New Year’s: Pondering with Mary

swaddlingThe Jews circumcised their baby boys on the eighth day, as our Gospel reading points out: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision” – so for many centuries January 1 was called “The Circumcision of the Lord and Octave of the Nativity.”  But the reform after Vatican II took us more deeply to the point: having celebrated the birth of Christ, we now celebrate what his parents do with him, and call it “The Octave Day of Christmas Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”

What this works out to is a great way to frame the New Year.  Christmas is almost like a prelude.  The New Year is associated with Mary: who is, precisely, what Jesus means for us.  Let us make every new year a Marian year, joining Mary to live in light of the coming of Christ.


The reading for the circumcision takes us into two ways Mary relates to the word.  First, the circumcision is also the feast of the naming of Christ: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel.”

This is a big deal, both in the Bible and in the Liturgy.  In Matthew’s account of the Nativity, which focuses on Joseph, this is precisely his task: “Joseph, son of David,” says the angel, “fear not to take Mary as wife . . . .  She shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . . .   And they shall call his name Emmanuel . . . .  She brought forth her firstborn son: and he [Joseph] called his name Jesus.”  Joseph must name Jesus.

Luke’s Gospel, focusing on Mary, also culminates in her giving him this name above all names.

The old Liturgy thus celebrated the feast of “The Most Holy Name of Jesus” on the Sunday after January 1, or January 2, depending on when Epiphany fell.  The liturgical reform briefly lost this feast, but St. John Paul restored it, to January 3.  (This is a nice example of how we can continue to rediscover tradition, not by rejecting the reforms, but by moving forward through them.)


But Mary relates to the word in another way.  Our Gospel reading, leading up to the circumcision, begins with the shepherds “find[ing] Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.”  This is appropriate for the feast of Mary Mother of God: when we find Jesus, we find Mary beside him.

But the rest of the reading gives a fabulous insight into who Mary is.  The shepherds “made known the message” – the Greek rhema focuses on the words that the angels spoke to them. And those who “heard it were amazed”: the sight of the child becomes amazing when we hear the words that explain who he is.  A baby is not amazing: but these words make him amazing.

And then Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”  Unfortunately, the translation is not very literal: in the Greek, she keeps the words, the rhemata.  That’s what she keeps in her heart.


In college we used to wonder at a statue of Mary holding a rosary.  “Did she pray, ‘Hail me, full of grace’?” we joked.

But the answer is, yes, Mary pondered the words.  First the words of the angel: it says, “she was stirred up by his word, and ‘worded’ what kind of salutation it might be,” then she asked him to explain about it, with words – in fact, despite all the un-Scriptural preaching about how the angel asked her permission, that isn’t in the Bible.  What does happen is that Mary “dialogues” with the angel, pondering his words, begging explanation to take her deeper.  And she concludes “be it done to me according to your word.”

Now she ponders the words of the shepherds.  Next she will wonder at the words of Simeon, and then after the Presentation, she will again “keep all these words in her heart.”

And she will “call his name Jesus,” the word above words.


One of the driving insights of this webpage is the great phrase from the Rule of St. Benedict’s nineteenth chapter, “On the Discipline of Psalming”: “let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”  In short, true prayer ponders the words: the divine words given to us.

With Mary, let us ponder the other readings tomorrow.  “The LORD let his face shine upon you”: those words should be pondered!  May he “give you his peace”: hold those words in your heart!

The Spirit comes to let us speak – the word in Galatians is for how a raven (or a parrot) croaks words it barely understands – “Abba, Father.”  We babble, we barely understand – but let us, with Mary, ponder all these words in our heart.

And above all, the name of Jesus, “savior.”  Mary pondered that name, that word, deep in her heart.

Could you make a New Year’s resolution about finding more space to ponder God’s word?


The Poverty of Christmas

fra angelico nativityToday I offer a theological reflection on Christmas – and then a very concrete application, to my life, and perhaps also to yours.

“And this shall be a sign to you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).  These are the words of the angel to the shepherds.  This is their “sign.”

This sign stands out more if we read it in context:

“Lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

An angel of the Lord appears!  And, lest we undervalue him, “the glory of the Lord” shines around the shepherds.  It is fearsome, awesome.  And there is a message of “great joy . . . to all people:  . . . A Savior!”  And the message is greeted with “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”

But the sign is . . . “the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”


This is the incongruity of Christmas.  The awesomeness of the angels only underlines the far greater awesomeness of the Omnipotent God, and the awesomeness of salvation.

But the “sign,” the proof, is . . . a babe (weakness), wrapped in swaddling clothes (simplicity), lying in a manger (destitute poverty).  (The weakness, simplicity, and poverty of the shepherds only points to the deeper poverty in the manger.)

A “sign”!  This is the indicator, the proof that the message is true.  In the Gospels, signs are almost always miracles: if he raises the dead, feeds the hungry, gives sight to the blind, he must be divine!

But at Christmas the sign is weakness, simplicity, poverty.  That is the proof.  That is the miracle.

All the more strange: do the shepherds need any more “sign,” any more proof, than to see “a multitude of the heavenly host”?

They say, “Let us not go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.  And they came with haste”!  . . . “and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”  That’s it.  That’s all we see at Christmas.  Oh, Mary and Jesus are beautiful beyond all telling . . . but only if we can see the beauty in their poverty.

Already the Cross is foretold: more deeper than suffering, it is a sign of the poverty of the Word made flesh.


Last week, for Christmas, I didn’t get to write anything for this website.  That wasn’t my plan.  These are my favorite days of the year; I relish the challenge of pondering them and trying to write about them.

I got to Mass some of the days, but not all.  My prayer was good in some respects, but greatly interrupted – by family.

Christmas Eve was the apex – and the nadir.  We had big plans to go to a magnificent Mass at a beautiful festive church in New York City . . . and we blew it.  Nothing more to say: we just didn’t think it through, and we failed.

Instead we were at our poor homely parish, humdrum, mostly empty.

Christmas this year – as many great events, most years, and indeed, much of my daily routine – was full of disappointment.  Full of weakness, and poverty.

I cannot sing Gloria like the angels – how I would like to!  I don’t celebrate Christ with the magnificence that belongs to him.


But this is Christmas.

God made man sounds pretty awesome.  Everything human is united to God.  Man is lifted higher than the angels: our music, and culture, and good works are made divine!

But that isn’t Christmas.  Christmas is God made small, God made simple, God made poor.  Christmas is God made near me, who am not yet magnificent at all.

It means, on the one hand, that he is willing to work with us where we are: not yet magnificent.

And it means, on the other, that the magnificence of God is most truly found not in the grandeurs of man, but in the poverty of Jesus and Mary.

How are you tempted to overlook the poverty of Christmas?`

Fourth Sunday of Advent: “According to Your Word”

our lady of millenium2 SAM 7:1-58b-12, 14a, 16; PS 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29; ROM 16:25-27; LK 1:26-38

The Last Sunday of Advent – as the last week of daily Mass readings – frames Christmas with the Gospel readings that lead up to the birth of Christ, the “annunciations”: to Joseph (in Matthew), to Zechariah (for Elizabeth), and to Mary. This readings are important because they “tell” us what is happening.

Our reading from Romans this Sunday points to the importance of this “telling.” “According to my gospel,” says Paul, “and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested through the prophetic writings.”

The words of the Gospel, and of the Scripture and proclamations that surround the Gospel, explain to us what is going on. Those words make possible what Paul here calls “the obedience of faith,” whereby we accept that proclamation. In fact, this Sunday’s explanations of who Jesus is take us into the importance of words.


Our Gospel reading is the Annunciation, in Luke. It concludes with Mary’s fiat: “May it be done to me according to your word.” Obviously the Lord’s Prayer has an important point when it says, “your will be done.” But notice that Mary’s fiat is something different: not “will” but “word.”

In fact, this Gospel is important – some of it, at least, worth memorizing – because it tells us who Jesus is. “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever.” The Church gives us these words – just as Luke gave them, and Gabriel gave them to Mary – because without the words, we don’t know what is happening.

We say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But a picture cannot tell us that this baby is God. A picture cannot tell us that he is “Son of the Most High,” that he will sit upon a throne, that he will rule. Just like a picture cannot replace Gabriel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” No, we cannot know that the Lord is with her, or that she is full of grace, without words.

It’s unfortunate that the words of our translation water it down to “she was greatly troubled at what was said.” Rather, the original says she was troubled at his word. She “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” – but “pondered” translates “dialogos”: she “dialogues,” “words back and forth,” rolls those words around. She ponders the word.

Think of that. An angel appears! An awesome image! But what shakes Mary is the words. Because the words show that an appearance much less impressive than the angel – the appearance of an impoverished child – is something vastly greater.

So Mary “says” to the Angel (in Greek, she “words”), “how can this be,” and he words back, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” No words, no clarity of what is going on. Ponder these words! Holy Spirit. King. Son of the Most High. The Lord is with us. Fullness of grace.


The first reading takes us back to David, to unpack these words about him “the throne of David his father.” Ignore the words of 2 Samuel, and we can’t understand the words of the Angel in the Gospel.

David wants to build at temple. But the Lord speaks to him. The Lord says that his impulse is good – how nice to know, through the Lord’s words, how to judge our feelings? And the Lord tells him to wait: like Mary, David to is a handmaiden, accepting the commands of his Master.

And then God, through Nathan the prophet (the word means “speaking forward”), makes a promise: “he will establish a house for you. . . . I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him.”

Promises are words. They articulate things that could not be without words: what will happen in the future, and the firmness of the kingdom, and the fatherly relationship.” Without hearing the word, we have none of this.


But finally, the words articulate God’s power. Romans calls God, “him who can strengthen you . . . the only wise.” How we need those words!

The Angel tells Mary, “nothing will be impossible for God,” and “of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And the Psalmist “sings” “the promises,” the “faithfulness,” the “covenant,” and the relationship of the “Father.” How we need these words!

Are you listening to God’s word? Do you let him explain to you what’s really going on – both in the manger and in your life?

The Psalms on Walking

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We turn now to the final strophe of Psalm 26.  God has probed our hearts, and found that we long for him and his dwelling place, not for the company of the wicked.  And in the second to last strophe, we have begged him not to leave us among the wicked.  Now comes the conclusion of this Psalm – and insight into all the Psalms:


“But I walk in my innocence;

Redeem me and have mercy on me.

My foot stands on a straight path;

In the congregations I will bless the Lord.”


The turn now is to our “walk”: after all the talk of what is in our hearts, we now set off to go there.


The juxtaposition of the first two lines is interesting – and recapitulates the structure of the whole Psalm.  “I am innocent | redeem me.”  If I am innocent, do I need redemption?

The answer, always the answer in the theology of the grace, is both-and.  Redemption, God’s grace and salvation, does not save us from the need to walk.  God’s grace allows us to walk.  And our walking doesn’t make us need God’s grace any less; it makes us see more deeply our need for his grace, for his redemption, to allow us to walk to our goal.

We must never oppose grace and works.  Grace allows us to work.


Work – the walk – is important, because ultimately we are important.  I just read today yet another confused attempt to sort out whether religion is “about us” or “about God.” This one was talking about liturgy, and said, essentially, it might be nice if we can participate, but liturgy is really “for God,” and it doesn’t matter if we participate.

This is nonsense – or, rather, it is a good insight very badly put.  In the moral realm it would raise more red flags.  It would say something like, God doesn’t need us to be righteous; he is righteous!

That’s true enough.  But God offers us righteousness.  That’s the purpose of morals, and the purpose of liturgy.  God doesn’t need any of it!  Rather he offers it to us.  It is he who allows us to walk: the walk of morality and the walk of liturgy.  It is ultimately “about us”: both liturgy and morality are about us being redeemed.

But it comes from God – only God can allow us to pray and to live a life ordered to God.  And it is ordered to God: liturgy is pointless unless we | pray to God.  And morality is pointless unless we are truly converted | to God.

And so it is important, at the end of all our prayers, to return to the theme of “walking.”  It makes little sense to say “I love your house,” or “leave me not among the wicked,” unless it bears fruit in the transformation of our lives, our “walk.”


Nonetheless, for all the importance of our walking, our Psalm 26, and all the Psalms, and all truly Christian spirituality, hems in these thoughts about walking with lots and lots of God talk.

Walking comes only at the end of the Psalm: only after our hearts are firmly set on our destination.

And Psalm 26 almost comically returns immediately from the one line about walking to lots of lines about God.  First, “redeem me!”  No, walking doesn’t mean I stop thinking about redemption.  It means I think more deeply about what redemption really means.

Then, “my foot stands on a straight path”: a recognition that my very ability to walk, the ground under my feet and the way forward, comes not from my walking but from God’s grace.  He puts me in the place where I can walk.

And finally, “in the congregations I will bless the Lord”: because my walking is ordered to Jerusalem.  I walk to the place of prayer.  That’s what our walk is all about: having our faces turned toward Jerusalem.


Walking is a helpful metaphor for thinking about the moral life.  Compare walking to earlier talk about our hands.  “I have washed my hands in innocence,” we said before.  And the wicked “have blood on their hands.”  But now we “walk in innocence.”

Both metaphors are important.  But walking emphasizes that we are going somewhere.  Indeed, if we think of our “works” purely in terms of our hands, we might think the point is that we make something for God.  Lucky him!

But to the contrary, what we are really making is ourselves.  Or in other words, what we are really “working” at is to move ourselves, to “walk,” to Jerusalem, to be in his presence. With all the current maladies and poor health going around in my family I’ve been looking into other health care and insurance system around the world. Europe has myehic application which covers people with basic care, it leaves me thinking that we need to improve our situation here at home.

What parts of your Christian “walk” are you tempted to think about without reference to God?  Are there ways you replace spirituality with moralism?

Third Sunday of Advent: “He Has Sent Me”

our lady of millenium

IS 61:1-2a, 10-11; LK 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; I THES 5:16-24; JN 1:6-8, 19-28

Each year, the third Sunday of Advent points us again to John the Baptist. In the year of Mark’s Gospel, which we have just begun, we also get a lot of John’s Gospel. This Sunday we get John’s version of “the voice of one crying out in the desert”: John’s take on last week’s theme. It is worth pondering from many perspectives.

The theme is the similarity and difference between John the Baptist and Jesus. We get a snippet from John’s fabulous prologue, then skip ahead to the beginning of the action, right after the prologue.


John’s prologue interrupts itself. He is talking about Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it.” And he will continue, “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.”

But John interrupts himself to talk about John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

Now, this tells us something about John the Baptist – but also about John the Evangelist, and about all of us.

First, it emphasizes the difference. One purpose of John the Baptist is to show what Jesus is not. John is the great prophet. He calls to repentance. He proclaims the sovereignty of God. John is a great moral teacher. And one of his chief purposes is to show that Jesus is more than that.

John came to bear witness to the light – but Jesus is the true light, through whom we become not just enlightened, but, a few verses later in the prologue, “sons of God . . . born of God.” Jesus is more than a prophet, more than a moral teacher. John – and all moral teaching – is merely clearing the way for something vastly greater, “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” (Like liberals, conservatives sometimes reduce Jesus to a moral scold.)


But on the other hand, John the Baptist is like Jesus. He does enlighten, does point the way. He does prepare us for the Lord, “so that all might believe through him.”

Our reading from Isaiah takes us into this likeness and dislikeness. “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor” – says Isaiah. Yes: the spirit was on Isaiah; the Lord anointed him; God sent Isaiah to bring glad tidings – just as he sent John, too.

But this is also – and preeminently – a description of Jesus. Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public preaching by applying this reading from Isaiah to himself: “And there was brought to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:17-18).

And the people are amazed: “they wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is this not Joseph’s son?” (v. 22). They were surprised that Jesus took the mantle of Isaiah. We can be equally surprised that the mantle of Jesus was on Isaiah.


God has sent us, too, “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.” But like John the Baptist, he has called us not to preach ourselves, but Jesus: a year of favor from the Lord.

Like John the Baptist, we prepare for Jesus’s coming by being his heralds, by showing that he is the healer – he is the healer.

“He has clothed me with a robe of salvation” – He! “So will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations” – the Lord! But if I love him, if I long for him, if I want to prepare the way for him, I am called to love that “justice and praise,” to bring his healing to others.


And so in our reading from First Thessalonians, Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances.” The Spirit rests on us, too, sends us as prophets of Jesus.

“May the God of peace make you perfectly holy . . . . The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” Holiness is his work. But he will do it. He clothes us in his mantle, to prepare us for his coming, and so help prepare the way in this world.

Do we carry the mantle of Jesus? Are we clear that it is his mantle, not ours? Do we point others to Christ?

The Apocalyptic St. Joseph

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectDuring the Advent season, our family follows a special devotion to St. Joseph, who prepared the way for coming of Christ. We do much of Advent by candlelight – at least dinner and Evening Prayer – to think about the the True Light coming into the darkness. To Evening Prayer we add the Litany of St. Joseph.

But maybe more important than the Litany, we put out our nativity set piece by piece. The first week it is just St. Joseph, wandering in the candle light, looking for a place for Christ. The second week he finds the empty manger. The third week – Gaudete Sunday – Mary appears at his side. And the fourth week, all the animals arrive, eagerly awaiting our joyful hope.

For me at least, the Litany serves primarily to help me ponder the image of St. Joseph, preparing the way.


But I find St. Joseph, wandering alone in the candlelight, also a fine image of the threefold coming. He is preparing for the birth of Christ. But he also seems to stand for the Church of the last age, awaiting the final coming of Christ. And so he helps us enter into the apocalyptic meaning of the everyday: that here and now, we wait for Christ to come.

Every day the Liturgy begins with Psalm 95: “if today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” else he will say, “they shall not enter into my rest.” Every day we are looking, listening, for the coming of Christ. Every day we are longing to enter into his rest.

The Greek word “apocalypse,” almost exactly translated by the Latin word “revelation,” does not mean “cataclysm” or “end of the world.” It means “removing” (apo-, re-) “the veil” (kalupsis, velatio). Apocalyptic literature, including especially the apocalypse, or “revelation” to St. John at the end of the Bible, is not primarily about the end of the world. It is about now. It draws away the veils that cover spiritual reality, so that we can see what’s really going on: the great spiritual warfare, between the Lamb and the Beast.

It shows that the real end time is now: not because the world is going to end tomorrow (though it might), but because the ultimate battle is already at work.


Or, to put it more positively, to show that we stand, today, with St. Joseph, preparing for the coming of Christ. The true battle is not really which side we will choose. The Anti-Christ is only a negation, the rejection of Christ. The true battle is whether we will accept Christ. Whether we will welcome him, make a place for him to come.

The final judgment will be nothing but gazing on the face of the poor Christ, the one who was pierced, the Lamb who was slain, and accepting him or not. And we prepare for that final judgment by the daily judgment: by welcoming or not welcoming his coming today. We welcome that coming in the Eucharist. But we welcome it, also, in the “least of these”: in Matthew 25, Jesus says that when he comes in glory, the “judgment,” our true acceptance of him in his final coming, will be based on a lifetime of accepting or rejecting him in the hungry, thirst, naked, sick, foreign, and imprisoned.

We prepare to welcome him in the final coming by welcoming him in the daily coming. And in Advent we are encouraged to think of those two comings in terms of his first coming: as a poor child, welcomed into the world by the poor man St. Joseph.


So who was St. Joseph? The Litany calls him “obedient and loyal.” The second word gives some depth to the first. He does what he is told by God’s messenger – but not just in blind obedience, but more deeply, in loyalty, faithfulness, love.

He is “lover of poverty.” He who wanders in the candlelight could run away from the call of Jesus. With Jesus, there will be no room for him in the inn. He will be an exile. But the measure of his loyalty, the measure of his love, is his embrace of that poverty: for where Jesus is, there is a treasure this world cannot offer.

And he is “husband of the Mother of God,” protector of Mary and of all virgins, of all that is delicate. He welcomes Christ not by being stern and cold, but by being tender, loving, loyal, by embracing the sweetness of Our Blessed Lady.

Let us have the strength to stand against the apocalyptic spirit of anti-Christ – by joining the tender loyalty of St. Joseph, lover of poverty, model of workers, guardian of all that is delicate and innocent.

What is the call of St. Joseph in your life this Advent?

Aparecida on “Suffering Faces that Pain Us”

brazil-popeToday we delve into the Aparecida document’s teaching on the “preferential option for the poor.”

Aparecida frames the question in terms of “Jesus at the service of life.” There are other ways to phrase it.  We can think about loving the Church, and then focusing on the parts of the Church that we find most difficult to love.  We can think about loving the image of God – the human nature taken up by Christ, designed for fulfillment by his divine nature – and focusing on the faces on which it is hardest for us to see that image: “Jesus in his most distressing disguise,” said Mother Teresa.

But Aparecida poses the question of “Jesus at the service of life.”  The whole third part of the document is “The Life of Jesus Christ for our Peoples.”  Do we believe that Jesus is for all people?  Do we believe that he truly brings life to all?  Do we believe that all can be saved?

Do we believe that Jesus brings the fullness of life?  Do we know that he can heal all ills, no matter how deep, and no matter what kind?  And do we live for that fullness of life, or do we prefer the pseudo-fullness of life without Christ?


In one of the most stirring passages of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote:

“I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas.”

First: to say our lifestyle demands attention to other areas is to say that we find our happiness not in what Jesus offers, but in what man offers.  The poor are important precisely as those who are too difficult, and those who have little to offer us.  We would rather be with those who are easier, more fun.  But if Jesus is life, we don’t need to be so stingy.  We should fear that stinginess.

HomelessParis_7032101Second: do we see that “discrimination” of the lack of spiritual care?  If we really live for evangelization, let us evangelize those whom no one else cares to evangelize.  And let us not say that the poor are too difficult to evangelize.

The poor are a privileged place of encounter with Christ precisely because avoiding the poor and pursuing privilege, in all its forms, means denying Christ.


Francis goes on to say, “I fear that these words too may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect.”  This is a struggle.  It seems easy to talk about the poor, hard to do anything.


But Aparecida’s way of framing the question might provide a helpful middle ground. The section is entitled, “suffering faces that pain us”:


  1. Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity
  2. Suffering Faces that Pain Us

i.      Street people in large cities

ii.      Migrants

iii.      Sick people

iv.      Addicts

v.      The imprisoned


Perhaps the language is a little saccharine, bleeding heart.  (Though remember that “bleeding heart” is first of all a description of Jesus.)  But being “pained” is the middle ground between just talking about things and doing things.  On a biological level and all the way up, pain is motivation to move.

So let us not stop with “commentary or discussion” – but let us begin there.  Let the faces of the poor pain us.


Aparecida helps to stimulate us by offering a concrete list.  “The poor” is pretty vague.  But think about migrants – take the time to contemplate their face.  They are people whom poverty has forced to leave their home, to go somewhere they do not know, where they often do not speak the language and may not be welcomed.  We can talk “immigration policy.”  But more importantly, let us spend time being pained by their suffering.

So too with addicts and the imprisoned.  Yes, on one level we can blame them.  But let us also see their suffering, the suffering of a broken life.  The first step towards reaching out – and, really, the heart of reaching out – is to love.  That begins with feeling the profound need of the poor: with letting their suffering faces pain us.

Mercy, misericordia, is a heart (cordis) stirred by other people’s misery.

Can we imagine Jesus bringing healing even to the suffering faces that pain us?  What would it do to our prayer life, and our active life, if we spent some time imaginging that healing?

The Immaculate Conception and the Gospel

mary cushing serpentToday’s feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary – “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin” – provides an excellent opportunity to review the central points of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.


1. It is possible to be without sin.  Mary never sinned.  Her heart never wavered.

Here’s a corollary that might help us take this doctrine seriously.  Recently, popular piety has focused a lot on Mary’s “yes” at the Annunciation.   Often this turns into drama about God wondering whether she would say no.

But the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness means – among others things – simply that there was no chance of Mary saying no.  That’s not who she was.  Mary was as likely to say no as – less likely than – say, Pope Benedict is to break into a Lady Gaga song.  That’s just not who she is.

And that’s our destiny: we too are called to be without sin.  Heaven, in fact, is the place where there will no longer be any chance of our saying no: not because we don’t have the chance, or don’t have the freedom, but because that won’t be the kind of people we are.

2. “Without sin” really means “close to Jesus.”  Why Mary?  Well, we believe this doctrine because Scripture tells us she was “full of grace.”  Not because we think it had to be so – God did not need to make Mary full of grace – but because God tells us that in fact he did it.

Nonetheless, why did he do it this way?  To show that sinlessness is not really emptiness of sin, but fullness of grace.  And fullness of grace is really fullness of love: love of Jesus.  God made Mary the preeminent saint because Mary shows us that it’s all about loving Jesus.

3. It is human to be without sin.  Jesus was “like us in all things but sin.”  Often in our self-understanding that means “not like us at all.”  But the importance of his sinlessness is to show that sin is not what makes us human.  In fact, sin makes us less human.

And the reason for Jesus’s coming is precisely to redeem our humanity, to let us be full of grace.  Mary’s sinlessness shows the true face of redeemed humanity.

4. God wants us to be without sin.  He wants us to be full of love, set free from the bondage of sin.  That’s the point.  That’s why Jesus came.  Any idea of Jesus or of the Gospel that isn’t laser-focused on liberation from sin simply misses the whole point.

Mary is central to the Gospel – in a way, Mary is the Gospel – because the whole point is that Jesus actually does something for us, and what he does is to fill us with grace, fill us with love, and thus completely drive out our sin.  To talk about the Gospel without talking about this liberation is not to talk about the Gospel at all.

5. Jesus is the way.  But again, why Mary?  The wonderful long prayer “the breastplate of St. Patrick” says, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me.”  Jesus is above all with Mary (“the Lord is with you”) and within her, both in her heart and in her womb.

But notice too: he is behind her and before her.  “Before her” (or, in front of her) in the sense that grace causes her to gaze on him and love him.  But “behind her” in the sense that it is he who gives her that grace.  It is Christ who causes us to love him, Christ’s grace, the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit, that is the cause of our love: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

6. Jesus is the beginning.   And that grace is the beginning.  God’s grace is given to us at Baptism – but God’s grace draws us to Baptism.  God’s grace is given to us when we profess faith – but God’s grace causes us to profess the faith in the first place.  Grace comes from touching Jesus – but it is grace that leads us to reach out to him in the first place.

We call this “prevenient” grace: the grace that “comes” (veniens) “before” (pre-) our choices.  Mary does not earn the grace of Christ.  She is given it at the first moment of our conception, before she does anything at all.

This is the Gospel.  Let us celebrate it with joy today!

Are you ever tempted to ways of thinking about your faith that are inconsistent with Mary’s Immaculate Conception?




Second Sunday in Advent: Repentance and the Realism of the Gospel 

our lady of millenium

IS 40:1-5, 9-11; PS 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14;  20PT MK 1:1-83:8-14; 

In all three years of the lectionary, the first Sunday of Advent puts us in an eschatological key with its call to “watch, for you know not the hour.”  Only on the fourth and final Sunday do we turn to the Annunciation, and the immediate preparation for Christmas.

But the second and third Sundays give us John the Baptist as the key figure preparing us for Christ.  Week Three will gives us various other aspects of John, but in all three years, week two is the “voice crying out in the wilderness.”


John says, “prepare the way of the Lord.”  But that way is repentance.  This is key to understanding who Jesus is.

John distinguishes between his baptism and Jesus’s: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  But alongside that difference is a similarity; indeed, in order to understand what the baptism with the Holy Spirit means, we need to understand the symbolism of John’s baptism, without the Holy Spirit.

The people “were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.”  John’s baptism did not confer grace; it did not give the Holy Spirit; it did not wash away original sin.  What it did was acknowledge sin.  The people acknowledged they needed a new beginning.  We cannot understand the grace of sacramental baptism until we understand the symbolism of repentance in John’s non-sacramental baptism.

John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  His message – and his baptism – was a call to repentance: metanoia, a change of heart.


This might sound strange, but “forgiveness” is one of my least favorite words in the English Bibles.  The word in Greek (and in Latin) is much more active: it’s not just that God “overlooks” our sins – I think that’s what “forgiveness” means to most English-speakers.  The Greek word is he “sends them away.”

It’s not just that we say, “I’m sorry,” and God says, “oh, it doesn’t matter.”  Rather, we say “God, I don’t want to be that way anymore” – repentance! metanoia! – and God gives us the grace to change.

The true theological meaning of “mercy” is not that God overlooks our sins – he loves us far too much to just “overlook” anything about us.  Mercy means he helps us: helps us to escape from sin.  Grace does not “cover” our sins, it heals us.

Because this is about repentance.  That’s why John is important: John can’t cause God to overlook their sins.  To the contrary, John tells them that their sin – and their repentance – matters.  He calls them to repent.

And this call to repentance, like the cry of conscience, is itself already a divine gift.  “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.”  It is God who sends us this prick of conscience, and we thank him for the new beginning.


Our first reading is the passage from Isaiah that John is quoting.  It is lovely – because conversion is lovely – but it is also brutal.

“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”  But what is the comfort?  “Her guilt is expiated.”  What does that mean?  “Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.”

Isaiah is speaking to a Jerusalem destroyed for her sins.  His comfort is that this penance is sufficient.  He is not saying, “oh, don’t worry, sin doesn’t matter.”  He is saying, “thank God, you have finally repented.”

So too, when he says, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low,” this is beautiful, because conversion is beautiful – but it is a call to repentance, a little scary, if we don’t also see its beauty.  Every valley in your soul, and in the soul of your community: everything that is not right must be set right, before the approach of the King.  Repent!


Our reading from Second Peter explains this all by putting us back into an apocalyptic key.  God is coming!  When?  Not yet: “he is patient with you . . . that all should come to repentance.”  He delays because we are not yet holy.

Again, the reading gets scary: when the Lord comes, “the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.”  Dies irae!

But the deeper point is not destruction, but rebuilding: “we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

We await the kingdom of God, and the King of righteousness.  How do we prepare for the coming of Christ?  By embracing that kingdom – by embracing his righteousness.  Repent!

What valleys and mountains impede the coming of Christ into your heart this Advent?

Consecrated Life and Marriage 

450px-Trappist_praying_2007-08-20_dtiIn the years after college, when I was discerning religious life, I went out to dinner one summer afternoon with a good friend, Betsy.  She too had been discerning religious life.  But like me, she was starting to wonder if that was her proper vocation.  She shared with me an insight that I think we should all live from.

She realized that what she was really longing for was not religious life, but heaven.  Later I would find that this is exactly what Vatican II and St. John Paul II say about religious life: it is the eschatological life, a life that lives more directly the desire for heaven.

It is essential to all other vocations that we be inspired by this witness.  We should all, on some level, be drawn to religious life, because it shows us our true heavenly vocation.


If I understand Canon Law, there are two kinds of consecrated life, “religious institutes” and “secular institutes.”  The distinction is that religious “pronounce public vows . . . and live a life in common” (CIC – i.e., Canon Law – 607§2) whereas secular consecrated “live in the world” (CIC 710).  Maybe more important, religious life “manifests (CIC 607§1) and gives “public witness” (ibid. §3).

To put it simply, religious are the kind of consecrated people who wear habits.  They make their consecration visible.

This is important to the Church: it serves the rest of us at least as much as it serves the religious themselves.  Most of us are not called to “look Christian” in such a visible way.  But we should all carry with us the sense that we are separated from the world; we are not the same as our non-Christian brothers and sisters; by our Baptism itself we are set apart for Christ.

The religious habit reminds us all of our consecration.  We need that.


All consecrated – religious and secular, visible and less visible – are defined by the three “evangelical counsels,” poverty, chastity, and obedience.  They are called evangelical because they are recommended in the Gospel and because they help to reveal the true meaning of the Gospel.

They are called counsels because they are not necessary – not commandments – but are just one way of living the Christian life.  Nonetheless, Christ counsels them, recommends them, because, in another sense, we are all called to embrace the true spirit of these counsels.  We all need the witness of consecrated life.


The counsel of Poverty reminds us that life is not lived for earthly goods.  No thing can make me happy – and the loss of no thing can separate me from my true happiness, who is God.

Canon Law almost seems to wink when it says religious should live poverty “both of things and of spirit.”  That is, the consecrated person can’t just say he is “spiritually” poor – consecrated life is about living out that spiritual poverty by actually giving up material possessions.

There is freedom here.  We are all called to discover that freedom.  We don’t need all the stuff!  And we do need the witness of those who freely give it up.

We with careers and families need more stuff than consecrated people do.  But we should look to them with some jealousy.  How good it would be to be more poor!


The counsel of chastity reminds us that God alone is our true Bridegroom.  There is some irony in calling the vow “chastity” – the virtue of chastity is not a counsel, it is a commandment, something we all must live.  Consecrated people go further, into celibacy.

But again, they have something to teach us.  Marriage itself depends, says John Paul II, on a kind of virginal soul.  “You are a fountain sealed, my sister, my bride,” says the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.

To truly love another person – especially those we love most deeply, in our family – we must recognize they have depths which we cannot plumb.  They are made, finally, for God, not for us.  We love them most deeply when, like two members of a religious order, we kneel side by side in adoration of Christ.

We who are married are not called to virginity.  But we are called to this virginal spirit.


Finally, the counsel of obedience acknowledges that life isn’t about doing it my way.  How we need the witness of that freedom: the freedom to love, to embrace Christ, and not to be so worried about winning every argument.

We who are not under obedience don’t have that freedom.  We actually do have to make many more decisions for ourselves.  But let us long for the freedom of giving in, wherever we responsibly can.


We who are married need the witness of religious life, to call us to live our life in more radical love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Are there consecrated people in your life?  How do they call you deeper into sanctity?