Monday, January 2, 2017

Memorial of Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors of the Church

(I John 2:22-28; John 1:19-28)

The saints celebrated today, Basil and Gregory, worked in a time of great theological controversy.  Although the Council of Nicea proclaimed Christ as Son of God and coeternal with the Father, many Christians believed that the proposition contradicted monotheism.  Even some of those who accepted the Nicene Creed had distorted ideas about how Jesus was both God and human.  There was also the question of how the Holy Spirit related to the Father and the Son.  These questions were similar to the ones asked in today’s readings.

It is not certain what John, the presbyter, has in mind when he condemns those who deny the Son.  But it likely has something to do with Jesus’ divinity.  Likewise, the gospel reading seems to be directed toward a Christological question: was John the Baptist or Jesus the Messiah of Israel?  The answers given to these inquiries, implied in each reading, are formative as we begin another year, another milestone in history.

Many look to Jesus as only a great teacher whose wisdom deserves consideration.  We, however, profess him to be the final word of a loving God.  Through his death and resurrection his Father imparts to us his Spirit.  This gift leads us outside the narrow confines of self-interest into the wonders of God’s love.  Here we find the fullness of life that overcomes even death.  Each day of this new year we look forward to delving more deeply into this mystery.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

(Sirach 3:2-6.12-14; Matthew 2:13-15.19-23)

A painting of the Holy Family in Egypt shows Mary lying with Jesus in her bosom on the paw of a sphinx.  Meanwhile Joseph reclines away from the two to guard the approach to their resting place.  In this way the artist depicts the traditional belief that the couple never shared intimate relations. 

Scripture asserts that Mary conceived of Jesus as a virgin and never says that she had sexual relations.  St. Jerome, the preeminent Biblical scholar of the Patristic era, believed that Joseph also was a virgin.  The two – Mary and Joseph – obviously were of the same mind and heart, but they did not share the same bed. 

Mary and Joseph model many virtues that are necessary for us as citizens of both earthly and heavenly society.  Compassion, courage, and charity name but a few.  To recognize them also as exemplars of sexual self-restraint is also constructive in our age of over-stimulation.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

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

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

A biblical scholar once ignited a holy man’s ire by calling John’s letters, “New Testament baby-talk.”  The scholar meant that John’s letters possess simplicity and directness as if they were written for children.  We see this in today’s first reading.  “Whoever loves his brother remains in the light...,” John writes, “Whoever hates his brother remains in darkness...”

John does not have enemy-love in mind here as if he were challenging Arab Christians to love soldiers.  Nor does he mean exactly that Christians have affection for blood brothers and sisters.  He is simply reiterating Jesus’ commandment to his community of disciples that they love one another.  It may sound easy, but hard feelings can sprout like weeds in a cow pasture when humans get together.  Disputes have originated among Guadalupanas and among Knights of Columbus as if these associations were different bands of pirates searching for the same treasure.  Most everyone feels frustration, envy, and even enmity with his or her associates at times.  John is saying that we must let go of these troublesome sentiments and treat one another with respect.

John would be oversimplifying if he meant that we may limit our love to those with whom we go to church.  Certainly such love for brothers and sisters in the religious or parish community teaches toleration, care, and compassion so that we in turn may love even those who hate us. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

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

In Europe you might find your car’s tires without any air today.  Or perhaps there will be three pizzas which you didn’t order, delivered to your door.  The Feast of the Holy Innocents is Europe’s equivalent to the American April Fools Day.  It is a time to play practical jokes on good-natured people.

Some may be shocked by the European frivolity on a day that memorializes the slaughter of children.  Perhaps Holy Innocents Day jokesters just take to heart the belief that the infants have gone to God.  “So why not rejoice?” they might ask.  Somehow, however, that is just too casual an attitude.  It fails to consider the grotesque injustice of the blood of children.  It mocks, for example, the outrage at a public policy which permits abortion on demand.  It begs the question, “Why be born at all?”

Catholics educated before Vatican II easily recite the answer to this last question.  We live “to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him in the next.”  The tragedy of children dying, then, is the irreversible equivalent of their minds being wasted.  Dead children cannot come to know God very well.  Yes, they should receive the beatific vision. And there might be something marvelous about seeing God through children’s eyes.  But just as the art connoisseur will appreciate aspects of a Rubens painting that completely escape the uncultured so growing in wisdom should make us more enthralled at God’s glory.  It is good to grow old if we accordingly grow in wisdom.  Reciprocally, it is a tragedy when we die young.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Feast of Saint John, apostle and evangelist

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

Once a disillusioned pilgrim returned from the Holy Land lamenting the conditions he encountered.  Not only was there strife between Jews and Arabs, but hawkers constantly besieged him with souvenir trinkets.  Even in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born on a serene night, he found conflict.  The man marveled at how times had changed since the serene night when the animals crowded around the infant Jesus to give him warmth.  However, he only had to read the Scriptures closely to realize that trouble is nothing new to the area.

Although the Gospel of Luke depicts a tranquil setting for Jesus’ birth, there is much evidence of conflict in New Testament times.  In John’s gospel Jesus conducts a running debate with the Jews who try to kill him.  The Letters of John report a feud between the community of the beloved disciple and a secessionist group who apparently believed that morals do not matter.  Of course, there is the acrimonious debate between Jesus and the Pharisees which is believed to reflect trouble between the first Christians and their Jewish countrymen.

In spite of all this conflict, the writer of the First Letter of John offers a testimony of hope.  Much more than a dream or vision, his testimony involves a living human being whose countenance he saw, whose voice he heard, and whose body he touched.  We do not look to this one so much for deliverance from the pressures of life.  Rather we count on him for the courage to address our problems with justice and justice.  

Monday, December 26, 2016

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 her members go back to life as usual.  Rather, she wants them to realize that they are being called deeper into the mystery of holiness which does not shun the world but seeks to sanctify it. 

Celebrating what is good and expressing sorrow when the good is thwarted by evil, we Christians show others of God’s care for all.  Christmas festivities will continue until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, but we should temper them by understanding how material substances are readily corruptible while virtue lasts forever. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Friday 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 of fire. At one point, John warns the people that unless they reform, they will be cut down like trees and burned.  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 wrath.  Rather, his preaching will center on God as the human’s benefactor.  Although Jesus will not shrink from mentioning God’s power to cast sinners into hell, he will stress God’s tender mercy.  God, he will say, has counted the number of hairs on each faithful person’s head to insure her or his total salvation.  

Since love can be looked upon as a kind of fire, we might contrast John’s theme with Jesus’ using the same image.  Fire can destroy dispassionately as well as purify with all compassion.  John, following Elijah, will use the threat if not the force of a blazing fire to warn us of the danger that dissolute living incurs.  In contrast God’s love, incarnate in Jesus, burns like a surgeon’s laser beam not harming but healing us.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Advent

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

Looking at the first reading and the gospel today, we may feel hard-pressed to find a relationship.  “What does the account of Hannah’s delivering her son into the Lord’s service have in common with Mary’s praise of the Lord?” we might ask.  The answer is hidden.  If we refer to the first chapter of the First Book of Samuel we will find that Hannah next statement after dedicating her son to the Lord resembles Mary’s praise of God in the gospel.  Like Mary, Hannah tells of the mighty being humbled, the well-fed searching for bread, and the poor being lifted up.

Nevertheless, Mary does more in her prayer of praise then paraphrase the Old Testament.  More significantly, she interprets the preaching of her son which we have heard throughout this past year.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus reiterates continually the message of the wealthy being humbled and the poor being elevated, oppressors being silenced while the suffering are relieved.  Mary says something similar but pertinent to her situation.  God has shown favor to her, His lowly servant, by making her the bearer of His son.  Furthermore, he has rescued Israel by sending His Son as the nation’s savior.

Mary is doing the work of a preacher who brings to life God’s word in present circumstances.  It is not enough for a homilist to retell the gospel; he or she must apply it to contemporary times if listeners are to find hope in meeting present challenges.  Similarly we should share with others how we have found Christ’s message resonating in our lives.  For example, Jesus’ many blessings of the poor should move us to speak of how our encounters with them have been rewarding. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

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

Often the Virgin Mary is portrayed as carrying Jesus in her womb.  In the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example, the black belt around the Virgin’s waist signals her pregnancy.  Such images indicate not only that Mary is the mother of Jesus but also that she is his apostle bringing him to others.  Today’s gospel conveys this double meaning.

Acting on God’s word, Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country.  Having arrived, the child within her womb causes the more developed child in Elizabeth to stir.  Elizabeth, guided by the Holy Spirit, names what is taking place.  She praises Mary first for being the mother of God and then for believing in the unlikely message of the angel.  Mary will explain what Jesus’ birth will mean to the world in tomorrow’s gospel passage.

We do well to emphasize that Mary’s significance is more than she is the mother of Jesus as important as that role is.  She is also his first and most perfect disciple.  She listens to and accepts the word of God.  She acts on it as she visits Elizabeth.  Finally, she interprets its meaning for others.  The best way we can venerate Mary is by imitating her example.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

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

In a movie a few years back a teenage girl, growing up dirt poor in the Ozarks, sacrifices the joy of adolescence to hold her family together.  Her father puts their house up as bond when he is arrested. Then he turns up missing. The young girl has to find out what has happened to him if her mother and brothers will have a place to live. She rises to the task.  We should see Mary similarly challenged in today’s gospel.

When the angel Gabriel greets her with the words, “’Hail, full of grace,’” Mary realizes that a crisis is at hand.  Attentive to the angel’s proposition that she will mother the Son of God, Mary asks how it is possible for a virgin.  She accepts the angel’s explanation and gives assent: “’May it be done to me according to your word.’” She shows herself to be a worthy disciple by first reflecting on the word of God and then doing it.

Mary’s assent has echoed throughout history.  We too are faced with the Word of God – Jesus himself.  We respond as his disciples when we carefully consider what he says and act upon it.  In a world that regularly conflicts with Jesus’ values and mores, living the commitment is often difficult.  Gratefully, we too like Mary have been graced to carry it out. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent

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

Catholics are often amazed when the differences among the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are reviewed.  The differences may be seen in the first chapter of each gospel.  Mark begins with John preaching in the desert.  Both Matthew and Luke treat Jesus’ birth, but Matthew will focus on Joseph’s role and Matthew on Mary’s.  John goes back to the beginning of creation when the Word co-existed with God, the Father. 

With all the differences, however, there are very impressive similarities among the gospels.  Mark, Luke, and John tell of John the Baptist in their initial chapters.  Matthew defers mention of the Baptist until he finishes the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy.  But Matthew begins his story of Jesus’ birth with the patriarch Abraham, who is much like Zachariah with whom Luke introduces his gospel.  Both Abraham and Zachariah are faithful; both long to have a child; and both have their prayers heard by an indulgent God.

We need not be dismayed by the differences encountered in the gospel narratives.  The gospels essentially agree, and they universally call forth our faith in Jesus as Lord.  They concur that he is the God who became human so that we might share his divine happiness.  Once again God indulges His children by granting our deepest longing. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

(Isaiah 56-3a.6-8; John 5:33-36)

A lovely poem by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore treats the somber theme of death.  It says that death is not what is popularly thought -- the “extinguishing (of) the light.”   Rather, it consoles those who grieve that death is “putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”  The same interplay of two kinds of light governs the Christian perspective of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.

In today’s gospel passage Jesus calls John “a burning and shining lamp.”  He cannot provide definitive instruction on how to live but points the way to Jesus.  In the beginning of the Gospel of John Jesus is described as “the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world.”  He teaches those who would listen the ways of God and provides the necessary assistance to fulfill his directives.

As we in the Northern Hemisphere experience the minimum of sunlight during late December, we do well to reflect on Jesus as a light more radiant than that of any star.  He insures us a worthy life now and eternal life in a realm beyond our dreams.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent

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

Background checks are almost as much a part of the employment process as filling out an application.  Employers investigate not only where an applicant comes from but her work and educational experiences as well. They want to be as sure as possible that the person will work well in a new environment.  Fortunately, God does not require a background check to enter his kingdom as both readings today testify.

The reading from Isaiah tells the abandoned woman that she will have a new husband – God Himself. He will make her very happy with many children.  She is the people of Israel who were figuratively widowed when the elite of Jerusalem went into exile.  Now they may leave in peace for God is there to protect them.  Jesus says something similar in the gospel.  He tells the crowds that sinners who heeded John’s call to repentance will be accepted into the Kingdom of God.  However, those – like the Pharisees – who ignored the call by refusing to acknowledge their sins much less to repent of them will remain without God’s reward.

People talk of the need to forgive oneself of sin.  They probably mean allowing oneself to experience the forgiveness of God.  Where we are often either too demanding or too lax in considering our behavior, God is always equitable.  He is ever ready to accept us back into His fold as long as we truly repent of our sins.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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

(Isaiah 45:6c-8.18.21c-25; Luke 7:18b-23)

There is a famous story about King Richard, the Lion-heart, and Saladin, the Muslim sultan, who met during the Third Crusade.  In the peaceful encounter Richard attempted to show the capability of his sword by cutting through a steel bar. Richard brought the sword down on the bar which broke in two. But the sultan was not overly impressed.  He told Richard that his strength, not the sword’s sharpness, caused the bar to split.  Then Saladin took out his scimitar, threw a silk scarf in the air and let it fall on the sword’s blade.  As it did, the scarf tore in two.  The scimitar proved to be the keener sword.  The story illustrates the point Jesus makes in today’s gospel.

John the Baptist appears disillusioned by Jesus.  He thought that Jesus would be the long-awaited Messiah but has misgivings when Jesus does not preach fire much less punish wrong-doers.  Rather he eats with sinners while calling them to conversion.  Jesus offers evidence of his being Messiah that he consistently assists the needy.  Doing so, Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in today’s first reading that the Lord will create well-being.

We are often so fascinated by power that we tend to think of it as God’s chief characteristic.  It is not. Love characterizes God in both testaments of Scripture.  God’s love translates into care for His people which is seen especially in the ministry of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Memorial of Saint Lucy, virgin and martyr

(Zephaniah 3:1-2.9-13; Matthew 21:28-32)

In prison two men are serving multi-year sentences.  They have been there awhile and will not leave soon.  Yet they do not seem anxious.  When asked about how they are doing, they respond that since they have accepted their situations, they are at peace.  Today’s readings have people like these men in mind.

The reading from Zephaniah critiques city dwellers who sit back in comfort.  These are the people who enjoy a degree of prosperity and participate in religious services.  But their hearts are not converted. They do not ask themselves how they might have done wrong and therefore do not repent.  Surely their lives will end in disaster.  In the gospel Jesus speaks of two brothers.  One does wrong, recognizes his fault, and corrects it.  The other brother is blind to having done wrong when he makes a promise that he does not keep.  His life too will end in misery.

The second brother may be contrasted to St. Lucy whose feast day is today.  He was blind to what is really import but could see.  She kept her sight on Christ even though she is said to have been blinded in the course of her martyrdom.  

Monday, December 12, 2016

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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

All life is a journey.  Even if we never leave home, we journey through time.  If we do not stray, we come closer to the goal which is God.  Jesus accompanies us on our way.  He is like the sun around which the earth revolves as it moves through space.  He is near to help us.

Today’s gospel pictures Mary on a journey.  She goes to assist her cousin Elizabeth as the latter is heavy with child in her old age.  Mary, of course, is with child herself.  She carries within her Jesus who sent her forth.  As with most mothers, her child has become the critical focus of Mary’s life.  Bearing him in both body and soul, she freely gives of herself to others for the sake of the child. 

Today we celebrate a singularly important manifestation of Mary.  Our Lady of Guadalupe, the rose of Tepeyac, shows Mary pregnant with Jesus.  She is completing her journey to the new world – America.  She comes as a missionary to bring Jesus to the native people there.  But she dresses as a native princess and speaks in a native tongue.  She tells of her son symbolized by the church that she requests to be built in the native territory.  She indicates to the native whom she encounters that her son is to be as a bridge connecting European and Native American cultures.  He will bring about a new race born of the creativity of the former and endurance of the latter. 

The new race has recently arrived in this land with great numbers.  Its women and men bring Jesus as they replenish the Church here.  Their devotion to God, their care for others, their desire to submit to the Word – all make them welcome.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Memorial of Saint Juan Diego Cuanhtlatoatzin, holy man

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

There is an old story about something wonderful having happened in Bethlehem.  The marvelous event was the price of steel increasing two cents a pound.  The Bethlehem referred to in this story is not the place where Jesus was born, but Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, an old steel town.  The story demonstrates Jesus’ lesson in today’s gospel.

Like the citizens of Bethlehem, the “generation” which Jesus speaks of is oblivious to the presence of salvation among them.  People of the generation have no more appreciation of the holiness to which the prophets call them than bratty children taunting one another.  They refuse to be moved either by ascetics like John or by more personable preachers like Jesus.

Today the Church remembers St. Juan Diego, the Mexican native who served the Virgen of Guadalupe.  He was anything but oblivious to Jesus.  A fervent convert to Christianity, he only wanted to the Lord’s will as he encountered the Blessed Mother.  He learned from her that God has plans for His people that sometimes differ from those we judge correct.  We must discern in prayer and consultation what God is asking of us and then pursue it with all our hearts.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Genesis 3:9-15.20; Ephesians 1:3-6.11-12; Luke 1:26-38)

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians tells of God’s plan to make us His people.  It says that we were chosen before the world was founded. But the drama of salvation begins in the first reading. Our ancestors are seen alienating themselves from God and one another.  The same alienation due to sin keeps us from being a united people under God today.

God’s plan has an unexpected agent.  In the gospel passage Mary is a young virgin whose nature has been uncorrupted by sin.  She is actually asked whether she wants to participate in the drama of salvation.  Will she allow herself to be the mother of God’s Son?  It may arouse suspicion of her virtue and even disgust from the self-exalted.  But as right-minded as she is, how can she refuse God’s request?  Her acceptance of the responsibility – “’May it be done to me according to your word’” -- leads to the coming of Jesus and our eventual adoption into God’s family.

Today is given to contemplating this mystery.  We should see Mary as not so different from us.  She is not hindered by selfishness, but we can limit that disgrace by regularly denying ourselves in favor of others.  More importantly, she is propelled by the love of God.  We too have a share in that love through our Baptism.  This is to say that we, similar to Mary, might be agents of a united humanity under God’s care.