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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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?