Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

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

Most people watching television at midnight today heard the old Scottish song “Auld Lang Syne.”  The words mean “old long since” or, more sensibly, “past times” and refer to the need to recall the people and events that shape men and women into who they are.  The song is appropriately sung on New Year as people launch into a new beginning sometimes unappreciative of their families who raised them, their teachers who guided them, and their friends who helped them.  Although by no means a religious hymn, “Auld Lang Syne” fits into the theme of today’s liturgical celebration.

Today’s feast is called the “Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.”  The title, proclaimed by the Church at the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, actually says more about Jesus than about his mother.  Prior to the declaration, there was a raging debate about how Jesus can be both God and human.  Some thought that he is in effect two persons -- one divine and the other human -- such that Mary can be said to be the mother of Jesus, the man, but not of God.  That position was condemned at the council which recognized Jesus as one divine person with both a human and a divine nature.  Mary then is truly “Mother of God.”

Because Jesus is like the rest of humankind, we can relate to him as a friend who truly knows our joys and troubles.  He will not forget us in our needs for he too experienced “auld lang syne,” or times past when he was assisted by those around him.  But let us not forget to call upon him for help throughout the year beginning today.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Seventh Day within the Octave of Christmas

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

It’s our last chance to take to take account of the passing year before we launch into the new one.  Which were its happiest moments and which would we take back?  Certainly the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio has brought the world a new sense of hope.  His simplicity, openness, and compassion have disarmed critics of religion when bolstering the aspirations of the poor. There always seem to be too many competitors for the distinction of what most went wrong.  However, the war in Syria that remains intractable and devoid of promise stands out as especially lamentable.  In the midst of this darkness today's gospel shines a ray of hope.

The passage tells of the word bringing "life" to the world.  The original Greek makes a distinction here that is necessary to bear in mind.  The evangelist is not writing of bios, natural life, which has its wonder for sure but is always subject to corruption.  No, the life highlighted here is nous or living fullness that transcends even death.  It is a life of personal and social exaltation in which those who partake of it feel a connection with the divine that defeats sin.  It is a sense of "grace in place of grace" pouring into one's heart.

We are recipients of the fullness of life in Baptism.  Those who remember the occasion know it as a moment of particular grace.  None of us should forget that the grace beckons us to resist the temptations to personal aggrandizement that destroy this sense of unity with all.  Then we look forward to the New Year with every intention to keep ourselves close to other people, especially the poor, as well as to God.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Sixth Day within the Octave of Christmas

(I John 3:2-17; Luke 2:36-40)

Costa Rica is often idealized as a Utopia.  It is true that the nation abolished its army in favor of better education and medical care.  But with its quadrennial elections approaching, its people feel oppressed by the same concerns most societies have:  corruption in government that impedes development, politicians who promise much more than they can deliver, and growing inequality.  There is an echo of these cries for justice in the gospel today.

Anna is called a "prophetess" meaning she not one only sees into the future but decries the present reality of sin.  With Jesus' presence she announces deliverance at hand.  She does not hesitate a moment to tell "all who were awaiting he redemption of Jerusalem" of the Christ child."  "Jerusalem" can be equated with society or the world.  In the Book of Revelation Jesus' defeat of evil ushers in the "new Jerusalem," a city of social harmony that the world has been awaiting since the Fall of Adam.

Christ has come to redeem humankind.  His work accomplishes more than assisting individual souls find their way to heaven.  It slowly but surely -- with regresses sometimes approaching its advancements -- is forming a world community where respect for human dignity transforms strife among peoples and nations into a reign of peace for all.

Friday, December 27, 2013

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.  Evidently finding incredible the apostles’ testimony that the Son of God actually became human, Docetists believed that he only had the semblance of a man but remained a 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 of implicit following.  According to these detractors, Jesus is just one in a series of many holy men and women including Buddha, Gandhi, and maybe Mary Baker Eddy.

Some of us may be attracted to the contemporary rejection of the Christian claim of Jesus’ divinity as freeing faith from mythical elements.  It also dismisses, in effect, our fellowship with the Father and the Son and the promise of eternal life found in the Letter of John.  We do not concur with the idea that Christian belief is mythical.  It is not so much because such a stance takes away our hope but, more to the point, because it conflicts directly with what those who, like John, actually knew Jesus have told us about him. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Feast of St. Stephen, Proto-martyr

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

In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, predicts hismartyrdom in his Christmas sermon. He tells the people that in the Christmas mass not only the birth of Jesus but also his death are remembered. This dual remembrance indicates that the Christian life is neither pure joy nor pure sorrow. No, we live both on every occasion. Thomas goes on to ask, “Is it an accident …that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ?” Of course not, the Church deliberately places the martyrdom of Stephen on the day after Christmas to temper our celebration.

We can point to this duality in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Nativity accounts. In Luke after Jesus is born, his parents take him to the Temple where Simeon prophesizes that Jesus will be a sign to be contradicted. He means that Jesus’ enemies will do him in. In Matthew the horror is more evident. The birth of Jesus, the King of the Jews, occasions the jealousy of King Herod. To eliminate his rival Herod has all male infants of the area murdered.

We must take to heart the traverse sentiments of Christian life. Our happiest celebrations should include a remembrance of fellow humans suffering around the world. Similarly, our most intolerable moments, like the loss of a loved one, should not go without faith in Christ’s victory over death. Christians are neither rosy-eyed optimists nor morose pessimists. No, we live both the death and the resurrection of the Lord deep in our hearts.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Nativity of the Lord.  (Mass at Midnight)

(Luke 2:1-14)

"I won't grow up. I don't want to go to school."  These words of defiance were chanted by the children in Walt Disney's "Peter Pan."  But they might as well be sung by today's adults.  It is not that grown-ups think of themselves as "God's children."  How wonderful that would be!  The disgrace is that too often adults childishly think that life is mostly about enjoying oneself. They refuse to believe that one has to make sacrifices in order to experience life's fullness. This truth is indicated in the same "Peter Pan" when the children are asked to name good things so that they might be included in the adventure to "Never, never land."  At first, they respond by naming sources of passing pleasure like candy and toys.  When these do not produce the necessary bounce, they reconsider what is truly worthwhile and discover eternal gifts like joy and peace.  The angel proclaims these blessings to the shepherds in today's gospel.

The gospel story impresses us most for indicating that Jesus is born as a person so poor that he has no roof over his head.  We'll come back to that significant scene in a moment, but first let's fast forward to the message of the angel.  He says that he comes to announce "good news of great joy...for all the people."  What is this "good news of great joy"? And how will it affect "all the people"?  We know right away that the news is more than a giant sale at Walmart which only those with money can take advantage of.  Likewise we understand that it is something much better than pleasant weather for the holidays which is nice, of course, but hardly a source of great joy.  No, the news the angel bears is of something that touches deeper and lasts longer than material comforts provide. The "good news of great joy" is that a savior has been born.  "A savior from what?" we need to ask.  The answer is exactly what is seen in "Peter Pan. Jesus saves us from childish pursuits that become sins when we carry them out to high degree as adults.  He saves us from the ceaseless seeking of pleasure, power, and playthings which diverts us from fulfilling God's will.  In turn he points us to what will give eternal satisfaction - caring relationships that spring from a heart grateful to God.

Back in Bethlehem Jesus' state of lying in an animal trough and wrapped in bandages (why glorify the scene with words like "manger" and "swaddling clothes"?) because there is no room for him in the inn points toward what will happen to him in saving us from sin.  As his mother is not allowed access to the warmth of the inn when he is born, he will be abandoned by his disciples when he dies.  And as he is bandaged in birth, he will be beaten, flogged, and crucified before he dies.  In truth he will suffer more than anyone in history because he is completely free of guilt.  But it is this terrible death to which he will give himself freely that overcomes the sins of selfishness that have held us in chains.  The sacrifice on the cross not only exemplifies how we are to give of ourselves for others; it also causes its doer's love to fill our hearts.

The love we have been given is first and foremost for Jesus.  How can we withhold our utmost affection from the one who has done us the greatest good?  But it surely extends as well to the poor whom Jesus associated with that first Christmas night.  Often they show themselves as Jesus' surest friends trusting in him above all else and willing to make sacrifices for him in ways that most of us cannot even imagine.  Yes, today is principally about love - the love God has bestowed upon the world in sending us Jesus and the love we share with one another.  Christmas is also about joy and peace.  We feel joy to be delivered from the ceaseless seeking of playthings.  And we know peace from having formed right relationships with all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Advent

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

Once on the day after Christmas two American missionaries traveled to a remote Honduran village.  When they attended a meeting of the youth group in church, one of the missionaries asked the adolescents about their Christmas gifts.  To the person everyone responded by saying that he or she would say special prayers to Jesus and behave more obediently at home.  The answers confused the missionary who expected to hear of home-crafted gifts, but the families were evidently too poor to provide even that.  Of course, the actual Christmas gifts were much more valuable than anything that could be bought or made because they represented the response the Savior elicits from us.

The first reading today tells of another unexpected gift.  David wants to provide a place for the Ark of the Covenant as his bequest to God.  As worthy as the idea is, God is the one who will gift David and all humanity.  He will give the king an heir to bring peace to the people in a reign that will never end.  Christians hear this promise as a prophecy of Jesus Christ in whose kingdom they have thrived.

It is often hard to avoid Christmas merchandizing.  We want to express our gratitude to others and they to us with something tangible.  Of course, this is not necessarily the trivialization of Christ’s birth, but we can improve upon the custom.  We can take real care in what we give – something personally edifying, for example.  We also can pray for every person who does something for us and include with each gift a prayer for the receiver.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(Malachi 3:1-4.23-24; Luke 1:57-66)

Whatever Malachi had in mind when he wrote that God will send Elijah to “turn the hearts of the father to their children,” we should hear him today as addressing the social pathologies of children born outside marriage.  More than forty percent of the births in the United States today are made to unwed mothers.  As a result the children are more likely to suffer poverty, emotional problems, and learning difficulties.  Nevertheless, having children without a vowed partner has become fashionable with highly paid professionals testifying to how satisfying it is.

We understand Malachi as foretelling the coming of the John the Baptist who would castigate sex out of marriage as he did other sins.  He would find multiple victims of the abuse.  The unintended offspring may be the most aggrieved, but certainly the individuals directly involved are not left unscathed, and society – like a cable whose individual strands are being severed -- is weakened.  God, who loves His people immensely, cannot help but take offense.

God also acts to relieve the situation.  First, He sends John to warn sinners of the harm they cause themselves as well as others.  Then, He gives us Jesus who, abounding in joy, shows us that the way to eternal life follows a path of care for others.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

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

It is said that a military commander may not send troops on a “suicide mission” without their consent.  A society can conscript a person into the army as a matter of the common good.  The common good may further dictate that the conscripted soldier enter combat with the possibility, but not the surety, that he or -- we may add -- she may die in action.  If, however, there is near certainty that the soldier will be killed, the military should obtain his/her permission since soldiers are enlisted to give their service, not their lives.

In this gospel of the Annunciation, God gives to the Virgin Mary a similar prerogative to withdraw from his plan of salvation.  Although the passage uses the declarative mode “you will...,” the angel waits for her consent.  She is free to refuse to cooperate with the heretofore unheard of plan of conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit to give Israel its long-awaited Messiah.  In a famous homily, St. Bernard of Clairveaux pictures the world hanging on Mary’s word.  Of course, she expresses willingness and thus advances the process of the Incarnation.

As God does not force Mary to participate in His plan of salvation, He does not force us to accept it.  We are free to say “no.”  For sure, it is a conscious choice since salvation requires self-denial.  In one way or another we have to follow Jesus to the cross.  But the way is not so onerous as it is liberating.  We may think of it as a mountain hike.  The more we climb, the freer we feel until we reach the exhilaration of having reached our goal.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thursday of  the  Third Week of Advent

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

We feel for couples who want to have children but remain barren.  Often they seem to be the best of people – she, gentle and caring, and he, responsible and understanding.  Raising offspring like themselves would not only fulfill their dreams but would also give hope to their neighbors for a nobler society.  Why, we ask, does God not grant the continual prayer of such a pair?

Children, however, are not created to satisfy personal and/or social needs but to serve God’s design for justice.  In both readings today God grants the barren couples a son to further His purpose of preparing for the coming of Christ.  Manoah and his wife will give birth to Samson who will defeat the enemies of the Israelites among whom Jesus will be born.  Zechariah and Elizabeth will give birth to John who will announce that the coming of the Christ. 

Is it then that God answers the prayers of some couples but not others?  Not really.  God answers all our prayers.  In paving the way for Jesus, God assures that our deepest desires -- for peace, love, and life – can be satisfied

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

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

Six months ago Pope Francis made a subtle change in the Mass.   A Vatican decree, authorized by the pope, mandated the inclusion of “blessed Joseph, (her) spouse” after mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Eucharistic Prayer.  The decree said that Saint Joseph was so kind and humble that he serves as a model for all men.  With all respect to the Vatican, another quality of Joseph may be specified which seems even more significant.  As the gospel reading today makes clear, Joseph was a “righteous man.”

One has to know the context of the situation to appreciate the righteousness of St. Joseph.  He almost certainly paid a dowry to marry the Virgin Mary.  So when he hears of her pregnancy, he has the right to divorce her in public in order to reclaim his offering.  However, before the angel in his dream tells him that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit, Joseph decides to divorce her in secret.  His righteousness does not permit him to expose Mary to public disgrace from an open hearing.  In this way Joseph not only complies with the letter of the law but also fulfills its spirit.  For the purpose of the law is to make a person as merciful as God.  In the Sermon on the Mount, delivered later in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus will command his disciples to be perfect as God.  Here Joseph exemplifies how this is done.

We live in an era when the world seeks justice with the claiming of rights.  Seeing the subhuman condition in which many people live, this effort cannot be trivialized.  But often the claims of some people clash with those of others to such an extent that it is impossible to determine whose is greater.  Do the poor in underdeveloped countries have more right to emigrate than the people in their countries of destination have right to maintain good order within their borders.  Or does a family in the United States have more right to a second car than a family in Tanzania to a motorcycle?  Questions such as these are nearly impossible to adjudicate, and it is often harder to implement the judgments once made.  To go beyond the impasse we have to let go of some of our rights claims.  In other words, we have to sacrifice ourselves for the good of all.  To do so is not a regular function of human nature; it is the product of God’s grace.  It is true.  Justice is the product of grace. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

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

One authority made a claim a number of years ago that every person in the West could, theoretically at least, trace their origins to Charlemagne (if memory serves correctly), and everyone in the world to Nephertiti, the Egyptian queen.  Of course, those who have worked on their genealogies will testify that such research is a daunting task.  The gospel today is offered to stimulate our interest in our origins.

Both Matthew and Luke provide genealogies of Jesus.  They differ at points so both cannot be technically correct if either it.  Matthew’s intends to show the divine plan of salvation from the calling of Abraham to the coming of Jesus.  Interestingly, it features five women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the mother of Solomon (not named here but whom we know as Bathsheba, and Mary.  The first four, all of whom gave birth under unusual circumstances, show that God works in unexpected ways that can exploit human sinfulness to achieve His will.  The story of Mary, however, also relates not so much an unusual circumstance as something unheard of and of monumental significance.  Her son has no human father but, as the gospel shows in subsequent verses, is conceived of the Holy Spirit.  He is the beginning of a new creation that will proceed not by natural birth but by Baptism.

We are the heirs of that new birth.  Although we are inclined to backslide into sin, we bring forth the new creation by our preaching of the gospel in the world.  Our charitable deeds and encouraging words move others to salvation in Jesus the Christ.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday of the Third Week of Advent

(Numbers 24:2-17.15-17a; Matthew 21:23-27)

After United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld’s tragic death nearly fifty years ago a controversy arose regarding his stature in history.  To many he was a hero – one who worked tirelessly for the poor of the earth confronting the powers while living like a monk.  To others he was an activist trouble-maker whose celibacy shielded homosexual practice.  A recent biography correlating his famous journal Markings with a factual account of his life published eight years after his death strongly asserts the truth of the former evaluation.  Hammarskjöld’s story mirrors the controversy at the heart of today’s gospel.

Jesus is being harassed because he, in the terms of Pope Francis, is a “minister(s) of mercy above all.”  He dialogues with sinners so that they might appreciate God’s love for them.  He champions simple hearts who cannot follow the burdensome rules of the Pharisees.  When the Temple authorities question him regarding his authority to take such stands, he deftly discerns their purpose and throws a similar question back at them.  Unable to answer without losing face with the people, the Jewish leaders withdraw their pursuit of Jesus for a time.

Not all confronting authority are heroes.  Some indeed are rogues, and others may be misguided.  We must discern before passing judgment and giving support.  Perhaps even more critical, however, is our perspective on authority.  We should respect it until there is good reason not to.  But we shouldn’t ingratiate ourselves to it, or we may find ourselves – quite unlike Jesus – compromising justice.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Memorial of St. Lucy, virgin and martyr

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

People make amusing excuses for not exercising regularly.  They may say that in the morning they do not have enough time to exercise and that in the evening they are too busy with obligations.  Or, perhaps, they comment that mornings are too cold and evenings too warm for physical exertion. Doctors, no doubt, wonder if patients like these really care about their health.
Jesus feels this kind of frustration in the gospel passage today. 

Jesus tells the people that they are fickle because they refuse to repent of their sins despite the testimony of God’s best preachers.  John, who warned of God’s wrath, was rejected because he lived in the desert eating grasshoppers and honey.  Now Jesus, who urges the people to repent so that they could experience God’s goodness, is repudiated for eating and drinking in towns among the people.

People must face up to the challenge of repentance.  No doubt it is hard because it means giving up a way of life that we know, even if it does not bring comfort, for something new and possibly disagreeable.  However, doing what is right and good can only bring us satisfaction in the long run.  Repentance for sure will not harm us.  Quite the contrary, it promises us integrity and transcendence. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

(Zechariah 2:14-17; Luke 1:39-47)

When Mary visits Elizabeth in today’s gospel, she is doing more than helping an elderly relative with an unexpected pregnancy.  She is bringing Elizabeth the ultimate blessing of the Christ-child in her womb.  The baby within Elizabeth’s own womb recognizes the significance of the visit as he leaps for joy.  Elizabeth herself acknowledges the graciousness of Christ’s presence when she tells Mary, “’…how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’”

Today we celebrate a similar visit of Mary.  She comes not to an elderly woman of a town in the hill country of Judea but to a humble Indian on a hillside outside the city of Mexico.  The two visits are parallel, however, because the central figure is the Christ-child in the Virgin mother’s womb.  Looking at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we notice that at its center is her child-bearing womb.  Mary comes to bless the beginning of something new that is taking place in Mexico.

What is this innovation?  For a long time it was considered the salvation of the indigenous people of Mexico with their acceptance of Christianity.  As important as that development is, the event augurs something even greater.  Noting the Virgin’s message to Juan Diego, we can determine what she is introducing.  First, she tells him, “I am your mother.”  She is that, but something more – much more. To say what she is, let us look at her face.  It is not the face of an Indian but of a mestizo – a mixed breed.  The Virgin of Guadalupe is the mother not just of the indigenous but of the Europeans as well.  Indeed, she is the mother of all people who come to the new land of opportunity which is the Americas.

Then she tells Juan Diego to go to the bishop of Mexico City with instructions to build a church on the site where she stands.  In the indigenous culture of Mexico a church is more than a religious building.  Rather, because religion played the central role in the life of the people, a temple or church is seen as the foundation of society.  The construction of a new temple in a place where there is none means the foundation of a new society. The church which the Virgin requests will have a very specific purpose.  As she tells Juan Diego, it will be where she will make manifest Christ, her Son, who shows the love of God for the world.  Here is the key to the new creation.  Mary is calling for a new civilization of love to replace the old ones of domination.  The civilization of love is to supplant not just the cruelty of the Aztec empire but also the barbarity with which the Europeans are treating the conquered peoples.

As Mary is a young laywoman who brings Christ to Elizabeth and her son John, she asks another layperson to intercede on her behalf before the bishop of Mexico City.  Today the Church similarly asks lay people everywhere to take up this role of evangelizing.  The New Evangelization is a call especially to men and women in the world to announce Christ’s love for all.  They do it first by showing loving care for others, especially the poor.  They should not refrain, however, to testify in words to God’s care that they have experienced in their lives.  They need to tell the world that God has this same love for all.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wednesday of the Second Week of Advent

(Isaiah 40:25-31; Matthew 11:28-30)

Most of the people who started Christmas shopping early probably feel fatigued these days.  There are so many people to please and so many options to consider that shoppers are bound to grow weary.  Purchasing gifts on-line has eased the burden.  Of course, buying gifts cards is a simple way out of the hustle.  Jesus in the gospel today proposes another solution.

He tells the people not to worry.  Their concerns about pleasing one another, indeed about procuring the necessities of life will be taken care of by relying on him.  “Take my yoke upon you,” he says, “and learn from me.”  His yoke is the law of love – to love God above all and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  Sharing joy with both God and neighbor – and not trying to ingratiate oneself with others by bestowing gifts – results in a peaceful heart.

Christmas shopping has become a mania that jeopardizes the meaning of Christmas.  Black Friday has come to garner more interest than Good Friday.  But Jesus did not come to supplement our wardrobes, much less to jumpstart the economy.  He came to free us from selfishness which inhibits our going out to others in joy. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent

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

The old lady was querulous.  You could hardly wish her, "Good day," without hearing a complaint in return.  She seemed fond of provoking conflict by bringing up pet peeves like Obama-care as if you had the vote in Congress that passed the measure.  You begin to think that she and everyone else would be happier if she were dead, but then you remember the intention which Jesus expresses in today's gospel.

Jesus advises that he is especially interested in those who are having problems.  To be sure, we all have them as much as we like to assure others, "I'm doing all right."  Still, he is most concerned about the spiritually disabled – those who have lost control of their best judgment.  He wants them to feel his Father’s love so that they might reclaim a truly moral sensitivity. 

By extension, Jesus wants his disciples to welcome, not shun, those people who are embittered or problematic.  This intention is telescoped by today’s long first reading from Deutero-Isaiah.  We are to comfort God's people -- really everyone but, like Jesus, especially those who suffering physical, emotional, or spiritual pain -- by our gentleness as well as candor, by our compassion as well as firmness.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Genesis 3:9-15.29; Ephesians 1:3-6.11-12; Luke 1:26-38) 

The gardener held up his trophy.  It was the head of a cobra, the most dreaded snake in his country.  He had severed it while cutting grass with his scythe.  One swoop, done almost by reflex, undid the serpent before it could strike with deadly venom. Once again, the manifest truth of the reading from Genesis today is demonstrated.

The passage stating that a man will strike a serpent’s head while it can only assault a man’s heal intends to give the origin of both the snake’s legless anatomy and the human propensity to cut off its head.  Cutting off a snake's tail would not remove its threat, and its heart is difficult to locate. The surest way to decommission a serpent is to decapitate it.  The reading, however, hints at a deeper meaning than human-serpentine rivalry.  Read from a Christian perspective, it foreshadows how Mary's son, Jesus, will effectively defeat evil by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.  

This implication may sound whimsical as sin is experienced as ubiquitous as dust in a windstorm.  Yet with the fortitude of Jesus’ cross and in the light of his resurrection we can identify evil, ward it off, and root it out.  Mary's Immaculate Conception speaks of the specialness of Christ.  Born of one preserved from all sin, he has enabled us to overcome sin's effect in our lives.

Friday, December 6, 2013

(Optional) Memorial of Saint Nicholas, bishop

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

One way to corroborate the affirmative answer in the classic editorial “Is there a Santa Claus?” is to refer to St. Nicholas whose feast is celebrated today.  St. Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop legendary for his generosity.  His name was transformed over the centuries to its rendering in Dutch, Santa Claus.  However, the Scripture readings today hint of a better way to think of Santa.

In the first reading Isaiah tells of the day that the blind shall see the work of God in their midst. It will be a time of complete justice when the good will be rewarded and the evil duly punished.  The gospel indicates the fulfilment of the prophecy in Jesus who restores sight to two blind men.  The Lord Jesus may be considered the original referent for Santa Claus.  He brings people what they most deeply want -- light to find their way to salvation.

One of the “O” antiphons sung at the end of Advent recognizes Jesus as the “Morning Star.”  That star is, of course, the rising sun which provides clear light for people to live.  Jesus enlightens our way not just to thrive in daily affairs but to blossom fully in eternity. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Thursday of the First Week of Advent

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

The poor often come to parish offices looking for handouts.  Not untypically, they beg for cash to pay rent or purchase gasoline.  The requests are sometimes denied partly because of limited resources but also because staff members frequently are not sure whether the petitioners are telling the truth.  If the needy were members of the congregation, the staff would likely make every effort to secure assistance.  Today’s Scripture readings indicate why this is so.

The passage from Isaiah and the gospel today are related by the mention of the “Rock” which is the one God on whom the people can rely.  The reading from Isaiah is also connected to the basic gospel message proclaimed by Mary in her canticle praising God’s goodness.  As it says, God comes to upend the arrogant and to lift up of the lowly.  It also says that God provides a strong city with high walls to protect the humble.  The city here can refer to the Church, the community of faithful, who look out for one another.

We remember the poor, especially at this time of year.  Whether or not they are members of our parish, we help them meet their needs so that they too find joy in God’s coming.  But if they are people who kneel with us in prayer, we will naturally exert greater energy.  They would have a prior, although not an exclusive, claim on both our hearts and our bounty.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wednesday of the First Week of Advent

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

Each Wednesday during Advent the employees of the Diocese of Fort Worth bring food delicacies for an “Advent Table.”  They organize the feast by departments – on one Wednesday it may be the workers in the finance department and chancery who stock the table, on another those from education and ministry, and so on.  The table or tables of delight are placed in the reception area so that visitors may take part in the spread.  Although they do not realize it, Wednesday is the appropriate day because on the first Wednesday of Advent the gospel of Jesus fulfilling Isaiah’s stunning prophecy of the banquet is proclaimed.

The prophecy envisions God providing a kind of Thanksgiving feast for peoples of all races, languages, and nations.  Strife among them will cease.  People will have the veil that obstructs their beholding all men and women as brothers and sisters lifted.  The rich food and wine will cause them to forget forever the enmities of the past.  Jesus’ feeding of the multitude on the mountain fulfills the prophecy and his meal with his disciples the night before he dies carries out its proposition.  That “last supper” has been reenacted millions of times bringing a universal brotherhood to fruition.

We do not have to be reminded that strife still exists.  Some – even those who attend mass regularly – refuse to open their eyes to see Christ among us.  They are not to be pitied as much as to be entreated with sincere affection to see the source of total reconciliation in their midst.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Memorial of Saint Francis Xavier, priest

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

When St. Francis Xavier was a missionary, probably in India, he found the people very receptive of the faith.  One letter home expressed how he exhausted himself baptizing children without reaching anywhere near the majority of people.  He wrote how he fantasized returning to a European university “crying out like a madman” to the men who kept their noses in books.  He would tell them, “…how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you.”

Advent underscores a similar message.  It urges people to wake from their indifference.  It announces that Christ is at hand with salvation for themselves as well as for others.  They must prepare for his arrival by acts of justice and mercy. 

What will it be like when he gets here?  The season picks out the promise of Isaiah that we hear in the first reading today to describe the wonder of his presence.  There will be peace like nothing ever known before: enemies embracing, fear vanishing, and everyone rejoicing in the Lord.