Monday, January 15, 2018

Behold the Lamb of God

                                    2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                  


 
Behold the Lamb of God
Florence, Italy

Today is the second Sunday in Ordinary time. Ordinary time signifies that part of the church year which is not part of any particular feast, like Christmas or Easter. We might ask what happened to the first Sunday in Ordinary time? Well, it was last week but the readings were superseded by the readings for the great feast of the Epiphany. Usually, the first Sunday in Ordinary time will celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. It marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus with his baptism by John the Baptist at the river Jordan. Today, we follow up on that important event.

But let's begin by taking a look at our today’s first reading from the book of Samuel. It tells of the calling of Samuel, one of the great figures in Hebrew history. Samuel had been placed in the service of the Temple to fulfill a promise his mother, Hannah, had made to the Lord. While sleeping he hears a call but thinks it is the priest Eli, his mentor. Eli tells him to go back to sleep but after a third call, he realizes that something special is happening. He instructs the young Samuel to respond if he hears the call again: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Once Samuel responded to the call, the Lord was with him, or, to put it another way, he was with the Lord.

Something similar happens in today’s gospel reading. After the Baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist points to Him and tells his own followers that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Christ. Two of them, Andrew and another unnamed one whom scholars assume to be the gospel writer, respond to their mentor’s guidance and follow Jesus that very day. Almost immediately they realize that He is the Messiah. Andrew goes off to tell his brother, Simon, and bring him to Jesus. When he arrives, Jesus calls him.

“You are Simon, the son of John,
You will be called Cephas” –which is translated Peter.

Just as the life of Samuel would never be the same after he listens to and responds to the call of the Lord, the lives of Peter, Andrew, John and the other disciples would never be the same after their initial contact with the Lord. They have been called and they will have to spread the word to others. In the same way, we who have heard the Word have the same responsibility. We may not realize that we have been called, and it will probably not be as dramatic as the call to Samuel or Peter.

Jesus is going to embark on a mission that will end with his crucifixion and death. Fortunately, the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient for us. Most of us will not have to face torture and a cruel death. But if we call ourselves followers of Christ, we will have to give up, in our own little way, our own lives in the service of others.

Husbands will give up their lives for their wives, and wives for their husbands. Both will have to sacrifice for their children. When they grow older, the children will have to sacrifice for their parents. Scripture tells us that people without spouses and children are called to even greater sacrifice. Not one of us is exempt. To save our life, we must lose it.

We all love sports but don’t we admire those players who sacrifice themselves for the good of the team? Even baseball has a special play called a “sacrifice” where a player gives himself up to advance a teammate.

So in today’s second reading when St. Paul tells the Corinthians that their bodies are members of Christ, he is not telling them to become plaster saints. He is calling them to a life of hard work and sacrifice in doing the work of the Lord. He is calling us to become disciples, and “take one for the team.” He asks,

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?


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Reading 1. 1 Samuel 3: 3b-10, 15
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 6: 13c-15a, 17-20
Gospel. John 1: 35-42 (Behold the Lamb of God).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany of the Lord

                           Epiphany of the Lord
                 

Stained Glass Window
Assumption church
Fairfield, CT*


Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance.  Traditionally, the story of the "magi from the east" has been seen as a sign of the manifestation of the Lord to all nations

Today's first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, with its mention of caravans of camels and dromedaries bearing gold and frankincense, has from the earliest days of the Church been associated with the story of the Three Kings or Wise Men. The gospel account from St. Matthew only tells us that "magi from the east" followed the star "to the place where the child was." It doesn't say that there were three of them, or that they were kings. But tradition and art have added the familiar features to the story.  

We have three kings probably because of the three gifts--gold, frankincense, and myrrh--which are associated with royalty. In art, one of the Kings is usually portrayed as an old man, another is middle aged, while the third is young and beardless. They symbolize all the ages of mankind. Tradition called them wise men because the word magi came to mean "magician", or one familiar with the secrets and mysteries of nature. It is common to think of them as astronomers or astrologers because of the famous star that they followed to Bethlehem.

Although legends have embellished the story of the Magi, there is an historical core to their story. There were, after all, "magi" in the East. The members of the ruling priestly class of the Persian empire to the east of Palestine had for centuries been called "magi." They would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies because so many Jews had emigrated to Persia in the centuries before Christ. Their journey to Bethlehem would have been over a thousand miles but it would have followed established and frequently traveled trade routes.

The reaction of King Herod to their news certainly fits what history has told us about that cruel despot. In those days it was common for rulers to kill anyone who might be a potential threat to their crown. Herod murdered his favorite wife--he had ten--and five of his own sons when he suspected that they were plotting against him. The slaughter of the Innocents which St. Matthew describes a little later in this chapter is certainly in line with Herod's character.

What is the importance of the visit of the Magi? Why is the Feast of the Epiphany one of the greatest in the Church's calendar?

We know that even after the Resurrection of our Lord the first converts to Christianity, even the Apostles themselves, had difficulty in understanding that the mission of our Lord was not just to the Jews. There was a great debate in the early Church where some argued that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could be Christian. In St. Paul's epistles we see that this issue centered around the question of circumcision, that particular rite which signified one's membership in the nation of Israel.

In fact the very first Council of the Church was held at Jerusalem precisely to discuss this very issue. There St. Paul, inspired by his own vision of the Lord, argued that the message of Christ was for all mankind. As he says in the Letter to the Ephesians,

         it has now been revealed
         to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
         that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
         and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus...

For Paul the Messiah promised to the Jews was to be what Isaiah called “a light to all nations.” St. Peter, as observant a Jew as St. Paul, will have his own vision in which he sees that what God has created no man can call unclean. Perhaps it is only after this question had been decided that the early Christians began to reexamine the words and life of Jesus for new meaning.

He came to call sinners. He cured the Roman centurion's servant. The Sermon on the Mount did not mention race, creed, or color. He praised the Good Samaritan and insisted that the foreigner was more a neighbor to the beaten Jewish traveler than his countrymen who passed him by on the road to Jericho.

They even discovered an incident at the very beginning of our Lord's earthly life which indicated that He had come as a light to all the nations. The "Magi" had come from the East to bring Him gifts and do Him homage. On the other hand, the despised ruler of the Jews had only sought to put Him to death. Apparently, Herod and his advisers couldn't even see the star that led the "Magi" to the child.

The Christmas season comes to an end with Epiphany. The twelve days of Christmas are completed. Subsequently, we will begin to follow Jesus as He begins His public life. We will have a whole year to follow Him on His way to Jerusalem. A few years ago I found a wonderful Christmas card which said simply,

         Wise men still seek Him.


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* Image by Melissa DeStefano (click on image to enlarge)

Reading 1. Isaiah 60: 1-6
Reading II. Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Gospel. Matthew 2: 1-12 (magi from the east).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Holy Family


                                    Holy Family

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

                                  

It is appropriate that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas. Not only do we continue the narrative of the infancy of Christ but also at no time do families come closer together than at Christmas. However, there is a dark side. We all know that the Christmas season can strain and test family relationships.

Today's first reading from the Book of Sirach can be summed up in the great commandment to "honor thy father and mother." It would do us well to pay close attention to Sirach's words. He tells us that the authority of a father and mother come from God, and that it is ingrained in all of us. We would call it today a part of our genetic makeup. To depart from this practice violates our very nature and will only result in bitterness and unhappiness. 

In our time when so many of our parents can no longer take care of themselves, the words of Sirach are more important than ever.

            My son, take care of your father when he is old;
            grieve him not as long as he lives.
            Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
            revile him not all the days of his life.

In our culture the roles of father and mother have come increasingly under attack. Television and movies usually portray fathers as ignorant simpletons or as brutal abusers. This only reflects a culture where men casually urge their girl friends or wives to abort their own children. That men should act as guardians and protectors of their wives and children is now regarded as old fashioned and laughable.

In today’s gospel St. Luke tells the poignant and significant story of the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. Here Joseph and Mary fulfill their duty to “consecrate” their child to the Lord. Parents today do something similar when they bring their own newborn to church to be baptized. Maybe they don’t meet with such interesting characters or hear such puzzling prophecies, but they still should be amazed by what lies ahead of them and their child. The parents are taking on an awesome responsibility.


The role of father and mother is also the central theme of our passage today from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. How are we to understand this reading especially that controversial passage where St. Paul says, "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord."

We could say that Paul, like so many of his contemporaries, was a "sexist" who thought that women were second-class citizens. We could also say that since Paul never married, he knew nothing about the actual relationship of a man and a woman in marriage or the way they would arrange responsibility in a household even then.

However, we could also say that Paul was dealing in this passage with a very practical problem that had arisen in the early Christian churches, especially among the Gentiles. It would appear that the new faith was especially attractive to women. Scholars tell us that in pagan families it was often the woman who first converted to Christianity, and then subsequently brought their husbands and families into the fold. This is not unusual even in our time.

However, there were cases where the husband would not convert, and women in this situation wondered what to do. Should they stay with their pagan husbands or should they leave? Paul always urges them to remain faithful to their marriage vows. He knew that there was no social safety net for these women outside of marriage but he also argued that they would be better able to bring their husbands and families to believe by remaining married.

Finally, I think we could say that St. Paul is preaching a revolutionary new doctrine here. For a minute, let's concentrate on his advice to the men. "Husbands, love your wives." It is hard for us to realize that in the ancient world, love of a husband for his wife was not the ideal. Our idea of a young couple falling in love and dedicating their whole lives to one another was an alien idea in the ancient world. At that time and for centuries after marriages were arranged between families. A young woman or girl might only meet her future husband, often an older man, for the first time at their engagement. A woman was little more than a child-bearing machine. If she could not bear children, her husband was obligated to divorce her. As far as romantic feeling or sexual pleasure was concerned, a man usually found that outside of the bonds of matrimony.

Despite today's popular opinion, Christianity elevated the role of women not only in society but also in the eyes of her husband. St. Paul understands the teaching of Christ to mean that Christian men must give up their whole lives for their wives and families, a rare thing in any time. Look at the first part of today's reading. St. Paul is telling the Colossians and us to put on virtue in the same way we would put on a suit of clothes. The relationship in a family should consist of "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." A family built on these virtues won't have to worry about who's the boss.

Today's feast is not just about "The Holy Family" but it’s about making our families holy.

            And over all these put on love,
            that is, the bond of perfection.

            And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,...

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*Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14
Reading II. Colossians 3: 12-21
Gospel. Luke 2: 22-40 (the child grew and became strong).