By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Season of grace, reason for hope
Placeholder Image
Advent begins today. It’s a beautiful and hope-inspiring season of prayer and anticipation.  The daily mass readings from Isaiah accumulate like fresh-fallen snow and blow into mountains of good news.  Tune out the endless broadcasts about retailers and what’s-the-latest-on-sale and you’re left with the silence of waiting.  There, in the chaotic frenzy of a blinded world desperately needing redemption, keep your eyes fixed on Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is the point of grace from which a new world is being reborn.  And Redemption is that blessed child carried in the virgin mother’s womb.

So soon after the great family feast of Thanksgiving, we find ourselves at the threshold of eternity, looking up from our homes to the stars in heaven.

The One to whom we offer our gratitude is the only one who can save us from this world hell-bent on destruction.  Look: he’s already drawing near!

And his coming, once again, we sorely need. This came home last week, as we filled the church three times for funerals.  True, 350 faithful believers participated in mass during our two Thanksgiving services.  But that many were gathered the next day, “Black Friday,” to commemorate a 33-year old father who’d been gunned down senselessly November 17 as he walked home from a local store with popsicles for his kids.  Leaving behind three children, their mother, his mother, and numerous relatives, he now sees life from a different perspective.  But we who remain are filled with questions.

When over 400 mourners attended mass Monday for Michael Bonillas (who, at 19, had been shot November 14th), several came forward to share their own stories of how he had touched their lives.  But now, on Friday, the pain was just too great.  And it would be even greater half a mile away.

Services for a 22-year-old swine flu victim
There, in a local mortuary, simultaneous services were held for a 22-year old woman who, after 75 days of intensive care, had succumbed to the H1-N1 virus.  Rushed to a local hospital when the symptoms presented, she declined so rapidly that her lungs no longer functioned.   Immediately she was put on the respirator, and her unborn baby boy delivered.  At five-plus pounds, he’d need some nursing along.  I’d be grateful to see him, kicking and full of life, in the vestibule of that funeral home.  But inside the chapel, silence would reign.   No words would suffice in this place of desolation.

Yes, it was Black Friday for the family of that young mother.   Due to her highly contagious condition, she was never able to hold her child, until that day when her doctors deemed it safe.  By then, she was barely conscious.

We prayed at mass daily for a miracle. Channel 19 of Univision carried a feature on her, appealing for prayers, for support, and for utmost caution in the face of such a cruel disease.  In the end, nothing rescued that 22-year-old from the jaws of death, but by the time she died, dying seemed to be the only remaining hope for a cure.  Still, that recognition didn’t provide any consolation for her family, as they resigned themselves to her passing.

Both services were scheduled to begin at 3:00, the Hour of Divine Mercy.  At 2:20 I left everything prepared at St. Mary’s, with a lay minister leading the Rosary’s Mysteries of Light, and drove over to Chapel of the Palms.  
There, I walked quietly up the aisle, as twenty or so people sat in silence, dressed in black and gazing at a portrait.  Between three stands of flowers, a lone, large glamour shot showed the deceased not long before she fell ill.

Smiling brightly, wrapped about with a blanket of feathers, and holding a blood red rose in front of her heart, she stared back lovingly at her family.

In the casket, the departed one also held a blood red rose close to her heart.

But the difference between the two images of that young wife and mother, one in life and one in death, was shocking.  She had been a beautiful girl.  Her beauty was robbed by a merciless disease that attacks savagely those women whose defenses are concentrated on saving the baby in their womb.

To make things worse, employees told me, the deceased woman was still considered to be contagious with the H1N1 virus, so that while her smiling face in the photograph invited us forward, medical warnings held us back.

It seems that neither in life, nor in death, would she get to hold her child.  And the one she had shielded in her womb from the dangerous virus would never remember her face, except through the pictures he might one day see.

A Roman edict 2,000 years ago put our Lord’s life in jeopardy when he was still an unborn infant.  His mother and father suffered cold, loneliness and rejection as his time came to be delivered.  A ruthless killer named Herod had sent his soldiers on the prowl for newborn boys in Bethlehem.

The Book of Revelation testifies that the Dragon went after the woman, who, having given birth to the Messiah, ruined his plans (Rev. 12:13-17).

Danger lurked on every side.  The world seemed cruel and God-forsaken.

The young mother’s son would be killed, like the man we mourned on Friday, at the age of 33.    His disciples would one by one be martyred.

But between his birth in Bethlehem and his death on Calvary, Jesus Christ would manifest the Mercy of God, liberate the captive children of Israel, and inaugurate a kingdom destined to endure forever.   Dying on the Cross, he would enter Satan’s stronghold.   Rising, he would destroy death itself.

All this was made possible when God became man in Jesus Christ. Advent prepares us for the Good News of the Incarnation. As Immortality takes on our mortal flesh and our human condition, he transforms it all.  As he takes on our suffering, he declares the victory even in the face of certain death.

Waiting for a kidney transplant
We have a 19-year-old here who’s living this reality even as you read.  His name is Jonathan Sanchez, and he directs our large Ballet Folklórico dance troupe.  Last March, he suffered severe kidney failure.  At dialysis three times a week now, for a total of nine hours, he’s waiting for a transplant.  

While I was celebrating the funeral mass of the 33-year-old father, a friend from Modesto posted a message on my cell phone.  “My brother is dying.  We have decided to make a donation to medical science.  Could you find out Jonathan’s medical information to see whether the kidneys might be compatible?”  I asked how my friend’s brother had died.  He had been shot.

It seems so strange how all these inter-connected incidents could somehow bring together so many tragic elements, yet also speak of heroism and hope.

One 19-year-old may be relying for the gift of life on a young man who was gunned down.  Another 19-year-old was also gunned down.  In his case, his dying served to awaken hundreds of mourners to life’s sacredness.

One 33-year-old yielded up his spirit, realizing that he’d never see his three children again this side of Paradise.  Another 33-year-old died, crucified, having promised his scattering children that he would rise from the dead, and having guaranteed Paradise to the common criminal hanging at his side.

And there, in the chapel where words fall silent, the 22-year-old still stares out from her beautiful portrait.  She has nothing more to offer the world than the memory of who she was, and the dream of whom she longed to become.  But no: she does have more.  A baby boy now radiates her smile.

That smile fills me with Christmas joy and re-awakens in me this hymn:

 “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.  Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light;  the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…”  The song continues: “No ear can hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Lord enters in.”  And it concludes, “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”