We begin Ordinary Time by reading from the beginning of John’s Gospel. The scene opens with John the Baptist at the Jordan. The Jewish authorities had sent emissaries from Jerusalem to ask him a very direct question: “Who are you.” He had no hesitation in telling them that he was not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. By quoting Isaiah he told them that he was the herald of the Lord who was already among them.
The next day, John was again baptizing. Surrounded by his disciples he stopped what he was doing and pointed at a man. His eyes wide, his heart racing, he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Then he testified. “I saw the spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.”
Unlike the report of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, here, there is no drama. God’s voice isn’t heard speaking. Instead, John attests that he has personally seen the Spirit come to rest on Jesus. The remainder of the chapter clarifies what the evangelist is teaching us.
The following day, John is again at the Jordan. Two of his disciples are beside him. Again, Jesus walks by. Again, John points to him, “There is the Lamb of God.” The disciples leave John, and begin following Jesus who turns to them asking, “What are you looking for?” “Where do you live?” they ask. “Come and see,” he invites them.
The evangelist is laying out the dynamic of the Christian life for us. One person of faith who can see beyond the obvious, points to Jesus, not only the man, but the Lamb of God. This simple account is meant to fan our faith. Each of us is called to contemplate the mystery of the Lamb of God to internalize it. Each of us is called to testify – to point him out. From that moment on, the Spirit will guide all who can hear, and the journey will have begun.
We begin our reflection on the baptism of the Lord by reading Isaiah’s poetic description of the Messiah. “I, the Lord, formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” Through this image of the Messiah, Isaiah casts the light of hope on the world’s suffering, poor and oppressed.
Then, we move on to the testimony Peter gave to Cornelius and his household. It’s so simple we may overlook its importance. His testimony is a short creed. “You know… what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Peter is taking Isaiah’s description of the Messiah and placing it into the ordinary course of life. Jesus moved through the society of his day lifting suffering by doing good and healing. The Holy Spirit was with him as he ministered and God’s power flowed from him.
The Gospel reading gives us Matthew’s account of the event. It begins with a wonderful dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus had come from Galilee with the specific purpose of going through the ritual bathing that John had initiated. He asked people to convert – to turn their hearts to God and confess their sins. Submerging themselves into the Jordan, the penitents symbolically washed away their sins. They were then ready to step into the new, Messianic Time.
John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. He protested saying that Jesus should baptize him! Jesus told him to “allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was telling John that he wasn’t detaching himself from the world, no matter how dark and sinful it was. His mission was to purify and heal the world from within. Saint Paul put it this way in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth. “Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Matthew then shares with us the powerful event that occurred within Jesus as he came up out of the water. “The heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” As he emerged he was overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit and anointed by the Father. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus went into the water wrapped in the world’s darkness; he emerged anointed and strengthened for his mission to bring God’s healing light to the world. With this event, Matthew begins his Gospel, the Good News that God’s loves each and every one of us good and bad alike. The world’s healing has begun through Jesus. His ministry will continue through us, his disciples. Matthew reminds us of this event in the last sentences of his Gospel.
“Go then, to all peoples everywhere, and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
It’s an interesting fact that the Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated much longer than Christmas. Epiphany was solidly in place on the Christian calendar by the end of the 3 rd century whereas Christmas took a while longer to evolve. It wasn’t universally celebrated until the 8th century.
It was the Eastern Church that gave the Feast of the Epiphany its Greek name. It means manifestation – God appearing among us. The star in Matthew’s story of the Magi is the central image of the feast. It led the wise men to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the King of the Jews, our redeemer and Lord. From the very beginning, this story has been the spiritual icon of humankind’s journey to discover God.
It’s also interesting to see how the Eastern Church has integrated Matthew’s star into its daily liturgy. Above the paten, called the diskos, the dish that holds the squares of bread used for the Eucharist, a cross-shaped dome is placed, the asterisk, from which hangs the Magi’s star. It’s a tiny beacon guiding the worshipper to the Christ now, the bread of life.
The Church gifts us with this wonderful Feast of the Epiphany as a spiritual map. It reminds us that each of us is on the same journey as the Magi. Every day of our lives we take another step in that journey.
The story of their journey reminds us, that in the course of our personal and communal journeys, there will be some days when we may feel sure-footed and the mysterious star of our longing is clear and bright. We feel sure that we’re getting closer to our journey’s end. Hope and joy strengthens us for the next day.
The journey of the Magi also reminds us that days may come when every step is a drudgery, our feet may be like lead, and the path may seem to grow steeper with every step. Sometimes, the star may even disappear from our sight. Patiently, or sometimes despondent, we pause and wait for the dark clouds to disappear.
The Feast of the Epiphany is our yearly reminder that, in mystery, we reach the goal of our journey whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. What may seem like a simple march to the altar is, symbolically, the lifetime of our journey. We, too, follow the star; it’s the light of our faith beaming its light on our extended hands. Amen, we say, as we receive the bread of life. What strength we receive from that small bit of bread enough strength to, once again, step onto the path of the Magi’s journey.
Matthew’s gospel gives us a glimpse into the tumultuous early life of the holy family. He begins by introducing us to Jesus through his genealogy which is meant to place Jesus in the kingly line of David. But by enumerating Jesus’ ancestors, Matthew is also stressing the humanity of Jesus whose family tree contains saints, sinners, kings, prostitutes and even murderers.
The story of the birth of Jesus then begins with Joseph’s discovery that Mary was pregnant. He was about to break the engagement when, in a dream, an angel told him not to be afraid to marry her. The Holy Spirit has been guiding this relationship, and it
was through the power of the Holy Spirit that she had conceived. The angel then shared with Joseph the child’s destiny. “She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” Quite a revelation for a young man about to embark on married life! But the story didn’t stop there.
Sometime after the child was born, exotic figures, Magi from the East, came to Jerusalem looking for the “newborn king of the Jews.” Their appearance fanned the flames of king Herod’s paranoia. So, the angel returned to Joseph, once again in a dream, to warn him that Herod wanted to destroy the child. He told Joseph that he must flee the country and take refuge in Egypt. They packed up what little they had and fled to Egypt in the middle of the night.
After a period of time, the angel again appeared in Joseph’s dream. He informed him that Herod had died, and that it was safe to return to Judah. But learning that Herod’s son, the highly unpopular Archelaus, had succeeded his father, Joseph brought his wife and son to the northern region of Galilee. They settled in a town called Nazareth which was outside the jurisdiction of Archelaus.
This story of the holy family certainly touches all of us in one way or another. We all have relatives we’re proud of, and we all have relatives who embarrass us. We live in a similarly turbulent world where many millions are fleeing violence and death threats. Others are fleeing from the hunger belts throughout the world.
Matthew’s account of the holy family’s early life is, perhaps, an attempt to offer hope to all of us, even the millions of families suffering what seem like hopeless situations. He’s reassuring us that God, in some mysterious way, stands in solidarity with us. Whatever our family or political situations may be, let’s acknowledge, and lean on, God’s presence in our lives. That’s the most perfect prayer we can lift up today. May God bless each one of us as we maneuver our way through the storms of life. May the Holy Spirit be with us to strengthen us with wisdom, and gift us with hope and peace.
THE FEAST OF MARY, THE MOTHER OF GOD December 31-January 1, 2019 Numbers 6:22-27 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:16-21 Gather #898
This Feast Day used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision. With the renewal of the Liturgy after Vatican Council II the accent was moved from Jesus to Mary. However, I would like to look briefly at both of these themes today because they’re so closely connected. Let’s first look at the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God.
The gospel passage begins by finishing the account of the shepherds. The angel had told them about the child who was born. “Today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” This is a clear announcement. Not only is this child the long-awaited Messiah, he is Lord. Remember, also, Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, “Blest are you among women.” She also greeted Mary as, “the mother of my Lord.” It’s from reflecting on passages like these that the Church came to give Mary the title, Theotokos, Mother of God (Godbearer).
This title, though focusing on Mary, clarifies our understanding of Jesus. He is both human and divine. The prologue of John’s gospel that we read at the Christmas Mass put it this way. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Word, the Son of God, became a human being, a son of man. In Jesus, we see the fullness of humanity. We see his humanity in his anger when he cleanses the temple. We see his humanity when he sweats blood in Gethsemane and screams out from the cross, “My God, why have you abandoned me?!” We see his humanity when he blesses the children. We see the face of God and man in the love he extends as he forgives sins and heals those who are suffering. We see him glorified as the Christ in his resurrection and ascension.
This brings us to the last part of the passage we’re reading today, the mention of the circumcision of Jesus. “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb”
This was the day he was stamped with his name, Jesus, which means savior. This is the day he entered our human family, the son of Mary, a man, a Jew. “The Word was made flesh…made his dwelling among us…and we have seen his glory.”
This feast weds heaven to earth in the person of Jesus, God and man. In Jesus we see the face of God.
Our Christmas reflection begins a few days early as we ponder the scripture readings for the last Sunday of Advent. We begin by listening to the most famous prophecy in the Old Testament.
At a time of grave national crisis, as kings were uniting to wage war against Judah’s king Ahaz, Isaiah delivered these words of hope to him. “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Isaiah was speaking to the dire situation Ahaz was facing, but at the same time, his prophecy was looking into the future. Today, Matthew incorporates this prophecy into his infancy narrative that begins, like the story of King Ahaz, with a crisis.
Joseph had discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. He had decided to quietly dissolve the engagement until he had a dream. In the dream an angel explained to him that he and Mary were part of a divine intervention that was beginning to unfold through the working of the Holy Spirit. Mary would give birth to a son who was to be named Jesus, a name that focused his destiny. Jesus means: to deliver – to rescue – to save. He will be the long-awaited redeemer. Matthew then quoted Isaiah’s prophecy but implied a radically new interpretation. The child would be named Emmanuel, “which means ‘God is with us.’” For King Ahaz the child that was to be born would be strengthened by God’s power in order to rescue Judah from invading armies. Matthew declared that at that very moment Isaiah’s prophecy had come to fulfillment. This child named Jesus would literally be “God with us!”
MIDNIGHT MASS December 24, 2019 Titus 2:11-14 Gather #892
We bundle up and leave our homes in the dead of night to gather with the community for the Midnight Mass. Again, Isaiah speaks to us. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
Then St. Paul adds to Isaiah’s prophecy. His short exclamation in his letter to his co-worker, Titus, reassures him, and us, that God’s light is with him. “The grace of God has appeared, saving all…as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”
Finally, an angel speaks to us through the shepherds in Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. From the dark night sky, the angel speaks. “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you, who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying a manger.”
Luke’s reference to the child wrapped in swaddling clothes is a prophecy of the day the adult Jesus will, once again, be again be wrapped in clothes – this time, he will be wrapped in his shroud. His redemptive death is intimated even at the moment of his birth. And as we gaze at the manger we recall Jesus’ promise to be the bread of life.
In the darkness of this holy night we celebrate the Light proclaiming that Christ, the Light, is among us. With joy and thanksgiving, we celebrate that Light and share the Bread of Life. May it strengthen us in our mission to bring the Light into the darkness.
As we read the Advent scriptures we can feel a dramatic pressure building. There’s anticipation and a deep sense of hope within us. Think of the messianic prophecies Isaiah proclaimed to us over the past three weeks.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” “Strengthen the hand of the feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong fear not! Here is your God.”
When we think of the messiah and the new world to come, we’re filled with hope, which is the core of Advent. But these words of hope can, and often do, backfire on us. We listen to these wonderful prophecies, and then look at the world we live in. War, violence, starvation, global warming, political corruption, sex abuse, Chinese concentration camps, American detention centers, refugees, immigrants – and on and on. It’s no wonder that there’s so much depression during the holidays. We’re torn between hope and despair.
James, in the portion of his letter that we read today, gives us some good spiritual advice. “Be patient brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer STEWARDSHIP REPORT
waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You too must be patient.” But sitting around being patient isn’t enough. So he adds, “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Isaiah gives us a vision to work towards. We must be patient and deeply dedicated to the work of the promised kingdom. The messianic time will come through people like me and you who relentlessly work for justice, harmony, forgiveness and compassion. We recommit ourselves to this work every time we celebrate the Eucharist by proclaiming individually and as a community: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We’re beginning our reflection this week with more of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic time. He reassures us that, no matter how devastated our world may seem to be, a “shoot shall sprout…a bud shall blossom.”
This sprout, this shoot, is the Messiah whose attributes Isaiah describes in detail. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord…He will judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted…He will strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”
Isaiah moves on to paint a poetic picture of the new world, the Messianic time. “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to guide them.” Isaiah sees a world rejoicing in peace and harmony. “There shall be no more ruin on my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.”
It may be difficult to take this prophecy seriously, today. Our world, and our country, are in turmoil with civic unrest, racial tensions, violence, corruption among the highest government officials, religious leaders and even parents bribing to get their children into good schools. Even though we believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, realistically, the world he came to save is still a mess of violence and corruption. Let’s move on to the gospel to add Matthew’s insight into our reflection regarding the Messianic time.
He begins by quoting Isaiah 40:3. “A voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew presents John the Baptist as “the voice” declaring the advent of the new time. Interestingly, John doesn’t use the beautiful poetic images of Isaiah when he speaks about it. Instead, his voice publically condemns the religious leaders who are coming to him to be baptized as a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. He knew that they weren’t coming to him with repentant hearts.
“You brood of vipers!” He spits at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” There was nothing subtle about John’s condemnation. He understood that the world could never be changed by a powerful political leader even though he might conquer the whole world. His message proclaimed that the world would be transformed from the inside out!
He understood that laws wouldn’t change the world because they’re fragile band-aids to immediate problems, and that clever lawyers and politicians would inevitably squirm around them. Historically, political messiahs ended up thrusting the world into war and turmoil. No, these “messiahs” could never usher in the Messianic time.
The new world, the Messianic time, will appear and shed its light, through the human heart – a heart cleansed of ego – a heart filled with love. Saint Paul understood this when he wrote to the Romans, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14)
The message for this Second Sunday of Advent may sound simple, but it’s a profound challenge for every Christian. The new world will come when each of us empty ourselves and become Christ.
Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known pas- sage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious politi- cal situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrust – worthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in
721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Pales- tine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during
those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah de- livered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she has become! Zion, once full of fair judgment, where saving justice used to dwell, but now assassins! Your silver has turned to dross, your wine is watered. Your princes are rebels, accomplices of brigands. All of them greedy for presents and eager for bribes, they show no justice to the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision Jerusalem is trans- formed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dis- solved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National boarders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream to the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national boarders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”
We don’t often think about kingship today, a concept foreign to us, yet one we must ponder if we’re to understand the depth of the feast we’re celebrating.
In the first scripture reading of the day, taken from the Second Book of Samuel, we’re given an
account of the tribes of Israel gathering to anoint David as their King. They declare
him as their shepherd, their protector, and their commander. David will
eventually betray this trust by using his sacred position to orchestrate the death of one of his most trusted commanders in order to take his wife as his own. We learn, through David, that the exalted position of kingship can easily become self-serving, and even tragically destructive.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, the second reading for the day, breaks into a rhapsodic hymn of praise as he describes Jesus being lifted up as the Christ. He pro- claims Jesus the image of the invisible God, and the first born of all creation. He
tells us that he is be- fore all things, and in him all things hold together. Through him we have redemption. “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to rec- oncile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross.” In awe and wonder, Saint Paul describes the King- ship of Christ crucified.
In the Gospel passage Luke sets a scene that stands as the antithesis of the tribes of Israel gather-
ing to anoint David as their King. The proclamation of execution nailed to the cross is as clear as any written statement could be: “This is the King of the Jews.” As the people gather around Jesus as he hangs on the cross, they taunt him shouting, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
On the cross Jesus teaches us that true and authentic Kingship does not bring with it absolute power over people. Rather, Kingship demands the total emptying of the self. Jesus was anointed King on the
cross. That act of self-giving lifted Jesus up to the Father as Christ. His anointing aa Christ is what we celebrate today.
The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that, as children of God, we’ve too have been anointed “king.” Whether a political figure, a CEO, the principal of a school, a manager, a teacher, physician, mother, father, guardian, or priest, each one of us is invited to raise our eyes to gaze on Jesus as our model – Jesus on the cross. If we empty ourselves as he did, if we live for others and not ourselves, he will say to us what he said to the criminal crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
We’re one week away from the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year. In preparation, the scriptures direct us to reflect on a powerful theme, the sec- ond coming of Christ. We first read the prophet Malachi’s description of the coming of the Son of Man, a “day blazing like an oven.” It will be a time of global purification preceding the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of a new world.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel builds upon this theme by presenting Jesus’ teaching on his second coming. He presents it as a time of judgment and cosmic purification “when nation will
rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” But Jesus warns his followers that be- fore the great purification “they will seize and persecute you…because
of my name.”
The Church uses this theme at the end of the year to encourage us to look at our chaotic world with a judgmental eye. Our world wasn’t meant to be a place of “war, famine and persecution.” What have we done to it?! We’re killing each other by the millions as we wrestle for power. We’re ravaging the earth with our strip mining and fracking, polluting our waters and destroying our forests. We’re choking on our garbage, and suffocating ourselves with car and plane emissions. So many of our politicians have lost concern for the common good, and many of our religious leaders are blind guides.
As we end the year we judge our past. But in two weeks, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll begin a new year by listening to Isaiah’s prophecy of the new world. “They shall beat their swords into plow- shares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again…let us walk in the light of the Lord!” No matter how dark the world looks to us today, we will begin the New Year with hope, and the resolve to work for the coming of the Kingdom.
Lord Jesus, you ask that I continue your mission by becoming, like you, the light of the world. Send your powerful Spirit to guide and strengthen me. May I, with your help, be a source of hope in the darkness of this chaotic world. Help me to persevere and be strong even though I may be “hated by all because of your name.” Use me to prepare the world for the coming of your kingdom.