Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Holy Family
C cycle

Reading 1. Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14
Reading II. Colossians 3: 12-21
Gospel. Luke 2: 41-52 (in my Father’s House).

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 Finding of the child Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. This familiar story reminds us of the Bar Mitzvah ritual that every Jewish boy must go through as he enters manhood. In preparation for the great event the young man must master a passage in Scripture, and after much study read and expound it in front of the congregation. His dedication to the Law or Teaching means that he has become a member of the community, Nevertheless, St. Luke tells us that Jesus still remained obedient to Joseph and Mary.

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,...

Friday, December 25, 2009


C cycle

Christmas Vigil
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Gospel. Matthew 1:1-25 (Genealogy of Jesus Christ).

Christmas Midnight
Reading 1. Isaiah 9: 1-6
Reading II. Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel. Luke 2: 1-14 (she gave birth).

Christmas Dawn
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 11-12
Reading II. Titus 3: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 2: 15-20 (the shepherds).

Christmas Day
Reading 1. Isaiah 52: 7-10
Reading II. Hebrews 1: 1-6
Gospel. John 1: 1-18 (the Word was with God).

There are four Masses that we could attend on Christmas. There is the Vigil Mass celebrated in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then there is the Midnight Mass. There is a Mass celebrated at dawn. Finally, there is the Mass for Christmas day. Each Mass has a different set of readings and so unless we get to church real early and read them all in the missalette, we will never hear the whole story.

All of the Masses begin with a joyful, exuberant reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading from the Midnight Mass is typical:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.

In the gospels we hear the story of the birth of Christ as told by St. Matthew and St. Luke. Little by little the characters in the Nativity scene are introduced. In the vigil Mass on Christmas eve, Matthew presents us with Mary and Joseph and tells us of Joseph's decision to take Mary into his house after finding her pregnant. In the Midnight Mass we find the stable and the manger, and the angels appear to the shepherds. At dawn, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem to find the child "lying in the manger." Finally, the gospel on Christmas Day is the famous beginning of the gospel of John, where John tries to explain the significance of the great event.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

No matter what Mass we attend all the readings testify that something unique and earth shattering occurred 2000 years ago. From Isaiah to John we hear that at that moment the darkness was pierced by a shaft of light and that because this tiny shaft of light entered the world, the world would never be the same.

Years ago I remember reading a novel by a little known Russian author about a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration or prison camp. The book was written by a man who had himself spent 20 years in camps such as the one he described. He wrote the book secretly while in prison on little scraps of paper which had to be carefully hidden from the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The book was called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and its author was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would go on to become one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

When Solzhenitsyn's book first appeared, it was like a shaft of light cutting through the darkness of the vast Soviet empire. Until that time there were still those who defended that empire as a noble undertaking, or as the dawn of a new era in human history. Once the light appeared it exposed the rottenness, corruption, and brutality of that regime. The world would never be the same. Twenty years later the whole edifice came crumbling down.

Whatever Mass we attend today the readings all say the same--the light has come into the world and the world will never be the same. For each of us this Christmas it can be the same. A light can come into our hearts and we might never be the same. In the Vigil Mass we heard how Joseph after his dream, "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." For each of us who will take Mary and her child into their house this Christmas there is the possibility that our world will never be the same.

In today's Masses the story begins. We'll hear the rest of the story in the weeks and months to come.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent
C cycle

Reading 1. Micah 5: 1-4a
Reading II. Hebrews 10: 5-10
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-45 (Mary set out…).

Today is the last Sunday in Advent. Christmas is just around the corner. We can sense it in today’s first reading from the prophet Micah that sets the stage, so to speak, for the drama or play to come. The setting is Bethlehem, the little town outside of Jerusalem. We all know the lovely carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Here are Micah’s words:

You, Bethlehem—Ephrathah
Too small to be among the clans of Judah,
From you shall come forth for me
One who is to be ruler in Israel…

So, Bethlehem, the insignificant little town, will be the stage on which the drama is played.

Today’s gospel account of the Virgin Mary’s visit to her elder kinswoman, Elizabeth, does remind biblical commentators of a dramatic presentation, a sacred musical. One scholar calls the infancy account “a play consisting of two main parts…the annunciation scenes and the birth scenes.” The plural “scenes” is used because St. Luke’s account contrasts the story of the birth of John the Baptist with that of Jesus.

The first chapter of St. Luke’s gospel begins with the annunciation of John the Baptist, which by no coincidence was actually yesterday’s gospel account. It begins with the introduction of the first set of players. Elizabeth and her husband, the priest Zachary, are introduced and we are told that their marriage has not been blessed with children. After this introduction an angel appears to Zachary while he is offering sacrifice in the Temple. Zachary expresses anxiety and is told not to be afraid. The angel announces that his wife, Elizabeth, will indeed bear a son but Zachary responds with a doubtful question. “How shall I know this?” Seeing Zachary’s doubt, the angel then introduces himself as Gabriel and reprimands him. “Behold thou shalt be dumb.” From that point Zachary cannot speak and departs from the Temple sanctuary. Elizabeth does become pregnant and six months later the same angel appears to Mary, a Virgin.

The annunciation to Mary follows a similar pattern. This time the stage is Nazareth, a town of Galilee, where the players are Joseph and his fiancĂ©e, Mary. We are introduced to them and given a little background. Then, the angel appears to Mary and she too expresses anxiety. Gabriel tells her also not to fear and this time sees acceptance of God’s will and not doubt. It is true that Mary also asks a question, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?” Gabriel explains that the Spirit of God will come upon her and tells her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Rather than being struck speechless, Mary responds with those famous words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Then the angel leaves her and St. Luke tells us that the next thing Mary does is to go immediately to visit Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant. This famous meeting, which we call the Visitation, is described in today’s gospel.

What can we say about this scene, one of the most beautiful in the sacred drama? Once again St. Luke introduces the characters. Even though, like Bethlehem, they might be considered small and insignificant, the Spirit of God is upon them. Even their names are significant. Mary or Miriam means “the exalted one,” and Elizabeth means, “God swears or promises.” The greeting by Elizabeth is the basis of the “hail, Mary.”

Blessed art thou among women,
And Blessed is the fruit of thy womb!

Then, St. Luke brings John the Baptist onto the scene, still in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth notes that her unborn child “leapt for joy” at the approach of Mary and her Son.
It is interesting that whenever great painters portray John the Baptist, he is usually shown pointing to Jesus. Even when John is an infant he is directing the viewer’s attention to Jesus, reminding us to “Behold the Lamb of God.”

In a few days we will witness the climax of this sacred drama, the birth of our Lord. What is the moral of the story? What lesson can we learn? It is usually the second reading each Sunday that gives us such instruction. When we read the Letter to the Hebrews, we should recognize that it is not just directed to the Hebrews but to all of us. What do the following words mean?

When Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.

The Letter is not just talking about ancient sacrificial practices. Maybe we should consider the gifts we give and receive each Christmas as modern day sacrifices and offerings. Don’t misunderstand. Who doesn’t love the giving and receiving of gifts at Christmas? But we should realize that even the smallest most insignificant gift is priceless if it expresses our love. Maybe little Charley Brown had it right:

Christmas time is here.
happiness and cheer,
fun for all that children
call their favorite time of year.

Snowflakes in the air,
carols everywhere,
olden times and ancient rhymes
and love and dreams to share.

Sleigh bells in the air,
beauty everywhere,
yuletide by the fireside
and joyful memories there.

Christmas time is here;
we'll be drawing near;
oh that we could always see
such spirit through the year,
such spirit through the year.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent

3rd Sunday of Advent
C cycle

Reading 1. Zephaniah 3: 14-18a
Reading II. Philippians 4: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 3:10-18 (one mightier than I).

In earlier times the third Sunday in Advent was known as "Gaudete Sunday" because the entrance prayer or "Introit" began with the Latin words, "gaudete in domino semper." Translated the phrase means "rejoice in the Lord always." Today, as it has always done, the Church injects an element of joy into the penitential season of Advent. In many churches the priest will put aside the purple vestments which signify sorrow and penance, and put on rose colored vestments, a symbol of joy. The Church is asking us to look ahead to the glory of the coming of the Savior on Christmas.

In this liturgical year the first reading for each of the Sundays in Advent is taken from a different Hebrew prophet. Two weeks ago it was Isaiah and last week it was the somewhat lesser known Baruch. Today, the reading is from the prophet Zephaniah. It is common for us to think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future but usually the Hebrew prophets just talk about their own time, especially its problems. No prophet deals with problems more than Zephaniah but in today’s reading he sings a different song.

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

Despite all their problems, there is reason for this joy. “The Lord is in your midst,” he says. He repeats it again, “The Lord is in your midst.” Zephaniah was speaking to the ancient Hebrews, but his words are also meant for us. If only we could realize that the Lord is in our midst.

In today’s gospel, John the Baptist, the last of the Hebrew prophets is trying to convince the people of his time that the Lord is coming into their midst. He says,

I am baptizing you with water,
But one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The crowds ask John what they should do to prepare for his coming. His words could profit all of us this Advent. We could begin by sharing with those who have less than we do, especially in these economic hard times. John’s advice for preparation is not radical or impossible. He does not recommend that we give up everything; just that we share.

Consider the two groups who approach John in today’s reading. Tax collectors and soldiers, better to say policemen, were two of the most hated groups in Israel. Both were regarded as agents of the hated Roman conquerors. The tax collectors were notorious for gouging the people, and the police were noted for bullying and extortion. John doesn’t say that their occupations are sinful or ignoble. He doesn’t tell them to give up their careers. He only tells them to act with honesty and justice.

This last year has been an especially bad one for the rich and famous in our society. How could so many politicians, entertainers, athletes, and other celebrities who had worked so hard to get to the top of their respective professions mess up so miserably? Could it be that the success they sought was not that fulfilling? Could it be that the possessions they acquired did not make them really happy or joyful? Maybe they just thought that their success was due to their efforts alone, and that they failed to see the God in their midst.

We shouldn’t gloat when we hear their stories. Just because we fly under the media radar doesn’t mean that we can’t be self-satisfied. Most of us have homes that would be palaces to most of the world’s people. We have cars for each member of our family, not to mention TVs, cell phones, and computers. Still, it never seems to be enough.

Here we are only two weeks before Christmas. What are we looking for this season? What do we want for ourselves and our loved ones this Christmas? Why are we going out to the malls and the shopping centers? Aren't we all trying to find happiness? Aren't we all trying to cast away fear and darkness and bring some joy and light into our lives? Look at the way we light up our houses, look at the music we hear coming over the radio.

I've just read an article by a man who is a well known lecturer, TV personality, and author. He has a beautiful wife and son and is extremely successful. Yet he wrote, "I am almost 60. Time flies and it scares me. I don't want to die. I like being in good health. I don't want to be sick and have wires and tubes and scalpels in me. I like having enough money. I don't want to be old and poor. I sat in my car...shivering in fear. And then it struck me. I spend too darned much of my life in fear. I always have. You can't imagine how much of my life I have thrown away by being a slave to fear."

In today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians he echoes the words of the prophet Zephaniah and urges his friends to “rejoice in the Lord always.” We should realize that “the Lord is near,” and that fear and anxiety are not the answer.

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
Make your requests known to God.

No one is saying that we should give up our jobs and our homes but if we can only recognize that all we have comes form the Lord,

Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
Will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception

On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Pope did not declare this doctrine out of the blue. It was promulgated only after years of study on his own part and on the part of learned scholars; centuries of debate among some of the greatest theologians in the Church; and almost a millennium of popular devotion to Mary on the part of the Church faithful.

Although immediately accepted by the faithful, the doctrine was a source of controversy in the time of Pius IX and today remains an obstacle to ecumenical efforts. Before we can discuss the doctrine and its meaning we have to clear up a basic misconception. The Immaculate Conception does not refer to either the conception of Jesus in Mary's womb or the subsequent birth and delivery of Jesus. In other words, it should not be confused with the virgin birth. Nor does it refer to Mary's own birth. She herself was begotten like any other child. Simply, the doctrine affirms the preservation or freedom of Mary from original sin from the first moment of her conception.

To understand the meaning of the doctrine we have to examine the concept of original sin even though in our time the notion of sin, especially original sin, has fallen into disfavor. Today the only sin our culture seems to recognize is smoking. Concurrently, the very notion of evil has fallen into disfavor. Until the September 11, 2001 tragedy
the only people we were likely to recognize as evil were Nazis or people who behaved like Nazis. For our purposes then let us use the word imperfect rather than sin or evil. Instead of calling ourselves sinful or evil, let's just think of ourselves as imperfect.

To say that we have not been preserved from original sin means that all of us are merely imperfect--something few of us would deny. Where did this notion come from? Theologians and philosophers throughout history have tried to deal with humankind's imperfection. Some have called it the problem of evil. You can pick up a newspaper on any given day and never fail to be shocked by the evil in the world. War, terrorism, murder, rape, sexual abuse, theft of all kinds, lying and deceit on every level of society, all confront us daily. Where does it come from? Who or what is responsible for the world's imperfection or evil?

It is safe to say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition the origins of evil were to be found in each of us. As Shakespeare said, the fault lies in us, not in our stars. In this tradition it is clearly understood that there is something wrong with our nature. Although created in a state of perfection or good (another word for perfect is good), mankind has fallen into a state of imperfection.

In the story of Adam and Eve we find an attempt to explain the problem of evil. God is good; God is perfect; and His creation had to be good. It had to be perfect. Yet, when the biblical authors composed the Book of Genesis they lived in a world as full of evil and imperfection as ours. And so we have the story of the temptation and fall of our first parents to explain how we have all inherited a fundamental flaw, a kind of genetic defect. It had to come from our first parents because it is observable in all of us.

Long before Sigmund Freud wrote of the "ego" and the "id" and the psychic warfare that goes on in all of us, biblical authors like St. Paul and St. James alluded to this "psychomachia" and called it the source of all evil. What are the effects of this psychic or spiritual warfare? Basically, we have a divided nature--we lack integrity in the true sense of the word. We have knowledge of both good and evil. We can admire Mother Teresa but at the same time know that we are capable of understanding and committing the worst crimes that we read of in the newspapers. There but for the grace of God go we!

What is the cure for our imperfection? How can we attain perfection? As the song says, "We've got to be taught. We've got to be taught not to hate and fear but to love and trust. Our first teachers are our mothers and fathers; then our extended families; then our customs and traditions, chief of which is our religion with its guidelines or warnings
which we often mistake for rules and regulations; and then our governments and their laws that are supposed to keep us at peace with one another. This is why these institutions are so important and why when they become corrupted or perverted there is literally "hell to pay." Jesus always called himself teacher and promised that if we would follow Him, peace would be with us.

A few hundred years ago this Judeo-Christian tradition of original sin came under serious attack during the period known as the "Enlightenment" that immediately preceded the French Revolution. Philosophers during that period came to believe that human nature was perfect, that man had begun as a kind of "noble savage" who had become corrupted by human social institutions. For the intellectuals and the revolutionaries who followed them the source of evil was not in man but in institutions like motherhood, fatherhood, the family, religion, government, and the rule of law. In particular, they singled out the Catholic Church with its sacramental system, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass. They sought to destroy these institutions and build a new perfect society based on reason rather than on custom, superstition, and ignorance. Despite over two hundred years of horror and bloodshed these "enlightened" ideas live on today, and those institutions that are the sole protector and defender of mankind are still under attack by those who cannot accept the idea of original sin.

Ironically, those who do not believe in original sin unwittingly believe that they and the rest of mankind must have been conceived immaculate. The only person that they will not allow to have been immaculately conceived is Mary. On the other hand, for those who do believe in original sin and accept its corollary, the need to attain perfection or redemption, Mary is the Immaculate Conception.

If we view Mary in this way then her role takes on new meaning. The Church has always regarded her as the new Eve free from the knowledge of evil. We believe that through God's grace she was created without that fatal division in her being. She had integrity and she knew inner peace not war. This is why the angel at the Annunciation called her full of grace. This is why her assent at the Annunciation was so meaningful. She who through her nature could know no pain or suffering was asked to experience all the pain and suffering that a mother could know. At the Presentation Simeon said to her that this day "your soul a sword shall pierce." Since we've also forgotten the meaning of the word "soul" today, modern translations say that her "whole being" would be severed. Imagine a person created without flaw or imperfection living among us.

In the Gospels the Apostles represent us with all of our faults and failings. Some were silly, some were vain, some doubted and disbelieved, and even St. Peter denied the Lord three times. They were what we are. When the Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, however, it was saying that Mary is what we once were and could be again through the grace of her Son, Jesus.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent
C cycle

Reading 1. Baruch 5: 1-9
Reading II. Philippians 1: 4-6, 8-11
Gospel. Luke 3:1-6 (Prepare the Way).

In this liturgical year the first reading for each of the Sundays in Advent is taken from a different Hebrew prophet. Last week it was Isaiah and this week it is the somewhat lesser known Baruch. It is common for us to think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future but usually the Hebrew prophets just talk about their own time, especially its problems. They also stress the need for change. Isn’t that what Advent is all about? It is a time for us to take stock of where and who we are; and to realize what we need to do to get back on track.

Baruch begins by urging Jerusalem to take off its “robe of mourning and misery.” Now, whenever we hear an Old Testament prophet use the word “Jerusalem”, we should realize that he is not speaking about a city or place. Jerusalem means the whole nation or people of God. In the same way, we speak of the Church today as the people of God. In Baruch’s time the people had been scattered and dispersed by foreign conquest. As he says, they have even been forcibly led away into exile and captivity.

He does, however, predict a return, a restoration of the Kingdom, in words similar to those used by Isaiah last week,

For God had commanded
That every lofty mountain be made low,
And that the age-old depths and gorges
Be filled to level ground,
That Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.

These words are echoed in today’s gospel account and St. Luke sees their fulfillment in “the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” preached by John the Baptist, the last great Hebrew prophet. In other words, all this business about leveling the mountains, straightening the roads, and filling in the gorges has to do with our own personal lives.

John the Baptist was a real historical figure who appeared at the appointed time to point the way to the One who was going to change everything. But notice, he does not say that God will do the heavy road construction work. It is up to us to prepare the way, make straight the paths, fill the valleys, and level the mountains and hills.

When John speaks of repentance, he is talking about looking over our lives and taking stock of who we are and where we are going. Advent is a perfect time for us to do so. It is the beginning of a new year so to speak. For centuries the Church has advised us to examine our conscience. In particular, such a review might examine a dominant fault and work on ways to correct it, or it might consider a particular strength or virtue and consider ways to increase it.

Even though the phrase may sound strange to us today, the idea is not outmoded. At the end of each year business people are advised to look back on the past year and consider what worked and what didn't work. They spend hours examining their strengths and weaknesses. For the upcoming year they are urged to prepare a business plan where they will work on developing their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.

Athletes do the same thing. Every week coaches spend hours examining game films to see what they did right and what they did wrong. Whole practices are devoted to making the necessary corrections and incorporating them into next week’s game plan. Why do we spend so much time preparing for games but so little time preparing for the game of life?

When it comes to the most important things in our own lives we fail to examine our conscience? As the old saying goes, people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan. What did we do wrong last year? How did we hurt ourselves and our loved ones? Can we begin now to rid ourselves of bad or destructive habits?

On the positive side what strengths or virtues do we possess? What can we do to build spiritual muscle memory so that good behavior becomes easy and natural to us? The word virtue merely means a good habit, while a vice is a bad habit. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and concentrate on the good.

In today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians he ends with a little prayer in which he urges his people to reflect on their lives and consider what they really value:

And this is my prayer:
That your love may increase ever more and more
In knowledge and every kind of perception,
To discern what is of value,
So that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ…

The biggest criticism against Christians today is that we are no different than anyone else. Rather than being a light to the nations, the darkness in our society seems to be overwhelming us. We don't have to go about wearing our religion on our sleeve but in our homes, our schools, and in our businesses we should be producing good fruit. We don't need laws and judges to bring Christ back into Christmas. All we need is for Christians to act like Christians.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

1st Sunday of Advent

1st Sunday of Advent
C cycle

Reading 1. Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 3: 12—4:2
Gospel. Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36 (Be vigilant).

A few years ago three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic story, "The Lord of the Rings," enjoyed enormous critical and popular success. Issued in three successive years around Christmas time, they were a box office smash. The third in the series, entitled, "The Return of the King," won the Academy arard for "Best Picture." Most of us know by now that both the three volume book and the films tell the story of a great journey or adventure undertaken by a group of men, elves, dwarves, and the now famous hobbits.

The adventure begins however in a smaller book of Tolkien's called "The Hobbit." In that book this particular hobbit is woken out of a quiet peaceful afternoon nap by a violent knocking on his door. To his amazement he is told that he must rouse himself out of his comfort and complacency and embark on a dangerous adventure whose end is far from certain. In the course of the adventure he will find that there is more to life than he ever dreamed, and that there is more to himself than he ever dreamed.

Isn't it odd that the word "advent" is contained in the word, "adventure"? Advent is not just a time of preparation for Christmas, it is a time for all of us to consider how far we have progressed on the great adventure of life. Let's consider the first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah:

The days are coming, says the Lord,
When I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.

The prophet is speaking about a new age when everything will be different. .

This is the reason why Advent, the season which marks the beginning of the Church year, has traditionally begun with readings reminding us of the end of the world. In today's gospel from St. Luke, Jesus refers to the calamities that will occur at the passing of the old world. Nevertheless, he tells us not to fear but to stand erect and raise our heads for our redemption is at hand. Our Lord's advice whether it be the end of the whole world or just the end of our own little world is the same. "Be vigilant at all times." When the time comes, we should be ready to face it. In particular, we should

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy,
From corousing and drunkenness
And the anxieties of daily life...

Advent has always been regarded as a season of preparation. Why is it that we prepare for everything in life but often fail to prepare for the most important thing in life? What football team would go into the weekend's big game without practicing all week? What will they practice? Why, the very same formations and plays that they expect to use when they are put to the test. During the week they will also be in the weight room preparing their bodies for the blows to come. On game day they will put on their protective gear or armor. Only a fool would go into such combat improperly equipped.

In business it's much the same thing. Salesmen practice their presentations before facing their customers. They learn how to anticipate and overcome every objection. In politics look how even the presidential candidates go through rigorous prepping and role play before debating their opponents.

How should we prepare for life's great adventure? Let's see if we can come up with a list of things to do this Advent season they will help us on our way. First, let's take St. Paul's advice.

Increase and abound in love,
For one another and for all…,
So as to strengthen your hearts,
To be blameless in holiness….

Isn’t it sad to read in the papers about the arrests for drunkenness and other forms of lewd conduct at our local Catholic universities? It was even sadder to read the article about a young woman at a midwestern university who drank herself to death while at a frat party. The paper reported that she was just one of many who would die a similar death that year. I know that television glamorizes this type of drinking but what is so glamorous about falling into an alcohol induced coma in a frat house or an office party?

We can all think of ways to "throw off the works of darkness," but St. Paul also urges us to "put on the armor of light." There is no better way to do so this season than by increasing our attendance at Mass. Certainly, in this season when we should all be looking forward to the coming of Christ, he comes to us in each and every Mass. Besides Sunday Mass we will celebrate the great feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, a true Holy Day of Opportunity.

Finally, I can think of no better way to counter the stress and anxiety of this mad shopping season than to attend daily Mass during Advent. We will find a half hour of peace and tranquillity every day and encounter some of the most beautiful readings in the Missal. We will get an opportunity to reconcile ourselves with God and our neighbor when we recite the Kyrie Eleison, the Confiteor, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei. We can offer the kiss of peace to our friends and family. We can offer thanks to God for all the good things that have been given us, and then we can approach the altar to receive the true gift of Christmas, the gift of God's only Son.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15.

Reading 1. Revelation 11: 19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-56 (Visitation).

In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In the first reading of the Mass of the Feast of the Assumption we have the famous image from the Book of Revelation of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In the gospel we have St. Luke's famous account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty; such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary, which we call the Magnificat, is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.

In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but also to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?'

I have never forgotten the scene in the “Great Divorce,” a little known book by C. S. Lewis, a great Christian apologist. The book has a Twilight Zone feel
since the main character boards an ordinary bus one day but the next stop is Heaven. Once there, a guide takes him around and at one point they come upon a magnificent procession where the participants are praising an incredibly beautiful and majestic woman. The man asks the guide, “Is that her?” meaning Mary. The guide answers, “No, that’s Mary so and so, a London washerwoman.

In fact, I have met many women, and men also, who are like both the Marys. They have heard the message from God and responded as the first Mary. My own mother died when I was only 11 years old, but my grandmother and aunt quickly stepped into the breach to assist in the upbringing of two younger brothers and myself. Their souls also “magnified” the Lord. Today, I still see many others who echo the words of Mary. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.” August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, should be called a Holyday of Opportunity.

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano
Fairfield, CT

Sunday, April 19, 2009

2nd Sunday of Easter--Divine Mercy Sunday

2nd Sunday of Easter Divine Mercy Sunday
B cycle

Reading 1. Acts 4: 32-35
Reading II. 1 John 5:1-6
Gospel. John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas).

In the Sundays after Easter the Church gives us a little history lesson. For the next few weeks the first reading will be taken from the Acts of the Apostles, and not from the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We are going to see the young Church growing through the "signs and wonders" worked by the Apostles in the Name of the Risen Christ. They devoted themselves to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.

Today's gospel, however, shows us another manifestation of the Risen Lord. It is the traditional and touching story of "doubting Thomas," from St. John's gospel. Before Vatican II this gospel was always used for the first Sunday after Easter. Even though we now have three cycles of gospel readings, the story of our Lord's appearance to the Apostles and to Thomas is used in each cycle.

Remember that last week we heard how in the early hours of the first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene had found the tomb empty. Then St. John tells us that he and Peter ran to the tomb and also found it empty with the burial cloths neatly rolled up. When the two men went back to tell the others, Mary Magdalene stayed by the tomb. Jesus appears to her and asks her why she's weeping. At first she fails to recognize Him but when He speaks her name she believes. We can imagine her throwing her arms around Him but He cautions her not to touch Him, "for I have not yet ascended to my Father." He tells her to tell His brethren what she has seen. She returns to the disciples and says, " I have seen the Lord." Immediately, after this episode John's gospel jumps right to the incident in today's gospel reading.

On the evening of that day Jesus comes to the disciples despite the locked doors of the house. He "stood in their midst and said to them "Peace be with you." He shows them His hands and His side and they all rejoice. Again He says, "Peace be with you," and tells them of their mission. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." All were present except Thomas and when he returns, he can't believe it.

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.

A week goes by and Jesus appears to them again. Again He says, "Peace be with you." This time Thomas is there and in that unforgettable scene, Jesus tells him to examine his wounds. "Do not be unbelieving but believe." We can picture Thomas dropping to his knees and saying, "my Lord and my God."

Only about a century ago Pope Pius X, who would later be canonized as St. Pius X was trying to encourage frequent reception of Communion. It was part of the effort of this great Pope to restore all things to Christ. It's hard to believe but for centuries most Catholics did not receive Communion at Mass. Not only did Pius X encourage adults to receive, he also lowered the age for the reception of first Communion so that children could receive. As part of this effort Pius X encouraged Catholics to look at the Host when it was elevated and repeat the words of Thomas. "My Lord and my God."

The Pope also initiated a great liturgical reform movement. He was the first to grant permission for the words of the Mass to be printed in everyday language alongside the traditional Latin. Older Catholics will remember the Latin-English Missals of their youth. His reforms led to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of those reforms has particular relevance to today's reading.

How many times in today's gospel did our Lord say, "Peace be with you?" In the traditional Latin Mass it seemed like the priest was always kissing the altar and then turning to the people to say "Pax Vobiscum", "Peace be with you." The altar represented Christ. The priest would receive the Kiss of Peace from Christ and then pass it on to the deacon, who in turn would go into the congregation and bring Christ's Kiss of Peace to all. Since Vatican II the Church has given new emphasis to this practice.

Later in the Mass the priest will give us the Kiss of Peace and ask us to pass it on to our neighbor. He will ask us to give much more than a simple handshake. He will ask us to repeat the same words that our Lord used in today's gospel and give Christ's blessing to our neighbor. A blessing is a real thing. It is meant to heal. We are being asked to bring Christ to our neighbor just as the Apostles did. After the Apostles believed, they were able to work "signs and wonders," they were able to heal the sick in both body and soul.

People will travel thousands of miles to receive the blessing of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ. Yet, for us we believe that at every Mass Christ, Himself, comes into this room and gives us His blessing. "Peace be with you." As St. John says in today’s second reading,

His commandments are not burdensome,
For whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday
B cycle

Reading 1.Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Reading II. Colossians 3: 1-4 or
1 Corinthians 5: 6b-8
Gospel. John 20: 1-9 (Easter).

The Church uses many different readings on Easter. The Vigil Mass has seven readings from the Old Testament; St. Paul's famous letter to the Romans--"Christ raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him;" and St. Mark's account of the empty tomb. In the afternoon Mass we will have the account of the risen Lord's appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

This morning's Mass, however, begins with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching. Remember how prominently Peter appeared in the readings during Holy Week. Last Sunday he told Jesus that he would follow Him to prison, even to death. But our Lord predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crows. Peter's subsequent denial is one of the few things reported in all four gospels.

Today it's a different Peter. He gives as good an account of the life and work of Jesus as you will find anywhere. Then he bears witness to His Resurrection,

This man God raised on the third day and granted
that He be us,...
who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.

Finally, he makes the claim "that everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through His name."

However, it's easy to imagine that Peter might have felt differently after the death of Jesus. He didn't know how the story was going to come out. What was there to believe? As St. John says in today's gospel, "they did not yet understand the Scripture that He had to rise from the dead." Not only had his Lord been brutally tortured and killed, but Peter had also turned his back on Jesus. He especially could have no hope of a resurrection or new day. Wouldn't Peter think that his own sin, his own lack of faith, could never be forgiven?

Then Mary Magdalene comes rushing in on the first Easter Sunday morning to tell them that the tomb is empty. Fearing that the Lord's body had been stolen Peter and John race to the tomb only to find the burial cloths neatly rolled up with no evidence of foul play. St. John tells us that "he saw and believed." St. Luke tells us that Peter was "amazed."

Is this why we're all here today on this Easter Sunday morning? Are we all here today to peer inside the empty tomb? The empty tomb itself means nothing. As St. Mark said last night, "He has been raised; he is not here." It's His appearances that matter. Over the next fifty days we'll hear about all of His appearances. He'll appear to Mary Magdalene in the garden; to the disciples on the road to Emmaus; to the Apostles in the upper room; to doubting Thomas; to the fishermen in Galilee; and to countless other witnesses. Finally, His Holy Spirit will come upon them at Pentecost..

As we listen to these witnesses we'll have to examine our own belief. After all, St. Paul said that "if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain." In other words if Christ is not risen, there will be no resurrection for us. However, maybe some of us feel like we're in the same position as Peter. Maybe doubts have crept in, maybe we're too secure, maybe something has caused us to deny our Lord and turn our backs on Him.

The only way to rekindle our faith is to act differently. We have to realize that like the Apostles we are called to be witnesses of the Risen Christ. St. Paul calls us the "yeast" that leavens the dough. In our own little way each of us is called to bring Christ to each other. Last week during the reading of the Passion, our Lord said to Peter;

Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded
to sift all of you like wheat,
but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail;
and once you have turned back,
you must strengthen your brothers.

The little Albanian nun who became Mother Teresa did not wait for someone else to pick up that little deserted child in the street and bathe his sores. She saw the Risen Christ in him and in all the others she helped. Did the young Polish priest who became John Paul II ever imagine when he took his first vows that he would bring the Risen Christ to more people than all the previous Popes put together?

The word "Easter" comes from a Germanic goddess of spring. Latin peoples use the word pasqua from the Jewish pasch or Passover. When the Germanic peoples were converted the Church wisely associated the word for Springtime with the feast of the Risen Lord. All around us new life is springing from the dead of winter. And so, as St. Paul says,

let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion
B cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 50: 4-7
Reading II. Philippians 2: 6-11
Gospel. Mark 14: 1—15:47 (the Passion).

Today's reading of the Passion of our Lord is the highlight of the Church year. This year we heard St. Mark's account of the Passion. Next year we will hear St. Luke's account and the year after we will have St. Matthew's account. Of course, on Good Friday we always have the Passion according to St. John. Although each of the Evangelists approaches the life of Christ in a different way, they draw very close to each other when it comes to the Passion.

The narrative of the Passion, which we have just heard, seems like a great drama with a cast of characters we can all identify with. If we could be in the drama, what role would we play? Would we be like the disciples who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane? Or would we be part of the crowd who mocked and taunted Jesus only a short time after cheering Him and waiving palm branches.

Maybe we would like a more important role. We could be the woman who anointed Our Lord with precious oil. We could be Pontius Pilate who condemned Jesus, or Peter who denied Him, or even Judas who betrayed Him. Still, it is clear from today's readings that we are supposed to play the part of Jesus, Himself. The Church has always recognized that in His Passion and Death our Lord gave us an example, which we must follow. Many times during His time on Earth Jesus said, "Follow Me." Many times He urged us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Today's readings show that it is through the practice of humility and self sacrifice that we come to follow the Lord. At the Last Supper Jesus told the disciples that He would give up His body and blood for us all, and that they should share in this sacrifice. When He asks us at every Mass to eat His Body and drink His Blood, he is also asking us to share in His sacrifice on Calvary.

Today's first reading is about humility and self-sacrifice.

I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians says that Jesus "humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

This is the point of all of our little sacrifices during Lent. Everything that we gave up or did was to remind ourselves that we do not live just for ourselves. Humility means giving up our own pride and ambition for the sake of others. Didn't our Lord say that we must deny ourselves in order to save ourselves? That we must lose our life in order to find it?

Our Lord was a great teacher but the Passion shows us that He taught by example.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
B cycle

Reading 1. Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
Reading II. I Corinthians 7:32-35
Gospel. Mark 1: 21-28 (teaching with authority).

In today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that the Lord will one day bring them a Messiah, a new Prophet,

I will raise up for them a prophet like you…
And will put my words into his mouth;
He shall tell them all that I command him.

In other words this new Prophet will speak with the authority of God, Himself. Sure enough in today’s gospel we see Jesus, at the outset of his public life, impressing the people in the synagogue at Capernaum as one speaking with authority. This passage in Mark’s gospel comes right after last week’s account of the calling of the first Apostles. You may remember that last week Jesus called the brothers Andrew and Peter, and then James and John, the sons of the fisherman Zebedee. Jesus had met these fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and archaeologists have discovered ruins of an ancient synagogue at the seaside city of Capernaum.

What does it mean to speak with authority? Scholars tell us that it might refer to the methods used by the ancient scribes. Whenever they were asked for an opinion on some issue, it was their practice to search their books for the opinions of learned rabbis. Typically, there would be many opinions that had to be reconciled. Sometimes the opinions would even be contradictory. Sometimes this method could even provide loopholes that could allow any kind of behavior.

Doesn’t this sound terribly familiar to us today? Look at our cable talk shows. People literally screaming at each other-- some arguing that white is black, or black is white, or that their particular shade of gray is the only correct one. We have come to expect “spin” from any political or social commentator. During our recent political campaign didn’t we wait to hear the supporters of each candidate provide their spin immediately following each debate?

What we see in the media reflects what goes on in society. In politics it seems that corruption has become the normal way of doing business. What authority can a governor or mayor have whose been caught with hands in the cookie jar of bribery or payoffs? Only a fool would listen to their words or be guided by them. In business it’s much the same. Even in sports and entertainment we should know better than to trust the words of celebrities whose words are often belied by their private lives.

There’s an old saying that “It’s not enough to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.” Some examples. I once heard of a business owner who developed a unique plan to save his company when it got into financial trouble. He cut his own salary and the salary of the top third of his employees by 15%. The middle third were cut 10% and the bottom third 5%. This action saved the company without anyone losing their job. This owner spoke with real authority. I knew a sales manager who would never ask his salespeople to do anything that he was reluctant to do himself. He led by example, not by words.

One of the greatest coaches of all time was John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA when they won 4 national championships in a row. Never would you see him jumping off the bench yelling at his players as so many do. He must have realized that if his team was not prepared, it was his fault, not theirs.

In today’s gospel St. Mark says that the people were astounded at the teaching of Jesus for “he taught them as one having authority.” Nevertheless, there was someone there who questioned his authority as many do today,

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?

In our Missal we translate the answer of Jesus as, “Quiet,” but it literally means be “muzzled.” He then cures the man as He often did to show that His teaching had authority, an authority that sprang from who He was. He would not agree with those people today who say that their private lives can be separated from their public lives. If parents neglect their children, will they care for their clients? If politicians lie to their spouses, will they tell the truth to their constituents? People speak with authority if they possess real personal integrity.

Certainly, the people of Corinth thought that St. Paul spoke with authority. Today, we have a somewhat difficult to understand excerpt from the 7th chapter of his famous letter to the Corinthians. If we read the whole chapter, we would see that he had been asked to advise them on some difficult matters of personal behavior. He admits that he can find no specific rule or commandment in most of these matters and only offers what he calls his own opinion.

In general, he urges the converts to remain in their current situation and work within to achieve the kingdom of God. It is not a question of whether your married or unmarried, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, male or female. You can do the work of God in any station in life. That’s speaking with authority. For Paul, love transcends all.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Baptism of the Lord

Baptism of the Lord
B cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Reading II. Acts 10: 34-38
Gospel. Mark 1: 7-11 (my beloved Son).

Last week we celebrated the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, which brought to completion the 12 days of the Christmas season. Epiphany is a Greek word, which means manifestation or appearance. The appearance to the Magi signified the mission of our Lord to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.

Today we celebrate another divine appearance. Today's feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus. In one week we've gone from the little babe in the manger to our Lord's appearance to John the Baptist at the Jordan River.

The first reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah introduces a mighty figure:

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;

These words find their counterpart in today's gospel. After the Baptism of Jesus,

On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open
And the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens,
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Let's examine the scene of the Baptism a little more closely. First, Jesus comes to John to be baptized and John hesitates because he recognizes that someone far greater than he is standing before him. Nevertheless, Jesus insists on following the precepts of the Law since He is the one who will bring the Law to its fulfillment.

After the baptism we have the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is unfortunate that over the years religious artists have found it almost impossible to depict the Holy Trinity. They have had remarkable success with the Son because Jesus did take on a human form. For the most part artists have had to resort to depicting the Father as a white-bearded old man--an angry one at that-- flying around in the sky. Even worse, they've depicted the Spirit as a bird, because today's gospel says that Jesus saw the Spirit descending "like a dove."

These images, well intentioned as they are, have led to a lot of misunderstanding. We are made in the image and likeness of God. God is not made in our image and likeness. God is Love, and Love appears to us in many ways. God is not an angry old man and the Holy Spirit is not a bird. Especially in the case of the Spirit, the image of the dove has led many to trivialize and underestimate His role.

Not only did God create the world, the world could not exist for an instant without the continued presence of the Spirit of Love. Every breath we take, every move we make is inconceivable without the presence of the Spirit. We're like fish swimming in the ocean but the ocean is the Spirit of God. Just like fish we don't realize that we're in the ocean and that every thing that sustains us comes from the ocean of God. We're even worse than fish because we think that we can do without the ocean. We can even, if we're smart enough, convince ourselves that it doesn't even exist.

St. Peter had no misunderstanding. Today's alternate second reading from the Acts of the Apostles takes place after the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Even after those incredible events, Peter and many other Christians had difficulty in realizing that the word of God had come for all nations and not just for Israel. In this scene, which ends in the house of the pagan convert, Cornelius, Peter finally realizes that "God shows no partiality." He then recalled the scene at the Baptism where it all began.

You know...what has happened all over Judea,
Beginning in Galilee after the Baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.

From that day on the teaching of the Church has always been that our own Baptism is similar to our Lord's. At Baptism it's not just that the stain of original sin is washed away. We believe that at our Baptism we become children of God, and that we receive His Holy Spirit. In a way we should regard the day of our Baptism as the most important day of our life.

I know that there are those who do not attach much importance to the sacraments anymore. But at the outset of His public life Jesus, despite the objections of John the Baptist, attached great importance to His Baptism. He chose to have the waters flow over Him and to be anointed by the Father "with the Holy Spirit." At the outset of our own children's lives, why would we not choose to follow His example?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Epiphany of the Lord

Epiphany of the Lord

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

Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. 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. Today's 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 today's reading from 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 in Isaiah's words 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. Next week, we will begin to follow Jesus as He begins His public life. We will have a whole year to find Him on His way to Jerusalem. A few years ago I found a wonderful Christmas card which said simply,

Wise men still seek Him.