December 22, 2017

Late Advent Weekday
I Samuel 1:24-28  +  Luke 1:46-56
December 22, 2017

“From this day all generations will call me blessed:  the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”

From the day of the Visitation, all generations of Christians have called Mary “blessed”.  Unfortunately, the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary is used by some to divide members of the Body of Christ against each other.  But we cannot fruitfully reflect on the mystery of Christmas without reflecting on the person of Mary, her blessedness, her maternity, and the One who is her Lord and ours.

A 2006 movie titled “The Nativity Story” actually edited the “Magnificat” (Mary’s hymn of praise that we hear in today’s Gospel) at the end of the movie, so that Mary’s blessedness would not be mentioned.  The Word of God was muted out of fear of the Blessed Virgin Mary!  If some Christians are fearful of honoring Mary, we all have work to do as Christians.  We all need both to call Mary blessed, and to proclaim at the same time the right reasons for calling her blessed.  We don’t need to fear Mary as a “stumbling block” in the way of following Him who is the Way, Him to whom Mary was chosen by the Father to bear into our fallen world.

December 21, 2017

Late Advent Weekday
Song of Songs 2:8-14  +  Luke 1:39-45
December 21, 2017

“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Today our Scriptures present responses to the coming of the Lord.  Both are worthy of our reflection and imitation, although they are very different from each other.

Our First Reading today is from the Old Testament book Song of Songs.  This book is highly poetic in nature, and as such, is open to many interpretations.  The Church sees in the words of today’s passage a loving longing for the Messiah.  It’s the loving nature of this book’s expression of waiting that sets it apart from most of the Old Testament’s waiting for the Messiah.

This book’s insight into the nature of the Messiah and His reason for coming raise it above much of the Old Testament’s desire for earthly security.  This book foreshadows the truth of God being love, proclaimed by St. John in his epistles, from which we will hear during the Christmas Season.

Today’s Gospel passage offers us Elizabeth’s response to the Messiah, borne by His Mother.  The praise that Elizabeth bestows on her cousin is woven amidst her praise of her Lord.  Three times Elizabeth uses the word “blessed” in speaking to Mary:  “‘Most blessed are you among women’”; “‘blessed is the fruit of your womb’”; and “‘Blessed are you who believed’”.  We honor Our Blessed Mother during Advent and Christmas because it was through love that her life became so closely bound up with that of Our Savior.

December 20, 2017

Late Advent Weekday
Isaiah 7:10-14  +  Luke 1:26-38
December 20, 2017

“May it be done to me according to your word.”

Of all the contrasts between Zechariah and Mary in St. Luke’s infancy narratives, the starkest is found in their responses to the good news announced to each.  What makes Mary’s response to St. Gabriel even more striking is that objectively, the message entrusted to her was much more difficult to understand from an earthly perspective.  After all, what Gabriel announced to Zechariah was news which he and his wife had been longing to hear for many years.  While the facts foretold by Gabriel were unlikely from a human standpoint, they were not impossible even by human standards, and had precedent in biblical history.

Mary, however, is unique.  Her response to the Good News is possible only through faith.  Zechariah did not even have faith in a human possibility.  Yet Mary has faith in a seeming human impossibility.  She trusts that God will accomplish what He wills, and speaks only of what He wills.  How different are you and I:  we speak not only of what we will, but also of what we desire and dream about, what piques our interest even momentarily, and even what would harm us.  Worse yet is what we so often do, which in facts harms us spiritually, bodily, emotionally and in other ways:  in fact, “personally”, in its fullest sense.

Mary is a person as God created human persons to be.  Jesus is a divine person who has both human and divine natures.  But Mary is like you and me in that she’s a human person.  She shows us what it truly means to live as a human person:  that is, to relate fully to others, and to the Other who created and redeemed us in His Son.  Mary accepts God as her Creator and Savior, and lives for Him rather than for herself.

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.