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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

The Second Sunday of Advent: The Spirit of Justice

our lady of millenium

IS 11: 1-10; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; ROM 15: 4-9; MT 3: 1-12

Our readings for the Second Sunday in Advent have us looking forward to the Messiah. “Messiah” means “anointed one,” and this is the one anointed with the Spirit of God. The Messiah is prophet, priest, and king: he speaks the truth, reconciles the people with God, and makes order in the earth.

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The first thing to see in Isaiah 11 is the spirit that rests on the Messiah: “the spirit of the Lord” – the Holy Spirit – “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and strength, of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” Because of this Spirit, he will judge “not by appearance nor by hearsay” – not with the shallow judgments of fallen man – but with the insight of God’s Holy Spirit. A prophet and king who sees the truth.

Thus he will bring justice, set things in right order: because he sees truly, with the Spirit of God. Isaiah – like Pope Francis! – emphasizes how this especially serves the poor, who are always the worst victims of injustice. The just one will treat them right.

This Holy Spirit of the Messiah, by the way, is the same Spirit he sends to us: that we too might see rightly and judge justly.

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The long reading from Isaiah goes on to the famous discourse about the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, etc. There are two ways we can read this.

One is that it is an extended metaphor, further developing the theme of human justice. The Just One is so good that he will reconcile those who are most opposed, the most unlikely enemies. So good that even those who are like wolves will no longer oppress those who are like lambs. He will create a truly just and peaceful world.

Another way to read this is that a just order among men will even bring justice to the natural world. Consider Genesis: “The LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15), but when Adam sinned, God said, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shall thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Gen. 3:17-18). Man’s role in the world is so fundamental that even the natural order depends on the goodness of the gardener.

In either case, the point is an extended meditation on justice, on the beauty of a truly just order. And a recognition that only the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Messiah, can bring that justice. Come, Lord Jesus!

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The reading from Romans gives a more priestly, religious angle to the same teaching. Again, God “grants us to think in harmony with one another.” But here it is so that “with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The justice of the Just One gives us harmony with one another precisely by bringing us into harmony with God.

This is the perfection of Israel. It is not that God gave up on the Old Testament thing and then moved on. No, he is completing that work. Jesus came among the nation of Israel “to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs,” to build up and perfect that religious nation. But he did it in such a way as to bring us all in: all nations shall flow into Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2).

The holy nation expands into the universal Catholic Church. All the promises to Israel are perfected in that worldwide kingdom, with Christ its head, joined in peace and in praising God. Or at least, the Church on earth is the beginning of the final perfection of the kingdom of God.

So good is the Messiah, the just one, the one anointed by the Spirit of God!

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Finally, the Gospel gives us another angle on this kingdom with John the Baptist. John is a figure of repentance; baptism is a figure of repentance. And John warns us that if we are to follow the Just One, we must be just, we must truly join into his ways: “prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his paths!”

But this is not our work. As he judges justly by the Holy Spirit, so to do we: “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” He will raise up the holy people.

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How can we better hunger and thirst for God’s justice this Advent season?

First Sunday of Advent: Let Us Go Up!

our lady of millenium

IS 2:1-5; PS 122: 1-2, 3-4, 4-5, -7, 8-9; ROM 13:11-14; MT 24: 37-44

“Come, let us climb the mountain of the Lord!” Advent begins with a bang. We are on a journey, a pilgrimage, on our way up. We are going to the mountain of the Lord’s house, to the place of instruction, to learn from him, who is meek, and who beats swords into plowshares.

This beautiful reading from Isaiah fills us with a sense of movement. Our life is not about “being” a Christian in any static way. To be a Christian is to be alive, to be moving, to be on our way: to be loving the Lord, and seeking his face. O house of Jacob! Come! Let us walk!

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Love is the principal of movement. To sit still is to be satisfied. To move is to be filled with desire.

The Psalm beautifully emphasizes both the movement and the impulse that drives it. “I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go up to the house of the Lord!” Yes, I want to go! I want to seek him. We long for the peace of Jerusalem, for its compact unity, for our brothers and friends. We long for the God to whom we give thanks, who makes this house of peace for us.

Advent, it is sometimes said, is a time of waiting. Perhaps it is better to say it is a time of longing. Longing for the coming of Christ, and longing for the peace he brings, the passionate love among neighbors that he exemplifies and pours into our hearts. Expectation is not expectation if we just sit around twiddling our thumbs. To long for Christ is to prepare for him: make him room, straighten the paths, level the mountains.

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The New Testament readings give us different angles on the same story. “As it was in the days of Noah,” says Jesus. We can skip over that too quickly. In the days of Noah, there were two kinds of people. Most were not preparing; a few were. Noah was not just “waiting” for the rains to come, he was working, making his house fair as he was able.

Jesus goes on to say, “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left.” But we must interpret this in light of the days of Noah. On the one hand, no, we don’t prepare for the Lord by building an ark – or stockpiling canned food, or guns, or whatever. In fact, we prepare for the Lord through our ordinary lives: out in the field, grinding at the mill, living our lives.

On the other hand, we might read the two men out in the field as if the coming of Christ is random. No, the “one who will be taken” is the one who has prepared his heart for Jesus, who has looked forward for him, longed for him – and lived like he longs for him.

Thus he closes the series of metaphors with the master of the house, staying awake. “A thief in the night” is a strange description for Jesus. But the point is, we will miss him if we are not watching. Christ passes by every day; we miss him if we are not watching. Stay awake!

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Finally, Paul gives us his same take on this in Romans. Jesus said, “You do not know on which day your Lord will come.” But Paul says, “You do know”: “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep!” We don’t know when Jesus will come; we do know that we should watch. Watch! Prepare! Be alive!

Paul runs with the metaphor; we need not dig too deep into the imagery to understand the point. “The night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.”

The imagery of Isaiah (let us go up!) and Jesus (the days of Noah) are more romantic – and we should romance with them. But Paul takes us to the point. The way we go up, the way we prepare, the way we watch, is simply by living upright lives. Our only armor is the armor of light: not to sneak around in darkness, doing things we are ashamed of, but doing what we know is right, in the plain light of day.

The secret of Jesus, the secret of Advent, is that we fill our ordinary life with extraordinary longing, extraordinary love.

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How do you prepare your heart for Jesus?