Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: “His Face Shine upon You”

our lady of vladimirNM 6:22-27; PS67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; GAL 4:4-7; LK 2:16-21

The octave of Christmas puts us into the face-to-face relationship of Jesus and Mary. The iconographic tradition likes to depict them cheek to cheek. Jesus comes near us, and he who is full of light fills us too with his light.


The reading from Numbers at first seems nostalgic: perhaps Irish sentimentalism? God teaches Moses and Aaron how to bless the people: “The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!”

But this is not sentimental. This is contemplative. Both the Jews and the Catholic tradition see Moses as a high mystic. “The LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). “When Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in his hand . . . Moses knew not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come near him” (Ex. 34:29-30).

The blessing “The LORD let his face shine upon you,” is not a sentimentalism. It means that what we most truly long for is not just bread and quails, but the vision of God himself. A vision so profound that it penetrates us, and transforms us, as Moses’s face shone with the light of the face of God.

St. Paul speaks about Moses, and says the same is our destiny as Christians: “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LORD” (2 Cor. 3:18).


This is the mystery shining out of our feast day’s humble reading about the Shepherds. They “found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. . . . Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. . . . Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

Just as Moses looked at the face of God and his own face was filled with God’s light, so even more with Jesus. Mary holds the face of God at her breast; she contemplates that face with unspeakable immediacy. Even the shepherds, just passing by, are raised to glory. How much more the Mother of God herself, she who presses his cheek to hers?

This is the Incarnation. God’s face is made visible. The God of gods is with us, in the arms of Mary. That changes us. The light of his face radiates into our own faces.

“When you said, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek. Hide not thy face far from me” (Ps. 27:8-9).

“Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved” (Ps. 80:3, 7, 19).

“Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my face, and my God” (Ps. 43:5).


God brings his face to where we are. Perhaps this can cast some light on some obscure verses from Galatians that the liturgy frequently applies to Mary. “When the time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father.’”

Now, it is often said that “Abba,” is a term of endearment, and so the point would be that we call him not “Father,” but “Daddy.” My Scripture-scholar friends tell me this is groundless. Abba is the Aramaic word for Father, plain and simple. “Daddy” is not the point. Speaking Mary’s language is the point.

“Abba” only appears three times in the New Testament – all in places that are emphasizing the closeness of God to the Hebrews.

The point is, Mary, the Hebrew, receives Jesus into her Hebrew world. He is not the God of the faraway or the abstract. He is the God of where we are. The where-we-are of the Hebrews, of Mary, becomes the where-we-are of all the rest of us, too. Not far away: here, cheek to cheek, his face shining onto our faces. Truly God is with us. God sends the Spirit into our hearts: where we are.

What does it mean to call Jesus the “salvation of our face”? How does the light of his face shine on ours?

Feast of the Holy Family

fra angelico nativitySIR 3:2-6, 12-14; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5; COL 3:12-21, MT 2:13-15, 19-23

Jesus is God Incarnate, the Savior, the Redeemer. Mary is Mother of God, guarantor of the Incarnation; and Immaculate Conception, the perfect model of holiness. But the Sunday within the octave of Christmas calls us to look more broadly, to the Holy Family: to include poor St. Joseph. Remarkably, the readings show us how important Joseph is for a true understanding of Christianity.


It has been said that the key to St. Paul’s theology is the Church. On the road to Damascus, Jesus speaks to him as identified with the members of his Church: “why are you persecuting me?” And woven constantly through Paul’s letters is the theology of the Body of Christ. For Paul, Jesus is not just a historic figure, but the cosmic “head of the body, the Church” (Col. 1:18). To be a Christian, meanwhile, is precisely to be part of Christ’s body: pulsing with his Spirit, united to the head and the members. Once you are alert to this theme in Paul, you see it is everywhere.

It is, for example, in our feast day’s reading from Colossians. This is one of the infamous readings where the Church gives us a censorship option. In this Sunday’s reading, as also in Ephesians 5, Paul gives a general discussion of love within the Church, then particularizes it within familial relationships. We are given the option to ignore what Paul says about family – on the feast of the Holy Family! – because it is not politically correct. But it is fabulous.

“Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” – as members of Christ! – “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” In short, live as members of Christ: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body.”

This is the heart of Paul’s moral teaching: to live as members of Christ’s body, pulsing with his heart, his spirit. It is the heart of his teaching on the family, too. Today people often get this upside down, and think of the Church in terms of family. To the contrary, Paul teaches us to think of the family in terms of Church. The family is the most immediate, ordinary place where we live the radical love of the Body of Christ.

Thus after discussing this general attitude of Christian love, Paul gives a brief teaching on family relationships: whatever is right in wifely submission and husbandly leadership, as also in parental authority and childly obedience, must be suffused with Christian love. Paul actually doesn’t teach about obedience – he just assumes we understand that natural dynamic; what he teaches is that this obedience must be penetrated with the love of the Church. Nature is permeated with grace, natural authority with Christian love. The family must be the first place where we live the love that is the Church.


Our first reading, from Sirach, particularizes this as it relates to the father Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Projectof the family. “God sets a father in authority over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.” Whereas Paul merely assumes these familial relationships, and suffuses them with his theology of the Church, the Old Testament is chock full of wisdom about family, especially in the wisdom literature: Proverbs, Sirach, etc. The teaching is very homely. We live out charity by the way we relate to one another.

This is the true meaning of the Holy Family. Jesus came into a family. He showed that love is not just vague and general. The love of Christ is what we live out when children honor their parents – and parents honor their children. When wives and husbands live as wives and husbands ought (a relationship the Bible treats not in terms of sex, but of household order). Jesus is obedient to his parents – “he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:51) – precisely to show that his love enters into these particulars, including the natural dynamics of authority.


And then the Gospel just gives us the story of the leadership of Joseph, caring for his family as they flee from Herod. Joseph is not the star of the Holy Family. He is not the Redeemer, not even the Mother of God. He is just an ordinary father. But his authority within the Holy Family is nonetheless key to the Gospel, because it shows that what Jesus redeems is ordinary life, the natural relationships of parent-child, husband-wife – and shopkeeper-customer, neighbor-neighbor, and everything else. That is where the love of Christ shines forth. The Gospel radiates in the person of St. Joseph.

What does Joseph tell you about your life?

Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes: Poor and for the Poor

swaddlingFor you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
That, though he was rich,
Yet for your sakes he became poor,
That you through his poverty might be rich.

-2 Corinthians 8:9


For Christmas, two images for Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

First, he who is infinite constrained himself. The great Marian hymns of the Middle Ages love this theme:

O happy Mother, you are blest
Enclosed beneath your lowly breast,
Lies God, creator great, who planned
The world he holds within his hand. 

Your arms the great Creator pressed,
Asuckling at your sacred breast
Whom earth and sea and sky proclaim,
The Ruler of their triple frame,

He unto whom their praises rise,
Within the womb of Mary lies.
Her womb, the seat of ev’ry grace,
Is now the Lord’s abiding place;

That Lord to whom the sun by day,
The moon by night, their service pay.

Through him all things were made. And he is tied up in swaddling bands. They are an image of the death wrappings. But an image also of infancy. In either case, the purpose of swaddling cloths is to bind up, contain, restrain. Also to warm one who is cold. Jesus became poor and little for us: in the womb of Mary, and wrapped in swaddling clothes.


Second, it is Mary herself who wraps her child. “She brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

The medieval tradition, perhaps a little closer to real life, notices something. My wife and I have had five children; one was a c-section, two were homebirths, two were with a midwife in a hospital. One of the homebirths, the midwife didn’t make it in time. But through all these experiences, one thing my wife herself has never been up for is wrapping up her own newborn.

Is this making too much of a verb? It says “while they were” in Bethlehem “the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth . . . and she wrapped him, and she [anyway, the verb is singular] laid him in a manger.” The “they” disappears. Not “Joseph wrapped him,” not “the midwife.” Mary wraps and clothes her own child.

(By the way: I am not a farm person, but wouldn’t any manger that holds enough hay for barn animals be big enough for mother to lie with child? I don’t know. The Greek verb is about “sitting up” in the manger . . . .)

The medievals see in this a sign of Mary’s dignity, the grace bestowed on her by Christ.

She is poor. So poor she has to give birth in a manger, without so much as a midwife. But Jesus, who is always for the poor, cares for her – not externally, but internally. He doesn’t give her a midwife. He gives her the strength to give birth and care for her child, and wrap him and care for him herself.


Two chapters before St. Paul tells us that Jesus “became poor that you through his poverty may be rich,” he describes himself: “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

The grace of Jesus leaves us poor, with no room in the inn. And he makes us rich, so that we can love, and care for our children, and spread the riches of Jesus to others.

Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes became poor: the infinite constrained. But by his poverty he becomes so close to the poor that we become rich: represented by Mary, strong enough to swaddle her own baby – and Paul, rich enough to share the graces of Christ with us. These days, you don’t need to be rich or poor to use baby slings, they’re making a come back! You know what they say, history reapeats itself. You want to see what your baby would look like in a Munchkin jelly bean reversible sling, so do we!

(Not so) Silent Night

caravaggio nativityIt is perhaps time for my annual self-help Christmas pep talk.

For those of us with children – especially large broods of small children – one of the great ironies of the Church’s liturgical year is the singing of Silent Night at Christmas Eve Mass. The liturgy is beautiful. The world in silent stillness waits – to hear angels sing.

A favorite (if somewhat silly) memory of mine is one Advent before Christmas. I went to an evening of recollection at a very big, beautiful church. Afterwards, somehow, I had the dark sanctuary for myself. I pulled out a hymnal and hummed “It came upon a midnight clear.” The silent stillness. The beauty. The waiting. The expectation. The angels!

I seriously discerned religious life. I always imagine how beautiful the Christmas season could be celebrated in a monastery.

The last week of Advent has the beautiful and mysterious O Antiphons at Vespers: awesome food for meditation.

Christmas itself has four Masses: the Vigil, technically before Vespers, with Matthew’s reading about St. Joseph; then after Vespers the rubrics say, “On the Nativity of the Lord all Priests may celebrate or concelebrate three Masses, provided the Masses are celebrated at their proper times”: at midnight, the Gospel of the angels; at dawn, the shepherds come to the manger; during the day, John’s Prologue. Any of these is worth a full day of recollection.

Holy Family on the First Sunday; Mary on the octave; Epiphany on the twelfth day. The fabulous juxtaposion of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the day after Christmas; then St. John, the beloved disciple, the Apostle of love, whose amazing and profound First Letter gives the readings for the Christmas season; then the Holy Innocents. Oh, what liturgy!


ACHR1052-dancing-around-tree_800pBut of course the irony is that this is not how we with families live the Christmas season. I’m sure I could do better. But one of the great realizations of family life is that we aren’t as good as we thought. Daily Mass and a pretty abundant daily prayer schedule, including lots of liturgy, was a no-brainer before I had kids – when it was easy. When it became difficult . . . a lot of it slipped. We are not as strong as we think we are.

But even apart from my weaknesses, how could I do it all? During Advent we try to light candles and do readings at dinner. In theory we pray Evening Prayer, with special Advent devotions to St. Joseph, as we prepare for the coming of Christ. In practice . . . gosh, the little boys are tired, bedtime takes a long time, everyone moves slowly. As for Morning Prayer and daily Mass . . . long gone, at least in our family life. I can pull off some of it, but for my wife, always covered in kids, it’s even harder.

Christmas Eve is wonderul: but when we sing Silent Night, usually one of my kids is crying, or throwing up. We always ponder doing Mass both Christmas Eve and Morning – but gave up after, with just one child (easy!) we had a diaper blowout on the way to morning Mass.

This year we have non-Church-going family in town. What should we do, ditch them, so we can have more liturgy?

And the twelve days, beautiful as they are, get largely covered in visiting family.


Two quick points:

First, we can live the liturgy at a distance. We can poke our heads in here and there, and do our best to remember it. Later in the year maybe we will have some time to pray over the things we didn’t have time to pray over while taking care of the kids. No, my Christmas Eve is not a Silent Night. But both that night, and throughout the year, at quieter moments, I can meditate on the world in silent stillness waiting. We can live the liturgy at a distance. In fact, we’re supposed to: what we meditate in these days is supposed to come with us anyway. So let’s bring it with us. Yes, let’s imagine how cool monastic liturgy would be!

Second, family is part of the liturgy, too. The monks and nuns who get to experience the liturgy in its fullness cannot experience it in its fullness unless, just as we follow their liturgy at a distance, so too they follow our families at a distance.

Because Christmas is all about Jesus coming as a child, Jesus coming into the love of family, Jesus embracing the fullness of human life and relationships. We live our own part of the Christmas liturgy, in our not-so-silent nights.

That’s why we read First John in the Christmas season anyway.

He that loves not his brother abides in death (1 John 3:14).

If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from him, That he who loves God love his brother also (1 John 4:20-21).


How do you reconcile liturgy and family during the Christmas season?

Names for the SpiritualLife: In Mary

mary-baby-jesus1For the last several Fridays we have been considering different names used to describe the spiritual life. We are now considering the four ways that St. Louis de Montfort describes true devotion to Mary: with Mary, in Mary, through Mary, and for Mary. This week we consider what might be the most confusing, but also the most important of these phrases.


For years, I thought “in Mary” meant something like “in her heart.” We can imagine ourselves praying, or – if you have a more diligent imagination than I do – maybe even living, working, conversing, within Mary’s heart. Such a meditation can be a way to imagine her love for us, her love for God, the purity of her intentions and motives.

This is a worthy meditation. But it doesn’t work with everyone’s imaginations, and it’s hard to make it describe the whole of our life: we can’t always be doing this imaginative exercise. I also think it might actually be more what he means by “with Mary.” Always we know that Mary is at our side, and always we try to walk alongside her, to live with her, to imitate Mary. That is wonderful, but I don’t think it’s what de Montfort means by “in Mary.”


De Montfort, always flowery to the point of confusion, describes Mary as a “world,” a “terrestrial paradise.” I think what he means is less an imitation of Mary’s ways than a shaping of our worldview.

What Mary stands for is the total transformation of the person by the mystery of Jesus. Wherever we hear the name “Mary,” we can think “grace” – but the Gospel of grace made concrete, personal, real. Mary means a world in which God so completely heals the human soul that we live lives of perfect love, of God and neighbor. And a world in which God elevates us (sanctifying grace always heals and elevates) beyond our human nature into the interior life of God, the perfect love of the Trinity, which is the height of contemplation.

Mary, moreover, lives this grace as total gift. The Immaculate Conception means that God always makes the first move. Mary has absolutely nothing to credit herself with, and everything to thank God for. He made the first move. And then in her relation to Jesus we see Mary always moving outside of herself, to the source and culmination of grace. Mary’s life begins and ends with Jesus. God is her beginning, and God is her constant destination. This is the perfection of sanctity.


To live “in Mary” is for this to be our constant worldview. What would it mean for us to view absolutely everything in light of this gospel of grace? Always to know that God can do it, that God is the source of every perfect gift, that God brings the healing of perfect purity, and the elevation of perfect love.

To make Mary “our world” is to see everything in this way, to begin and end our day, to face every difficulty, and every simplest task, in light of the mystery of grace. For Mary to be our worldview.

It means, too, to see the dignity of human nature: to look at every person and know that he shares the same nature as Mary, that God can do in him the most wonderful things that he did for Mary.


We can live our lives “in Mary” by meditating on her two greatest prayers. We can pray the Hail Mary: pray it well during our rosary, and then pray it throughout the day, and try to learn from it who Mary is, what God has done in her.

And we can live our life, too, in light of the Magnificat, Mary’s own prayer and the perfect articulation of her worldview.

To live in Mary is always to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord” and “exult in God,” who we recognize as “our Savior.” To see ourselves as nothing but “lowly servants” whom he has “lifted up.” To know that he is mighty, and does great things. To fear only him, and the loss of him, and to trust in his mercy.

To live in Mary is to know that the “proud in their conceit,” the “mighty on their thrones,” and the “rich” will be sent away empty. Our strength is in being lowly, and hungry – and members of “his servant Israel,” and trusting him to lift us up. Our hope is in trusting his promise to those who believe – to Abraham and his children forever.

To live “in Mary” is to make our worldview Mary, Our Lady of Grace.


What does Mary tell you about the world?

The Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Ultimate Miracle

our lady of millenium

IS 7:10-14; PS 24: 12-2, 3-4, 5-6; ROM 1:1-7; MT 1:18-24

Advent rises up in a kind of a drumroll. Christmas itself is a mysteriously silent night, a bizarrely insignificant event. But God surrounds it with the songs of angels, and signs in the heavens, to show us that this is the center of all history, the ultimate miracle.


Our reading from Isaiah is a little confusing. God’s prophet demands that the king, Ahaz, should ask for a sign. Ahaz refuses: “I will not put the Lord to the test.” The prophet rebukes him: “Is it not enough for you to weary men, but you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.”

Such a strange confrontation. Ahaz is quoting Deuteronomy: “you shall not test the Lord your God, as you tempted him at Massah” (Deut. 6:16). Jesus himself will quote the same line against the Devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4:7). It seems like Ahaz is doing the right thing.

But Isaiah quotes back at him the lines from Massah itself: “the people strove with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said to them, Why do you strive with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Ex. 17:2). Is it not enough for you to weary men? Must you also weary my God?

Maybe the deeper meaning is in the first words Jesus quotes against the Devil. Deuteronomy says, “He humbled you, and allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only; but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord man lives” (Deut. 8:3).

Ahaz quotes the Bible out of context. The deeper problem is not signs, but whether we trust in the Lord. The Lord was calling him to trust; he replied I will not tempt the Lord.


The greatest sign of all, the greatest word, the greatest trust, is what comes from the virgin’s womb, Emmanuel, God with us.

Our reading from the opening of Romans does nothing but underline this. “The gospel of God,” he says, is “the gospel about his Son.” He is the one “promised previously through the prophets.” He is the true descendent of David. And he is “established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This is the center of the Bible, the place where all the signs and miracles converge, the ultimate word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord, the true manna, the living water, life itself.

And “Through him we have received the grace of apostleship”: the whole Church exists for nothing but this. It all points to Jesus, Emmanuel.


And after all the fanfare, all the drum roll, comes the simple story of the birth. Of Joseph, a righteous man, stumbling along trying to figure out what is going on, “for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her,” so that the prophecy, the sign offered to Ahaz, might be fulfilled: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

Joseph, this true son of Abraham (Matt. 1:2), of David (Matt. 1:6), and yes, according to Matthew himself, just before he tells the story of the birth, the son of Ahaz – “And Uzziah begat Jotham, and Jotham begat Ahaz, and Ahaz begat Hezekiah” (Matt. 1:9) – does not ask for a sign. But what the angel offers, he lovingly receives: “He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took his wife into his home.”


The life to which God calls us is supremely supernatural. It is a life, as Paul says in our reading from Romans, of “the obedience of faith.” We are “called to belong to Jesus Christ . . . called to be holy.” The Christian life is not a life without miracles. It is a supremely miraculous life, a life that hinges on a virgin birth, the resurrection of the dead – and even more, the justification of sinners by the power of “the Spirit of holiness.”

Ahaz gets it completely wrong. What “wearies” and “tempts” God is not our desire for the supernatural. It is, to the contrary, our insistence on living for nothing but worldly bread, our shoving God to the margins. Jesus offers infinitely more.

And thus the drumroll to Christmas: God is with us, to do infinitely more than we could possibly imagine. In the manger is poverty – and infinite riches.


What if we really believed that God was with us? How would that change us?

Patrons of Winter

This week the Church celebrates the winter Ember Days. We discussed Ember Days in September, and I won’t repeat myself now, but in short, these are the days the Church uses to consecrate the next natural season. In other words, this week the Church celebrates the beginning of winter.

Today we’ll look briefly at three images the Church identifies with winter.


st lucyFirst, the winter Ember Days are connected to St. Lucy. (Actually, they are more properly defined as the last full week before Christmas Eve. But the tradition likes to call them the week after St. Lucy’s, Dec. 13.)

St. Lucy makes a good patroness of winter. She’s one of the standard virgin martyrs of the early Church: like all the rest, the short version of her story is that she consecrated her virginity to Christ; but the Romans didn’t like people living beyond this world, so they killed her.

The standard iconographic symbol of Lucy shows that her eyes were gouged out. This may not be historically accurate, but even if it is a later invention, it points to a deeper intuition about how St. Lucy’s serves as a patroness of winter – and, perhaps, why the Church gave her this day for her feast day.

Her name, Lucia, means light, but the Church celebrates her at the beginning of winter. Lucy reminds us that the true light shines in the midst of darkness, the truest sight where our physical eyes cannot see. Thus St. Lucy calls us to see the darkness and desolation of winter as a sign of how, in this world, the truest light is faith, not sight; the truest sight sees God where the world sees emptiness.


St Martin of Tours3Another patron saint of winter is St. Martin of Tours. His feast day, Nov. 11, marks a transition from Autumn to Winter. Traditionally, it was the time of the Fall harvest, and so a harvest festival. But also the marker that the growing season had come to the close, and the time of winter scarceness was come. Thus it used also to be the beginning of one of the two great fasts, a kind of Lent that preceded Christmas.

It’s nice to notice the natural rhythm here. The Church embraces and sanctifies the rhythms of nature. In traditional societies, winter was a time of scarceness: so you have a few days and periods of celebration scattered here and there, to promise that we will survive the winter. But also fasts that were really quite necessary: there’s no food, so we might as well treat it as a spiritual discipline. The second winter fast, Lent, looks forward to when things finally start growing again.

St. Martin is a great saint, very popular during the Middle Ages. He was a soldier who converted, became a monk, then a very popular figure of sanctity – and then was made a bishop. He was a model bishop, travelling around to evangelize the countryside.

But the favorite story, the story that won him the name “Martin the Merciful,” is that one night as he was entering a town, he saw a shivering beggar standing outside, and gave him his own cloak. Jesus later appeared to him and proclaimed that he himself had been the beggar. Catholicism has always taken seriously Matthew 25: I was naked, and you clothed me.

As a patron saint of winter, Martin the Merciful reminds us to see in winter the neediness of those who still go without food and shelter. The desolation of winter reminds us of the true obligation of Christian charity. When we are cold, we think of those who are truly cold.


our lady of milleniumFinally, of course, the Church marks winter with Advent. In short, a time of waiting. Advent, of course, has a double orientation. In the immediate future, we look forward to Christmas, and our waiting for Christmas gives immediate meaning to the season.

But more distantly, we look forward to Christ’s final coming. In a way, Advent is a deeper marker of winter than is Christmas: in a sense, Christmas serves Advent more than vice versa. Advent reminds us that this world is a kind of winter – but that Spring will come. As our third “patron” of winter, Advent reminds us never to settle for winter, but always to look forward to the Spring of Christ’s coming.


Lucy, the true light that shines in the darkness; Martin, clother of beggars; Advent, the season of waiting. In the Church’s calendar, winter becomes a season pregnant with meaning.

But enough of my fancy words. How do you experience the spirituality of winter?

Our Lady of Guadalupe (belated)

Virgen_de_guadalupe1On Wednesday my family and I were dreadfully sick, and I missed the opportunity to write a post for Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast was Thursday. I offer one now.

I presume all my readers know the story. In the early days of the mission to the Americas, things were not going well. Mary appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in the image of an Aztec princess. She imprinted a miraculous image of this apparition on his tilma, which remains miraculously preserved to this day. The image served as a major point of conversion for the Indians throughout the Americas, and remains a key part of the North and South American Catholic heritage to this day.


I want to make just two points about Our Lady of Guadalupe.

First, she shows us that God is truly with us. The central point of the image is that Mary appears not as a European, but as an Indian. God became man in a particular time and place. Jesus spoke a particular language, with a particular dialect. His skin, eyes, and hair color showed him to belong to a particular race (though, amazingly, most of us aren’t sure what that was). His disciples were known by their funny accents. I was not there.

But the point of the Incarnation was not that Jesus came just for that time and place, but that he came for all times and places. That he embraces the particular, so that I find him in the funny accents where I live, my particular culture, my time in history. Jesus did not banish history, but embraced it, in all its particularity.

The infamous blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus speaks truth if by it we mean that he came also for people like me. It speaks a lie if it makes us think he only came for people like me. (And Pope Francis has vividly reminded us, with his economic message, that that lie is so very easy to embrace. We of the blue eyes and richest nation in the history of the world probably do well to think more about him coming for people who don’t look like us! He is just as black as he is blue eyed.)

Mary stands for the humanity of Jesus. It is her particularity that he embraces. And so Mary is the one who appears to the Indians as one of them: to say, yes, Jesus was born of woman not to alienate you, but to embrace you. God is so close to you in Jesus that you can count his mother as one of you. It is your world that God embraced in the Incarnation.


My second point is that we live at the Antipodes. We, the Americans – with our Pope, from the most southern country of the Americas – are truly “the ends of the earth.”

We live in an age of American Empire. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if rightly embraced. Empires can bring peace, as the Roman Empire did in the time of Jesus. And our Empire, in some ways, is particularly benevolent, or at least has the opportunity to be that way.

But to be a truly benevolent Empire – or anyway, a truly benevolent America – it does us well to remember that we actually aren’t the center of the world. Jerusalem is.

1581_bunting_clover_leaf_map_1024The old medieval maps showed it this way, and the insight is remarkable. From Jerusalem spring out the three great ancient continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. All of them, in fact, took turns conquering Jerusalem: first Egypt, then Babylon, then Rome. But there it is: the world radiating out from Jerusalem. And America, the New World, is really the other side of the world, the big island that is opposite. They used to call this the “antipodes.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds us Americans that we belong to this strange Atlantis. Not the center of the world, but its farthest reaches, its strangest and youngest outpost. Not Australia: they are the farthest reach of the old world, the normal world!

It does us well, first, to see that Jerusalem really is the center, that we all measure our distance from Jesus.

Second, to know that the three old continents are all due their respect as the normal world, the ancient world, the respectable world. America has great young energy: but respect your elders!

And third, to remember that the “Americas” are one. The Europeans (including the Vatican) count us as one continent. And really, we do well to see that we are all in this together: we, the youthful nations; we, the land of the Indians and the slaves; we, who might be the future, but shouldn’t forget the past: especially the sacred history of Jerusalem, the center of the world.


How do you see America forgetting its youthfulness? What could we learn from seeing ourselves as the antipodes?

Names for the Spritual Life: Life with Mary

mary-baby-jesus1For the last few weeks we have been considering names for the spiritual life. In relation to us, we considered “sanctity” and “the interior life.” In relation to the Trinity, we had “life in the Spirit,” “life in Christ,” and “divine filiation,” which we further considered as “spiritual childhood.”

In the next four weeks, I propose to consider how devotion to Mary can be seen as a model for the spiritual life. Following the great Marian teaching of St. Louis de Montfort, I propose, first, that true devotion to Mary is no more or less than living out our baptism: that is, true devotion to Mary simply is the spiritual life/life in Christ/the life of divine filiation, etc. – though obviously de Montfort believes that Mary provides helpful ways of thinking about this. Second, de Montfort finishes his masterwork, True Devotion, by saying true devotion to Mary is best described under four headings: life with Mary, life in Mary, life by Mary, and life for Mary. Our next four weeks will consider these titles.


We begin with life with Mary, or alongside Mary. As de Montfort understands it, we could also describe this as Imitation of Mary.

We considered a few weeks ago how imitation of Christ is a slightly deceiving idea. Jesus is God, and we are not. We are meant to put on Christ, to be Christ-like – but also to recognize our radical dependence on him. Imitation of Mary – life with, or alongside Mary – is in this sense a better description of the Christian life.

Imitation of Mary means imitation of her virtues, of course. Mary is a particularly fine model of the virtuous life, precisely because her life isn’t very interesting. We should imitate the saints, but most of the canonized saints are recognized by the amazing things they did. (Whereas, in fact, most of the saints are not canonized, because they did nothing by which the world would remember them.) Mary, by her connection with Christ, is the one saint who both lived a profoundly ordinary life and yet is easily recognizable.

Of course, Mary’s ordinary life still includes the extraordinary. She was called to radically consecrate herself to Christ. She suffered enormously, especially in the exile under Herod and even more at the Cross. She witnessed, and even participated in, the miraculous, especially at the wedding feast of Cana and at the Resurrection. She saw the miracles of the Church, especially at Pentecost.

But our ordinary life of sanctity must be extraordinary in the same ways. We too will have to suffer profoundly if we are to follow Christ. And we too will see miracles, though the world probably won’t see them. Nonetheless, like Mary, we should not expect to be miracle workers. At best, we will beg Jesus to care for our family and friends, and beg him to rise again when he seems lost – and we will see him do it. Meanwhile, we will serve him through our ordinary, humble lives.


But a second and even more profound way we should imitate Mary, live our lives “with Mary,” is through profound reliance on Christ. Everything depends on our closeness to him. We look to her as the exemplar of a life lived in total dependence on him.

Of course, during his earthly life, she lived a closeness we can never have. But we can imitate her love of Christ by loving his face and voice as she did: by adoring his image, pondering his words. As a parent today might keep a picture of his children on his desk, so too we imitate Mary by keeping Jesus’s picture always before us.

But we can imitate her too in her life after his Ascension. We imagine what the Mass meant for her, what even the Church he had founded meant to her. For Mary, these were not just goods in themselves, but traces of him, the one her heart adored. The Bible – just being collected, in her time – was not just wisdom, it was his wisdom. She loved him. So must we.

And she lived from him, knew all her life flowed from the awesome event which was the life and death of Jesus Christ. That is what we most imitate in the life of Mary.


The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth got to observe Vatican II. He didn’t like, though, that they said Mary is model of the Church; he preferred Joseph, a bit more removed. We should recognize Mary for the scandal she is. No, we are not a step removed. Jesus comes to lay in our arms, to be that close to us. We imitate Mary, live all our life alongside her.

What does life with Mary mean to you?

The Third Sunday of Advent: Awaiting the Redeemer

our lady of millenium

IS 35:1-6a, 10; PS 145:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; JAS 5: 7-10; MT 11: 2-11.

This Sunday we come to one of the days of “rose” (pink) vestments: Gaudete Sunday. Like Laetare Sunday in Lent, Gaudete is a pause in a preparatory season, a moment of joy (gaudete and laetare both more or less mean “rejoice”) in the midst of a season of repentance, a moment of “rose” among the purple.

It’s a nice reminder, in general, of what they call the “already-not yet” of Christianity. In fact, our fundamental posture is waiting. To be a Christian is to live in the “not yet”: this isn’t it. We live in darkness; we don’t see Jesus; we don’t see God. We wait for the final, ultimate feast.

And yet already there is rejoicing, already there is a foretaste. Even in this valley of tears, we have our feast days, our anticipations of the joy of heaven.


Our reading from James discusses the posture of waiting: like farmers, patiently waiting for “the precious fruit of the earth.”

He describes how we “farmers” ought to wait. True patience also means not complaining about one another. If we know that our ultimate joy is “not yet,” then we don’t need to be so tough on one another. Relax!

Yet on the other hand, “take as an example of hardship and patience the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Looking forward means preparing the way, actually looking forward. Patience does not mean getting comfortable here. It means living ourselves like we await something better – and calling others to look forward, too: like the prophets.


The reading from Isaiah gives an important illustration of what St. Thomas means by “grace perfects nature.” “Grace perfects nature” does NOT mean “God helps those who help themselves.” What it means is that the work God does for us in grace is the work we would naturally want to do for ourselves, if we could.

“The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. . . . Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

The point is: this is what is supposed to happen. Eyes are supposed to see, ears are supposed to hear. Parched land is, in a sense, not natural: flowers are normal, the way it’s supposed to be. Our Redeemer is our Creator. He doesn’t come along and do something completely bizarre. He restores nature to its pristine dignity.

And so Isaiah can even say God “comes with vindication.” He drives away the oppressor, restores our original freedom and dignity.

And ultimately, this is the way to understand what it means for us to “see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.” To “enter Zion singing” is to be “crowned with everlasting joy”: because we were made for this. Jesus restores our humanity, brings us back to ourselves. The Gospel is “joy and gladness” (the Latin says gaudium et laetitiam: the two rose Sundays) because it is what we are made for. Grace restores nature.


And so we understand the figure of John the Baptist, in the reading from Matthew. John is in prison – because he stands for the moral law. John, remember, told the King that his sexual practices were immoral.

But here we see John looking for the Restorer, the Redeemer. “Are you the one we seek?” he asks Jesus. “Go and tell John what you see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk” – nature is restored. That’s what John longed for.

Jesus then describes John: a prophet, out in the desert. Our desert references come together nicely. John goes to the natural place that awaits redemption to proclaim that we await redemption: that human society is not alright, that we desperately need Jesus to set things right.

Jesus says this is the true way of the prophet. This is the messenger who prepares the way for Jesus. Only when we realize we are in the desert can we really long for the Messiah.

This is the greatest we can do: “among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” Nothing is more human than acknowledging that our situation is not human: we are in a dry land, blind and lame, not in the land of rejoicing and the vision of God.

“Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Because ultimately, there is restoration. This waiting, this longing, is not what it’s all about. We look forward to something so much greater.


How do you experience humanity’s desperate need for the Savior?