The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 204

Children, it is the last hour;
and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming,
so now many antichrists have appeared.
Thus we know this is the last hour.

The Catholic Church marks the last day of the year with these particular readings from the writings of Saint John. He was acutely aware of time and the Lord’s presence in history.

Traditionally the Church speaks of Salvation History and its “dispensations”. These are variously counted but they usually come down to seven epochs: 1) Creation of the Earth, Adam and Eve, 2) the Fall to Abraham; 3) Abraham to Moses; 4) Moses and the Law to Jesus; 5) Jesus’ birth to his Ascension; 6) the present; and 7) the Judgement and Eternity.

Christian tradition considers the history of the world in these very broad strokes and regards with skepticism any notion of progress within the present epoch. We should do good, avoid evil and try to act with both justice and mercy; but we will certainly never create an ideal political or economic system.

However, the Enlightenment dreamed of Utopia, and the American Revolution attempted to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. (from the Preamble of the American Constitution.) If it’s not possible we should nevertheless try.

Unlike ancient Greek, Jewish and Christian religions, our philosophical Founders realized that government and business are human constructs. They can be built and rebuilt, constructed and deconstructed. They did not suppose that liberty, equality and fraternity were predestined but they believed the political process, directed by the principles of the Enlightenment, might attain a more perfect unionIn their minds history was not simply tumbling toward the Day of Wrath and apocalyptic catastrophe; we may guide it toward the Kingdom of God. 

I recall their example because that generation of Americans, though they were an elite, found their place in what they believed was a divinely ordained history, a destiny. 

More recently, as we try to locate our place in history,  we discover generations: the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Xers, Millennials, Mosaics, etc. Who you are; how you think, feel and experience; and what you believe are deeply influenced, if not programmed, by when you were born. Many people think of themselves first as Millennials and secondly, if at all, as Christians. 

Each generation has a different experience and there is a “gap” between generations. They don’t understand each other. They have nothing to say to each other. Each generation is displaced and discarded as ignorant and irrelevant by the next. Unlike the dispensations, this story of generations doesn’t go anywhere. Without a destination, it leaves us bewildered and disoriented.
From its earliest days the Church developed a calendar to orient us within God’s Salvation History. Incorporating the weekly cycle with the solar and lunar cycles, the calendar identifies each day. And each day is observed with its particular liturgical readings and prayers. As I celebrate the Mass and pray the Divine Office, I take my place in history. It may not be in a filthy prison cell with the Apostle Paul but it is nonetheless beautiful and important. 

Tonight and tomorrow the world will celebrate the New Year; but we will celebrate the Octave of Christmas and Mary, the Mother of God. On this "last day" the Church assures us,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

When a Sunday does not occur between December 25 and January 1, this feast is celebrated on December 30 with only one reading before the Gospel.
When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”

Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod.

The word child appears nineteen times in the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel; the word mother, five times. But the expression the child with Mary his mother (or a variant of it) also appears five times. When the magi arrived “where the child was… they saw the child with Mary his mother.” The mother and her baby are inseparable.
Some authors have compared the expression “the child and his mother” to an icon which Joseph bore from Bethlehem to Egypt and then to Nazareth. We cannot imagine the child without his mother holding him.

In his recent book, Tribe, the journalist Sebastian Junger, recalled the intensely communal life of Native Americans during the early days of the American republic. Aboriginal Americans had no interest in privacy or individuality; they lived their  entire lives in tight community and were never alone.
Oddly, when kidnapped Europeans were restored to their New England villages, many fled back into the wilderness, to their captivators. Other Europeans voluntarily went native, abandoning all the comforts of an "advanced, Christian civilization"; but very few natives ever joined white society. They found the luxury of privacy unbearable.
Mr. Junger addressed in his book the companion plagues of drug addiction and suicide among Veterans. In war zones these men and women survived by protecting one another. Each had the others back. Each played a vital role in their survival. Leaving military service many complain that they miss it very much and would readily return.

Junger was asked during a radio interview here in Louisville, “How do we help them return to civilian life?” He replied that we’re asking people to leave a healthy environment – companionship in a war zone – to live in an unhealthy one – our isolating, atomized society.
The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth abandoned the isolation of godhood to be wrapped in the tight communion of father, mother and family. There Jesus discovered his mission as the Messiah, one who was sent to save those who had become intensely dear to him, from whom he could not and would not be separated.

In recent years I have heard people wonder about Jesus, “What did it feel like to be God?” and “Did he know he was God?” The question is all wrong; it is framed by our fetish with isolated individuality, a condition which is fatal to the human being. 
We might better ask, “How did he love his mother, father, neighbors, friends, disciples and enemies?” In his relations to others we discern the person.

If we were to visit through some impossible time machine the village of Jesus’ childhood we would probably find a boy running with the other children, inseparable from them and indistinguishable among them, like a bird in a flock of sparrows. He would certainly not be a boy or man eager to set himself apart from others. He would not sing, “I did it my way.” 

Only in his young adulthood would the Holy Spirit set him apart, leading him into the desert and consecrating him as the priest destined for the altar of crucifixion. Yet even in that fatal place he remained a son and brother as he spoke to his mother and the beloved disciple. 

As we celebrate this Feast of the Holy Family, I thank God that many Catholic and Christian families have become more affectionate and less punitive; parents touch, hug, pat and kiss their children, and the children respond in kind. Even as alcohol and drug abuse afflicts millions of lost individuals who cannot form families, the Holy Spirit draws the faithful into ever closer bonds of affection. I have seen this in my 40+ years of priesthood. For that we may be grateful. 

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 202

This is the way we may know that we are in union with him:
whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.

Many comic plays and movies have made a wonderful mockery of the invitation, "Walk this way."
There are two references to walking in this passage; the second being, “Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going….

Walking, I am told, is the most difficult skill the human animal ever learns. Indeed we are the only animal that habitually walks on two legs and clearly prefers it. We encourage our children to walk upright, don’t slouch, carry your head high, and so forth. Some teenagers adapt a particular style of walking as a mark of identity. We often recognize people at a distance by the way they walk  or by the sound of their footsteps. During the Christmas season we imagine the toddler Jesus mastering this extraordinary skill, and the delight of Mary and Joseph as they watched.

If walking is such a human activity we should not be surprised at the scriptures urging us to walk just as he walked.

How did he walk? In light! Saint Matthew describes the ministry of Jesus as he advanced from Nazareth to Capernaum as the coming of the light. Recalling the ancient names of these familiar places he wrote:
Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.
Wherever he went there was light. This life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

A pragmatic generation can be maddened by John’s admonition. Exactly how does one walk in the light? What am I supposed to do? is there a DIY manual? Will a yogi teach me this skill? How about Youtube? (I tried to learn the swimmer’s turn from a youtube video and ended up three fathoms deep in a neighbor’s swimming pool.)

All I can say for that is: prayer, penance, the sacraments and our fellowship. Young men learn to be catholic from older Catholic men; young women learn from older women. We learn to walk together. No one should be far ahead of the Church or far behind, especially because we’re all spiritually disabled in one fashion or another, and unable to walk very fast or very far. If we’re a marching army we proceed only as fast as the slowest member, both in retreat and advance. I think of Saint Thérèse who became a great saint as she cared for the most difficult women in her community.

…if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.  1 John 7

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

Lectionary: 698

This is the message that we have heard from Jesus Christ and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.

Reflecting on the ancient feast of the Holy Innocents, the Church turns to the Evangelist Saint John (whose feast was yesterday.) The Fourth Gospel begins with metaphors of sound and light; with a teaching about the word that was from the beginning and the light that shines in darkness, a light which the darkness cannot overcome.

Even a cavernous darkness can be reduced by a single candle; it seems to cower away from the light, hiding behind the slightest obstacle.

Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents is surely an impenetrable darkness. Could anything make it right? Could the mothers and fathers and families of these children be comforted by any gracious act of God?

Certainly, justification for this killing is beyond our imagination. This darkness mocks any logic, argument or rationale devised by human cleverness.

Veterans sometimes tell me stories like this. I hear them and can say nothing. I can acknowledge their moral injury. The intuition of what is right and just and beautiful has been deeply injured by incidents which should not happen in God’s world. Regardless of whether he saw it, heard of it, or committed it, the Veteran was also a victim of this atrocity. He or she has suffered a grievous wound which has not been healed by time. I pray that my recognition of the Veteran’s guilt, shame and suffering might help.

Saint John insists in God there is no darkness; nor is there a commingling of dark and light. There are no shades of grey in the light of Christ. It has vanquished even the shadows that lurk behind shame, guilt, remorse and regret.

I see that too in the VA. Some Veterans come home to marry, have children, find work, attend church and enjoy the consolations of peace and prosperity. They do no forget the war or its savage barbarity. They remember the innocents who perished. But they allow life to go on and grace to heal them.

Some Vietnam Veterans have returned to the peninsula to discover the ravages of war were covered over by the vitality of earth. Jungles, marshes, villages and rice paddies recovered; survivors created new families whose grandchildren remember nothing of the American occupation.

These Veterans have allowed God’s Wisdom to shine where their rationalizations, interpretations and explanations failed. They have accepted the forgiveness they could not give themselves. They see no better than anyone else how their tragic stories can have a happy ending, but they walk in the light of faith which promised the Holy Innocents an unending Kingdom of Light.

Feast of Saint John, Apostle and evangelist

Lectionary: 697

Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.

Today we celebrate the evangelist of the fourth gospel, Saint John. As magnificent as his gospel, so elusive is the saint. He never names himself in his gospel; he appears as “the other disciple” or “the one whom Jesus loved.” He plays Horatio to Jesus’ Hamlet, a witness who remembers everything and announces it to the world.

We have a saying, “Seeing is believing” but we might ask. “What did John see?” especially in today’s gospel. He saw only the empty crypt and the shroud neatly rolled and set aside.

The philosopher John Macmurray postulated that touch is more important than vision. Seeing may be cool, remote and often uncertain; mirrors, mirages and optical illusions may distort one’s vision. But touch is immediate and certain. Action necessarily meets resistance in contact with objects, a resistance which may help or hinder one’s intentions. If I intend to move this book I will first have to feel its weight, dimensions and textures in my hand before I can move it.
John witnessed the Lord in his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, but – perhaps more importantly – he leaned upon his breast at the Last Supper. Like Mary Magdalene who clung to Jesus when he appeared to her, John had an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus. His witness was more than visual.

Catholics celebrate that tactile experience of the Lord, especially in our sacraments. We are baptized in water, anointed with olive oil, forgiven by hands placed on our heads and wedded as human bodies. We eat his flesh and drink his blood during the Eucharist. Our belonging to Jesus is more than a signature on a piece of paper and more than nodding agreement about a particular opinion or doctrine. It is just as tactile as the Sign of Peace. 

In his Gospel and his First Letter, Saint John the Evangelist reminds us of our immediate knowledge of Jesus: 
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life

Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr

Lectionary: 696

But (Stephen), filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

On this second day of Christmas we celebrate the great victory Saint Stephen has won in the name of Christ. Despite its ghastly familiarity – we hear stories of grisly violence almost daily -- this story reinterprets a "typical tragedy" -- if there is such a thing -- in an entirely new light. Stephen was not a victim; rather by his preaching the gospel to a hostile crowd, his prayer for them and his surrender to the Lord who appeared to him, he demonstrated more freedom than we have ever seen in human history. This is a breakthrough moment for all of us.

As the Apostles reread the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension they found many heroic persons who resembled the Lord. Adam was a type of Christ because he was the first human being. Abel’s blood, like that of Jesus, cried out from the earth. Noah built an ark to save his people. Abraham became the father of a new nation as Jesus fathered a new people born through baptism. And so forth. We could add David, Melchizedeck , and any of the prophets. These heroes most resembled Jesus in the spirit that animated them. In fact, the same Holy Spirit who selected and guided these types and then preserved their sacred memory, guided Jesus throughout his life.

By the manner of his death, Saint Luke recognized Jesus' Spirit in Stephen. This was enormously good news for the early church.

The martyrs assure us that the Holy Spirit is still alive, present and powerful in our community. Generation after generation, century after century, despite the changes that seemed unimaginable and the obstacles that seem insurmountable, the Holy Spirit raises up men, women and children who share his suffering by being conformed to his death.

If we’re occasionally discouraged by the same old, same old in our parishes; if we find our fellow Christians guarding their territory, stifling initiatives and repeating irrelevant arguments of fifty years ago, the martyrs assure us that God has not abandoned his Church. These men and women do not sacrifice their lives for an idea or an opinion. They are not starry-eyed idealists who climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow till they find their dreams. They face opponents who feel just as convinced of their righteousness; they pit their sincerity against the convictions of others but the Holy Spirit within them does not let them back down. They are martyrs for love in the face of an opposition which daily invokes love and compassion and truth.

Despite its violence and horror the death of the brash young Stephen was an encouraging signal to the apostolic church. By his crucifixion, Jesus set the
pattern of his death to be followed by every martyr. Saint Luke recognized the pattern and spelled it out with unmistakable clarity in his narrative.

The world around us apes the language of Christian tradition. They use words like compassion, integrity, fidelity and love to support abortion, racism and suicide but they know nothing of our Spirit. 

By the freedom which comes only from God's Spirit the martyrs guide us in the Way of Christ.

The Nativity of the Lord

Lectionary: 16

In the beginning was the Word, 
and the Word was with God, 
and the Word was God. 
He was in the beginning with God. 

In recent years certain sly voices like to point out that this isn't really Jesus' birthday. They inform us that, if the shepherds were watching their flocks in the fields "by night" it was probably closer to April, because ewes have their lambs in the springtime. The pens where the sheep usually slept were too crowded and dangerous for lambing. 

They'll be met with the scholarly reply that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that may be why Saint Luke placed the birth of Jesus in the springtime; and the Evangelist probably didn't know and wasn't interested in his actual birthday. 

That being the case, we shouldn't sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus because our birthdays are always celebrated on the actual anniversary. A secular society, for reasons of its own, has to keep track of precise dates and ages. 

While these skeptical voices are discussing these biblical nuances we might inform them there is no Santa Claus either. Alas.

Christmas is our celebration of the great and beautiful mystery of Incarnation. We must celebrate the Yuletide because God was truly born of the Virgin Mary and lived like any other man in our complicated, messy, unpredictable, dangerous world where nothing is perfectly clear -- not even a man's birthday. 

Most of us, even the most cynical, keep track of our Christmases. We remember where we were last Christmas and the year before that. Not every Christmas has a particular memory but the memorable ones remain indelibly. Baby's first Christmas is joyous, but sad ones follow the death of a loved one. 

As I ask myself what sets a Christian apart from other people, I think of Christmas. We live during that "moment" between Jesus's Ascension and his Return. We mark time from when he was born, which has been approximated close enough for our purposes; till when he returns, which no one can say. Christmas marks the passing of another Year of our Lord. 

Had there been no Incarnation, the gospel would be no more than a collection of moral teachings, like Thomas Jefferson's Bible. Time and history would have no beginning, no end and no meaning. The Infinity of Space would be scrutinized by forlorn astronomers who search the sky for meaning, for an astrological sign or a Hale-Bopp comet with a spaceship in tow.
Christmas, Easter, their attendant seasons and octaves, and the innumerable memorials of saints' feast days remind the practicing Christian that we live in God's time. It is an opportune time when we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Because it is meaningful it cannot last forever. As Saint Francis said, "While we have time, let us do good." 

Christmas teaches us to eagerly await that day when there will be no more Christmas. On that Day the Lord will return in Glory to judge the nations with justice and mercy -- an order we can't even imagine -- and to establish forever his peaceful communion. 

Saturday of the Fourth Week in Advent - Mass in the Morning

Lectionary: 200

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of his servant David.

On this day before Christmas the Lectionary recalls once again the promises of God. 

When we recall God's majesty, especially as Isaiah saw God sitting on the throne of the praises of Israel, as we have celebrated God's majesty with our echoing of the angels' song, Holy, Holy, Holy; as the romantic Saint of Assisi has shown us God's majesty in "Our Lord Brother Sun" and "Our Sister Moon" the dancing fire, sparkling water and caressing winds -- not to mention the majesty of forgiveness among Christians and, finally, the ominous ever-presence of Sister Death -- when we ponder the majesty of God we are even more astonished that this God should promise us anything. 

Why would he make himself beholding to us with a promise? He surely owes us nothing. 

But, having heard God's promise of a "mighty Savior" who will set his people free, we long for the day of his Coming. Without the promise we might have discovered -- at least those of us who are free enough and wise enough -- how pathetic we are. But most of us would have simply persisted in our blind denial, believing that we are already free and already happy and already prosperous! (Though perhaps not as free, happy and prosperous as our neighbors.) 

On this day before Christmas we again recall the promises made to King David that
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his Kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your Kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.
With the birth of Jesus we understand far more than David and his people ever imagined about the fulfillment of God's promise, but even that appreciation is only sketchy. We hardly know the meaning of such words as salvation, peace, mercy, justice or freedom. 

We know only that they are summed up in the name Jesus, for there is no other name in heaven or earth by which we are to be saved. 

Friday of the Fourth Week in Advent

Lo, I will send you
Elijah, the prophet,
Before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day,
To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike
the land with doom.

Christians think of themselves as blessed and indeed our faith comes with many privileges; they are too many to be counted; they stretch to infinity. One of the most blessed is the gift of penance, the awareness of our sinfulness.

You can tell it’s a most sacred and wonderful gift because it’s unpopular and demanding. Penance draws our attention to the small print of Baptism, “Lest I come and strike the land with doom.” We really should pay attention to any warning tag on any gift, and this warning in particular. Ignorance is neither bliss nor excuse.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ time appreciated the gift of penance. When John the Baptist appeared in the Jordan River, presumably by one of its fords, and announced to passersby the imminence of God’s kingdom, they came out to him in droves. They wanted to hear his preaching; they invited his accusations of sin; they eagerly waded into the muddy water for a “baptism of repentance.”  

We don’t have to go so far to hear about our own sins. The Internet, the television and radio routinely track us to our homes, cars and work to remind us of our economic, social, medical and educational failures. They frequently complain about our trashing the environment. And then they analyze the roots of our chronic problems; tell us what we should do; and describe the obstacles to reform. They assume that if we see the problem and know what to do about it, we’ll fix it.

So why don’t we make the actual changes?  

Saint Augustine recognized the problem in his debate with Pelagius. The British ascetic taught that Jesus had released us from the guilt of Original Sin and given us a fresh, new start; and we should take it from there. All we needed was the resolve to live better lives. Saint Augustine was more familiar with human weakness; he knew that we cannot save ourselves even after we have been saved.

Modern Pelagianism says we can save ourselves by education. When we recognize the evils of smoking, pollution, violence against women and children, and so forth, we will change. These reforms need only the authority of better thinking, and perhaps some tinkering with "The System." With the right formulas we can track evil to its source and destroy it. As if....  

The gift of the Jews to Christians, as we find in both Testaments, is penance. Through prayer and the sacraments the Lord reveals our sins. Loved one, friends and enemies join the fun. (Sometimes our enemies prove to be our best friends as they say what our friends dare not speak.) Occasionally we are astonished by the enormity of our sins; and then we hear the threat, “….lest I come and strike the land with doom.”
Realizing that we cannot save ourselves, we beg God to change our hearts. With Ezekiel, we pray he will give us hearts of flesh for our stony hearts. In that moment our dry cisterns becomes springs of living water and we do impossible things: we apologize, we forgive, we make atonement, we surrender obnoxious habits, we live fully and without fear even with sickness and the proximity of death. 

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Advent

Lectionary: 198

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

When ecclesiastics speak of the holy church as forever sinless, they point especially to the Blessed Mother. She is the very heart of the church, the very heart of our response to God. Sinners that we are, we gather to her, asking her to pray for us and permitting her to pray as our voice before God.
Saint Paul recalled that the Holy Spirit gives us words when we do not know how to pray; Mary, the spouse of the Holy Spirit, speaks those words for us.

Jesus is our satisfaction, Mary is our prayer for satisfaction. As the flower of her race she speaks for everyone who longs for mercy, justice and peace; but she prays with a joyful heart, confident of God’s ear.
She prays with courage in the face of everything that has happened. She does not pray ignorantly or foolishly; she is not a Pollyanna who simply pretends that everything will be just fine. As the Mother of the Crucified she knows what Hannah Arendt called, “the banality of evil.”  

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
In the past several years we have seen the banal evil of “fake news” suddenly rise from the sewer of tabloids to sway a national election. People who are “neither perverted nor sadistic” intentionally generate, seek and spread untruths on social media for the fun of it, as if evil has no consequence. Adolph Eichmann, a normal man, lives next door.  

We honor Mary because she loves the truth and speaks only the truth. She cannot speak an untruth to serve a higher cause; there is no higher cause than Truth. 

Elected by God, she will always be an extraordinary woman. Momentarily startled by the appearance of an angel, she speaks fearlessly, "Let it be done to me according to your word." 

The Church prays today's gospel, her Magnificat, every day of the year during Evening Prayer. We want to make her words our own; and her courage, our confidence. 

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Advent

Hark! my lover–here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.

The great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthazar taught that God the Father, as his voice thundered over the Jordan Valley when Jesus was baptized, and again on Mount Tabor when Jesus was transfigured, revealing his pleasure in Jesus the Only-Begotten Son of God, also expressed divine surprise.

For surely surprise is an element of pleasure. It’s one thing to know you will be pleased when something occurs; but the actual experience is something else. If the incident entirely satisfies one’s expectations there might not be much pleasure in it; it was simply “satisfactory.” But if there is pleasure one might say, “My cup runneth over.” I think we hear that in the words, “With him I am well pleased!” In fact the “well” of God’s happiness is very deep.

Today’s readings invite us to stop and enjoy the Coming of the Lord, to experience the satisfaction which is more than expected, which is superabundant pleasure.

Today’s first reading from the Song of Songs describes the intense joy of passionate lovers. The imagery is intentionally vague and ancient scholars differed over its intent. Are the lovers God and his people or just two young people? We can read it as Jesus and his Church, following the example of Saint Paul; or we might prefer Saint Bernard’s mystical interpretation of God and the individual soul. In any case the eager, expectant, thrilling pleasure of love is palpable. Bernini’s statue of Saint Theresa of Avilla describes that almost unbearable pleasure.

Today’s gospel picks up the imagery of a joyful lover leaping across the hills in the Virgin Mary’s approach to Jerusalem. Pregnant with God’s love she shares it with her kinswoman Elizabeth who, upon seeing this “apparition” of Mary exclaims, “Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” Had she known Mary was coming she would have been no less delighted upon her arrival.

If God is well pleased with the Lord Jesus, surely we must allow ourselves to drink from the same well. Today’s readings particularly invite us to happiness. There will always be disappointment; every silver lining has a cloud; but, as the prodigal’s father said, “We have to rejoice!” Like Mary and Elizabeth and the young lovers, we open our hearts to the unexpected surprise of pleasure.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Advent

Lectionary: 196

Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.

To celebrate the proclamation of Mary's encounter with the Angel, the Lectionary offers us the "royal" Psalm 24. Again we hear the sopranos singing, "He is the King of Glory" from Handel's Messiah.

The people of Judah, gathering in Jerusalem and their sacred temple, probably sang this hymn as they greeted their king, a descendant of King David. We can suppose this and other royal psalms were sounded during his coronation, on the king's birthday, his funeral and others state occasions. The king of Judah represented God to his subjects as certainly as the Pope represents God to many Christians. When they greet their king they sing royal psalms that celebrate God's kingdom. 

Psalm 24 urges us to, "Let the Lord enter...." This is the week of final preparations for Christmas when the floors and walls are scrubbed, the silver is polished, the cookies and breads are baked, the presents are wrapped, the hair is trimmed or permed, and decorations are pulled out of storage to festoon the house both inside and out. If we're not expecting the president, the governor or the mayor we are expecting guests and they will be greeted like royalty.

Today we remember Mary's welcome of the King of Glory. Saint Augustine said, "She conceived the Lord in her mind before she conceived him in her body." Her welcome was complete as she loved the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind, body and strength. Like any conscientious mother of a newborn child, every facet of her life was reoriented by the East which had come to her.

Mary's welcome, first of the angel and then of the Lord, sets the pattern for our Christmas hospitality. It will flow out of our houses into the street to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. In recent years, as hunger and homelessness have surged in the United States, some Christians volunteer to serve the needs of others on Christmas Day. It's become a tradition for many people, especially for those removed from their loved ones by school or work. An egalitarian society believes even the homeless should be treated like royalty.

Pope Benedict XVI reminded the Church in one of his books of the eastern orientation of our churches. He preferred that the priest and people should face the rising sun each morning. Orientation literally means turning toward the east; figuratively it means realigning our lives to a new reality. As Gabriel announces the Gospel to Mary, we reorient our lives to greet the Daystar, our Royal Lord and King, especially among the needy.

Monday of the Fourth Week in Advent

Lectionary: 195

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah,
because your prayer has been heard.
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
and you shall name him John.
And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth,

Many combat soldiers believe they have been spared so far because their number has not come up. Or, “There’s a bullet with my name on it but it hasn’t yet been fired.” With that attitude these young men can be reckless, sometimes putting themselves at unnecessary risk. “When it comes, it comes.” They say, “There is nothing I can do about it.”

They assume this irrational attitude toward the insanity of war because they have inexplicably survived. Many of their friends and companions have died. S have seen one was taken, another left. They conclude their lives are guided by Fate or Karma, a mindless impersonal force which is neither kind nor cruel. If it has any principle it operates like a machine, though entirely unpredictable.

This belief is foreign to our faith. We believe in a personal god, one who sees and hears, watches, guides, decides and judges. At the heart of reality is not a mindless machine; there is rather a beautiful, holy, wise and benevolent Father who has sent His Only Begotten Son and His Holy Spirit to gather us in a saving communion of grace.

In today’s gospel, when Zechariah “was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense,” he knew God had chosen him for the privilege. The Evangelist confirms that conviction because the lot sets up the encounter with the Archangel Gabriel. This did not happen by chance. 

The Angel Gabriel, after a reassuring word, “Do not be afraid!” tells the astonished priest, “…your prayer has been heard.”

Neither the selection of John and Elizabeth nor the choice of Mary happened by chance. They have been praying -- the old couple for a child; Mary, for the Messiah – and the Lord heard their prayer.

The Angel Gabriel then told Zechariah, “because your prayer has been heard... you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.”

The Lord goes where he is welcome and our prayer welcomes the Lord. God’s holy people had been praying for centuries; and as the expectation of a messiah developed they prayed especially for deliverance. Now, at last, “In the days of Herod, King of Judea” the time of fulfillment has come and God’s purposes can be satisfied.

I should add that neither Saint Luke nor anyone else of his day could imagine time as governed by a machine (a clock). God reveals the mystery hidden from ages past but does not explain its mechanics; there are none to explain. If anything it's more like the time of birth, which cannot be rushed. As my mother (of eleven children) explained, "When the baby is ready...."

Conscientious generals, sending young men into combat, do not believe in karma. Even the warlike General Patton urged his soldiers to pray for better weather so that the Allies might press their advantage.

The Holy Spirit teaches us and urges us to pray. We can believe with confidence that God’s plan of Salvation History will be fulfilled; by prayer we include ourselves in that history.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 10

Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;

In his books about the Church and the Holy Trinity, Metropolitan John Zizioulas connects the mystery of the Triune God to our own identity in the Lord. 

Perhaps you remember the catechism teaching that an "indelible character" was imprinted on your soul at Baptism. 

This character is your name, your identity. That's why you were given a Baptismal name; this is how God knows you, and how you are known to the Church. 

Saint Paul speaks of "the grace of apostleship" which he received through Jesus, every baptized person has received a place and an identity in the Church. 

I like to ask people about their names. Most of us have several. We have our formal names, our titles, and our nicknames. Some of the most valuable are Daddy, Momma, Nana, Papaw, Bubba, Father and so forth.

Sometimes, there is only one person allowed to use a pet name, only the wife or husband, or only the father or mother, or a sibling. On anyone else's lips it would not sound right. The name is the relationship; it belongs only to those two people. 

Sometimes a name sounds like an insult. Perhaps it started out as that way but with time and affection became an honorable name. Through his prophet Isaiah, the Lord teases his fearful people, " Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you maggot Israel; I will help you… the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer." In such a case, especially, only the elect may use it. No one else would know its history.

In today's gospel, we are told the Angel specified the name of Mary's child, 
" are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Like Abraham, Sarah and Israel, the Lord chose a name to signify their particular, privileged relationship to God. Jesus, of course, was the same as Joshua, recalling that hero's role in Salvation History. He succeeded Moses and led the people into the Promised Land, as Jesus succeeds -- and surpasses -- all the patriarchs, prophets and sages when he leads us to salvation. 

The name is a sign of God's election and one's mission in life. Always, when the biblical persons are named they are given their responsibility. Paul will announce the Gospel, Peter will be the rock of faith; the apostles will form the foundation of the Holy City. 

Everyone who belongs to Christ finds her and his calling. It is wonderful to see lay folks stepping forward as Catechists, Choir, Eucharistic Ministers and hundreds of other volunteer positions, assuming their rightful places in the missionary Church. The Church is not a cruise ship and there are no idle passengers. 

Just as there can be no God the Father without God the Son, there can be no church without everyone stepping forward to fulfill their calling; each is prompted by the Spirit to cry out with Isaiah, "Here I am! Send me!"

Saturday of the Third Week in Advent

Lectionary: 193

Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations;
from the Babylonian exile to the Christ, fourteen generations.

Today the Church begins its observance of the octave before Christmas, a period of more intensely eager waiting. Beginning with Saint Matthew's genealogy of Jesus we hear for these eight days selections from the "infancy narratives" of Matthew's and Luke's gospels. 

I am especially delighted by today's reading gospel (though I much prefer the more accurate word begot to the peculiarly bland expression, became the father of...

I have been fascinated in the last few months by the way our tradition addresses the mystery of time. Of all God's creatures only human beings are aware of time. (And angels, perhaps.) Other earthly creatures may bear scars of the past and, as individuals have memories; but only the human being can locate itself in this present moment between the past (which is unchangeable,) and the future, (which is unknown.) A dog remembers cruelty or kindness within his own experience but he will never comprehend the history and traditions of his experience. A basset hound might sense her relationship to a chihuahua but have no conception of breeding. 

This awareness of history emerging out of "prehistory" and plunging toward an uncertain future is a burden peculiar to the human being. 

Cooling his heels in an unknown jail, Saint Paul reflected on the mystery of time: 
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. (Colossians 1:26)
Saint Matthew sees glimpses of this "mystery hidden from ages" in the genealogy of Jesus and revealed at his birth. The magi detected that hidden mystery foretold in their astrological science and recognized the moment in the appearance of a star. 

Although eastern Christians preferred to celebrate the nativity of Jesus in early January, the Roman Church wanted to anchor the incident in the annual cycles of the sun. Today we discover it in the planetary orbit of the Earth. This cycle is as close to eternal as we mortals can imagine. Where it ends is beyond our comprehension.

I point to Saint Paul's letter to the Colossians because he locates his personal suffering in Salvation History; and that gives him great satisfaction! ("I rejoice in my suffering!"

As we approach Christmas, spiraling downward as it were into this celebration, we dare not abandon the experience of suffering. We need salvation! We cannot save ourselves! With all creation we are in agony until it appears. Saint Luke honors that agony when he says of Mary, "she brought forth" her first born son. His being laid in a manger emphasizes the Holy Family's meek acceptance of poverty, rejection and misery. 

We too rejoice in our suffering as Christmas approaches. Soon and very soon we are going to see the Lord. 

{"Pride of place belong to the "Great O Antiphons" for the Magnificat from December 17 to December 23. These antiphons, which the Roman Church was singing as long ago as the time of Charlemagne, not only synthesize the messianism of the Old Testament in its purest form. Using ancient biblical images, they also present the divine titles of the incarnate Word, while the Veni ("Come!") is freighted with all the present hopes of the Church. In them the Advent liturgy reaches its culmination.The Liturgy and Time, from the series, The Church at Prayer, by Martimort, Dalmais, and Jounel, 1983, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1983, pg 95}

Friday of the Third Week in Advent

Lectionary: 191

Let not the foreigner say,
when he would join himself to the LORD,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”

The United States is not alone in facing the challenge of foreigners seeking entrance to the nation. Nor is it a new crisis. Human beings have always wandered from place to place. We flee from famine, pestilence, disease, war and oppression. Always have, always will.

Nor is the Bible unfamiliar with this dimension of human life. The Jews would not allow their children to forget their history of wandering from “Ur of the Chaldees” to Egypt and back to Palestine. Though many returned from Babylon after the exile, some remained. Others had been scattered by the wars into northern Africa and western Europe. Nor would they lose track of those who had been carried away, fled or migrated to distant places. Their rabbis studied together and their pilgrimages brought them back to Jerusalem.

The Gospel has been announced throughout the world, beginning in synagogues throughout the Roman Empire. If you have not heard the gospel announced in a strange accent you might not know the gospel at all! Without an admixture of foreign ideas, experience and interpretations our reading of God’s word would be hopelessly bland, as flat as our provincial experience of life. This alienness belongs in our tradition as surely as the Hebrew and Greek languages belong to the Old and New Testaments. Without it we could not know the gospel which is announced to all people, nor could we belong to the Body of Christ which is a communion with people far and near.

Because welcoming aliens is, and will always be, a challenge, they represent the ever-present opportunity to know the gospel more deeply than we had expected. They continually offer the newness of the Good News. As often as we announce our reading of the gospel to them, we can welcome their reading to us -- and be refreshed.

The Christian can never assume a hostile attitude toward aliens, refugees and migrants. I would hate to be in the shoes of a bigot or racist on Judgment Day. He will be condemned to the hell of his own banality.

Welcoming, acculturating and including will always be difficult but that’s precisely why the Lord came from a faraway place to live among us.

Thursday of the Third Week in Advent

Lectionary: 190

For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back.
In an outburst of wrath, for a moment
I hid my face from you;

But with enduring love I take pity on you,
says the LORD, your redeemer.

Every time a Veteran in the hospital tells me he is divorced I feel a pang of sadness. Having never been married, I cannot imagine how deep that sadness must feel to him or her, but I'm sure no schoolchild ever resolved to grow up someday and be divorced. How dreadful that collapse of a dream must be. 

And yet the story is so common we seem to take the sadness for granted. It's just there, to be ignored like the excess weight in one's body or the smoker's shortness of breath.
Perhaps divorce is the reason why millions of shoppers rush the stores on Black Friday to spend billions of dollars on stuff that no one needs. It salves the pain that we'd rather not think about. 

Perhaps divorce is why 22 Veterans kill themselves every day, and the reason we rushed into those pointless wars in the first place. Perhaps that's why many people die of drug abuse and alcoholism; while others abort unwanted babies.

Can anyone measure the depth of sorrow in this privileged nation, this land of the free and home of the brave? Why do we flatter ourselves with such absurd epithets? How much more would we suffer if the president, the congress and the supreme court were to admit, this is the most pathetic nation on earth? Our suffering is like the glaciers of the ice age which covered most of North America, miles deep with no hope of springtime. 

The Prophet Isaiah, measuring the depth of his people's sorrow, heard the voice and God and spoke to them: "
...with enduring love I take pity on you, says the Lord, your redeemer."
The doctrine of sin reminds us it doesn't have to be this way. The doctrine of grace teaches us to hope.

Memorial of Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 189

John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 
When the men came to the Lord, they said,
“John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”

My mother often came to visit me in Louisiana, and we toured every interesting site within a hundred miles. One weekend, I took her to see a college presentation of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot

I tried to explain to her before we arrived that this "theater of the absurd" was a different kind of play. There is no plot to speak of. It's not going anywhere; or not in the usual sense. She wouldn't hear a word of it. "Don't tell me anything about it!" She insisted. There should be no spoiler.

It wasn't well done by these college students. They didn't have that critical sense of timing so necessary to humor. Although they enjoyed the wonderful language, they saved the pleasure for themselves. They ripped through the lines so fast the audience missed its subtlety. There was no time to experience the existential anxiety beneath the waiting. There was some gender bending also as Didi was played by a woman.

We left the theater hand in hand. I was weeping silently; despite the poor presentation the play moves me. A post-war baby, I am too familiar with the non-appearance of a missing god. I have suffered the moral injuries of World War II, Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, Afghanistan and Iraq. Mom, Catholic to the core and not given to morbidity, was saying, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever seen. It didn't make a lick of sense!" I had to laugh; I'd tried to tell her. 

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” It's clear by now that Godot is not coming. If he ever existed, Europe's enlightened god disappeared under the senseless, savagery of two world wars. 

And yet, because they have pondered neither the manger in Bethlehem nor the cross in Jerusalem, many still expect God to arrive in power and might, shock and awe. John the Baptist wondered what to make of the cousin who was not raising an army to oppose Rome. Nor was he gathering the holy and the pious to reenter the temple with incense and burnt offerings. Jesus appeared as neither king nor priest.

The scriptures do not say the Baptist was satisfied with the word his disciples brought from Jesus,
"Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

But we can assume the Holy Spirit reassured him with Jesus' more personal admonition: "...blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Advent teaches us to wait upon the coming of God without expectation. We can imagine a future but not the future; more often than we like to admit we are surprised by events. Everybody knows the blind do not regain their sight, the lame cannot walk and leprosy has no cure, but
What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
...God has prepared for those who love him:
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.