Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

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

I have an old wooden altar card on my desk here at the VA. It once stood on the right side of the altar before the Second Vatican Council. Old altar servers will remember there were several of these cards on the altar; they contained the prayers that were offered every day of the year, including the "Canon," which was the only Eucharistic Prayer, now the first one.
The first words on my relic, printed in red and larger than the rest of the text,: "In principio...." That is, "In the beginning...."
Today's second reading was known as "The Last Gospel" before the Second Vatican Council. Although we had already heard that weekday's or Sunday's gospel proclaimed (in Latin) the priest silently read every day this "last gospel." It's that important. When Pope Saint Pius X encouraged the laity to follow the Mass in their own vernacular languages, they were also invited to appreciate the beauty of Saint John's prologue.
Now it's read only twice a year, during the noonday Mass of Christmas and on December 31. People who attend an earlier Christmas Mass, and do not attend this weekday Mass, will not hear John 1: 1-18 at all. That's a shame; they don't know what they're missing.
As we come to the end of the year, I find great assurance in this proclamation. I am reminded that, "The Word of God endures forever", ​as Saint Peter declared, echoing many verses of the prophets and psalms​.
The end/beginning of a year stirs hope in the young but anxiety in the old. In my 71st year and eighth decade, I hope the new year brings more of the same; that is, blessings of good health, good company and reasonable prosperity; and less of the undesirable. I look forward to reflecting upon the Word of God, which is sweeter than honey, more delightful than wine.
Saint John's prologue anchors the Christian disciple firmly in God's plan of salvation. We need that anchor as the world spins around us. His first words recall the Book of Genesis; In the beginning signals a new genesis, a new beginning to human life and experience.
He was in the beginning with God.All things came to be through him,and without him nothing came to be.What came to be through him was life...
Of course, we could not have known before Mary's child appeared among us this foundational truth. We might have supposed God made the world, took some interest in it for a while, and then let his interest wander elsewhere. If he walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, and chatted with Abraham and Sarah under the tree at Mamre, he had not visited their children in many centuries.
But we would have been mistaken; the Lord's fascination with the Earth and its people began with his "only begotten son," who was with God from all eternity. Jesus is more than the "reason for the season," he is the reason anything exists in the present, past or future. He is the reason a child is born of woman and a star is formed in the galaxy. ...without him nothing came to be.
in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, with the sixth verse, we find our historical place in the eternal vision of God: A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light.... The first readers of this tract remembered John the Baptist; he appeared in our recent history, wrapped not in myth and legends but in current religious controversies. Some people said he was a prophet; others, a fool who brought doom upon himself! The Evangelists wraps the earthly memory of John in the eternal, metaphysical activities of God:
He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
But, as you know so well, Jesus, the True Light, came to his own but his own did not accept him. Tears must start from your eyes as you remember his crucifixion.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God...
And so we are found -- in our time, in our world, in God's eternal plan of salvation! We are the children of God. We have welcomed the Prophet John who called us to repentance; we have received the Son of God who has directed our lives in the path of salvation.
As 2018 fades into the past, this Gospel assures us that our past, present and future are redeemed in the person of Jesus. We may enter this new year with assurance. All things will be well; and all things will be well; and all manner of things will be well.

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Lectionary: 17

He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

Social scientists, watching and studying our evolving culture, have much to say about the changing shape of the family. A few years ago, for instance, they observed that a young person can expect to be married three times in her life: once for romantic love, a second time for children, and a third time for companionship in later years. 
But that was before marriage was redefined as a semi-committed relationship between friends, regardless of their gender or sexual preference. The preferred word is partner for these childless, asexual contracts. 
We look in vain to the prevailing culture for an understanding of family. The same social scientists might point to the transient relationship of many non-human animals. Most mammals and other species do not mate for life. Most birds and bears mate with different partners every season. Humans who look for guidance to the animal kingdom can expect to have "multiple partners" during the span of one lifetime. Their descendants will be left with the enigma of describing their family tree. The old language of first or second cousin, once or twice removed will give way to a far more complex science as they search for family traits and genetic health issues. 

The Christian must turn for guidance not to the animal kingdom or prevailing cultural patterns but to our traditions, especially as they are grounded in the gospel. A Christian married couple must follow the pattern of Jesus and his Church. Saint Paul urged the married couples of his congregations in Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonica to copy the divine patterns which were revealed first in the Old Testament -- the Lord and Jerusalem -- and secondly, of Jesus and his mystical body the Church. 

Their first command is fidelity. God cannot be unfaithful to his people; the Lord Jesus will never abandon his Church. Divorce is not an option. There may be hard discussions, loud conversations and much emotion, as the divine couple work out their difference; but they can no more leave one another than a man can separate his head from his body. 

Whatever is said about the relationship of God and his people, it is clearly not a friendship. This is more important, more enduring, more reliable than friendship. It's nice when a husband and wife regard one another as friends, even as "best friends," but that is not the essence of marriage. An individual may have many close friends, but none deserve the exclusive devotion of a spouse. That pattern is set in the scriptures when God is revealed as the husband of his people Israel. No other nation can claim a similar knowledge of God. 

A married couple, like their models God and his people, are eager and willing to receive the gift of children, should the Lord give them children. This too defines marriage with the Church as its model. The Church goes into the whole world to generate new children through Baptism. We evangelize but do not proselytize. That is, we wait upon the Holy Spirit to lead people to us through the free action of their own desires. No one can be manipulated, tricked or forced to accept salvation. 
Historically, some Christian churches have arbitrarily chosen to limit their membership to people of the same race, ethnicity or language. By so doing they lose their status as Christian. Likewise, two people who approach marriage with the specific intention of not having children or accepting only the right kind of child -- are not married. 
The social scientists who redefine marriage asexually, without fidelity or fertility, believe they have history on their side. They expect a continuing, evolutionary improvement of human society, and these new experiments in marriage are the vanguard of the future. Perhaps they suppose that sin can be bred out of the human stock. They have bought into an optimistic, deterministic view of human life which bears little resemblance to our Christian hope. 

People who disagree about religious teachings often conclude their expression with, "That's how I see it. You may see it differently." They intend to respect the integrity of other persons with their "God-given right" to differing opinions. 
But that nicety does not preclude the inevitability of consequences. Attitude, opinions and decisions do make a difference in the real world. A culture that defines marriage without the guidance of Christian tradition and scripture faces an unknown, unpredictable future. 
People who tolerate serial polygamy, abortion and gay marriage face the complete abandonment of everything associated with family. A nation of isolated, lonely, disconnected individuals may evolve. They will continually search for tribal membership and identity, but find none. Their ties to one another will be idealistic; that is, their friendships will conform to their ideas and a tenuous willingness to disagree. But they will lack the bonds of family, which must include even gay members. Without substantial relationships they will search for solace in substance abuse. Already we find enormous numbers of children are medicated to help them conform to the arbitrary standards of a child-abusing culture. Many people think their dogs are children. 

The Church today celebrates the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. That trio includes you and me as they have graciously claimed us. Jesus is our Savior, Lord and Brother; Mary is our Mother; and Joseph, our patron saint. We are given to one another in love by the Father of Jesus, and we live by the prophetic traditions of our revealed religion.  

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 202

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Several years ago I went with two classmates to Canterbury. Our first visit was to the Gothic cathedral, which is an active Episcopal church in that ancient English town. And the first question I asked was, "Where is the tomb of Saint Thomas a'Becket?" 
"No one knows!" we were told. King Henry VIII stripped all the English churches of their saints' relics. In some cases, he had them loaded into a cannon and blasted out over the Thames River. We were frankly shocked by the story. 
However, the story goes, two monks foresaw what must happen and hid the relics of the martyred bishop. No one knows to this day where they are. Perhaps, like the grave of King Richard III, they'll be found someday under a parking lot or beneath the foundations of an old building. 
What remains of the saint is now scattered throughout the Catholic world, in the form of today's memorial. 
But this is also a quiet day to remember the saintly Simeon and Anna, who welcomed the Infant Jesus to the Holy City.
Those who scrupulously believe in historical accounts must feel challenged by this occasion, for it was only yesterday we heard that "Jerusalem" was searching for the child to destroy him. Fortunately, our faith is not founded on scrupulous historical accounts nor meticulous scientific proof. These studies, sacred as they are, cannot contain or encapsulate the gospel.
Today's narrative reminds us that God's holy people, wherever they might be, will always welcome the Lord Jesus. Despite their secular or religious authorities, despite the hegemony of scientific scruples, we welcome the Lord who has chosen to be born among us. He is one of our own children, as fascinating, delightful and wonderful as any newborn infant. 
Every grandparent will recognize the joy of this elderly couple and the significance of Simeon's song, 
"Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people...."
In the birth of a child I see a future unfolding that must surpass my own. I have a moment to let the Holy Spirit convert my sinful life into a gospel; and then I shall fade into eternity, allowing a new generation to receive God's mercy and sing God's praises. I don't suppose anyone will want to blow my ashes out of a cannon. No one will think it necessary to preserve his power or dignity. But I do look forward to That Day when the Lord will stand over my grave and call me by name, "... come out!" He will command. I hope I will be ready to obey. 

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. If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents first appeared in the liturgical calendar during the fifth century, according to the New Advent Encyclopedia. The incident itself is not recorded in any historical account; but neither is it entirely fictitious. Historians, secular and religious, agree that King Herod was a murderous despot who would not hesitate to slaughter anyone or any group who might remotely threaten his power. And we know that innocent children are often caught up and destroyed in political and military struggles. We have only to watch the news out of Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to witness that. Many American Veterans of the Vietnam conflict remember in their nightmares the reckless killing of children.
This feast, like that of Saint Stephen, must remind us of the intense, diabolical reaction to the Gospel.
If the Good News of Jesus is pure Goodness, it must be met by a spasm of unadulterated violence. This response is not necessary; it is not a chemical or mechanical law, like "What goes up must come down." Or Isaac Newton's principle, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." There is no necessity for this evil except in the heart of evil people; that is, us. Herod saw it; Saint Joseph anticipated it.
This dark feast on the fourth day of Christmas reminds us of the casual evil that occurs in the normal course of events. A close reading of any historical account of a nation, city, movement or church must acknowledge this violence unless the historians intentionally ignore and hide the incidents. Propaganda may be recognized by what it does with these stories; it ignores the evil behavior of its proponents and projects them on its enemies. "We are the innocent;" it will say, "they are the guilty."
The righteous, as the Gospel, defines them, are not the innocent; they are those who are willing to see and recognize their own guilt. They listen to their friends and enemies, and often admit that their enemies are better friends for telling them the truth about themselves. The Catholic who cannot think of anything to confess in the Sacrament has only to ask why her enemies resent her so much. But if she thinks she has no enemies, she is even further removed from the truth about herself, her tribe, class and nation.
Christmas has invited us into the darkness to see the light, but it is a blinding light. Only as our eyes adjust to its radiance do we really understand how intensely the Lord loves us, for he sees our guilt clearly.

Feast of Saint John, Apostle and evangelist

...what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father
and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.

Mainline Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, are challenged today as never before. Young people are not interested. If their baby boom parents paid nominal allegiance to a sect or denomination they rarely attended, their children can't be bothered. They know there is no need to claim a Christian identity; it doesn't promote one's social or professional standing. Voters don't ask which church their candidates attend; candidates don't appeal to fellow members of their church. Young Veterans in the VA may claim their parent's church if the chaplain visits, but that's as far as it goes. We could point to a thousand reasons for this state of affairs but it really doesn't matter.
Faith is an affair of the heart; it is inspired by the Father who reveals his Son to little ones. Without the social supports of a Christian culture faithful individuals may feel more isolated but they also enjoy a greater freedom to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of Saint John was written under circumstances similar to our own; there were no earthly rewards for faith. Those who chose to abandon their Jewish or gentile religions and joined the Church responded to a very personal call. They had been set apart by the Truth; they had tasted the sweetness of the Lord; it delighted like an exotic wine, ever ancient and ever new. Like their spiritual ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, they could not turn back.
The early church had its fellowship; they were not maverick individuals determined to express themselves, do their own thing or "Do it my way." The Gospel of John demonstrates how seriously they considered the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, which bound the community together.
But they were also intimately, personally attached to Jesus, like branches on a vine. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Saint John says Jesus gave the bread in the wilderness directly to each person, He did not use the disciples as mediators. 
The Gospel describes very personal conversations with Jesus: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, Martha, Mary, the Beloved Disciple and, finally, Pontius Pilate -- who had his moment and missed it entirely. Every Christian knows that conversation with the Son of Mary. 
If, at one time, parents could have their children baptized and expect them to remain in the church, that day is passed. Every individual, whether baptized as a child, teen or adult, must make that personal decision again and again. Up to our necks in the turgid, fast-flowing river of today's enticements and distractions, expecting a future that will only be more seductive and less satisfying, Christians cling to Jesus as we encourage one another to hold onto faith. 

Feast of Saint Stephen, proto-martyr

"Beware of men, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues,
and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.

On the day after Christmas it is probably fair to ask if anyone is in the church. Perhaps everyone has left the building to continue the festivities elsewhere. There remain only the long shadows of winter and the lingering smells of incense to honor the Martyr. But the quiet is appropriate; martyrdom is a lonely business as the body collapses and consciousness retreats to some inner, pain-filled place -- before it too leaves the building.
If Christmas is, as some people say, a pagan feast held over from prehistoric times, the Feast of Stephen is deeply, profoundly Christian. If anyone didn't understand who and what we celebrated on Christmas Day, the Martyr will explain it to us.

We can only imagine the shock of Christians in Jerusalem when they saw and heard of Stephen's death. True, they knew of the Sanhedrin's rough treatment of Peter and John. The leading apostles were arrested, held overnight and whipped with thirty-nine lashes before being released. But they had also seen Peter and John laugh about the experience. They thought it a privilege to suffer as the Lord had suffered.
Stephen's death was more sobering. The murderous resistance to the Lord, which seemed to climax on Good Friday, was not receding before the preaching of the gospel. Despite the healing of many sick people and the ecstatic joy of the newly-baptized, a reaction was gaining strength. Just as slavery survived the American Civil War and still stalks the nation as racism, a deeply entrenched violence would pursue Christianity throughout its history. At times it would appear as persecution from outside; more often it would manifest as betrayal from within.
Rather than ignoring or dismissing that resistance in the hope it might go away, we keep the feast of Stephen. We find a brilliant light shining in a very dark place.
No one would have blamed Stephen had he been more politic. He might have recognized the opposition and realized his persuasive arguing was for naught. They had ears but they would not hear. He might have let his friends haul him away, rushing him off the scene as the first stones were thrown. He might have retreated to return another day. But, as Saint Luke tells us, he was "filled with grace and power" and he would not stifle the Spirit.
States usually represent the citizenry when they execute a human being, stoning is a popular act before the state intervenes. But it often has the state's tacit approval. Rather than discrete, impersonal methods as used by some American states, stoning is public theater. Everyone is invited; if you have never killed anyone, here is your opportunity. The distinction between killers and bystanders is erased in the mob action; everyone has blood on their hands.
Capital punishment is a ritual, cathartic way to vicariously rid the world of perceived evils. It is a form of human sacrifice to a vengeful god, punishing both the wicked and the undesirable. Stoning allows personal enemies, acquaintances and passers-by with no particular grievance, to express themselves with savage violence. In the United States lynching has served the same purpose.  
Later the mob will have to deal with the aftertaste, the spiritual hangover. Some will still insist, "He asked for it!" Others will prefer not to think or speak of it. In later years their descendants will piously declare they had no part of it, as Jesus said,
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.
Not many will seek atonement through penance, prayer and fasting. Reparation is out of the question.

The Feast of Saint Stephen invites us to ponder the deep roots of Original Sin. Whether we're pondering racism, misogyny, clerical sexual abuse, abortion, addictions, the military-industrial complex, the widening gap between rich and poor, or the poisoning of our planet, we realize this Evil will not dissipate with the ritual ceremonies of Christmas. 
Stephen invites us to speak out, risk hostility, and see what no else sees, the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Christmas Day 2018

He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race...

When we celebrate someone's birthday we honor not only the individual for his attainment, we also honor the community that counts him as one of us. When we celebrate the Birth of the Son of God, we reconfirm the joy and dignity of our human nature in our world. We have a place and a right to be here.
Not without controversy, the Roman Catholic church shifted the celebration of Christ's birth from January 6 to December 25; and fastened the Solemnity to the winter solstice. The birth of Jesus represents the rebirth of life on Earth, and the regeneration of the human race. Because we recognize Jesus as the Son of the Lord God Almighty, creator of the universe and every creature therein, his birth and saving work belong to every creature.

In Saint John's declaration about Jesus -- "All things came to be through him" -- we find our own place and mission in God's world. There would be no galaxies or stars except for Jesus; there would be no Solar System around our Sun, nor an Earth among the planets, except for Jesus. There would be neither water, air, fire nor dirt except for Jesus; nor any plant, animal, fungal or cellular life except for Jesus. There would be no human being to walk the Earth, to admire the sky, play in the water, or ski on snowy mountain trails except for Jesus. All things came to be through him. There would be no family. clan or society for without him nothing came to be.
Saint John's teaching about Jesus reaffirms the place of Adam and Eve in the pristine sanctuary of Eden. Because Jesus is the first born of all creation, they are placed at its center, "in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it. We have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.
Some people today have called into question our privileged place. Radical ecologists -- carried away by a very real concern -- wonder if the Earth would be better off without us. Isn't "man" the source of all Earth's evil? Wasn't the world a more pleasant place when it was "ruled" by dinosaurs?
They have a point. The human being, an essentially free creature with the ability to pervert everything it touches, threatens to destroy the Earth by willful stupidity. This "original sin" is far more apparent today than when Saint Augustine coined the phrase.
But Saint John assures us, "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Not even our crucifixion of Jesus can overcome that brilliant light.
Yes, God wants us to be here. The Father of Jesus has called us out of our sin to welcome the Son and his Blessed Mother into our hearts, homes, churches, neighborhoods, cities, states and world. So long as we celebrate Christmas we are assured of our rightful place in God's Universe.

Christmas Eve

Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.

The father of John the Baptist summarizes and closes the Old Testament prophesies in today's gospel. On this last day of Advent, the Church offers us the "Song of Zechariah." We also sing or recite these twelve verses in our Morning Prayer (Lauds) every day of the year, as the dawn from on high breaks upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. We pray that Jesus, the rising Sun of Justice, will guide our feet into the way of peace. 
This summary of Old Testament faith is rich with expectation and intense longing.
Citizens of a wealthy nation, governed by principles of self-rule and democracy, dominated by a middle class culture which takes for granted the privileges of prosperity including education, upward mobility, leisure and health care, may have a hard time naming their eager longing for salvation. They don't feel much at risk. "God helps those who help themselves!" they intone as they throw themselves into productive labor.
If they expect anything of God it is more of the same: more freedom, more expansion, more assurance of a predictable and endless future of seamless prosperity. "We need no apocalyptic surprise." they might say to a prophetic voice in the wilderness.
When that nation goes into economic decline, they might turn cynical. Without traditions of seeking divine assistance, deliverance or guidance, they will demand only a return to the greatness of the past. From a complete disinterest in the God who Saves they might turn to an angry resentment of the God who Disappoints.
In this song of a new dawn, Zechariah describes the prophet's vocation. He will give knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
In my experience the awareness of personal guilt comes as a staggering revelation; it is the original OMG! Where I might have been aware of some problem, I suddenly realize I am the problem. The Big Book of AA uses the word enormity to describe what yesterday seemed to be a minor nuisance.
OMG, you mean I am the polluter? The racist? The misogynist? The drunk/addict/user? The pervert? The OCD control freak?
The realization may be met with a resolution to change. "I'll never do that again! I'll never... say that word, consume that substance, speak to that person, or buy that product again! Never!"
But the resolution is superficial; it would strike a bargain with the problem rather than experience one's prostrate helplessness before it. Within days or hours the sobering panic has passed and the sinful attitudes click back into place. To that John the Baptist says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" Jesus described the predicament with his parable of the displaced demon who goes out to find seven other demons worse than himself; they reoccupy the clean and tidied house and the fellow's condition is even worse.
The "mercy God showed to our ancestors" is an obedient Spirit that guides our feet in the way of peace. I should never presume, "I know where this is going." Such "knowledge" needs no faith and is not guided by anything except its own expectations. 
The knowledge of salvation that comes with forgiveness of sin is the touch of God's hand in mine. It is a communion with Mystery and a willingness to be led daily even as we dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. That I sin is no surprise; that I am saved, that is astonishing.
Christmas does not promise prosperity or security; rather it promises blessings for the poor in spirit and freedom in God's presence. 

Fourth Sunday of Advent

When Christ came into the world, he said:
"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll,
behold, I come to do your will, O God.'"

We have to notice with Micah's prophecy the presence of time and its human response, patience. After "she who is to give birth has borne..." we will still have to wait for the child to grow to adulthood, and then we will ask this ruler of Israel, "What do you want of us?"
In the meanwhile he will have learned the obedience which is required of every human being. He will not be allowed to stay up as late as he wants; he will have to eat what he is given to eat; study what he must learn, and clean up after himself. He will have to submit to the authority of his father and mother if he is to learn anything about the authority he will wield.
Several years after the Messiah had appeared the Letter to the Hebrews described the willing obedience of that mystical person. Submitting to the limitations of  a human body, the Anointed One declares, "I come to do your will, O God." In fact, we recall to our horror, his submission included helplessly hanging on a cross.
The obedience of the Savior is an abiding mystery and challenge for us. Created in God's image we are free; we cannot endure life without an abiding sense of freedom. Realizing the severe limits on our freedom, oppressed people often admire and support the freedom of powerful people. They surrender their freedom to rulers and vicariously enjoy the despot's freedom as their own. They say, "If I cannot do what I want, my hero can! He can go where he wants to go, do what he wants to do, say whatever he wants to say, and punish those who oppose him."
But the "ruler of Israel" who appeared in Bethlehem narrowly escaped slaughter soon after he was born, and succumbed to it when, as an adult, he finally arrived in Jerusalem. Although he demonstrated remarkable freedom during his brief life -- he spoke as a prophet to power; he preached to the poor, healed the sick, and raised the dead -- he paid the inevitable, heavy price for it. Even now, having witnessed our Messiah's resurrection and "victory over death," we wonder when does our victory come.
I have been reading David W. Blight's Frederick DouglasProphet of Freedom -- which I would recommend to anyone and especially as Advent reading -- and I am struck by the catastrophic disappointment of the Civil War. After all the disruption, destruction and carnage so little had changed. The Fifteenth Amendment -- which the states readily passed as if it might settle the question of slavery once and for all -- allowed little freedom to the "freedmen." A hundred and fifty-three years later we are still struggling with the Enlightened promise of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its Amendments -- that "all are created equal." Racism remains America's Original Sin; segregation and its handmaid Fear still oppress the daily life of every American.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled."
Elizabeth greeted Mary and admired her faith. Not only did Mary willingly accept her vocation as Immaculate Conception and Virgin Mother, she demonstrated it as she set out for Jerusalem to visit Elizabeth. Like her Son, Mary moved freely from place to place. She seemed to consult with no one but the Holy Spirit as she set out to see the sign the Angel had announced to her. She would continue to demonstrate that faith and courage as the most faithful disciple of Jesus.
Elizabeth's words are addressed to you and me also. We have heard and believed what was spoken by the Lord. We live in that faith and practice it daily. We have seen many minor resurrections but still await the ultimate Glory to be revealed. 
If we feel satisfaction, it's a measured satisfaction and only in hope, a gift of the Holy Spirit. As Saint Paul said, "We live by faith and not by sight."

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 198

From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

Catholics of "both lungs of the Church" -- Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic -- delight in the presence of Mary, the Mother of God. With the Liturgy of the Hours we read or sing her Magnificat every afternoon, during Vespers. 

Let's say an incredibly wealthy person were to commission you to give someone else a billion dollars! What would you do?
Let's add to the premise: this extraordinary donor has named the party who should receive this largess. 
You would have a decision to make and you might do one or more things:
You might say, "What's in it for me?"
or, "I need this money."
or, "Can I keep some of it?"
Or you might think, "I don't even know this fellow who is supposed to receive this gift!"
or, "Perhaps he's not worthy of it."
or, "I know he doesn't deserve it!" 
or, "I know someone more deserving, namely me!"

The Lord God gave Mary such a gift and she immediately passed it along to you and me. We watch her do that in Bethlehem as the shepherds -- famously smelling of sheep! -- arrive to see the child. She immediately handed her infant son to the old man in the temple, Simeon, who "took the baby in his arms and blessed God." She gives her son to us in Cana when she urges us to, "Do whatever he tells you." And again on Calvary, as she surrenders her son to his tormentors and to her God. 
She has held nothing back for herself. 

Now, let's suppose you receive this marvelous "billion dollars" from the agent who was commissioned to hand it over to you. 
Would you thank her for it? 
Would you offer a small commission for her generosity, realizing that she kept nothing for herself? 
Would you at least acknowledge that this woman has displayed amazing generosity, especially as you both know you don't deserve it? 

God does not use anyone! If we use the words servant or slave of God to describe our standing before God, it's always with the confidence that the Father of Jesus has the deepest respect for our dignity and freedom. The Lord would not use Mary as the mother of his Only Begotten Son without her total, unconditional consent. She freely, readily, eagerly, joyfully, gratefully welcomed the unexpected gift of God. There was no hesitation in her fiat.
We believe she deserved it but she described herself only as the handmaid of God, one he had blessed in her lowliness
For these reasons and more we do not hesitate to praise the agent whom God commissioned to give her Son -- her Only Begotten Son -- to us. 
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus!

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 197

"Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 

During Advent, when the rum-sodden E.A.Poe suffered his bleak December and each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor,we welcome our Blessed Savior and his Blessed Mother with an Elizabethan ecstasy. The joy of our welcome exceeds all bounds. We could not expect to be so happy in a million years.
This festival is, of course, ancient. Several neopagan  religions like Wicca and Odinism, would remind us that people of the northern Hemisphere have observed the winter solstice with religious rituals for tens of thousands of years. The holiday springs from the Earth itself and the human being, this self-conscious creature formed from the mud of Earth, must celebrate with song, dance, food and great festivity. 
I met a fellow recently, a self-described Odinist, who insisted "Christmas has nothing to do with Christmas!" But then I know of others who insist we should "Put Christ back into Christmas!" To which I say, "Put the Mass back into Christmas!"
However, the neopagans are partly right; Christmas has become a pagan feast for many. To restore it, we must honor the Infant's Mother. The woman and her infant are inseparable, as every civilized nation knows. 
The Church honors her presence with several feast days during the Advent Season, including the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) and Mary the Mother of God (January 1.) Perhaps as important, she appears in every Christmas creche, and in many Christmas cards. A baby without a mother is dying; we cannot honor Jesus unless he is held in his mother's arms. 
The early Church knew that and Saint Luke insisted upon it. The holy woman Elizabeth welcomed Mary with amazed delight. She asks what visionaries have often asked when Mary appeared in Mexico City, Lourdes, Knock and Fatima, "Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?"
Neopagans, Muslims, Jews and some Protestant sects remind Catholics of the great privilege we enjoy. We know the Mother of God! Like Joseph we have taken her to our homes; like Elizabeth, we have rejoiced upon seeing her; like John the Baptist we have danced for joy at her coming; and like the Beloved Disciple John, we have beheld our mother. We celebrate the winter solstice with a faith, hope, love and joy granted to few. 

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

Scripture scholars tell us that Isaiah's prophecy about a virgin conceiving a son actually concerned a coming catastrophe. Isaiah warned King Ahab that within a few years the countryside will be devastated. Children will have to forage for food like wild animals; if they survive they will live on "curds and honey." The prophecy was about the catastrophe which Ahab's uncertain leadership would bring upon Jerusalem, and had little to do with virginity.
But it was an odd expression; Isaiah had selected an evocative image to make his prophecy of doom. It invited curious reflection and, since its inspiration had come from God, interpreters were free to make the most of it. The word of the Lord endures forever, as everyone knows; and its interpretations will change with changing times.
Matthew's use of Isaiah's cryptic prophesy, that a virgin shall conceive, is certainly mainstream. It was especially appropriate because the Church's tradition, only a half-century old as of his writing, taught that Jesus' had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. His father was God; his mother, a virgin. And Joseph was a good man, a "just man," who had been directed by an angel to take the unwed, pregnant woman into his home.
Saint Luke was familiar with the same tradition though his story is quite different. He retained its most important elements: the Savior's mother was a virgin named Mary, his father was Joseph; and he was born in Bethlehem.
As Christmas approaches we contemplate Mary's virginity. To our sexualized 21st century culture, the word is probably more powerful than it was in Matthew's day; and we have to read it carefully. I don't suppose the word implied innocent or foolish naivete. Virginity was neither a marketable commodity nor a burden to be shed as soon as possible. It certainly meant, as Saint Luke emphasized, she had no "relations with a man," although "she was betrothed. to a man named Joseph."
If her conception of Jesus had not been so mysterious, Saint Luke would not have placed that odd question in her mouth, "How can this be?" Although she would soon be married, the child was God's, and she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Mary's virginity is a doorway first of all, inviting us to consider Jesus' divine nature. He is, as we declare every Sunday, "consubstantial with the Father." Although any human being can call God "father," Jesus' knowledge of God is utterly unique. There is only one begotten son of the Father. 
During the third and fourth centuries, as the Church pondered the threat of Arianism, the Scriptures would lead the bishops at Nicea and Constantinople to create a formula unlike anything Greek philosophy or Jewish religion could conceive. The truth of his relationship with the Father remains as amazing today as it was then.
The word virgin invites us also to consider our own calling. Although we are sinners and the Church is a vast assembly of sinful people, our faith is virginal. With the Scandal of the last few years -- its impact may equal that of the Great Western Schism -- I must often invoke the Virgin Mary. She is a very real person, historically verifiable though we know little of her. She is that first and true and sinless disciple who lived a life of purity from her conception to natural death. While we pray that our merciful God will find us worthy on Judgement Day, she alone is worthy to be the Mother of God. By her presence she makes the world, human flesh and the Church worthy to receive the Son of God.
When we rush with the shepherds to Bethlehem to see the child, we find her there. When we want to see him, she joyfully holds him up before us. No one can know the Lord without discovering her there ahead of us in Bethlehem, in the Temple, on Calvary and in the Cenacle. We take delight as we obey Gabriel's command to Joseph, "Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home." And Jesus' last word to the Beloved Disciple, "Behold your mother!"

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

"So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others."

In today's gospel the elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are blessed with a visitation and a revelation. They have been sadly disappointed throughout their lives by their barrenness. Through all the months of their young marriage, through the years of adult maturity and ever-deepening affection for one another, as the two became one flesh, they suffered a growing and persistent disappointment. Beginning as a vague, fearful suggestion, it had become a daily fact. They could not get pregnant; they would have no child. There was no reason for this misfortune. Surely, they thought, they had not earned or deserved it.
Neighbors, acquaintances and family pitied them; close friends learned not to ask. Some people must have wondered if the Lord -- who sees all -- had punished this devout couple for some hidden sin. A cloud of shame hovered over their marriage and darkened their daily conversation.
Finally, with today's epiphany the mystery is resolved. Or, if not resolved, given a whole new and unexpected dimension. Their many years of disappointment were a small part, a facet, of God's complex plan of salvation. Their son
will turn many of the children of Israel
to the Lord their God.
He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah
to turn the hearts of fathers toward children
and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous,
to prepare a people fit for the Lord."
But their son would also play only a part in God's broad scheme. He would not be the Messiah, he would go before him.

Naturally, the human animal, like all animals, prefers pleasure to pain, assurance to anxiety, knowledge to uncertainty. Life is full of those polarities and we inevitably have our favorite. We choose wealth over poverty, power over helplessness, wisdom over folly, purpose over futility. There seems to be an opposite side to every valuable coin, and that's the one we don't value.
But God in supreme generosity invites the human animal to transcend our animal nature and see the dark side of every brilliant treasure. If we are to experience eternal life with our God we must be able to appreciate and even welcome disappointment. Where others pursue the extraordinary the faithful delight in the ordinary. Why drink spirits, wine or coffee when water is so satisfying? Why smoke tobacco or marijuana when clean air is so beautiful?
This divine wisdom is surely not alien to our human nature. Students know they must study; athletes know they must train; investors know they must take risks. That ordinary wisdom points to the deeper wisdom of the cross, which Jesus embraced and carried as if he were born for it. Because he was born for it.
The wise learn to wait with persistent patience. If we cannot see where this trial, grief, sadness or disappointment is going we believe that God is leading us there. Zechariah went home and revealed to his wife their part in God's plan, and suddenly it all made sense. Even his silence, which seemed to be the punishment of an impatient Gabriel for his asking the same question Mary would ask six months later, bore fruit in a magnificent praise of God. Christmas teaches the blind to see light in darkness.

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

This is the name they give him:
“The LORD our justice.”

In today's readings, the words just and justice appears ten times, and the word righteous three times. The words apply to God, the Messiah and to Joseph, the righteous man. Justice is more than a Christian virtue; it is the name, or identity, of a Christian individual. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is — As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Periodically, I must return to a statement by Reinhold Niebuhr, especially since I meet this mystery almost daily as a hospital chaplain: 
The high estimate of the human stature implied in the concept of "image of God" stands in paradoxical juxtaposition to the low estimate of human virtue in Christian thought. Man is a sinner. His sin is defined as rebellion against God. The Christian estimate of human evil is so serious precisely because it places evil at the very center of human personality: in the will. This evil cannot be regarded complacently as the inevitable consequence of his finiteness or the fruit of his involvement in the contingencies and necessities of nature.
Sin is occasioned precisely by the fact that man refuses to admit his "creatureliness" and to acknowledge himself as merely a member of a total unity of life. He pretends to be more than he is. Nor can he, as in both rationalistic and mystic dualism, dismiss his sins as residing in that part of himself which is not his true self; that is, that part of himself which is involved in physical necessity. In Christianity it is not the eternal man who judges the finite man; but the Eternal and Holy God who judges sinful man. Nor is redemption in the power of the eternal man who gradually sloughs off finite man. Man is not divided against himself so that the essential man can be extricated from the non-essential. Man contradicts himself within the terms of his true essence. His essence is free self-determination. His sin is the wrong use of his freedom and his consequent destruction. 
       The Nature and Destiny of Man. Reinhold Niebuhr (1941) ISBN 0-02-387510-0

Professor Niebuhr has said this as well as anyone since the Bible. This "evil at the very center of human personality: in the will" challenges each one of us in our inner consciousness, and it challenges us in our relations to one another. 
Here's a fellow who is killing himself with alcohol. He knows it, he sees it happening, he cannot deny what is obvious to everyone including himself. And yet he returns again and again to the drink. 
If sin were a reasonable choice he would not choose it; if he compiled all the evidence and arrived at a coherent conclusion, he would not drink. And yet he does because he wants to. 
Here's a diabetic who will eat that stale jellyroll doughnut. He knows he shouldn't. He doesn't need it; it's not that appealing. It may cost him his toes, feet and legs. And yet he eats it.
Loved ones stand in helpless amazement as they watch this madness and yet they cannot change its course. Often the most helpful thing they can do is respect the right of one who chooses wrongly and let the consequences speak for themselves.  
This is not an alien demon that possesses us, as some people would believe. This is not an intractable instinct, like the salmon that tries to swim through the hydroelectric dam. 
This bad choice is what I do. It is what I make myself, unjust. 
But the evil goes far beyond the individual. There is a collective dimension as we realize we have been consistently making this bad choice -- racism, for instance -- for generations. It's a tradition built into our language, laws, architecture, and city streets. 

Salvation cannot come from outside the human heart. We cannot be lifted out of this world into paradise because, "Wherever you go, there you are!" The problem, as the story of Noah and the Ark, demonstrates, is the evil within the human heart that cannot be uprooted with any kind of threat, promise or punishment. Not even the threat of cosmic catastrophe can force the human will; God has created us in his own image and likeness with that godlike freedom. 
To save us, Jesus must be born a human being, and he must breathe into us that penetrating spirit of obedience that transform my will to his. Becoming through Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation his Body, I want what he wants with the same self-sacrificing passion. If there any element of self-will left in my desire; if I am not just, I can have no part with him. 
Justice is one of God's names. It must be my name as well. If that is to be, I must be obedient as Jesus and the Holy Spirit are to the Father, who humbly, sacrificially "bends down" to save mortal man.