The Seventh Day within the Octave of Christmas

The Seventh Day within the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:18-21  +  John 1:1-18
December 31, 2021

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

In terms of the Gospel Reading at weekday Mass, today is something of a hinge within the Christmas Season.  Yesterday’s Gospel Reading concluded the narratives of the Presentation, ending by referring to the Holy Family’s return to Nazareth, where Jesus grew in His sacred humanity.

Today’s Gospel Reading is the prologue of St. John’s Gospel account.  This prologue alternates between poetic descriptions of the divine Word of God who became flesh, and narrative descriptions of the ministry of St. John the Baptist.  These two forms come together, however, in the last three verses of the prologue [John 1:16-18].  The one whom John foretold manifests Himself as the source of grace for all who believe in Him.

Throughout the remainder of Christmastide, the Gospel Reading at weekday Mass presents Jesus as an adult during the three years of His public ministry.  This might seem out of place during Christmastide, although understandable from a practical perspective since the narratives of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy are relatively few.

The narratives of Jesus’ public ministry that we hear during the rest of Christmastide in fact have an important purpose.  They point our attention forward to the purpose of the Incarnation:  that is, the purpose of Christmastide.  That purpose is to manifest the divine presence in the world in the Person of Jesus.  This is why Christmastide culminates in feasts of the Lord Jesus’ epiphany.  The word “epiphany” means “revelation”, and the epiphanies of the Lord call for a response from each person who witnesses them.

Working Title/Artist: The Adoration of the Magi
Department: Medieval Art
Culture/Period/Location:
HB/TOA Date Code:
Working Date: 1507
photographed by mma in 1998, transparency 1a,
scanned by film 5/22/02

The Epiphany of the Lord

The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6  +  Matthew 2:1-12
January 2, 2022

“We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Secular culture takes what is three-dimensional and flattens it.  Christians, then, must be alert to secularism’s encroachment upon Christian culture.  If, for example, Christians adopt secularism’s counterfeits of Christmas and Easter, not only do Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny become the seasons’ patron saints.  The seasons themselves become distorted, so that Christmas begins on the day after Thanksgiving and ends on December 25th.

By contrast, the Church calls Christians to order their lives in a way that recognizes December 25th as the first full day of Christmastide, and the day of celebrating the first of several mysteries that the Church ponders throughout Christmastide.  Among all these mysteries, the Nativity and the Epiphany of the Lord are the two most important.

The Nativity focuses upon the divine Gift given by God the Father to fallen man.  The Epiphany focuses upon the gifts that men offer to God in return.  We might say that the Epiphany is the Church’s first focus upon the stewardship of grateful disciples.

In this Sunday’s Gospel Reading, we hear three wise men arriving before the manger.  They are men willing to sacrifice of themselves in order to find a newborn King.  This is a sign of their wisdom:  their willingness to make profoundly personal sacrifices in addition to the material objects they offer in sacrifice.

Few persons don’t want to be rich.  However, there are many people who believe they’re rich, but who have become satisfied with riches that—in the end—aren’t going to do them real good.

Humility is what we see in the three wise kings, who were willing to leave the splendor and riches of their kingdoms and enter a grotto where animals lived, in order to prostrate themselves before a child born of a peasant girl.

Picture this:  these three wise kings fall to the ground in adoration before the newborn Jesus in a stable, where the hay of the animals was mixed with the animals’ waste.  Would you be humble enough to kneel in that hay?

Look at these three wise kings.  Look at their sacrifices.  Consider two parts of the sacrifices that the kings make.

The first part is their journey.  It is long and fraught with peril, much like the journey of discipleship.  These three leave behind the lands where they rule, where they are in control, in order to bow down before the Ruler of Heaven and Earth:  in order to follow Him wherever He asks them to journey for His sake.

The second part of their sacrifices are the objects that the three wise kings take from their treasuries and place before the new-born King.  These splendid objects reflect their human wealth.

Yet these gifts are given as a response to a greater Gift.  These gifts are more a reflection of the One to whom they’re given than of those who give them.  So also in the practice of stewardship, while one’s giving is in proportion to one’s means, it’s also meant to be given in proportion to the goodness of the One to whom we give.

The gifts the three wise men give to Jesus reflect the subject of their gift-giving.  The gold and frankincense reflect Jesus’ kingship and divinity.  These gifts are foretold in the First Reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

But Isaiah does not prophesy about the gift of myrrh.  Myrrh is a resin used to prepare corpses for burial.  What an odd gift for a newborn!  Can you imagine someone today showing up at a baby shower with a gift obtained from a mortuary?  Nonetheless, the gift of myrrh reflects the wisdom of the three wise men.

It’s often said that God is never outdone in generosity.  That truth is reflected in the gift of myrrh.  God the Father had given the Gift of His Son.  In response, the three wise men give three gifts to the Holy Family.  Yet Christmastide is only the start of the Gospel story, and a preparation for its climax during Holy Week.  On Mt. Calvary, God the Son will offer in sacrifice the Gift of His Body and Blood, soul and divinity.  The gift of Good Friday is the source and summit of the Christian life, the gift that gives infinite depth to the journey of discipleship.

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, 2021

… your all-powerful Word, O Lord, bounded from heaven’s royal throne.

If asked to sum up the meaning of Christmastide in just a few words, we might reply, “gift” or “children”.  The secular world perverts the religious meaning of Christmas by making this season about children receiving commercial gifts.  Today’s Scripture passages serve as a corrective.

The First Reading is from the first epistle of St. John.  The passage is poetic in form, with the Beloved Disciple alternately addressing “children”, “fathers”, and “young men”.  In each brief address, St. John explains his reasons for writing to them.  All of these reasons have to do with accepting God the Father’s Son as the means of forgiveness of one’s sins.

Then the Beloved Disciple contrasts God the Father’s gift of His Son with the way of the world.  St. John draws a sharp contrast between God the Father and the world, akin to the contrast that Jesus speaks to when He declares that one cannot serve both God and mammon [Matthew 6:24].  What today’s First Reading clarifies, however, is the fault line between the two:  sin.  The world moves us both to disbelieve in sin and yet to commit sin.  By contrast, God the Father calls us both to recognize our sins and also to accept His Son as the means of forgiveness.

Mary, the Mother of God

Mary, the Mother of God
Numbers 6:22-27  +  Galatians 4:4-7  +  Luke 2:16-21
January 1, 2022

“When eight days were completed for His circumcision, He was named Jesus, the Name given Him by the angel ….”

On the eighth day of Christmas—the Octave Day of the Lord’s Nativity—we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos:  “God bearer”, or more commonly translated into English as “Mother of God”.  Out of the five mysteries of Christmastide—the Nativity of the Lord, the Holy Family of the Lord, the Theotokos [Bearer of the Lord], the Epiphany of the Lord, and the Baptism of the Lord—today’s mystery focuses more squarely on the person of Mary herself.  Of course, this focus cannot possibly exclude her Son.  The very title “Theotokos” recognizes Mary in relation to the One whom she boreThis act of bearing is the key that unlocks the mystery of today’s feast.

However, today’s Gospel passage doesn’t relate a scene from Mary’s pregnancy:  that is, from the time during which she bore the unborn Christ.  The Church might have chosen the Gospel passage of the Annunciation for today’s feast, or the Visitation, or a passage relating to Mary’s seeking a place to give birth.  Instead, today’s Gospel passage describes the scene on the eighth day of the Lord’s life “in the world”, as distinct from that part of His life that was hidden in the womb.

Today’s Gospel passage relates these “eight days” to Jesus’ circumcision.  As you know, in the calendar of the Extraordinary Form of Holy Mass, today’s feast is called the Circumcision of the Lord.  The Gospel passage for today in the Extraordinary Form consists of a single sentence:  that is, the final sentence of today’s passage in the Ordinary Form.  The Ordinary Form today, then, expands on the feast as celebrated in the Extraordinary Form.  You might say that the camera is pulling back for a wider angle shot in the Ordinary Form, so that the event of the Circumcision of the Lord would shed light not only upon the mystery of the Word made Flesh, but also upon Mary as Theotokos.

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St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Third Part of his Summary of Theology, discusses the Circumcision of Jesus in Question 37.  Consider how it is that faith is the means of access to the grace that flows from the Passion.  In Thomas’ Summary of Theology, when he asks “Whether circumcision was a preparation for, and a figure of Baptism?”,[1] his affirmative response is based upon the fact that “Baptism is called the Sacrament of Faith”, and he illustrates this fact with two examples:  that “in Baptism man makes a profession of faith, and by Baptism is aggregated to the congregation of the faithful.”[2]

Then St. Thomas compares the Old Testament rite of circumcision to Christian Baptism, and he makes this comparison by highlighting faith’s role in the rite of circumcision.  He first asserts that the faith of Christians “is the same as that of the Fathers of old, [that is, the Old Testament patriarchs,] according to the Apostle (2 Cor 4:13):  ‘Having the same spirit of faith … we … believe.’”[3]  Then Thomas describes the spiritual act and the spiritual effect of circumcision.  The act of circumcision was a profession of faith, and the effect of the act was that “men of old were aggregated to the body of the faithful.”[4]

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Given these doctrines that Thomas has articulated about the Old Testament sacrament[5] of circumcision, what then can we say in particular about the circumcision of the divine Person of Jesus, and the Theotokos?

Freely, the divine Person Jesus was obedient to His Father’s Will and entered this world whose inhabitants are yoked by sin and death, to which yoke the Law testified.  Of her own free will, the human person Mary, free from all sin, was obedient to the Father’s Will and accepted the vocation to be the Bearer of the God-man, who had been born of her and “born under the Law, to ransom those under the Law.”  Mary’s vocation was for the sake of this ransom.

However, this ransoming that was fulfilled on Calvary, served a further purpose:  namely, that the very sinners who had been yoked to sin and death might enter into the fullness of life as children of the God-Man’s own Father.  The Beloved Disciple testifies to this truth in the prologue to his Gospel account:  “to all who received [the Word], who believed in His Name, He gave power to become children of God”.[6]  Mary herself, of course, is the initial and purest example of this reception of the Word in her obedience to her unique vocation to serve God and mankind as the Theotokos.

On the eight day of His manifestation within this world—that is, one week after the epiphany of His Birth from the ever-Virgin Theotokos—the Word made Flesh was circumcised according to the Law.  This act of obedience to the Law, as an Old Testament sacrament that foreshadowed Christian Baptism, derived its efficacy from the prevenient grace that flowed from the Passion of the Word made Flesh on Calvary, and by means of faithFaith is the final word of today’s celebration of the Christmas mystery of the Circumcision of the Lord, and Mary speaks this word in her role of Theotokos:  God-Bearer.

Faith, as a divine virtue whose object is God, cannot be practiced by a divine Person such as Jesus Christ.  However, every human person is called by God by means of faith to receive God the Father’s Word, to believe in that Son’s Name, and to receive God’s power so as “to become children of God”.

Faith, within the spiritual womb of Mary’s soul, is the means by which she gave her “Fiat” to the Father.  Through this “Fiat” within the womb of her soul, she bore the Word who became Flesh through her.  So each human sinner is called through the divine virtue of faith each day of his life within the Church Militant to bear the Word in his soul, to become a child of God, and to begin anew his own vocation within the Mystical Body of Christ.[7]

[1] Summa Theologiae III, 70, 1, Title.

[2] Ibid., III, 70, 1, Respondeo.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In the edition of the Summa cited, the English translation speaks of a “protestation of faith” [“protestatio fidei”].  However, “profession” is not only an adequate synonym for “protestation” here, but also relates more closely to the current language used to describe the liturgical act of a “profession of faith”.

[5] St. Thomas in Question 70, Article 2, Reply Obj. 2 uses the word “sacrament” to speak of the ritual of circumcision:  “Circumcisio autem erat sacramentum….” (“But circumcision was a sacrament….”).

[6] John 1:12 [RSV-CE].

[7] This reflection has not treated the second half of the verse cited at the homily’s beginning, but its spiritual theme—that is, the Holy Name of Jesus—is celebrated in the Sacred Liturgy on January 3 in the Ordinary Form and on the Sunday after today’s feast in the Extraordinary Form.

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, 2021

“Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted ….”

If Saint Joseph were ever to relinquish his title as the patron saint of happy deaths, Saint Simeon might well take it up.  In the Gospel Reading’s account of the Presentation, Simeon twice speaks.  His words on the first occasion have been canonized by the Church as a hymn that’s proclaimed every night in the Divine Office.  This final hour of the day’s Office, called Compline, helps the Christian to close each day by meditating upon what the Church calls “the Last Things”.  St. Simeon helps us make this meditation fruitfully.

Simeon’s words are the words of one who knows that his earthly life is at its end.  He proclaims words that every human person might wish to utter upon his or her deathbed:  “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”  Yet Simeon continues by speaking to the source of that peace.  As Simeon holds the Christ Child in his arms, he proclaims to the Lord:  “my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people”.

It’s in his second discourse that Simeon elaborates upon the mission of this child, and the salvation that that mission will accomplish.  Simeon explains that the “child is destined to be a sign that will be contradicted”.  What is this sign?  Simeon may not have understood that this child would fulfill His earthly mission by dying upon a cross.  Nonetheless, the sign of the Cross is the key to understanding everything Simeon foretold at the Presentation, and indeed everything that is said and done throughout the Gospel.

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
1 John 1:5—2:2  +  Matthew 2:13-18
December 28, 2021

If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

There are two ways to remove sin from people’s lives.  The first, as the Beloved Disciple preaches in today’s First Reading, is to bring one’s sins before God so that the Blood of Jesus might wash them away.  The second is to claim that there neither is nor ever has been any such thing as sin.

The modern world that surrounds us seeks credibility by claiming that there is no such thing as sin.  Some moderns go so far as to claim that there is nothing spiritual at all in existence:  not even God.  Sin and the Almighty are nothing but fables, they claim.

Yet if nothing spiritual exists, then love does not exist.  Pure love is nothing if not spiritual.  Love can take certain material forms, of course, such as loving words or loving works.  Yet pure love is what animates those words and works, and pure love is what can endure after words grow silent and works fade.  This love, the Beloved Disciple explains to us in his epistles, is who God Himself is.  It is this love Who, if “we acknowledge our sins,” will “cleanse us from every wrongdoing.”

St. John, Apostle & Evangelist

St. John, Apostle & Evangelist
1 John 1:1-4  +  John 20:1,2-8
December 27, 2021

“… the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it ….”

The First Reading and the Gospel Reading for today’s feast of St. John the Beloved Disciple stand in contrast in an intriguing way.  The contrast relates to vision or sight.

Today’s First Reading comes from the first of the three New Testament letters written by today’s saint.  In the First Letter of John, the Beloved Disciple speaks about “the Word of life”.  This clearly refers to Jesus, whom St. John in the prologue to his Gospel account describes as the divine Word:  “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [John 1:1].  This divine Word became Flesh and dwelt among us [see John 1:14].  Keep in mind that it’s the same scriptural author who in his Gospel account records Jesus stating:  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” [John 14:6].

About this “Word of life”, the Beloved Disciple in today’s First Reading states that “the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us.  Of course, the divine Word becoming Flesh and dwelling among us—the very mystery at the heart of Christmastide—is what makes it possible to see this divine Word.  The spoken word cannot be seen, but the Word made flesh can.

Yet in today’s Gospel Reading, which is set on Easter Sunday morning, there is a literal lack of sight.  The Word made flesh, risen from the dead, is nowhere to be seen.  Mary Magdalen ran to St. Peter and today’s saint, “and told them, ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they put him.’”  These two apostles enter the empty tomb and see the burial cloths.  The beloved disciple “saw and believed”.  Contrast St. John here with St. Thomas the Apostle.  St. Thomas would not believe until he saw the Risen Jesus and His wounds.  But the Beloved Disciple does not see the Risen Jesus and yet believes.  What Jesus said a week after His Resurrection after appearing to St. Thomas applies to the Beloved Disciple, and hopefully also to us:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

 

Late Advent Weekday — December 24 [Morning Mass]

Late Advent Weekday — December 24 [Morning Mass]
II Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16  +  Luke 1:67-79
December 24, 2021

“He promised to show mercy to our fathers ….”

This morning’s Mass is the last Mass of Advent, and as such, you might say that it presents to us the close of the Old Testament.  At the center of today’s Gospel Reading is the figure of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  John having been born, the punishment of muteness is lifted from Zechariah.  This morning’s Gospel Reading, then, presents his first words.

St. Luke the Evangelist notes in two separate scenes that Zechariah—in today’s Gospel Reading—and his wife Elizabeth in a previous passage—Luke 1:41—were “filled with the Holy Spirit” when they spoke.  St. Luke also notes that Zechariah, “filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied”.  In these two scenes, the words of Elizabeth and Zechariah—both “filled with the Holy Spirit”—are akin to the words of the Old Testament prophets.  In the Creed’s section about the Holy Spirit, we profess that He “has spoken through the prophets.”

There are two parts to Zechariah’s prophecy, which the Church refers to by the first word of the text in Latin:  “Benedictus”.  The second part is addressed to his infant son John.  We can imagine that Zechariah was cradling John in his arms as he uttered this prophecy.  The words he spoke to John can also be applied to us Christians inasmuch as each of us is called to prepare a way in the world for the power of the Most High.  By our words, works, and prayers we allow others to know about the mercy promised to our fathers:  the Divine Mercy who is Jesus Christ, born for us at Bethlehem.

 

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

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph [C]
Sirach 3:2-6,12-14  +  Colossians 3:12-21  +  Luke 2:41-52
[other options: I Samuel 1:20-22,24-28 + Colossians 3:12-17 + 1 John 3:1-2,21-24]
December 26, 2021

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The event narrated in this Sunday’s Gospel Reading is the focus of the fifth Joyful Mystery of the Dominican Rosary (as opposed to the Carmelite Rosary, within which this event is the sixth Joyful Mystery).  However, unlike the prior Joyful Mystery—the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple—the event of Jesus being found in the Temple when He was twelve does not have its own feast day in the Church calendar.  In fact, this Sunday’s Gospel Reading is proclaimed at Mass only once every three years, on the Sunday following Christmas Day (by contrast, in the Missal of the Extraordinary Form, this passage is proclaimed each year during Christmastide).

The event of Jesus being found in the Temple is unique, among other reasons, because it’s the only narrative in the four Gospel accounts that tells us about Jesus between his infancy and His Baptism at the age of thirty.  Jesus here is on the verge of turning thirteen, a point of spiritual maturity which throughout Jewish history has been marked by the ritual of bar mitzvah.  That Jesus in this Gospel passage is so young makes what He says and does all the more remarkable.

When Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple, He is asking the teachers questions.  We might wonder why the divine Son of God—the eternal Word—is asking questions of human persons.  Yet many famed teachers such as the Greek philosopher Socrates asked questions as a means of teaching.  The “Socratic method” is used even today by subtle teachers to help their students think their way through complex matters.  In fact, after noting that Jesus asked the teachers questions, the evangelist notes that “all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.”

Nonetheless, this Gospel passage is not chiefly about Jesus as a teacher.  This fact reflects a larger truth about Jesus:  that His vocation on earth is not chiefly to be a teacher.  Clearly, throughout the Gospel accounts we hear Jesus teach profoundly.  This is not surprising given that Jesus is, as St. John the Evangelist records, the divine Word made flesh.  A word is, by design, meant to be communicated to another.

Yet everything that Jesus taught had a deeper motive:  to move the hearer into union with God.  This movement can only occur when the hearer freely sacrifices his or her life in order to follow Jesus—the Word made Flesh—wherever He calls.

This divine Word calls different individuals by means of different paths through the world.  Some are called to Holy Matrimony, others to consecrated life, some to Holy Orders, and some remain single in order to give a unique witness in the world.  Nonetheless, each of these paths requires self-sacrifice.  This self-sacrifice is not merely an imitation of the self-sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.  His followers share directly in the power of His sacrifice on Good Friday.  This sharing, and the self-sacrifice of Jesus’ disciples, is only possible by means of the grace that flows from the Cross through prayer and the sacraments.

So, then, if this Sunday’s Gospel Reading is not chiefly about Jesus being a teacher, what is its chief focus?  It’s revealed by the second question that Jesus asks Mary and Joseph:  “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The evangelist tells us that Mary and Joseph did not understand these words of Jesus.  But what part of His words could have confused them?  They certainly knew that God, rather than Joseph, was Jesus’ “natural Father”.

More likely, Mary and Joseph’s lack of understanding stemmed from Jesus abiding in His Father’s house instead of returning to the earthly house of the Holy Family.  Yet abiding in the Temple on earth was the fullest expression at this point in His earthly journey of Jesus, in His sacred humanity, dwelling in union with God the Father.  The Temple on earth, after all, foreshadowed God’s eternal abode in Heaven, which was the “house” to which Jesus must eventually return.

Yet Jesus was meant by the Father to be “the first-born among many brethren” [Romans 8:29].  Jesus’ vocation on earth was to lead many to adoption by His Father through the power of His self-sacrifice on the Cross.  The Temple and its sacrifices foreshadowed the Sacrifice of Calvary, which of all the moments of His earthly journey most fully expressed Jesus’ union with His divine Father, and for that matter, with fallen man.  Yet the loving self-sacrifice of the Cross itself foreshadows the heavenly life of the Trinity, each of the three divine Persons pouring Himself out in love for the other two:  a divine life which is the destiny of each disciple of Jesus.