have an invitation. We also are being drawn into this great mystery. May we, like Joseph, be inwardly watchful, and learn to be sensitive to the ways of God. May we, like Joseph, be open to God's message. And may we, like Joseph, possess the courage to receive Mary and her Son into our homes and into our hearts.

St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, pray for us that we may have faith such as yours, to discern Gods will for us and to accept Christ into our hearts without fear. Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2016


3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

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John the Baptist is kind of odd. In last week's readings he was described as wearing clothing made of camel's hair and eating locusts and honey in the desert. It conjures up wild-man images. In the Eastern Churches he has some of the strangest iconography. He is often portrayed with wings like an angel, and holding his own severed head.

The wings indicate his role as a messenger of God. The word angel literally means "messenger" and John shares in the angelic mission of being heralds of God's Word. His severed head testifies to the death he was willing to endure for Christ.

John is the last and greatest of the prophets. In fact, Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel that "among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11). High praise indeed from the Son of God!

What makes John so great? John is great for the same reason that Mary, and all of the other saints are great. He recognizes in Christ the supreme good, and he points others toward that good. Just as Mary told the waiters at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5), John is humble enough to say, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). Both saints are great because they recognize that they are not the greatest. Both saints are great because they recognize the greatness of Christ. 

John sees in Christ the highest good, the fulfillment of all God's promises. This is why Jesus sends the disciples back to John to tell him that the blind have regained their sight, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Each of these things is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah as being signs that the time of salvation is at hand. John knows the scriptures. He knows what these signs mean. The one he has been waiting for is here.

That's why this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is called Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the entrance antiphon for the Mass, which in Latin begins Gaudete in Domino semper or "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious over anything; but in all manner of prayer, let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:4-5). We mark this day by wearing rose colored vestments in the liturgy and lighting a pink candle in our Advent wreath. It is a lessening of the penitential nature of the season, as we anticipate with excitement the approach of our Lord at Christmas.

There is a natural excitement we all feel when something good that we have been preparing for is about to happen. Students get excited the week before graduation. Engaged couples get excited the day before their wedding. We've been looking forward to these things with anticipation, and now they are so close we can almost taste them. Farmers feel this way as they watch their crops grow and can see that it is almost time for the harvest. St. James writes about this in the second reading. "See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand" (Jas 5:7-8). 

John felt that same excitement at the coming of Christ. He had been patiently waiting. Christ had already come in the Incarnation, being born to Mary. But now He was beginning to go out and proclaim the Kingdom. This is what John had been waiting for. This is why, as great as he is, he is happy to get out of the way once Jesus arrives on the scene. Because something greater than he had come.

In order to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, we should follow John's example. We need to wait patiently for the Lord. I don't just mean at Christmas when we celebrate the feast of His Nativity. And I don't just mean His second coming at the end of time. I mean His coming here and now into our hearts. He comes to us in our baptism. He comes to us when we receive the Eucharist. He comes to us in all the sacraments, and whenever we read the scriptures or spend time in prayer. But it takes time for Christ's work to come to fruition in our lives. While we wait, we must be patient. (And be patient with others as James advises in our second reading (Jas 5:9)).

We must also follow John's example and get out of the way. By that I mean we have a tendency to get in our own way when it comes to our spiritual lives. We may want to grow closer to Christ. We may want to grow in holiness. But we have other competing wants and desires. We have things that we cling to that separate us from Christ.  We want Christ, but we want these other things, too. We get in our own way. John teaches us that to allow Christ to reign in our hearts we need to suppress our own ego, our own selfish tendencies, and allow Him to increase in us. The saints in heaven have done this perfectly. This is why Jesus says "the least in the kingdom of heaven" is greater even than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11). 

We rejoice today for many reasons. We rejoice because Advent is drawing to an end and the joy of Christmas is within sight. We rejoice at the coming of Christ in history. But most of all, we rejoice because Christ still comes to us today, here and now, in our hearts. The one John the Baptist so eagerly awaited, and so excitedly pointed toward, is here. He has come. You and I need wait no longer to open our hearts to Christ and accept His gift of salvation. And so we rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice!