Friday, January 1, 2016

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

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

Back in the fourth and fifth century many people – bishops, professors, even the public – argued over theological issues.  For example, it was important for them to know whether God suffered on the cross.  Some like Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople thought the idea ridiculous.   “How could humans cause the infinite, almighty God to experience torture?” he likely asked himself.  Nestorius figured that in Jesus there were both two natures and two persons.  For him Jesus’ human person with his human nature died on the cross.  His divine person with his divine nature remained above such horror.  Other bishops like St. Cyril of Alexandria objected.  They realized that if Jesus were two persons, one divine and the other human, and only the human person died on the cross, then that death could not have redeemed humanity from its sins.  The debate crystallized at the Council of Ephesus in 431.  The council gave its determination in a rather unique way.  It declared Mary to be the “Mother of God.”  This means that Jesus was only one divine person with both a divine and a human nature.  It also means that we are saved from our sins – that our selfishness, lust, and hatred are forgiven when we cling to Jesus.

Today in celebrating Mary, the Mother of God, we are indirectly celebrating our salvation.  The gospel suggests how we might do it well.  We can identify three groups of people in the passage.  The first group is the shepherds who come to worship the new born Savior.  However, they probably return to their pastures to talk about their sheep, their families, and what is for dinner. Some of us are like them.  We dutifully come to mass today and then busy ourselves with football and other concerns.  The second group is the people the shepherds inform about what the angels proclaimed to them.  These people are said to be amazed by the story.  But their interest ends there.  They do not go to worship the Savior even for hour.  Many people use the holidays only to “eat, drink, and be merry” like these men and women whom the shepherds meet.  The third group is just one person – Mary.  The passage says that she reflects in her heart upon all that is happening around her.  We should aspire to be like her.  We should think about what it means that God became human and died on the cross for us.  We will make this meditation part of our New Year program.  More importantly, we will adjust our lives so that selfishness, lust, and hatred never control our actions.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Seventh Day within the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord

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

It is a good day to take stock.  We want to ask ourselves, “What were the most significant events of 2015?”  And, “How did I fare this past year?  Am I a better person now than a year ago?”

The year 2015 may be especially remembered for a Supreme Court edict.  Nine judges by a five-to-four vote required every jurisdiction in the country to grant marriage licenses to homosexual couples.  In doing so, the non-elected body not only obliterated the duly-established laws of most of the states but defied what has been recognized as natural law from time immemorial. 

Today’s gospel should provide some consolation to those of us who were saddened by the decision.  We look to Jesus as the light of the world.  He shines in the darkness of this world’s folly as the source of life.  If we can say that we have drawn closer to him during this past year, then 2015 was a positive experience despite the caprices of the demigods on the courts.  If we cannot say that, then let us pray we might do so a year from now.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Sixth Day within the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord

(I John 2:12-17; Luke 2:36-40)

There is a story about disciples asking their spiritual master if there is anything they can do to become enlightened.  The master replies that they cannot do any more to be enlightened than they can to make the sun rise.  The disciples then complain of what good are all the spiritual exercises the master has taught them.  The master answers, “To make sure that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”  The readings today reveal this truth.

The first reading sounds very harsh.  It commands that people do not love the world that has given them a home, a sense of God through nature, and wonderful friends.  Of course, the reading is only warning that the affection people have for the world be tempered.  It implies that the world also contains distractions leading them from the path to God.  Spiritual exercises assure that we not love the world too much.  Anna in the gospel passage has been leading an intensely spiritual life for decades.  Now she reaps dividends from her practice.  She can recognize Jesus, the rising sun of justice.

We too must develop a proper regard for the world.  Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Sì has invited us to a deeper appreciation of the good of the earth.  But to cultivate that appreciation we have to discipline ourselves according to the spiritual life.  We need to see that excessive enjoyment of material goods will move us to love them more than their Giver.  We will lose sight that God, the greatest good, transcends what we see, hear, and touch.  Indeed, overindulgence in material creation will not only lead us from God but will lead to the destruction of the created world.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

(I John 2:3-11; Luke 2:22-35)

Fifty years ago Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx wrote a revolutionary book entitled Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God.  In this work the author showed how Jesus in the flesh signifies God’s love for the world.  The humanity of Jesus then can be legitimately called a sacrament – a visible sign of invisible grace.  The idea sounded almost heretical at the time but is now accepted as a valid way of considering Christ’s redemptive work. 

In the gospel the visionary Simeon sees the infant Jesus as “a sign that will be contradicted.”  He too recognizes that Jesus manifests God’s redemptive love for all.  But he has the insight to realize that the sign will be rejected by some.  Indeed, Jesus will become the test for the world.  Anyone who accepts him or, at least, his commandments of love of God and love of neighbor he proclaims will find salvation.  Anyone who rejects him or his message will be lost.  Simeon’s reference to the sword piercing Mary seems to include her in this test.

Often we dwell on Simeon’s words to Mary as prophesying Jesus’ death on the cross which she witnesses in John’s gospel.  However rich for some that way of thinking is, we do well to ponder the prophecy as a matter of acceptance or rejection of Jesus as sign of God’s love.  We can take note that Mary passes the test brilliantly.  She is the first to follow Jesus by meditating on the events of his birth and acting on them. In doing so, she provides us an example for this Christmas week.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Feast of the Holy Innocents

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

Just as boys today love to play video games, their counterparts sixty years ago enjoyed model trains.  They may have received a basic Lionel electric train one year for Christmas and in subsequent years added onto it.  That was not all they did. Obtaining at first a few replicas of shops and public buildings, by the time they were grown they had constructed a village in miniature.  We should see the story of the magi in a similar vein.  It is not just one of the most popular passages of the four gospels.  It is the gospel in miniature.

Today we hear the most gruesome part of the story.  King Herod wanted to know the whereabouts of the newborn “king of the Jews” so that he might kill him as a rival to his supremacy.  Realizing that the magi did not return to him with news of Jesus, Herod orders the extermination of all baby boys in the region.  Jesus, of course, miraculously escapes the massacre.  Thirty years hence, a similar plot to have Jesus killed succeeds.  But God raises Jesus from the dead to frustrate the proposal of his executioners.

We celebrate Christmas with great but not unmitigated joy.  We know that Jesus is born to die a terrible death.  It will cause us to ponder not just at the enormity of our sins but also whether we want to follow his way.  The joy we feel now is thus mixed with a disquieting thought. The love which Jesus was to born to proclaim carries with it a measure of sorrow.  Yet we proceed forward because we know that as God raised Jesus from the dead, he will turn our sorrow to joy.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

(Isaiah 9:1-3.5-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14)

The sign revealed more than it said.  It was written with little Christmas lights and positioned in front of a corner house.  “Happy Birthday, Jesus,” was the wording.  Obviously, the homeowners wanted to counteract the secularization of Christmas.  But perhaps they missed the point of the Christian feast.

Christmas celebrates much more than the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth.  Thinking of the feast in this way domesticates Jesus.  It makes him seem like good old Uncle Bill whom we should honor with a dinner party.  But the celebration should be much greater than that.  Christmas represents the coming of the Savior.  Christians have been waiting not so much patiently as painfully for his arrival.  In the Middle East they have been victimized by Islamist brutality. In all parts they have been subjugated by pride, lust, and greed – their own as much as others’.  Now the Lord is here to defeat these powers.  More than a birthday party, the rejoicing should be as great as the jubilation felt by Jewish inmates of Nazi concentration camps as the Allied soldiers liberated them.

It is true that Jesus in today’s gospel is portrayed as the child of a poor family.  He lays in a manger with only Mary and Joseph noticing.  But then the heavens open and angels reveal his true stature.  He is “Christ and Lord.”  God has come to earth to once and for all establish His kingdom of justice and peace.

We must take care not to domesticate Jesus.  We must not treat him like just another member of the family whom we might ignore if we are tired or upset.  We must not let ourselves say to him, “Nice to see you, Jesus.  Would you excuse me?  I don’t feel very well.”

Rather we should hunger to talk with him.  We should strive to please him by everything we say, do, and think.  Now that he has arrived, we should announce a grand jubilee.  This means that we ask pardon of those that we have offended and pray for those who have hurt us.  He is here.  A new age has begun.  It is time for us to begin a new way of life.  Now and forevermore is the moment to imitate his goodness.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Thursday of the fourth Week of Advent

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

Frank Leahy was a legendary football coach at Notre Dame during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  During his tenure, he recruited the Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung.  He did not have to lure the high school star from Louisville with a car or money.  Leahy just asked his prospect whether he would like to use the body God had given him to honor God’s mother.  In today’s gospel Zachariah prophesizes that his newborn son will similarly not work to bring notoriety to himself but to God’s Son.

In the passage Zachariah notes that God is fulfilling the promise he made to David in the first reading.  He says that his son John will prepare the way for a savior of David’s lineage.  John will preach repentance so that the savior could bring about forgiveness of their sins.  The savior, of course, is Jesus, the dawn guiding his followers on the road to peace.

One of the hardest lessons in life is learning how not to draw attention to ourselves but to God.  It’s not that we just want people to think well of us, but that we want them to think of us as better than others.  It is part of our sinfulness that Jesus has now come to reconcile.  Humility will draw us closer Jesus.  It will make us more like him and more reliant on him as our recompense.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

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

In Luke’s gospel John the Baptist clearly takes the place of Elijah, the prophet associated with fire.  He warns the people that unless they reform and do good works, they will be cut down like trees “and thrown into the fire.”  In this way John goes before the Lord, as his father Zechariah proclaims in his song of jubilation at his naming, “to prepare his ways.”

Jesus will not take up John’s message of the primacy of divine retribution for evil.  Rather, his preaching will be dominated by the image of God as the human’s savior.  Although he will not shrink from mentioning God’s power to cast a sinner into hell, Jesus will stress God’s love.  God, he will say, is like the shepherd who searches out the lost sheep.  

Since love too has been looked upon as a kind of fire, we might try to distinguish between the fire of wrath and the fire of love.  Fire can destroy dispassionately, and it can purify with all compassion.  John, following Elijah, will use blazing images to warn us of the punishment that dissolute living precipitates.  God’s love, incarnate in Jesus, is like a surgeon’s laser beam.   Its flame will not harm but heal and make us whole.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(I Samuel 1:24-28; Luke 1:46-56)

Most horrifying and yet most edifying of all images this year was the video of Christians being beheaded by ISIS ruffians.  The blood of twenty-one Egyptian men colored the seaside sand in eloquent testimony of their faith in Jesus.  The martyrs did was Mary does in today’s gospel.

Mary is the first believer in what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ.  She has been instructed by His messenger that her son will receive the kingship of David.  She now proclaims what this means.  She says that the humble will be lifted from their misery while the proud are scattered in rejection.

We may want to ask, “How does Mary know this is happening?” She knows by faith in God.  Like those Egyptian martyrs Mary understands that the Lord has arrived to overcome evil.  We will see the end of ISIS and also, perhaps more mercifully, victory over our own greed and lust.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent 

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

Pope Francis’ itinerary in Mexico has been announced.  He will visit the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country’s patron, in the capital.  But that is the only major commercial center that he will go to.  Rather than Guadalajara and Monterrey, Francis will travel to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Morelia, and Ciudad Juarez.  These cities have undergone grave troubles recently.  The pope’s intentions are obvious.  He intends to comfort victims of violence and poverty.  God seems to show the same concern in today’s gospel.

Two women take center stage.  Elizabeth suffered the disgrace of never having a child.  Mary has shown implicit obedience to God’s word by rushing to Elizabeth.  Both represent the poor who continue trusting despite the hardships they face.  Now God is acting on their behalf. 

We may never duplicate the humility of Elizabeth and the obedience of Mary.  But we can imitate their example.  We can curb our desire for recognition and our need to have things our way.  When we do, we will know the full joy of Christmas.  We will realize that God has truly come to share with us His peace. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent – December 19, 2015

(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.  Now with the celebration of his coming so near, trust means to have confidence that he will save the world from its folly.  ISIS will be defeated.  Abortion will come to an end.  Our personal pride, lust, and sloth will be overcome.  

Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday of the Third Week of Advent 
(Jeremiah 23:5-8; Matthew 1:18-25)

Listening to the poor may provide a whole new concept of “Christmas gift.”  Once, a missionary went to the highlands of Honduras to celebrate mass on the day following Christmas.  Arriving early in the evening, he went to the church where the youth group was holding a meeting.  The adult moderator asked the missionary to address the adolescents.  Not having anything particular to say, the missionary asked the children to tell him about their Christmas gifts.  But they did not seem to understand.  Rather than describe a toy or clothing article that they received, they talked about how they planned to be more obedient and prayerful.  Then the priest realized that he was the one who lacked understanding.  The children’s parents were too destitute to provide material gifts for them.  “Christmas gifts” were what they all did to show Jesus how much they love him.
In the reading today from Jeremiah, the prophet provides us with a similarly new concept of “the Promised Land.”  He foretells that the descendants of Israel now in Babylonian exile will take up residence on their own rightful land.  Jesus fulfills this prophecy by giving his followers, the “new Israelites” because of their relationship with him, the Promised Land.  But the lot that Jesus has in mind is not an acre of Israel.  No, Jesus provides a place in God’s kingdom for those who practice his care for all.

The promise of a place in God’s kingdom may sound like a shady deal to some.  They will ask, “Why should we change our ways just for the promise of some peaceful place in the distant future?” But those more chastened among us will not dismiss the offer.  We are the ones who realize that those Honduran highlander children have better Christmas gifts than kids receiving the latest version of IPad.  We also know that a share in the kingdom, which begins with authentic love right now, is better than any real estate on earth.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent

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

Genealogists study genealogies.  They know how to ferret out data from records that most of us overlook.  Genealogists tell us that all of us have famous ancestors.  They claim that we are all descendants of Julius Cesar or any other famous figure of the ancient past.  They say that satisfaction comes not from that fact but from proving it.

No one is a physical descendant of Jesus because he did not have children.  But we can all claim him as a relative in two ways.  By the wide net of relationships that genealogies make, everyone on earth is a descendant of some ancestor of Jesus.  More importantly, we can claim him as a relative when we act like him.  When we make an effort to proclaim the Father’s love like he did by acts of mercy, our relationship with Jesus can be physically seen.

Today’s readings speak of genealogy.  The first foretells David’s and also Jesus’ being descendants of Judah, a strong man who defeats his enemies.  It indicates that they too will overcome all opposition.  The gospel traces Jesus’ lineage through David and Judah to Abraham.  It shows us that God has carefully planned the coming of His Son.  Likewise it assures us that staying in relationship with Jesus will bring us God’s favor.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

(Isaiah 54:1-10; Luke 7:24-30)

John the Baptist sounds confused in regards to Jesus.  He preached that the Messiah would come winnowing fan in hand to burn evil-doers.  But Jesus sits down with sinners to talk with them about the love of God.  “What’s going on?”  John seems to ask, “Are you the one who is to come?”   The question is similar to what many today ask: “Is Jesus really our savior?  Or perhaps we should put our faith in science to save us from death?”  Trusting in science would mean that we put personal welfare first.  If they call us to lend a hand at the night shelter, we should refuse because of our need of a full night’s sleep.  We would also support embryonic stem cell research for cures to threatening ailments even though it means the destruction of another’s life.

Jesus tells John’s emissaries to observe the works he has been performing.  His healing of infirmities and casting of demons attest to his being sent from God.  We followers of Christ note the best way of giving testimony to his Lordship is by imitating his care for others.  It is not so important that we live fifty years or hundred as long as we leave a legacy of genuine love.  A young family demonstrates this kind of care when they attend a lay ministry formation class together.  The father asks if he might bring into the lecture hall his daughter debilitated with cerebral palsy.  The younger son stays just outside the door happily playing by himself.  The mother explains during the course of the day that the girl becomes agitated if neither she nor her husband is close by.  Their continual presence is a burden born in love.  The family enjoys peace of heart as each member strives to help one another.