Fourth Sunday: More Excellent Gifts

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 1:4-5, 17-19; PS 71: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17; 1 COR 12:31-13:13; LK 4:21-30

Last week in First Corinthians we read about the diverse spiritual gifts that make up the one body of Christ. This week our reading begins, “Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way.” What follows if, of course, the sublime hymn to charity of 1 Corinthians 13.

Our reading from 1 Corinthians 13 has important connections with 1 Corinthians 12, in both directions. On the one hand, chapter 13 interprets chapter 12. Chapter 12 discusses all the various individual gifts – but urges the Church to be bound together. Chapter 13 says that the way we are bound together is through charity. That’s why our reading from chapter 13 says things like “If I speak in human and angelic tongues” – because love is correcting and completing the less important gifts, such as tongues, about which we read in chapter 12.

On the other hand, chapter 12 interprets chapter 13. Chapter 12 is about all the different kinds of gifts. Talking about those diverse gifts helps emphasize that they are gifts, not things that come naturally to us. (A holy old friend used to smile about the line in 12:28 about the gift of “administration”: he had that gift, but many of us do not.) In chapter 12 we see that God – God – has made us each special. In chapter 13 we talk about what is not unique; charity is the call of all Christians. But chapter 12 reminds us that this too is a gift, “the greatest spiritual gift,” “the more excellent way.” The love that binds us together is itself God’s greatest gift.

***

The Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah, and the Gospel, from Luke 4, obviously harmonize. Jeremiah is being sent to preach, among opposition: “gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them.”

Jesus is doing the same: last week we heard that he stood up in his home synagogue to preach, telling them that the passage from Isaiah, “he has anointed me to bring glad tiding to the poor,” is fulfilled in him. This week, the people are angry at him: if he is the Messiah, why won’t he give them any miracles? “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.” Already at the beginning of his ministry, they want to kill him. But, as with Jeremiah, God protects him: “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.”

***

First Corinthians gives us a key to these readings. As with First Corinthians, there is a struggle in our Gospel between partial, passing gifts and the ultimate gift. They want a miracle: “Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” He doesn’t give it to them.

Or rather, he does – but he gives them a more excellent miracle. He preaches good news to the poor. And he survives their attacks. They say, “Physician, cure yourself” – and in fact, God does maintain Jesus’s health. But Jesus tries to teach them that the miracles they want are only partial. Those other miracles are only there to bring us to the Gospel of love. If we prefer bodily healings to the Gospel message, we have turned it all upside down.

 Jeremiah gives a different turn to the same theme. Before God promises to protect him, we have the verse we know from the pro-life movement: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” The point is that God is the Creator, the master of life. God can protect Jeremiah. God is worthy of his preaching, and God will give him the strength necessary for his preaching: “I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

God is our strength. There are limited gifts that help remind us of this truth. But what we must discover through those gifts is that love is the greatest, most spiritual gift, the more excellent way. Let us discover that love, too, is a gift.

What would change if you thought of love as a spiritual gift, not a natural endowment?

Third Sunday: The One and the Many

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

NEH 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; PS 19: 8, 10, 15; 1 COR 12:12-30; LK 1:1-4, 4:14-21

We now begin Ordinary Time in earnest.

Ordinary Time is called that because we read through the Bible in order. This is the year of Luke, and so this week we get the opening of Luke’s Gospel (where he tells us his vocation as Gospel-writer) and then the opening of Jesus’s public ministry – skipping over his childhood and time in the desert to where he actually begins to preach. The Old Testament reading is chosen to harmonize with the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the Epistle, or second reading, is its own kind of semi-continuous “orderly” reading. Since the epistles are spread out over three years, we do not read straight through them. In fact, since 1 Corinthians is a little complicated, we read through one part of it at the beginning of each year.

In other words, the Epistle is chosen more to give us a sampling of the epistles than for its match with the Gospel. Nonetheless, the readings often illuminate each other in delightful ways.

***

This year, the third in the cycle, we begin late in 1 Corinthians, with its last section, beginning in chapter 12. 12 and 14 are about “one body, many members”; in the middle is chapter 13, about love. They go together: love holds the body together.

This week our reading is surprisingly insistent. Paul spends some thirteen verses on the metaphor of the body: “If an ear should say, ‘because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’” etc. Paul thinks this point needs to be driven home.

And so this week, let us try to drive it home. The Church has many parts. Most of us are not bishops. Most of us are not priests. Most of us are not theology professors. Some are mothers, some are fathers, some are neither. Some are more educated, some less.

More to the point: we all tend to think other vocations are treated better than ours. Priests and lay people are both tempted to think the other one has it easy – as are mothers and fathers, and all the rest.

We are tempted to inflate ourselves – but a funny aspect of that is that we tend to think other people have more influence. “If I were in that position, I would really fix things” – but where I am, what good can I do?

Paul insists: your position is important. Embrace your vocation. The Church needs you – just as a body without a gall bladder wouldn’t work very well, even though no one much cares about them. (I think – I don’t know anything about gall bladders!)

***

The Old Testament and Gospel are picked to match each other, and each adds an important commentary on 1 Corinthians 12.

The first reading is from Nehemiah. If you’ve never read Ezra and Nehemiah, do it sometime. They’re short, and inspiring.

The people have come back from the Babylonian exile. They are rebuilding. To make a long story short, they rediscover their religion – as if Ezra the priest has rediscovered the Bible in the basement of some musty old building. He reads it out loud to the people, and they gasp: what beauty! How much we have forgotten! How much we have to do!

Meanwhile, in the Gospel, Jesus pulls out a scribe of the Bible (Isaiah) in his home synagogue, and says, this is about me!

***

Each of these readings highlights both the oneness and the many-ness of the Church.

First, there are many vocations. All are not Ezra. All are not Jesus – or Luke, who at the beginning of our reading describes his vocation to be the one who, like Ezra, tells us the word of the Lord.

Sometimes we are in positions of authority – sometimes we are Ezra, or Luke, or somehow associated with Jesus. Usually we are not. But in each of these situations, it is glorious to be on the receiving end.

Ezra gets the limelight. But the people get to hear the Word of God! There’s no reason to be jealous because he gets to do the speaking. To the contrary, we should rejoice that we get to do the listening.

Only Jesus is savior. But we are the poor who hear good tidings, the captives who receive liberty, the blind who recover sight, the oppressed who go free. We should delight in our vocation, even if we’re not the one in charge.

We needn’t worry whether our leaders are doing a good job. We should worry about whether we’re doing a good job receiving what they give us. They may be less perfect at their job – but so are we, at ours. Let’s receive joyfully!

***

On the other hand, though we are many, we are also one. As we hear the word from Ezra and Luke, we are called to speak it – not, to be sure, from as exalted a pulpit as theirs, but in our little corners.

As Jesus heals and liberates us, so we ourselves become healers and liberators, carriers of his Gospel.

Though we are many, we are one in Christ.

Where could you be more joyful about your place in the Church?

Second Sunday: An Epiphany of Love

wedding-feast-a-cana09smThe last three weeks we have been looking at the three classic “epiphanies” of Jesus. The first, on the feast of the Epiphany, was his manifestation to the Wise Men. The second, the opening of Ordinary Time, was the voice of the Father at his Baptism. And the third, this week, is “the beginning of his signs, at Cana in Galilee,” in which he “revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

In each of these three classic Epiphanies, he reveals who he is. This week, he reveals himself as the Lover.

***

We warmed up with a reading from late Isaiah. “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse.”

We will not tarry on this reading, except to say that it gets us started with the idea of God’s love for us, a love compared to the love of a Bridegroom.

We see, too, God’s love for the land itself. I have been learning recently about the Song of Songs. There is a strong argument that there, too, the bride is no human woman, but the land of Israel itself. This helps makes sense of strange lines such as, “Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes” (Songs 6:6). It’s not just a bizarre metaphor. The Song of Songs is a love song of God for the nation as a whole – even the land where they dwell.

***

The central reading this week though is the magnificent Gospel of Cana. How does he love us? Let us count the ways:

He comes to the wedding. Jesus wants to be where his people are. He is not there to manifest himself – in fact, when Mary asks for a miracle, his first response his reluctance. He is there to be with the people he loves.

He has a mother, and follows her. Jesus loves the couple, but he loves his mother, too. The whole story is rich with presence, simply being with the people he loves.

He brings wine to the wedding. It’s nothing important, nothing salvific. It’s just kindness to the people he loves. The gratuity of Cana marks love – just as the celebratory aspect of a wedding marks nothing but the goodness of love.

***

Let us go a step deeper. When Mary says, “They have no wine,” Jesus responds, “What is this to me and to you, woman.” One way to interpret this is as the question: does this couple’s misfortune – and this kind of misfortune, lacking wine, not lacking anything really important – really affect us?”

The American Lectionary’s translation has, “Woman, how does your concern affect me.” But in the Greek, “What is this to me and to you” seems to put Mary and Jesus on the same side of the question. Not, “how does your concern affect me” but “how does their concern affect you or me?”

Mary’s response is itself a kind of question. (Deeper down there may be an important aspect of Jewish rhetoric here, where everything moves forward by questions, not assertions. Note, for example, that the twelve-year-old Jesus teaches them in the Temple by asking questions.) When Jesus says, “what is this to you and to me?” Mary responds by telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

It is as if she responds to Jesus’s question with another question, or as if she says to him, “I don’t know, you tell me.” The ball’s in your court, Jesus. Does the lack of wine matter to you? Should it matter to me? I will do nothing but submit to your judgment: you act, and I will follow.

And he acts, with bravado. He chooses the water jugs for purification, so it is clear they are pure water. He has the servants fill them, so there are witnesses. He makes the wine excellent.

Mary says, “You tell me, Jesus, do you care about such things?” And he says, with his actions, “Yes, yes, I do.”

There’s so much to tell about this story, and yet it comes down to one thing: he loves us very much. Cana is a celebration of that love.

***

But his love is not really about wine – anymore than the couple’s love was really about the wine. The wine is just a manifestation, an epiphany, of that love.

So our reading from First Corinthians 12 shows us the real gifts of the Bridegroom: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, might deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, the interpretation of tongues. The real gift is not the wine, but the Spirit.

And it is a gift, again, that leave us not merely as individuals, but drawn together into the Body of Christ – just as in Isaiah, the Lord’s love created a land for them, a nation, and just as at Cana he built up a marriage and a community of friends.

God loves us, and gives us love.

What would change for you today if you really believed God loves us?

An Approach to Evangelization

jesus preaching to 12I recently had coffee with an old friend who leads a local chapter of a nationwide Catholic evangelization group. They are a lay organization working mostly with college students, but some of the ideas they’ve developed over the years seem to me like they could work well in many contexts. I have seen good fruit from this organization. Perhaps there are ways you can put these ideas into practice in your community.

***

A first principle is what they call 80/20: they tell their missionaries to spend 80% of their time with the top 20% of their contacts.

Another way to put this is, preach to the choir.

My friend made the point that the best way to reach a lot of people is to focus on a few. Their organization can do the most good by growing. If I want to bring a lot of people to Christ, the best thing I can do is nurture other people who will bring others to Christ.

Too often, perhaps, we turn this proportion on its head, and spend 80% (or more) of our time on the weakest 80% of our contacts. At first, this seems generous and anti-elitist. All people matter. We shouldn’t just worry about the best Catholics! That is true – and we should reserve 20% of our evangelization time for the other 80% of the people.

But the thing is, 80/80 ends up being a bit arrogant – as if I am the only person who can reach those others. To the contrary, the best way to reach the 80% might be through strengthening and sending the 20%.

In a parish, for example, rather than trying to gear events, or preaching, or liturgical preferences, to the majority, it might be better if the priest focused on helping the strongest to grow – so that they can go out and evangelize the others.

(That said, in a parish, there are good reasons for not going too far. Since the priest really is essential – since Mass is the lifeline for the weak as well as for the strong – the priest needs to be available to everyone in a way that a lay evangelizer does not. Make sure you keep 20 for the 80! Nonetheless, priests might consider how the 80/20 strategy could apply to them.)

Perhaps it need not be said: I write this blog for the 20% (or less).

***

A second aspect of this strategy is an emphasis on formation. For most of our conversation, we discussed how hard it is to form college students in our current culture. Everything they see tells them to act in ways contrary to the faith.

Teaching young people healthy (non-)dating behaviors, for example, is hard work in a culture that does not take marriage seriously. But this is true also of cultivating a life of prayer, of beauty, of helpful speech, careful use of the media, etc.

A first consequence of this insight is that we need to give a lot of time to formation. A Sunday Gospel message isn’t going to do a lot of good if we don’t have missionaries, of one sort or another, walking beside people, encouraging them to live a converted life. And because it takes a lot of time, we need to realize that the 20% do need 80% of our best missionaries’ time.

A second consequence is the importance of good examples. The hardest thing about formation is that people have no good examples. If we want to evangelize the 80%, we need to have a 20% who can serve as witnesses of what a converted life looks like – whether it’s possible, and how joyful it can be.

***

Finally, my friend shared the strategy “Reach, Call, Form, Send.” I think this is beautifully balanced.

“Reach” means first we have to reach out to people, befriend them. For his group, this means purely social activities, good plain fun. For us in our parishes, it might mean taking the time to chit-chat.

“Call” means calling them to Christ (and inviting them to events that will call them deeper). Call comes after Reach. You don’t begin by telling them to convert; first you make friends, then you are able to make a serious, personal call.

“Form” comes next. We can’t stop at calling people to Christ. Once they have found him, we need to draw them deeper. (See above, on formation.) And yet, we can’t invite people immediately to formation: we have to reach them and make sure they’ve heard the call first.

Last comes “Send.” As Pope Francis says, the Church must never become self-referential. True evangelization creates evangelizers, not members of a club. Real formation points people outward. On the other hand, we can only send those whom we have formed – send must be part of the formula, but it comes last.

These seem like helpful insights for every kind of evangelizer. I urged my friend to write a book. For now, I’ll just share them with you here.

Who are your 20%? How could you give them 80%? Whom could you reach, call, form, or send? And how would you envision an organization that did these things where you are?

Epiphany Sunday – A Great Light

adoration-of-the-magi-1306

IS 60:1-6; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a, 5-6; MT 2:1-12

Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Three Kings. (It ought to be on Wednesday, Jan. 6, but we move it because organizing solemnities is difficult in some places. Perhaps, like me, you are inclined to get annoyed about things like this. If so, join me in trying to be patient with our priests and bishops: unless you’ve lived their vocation, try not to complain. Meekness is good for us.)

We know the story of the kings. We can see the superficial similarities in the Old Testament readings: our reading from Isaiah says, “Caravans of camels shall fill you . . . bearing gold and frankincense”; our Psalm says, “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.” But what is this all about? And do these readings have more than a superficial connection to the birth of Christ?

There are hints to the deeper point in several places. Before the reading from Isaiah gets to the camels, it says, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come. . . . Darkness covers the earth . . . but upon you the Lord shines. . . . Nations shall walk by your light.” Our story this week is about a light that shines forth from Jerusalem.

***

The theology shines out from the Psalm. “O God, with your judgment endow the king,” it begins. We come face to face with grace. The king is good – endowed also with “your justice,” so that “he shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with [good, divine] judgment” – because God has enlightened him.

There is a beautiful ambiguity about who, which king, this Psalm has in mind.

First, it seems to talk about the Messiah. “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more. May he rule from sea to sea.” This is apocalyptic, the ultimate king. It is Jesus who is first anointed with the grace of divine wisdom.

But then it speaks of “the kings of Tarshish and the Isles . . . the kings of Arabia and Seba. . . . All kings. . . . all nations.” From Christ’s anointing flows ours. From his fullness of grace we receive. As he is anointed with divine wisdom, so are we. God is with us in the baby in the cradle – but God is with the kings, too, enlightening them to come find this baby.

***

The same theme rings out in our reading from Ephesians. First he speaks of “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit, namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.” St. Paul has special knowledge – “it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” He can write the Bible for us because he knows what others do not. We are illumined by his rays.

(In evening prayer we pray, from the same Ephesians, “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery.” Our reading today seems to explain why the tradition thinks St. Paul is speaking about himself here: God has given him the wisdom. He has special insight, special light – to enlighten us.)

The specific mystery Paul is discussing here, however, is the diffusion of this light: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body.” The Church gives us this reading for the Three Kings, first, because the Three Kings show that the revelation of Christ is not just for the Jews, but even for the Gentiles. With the Three Kings, all nations begin to stream into Jerusalem.

But this calling of the Gentiles is connected to Paul’s one calling. It is all about grace. Paul knows by grace, the Gentiles know by grace. It is not by family ties, not by human wisdom – it is by the light streaming out from Christ.

***

With this in mind, we can draw more from the Gospel. Most of the story is about King Herod. This is remarkable. He too is a king – but even better, he is a Jewish king, king of the Jews. He has the revelation – he has the books where “it has been written through the prophet” where to find the Messiah, the true king, “a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

But he does not have the light. This king has not been endowed with God’s justice. Revelation is not just about having a book – a Bible, or a Catechism, or anything else, though those books to reflect some of the light shining from the faces of the apostles. We learn a lot from those books (as we are learning now from our Bible readings).

But we can only see if the light of Christ shines in our hearts. The true light is not a privilege of birth, not a matter of human power. The true light is the grace of Christ.

What part of your life could you see better if you let Jesus enlighten you?

Epiphanies, Our Lady, and Active Participation in the Mysteries

caravaggio nativityWe are now midway through the Twelve Days from Christmas to Epiphany.  Epiphany is a Greek word that means “appearance.”  The feast celebrates three manifestations: the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the first miracle at Cana, and the Adoration of the Magi.  At first, this seems a jumble.

But we can better understand it by understanding what it has to do with Christmas.  In the West, we have traditionally given greatest prominence to the day of Christ’s birth.  In the East, they have focused more on the Adoration of the Magi (the visit of the wise men) which is celebrated twelve days after the Birth.

To Western minds, it seems strange to celebrate twelve days after the birth.  The Birth is the big deal, right?

***

But in fact, in one sense, the Birth is not the big deal.  The big deal is the Incarnation, which happened nine months before the birth.  The Word was not made flesh on Christmas, but months before, in Mary’s womb.  Theologically, the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, is a much bigger deal.

(Modern devotion has forgotten, but before the 1854 proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of Anne, the tradition said something amazing happened to Mary when Christ took flesh.  Before that, they said, she was indeed sinless – original sin did not “stain” her with any actual sin – but her flesh still bore the mark of the Fall.  Her soul was full of grace, but all flesh, even Mary’s, was still distant from God.  The moment Christ took flesh, Mary’s flesh, too, was healed.  Pius IX’s careful definition of the Immaculate Conception does not prevent us from still thinking the Incarnation brought a miraculous transformation of Mary’s flesh.)

In other words, whether we celebrate twelve days after the Birth or on the day of the Birth itself, we’re still celebrating long after the real action has taken place.  In one sense, nothing happens on Christmas Day – just as, in a similar sense, nothing happens when a baby is born.  It’s not like there wasn’t a baby before the birth.

***

And yet birth is a big deal.   (Let our pro-life fervor never lead us to say “nothing happens” at birth.)  It’s a big deal because . . . it is an Epiphany, an appearance.  What happens when a child is born is that, for the first time, mother and child look into each other’s eyes.  That is not nothing.  In some sense, that is everything.  That is the whole meaning of human life.  Finally the child is doing what it was made to do.

And let not our theological correctness lead us to say “nothing happens” at Christmas.  For the first time, mother and child look into one another’s eyes.  In some sense, that is everything.  That is why Christ took flesh.

Forgive me now a hokey moment: every Spring when I teach my course on liturgy and sacraments, I tell my students about a classic corny sign sometimes seen outside Protestant churches: “ch—ch – what’s missing?  UR!”  (For some of my students I have to explain: “u-r” are the letters missing from the word “church.”  But the point is that “you are” what is missing from the Church.)

In perhaps the most important twentieth-century book on sacramental theology, the Dominican Colman O’Neill ponders St. Paul’s bizarre phrase, “make up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.”  Nothing is lacking in the suffering of Christ – except one thing: u-r.

This is the heart of Catholic soteriology.  Why do our works – or, more properly, our sanctification – matter?  Because the one thing lacking from Christ’s work is for it to penetrate us.  What is lacking?  You are.

It is the heart of sacramental theology.  Christ has done everything on the Cross.  The only thing lacking is for us to receive his power.  What is missing from the power of the Cross?  You are.

It is the heart of liturgical theology.  Traditionalists sometimes get confused on this.  The Eucharist is everything, they correctly say.  We can add nothing.  So who cares about “active participation,” the key word to Vatican II’s document on the liturgy?  But there is one thing lacking from the Eucharist: you are.  Active participation contributes nothing to the power of Christ in the sacraments – or, it contributes nothing except for letting that power flow into us.  The Eucharist doesn’t save the world on its own – else we would be Universalists, or at least Lutherans.  No, what is missing from the Eucharist is us.

And so, too, this is the heart of Christmas.  What is lacking from the Incarnation, on March 25?  We are.  Christ joins himself to human flesh at the very beginning of his earthly journey.  But that is not the end of the story.  He has still to look into his mother’s eyes.  For the mother, what happens at the birth of her child?  Metaphysically, nothing.  Personally, everything.  The whole point of taking flesh is to enter into union.

And so we see in what sense the East gets it right with their emphasis on the Epiphany.  What is the point of Christmas?  The point is that now we can see him – now all the nations, like the three kings, can join Mary in gazing on the face of Christ.

What does the face of Christ mean for you?

 

The Holy Family: Off-Balance

fra angelico nativityThe first Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family.  As Jesus enters into a family, and we celebrate Christmas together as family, it seems appropriate to celebrate the beauty of family, the original vocation.  But all is not as expected.

The first reading, from Samuel, is the dedication of the child Samuel.  Hannah has prayed for a child – prayed for the gift of family.  It says she called him Samuel, “since she had asked the Lord for him” – implying that in Hebrew “Samuel” means something like, “I asked, God answered.”  But when God grants her prayer, she turns it upside down.

Our Gospel reading will have the Holy Family praying together.  “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover.”  Family and faith in beautiful unity.

But that is not the case with Hannah.  “The next time her husband Elkanah was going up with the rest of his household to offer the customary sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vows, Hannah did not go.”  God grants her prayer for family, and she responds by not praying together with her husband.

And then she gives up her family: “Once the child is weaned, I will take him to appear before the Lord and to remain there forever; I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”  As a small boy she will send him away forever.  (A tradition says Mary’s parents did the same with her.)

This is a strange reading for a celebration of family.

***

The key is in the Gospel, the Finding in the Temple, from Luke.  It begins with family togetherness.  But this time, it is not the mother, but the child – Jesus himself, God from God, Light from Light – who breaks the unity of the family: “the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.”

In their attempt to resolve the problem, we see the unity of the family: they “looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances.”  Such a joyful procession of family and acquaintances, a village of human affection, going up to pray in Jerusalem.  And Jesus is not there.

Mary’s words when at last they find him, three days later, in the Temple, are a key to understanding St. Joseph’s place in the love of the Holy Family.  “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”  Mary speaks for the heart of Joseph.  She and Joseph share one anxiety for their child.  Heart speaks to heart; this is a marriage of profound friendship.

And a depth of family, too.  It is of course biologically untrue to call Joseph “your father.”  And yet in the love of the Holy Family – for example, in their loving anxiety for one another – Joseph is Jesus’s father.  These are not cold, formal relationship.  In Mary’s short words are a whole world of humanity, of family affection.

But Jesus is not there.  The anxiety of the parents for their child is tied to the words, “Why have you done this to us?” – forever the words of parents to children who do not respect their family ties.

And Jesus responds with disrespect: “Why were you looking for me?”  Why indeed!  “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Here is the heart of the matter: Jesus is Son of Man, but also Son of God.  He who takes flesh and blesses this world comes from outside of this world, and calls us beyond this world.

At the end of the story, “he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”  He entered back into human family, his self-emptying marked by his obedience to human parents.  But that obedience always teeters on the edge of a higher calling: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

This is what “his mother kept . . . in her heart”: the tension of man and God, human family and divine vocation.

***

For the Epistle, we had a choice between Colossians and First John – but the message of both is about the same.  On the one hand are the virtues of family love: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (Col. 3); “love one another just as he commanded us” (1 Jn 3).

But in both, that human love is rooted in the divine: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts . . . .  Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly. . . . Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In short, the only way to discover family is through holiness; we can only know the beauty of father, mother, child, and love if we keep foremost the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Our families can only thrive if we live a calling higher than family.

In what ways does your family need you to look beyond family, to your divine vocation?

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Our Lady of the Advent

our lady of millenium

MI 5:1-4a; PS 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; HEB 10:5-10; LK 1:39-45

In the last Sunday before Christmas, the liturgy turns to Mary.  We look forward to Christ’s coming.  Through Advent we have prepared for his coming.  Now we look for the perfect preparation, in the heart of Mary.

The Offertory Prayer asks the Holy Spirit to “sanctify these gifts laid upon your altar, just as he filled with his power the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”  The opening prayer is the Angelus prayer: “pour forth . . your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel . . . .”

The Preface for Masses of Advent says, “the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling.”  Her heart is the image of Advent longing and preparation.  We turn this weekend to Our Lady of the Advent.

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The Entrance Antiphon sets the theme.  Rorate coeli: “drop down dew from above, you heavens; and let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior” (Is 45:8)

There are two images here, corresponding to Christ’s two births.  His first birth is heavenly: he is the divine Son of God, born among “the clouds”.  His second birth, at Christmas, is from the earth: “let the earth be opened.”

Mary is the earth; our hearts are the earth, where the divine Word is planted.  We must be opened up, and so let him be born in us.  Yet the mystery of Mary is the mystery of grace.  She does not make Christ appear.  She receives him from like dew from above.

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And so the Old Testament reading, from Micah, emphasizes the two poles.  “You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”  It is not by Mary’s might that Christ is born from her.  She is little.  In fact, he is born in her only because she is little enough to receive him.

He is the strong one: “He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock, by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God. . . . His greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.”

We wait.  We look forward.  We prepare.  But our preparation is not to be the great doers, but to be waiting, looking forward – to let him be our peace.  Come, Lord Jesus!

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The Gospel is Luke’s Gospel of the pregnant Mary, Our Lady of the Advent: “Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste . . . where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” prophesies, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Mary is the earth that brings forth the Savior.  She is blessed, because Emmanuel is with her.

“Blessed are you,” says the Spirit-filled Elizabeth, “who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”  Later in Luke’s Gospel, a woman will mistake Mary’s dignity as being merely physical: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the breasts which you sucked.”  Jesus agrees – the Greek includes “yea” – but goes deeper: “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.”

That is the true blessedness of Mary, the blessedness to which we aspire: to be the earth that receives the dew from above, to hear the word and keep it – to believe that what was spoken to us by the Lord would be fulfilled.

That is the way of Advent: to look forward with trust in the promise, to prepare by waiting for him to be our peace – in his coming at Christmas, his coming at the end of time, his daily comings.  Come, Lord Jesus!

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But there is a second, external kind of preparation tied to that primary, internal one.  Mary went with haste to help Elizabeth, with her words and, we assume, with her hands.

Our Epistle is from Hebrews.  It focuses on the Incarnation.  Its central message says, “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘. . . a body you prepared for me . . . I come to do your will, O God.’ . . .  By this ‘will’ we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Christ came, not merely to be our ritual, not merely to be our Sunday or holiday observance, but to claim our entire lives.  He came not for the moment of Christmas, but for the entirety of a human life.  We welcome him, too, by consecrating our lives to him.  We join Mary in making our every moment revolve around his coming.

In what ways do you pray, “Come, Lord Jesus”?

The Joy of Christ

our lady of millenium

ZEP 3:14-18a; IS 12:2-3, 4, 5-6; PHIL 4:4-7; LK 3:10-18

The Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday.  Midway through the dark seasons of Advent and Lent, the priest takes out his joyful “rose”-colored vestments and we get a little taste of Christmas joy.

The ancient entrance antiphon, from the day’s Epistle, says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near.”

It is the nearness of the Lord that is the source of our joy.  In the first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, the image is of God in the midst of the holy city.  “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!  Sing joyfully, O Israel!  Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”

Why?  “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior.”  The city that had been abandoned now receives God in its midst – a fitting theme for Advent.  Rejoice!

And the city rejoices because the Lord himself rejoices: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you.”  It is the Lord’s own joy that overflows from his hearts into ours.

In Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas concludes his discussion of the one God with a whole question on God’s happiness: the happy God.  And he begins his moral theology with five whole questions on our true happiness, which we find in God alone.

Here in the midst of Advent, we remember that our happiness is when the happy God is among us, his joy overflowing into our hearts.

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The reading from Philippians connects this overflowing happiness to other aspects of the Christian life.  First, to kindness: “I say it again: rejoice!  Your kindness should be known to all.”  Kindness seems a weak thing.  But here we see it as a sign of our spiritual life.  Kindness overflows from our joy.  Or to put it the opposite way: why are we unkind?  Because we lack joy.  And why do we lack joy?  Because we are too far from the happy God.  Here is an examination of conscience.

Or we can take other angles. The Greek is epieikeis.  St. Thomas has a question in the Summa on this Greek word (IIa-IIae q. 120).  He says it’s a kind of flexibility about rules.  Rules matter – but sometimes they don’t apply.  Why are we inflexible?  At heart, because we lack joy.

Or the Latin translation is modestia.  Thomas has two questions on this “modesty,” which he sees more like “moderation” (IIa-IIae qq. 168-69).  He says it has to do with moderation both in our play and in our dress.  In both, we can have too much or too little: we can laugh too uproariously or not enough; we can dress up too fancy or not enough.  We can be too gloomy or too gaudy.  Why do we do any of those things?  A lack of joy.  “Rejoice!  Your moderation should be known to all.”

So too, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”  Why are we anxious?  Because we have not let the joy of God’s presence flow into our hearts.  But if we receive his joy, “then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

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Our Gospel has two parts: one talks about vocation, one about Christ.

First, “the crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’”  What should we do now that we have repented?

“Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none.”  Let the day’s spirit of joy again be our key.  Pope Francis talks about a Church that is “poor and for the poor” and about “the joy of the Gospel.”  The two go together.  When we do not know the joy of Christ, we hoard material possessions, and push others away.  When we know joy, we can afford to be generous.

To the tax collectors he says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed,” to the soldiers, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”  He calls us not to leave our ordinary lives behind, but to live them with gentleness and justice – as ones who have found their joy and their peace in the presence of the happy God.

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In the second part of our Gospel, John says, “I am baptizing you with water . . . .  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Jesus gives us more than nice words.  He pours his very Spirit into us.

And summing up what we have read: “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat.”  When you thresh wheat, first you beat it, to separate what is rich and worthy from what is merely chaff.  Then you wave a fan over it, and the chaff, which is nothingness, is blown away.

Let his joy, his joy, be the fan, which blows away all that does not matter, and leaves us kind, flexible, moderate, and just, full of love, because we have found the pearl of great price.

Where do you manifest a lack of joy?

Second Sunday of Advent: Preparations

our lady of millenium

BAR 5:1-9; PS 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; PHIL 1:4-6, 8-11; LK 3:4, 6

In the liturgical year we have just begun, we are reading Luke’s Gospel.  Luke’s is the most complicated of the four.  At the beginning of the year, we have to consider where the Gospel begins.  As we prepare for Christmas, we see St. Luke’s himself focused on preparing.

Luke 1 begins with a very formal introduction, then tells the story of Jesus’s birth – but preceded in each act by the birth of John the Baptist.  Luke 3 ends with a genealogy – a story of ages of preparations, and a clue that the introduction is ending – and then Luke 4 launches into Jesus’s public ministry; but this, too, he precedes with a preliminary: “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led in the Spirit in the wilderness.”  Luke is full of preliminaries and preparations.

Our reading for the Second Sunday of Advent is yet another of these preliminaries; before Luke 3 tells the story of Jesus’s baptism by John, it presents John’s ministry.  This week we read the beginning of this story, which has its own prologue: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis . . . during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . . .”

Jesus comes into a world prepared for him.  Or rather, he prepares the world for himself: “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah.”

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And when John finally begins to preach, it is about preparation – in several senses.  John preaches a baptism of repentance, a preparation for the coming of Christ.  He preaches, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  And that preaching has itself been prepared for him, since “it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah.”  So many preparations.

John calls them to prepare the way by repenting of their sins.  The words of Isaiah are about making “straight his paths,” preparing a road for Jesus to walk on.  Repentance is that road.

But John’s quotation from Isaiah does something strange at the ending.  In all the ancient texts (the Greek sometimes differs from the Hebrew, but not here), Isaiah’s proclamation concludes: “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it.”  But John changes it to “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

For John, repentance prepares to let God’s glory enter in not because it makes us so holy that God can come – but because we acknowledge our need for a Savior.  (In John’s Greek, “Savior” and “salvation” are almost the same word.)

Repent, prepare the way – call out for your Savior.

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The first reading, from the prophet Baruch, takes us deeper into this vision of the Savior.

Like Isaiah, Baruch calls for “every lofty mountain” to “be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground.”

But in Baruch’s vision, it is not God who walks on the path, but us – and not we who make the path, but God.  The Savior prepares a path for us.

And as in Isaiah’s original ending, Baruch talks about the glory of God: “Jerusalem . . . put on the splendor of glory from God forever; wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name.”  The Savior wraps us in his glory.

This is what we prepare for in Advent.  This is why we repent and prepare a way: so that Jesus can give us all the glory of God.

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Our reading from Philippians again turns us to preparing for the final coming of Jesus: twice our reading speaks of “the day of Christ Jesus.”  As the world prepared for his first coming, and for his ministry, as John prepared the way by calling us to prepare the way, so our life in this world is meant to be a preparation to meet Jesus.

That preparation is above all God’s work.  The Savior “who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”  He prepared the world for himself; he sent his word to John – and he sends his grace to prepare us for his coming.  We prepare to receive him by receiving him.

And yet the good work he begins in us is our work.  Paul prays (because it is a grace), “that your love may increase ever more and more.”  Paul longs “for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus,” and we are called to prepare for Jesus by the same longing and affection and love for one another.

We are called to be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”  But we become that way by growing in love and “in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value.”  We are given the eyes of love.

Finally we will live “for the glory and praise of God” when Christ has entered into us, to prepare us for himself.

As you prepare your house for Christmas, how are you letting Jesus prepare you for his coming?