Epiphany Sunday – A Great Light


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Epiphanies, Our Lady, and Active Participation in the Mysteries

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the face of Christ mean for you?


The Holy Family: Off-Balance

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

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

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

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

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

This is a strange reading for a celebration of family.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Epiphany: Christ for Us

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

This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, his manifestation.  In the East, this is the bigger feast.  Though we read the Prologue of John’s Gospel at the daytime Mass on Christmas, it was nine months ago, at the Annunciation, that “The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.”  What happens at Christmas is that we see him.  At the midnight and dawn Masses for Christmas, we read Luke’s story of Jesus’s appearance to the shepherds; at Epiphany we read Matthew’s story of Jesus’s appearance to the nations, represented by the kings.

In fact, both Christmas and Epiphany are celebrations of his appearance: not what happens to him, but what happens to us, when we see him.  There’s an important theological and liturgical truth in the Church’s ranking of Christmas higher than the Annunciation.  In fact, what is important here is not just what happens to Jesus (that he is incarnate) but what happens to us: he is incarnate for us.  John’s Gospel quickly continues: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us – and we have seen his glory.”

The readings are there for us to hear.  He comes to the altar for us to see, and touch, and taste.  He is made flesh to be united to us.

And so we celebrate Christmas and Epiphany: Christ born for us.


The differentiation of these feasts nicely takes us into the differences among the Gospels.

Matthew’s Gospel, which tradition believes was written first, is the straightforward Gospel.  Matthew organizes Jesus’s teaching into five neat sermons (the Mount, the parables, the Church, missionaries, and the end of time), paired with appropriate signs, opening with the birth told from the perspective of the father (Joseph), and closing with the Cross and the Resurrection.  Neat and clean.

Mark cuts to the chase.  He is short.  The writing is actually very tight, very clean.  There is no nativity: it opens with John the Baptist, like a lion’s roar.  And it rushes forward: the constant refrain is “then immediately,” and no one recognizes Jesus until the Cross.  Mark wants us to know that in real life, it wasn’t so neat and easy to understand as Matthew tells it.  What Matthew says is true – but Mark takes us into the drama.

Luke then takes us into the theology: where Mark emphasizes the Cross, Luke focuses on grace.  Luke is the Gospel of poverty.  His nativity story tells us not about the kings, but about the shepherds; he tells us about the stable (and his symbol is the ox).  Christmas, when we read Luke, is the poor man’s Epiphany.  The Epiphany that we celebrate this week is the more respectable one, with Jesus in the company of kings – and the more straightforward consideration of Christ’s appearing.

John, the eagle, rewrites it all with high-flying theological commentary: his nativity story is “in the beginning was the Word,” just as he glosses the institution of the Eucharist with the Bread of Life discourse (in chapter 6), the washing of the feet (chapter 13), and the farewell discourse, culminating in chapter 17: communion as “may they be one”.

Each Gospel tells the truth, but each selects its material to make a particular kind of theological point.


So what is the theological point of Matthew’s Epiphany?  If Mark’s theme was “no one understood,” Matthew’s theme is “all the signs were there: they should have understood.”  He has appeared!

The Birth of the Messiah appeard to Gentile and Jew.  The magi – pagan wise men – “saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”  And when they come to Herod, all the learned Jews tell him “the Christ was to be born . . . In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet” – and in case we’re unsure, Matthew quotes the prophet at length.  They should have known!

But Herod “sent them to Bethlehem” – he did not go himself.  He did not go, of course, because he did not want to do what they did: “They prostrated themselves and did him homage.  Then they opened their treasures.”  He wanted to be king.  We should let Jesus be king for us.


Our first reading, from Isaiah, nicely emphasizes the problem.  Matthew tells us Herod “was greatly troubled – and all Jerusalem with him.”  Isaiah says, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come.”  Jesus is theirs!  “He came to his own home,” as John says – “and his own people received him not.”

“Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. . . . The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you,” says Isaiah.  In our reading from Ephesians, Paul adds, “the mystery was made known to me by revelation. . . .  It has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  Thank God he has been revealed!

And what is that revelation?  “That the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  The revelation is precisely that we are called from every nation to see him.  Christ is born for usDeo gratias!

Christ dwells among us.  In your daily life, how could you better join the kings and the shepherds, go to see his glory?

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?`

This Sunday’s Readings: Baptism of the Lord

baptism of the lord IS 42: 1-4, 6-7;  PS 29: 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; ACTS 10: 34-38; MT 3: 13-17

This Sunday’s Psalm, for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, is an interesting choice. Psalm 29 is the most emphatic of the Psalms about God’s power. But this Sunday, the liturgy emphasizes how his power is upon the waters.

“The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the LORD, over vast waters. The voice of the LORD is mighty; the voice of the LORD is majestic.” God’s power is in the waters of Baptism. The power, indeed, of his Word: his Word who is Jesus, and his Word which is invoked to bring his power: “Christ loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it, that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water and the word” (Eph. 5:25-26). “The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever.”

In Matthew, Luke, and John, the Baptism is the beginning of Christ’s ministry; in Mark, it is the beginning of the Gospel itself. It is the beginning of our Church year, and the beginning of our own life in Christ. The power of God on the waters.


The Baptism of Jesus is mysterious. Surely there is more to be said about it, but maybe “it’s mysterious” is an okay way to interpret John the Baptist’s saying: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me? Jesus said to him in reply, Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” No, it doesn’t exactly make sense for Jesus, the true Baptizer, to be baptized – but it is part of his saving plan.

For our part, let’s focus more on what follows. “He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” What does Baptism do? It opens for us the gates of heaven. How? By sending the Holy Spirit.

It is important to make this connection. Baptism “washes away” sin, and thus restores our path to heaven. But sin is a negation, an emptiness. Baptism “washes away” sin by filling us with God’s Spirit, God’s love. “A voice came from the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Baptism makes us pleasing to God not just by what it takes away, but by what it gives us: divine sonship.

To say the same thing another way: the dove coming down on the waters recalls Noah. The point is that the reign of death is over. Life is restored.


In our reading from Acts, Peter describes the Baptism of Jesus: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” Now, of course there’s something a little odd here: Jesus carried the power of God in his very person. And yet the point is, this is what Baptism does. It makes us Christians, conformed to Christ. It anoints us with the Holy Spirit and power.

And then what happens? “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Not only is our sin washed away, but we begin to do good, to live the love of God, and to conquer the oppression of the devil. That’s what happens when God is with us.

And thus Peter tells Cornelius and his household, whom he is about to baptize, and on whom “the Holy Spirit is poured out,” “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” Our access to God is not by being a member of a club or doing a one-off trick, but by being members of Christ’s body, filled with his Spirit, and thus living as he lives: in the fear of God and acting uprightly.


Our Old Testament reading comes from Isaiah: “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice.” Not to crush “a bruised reed,” but “to open the eyes of the [spiritually] blind, to bring out [spiritual] prisoners from confinement, and from the [spiritual] dungeon, those who live in [spiritual] darkness.” (Literal prisons are important too, but let us see the point here.)

Baptism is the victory of justice: but the true victory of justice is not when people are condemned, but when people become just. The one “upon whom I have put my spirit, he shall bring forth justice to the nations.” When the Spirit comes, through Baptism, we are made whole, made good, made just and upright and godly.


What does your Baptism mean to you? How do you celebrate it?

Epiphany of our Lord: Gather in the Nations

adoration-of-the-magi-1306IS 60:1-6; PS72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; EPH 3:2-3a, 5-6; MT2:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate Epiphany, a Greek word that means “appearance.” The principle appearance is when Christ first appears to the nations: when the three kings come to see him in Bethlehem. But tradition and the liturgy also connect to this his “appearance” when he was baptized and his appearance through his first miracle at Cana.

Some fun connections: 1. In the East, Epiphany is Christmas. The birth of Christ is important because now he appears, he is seen. 2. There are many ways Christ appears, and to various people. 3. Baptism is spiritual rebirth; it is fitting to connect his baptism and his birthday. 4. Just as Christ turns water to wine at Cana, so Baptism turns water into the power of the Holy Spirit; the transformation of our soul at Baptism is the greater miracle, to which the physical miracles bear witness. 5. God becomes man at Christmas; man is united to God by baptism; and so marriage, feasting, and all of human life is suffused with God at Cana.

But on Sunday, our readings focus on the three kings.


“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth . . . but upon you the Lord shines.”

The reading from Isaiah shows the nations streaming to Jerusalem. But they come to Jerusalem because the Lord is there. Jerusalem becomes the rallying point. All nations are united because all come together at God’s temple.

The image of light and darkness is especially nice. First, because the light comes not from Jerusalem itself, but from God above. The Church, Pope Francis likes to say, lives “the mystery of the moon.” The moon can do nothing but reflect the light of the sun. The light we have is the light that the Lord shines upon us. The Church, the true Jerusalem, is the gathering place of the nations because Jesus is here.

Second, darkness is a negation. It is true that the world is full of sin. But it is more true to say that the world lives in darkness, ignorance, emptiness. Sin itself is a negation, a not, something missing. When we come streaming to the light of the Lord in Jerusalem, it is not so much to “give up” sin, which is a nothingness, but to receive the goodness of the Lord: his light, the meaning he gives to life, his goodness.


Paul speaks of this “mystery of the moon” in the reading from Ephesians. First, he calls himself a “steward of God’s grace.” Both the priesthood and the universal ministry of evangelization are a stewardship. What we spread is not our light, but the light that shines on us. We have been given a great gift, a gift to be shared. We do not preach ourselves. But we do preach the gift we have been given. That requires profound humility: always to submit our minds to the teaching of Christ, the teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium; always to depend on the power of the sacraments, not our own power; always to live the communion of the Church, never to prefer our own ways to the ways of Christ.

Second, Paul says his message is “that the Gentiles are coheirs.” We come to Jerusalem. The New Testament is not a denial of the Old, but its perfection. Israel remains; the Church is Israel, the nation of God. The difference is not that we deny anything in the Old Testament; and especially not that we deny the intense national unity of the Old Testament. The difference is that now all nations are called to Jerusalem. We can all join Israel, the place where God’s light shines.


Finally, the Gospel presents a beautiful contrast between King Herod and the three pilgrim kings. (Actually, Matthew describes them as wise men, though the Responsorial Psalm shows clearly that they are fulfilling a prophecy about kings.)

The good kings lay down their crowns and their gifts before the one true king. They give up everything to come to Jerusalem and pay him homage. And so they are more properly wise men than kings: more focused on seeking his light than on asserting their authority.

The bad king, King Herod, thinks Jerusalem belongs to him. He is King of Israel – and that is his downfall. Because the true King is the poor man lying in a manger, and shining with the light of God.


What does the Church mean to us? How can we give up everything to come to Jerusalem and pay homage to the true king, the true light?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Feast of the Holy Family

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

What does Joseph tell you about your life?