Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Baptism of the Lord

Imagine you started a new job at a large company where you did not know a single person.


As you sat at your desk filling out some final forms for the Human Resources Department, the owner of the firm walked over to you and said, “You are a fine employee. I am really pleased with you.”


You would be surprised by that comment. You would think that the owner had confused you with someone else since you had done nothing deserving of praise. It was your first day on the job!


In Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1:7-11), we hear of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. When Jesus comes out of the waters of the Jordan a voice from the heavens proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”


We might wonder why God the Father would say he was pleased with Jesus for Jesus had not yet begun his ministry. We might say that it was Jesus’ first day on the job.


At the Transfiguration of Jesus, the Father says something similar. As Jesus shines with divine glory, a voice from the heavens declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)


On that occasion, the words of God the Father would seem to be more fitting. Ever since his baptism, Jesus had been proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, healing the sick, driving out demons, forgiving sins. He had been fulfilling the mission the Father had given him. It would be understandable that the Father would be well pleased with what Jesus had been doing.


So why does the Father proclaim his satisfaction with Jesus on the day of his baptism? God himself gives us the answer. The Father takes joy and pride in Jesus simply because of who Jesus is. As the Father says, “You are my beloved Son.”


We see that same dynamic in the relationship between parents and their children. Parents love their little ones even when they have not done a thing to earn their approval. Parents simply shower their love upon them because they are their beloved sons and daughters. They love them for who they are, not because of what they do.


This Sunday, we are reminded that we are loved by God, but not because of what we do for God. After all, what does Almighty God need us to do for him?


God loves us simply because we are his children. We were made so at our baptism. As the priest or deacon told the congregation just before leading them in the Our Father, “Dear brothers and sisters: these children, reborn through Baptism, are now called children of God, for so indeed they are.” 


The Father is pleased with us, he showers his gifts upon us, not because we have earned them, but because we are his children.


This Sunday, as we hear the words that God the Father speaks to Jesus, we can also hear them as words that our heavenly Father addresses to us, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.”


© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski


Best Wishes for a New Year Filled with God’s Presence and Peace!


Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Epiphany of the Lord

The Christmas Season is a time for presents, a time for giving gifts.


We give Christmas presents to express our love for family members and friends and to thank people for what they have done for us. We give presents to bring joy and happiness to others and to see their looks of surprise and gratitude. We give presents to those we hope to grow closer to in the future.


This Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 12:1-12) is about presents, what we might call the first Christmas presents.


Led by a shining star, magi from the east come to Jerusalem seeking the newborn king of the Jews. When they find him in Bethlehem, they offer him gifts that reveal something about this child. The gift of gold hints at his royalty, frankincense at his divinity, and myrrh at his future suffering and death.


But besides those three gifts, the magi give another gift. They give the new-born king the gift of their presence. Their coming to be with Jesus, Mary and Joseph is an even more wonderful gift than the material ones they bring.


That is still true today. Visiting someone, being with another person, is a wonderful and appreciated gift, perhaps more than ever during this pandemic.


Being with people we love through Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, or other such services cannot match being physically present. Hugs and kisses, companionship and kindness, sharing a meal, or just sitting quietly with a loved one, far outweigh any virtual encounter. Just ask grandparents if a digital session substitutes for their grandchildren jumping into their arms when they arrive for a visit.


The Christmas present we most like to receive from people who are dear to us is to have them with us. Their presence is the most precious gift. That was the best gift given by the magi, and it is also the gift that God gave humanity that first Christmas.


The God who had revealed himself in the majesty of creation, in the words of scripture and the preaching of the prophets, and in his care for his people, judged those “virtual” gifts were not enough.


God decided the best gift that he could give was the gift of his physical presence. In the incarnation, God took on flesh and came to be with his people in the Child of Bethlehem.


That presence of God continues to this day. The Lord remains with us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in the gathering of his Church, in the celebration of the sacraments, in the proclamation of his word, and in unexpected moments of grace and mercy. Our Catholic faith proclaims that God is with us. God truly is Emmanuel.


In this season of giving, on this day when we recall the gifts of the magi, we remember that the best gift we can give others is to be with them, to be in their company.


That amazingly is the gift that Almighty God gave and continues to give to us. As the Lord told us, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) God’s present is his presence with us!


© 2021 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski


Best Wishes for a New Year Filled with God’s Presence and Peace!


Sunday, December 27, 2020

The holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Influencers are people with the ability to affect the purchasing habits or actions of others, particularly through social media.  Such influencers are sought after by companies anxious to increase their sales or to introduce new products to the public.


Influencers have been around for a long time. We may not have used that term to refer to them, but we have seen them in action on television. Actors, athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities have been endorsing products and espousing certain causes for many years. For example, Michael Jordan is associated with Nike, Oprah Winfrey with Weight Watchers, and Tom Selleck with reverse mortgages.


With the rise of social media, influencers have increased in number, and many have gained considerable sway over the public.


However, for most of us the truly important influencers in our lives are not found in the digital or broadcast world, but in our homes. The members of our families, particularly our parents, influence us more than those outside of our homes.


Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Certainly, each one of them was an “influencer,” a holy influence on the others.


Mary and Joseph raised the child Jesus. They brought him up in their Jewish faith and introduced him to the religious rituals of their people. They took him to the synagogue and to the Temple in Jerusalem as they observed the required rituals. As we read in this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 2:22-40), “They took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord.”


We also read of Mary and Joseph continuing to take Jesus to the Temple. “Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom.” (Luke 2:41-42)


We are told that at home in Nazareth, Jesus learned from them. He “was obedient to them…And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” (Luke 2:51-52)


Jesus was also influenced by Joseph in terms of his chosen occupation before his baptism by John. Jesus is referred to as the son of the carpenter (Matthew 13: 55) and as a carpenter himself (Mark 6:3).


Mary’s influence on her son, is seen at the Wedding Feast of Cana. She is the one who tells Jesus, “They have no wine.” (John 2:3). A sensitive mother persuades her son to come to the aid of an embarrassed couple.

While Mary and Joseph were influencers in the life of Jesus, he influenced them as well. We have a hint of that when we are told, “but his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51). We also see that influence when Joseph realizes that he must flee to Egypt to protect the child Jesus from Herod.


In the Holy Family, each member was a holy influencer on the other. Their influence continues down to this very day as we celebrate this feast in their honor.


In fact, Pope Francis himself recognized Mary as an influencer. During World Youth Day in Panama, he tweeted, "With her 'yes', Mary became the most influential woman in history. Without social networks, she became the first 'influencer': the 'influencer' of God.” (January 27, 2019)


This Sunday, as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, we not only remember their holy influence, we are also reminded that each one of us is called to be a “holy influencer” in our own families.


© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski


Best Wishes for a Joyous and Holy Christmas Season!


Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Fourth Sunday of ADvent

When someone asks us to do something, especially if it might be challenging or difficult, we usually don’t answer immediately.


Before answering, we weigh the pros and cons. We consider if what we are being asked to do is in line with our values, and if it will benefit us or others in some way. Only then do we give our answer.


In this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38), someone is asked to do something extraordinary. Mary is asked to be the mother of the savior. She seems to answer rather quickly. She tells Gabriel, the messenger from heaven, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”


We might wonder why Mary did not take more time to carefully consider what she was being requested to do. She only asked how the pregnancy would come about.


Yet she might have asked how she could explain that pregnancy to her family and neighbors, and above all, to Joseph. She might have questioned why she was chosen and not someone else. She might have wondered how her response would affect her future and her marriage. She might have asked herself if the message was truly from heaven or a trick of her imagination or wishful thinking.


Perhaps the reason why Mary quickly responded as she did can be found in the Gospel reading itself. There the angel says to her, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”


The grace of God, the presence and help of God, prompted Mary to agree to do what God requested – a grace that was with her from the first moment of her existence.


We were reminded of that this past December 8 when we celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. That day we heard this Sunday’s Gospel applied to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother Anna.


Mary was full of grace from that moment. She was untouched by the sin of our first parents, by humanity’s original refusal to do what God asked of his people, namely, to obediently follow his will.


Free from that negative influence and filled with God’s grace, Mary was more than ready to do what God requested. How could she not do what God asked, if she were filled with his grace and presence?


The grace of God that filled Mary has also touched our lives in some way as well. It was the grace and power of God that brought us into the Church. It is the grace of God working in our lives that enables us to profess our faith and to strive to live as Christians. It is the grace of God that leads us to respond to God’s invitation to gather with our fellow Catholics for Sunday Mass.


Because Mary was full of grace, because the Lord was with her, she could willingly do whatever God asked of her. When we do what God asks of us, it is for that very same reason. God is with us, touching us with his grace.


As Saint Paul tells us in his Letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)


The God who filled Mary with his grace has also blessed us with grace so that we might be able to do what he asks. Since that is the case, the angel Gabriel might be able to say to each of us, “You have been touched by grace. The Lord is with you.”


© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwan


Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Third Sunday of Advent

Dynamic, driven, persuasive, austere, stern, focused, strict, honest, God-centered, holy, prophetic.


All those adjectives could describe John the Baptist whom we hear about in this Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28).


Such a personality does not seem to be a good fit for the Third Sunday of Advent, often referred to as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudate is a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” The word appears in this Sunday’s entrance antiphon where we are told, “Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.”


Furthermore, the first prayer of the Mass also speaks of rejoicing. We ask the Lord to enable us “to attain the joys” of salvation and to celebrate with “glad rejoicing.”


Sunday’s First and Second Readings, as well as the Responsorial Psalm, also highlight rejoicing.


In the First Reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11), Isaiah says he has been sent “to bring glad tidings to the poor.” He proclaims, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.”


Then in the Responsorial Psalm, we hear the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”


In our Second Reading (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters: Rejoice always.”


Those prayers and readings do not seem to harmonize with the prophet we meet in the Gospel. John the Baptist does not bring rejoicing to mind as he boldly proclaims, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”


The idea of rejoicing also seems out of place this Advent season. The ongoing pandemic gives us far more reasons to feel depressed and worried than joyful.


Perhaps we need to consider what it means to rejoice in the Lord. It must mean more than wearing a smile and being happy, otherwise, the Church would not be highlighting John the Baptist.


Christian joy is not a result of everything going wonderfully in our lives, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As Saint Paul tells us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience….” (Galatians 5:22)


Such joy, he tells us, comes when we allow God’s kingdom into our lives. “For the kingdom of God is …. righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:7)


This idea of joy coming from God is also found in our readings.


When Isaiah spoke of bringing glad tidings to the poor, he was speaking to Jews who were returning from exile and discovering Jerusalem was devastated. Yet they could rejoice, for the Lord would be with them. 


The Blessed Virgin was able to rejoice in God even though she was unsure of what awaited her. But she knew, as the angel had told her, “The Lord is with you.”


Paul told the Thessalonians to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, to give thanks for God’s blessings. Certainly, those who speak to God in prayer and who appreciate God’s blessings are people who can rejoice in God’s goodness.


When we understand joy as a gift of the Spirit and as a blessing that flows from an awareness of God in our lives, we can see how John the Baptist can be a figure of joy. He certainly knew he “was sent from God.” He knew his mission was to make people aware of the promised Messiah who was present but not yet recognized.


Spiritual joy, Christian joy, is not necessarily the result of all things going right, but a result of God being in our lives and in our hearts.


That certainly was the joy of John the Baptist. He knew that God was with him.


As a children’s hymn puts it, “I’ve got that joy joy joy joy down in my heart.” That kind of joy, the joy that comes from God, can never be taken from us.


© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski


Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Second Sunday of Advent

As you know, we are currently in the season of Advent, the four weeks that lead to the celebration of Christmas.


This is probably not your first Advent season. If you are 25 years old, you can most likely remember going through at least 20 Advent seasons. If you are 50, that number increases to 45. If you are 75, that number reaches 70, and if you have reached 90 years of age, that means you might be able to recall as many as 85 Advent seasons.


But no matter how many Advent seasons we can remember, none of us has ever lived through an Advent season like the one we are in now.


This Advent, because of the restrictions imposed during the current pandemic, the number of people coming to Sunday Mass is lower than it has ever been. Gatherings to make Advent wreaths or to celebrate ethnic religious devotions have been canceled or curtailed. Buying Christmas presents for the needy and placing them under parish Giving Trees has been changed to donating cash or gift cards. Church choirs have canceled their concerts. Families are altering their usual traditions and rather than planning which Christmas Mass to attend, they are wondering if it will be safe to go at all. This Advent is like none in the past.


This Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:1-8), which contains the first verses of Mark’s Gospel, is appropriate for an Advent like no other.


Mark starts his Gospel very differently from the way Matthew, Luke, and John begin their accounts. There is no setting the stage, no gradual introduction of characters, no annunciation to Mary, no messages to Joseph, no birth at Bethlehem.


Mark wastes no time, he simply writes, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and then he adds “the Son of God.” He lets the reader immediately know who this Jesus is.


Then Mark tells us of a prophet like no other. John the Baptist, strangely dressed and oddly nourished, suddenly appears. He preaches a baptism of repentance and deflects attention from himself as he proclaims, “One mightier than I is coming after me.”


John’s message is so powerful, so unlike any other, that “the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” flock to him and are baptized. It is an extraordinary moment.


That reminds us that this Advent, and every Advent, is a time like no other. For each Advent finds us at a different place in our personal and spiritual lives.


Our appreciation for what it means to profess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is not the same as it was last Advent, and the role we are allowing him to have in our lives has either expanded or contracted.


The way we respond to the message of John the Baptist this Advent will be determined by how honestly we evaluate our lives in the light of the Gospel.


Advent is a challenge from God to recognize what we need to do and how we need to change, so that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, may enter our lives more completely and transform us by his grace.


This Advent Season of the liturgical year of 2021 is like no other, but no Advent season ever is – no matter how many Advents we have gone through in our lives.


© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski


Sunday, November 29, 2020

The First Sunday of Advent

AM and FM Radio, ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX, ESPN, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Google, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, and all other broadcast and digital services all have something in common.


They all want us to pay attention to the programs, messages, and images they set before our eyes and ears. They want our attention because while our minds are focused on their enticing content, they can cleverly direct our attention to the products they are selling or to the ideas and opinions they are advocating.


The success these social media companies have in grabbing and holding our attention can be seen in the fact that many people are unable to be separated from the devices that connect them to the digital world. They are afraid to miss a post, a notification, a like, a message, a tweet, or a new viral sensation. Such obsession with social media and sources of entertainment can distract us from what is far more important in life.


In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 13:33-37), Jesus warns us, “Be watchful! Be alert!”


That warning, which comes on the First Sunday of Advent, is very appropriate as we begin the Liturgical Year of 2021.


While the words of Jesus are often seen as just telling us to be ready for the Lord’s return in glory, those words can have a more immediate message as well.


They can be warning us to be watchful and alert to the presence of the Lord right now. For Jesus Christ, who will one day return in power and glory, comes into our world in subtle ways at the present time.


The Lord comes when the scriptures are proclaimed, when Mass is celebrated, when Christians gather in prayer, when the poor and suffering are served, when time is given to silence and meditation, when family members eat and speak together, when kindness, compassion, and forgiveness are valued more than power, popularity, and wealth.


However, if we are to recognize the presence of God in our lives, we need to be watchful and alert. Perhaps the way to begin is to be more consciously aware of the media that is continually vying for our attention and distracting us from what is ultimately most important.


As Jesus tells us, “Be watchful! Be alert! do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.… May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”


May we not be so ensnared and distracted by social media that we miss the presence of the Lord in our lives. “Be watchful! Be alert!”  Good advice for this new liturgical year of 2021.


© 2020 Rev. Thomas B. Iwanowski