Mary, the Holy Mother of God

The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God
Numbers 6:22-27  +  Galatians 4:4-7  +  Luke 2:16-21
January 1, 2018

…God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law….

We are invited as Christians to imitate Mary, the first and best disciple of Jesus.  If we consider the Gospel scene described in the first part of today’s Gospel passage, we are asked to picture in our minds the infant Jesus in the manger, with his mother still lying next to Him, and Saint Joseph standing watch over them.

The Holy Family had already made the perilous journey to Bethlehem, and when they arrived they found themselves rejected by everyone from whom they asked a room.  Now here were angels and shepherds and kings from the east praising them.  It’s no wonder that as Mary rested in the hay she wondered about all this, and pondered these things in her heart:  complete rejection, and utter acceptance.

If Mary had not been full of grace, she might easily have become cynical at such a young age, seeing how she was only in her early teens.  Like each of us, Mary was beginning to see how the world treats people:  there are ups and there are downs in life.  One moment no one seems to give you the time of day, and the next moment everyone is your best friend.  You are still the same person as always, but because of some change in fortune or circumstance, people react very differently toward you.

As Mary pondered these things in her heart, she realized that this was going to be the pattern throughout her son’s life:  acceptance, and rejection, based upon the attitudes of others, and based on the circumstances of the day, month, or year.  If others witnessed miracles—whether angels singing in the sky, water turning to wine, or a blind man regaining his sight—they would very likely praise Jesus.

But if following after Jesus meant watching Him being turned out of the synagogue in Galilee where He had grown up, or being mocked by the scribes and Pharisees for trying to teach them something new about God, or being whipped and crowned with thorns after being condemned to a traitor’s death, or even watching Him die that slow death on the cross hanging between two criminals—what would people say about Mary’s son then?

Celebrating this feast of Mary, the holy Mother of God turns our own minds to wondering about how much faith Mary must have had to accept this child as part of her life, realizing what that motherhood would mean to her.  For ourselves, as followers of Jesus, we are asked to ponder on this mystery of Christmas:  that the birth of God the Son as a human means that following Jesus takes the sort of faith that accepts suffering just as certainly as we accept the joy of being part of God’s family.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph [B]

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph [B]
Sir 3:2-6,12-14  +  Col 3:12-21  +  Lk 2:22-40
December 31, 2017

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word….”

Despite the fact that stores are now selling Valentine’s Day candy, Christmas is not actually over.  Christmas does not last only one day, and Christmas is not only a celebration of Christ’s birth.  Christmas is a season which begins on December 25 and lasts through early January.  This Season of Christmas celebrates several mysteries, the first of which is Jesus’ birth.  Today we celebrate the second mystery of Christmas, the Holy Family of Nazareth.

The Church calls us to meditate upon this Holy Family.  In doing so, we realize that, just as celebrating Jesus’ birth helps us reverence how human life is created in the Image of God, so our celebration of the Holy Family helps us reverence the human family as an image of the Church.

For many of us, the past week has presented opportunities to be with members of our families.  No matter what difficulties might exist within our families, time spent together can help us realize one of the facts that is rejected by the world, but preached as Truth by the Church:  that the family is the foundation of all social life.  The family teaches us how “to be with others”, which in turn disposes us to carry out Jesus’ second great command:  to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is why the Church calls the family “the domestic Church”.

Those who are middle-aged often fall prey to thinking that what they do for others or give to others is what matters most.  But those who have many years of life under their belts are like those who are very young:  they recognize that time spent with others is of much greater value than things given to others.

Spending time together on a regular basis may not seem to amount to much.  But when that foundation is there, the love and care that’s fostered supports family members when they end up in a crisis, as all families eventually do.  The Holy Family, still weary from their journey to Bethlehem, and weary from searching through Bethlehem to find suitable lodging, were forced after Christ’s birth to flee their country to the foreign land of Egypt out of fear for Jesus’ life.  This was only the first of many sorrows for the Holy Family that was predicted by Simeon in today’s Gospel passage.

The habits of the Holy Family must be the habits of our own families.  If we truly care for the members of our family, we are willing to both pray for each other’s well-being, and willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to keep each other safe from the dangers of the world.  Among the more important, if difficult, of these sacrifices is freely extending mercy to family members who have hurt one or more members of the family.

After the great sacrifices made during His infancy, Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth under the care of His foster-father, Saint Joseph, and His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This life was not spectacular.  From the time He was a baby to the time He was thirty years old, we know of only one thing that happened to Jesus:  Mary and Joseph finding him in the temple.  By and large, the first thirty years of Jesus’ life were simple ones in which His mother and foster-father made ordinary sacrifices for Jesus’ well-being, day after day.  The Holy Family prayed together as a devout Jewish family, and they took the steps necessary to care for one another.  When Saint Joseph died, Mary and her son carried on alone.  Yet no matter what God the Father asked of them, they prayed and acted together according to the Father’s Will.

Today God presents the Holy Family as a treasure.  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not only holy themselves:  they help us to be holy.  We all know that our world is troubled, and that our country is troubled.  We don’t have to dwell on that.  But the cure is right here before us:  to strengthen the family, to build up the family, and to improve family life through God, which in turn will build up the life of our community, country, and world.

The Sixth Day within the Octave of Christmas

The Sixth Day within the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:12-17  +  Luke 2:36-40
December 30, 2017

Do not love the world or the things of the world.

Throughout the weekdays of Christmastide, the First Reading is taken from the First Letter of Saint John.  In one sense, it can seem in listening to the letters of John that he treats of a very few number of themes, repeating them over and over.  However, these themes—love, light, and life—are repeated and are simple because God is simple.

History tells us that St. John wrote his New Testament letters in his old age.  Remember that he was the only one of the Apostles (excepting Judas, of course) not to be martyred.  As so many older persons do, with advancing age John realized the simplicity of the Gospel.  Advanced age allows one to see that so many of the things we believe are important when younger are shadows and illusions.

In today’s First Reading addresses children, fathers, young men:  to all of them as something of a patriarch, as the last remaining Apostle of Jesus.  He’s speaking simply and bluntly about priorities, and in the midst of his teaching he warns them about “the world”.  If St. John speaks simply about God, he also speaks simply—if not as often—about “the world” as the alternative to God.  We as children of God can live for God, or for the world, but not for both.  In our modern world where we tell ourselves that it’s possible to “have it all”, we need St. John’s message of simplicity:  we cannot have both God and the world.

The Fifth Day within the Octave of Christmas

The Fifth Day within the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:3-11  +  Luke 2:22-35
December 29, 2017

Whoever loves his brother remains in the light….

The branch of theology called Christology explores answers to the question posed by the old Christmas hymn:  “What child is this?”  Many Scripture passages about the nativity and early life of Jesus reflect on the question of His identity.  For example, the three gifts of the Magi represent the Person before whom they prostrate themselves.  When Mary and Joseph are confused at finding the child Jesus in the Temple, Jesus drives home the point that He is the Son of God who belongs in His Father’s House.

Of course, for a disciple of Jesus, we want to know more about Him not for the sake of knowledge itself.  We want to know who Jesus is so that we might love Him better:  more thoroughly, more deeply, and more selflessly.

Throughout the Christmas Season, the Sacred Liturgy turns to St. John the Beloved Disciple for an answer to that hymn’s question, “What child is this?”  Throughout John’s Gospel account, and even more so in his epistles, the Beloved Disciple teaches us that “God is love”, and John teaches us what it means for a disciple to enter into this love.

In today’s First Reading from the First Letter of Saint John, the Beloved Disciple responds to the question of “How do we know Jesus?”, which is a variation on “What child is this?”  John’s response is that “the way [to] know Jesus is to keep His commandments.”  This might seem an odd answer:  how would one’s commandments tell us about the commander’s identity?  If we were to reflect further on this question, we might realize how one generally commands about matters only of importance to oneself.  In the case of God, His commands are commands to live in Him:  to live in love, or rather, simply to love.

The Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
1 John 1:5—2:2  +  Matthew 2:13-18
December 28, 2017

Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: ….

As did the feast of St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr, today’s feast on the fourth day in the Christmas Octave points our attention to the way in which birth and death are intertwined.  Birth and death are not just ends of an earthly spectrum.  The link between them is more profound than that.

Of course, today’s feast commemorates not the experience of natural death, or even the death of martyrs who chose to offer themselves in witness to Christ.  The horror at the heart of today’s feast—the slaughter of untold innocent infants by a king—stands as a stark contrast to the joy of the Nativity.

Nonetheless, King Herod in his rage and fear takes seriously the threat that the newborn king poses to his earthly power, even if he doesn’t understand the purpose of this infant’s birth into this world.  Certainly the reign of Christ the King will put an end to the thrones of all earthly powers.  But Christ is the King of Kings.  Unlike Herod, He seeks to destroy no one, but to give life to everyone, and to give it to the full.  Even for those who seek the end of His earthly life, Christ reigns to give them unending life in Heaven.

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
1 John 1:1-4  +  John 20:1,2-8
December 27, 2017

…what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us….

“God is love.”  There’s hardly a less controversial statement in modern Western culture than this one.  But if you were to press people as to the implications of this simple statement, you’d quickly see a divergence from the scriptural witness to this belief that God is, in His very Three-Personed nature, self-giving love.

It is St. John the Evangelist, whose feast we celebrate on this third day of the Octave of Christmas, who tells us that “God is love.”  But he also unpacks that simple statement throughout his three letters in the New Testament, and his Gospel account.  We might say that these four books of the New Testament are a primer in both the nature of divine love, and its practice.

My favorite single verse of Sacred Scripture is from St. John’s first letter:  “In this is love:  not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us, and offered His Son as an expiation for our sins.”  The life of St. John the Evangelist bears witness to this truth.  He was, of course, the only one of the twelve Apostles to remain with Jesus during His Passion and death.  Perhaps owing to this fidelity, he was the only one of the Apostles (excepting Judas Iscariot, of course) who was not martyred.  Perhaps also owing to his fidelity to the Crucifixion of Love in the Flesh, it was to John that Jesus entrusted His Blessed Mother.  All this illustrates why St. John the Evangelist is called “the Beloved Disciple”.

St. Stephen, Proto-Martyr

St. Stephen, the First Martyr
Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59  +  Matthew 10:17-22
December 26, 2017

“Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

Today’s feast is similar to the feast of the Holy Innocents, whom we’ll honor in the Sacred Liturgy in two days.  To some, the celebration of these martyrs within just days of celebrating the birth of the tiny God-man might seem macabre.  In fact, the Sacred Liturgy is focusing our attention on the integrity of our Faith.

After all, today’s First Reading—relating to us the martyrdom of Stephen—is set not long after the birth of the Church at Pentecost.  St. Stephen, we might say, is the “first fruits” of Pentecost.

“Jesus was born into this world only in order to teach us how to die to this world.”  St. Stephen’s faith-filled martyrdom focuses our attention on this truth.  Each of us in our turn must accept death, and the spiritual practice of mortification, as a way of life.

The Nativity of the Lord―Mass during the Day

The Nativity of the LordMass during the Day
Isa 52:7-10  +  Heb 1:1-6  +  Jn 1:1-18
December 25, 2017

And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us….

It’s telling that the Gospel passage on Christmas morning is repeated just six days later, on December 31.  This Gospel passage speaks to the beginning and end of not just our salvation, but of God’s entire work of creation.

The English author G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book The Everlasting Man that:

“Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.  His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God.”

Chesterton was a master of paradox, and through paradox he insightfully explained the depth of the Christian mysteries.  Christmas and Easter are intimately related to each other:  Christ was born for us, so that He might be able to die for us.  Christ rose from the dead so that you and I might find the strength to die, so as to live forever.

The great Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot captured this paradox in his poem titled “The Journey of the Magi”.  Towards the end of this poem one of the Three Wise Men asks, many years after the epiphany they had witnessed:  “were we led all that way for Birth or Death?  There was a birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter Agony for us, like Death, our death.”

May this Christmas Season lead you to the gift of dying to everything in this world.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [B]

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [B]
II Sam 7:1-5,8-12,14,16  +  Rom 16:25-27  +  Lk 1:26-38
December 24, 2017

“Hail, full of grace!  The Lord is with you.”

King David seems to be a humble man.  He appears, in our First Reading, to want to set things right.  And both of these virtues—humility and justice—are at the heart of the Advent Season, modeled by John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  So perhaps the Church proclaims our First Reading today, on this final Sunday of Advent, to hold King David up as a model for us.  Or perhaps not.

Perhaps not, given the Lord’s response to King David.  “Settled in his palace [after] the Lord had given him rest from his enemies”, King David cries out in concern about his own dwelling being richer than the Lord’s.  In the fullness of His divinity, God dwells in Heaven, of course, but in some mysterious manner God had dwelt on earth since the time of Moses, within the Ark of the Covenant.  King David is referring to this Ark when he cries out, “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God dwells in a tent!”  The Lord responds with a rhetorical question that unlocks the meaning of the First Reading:  “Should you build me a house to dwell in?”

We realize that this is a rhetorical question because the rest of the Lord’s words reveal King David’s intention to be just too small.  The Lord turns David’s intention upside down.  The Lord reveals all that He is going to accomplish for His servant David:  “I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.”  “I will give you rest from all your enemies.”  And finally, speaking of Himself in the third person:  “The Lord also reveals to you that He will establish a house for you.”  But the Lord’s ways are not man’s ways, the Lord’s house is not David’s house, and the house the Lord builds is not built according to man’s ways.  The Lord’s house is not built of cedar, brick, marble or stone, but of living stones that are far more precious.

One thousand years after David’s time, the Lord raised up David’s most important heir.  “Gabriel was sent from God… to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David”.  Gabriel hails Mary as being “full of grace”, and says to her, “the Lord is with you.”  Then Gabriel explains to Mary that the Lord God will give Mary’s son the throne of David his father, and that there will be no end to his kingdom.

But Mary responds simply with a sincere question.  She has no noble plans as does King David, but only a question for the Lord:  “How can this be?”  Gabriel answers honestly when he replies that “the Power of the Most High will overshadow you,” and that “therefore the child to be born will be… the Son of God.”  Had Mary been full of ironic skepticism like so many of us, she might well have replied, “Well thanks, Gabriel, that explains everything!”  St. Gabriel had only added mystery to mystery.  He had not, in human fashion, made clear the “How” of the Incarnation.  But he had made clear the divine “Why”:  that in the Incarnation, the Lord is fulfilling His promise to “establish a house for you.”

Mary’s response is simple.  Mary’s response is a model for your own life as a disciple of Jesus.  King David, at least in today’s First Reading, is not a model for your life.  David believes that serving God starts with David’s plans.  But Mary is different.  The two sentences that make up her response are really nothing more than an extended definition of the Hebrew word “Amen”.  Too often as believers, we add the word “Amen” to the end of a prayer mindlessly, no more thoughtfully than when, with pencil in hand, we mark a period at the end of a sentence.  But the word “Amen” is our profession that we personally accept everything that’s been said in the prayer.  The Blessed Virgin Mary, in speaking her words to St. Gabriel, models what she commends at the Wedding at Cana:  “Do whatever He tells you.”  Mary follows this counsel herself in declaring, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”