December 19, 2017

Late Advent Weekday
Judges 13:2-7,24-25  +  Luke 1:5-25
December 19, 2017

He was gesturing to them but remained mute.

During the last eight days of Advent, which are usually called the “Late Advent weekdays”, the Gospel heard at weekday Masses shifts to the infancy narratives.  It might surprise some that not all four Gospel accounts tell us about the infancy of Jesus.  Only Matthew and Luke do.  In his prologue (John 1:1-18), John one-ups those two evangelists by accounting for the life of God the Son from all eternity in brief and brilliant poetry.  Mark begins his Gospel account (the shortest of the four) with Jesus already an adult.

On the first two Late Advent weekdays, the Church proclaims passages from the infancy narratives of Matthew.  On the last six days of this “octave”, the Gospel comes from Luke.  Key to Luke’s infancy narratives is a parallelism between John the Baptist and Jesus.  Their “annunciations” and births are described similarly.  Yet even more significant are the differences between the two sets of narrative.

Today’s Gospel passage recounts St. Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah of the immanent conception of John.  Two differences from the Annunciation of Jesus stand out.  The first concerns the circumstances of each.  John is conceived through natural means by an elderly, “barren” woman.  Jesus is conceived through “the power of the Holy Spirit” by a young virgin.

Perhaps even more significant are the differences between the persons to whom Gabriel appears, and their responses to heavenly messenger.  Focus today on the response of Zechariah to Gabriel.  Zechariah is struck mute because of his disbelief.  This is ironic given that his son is destined to be “the voice crying out” the advent of the Word made flesh.  Pray today asking God not only that your voice might be His instrument, but also that disbelief may never prevent you from listening to another who is pointing your attention towards God.

December 18, 2017

Late Advent Weekday
Jeremiah 23:5-8  +  Matthew 1:18-25
December 18, 2017

He shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with judgment.

The Responsorial Psalm at Holy Mass both on December 17 and 18 is from Psalm 72.  The first strophe (that is, set of verses) proclaimed each of these days is the same.  The later sets of verses differ between the 17th and 18th.  But consider that first set, Psalm 72:1-2:

O God, with your judgment endow the king, / and with your justice, the king’s son; / He shall govern your people with justice / and your afflicted ones with judgment.

These opening verses clearly reflect the subject of the entire psalm.  The header of this psalm in the American translation of the breviary is “The Messiah’s royal power”, which closely reflects the Latin original:  “Regia Messiæ potestas”.  The more simple header of the New American translation of the Bible is “A Prayer for the King”.

Regardless of the differences, each header points to the royal quality of the psalm.  That the Responsorial on the first two “late Advent weekdays” comes from this regal psalm points to the mission for which God the Son was sent into our world.  Consider the four lines of Psalm 72:1-2 in reference to the Son of God.  The first two lines call for God to endow the king with His own “judgment” and “justice”, while the latter two foresee that the king will govern God’s people with “justice” and “judgment”.

Focus these four lines on the Son of God even more specifically by reading them in light of Jesus’ self-giving on Calvary.  As the Son of God, Jesus’ “judgment” and “justice” reflect His divine nature,  that from eternity He always has shared in God’s own nature.  But through His mission on earth, He spends Himself to “govern [God’s] people” as the Good Shepherd, who came into this world to seek the lost and lead them into the bosom of His own Father.  This mission is why He was born at Bethlehem.

The Third Sunday of Advent [B]

The Third Sunday of Advent [B]
Isa 61:1-2,10-11  +  1 Thes 5:16-24  +  Jn 1:6-8,19-28
December 17, 2017

He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.

If we had to sum up John the Baptist in one word, that word would be “witness”.  Our translation of today’s Gospel passage uses a slightly different range of words:  “testimony” and “testify”.  But what do you call a person who testifies, or gives testimony:  is “testifier” a word?  The word “witness” sums up John the Baptist because you can use this same word in three different ways, to describe:  (1) who he is;  (2) what he does;  and (3) what he gives.

To give witness authentically, two things have to be true.  You have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to talk truthfully.

On the one hand, the witness that you’re going to offer, you have to know to be true.  To be an effective witness in a court of law, you need to have actively witnessed the events in question:  you need to have seen what happened, in what sequence the events happened, and how they happened.  Of course, even if you do know the truth about what happened, you have to be willing to testify, and to do so truthfully.

Imagine, for example, that you were standing on a street corner, and saw an accident between two vehicles.  You saw clearly that it was the fault of the first vehicle.  But then the drivers get out, and you notice that the driver of the first vehicle is your grandmother.  Suddenly, the police pull up.  Do you go to the scene of the accident?  Or do you turn away, so that you won’t be called to give witness?  What motivates us to give witness, or not to give witness?

Yet John the Baptist was not called to give witness about an event.  Neither are we in terms of living our Christian faith.  John the Baptist was called to give witness about a person:  the person of Jesus Christ.  There’s an important difference between knowing facts about a person—such as his date of birth, height, or favorite color—and knowing the person personally.  To know a person personally means to have a relationship with that person.

The devil knows far more facts about Jesus than you or I are ever likely to know.  After all, the devil, like all angels, is a creature of great intelligence.  But to know Jesus personally, as His disciple, means to recognize Him for who He says He is:  the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the Lord and meaning of our world.  The devil will never choose to know Him in those ways.

But to know Jesus personally isn’t enough to give witness to Jesus.  Remember John the Baptist.  For him to give authentic witness about Jesus, the second thing that had to be true was that John had to talk truthfully.  We might think that’s easy.

However, lying about Jesus is not the greater temptation.  Because “to talk truthfully” has two opposites.  That is, there are two ways not to talk truthfully.  The first is to talk falsely.  The second is not to talk, period.

When was the last time that you said to someone at a party, “Jesus means more to me than any other person in my life”?  When was the last time that you told someone at the grocery store that the teachings of Jesus offer the greatest possible happiness to every person in our world?  When was the last time that you asked someone on your block if they believed in Jesus?  Is it wrong to do these things?

It is certainly culturally wrong.  The culture that surrounds us vilifies and ridicules those who bring their relationships with Jesus to bear on other relationships in their lives.  The culture that surrounds us reduces the meaning of loving Jesus to an interior, subjective feeling, rather than a communal, objective truth that is meant to grow and expand.  Jesus was born into this world to be, for all human beings, their Way, Truth, and Life.  God calls us, as He called John the Baptist, to give others joyful, truthful witness about the difference that Jesus makes in human life, and to invite them into relationship with Him.

Saturday of the Second Week of Advent

Saturday of the Second Week of Advent
Sirach 48:1-4,9-11  +  Matthew 17:9,10-13
December 16, 2017

“Elijah will indeed come and restore all things”.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus speaks of John the Baptizer as Elijah.  Reflect on these two persons whom Jesus holds up to our attention.  What they have in common can help us prepare during this Advent season for Jesus.

We tend to think of a prophet as one who proclaims the Word of the Lord.  But one of the chief stories about Elijah concerns him carrying out this role in deed.  He challenges the disciples of Baal to forsake their false god, and then when they refuse he puts them to shame by pitting their imaginary god’s power against that of the Lord of Hosts.  When Elijah then slays the priests of Baal, a price is put on his head by the pagan queen, forcing him to flee.  It’s precisely in the midst of his flight that he encounters the Lord, not in an earthquake or mighty fire, but in a tiny whispering sound.

Neither the life of Elijah nor that of John the Baptizer is easy.  Both are called to proclaim the goodness of the Lord in words and works, and to challenge weak humans to conform their wayward lives to the Lord’s will.  We, as disciples of the Risen Jesus, need to listen to these prophet’s challenges, and rise to them.  But beyond that, Jesus wants us to serve Him as prophets in our own day, preparing others for His coming.

Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Friday of the Second Week of Advent
Isaiah 48:17-19  +  Matthew 11:16-19
December 15, 2017

“But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”

 

Jesus criticizes the “crowds” for their lack of consistency.  The crowds criticize Jesus and John the Baptist for opposite reasons.  In other words, there is no pleasing the crowds.  If Calvary didn’t prove that Jesus is no populist, His words at the end of today’s Gospel passage do.

Jesus came into this world for these very crowds, of course.  But as St. John says in the prologue to his Gospel account, “His own people received Him not” [John 1:11].  His last sentence in today’s Gospel passage, though, puts His advent into a helpful perspective.

“Wisdom is vindicated by her works.”  Although Jesus uses a personal pronoun in reference to “wisdom”, and although the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament does at times personify “wisdom” in feminine terms, we must be careful about what Jesus does and does not say here.  What we should read here is a contrast between the ways of the “crowds” and the world in which they live, and the ways of God in His heavens.

Jesus did not come into this world to be popular with the crowds, but to be faithful to His Father’s will.  Jesus’ Resurrection is the vindication of the Father’s divine wisdom in sending His only-begotten Son into the world to die for the very sinners who crucified Him.

St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church
Isaiah 41:13-20  +  Matthew 11:11-15
December 14, 2017

…the Holy One of Israel has created it.

The prophecies of Isaiah contain many images of “natural conversion”:  that is, where the earth, vegetation and animals demonstrate a radical, unexpected transformation.  In today’s First Reading, for example, Isaiah prophecies in the name of the Lord:  “I will turn the desert into a marshland, and the dry ground into springs of water.  I will plant in the desert the cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive”.

Such “natural conversions” might seem hard to believe, but such changes wrought by the Lord pale in comparison to His original works of creation.  Recall the first chapter of Genesis.  God creates out of nothing.  He creates through His Word, but from nothing.  From nothing, something came to be.  Creation is a miracle.  The “natural conversions” prophesied by Isaiah are also miraculous, but less so than creation itself.

During Advent, the Church calls us to repentance and penance, so as to be ready for the Lord’s coming.  When we heed the cry of St. John the Baptist, the prophecies of Isaiah are fulfilled in a way that surpasses his images of “natural conversion”.  Through the Sacrament of Confession, all sins are washed away, and many graces enter your soul.  The conversion is akin to God’s original work of creation.  In the place of the nothingness of sin, God’s grace comes to dwell.  The new creation of sacramental grace is God’s gift to us, through His Son Christ Jesus.

St. John of the Cross cropped

St. Lucy

St. Lucy, Virgin Martyr
Isaiah 40:25-31  +  Matthew 11:28-30
December 13, 2017

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for yourselves.”

Today’s brief Gospel passage seems to have a simple message.  We might relate it to the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd:  He cares for us, His flock, and gives us rest.  That is why He is coming, and what we prepare for during Advent.  But there is another, different piece to this passage.

Jesus first tells His disciples, “I will give you rest.”  But then He explains His meaning by bidding them, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest.”  This second sentence qualifies the first in a significant way.

Jesus gives us rest when we take His yoke upon ourselves and learn from Him.  We might be confused by the idea of a yoke bringing us rest:  after all, with a yoke comes a burden to pull.  Who wants to consider himself as a beast of burden?

But aren’t we always carrying a burden throughout the course of life in this valley of tears?  The burden doesn’t accompany the yoke.  The burden is ours by virtue of our fallen nature.  The yoke of Jesus is simply the gift by which we gain the leverage to bear our burden with some composure.  By tradition, of course, we identity the Cross as Jesus’ yoke, and certainly it is through this gift that we shoulder all that weighs heavy in life.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe
Zechariah 2:14-17  +  Luke 1:26-38
December 12, 2017

You are the highest honor of our race.

Today’s Responsorial is not taken from one of the psalms, but from the Old Testament Book of Judith.  The verses of the Responsorial, by which the Church praises Mary today, in their original setting praise the Old Testament heroine Judith.  In the thirteenth chapter you can read of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes, thus freeing her people from foreign control.  The praise that follows, which we hear in today’s Responsorial, is offered by Uzziah, the king of Judah.

Although the transposition of these words of praise to honor Mary makes sense when one reads the verses themselves, the original setting might give one pause.  However, even the setting in which Judith receives praise offers insight into the vocation of Our Blessed Mother, especially as we honor her today under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In the first book of the Bible, after the fall of Adam and Eve, God curses the serpent and declares:  “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.”  The Church has always heard these words as foreshadowing the advent of Christ and His mother Mary.  It is through Mary’s vocation as the Mother of God that the power of evil is destroyed.  As we ask the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe on behalf of the unborn and their mothers, we trust that her maternal love will transform our country and world into a culture of life.

Monday of the Second Week of Advent

Monday of the Second Week of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Luke 5:17-26
December 11, 2017

Our God will come to save us!

The refrain to today’s Responsorial is from the First Reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  It’s rare for the Church, in selecting Scriptural texts for Holy Mass, to weave a verse from the First Reading within the proclamation of the Responsorial Psalm.

“Our God will come to save us!”  This sentence could serve as the motto for the Season of Advent.  It proclaims three things.  It proclaims first that God Himself is the Messiah, the one for whom we wait.  The Messiah for whom we’re waiting is not only human.  The sentence also proclaims that He will come:  we focus on Him as the object of our hope.  Third, He will come to save us.  He will come not to punish us or lecture us, but to save us.

Salvation, however, itself can have multiple meanings.  The first two truths proclaimed by this sentence—that our God will come—lose their meaning if we don’t focus them correctly by understanding what this salvation truly is, and is not.

To be saved implies being saved from something or someone.  This is what the sentence—and Advent—boils down to:  if we need salvation, what do we need salvation from?

Today’s Gospel answers this question.  Jesus works a miracle to focus our attention not on His ability to work miracles, but on the fact that He is the Messiah.  He comes to bring us salvation from our sins.  Our Advent prayers, fasting and good works have the aim of helping us enter into today’s Gospel and living as the men who lower their friend on a stretcher.  Perhaps the Messiah’s response is unexpected by those men, but it’s what we long for during Advent:  “When Jesus saw their faith, He said, ‘As for you, your sins are forgiven.’”

The Second Sunday of Advent [B]

The Second Sunday of Advent [B]
Isa 40:1-5,9-11  +  2 Pt 3:8-14  +  Mk 1:1-8
December 10, 2017

“A voice of one crying out in the desert: ….”

Most of us have driven through western Kansas.  As you drive, and drive, and drive, one thing that’s easy to appreciate is the flatness of the terrain and straightness of the roads.  There are few surprises.  These roads stand in sharp contrast to the paths through western Colorado.  I-70, which is so predictable through western Kansas, begins to wind and curve, bobbing up and down as you pass through Denver and into the mountains.  It begins to make very serious demands on a driver, whereas through most of western Kansas you can almost set your car on auto-pilot because the path is so straight.

“A straight path” is the image the Scriptures turn our gaze to on this second Sunday of Advent.  We know that the goal—the destination—of our whole life on earth is Heaven.  We know that we are to spend our life on this earth loving and serving God and neighbor, so that we will be ready for Heaven when God calls us.

But too often in life, we get obsessed with how fast we’re going.  We get obsessed with moving for the sake of moving.  Yet one of the lessons of Advent is that in our spiritual lives, the direction of our lives is far more important than the speed with which we’re moving.  Many years ago, I attended a meeting of high school parents with school administrators.  There’s only one thing said that I remember.  A father who had served as an Air Force pilot commented on how he thought high school students made their lives more difficult than necessary because, as he put it, they were “all velocity and no vector”.  Is that how we are in the spiritual life?  If so, we’re headed for disaster.

Saint Thomas Aquinas said something similar:  “If, then, you are looking for the way by which you should go, take Christ, because He Himself is the way….  It is better to limp on the way than run off the way.  For a man who limps on the way, even if he only makes slow progress, comes to the end of the way; but one who is off the way, the more quickly he runs, the further away is he from his goal.”

In our Old Testament reading we hear Isaiah prophesying 700 years before the birth of Jesus.  He proclaims the same message as John the Baptist.  The heart of their message is this:  the most profound journey in life is a journey inward.  As we travel by means of God’s grace a straight path into the human heart, we can expect to find there the very God who created that heart.  But to find Him there, we must face two dilemmas of our own making.

Only within our hearts can we find God, and give ourselves to Him in that place of encounter.  Yet when we quiet ourselves, and enter into our hearts, we first realize that our heart is given over to so many other things.  The greatest struggle, the greatest battle in our spiritual life concerns not our neighbor, not our boss or co-workers, our teachers or classmates, not our spouse or our children or parents.  The greatest struggle in our spiritual life arises from the fact that I have not given my own heart completely to God.

Worse yet is that we’ve given our human hearts over not only to distractions, but to sin.  If we spend these weeks of Advent moving outward in all directions, searching for the meaning of Christmas as we journey to the mall to shop, or to the next party to socialize, that road toward Christmas will wind and curve and bob, distracting and tiring us.  During this season of Advent, we heed the call of Isaiah and John the Baptizer by making straight a path into our hearts.  That means clearing it of the debris of sin, looking seriously at ourselves and asking what changes we need to make to accept Christ the Lord as a newborn king:  a king who wishes to die for us, so as to return our hearts to us pure and focused on what is truly important in life.