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Christmas Weekday (Friday, January 6, 2012)
(I John 5:5-13; Mark 1:7-11)
Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould opined that humans may not be as superior as they think. He acknowledged that the human brain has unequaled powers, but offered as a comparable marvel the ability of certain bacteria to withstand temperatures of several thousand degrees. And so the academic debate rages: are humans merely a twig among the wide array of evolutionary branches? Or are they at the pinnacle of earthly creation?
Christians should have no doubt about the answer. We believe not only that humans have been created in the image of the Creator, but also that the Creator has deigned to take on our human flesh. This second truth has especially vaulted humans far beyond other participants in the realm of biological life. Because of the Incarnation, being human can no longer be strictly associated with error and guilt. It is more appropriately considered with decency, respect, and love. This is the import of Christmas, the feast that still commands our attention, almost two weeks after its celebration.
Although humans are capable of the heights of heaven, they sometimes act more like dogs fighting over food. Sin has so tarnished the image of God that some have difficulty perceiving their potential for goodness. As the reading from the First Letter of John states, we must turn to Christ as the witness of the glory which is within our reach.
Memorial of St. John Neumann, bishop (Thursday, January 5, 2012)
(I John 3:11-21; John 1:43-51)
In a cinematic adaption of the French classic Les Miserables, the hero Jean Valjean writes his wife a letter from jail. Because monotony rules prison life and also because he a simple person, Valjean just repeats, “I love you,” over and over again. We may have a sense that John’s First Letter does basically the same thing.
John has testified that God is love. In order to please God then, John indicates that Christians must imitate His loving. This means that love flows from words into action. If not, he would say, then it is counterfeit. The test comes when one sees a member of the community in need. Just as Jesus gave his life for his followers, one has to assist the needy brother or sister.
Love, like all virtue, is not a habit in the sense that it is performed in a rote way. It calls for creativity as well as care. We may say that we love others, but we betray that word if we treat each person with the same chatter and the same piece of bread. No, love implies acknowledgement of the other’s individuality with a fresh and sincere response to her/his need.
Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, religious (Wednesday, January 4, 2012)
(I John 3:22-4:6; Matthew 4:12-17; 23-25)
The gospel passage says that Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.” But we should not think of him as beating a retreat. Actually, he is charging to the battlefront. Herod Antipas has just arrested John the Baptist for criticizing his unlawful marriage. Jesus leaves the solitude of the Jordanian desert to take up John’s banner in Galilee. His message is even the same as John’s, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Herod Antipas, the Baptist’s nemesis, can hardly ignore it.
Like Jesus we are sometimes called to show courage. A shouting match turns into a fist fight where someone is going to get hurt. We should intervene or, at least, call for help. More often we exhibit courage by facing difficult tasks with calmness and determination. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton demonstrated such courage in her short life with many accomplishments. She mothered five children and then became a woman religious founding the Sisters of Charity. She also set up the parochial school system in the United States, established orphanages, and wrote spiritual reflections. Pope Paul VI canonized her as the first native-born American saint in 1975.
The Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (Tuesday, January 3, 2012)
(I John 3:7-10; John 1:35-42)
Western societies generally revere the name of Jesus so much that it is reserved for the Lord. Spanish culture is the significant exception to this rule. But Jesus was a popular name in biblical times. “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves.” Certainly, it is an apt name for the Christ who, as God’s agent, saves humans from sin and death. Because of Jesus we can live in freedom and look forward to heaven.
But providing the literal meaning of a name does not reveal why the name “Jesus” is “most holy” as we proclaim on this feast day. For this we must look deeper. We should note that in the four gospels dares to call Jesus by his name alone, without any titles or formalities. This is not his mother or one of his disciples. It is the so-called good thief. On the cross he calls out to his companion in suffering, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The direct appeal does not incur reprimand but approval. Jesus awards the man for his boldness. “This day,” he tells him, “you will be with me in Paradise.”
The name “Jesus” is most holy because when we call it out in faith, God listens. We can be dying sinners and still expect mercy when we call it repentantly. To be sure, it is not a magic formula but the last, best hope of a contrite heart.
Memorial of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors of the Church (Monday, January 2, 2012)
(I John 2:22-28; John 1: 19-28)
The great painting of the crucifixion by the German master Mathis Grunewald shows a diminutive John the Baptist standing on Jesus’ left pointing to the Lord. “What is he doing there?” we might ask, “Wasn’t he killed before Jesus?” Of course, he was. But he stands at the cross to give the same testimony that he does at the beginning of the gospel: Jesus is the Lamb of God who must increase while others must decrease, at least in comparison to him.
Today’s gospel forms part of the testimony that John gives in the first chapter of the fourth gospel. It may be noted that little is said of John’s baptizing and nothing about Jesus baptizing. John, the evangelist, is not interested in Baptism here, but in the Baptist’s testimony. Evidently in the first century John was considered as a rival of Jesus and the true Messiah. In the passage today John clarifies that he is not the long-expected one and that Jesus is greater than he.
We often exaggerate our own importance. We may like to talk about our accomplishments or use our money to attract notice. John gives us pause. As great as he was, he gives testimony to Jesus as greater than he. Jesus is the one that deserves everyone’s attention and our praise.