Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mary, the Holy Mother of God, solemnity

(Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21)

Scientists have reported significant medical benefits of infant circumcision. The procedure is said to reduce the risk of a large range of pathologies from the HIV virus to cervical cancer in sexual partners. These findings corroborate what was considered at the root of the practice in ancient Israel: the male foreskin is a center of impurity. The gospel today shows Jesus undergoing circumcision, but its emphasis is quite different than preventing disease.

Mary and Joseph have Jesus circumcised because they are pious Jews intent on obeying the prescriptions of Jewish law. The gospel of Luke portrays Mary as particularly intent on fulfilling the word of God. The angel Gabriel told her that the name of the child was to be named “Jesus” – a mandate that is duly carried out here. Mary also keeps all the happenings of Jesus birth in her heart because she knows that they are ordered by God’s command.

In Mary we have a grand intercessor and model. Everyone should feel free to bring his or her needs to this gentle woman. More than that, we should imitate throughout the new year both her contemplative spirit for all that occurs in life and her obedience to God’s commands.
The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

(I John 2:18-21; John 1:1-18)

For some Catholics the ponderous words of today’s gospel are quite familiar. These people were raised before the Second Vatican Council when the first fourteen verses of the passage were recited at the end of every mass. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as “The Last Gospel.”

The passage’s opening verses address the ancient controversy of whether Christ was really God. Some postulate that belief in Christ’s divinity contradicts God’s unity. The verses show how Christ, the Word, can be the one God yet exist in distinction from the Father: he comes from the Father yet not after the Father since he and the Father with the Spirit existed before time began when there was no before and after. The passage further relates that the Word actually took on human flesh to ground Christian belief not in hypothesis but in the deeds of an historical persona, Jesus of Nazareth.

Used as the gospel we read at the final mass of the year, the passage allows us to peak beyond the end of time while it reinforces the purpose of the Word becoming flesh. As Christ existed with the Father before time began, his work as human makes us God’s children so that we might exist with him, the Father, and the Spirit when time ends.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

(I John 1:5-2:2; Matthew 2:13-18)

The word “Holy Innocents” this year will be mostly associated with the child victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The hearts of people the world over go out to their parents who like “Rachel weeping for her children” cannot be consoled “since they (are) no more.”

But because its carnage of innocent babes continues to mount, something must also be whispered about the depenalization of abortion whose anniversary will be commemorated shortly. In forty years the Supreme Court decision has led to the slaughter of around fifty million human lives in their initial formation in America. In many of these cases the parents weep in silence since they ultimately caused their own heartache.

Jesus is born to take away our tears. His law, written in the gentlest manner on our hearts, frees us from enslavement to the passion at the root of unwanted pregnancy. It is the rule of true love which undergoes sacrifice for the real good of all.
Feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist

(I John 1:1-4; John 20:1a.2-8)

In the first couple centuries after Christ, Christians had to contend with the heresy of Docetism. Finding incredible the apostles’ testimony that the Son of God became human, Docetists believed that he only had the appearance of a man but in reality remained a pure spirit. In the section from the Letter to John which we read today, the writer offers a striking rebuttal. “What we…touched with our hands,” the author says, “concerns the Word of life.”

Today we are challenged by the contrary heresy that Jesus was not God at all but only human. Proponents of this way of thinking acknowledge Jesus’ wisdom and goodness but do not think him worth one’s allegiance to death if necessary. According to these detractors, Jesus is just one in a series of many holy men and women including Buddha, Gandhi, and perhaps Mary Baker Eddy.

Some may be attracted to the contemporary rejection of the Christian claim of Jesus’ divinity as freeing faith from mythical elements. But we best not forget that holding it dismisses, in effect, our fellowship with the Father and the Son and, therefore, the promise of eternal life found in the Letter of John. Faithful Catholics will likewise not concur with the idea that Christian belief is mythical. Our reason is not only that such a stance takes away hope for eternal life but, more to the point, because it conflicts directly with the testimony of those, like John, who actually knew Jesus and have told us about him.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Feast of St. Stephen, proto-martyr

(Acts 6:8-10.7:54-59; Matthew 10:17-22)

“Is it an accident…,” St. Thomas Becket asks in his Christmas sermon according to playwright T.S. Eliot, “that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?” Not at all, he goes on to say. Martyrdom is the design of God to draw humans back to the love which the birth of Christ reveals. In other words, the Church proposes today’s Feast of St. Stephen as a reminder that Christ was born to die out of love for the world.

Although many households take down their Christmas lights today and stores haul out Valentine decorations, the Church does not intend that people go back to life as usual. Rather, she wants to make them realize that they are being called deeper into the mystery of holiness which does not shun the world but seeks to sanctify it. Celebration at what is good and sorrow when good is thwarted by evil are two ways Christians show others God’s care for them. Christmas festivities will continue until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, but they will always be tempered by the understanding that material substances are readily corruptible while virtue lasts forever.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

On Tuesdays many Catholics pray the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. These include the memorable events of Jesus’ passion – his agony in Gethsemane, his being flogged and mocked, his supporting the weight of the cross, and his brutal death. If Christmas falls on a Tuesday, however, the remembrance of Jesus’ ordeal is supposed to give way to the joyful celebration of Jesus’ birth – how the Virgin Mary’s consent to God’s will led to her conceiving, birthing, and raising the Savior. Nevertheless, this year many will feel the need to meditate as usual on his death.

Eleven days ago a young man shot and killed twenty-eight people, twenty of whom were only six and seven years old, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Connecticut. Although the assassin apparently understood that what he did was wrong since he took his own life, he was almost certainly mentally deranged. He also seems to have had a vendetta against his mother, a divorced woman, who tried to care for him. The murders have invoke the disturbing question of what it means to have “the Savior of the world” in our midst when human tragedies such as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary happen with increasing regularity.

Perhaps such catastrophes are evidence that people have rejected Jesus’ teachings on love and peace. Some will argue that the refusal to ban hand guns signifies a society’s option for violence. Others will say that the core problem is the people’s unwillingness to assist those suffering from mental disease. Still others will insist that if parents were willing to make sacrifices to keep their marriages together, their children would receive all the attention they need. All these explanations for the violence have merit, but there is a more fundamental truth that should be understood.

Evil or, if you wish, the devil is a larger, darker, and more grotesque enemy than we can imagine. It is an inherent condition of the world, and it has perpetrated its contempt for innocence from the beginning. But its days are numbered. Jesus, who took the initiative to challenge evil, has broken its back. Now it can only roam like a rabid dog looking to spread its infection on any and every one before it dies.

We must not let sorrow for the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary smother our joy today. Jesus the Savior has come. His resurrection from the dead has opened the gates of heaven for those innocent people. His sending of the Holy Spirit empowers us to join the struggle against evil. We see him as a defenseless baby at this moment but know that he is our unconquerable leader.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(II Samuel 7:1-5.8b-12.14a.16; Luke 1:67-79)

At first glance the first reading and the gospel appear disconnected. The reading from II Samuel is a familiar prophecy of the coming of Christ in the line of David. The gospel seems to be an ode to joy on the part of Zechariah with the birth of his son. However, a closer look reveals a profound intimacy between the two.

In the gospel Zechariah predicts the coming of God as “the dawn from on high.” The word for this in Greek is anatole which also translates the Hebrew of Nathan’s prophecy to David that God will raise up one “sprung from your loins” to become the eternal king. Thus, Zechariah announces the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy with the coming of the one for whom John the Baptist is to prepare the way.

The scene is set. The Savior is about to make his appearance in the world. We are to look for the rising star tonight who shall enlighten our way to glory.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

(Song of Songs 2:8-14; Luke 1:39-45)

In many ways human beings are like all the other kinds of animals. They are born, they live, and they die. But there are differences. Unlike other animals humans think, represent their thoughts in symbols, and use the symbols to communicate with one another. These capacities leave humans with questions: Where do they come from? What happens to their spirits at death? How does their universal understanding of good and evil come about? Faith gives a perspective to address these questions. It is like a telescope which enables a human to see the universe more clearly. Today’s gospel makes a ringing endorsement of faith.

When Mary visits Elizabeth, the latter greets her with a string of blessings. “Most blessed,” she says, “are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Then Elizabeth names the cause of Mary’s blessedness. It is not that she is a virgin who is about to give birth. Nor even that she will me “the mother of my Lord.” No, Mary is blessed for believing “what was spoken to you by the Lord…”

We too have the faith that Elizabeth praises. We too believe what the Lord tells us: that Jesus is His Son; that he died on the cross to redeem our sins and then rose from the dead; and that we await his coming in glory to judge the world. The beginning of the realization of these truths, and not reindeer and snowmen, is what Christmas is all about.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent

(Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38)

Christmas is a season of signs. Every gift signifies the giver’s affection for the recipient. Although signs may show disfavor as well, the signs offered in the readings today are both positive.

In the first reading Isaiah suggests that King Ahaz ask for a sign to show that God supports him. Faced with a military challenge, the king wants to capitulate to his enemies who will adulterate his nation’s worship. He likely refuses to ask for a sign not out of piety but from a fear to trust in the Lord. By contrast in the gospel Mary, trusting all the while in the Lord, readily accepts the sign that Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age.

Should we be seeking signs when confronted with decisions? God has not only sent us the ultimate sign in His Son Jesus but also has endowed us with His Holy Spirit. Rather than seeking additional signs, it is better to prudently discern how Jesus’ teachings apply in a given situation and then acting accordingly with the Spirit.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

(Judges 13:2-7.24-25a; Luke 1:5-25)

It is said that for Jews the first commandment is not: “Thou shalt have no strange gods before me,” or even: “Love God with all your heart…” No, their first commandment comes from the initial words God speaks to humans: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Thus, Zechariah and Elizabeth – two God-fearing people – feel “disgrace” both naturally and religiously for their not having born a child.

Luke punctuates the fact that Zechariah seeks a sign from the angel who bore the news of his son’s unlikely conception. The request is reminiscent of people in the gospel demanding a sign from Jesus. These skeptics are unsure about Jesus even after he demonstrates his divine authority time and again.

What God calls forth from Zechariah -- and from us as well -- is trust. He gives his word to Zechariah that Elizabeth is going to bear him a child. A wise person might admonish the priest, “Enough; believe it, Zechariah, and give praise to God.” Jesus speaks similarly to us. He tells us in the early days of Advent to prepare for his return. This means that we are to care for the needy, to pray for those who persecute us, and to thank God continuously for everything we have.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

(Jeremiah 23:5-8; Matthew 1:18-25)

An old priest was describing his father. He said the man was the most honest person he had ever known. When asked if his father was religious, the priest responded, “Yes, he is the reason why I became a priest.” Joseph, introduced to us in the gospel today, is such a man.

Joseph has reason to make a public case against Mary. Not only does it seem that she has been unfaithful to him, but also Joseph would be able to keep the dowry he likely was given for Mary. But Joseph, being “a righteous man,” that is one who always follows God’s loving will, prefers to divorce her quietly. He is acting as if he just decided that the marriage wouldn’t work out. Thus, he saves Mary the humiliation of public inquiry into her pregnancy. Of course, the revelation by the angel provides Joseph reason to take Mary into his home despite her already having child.

In being born a human of Mary, the wife of Joseph, Jesus will provide us the grace to act like his righteous foster-father. He will teach us God’s ways and then die on the cross dispensing the Holy Spirit so that we may stay on that sometimes difficult road.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Monday of the Third Week in Advent

(Genesis 49:2.8-10; Matthew 1:1-17)

An African-American preacher once began his sermon by introducing himself. “I am a nobody,” he said, “who has come to tell anybody about somebody who came to save everybody.” The preacher’s claim reflects part of Jesus’ genealogy according to Matthew’s gospel.

It has been noted how the list starts with familiar figures: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so on. Once it gets to the kings of Judah, the names – Uzziah, Jotham, and Ahaz – may be recognizable but they are certainly less familiar. The names of the final section are mostly unknown –Abiud, Azor, Zadok. But they too have a role in bringing about the Messiah.

Like these last characters, most of us will never become famous. Yet this fact by no means deprives us of a place in salvation history. Jesus commissions each of us, as he did the Eleven at the close of Matthew’s gospel, to tell others all that we have been taught. We are to speak of God’s love for everybody, of Jesus’ call to repent of our selfishness, and of the Christian community where we may live in harmony with all kinds of brothers and sisters.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Memorial of Saint John of the Cross, priest and doctor of the Church

(Isaiah 48:17-19; Matthew 11:16-19)

Freedom enables humans to choose between the good things available to them. It is not attracted by evil. Sometimes choice is made between objects that rival one another – football teams to follow or high schools to attend. St. John of the Cross chose the reform branch in the Carmelite Order over the more lax traditionalists. Surely there were positive elements in the latter group, but John thought that for him, at least, it was better to live among idealistic religious. We see a similar choice being offered in today’s gospel.

Jesus criticizes the people of his time for not taking up the call to repent their sins and trust in God. He indicates that they might have done it by following John’s strict lifestyle or by his own that gives more slack. Following either model, they would have let go of full reliance on their own prowess. They would have treated others with kindness, not a tit-for-tat rigor.

We are soon to celebrate the birthday of our Savior. How can even the strictest Christians not look forward to some material delight in honor of the One who created all things good? But whether we rejoice by singing the “Halleluiah Chorus” with full orchestra or by chanting “Silent Night” a cappella, we must remember that he came to call us out of ourselves toward an ever good and gracious God.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Memorial of St. Lucy, virgin and martyr

(Isaiah 41:13-20; Matthew 11:11-15)

There is a charming story of St. Thomas Aquinas that may help us appreciate Jesus’ appraisal of John the Baptist in today’s gospel. As a student of St. Albert the Great, Thomas was ridiculed by his colleagues as a “dumb ox.” Albert, however, recognizing his student’s genius, commented, “We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world."

When Jesus says of John “…the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” he does not mean to undermine John’s importance. He only wishes to say that John is great because he announces the coming of the Messiah who has arrived in Jesus himself. Jesus sees John as outside the Kingdom because he has not yet committed himself to Jesus. For John, Jesus is the “dumb ox” who has to prove himself. Of course, Jesus does just that repeatedly but most wondrously by his self-surrender on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.

Advent is a busy but also a holy season. Some of us find ourselves overcommitted and needing more time. Others feel satisfied that Christmas greetings have all been mailed and Christmas presents all obtained and wrapped. In both cases we need to step back a moment and realize that the season is about the coming of Jesus, not about human desires. We pray that we may encounter Jesus more deeply and witness to him more clearly now than ever.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

(Revelation 11:19a.12:1-6a.10ab; Luke 1:26-38)

In his apostolic exhortation, entitled The Church in the America, Blessed John Paul II declared Our Lady of Guadalupe the “Evangelizer of the Americas.” The story of her apparitions to the native Juan Diego bears witness to the title.

In 1531, seven years after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, the missionaries were unable to make significant inroads among the people. There were a few converts like Juan Diego but nothing like the mass numbers that came into the Church after the apparitions. Perhaps it was the intransigence of the missionaries to go to the centers of prior indigenous worship that restricted evangelization. The account of the apparitions is well known. The Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to Juan Diego on the morning of December 9 on Tepeyac hill outside Mexico City, the site of a previous temple to a pagan goddess. Speaking in the indigenous language, she introduced herself to him as “the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God by whom one lives, creator of heaven and earth.” Then she dispatched Juan Diego to Bishop Zumárraga in Mexico City with a request that a church be built on the spot of the apparition so that she might aid the indigenous people. The bishop met with Juan Diego but demanded a sign before he would believe his story. The sign came three days later when, at the mandate of the Virgin, Juan Diego brought to the bishop flowers which he found growing quite out of season at the summit of Tepeyac. When Juan Diego let the flowers fall from his tilma (outer garment) the image of the pregnant Virgin dressed as a native princess was emblazoned on it. From the retelling of the story by the natives themselves within six years nine million indigenous Mexicans became Catholic Christians.

This account underscores for us several principles of the New Evangelization. First, the New Evangelization begins with our relationship with Jesus being renewed. Both Juan Diego and Bishop Zumárraga experience a deepening of their faith through the encounter with the Virgin of Guadalupe representing her son. Second, along with spiritual renewal, we need to increase our knowledge of the faith. The Virgin gives Juan Diego a short doctrinal lesson with her introduction as “the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God by whom one lives.” The facts that she appears on the site of a former pagan temple and speaking the native tongue also indicate cultural aspects of evangelization. Finally, once evangelized, we have to give witness to the good news be retelling the story and, although not apparent here, by living it.

In this “Year of Faith” Pope Benedict has challenged all serious Catholics to take up the work of the New Evangelization. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Evangelizer of the Americas, indicates the contours of this task.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent

(Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 18: 12-14)

One man describes his encounter with Jesus in this way. He and his wife had just received the diagnosis of her having cancer. The man felt overburdened with distress as if he would not be able to help his wife through the prescribed treatments. In his small parish he had the task of locking the church door at the end of the day. That night as he was discharging his duty, he felt the Lord embrace him and heard him say, “Don’t worry. Everything will turn out all right.” Both readings today portray God acting in a similar way.

The first reading is taken from the opening of the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. God is speaking to the divine assembly. He asks that His people, whom have suffered exile for three generations, be consoled. Then He is pictured as carrying the weakest home. The gospel is just as descriptive. Jesus portrays the Father as risking the loss of his flock to search for one lost lamb.

We need not fear that we are ever completely lost in life. God, who cares about us more than our own parents, will come to our rescue when the storm clouds mount. We can trust in Him.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday of the Second Week in Advent

(Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 5:17-26)

Not too many years ago Lake Erie was declared “dead.” It was not that there was no life within it but that its living specimens had become odious and toxic to the people on its shores. Human-produced contaminants caused the dismal condition. It turned into a national emergency when the pollutants carried by the Cuyahoga River emptying into Lake Erie broke into flames. Since that time with cooperation from Canada the pollutants have been reduced, and Lake Erie has recovered some of its vitality. The reading from Isaiah today describes a similar regeneration taking place in nature.

Isaiah imagines the Messianic age with streams bursting through the desert sands and wastelands becoming veritable recreation parks. His vision makes a fitting metaphor for Jesus whom the gospel shows healing a man both spiritually and physically. It may seem peculiar to compare Jesus with an eco-system, but such an image conveys the life-giving relationships that his presence engenders.

Jesus bestows such relationships on us in the sacraments. In Baptism we become members of his Church which instructs us in his ways. In the Eucharist we are joined even closer to one another and to the Lord himself. Reinforced in these ways, we can turn and assist others in their need for fullness of life.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Memorial of Saint Ambrose, bishop and doctor of the Church

(Isaiah 29:17-24; Matthew 9:27-31)

Saint Ambrose was not raised a Catholic. Rather his father belonged to the governing class of Roman citizenry which afforded Ambrose a classical education. Ambrose joined the catechumenate in Milan where he was provincial governor. He chose to look from the perspective of faith which brought his intellectual formation to completion. The gospel today portrays Jesus as fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of enabling sight in the root sense of the word.

Isaiah prophesizes that in the fullness of time blind persons like Helen Keller would be able to see flowers and butterflies. Jesus is able to provide that kind of blessing. But his cure does not stop there as if seeing beautiful things were all that humans desire. More importantly, Jesus confirms the faith of the blind men in him as Lord. This gift sees them past all the challenges on life on the road to salvation.

We believe in order to see. That is, we accept the truths of faith so that we can have a rightful understanding of the world. We need not fear that faith conflicts with science. They cover different realms and are compatible. Belief even aids research as it insures that investigation will serve humanity.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thursday of the First Week of Advent

(Isaiah 26:1-6; Matthew 7:21.24-27)

Bicyclists are wary of sand. If they a patch of some on the road ahead they are likely to point at it with a warning to their companions. They know that sand can cause tires to slip and riders to fall. They need the bare, rock-hard road for a peaceful ride. In both readings today we see references to rock and in the gospel a lesson about sand.

Isaiah writes, “…the Lord is an eternal rock.” He means that one can trust him like a cyclist a rock hard road. Jesus calls acting on the word of God like building a house on rock. The person who does so will never slide into the pitfalls of guilt. On the other hand, the person who always does what is easy, like a builder who lays a foundation on sand, will soon be in trouble.

During Advent we are to prepare for judgment. If we find ourselves firmly established on the word of God, we can rejoice. If, on the other hand, we see our foundation crumbling because we always did what came easy, we better start building quickly on firmer ground.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday of the First Week of Advent

(Isaiah 25:6-10a; Matthew 15:29-37)

A generation ago it was said that the average American gained ten pounds over the year-end holidays. The added weight could hardly be less now. Perhaps, then, some will have difficulty appreciating Jesus’ concern about the people’s hunger in today’s gospel.

But just as the multiplying of loaves signifies the Eucharistic bread, so the hunger of the crowds is not so much physical as it is spiritual. Like people today, they crave meaning in their lives, acceptance of their efforts, and esteem for themselves as persons. Jesus fulfills all these needs. He loves each person who comes to him as an individual and invites all to join him in his Father’s kingdom.

The invitation does not come without expectation, however. If we are to join Jesus as his brothers and sisters, we must accept his help to live righteous lives. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit that we might care for others with the same purity of heart that he loves us.
Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

(Isaiah 11: 1-10, Luke 10:21-24)

The prison minister related the kind of story she hears over and over again. A small black man, who apparently just arrived in the city, was wrongly accused of purse-snatching. That the fellow was hardly aware of what was happening was so obvious that the arraigning judge released him on reconnaissance. But the poor man had nowhere to go. He was homeless and almost penniless.

Even if we believe that the legal system is fair and functional, we should realize that such misfortunes as what befell the black man in the story happen with some regularity. Especially those without money to pay lawyer fees are vulnerable to miscarriages of justice. There are also abuses at the other end of the spectrum. The rich sometimes “get away with murder” because their attorneys know how to manipulate the system.

In the first reading today the prophet Isaiah announces that these injustices are coming to an end. A Messiah, he says, will be born to establish righteousness throughout the land. He will hear the cases of the poor along with the rich. He will prosecute villains and allow the innocent to walk with heads high. As a result, we will become a truly peaceful society with the equivalent of Asians and Africans, capitalists and communists, surgeons and street sweepers all taking care of one another. The good news of Advent is that this vision has been realized in Jesus of Nazareth and that it will be universalized shortly upon his return in glory.