The Rich Tapestry of Faith On New Years Day

The feast day of January 1st is a very complex tapestry, both culturally and liturgically. Perhaps we can use the second reading by St. Paul to the Galatians as a way to weave through some of the many details. We can look at it in three parts.

I. The chronology of our celebration– The text from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians says, When the fullness of time had come …

Most people are going about today saying, “Happy New Year!” And rightfully so, for it is the beginning of a new year; but most people think of New Year’s Day in almost wholly secular terms. Sadly, it is best known as an occasion for loud parties and excessive drinking.

It is a mistake to view New Year’s Day simply as a secular holiday. In speaking of “the fullness of time,” St. Paul reminds us that all time and all ages belong to God.

It is not simply 2023; it is 2023 Anno Domini (A.D.). Even the most unbelieving of people in the Western world denote their place in time in relation to Jesus Christ. It is 2023 years since the birth of Christ. Every time we write the date on a check or at the top of a letter, every time we see it at the top of the newspaper or on our computer screen, that number, 2023, points back to Christ. He is the Lord of history. Jesus sets the date; He is the clock by which we measure. All time belongs to Him.

Jesus says in the book of Revelation, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, The beginning and the end. He who is, and who was, and who is to come (Rev 22:13).

If it is true that 2023 references the birth of Christ, then why is Christmas Day not also New Year’s Day? The fact that it is not actually makes a lot of sense if we understand liturgical and spiritual sensibilities.

In the Church and stretching back into ancient Jewish times, it was customary to celebrate the high feasts of faith over the period of a week. In Christian tradition this came to be known as the “octave.” Although we think of a week as comprising seven days, consider that we celebrated Christmas this past Sunday and now this week we celebrate New Year’s Day on Sunday; Sunday to Sunday, inclusive, is eight days.

Tuesday, January 1, 2023 is the eighth day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition, the octave is considered as one long “day” that lasts for eight days. Therefore, Tuesday, January 1, 2023 completes Christmas day; it is fulfilled. Or, as St. Paul says, the “fullness of time” in terms of Christmas day has come. At the end of this eight-day Christmas day, our calendar flips from 2022 to 2023 A.D.

The rest of the secular world has largely moved on already, barely thinking of Christmas anymore. As I walk in my neighborhood, I see Christmas trees already set out at the curb waiting to be picked up by the recycling trucks. Yes, for many in our hurried world, Christmas is over. We in the Church, however, continue to celebrate the great Christmas feast and cycle. Having completed the octave, we move on to Epiphany week.

This New Year’s Day we contemplate the “fullness of time.” The passage of another year reminds us of the magnificent truth that to God all time—past, present, and future—is equally present. He holds all things together in Himself. He is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Whenever He acts, He acts in our time, out of the fullness of time. This is a very deep mystery and we should ponder in silence the mystery that for God, all things are. He is not waiting for things to happen. For Him, everything is accomplished.

II. The content of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, God sent forth his son born of a woman. This statement again reminds that we are still in the Christmas cycle.

While it is New Year’s Day, there is also a complex tapestry of religious meanings to this day as well. It is still Christmas day, the eighth day of the one long day that we call Christmas.

Historically, this is also the day of Christ’s circumcision. For a long period in Church history, today was the feast of “The Circumcision of the Lord.” As I have written previously, I regret the loss of this feast, at least in terms of its title.

Today is the day when Joseph and Mary brought Christ to be circumcised. In this, Jesus as man and as God reverences the covenant He has made with His people. It is a beautiful truth that God seeks relationship with His people. In this covenantal act of the circumcision is the moving truth that Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb 2:11).

There is the first shedding of Jesus’ blood. It is also a sign of His love for us.

This feast day also celebrates the Most Holy Name of Jesus, for not only was a Jewish boy circumcised on the eighth day, but he was also given his name; all heard that name for the first time on that day.

The name Jesus means “God saves.” Indeed, this Most Holy Name of Jesus, when used in reverence, has saving power. We are baptized in His Holy Name along with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and all of our prayers conclude with His Holy Name. Scripture says this of His great and holy name:

Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2: 9-11).

Yet another meaning of today’s feast day is shown in its current, formal title: “The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.” This replaced the title of “The Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord” in 1970. However, it is the most ancient title for this feast day. Again, you may read more on this topic in a previous blog post.

We note in the second reading that St. Paul says that God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father; He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. Jesus is God, and because Mary gave birth to Him, she is the Mother of God because Jesus is not two different persons.

Mary did not just give birth to part of Jesus, she gave birth to Jesus. Thus, the title “Mother of God” speaks to us as much about Jesus as it does about Mary. She has that title because of the Church’s insistence that Jesus cannot be divided up into two different people. We cannot say that Mary gave birth to one Jesus but not to “the other one.” Although He has two natures, human and divine, there is only one Jesus.

Thus, on this feast of Christmas, on this eighth day of Christmas, we are reminded and solemnly taught that Jesus is both human and divine. In taking a human nature to Himself from His mother Mary, He remains one person. God has sent forth his son, born of woman.

III. The consolation of our celebration– St. Paul goes on to say, Born under the law to ransom those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son in our hearts crying out Abba, Father! So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and, if a son, also an heir through God. Note three things about this passage:

Our Adoption– We have already noted that on the eighth day Jesus is circumcised and enters into the Covenant, into the Law. In the Incarnation, He joins the human family; in the Covenant, He joins our family of faith. He will fulfill the old Covenant and inaugurate the new one. By this New Covenant, by baptism into Him, we become members of His Body and are thereby adopted as sons.

We become sons in the Son. When God the Father looks at His Son, loving Him, He is also looking at us and loving us, for we are in Christ Jesus, members of His Body through baptism. God is now our Father, not in an allegorical sense, but in a very real sense. We are in Jesus and therefore God really is our Father.

Our Acclamation– St. Paul says that the proof of our sonship is the movement of the Holy Spirit in us that cries out Abba! In Aramaic and Hebrew, Abba is the family term for father. It is not baby talk, like “Dada.” However, just as most adults call their father “Dad” or some other endearment rather than the more formal “Father,” so Abba is used in a similar way. It would be quite a daring thing for us to call God “Dad” unless we were permitted to do so and instructed to do so by Christ.

St. Paul speaks of this word, Abba, as proof that we are sons. In so doing, he emphasizes that it is not merely the saying of the word that he refers to. Even a parrot can be taught to say the word. Rather, St. Paul is referring to what the word represents: an inner movement of the Holy Spirit wherein we experience a deep affection for God the Father. By our adoption, our baptism into Christ, by our reception of the Holy Spirit, we love the Father! We develop a deep affection for Him and dread offending Him. By this gift of the Spirit, God is our Father, whom we deeply love!

Our Advancement– Notice that St. Paul then speaks of how we have moved from being slaves to being sons, heirs. In Jesus, we are not just any son; we are the only Son of the Father. As Jesus has a kingdom from His Father, so do we as we too inherit it with Him. As sons in the Son, we are heirs with Jesus to the Kingdom!  Jesus speaks of His disciples as reigning with Him one day: And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me (Lk 22:29). In Jesus, all Heaven will be ours and we will reign with Him forever. This is not our doing, not our glory; it is Christ’s doing and His glory in which we share.

Thus we have a very rich tapestry on this New Year’s Day, this feast of the Octave of Christmas, this Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, this Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of Mary, Mother of God. We are given this feast wherein the glory of Christ is held before us and we who are members of His Body are told of the gifts that we receive by His holy incarnation and His passion, death, and resurrection.

It’s not a bad way to start the new year: being reminded of God’s incredible love for us and of His rich blessings and promises.

On The Feast of the Holy Innocents, A Meditation on the Sins Committed Against Children

Today, we observe the feast of the Holy Innocents, a feast commemorating the young children, of even younger age who were cruelly murdered by the paranoid and crazed killer known as Herod “the Great.” So paranoid was he that others might usurp or limit his power that he killed three of his own sons, and his wife. He ruthlessly killed many others as well. As his own death drew near, according to Josephus,  Herod decreed that in order that the nation properly mourn his death, one member of each family should be killed in his honor, and thus the mourning in all Israel for him would be sincere. His last and final act as King was to rise from his death bed and sentence to death a group of Jewish zealots who had removed an Eagle he place over the entrance of the temple. They had thought the image a desecration. Having killed them, he himself died (in bed) the next day.

Herod was a cruel tyrant and a ruthless and paranoid killer. Calling him “the Great” can only be a reference to his skill in architecture and building and to his headship of the equally cruel Herodian dynasty.

Yet here Christ was born and found, in the midst of crisis and disaster. More than ever, the Christmas message is relevant. For despite our cruelty and despite the crises of this world, Christ is still to be found. He was born in one of the most crisis-torn regions of the world. He bids us to find him in just these sorts of places and times, as if to say, there is still hope: The mercies of the Lord are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; it is renewed each morning (Lam 3:22-23).

That he was willing to be born in such circumstances is clear, and from this we see his mercy.

But  from our perspective he should not have to have been born like this. And thus our call to repentance remains. This crisis at Christmas was our human doing, our insensitivity. As Scripture says, He came unto his own, and his own received him not (Jn 1:11). That’s us the scriptures are talking about, No room in the inn.

And while Herod may be said to have acted alone, we cannot evade all responsibility, for to some extent we all participate in making and maintaining a cruel world where such ignominies routinely happen.

Children have much to suffer in this world of our collective making. And while not all of us are equally guilty of contributing to the suffering of children, none of us are wholly innocent either, if for no other reason than our silence.

      • Our culture has sinned against children by sexualizing them, robbing them of their innocence at an earlier and earlier age, and exposing them to all sorts of indoctrination and experimentation in schools. The most recent horrors center on exposing even kindergarteners to confusing sexual messages and practices related to transgenderism, homosexuality, “drag-queen story hours” and many other practices that desensitize and groom little children in sexual matters about which they need not know so far before puberty. We used to have a discretion about this; we used to protect little children from sexual matters, rightly concluding that they were too young to understand and that such matters could trouble and confuse them. Adults speaking to little children about these matters used to be considered a grave and even criminal violation.  What is wrong with so many today? And how is it legal for doctors to administer puberty blocking drugs and even perform mastectomies and genital mutilations on minors (with or without parental permission)?  Imagine the health complications in stopping puberty, a natural and essential stage of growth! How can a minor make such life-altering and often permanent decisions?  It is a sin against these children to incite sexual confusion, indulge it and even cooperate in dangerous hormonal and surgical interventions in service of a lie that one can alter their sex. All this used to be obvious to us until about five minutes ago in our culture. 

      • Next, consider that most children born today are no longer born into the lasting family units they deserve with a father and mother committed to one another till death do them part. The problems begin with fornication, which is rampant in our culture. And while most do not think of this as a sin of injustice, it is. It is so because of what it does primarily to children.
      • Many children are also conceived of fornication. Tragically most of these children who are thus conceived are outright killed by abortion. 85% of abortions are performed on unmarried women. And for all the vaunted declarations of how contraception makes every baby a wanted baby, nothing could be further from the truth. Abortion has skyrocketed with the availability of contraception. This is because the problem is not fertility, it is lust, promiscuity, fornication and adultery. And contraception fuels these problems by further enabling them. The promises associated with contraception are lies, it does the opposite of what it promises.
      • So, fornication and the contraceptive mentality (founded on lies) cause grave harm to children, beginning with death, in huge numbers. And the children, conceived of fornication who do (thankfully) survive are, nevertheless subjected to the injustice of usually being born into irregular situations. There are single mothers, some single fathers, and many other irregularities.
      • Add to this picture the large number of divorced families. And make no mistake, these shredded families cause great hardships and pain for children that include: children being shuttled back and forth between different household each week, having to meet “daddy’s new girlfriend” or mommy’s new “live-in boy-friend” and all sorts of other family chaos. Blended families also dramatically increase the likelihood of sexual and emotional abuse, since legal relationships seldom have the built-in protections of natural relationships. To be sure, not all people are divorced in the same way. Some tried to prevent it but their spouse was unwilling, etc. Still the harm caused to children remains.

All of this misbehavior, individual and cultural, harms children. Not being raised in a traditional marriage dramatically increases a child’s likelihood of suffering many other social ills, starting with poverty.

The chief cause of poverty in this country, is the single motherhood, absent fatherhood.
71% of poor families are not married.
Children of single parent homes are 2 times more likely to be arrested for juvenile crime,
2 times more likely be treated for emotional and behavioral problems,
Twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school,
33% more likely to drop out of school,
3 times more likely to end up in jail by age 30.
50% more likely to live in poverty as adults,
And twice as likely to have a child outside of marriage themselves
. [*]

Not all of us do all these things personally and to the same degree. We should further note that abortion is complex and some women have recourse to it out of despair, others are pressured and so forth. But the point emphasized in this reflection is that all of us do contribute to the sort of culture that is increasingly poisonous and unjust to children if not downright deadly.

If nothing else, too many of (starting with clergy) are far too silent about the sins of injustice committed against children. Many remain quite silent while the bad behaviors adults pile up in our culture. Our silence is largely the product of fearing to offend other adults. Meanwhile children suffer, and the injustices pile higher, beginning with the body count of aborted babies and watered by the tears of surviving children who have had much to suffer.

Something to think about on the feast of the Holy Innocents.

I put the following video together to honor these young martyrs. The musical setting is by Michael Haydn of the hymn for the Feast of the Holy Innocents: Salvete Flores Martyrum The Latin text of this ancient hymn is quite beautiful. I produce here the Latin text followed by a fairly literal translation.

Salvete flores martyrum, – Hail Martyr Flowers
quos lucis ipso in limine – On the very threshold of the dawn (of life)
Christi insecutor sustulit – Christ’s persecutor destroyed (you)
ceu turbo nascentes rosas. – like the whirlwind does the budding roses.

Vos prima Christi victima, – You Christ’s firstfruits
grex immolatorum tener, – A flock of tender sacrificial victims
aram sub ipsam simplices – right up by the very altar
palma et coronis luditis. – now play with your palms and crowns

Iesu, tibi sit gloria, – Jesus to you be glory
qui natus es de Virgine, – who were born of the Virgin
cum Patre et almo Spiritu, – with the Father and loving Spirit
in sempiterna saecula. Amen. – unto to eternal ages. Amen.

The Nativity Set is Snapshot of the Church

It is a nearly universal practice among Catholics to have a nativity set in our homes and surely in our parishes. Not only does the nativity set remind us of the birth of Christ, it is also a miniature replica of the Church. In the scene we see God (Jesus) and man, saints (Jesus Mary and Joseph) and sinners (all the rest), the rich (the Magi) and the poor, (Mary Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds). We see the learned (the Magi) and the simple (the shepherds). There are Jews and Gentiles since the Magi are Gentiles and the rest are Jews. In this midst of this diverse scene, Jesus is found! 

While it may seem “institutional” to ponder the Church on Christmas Day, please realize that it is not. The Church is not an institution, the Church is the Body of Christ; He the Head of the Body, the Church and we, his members (cf Col 1:18; 1 Cor 12:27). Therefore we do well to ponder Christ’s presence in the Nativity setting and what it teaches us about his Body, the Church. Let’s ponder some of the elements:

Divine and Human –  Cleary, Christ alone is divine and all the other figures are human or animals. But it is essential, when pondering the Church to remember that the Church is both divine and human. The Church is divine because it is Christ’s body and he is the head of the Body as noted above. It is human because we are members of Christ’s Body, the Church. Let’s be clear, if it wasn’t for the divine indwelling of the Church by Christ’s headship and the presence of his Holy Spirit, the Church would have lasted only twenty minutes, max. But the Church is still here, 2,000 years later proclaiming the same Gospel. The Church is a miracle. There is simply no way to explain it perdurance except that Christ is its head. We can call the Church “Holy” because of Christ, but without him we know sin from the human dimension of the Church would have destroy it centuries ago. Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is found at the center of the nativity scene, surrounded by the human beings he loves. The Church is human, to be sure, but the Church is also divine and thus holy and an object of faith.

Saints and Sinners – Jesus of course is sinless and holy. By his grace so is Mary his mother. Joseph is surely a saint even if not sinless from conception. The rest are sinners. Today also in the Church are saints and sinners. Some of the saints are perfected and in heaven. Some of the saintly are still among us here on earth, even if not perfected yet. And, to be sure, most of us are still sinners trying to make it in. This is the Church: many who are holy, and many who are sinners striving for holiness. Sadly there are also among us some who aren’t even trying to be holy, but the Church still holds us close and Christ is still calling. There is an impatience by many that the Church is not very holy and has too many scandals. Indeed, one is too many, but a perfect Church would be an empty Church, at least here on earth. Hospitals work for healing, but must admit the sick. So too the Church which is called to heal, must admit sinners to do so. Christ is found in Bethlehem among both saints and sinners. So too today.

Learned and Simple – In the Nativity Scene we Have Jesus surrounded by the learned and the simple. The wise men were learned, the shepherds were likely simple, unlettered men. Joseph and Mary knew their Scripture and the Jewish Law but were not likely credentialed scholars. In the Church too we have those of great learning, we have unlettered peasants and everyone in between. Saints Augustine and Aquinas, Saints Theresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena are all learned Doctors (teachers) of the faith in a Church which has a great deposit of faith and learning. And yet, many unlettered and simple believers also fill our pews throughout the world and through time.  The Church is the patron of the arts and sciences and also the refuge of the poor and simple.

Rich And Poor – The Magi were surely wealthy for they came with gold, frankincense and myrrh. The rest were likely among the working poor. They were not destitute, but their wages permitted little frills. So to the Church through time has included the rich and the poor and always together. A certain Anglican, years ago converted to the Catholic Faith in England. Upon hearing of his plans, his mother fretted: “Oh dear, you will be worshipping with ‘the help.'” Indeed, in a Catholic parish one may just as easily find the banker and the laborer kneeling in the same pew. The Church has benefited from certain wealthy benefactors, but has always been a home to the poor.

Jew and Gentile – In the nativity scene, wth the arrival of the Magi, we see Jews and Gentiles together with Christ. In the Creed we describe the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The term “catholic” means universal. People of every nation, race and language are summoned to Christ and the Church has a mission “unto the ends of the earth.”  Jesus said to the apostles, Going therefore, teach all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20). Today we can rightly claim that the Catholic Church is in every land, speaks every language and summons everyone to accept Jesus Christ and live his teachings. If you look at most Catholic parishes in our region you will see what looks like the United Nations. There is an old expression regarding the Church: “Here comes everyone!” 

Added to our Nativity scene are also the Angels who gathered that night. And, though invisible to our eyes, they dwell among us in unimaginable numbers. Wherever you go, the angels are everywhere attending to creation and assisting in our human endeavors. Trust God’s assistance and providence! We are not alone, myriads of angels assist and surround us and assist the Church!

Finally, and most humbly, do not neglect to notice what the older translations called the “ox and the ass.” St. Francis of Assisi who gave us the Nativity Set as a devotion placed them there in fulfillment of the Prophet Isaiah who wrote: The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s manger: but Israel has not known me, and my people has not understood (Is 1:3). I suppose the implied question is “Are you as smart as an ox or an ass?” We ought to be smarter, but too often we compare poorly to these otherwise stubborn and stupid animals if we fail to seek the Lord where he is humbly found. 

This Christmas and every Christmas, we can learn a lot just by studying the Nativity sets we set up. I like you, strive to go to that humble and challenging place where the Lord is actually found. We may wish to find him in a church or family of our own design. Instead, he is found in a complex place that includes the rich and poor, the learned and simple, Jew and Gentile, saints and sinners, even the likes of you and me.

And he is not ashamed to call us his brethren (see Heb 2:11). 

Five Reasons We Need a Savior – An Advent Meditation on a Text from Isaiah

Blog12-1As Christmas draws so near, we should ponder why we need a savior. In short, we’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But praise the Lord, there is a doctor on the way. His name is Emmanuel; His name is Jesus, which means “God saves.”

Let’s look at a keynote reading of Advent describing five reasons we Jesus a savior!

I. Distant Sons Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the Lord speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood. Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord, spurned the Holy One of Israel, apostatized (Is 1:2-4).

At the heart of most of our troubles is that we have distanced ourselves from God. Sometimes this is through forgetfulness rooted in a dullness of mind. Culturally in the West we have moved God to the periphery by an increasingly strident secularism. We are distant children. Collectively speaking, we have disowned our Father: the God who made us and who enables us to do everything we have done.

In so doing, we are cutting ourselves off from the very source of our power and achievement. This, of course, is the height of foolishness. Consider a fan that has just been unplugged. At first the blades continue to spin and the fan may “think” that all is well. But gradually the blades move more and more slowly. Eventually, they stop completely. It is this way with us as well.

Most of us believers are rightly concerned that our culture, having been unmoored, is becoming just as God described faithless ancient Israel: a sinful nation laden with wickedness, evil, and corruption. No age of this “paradise lost” has ever been sinless, but increasingly we cannot even get consensus on the most basic moral issues: that killing infants in the womb is wrong, that homosexual acts are disordered, and that promiscuity is unhealthy for the body and the culture. Even the most rudimentary understanding of biology shows that a life in the womb is a human baby and that homosexual acts are not meant to be (the parts don’t fit and the full purpose of sex is impossible). And clearly promiscuity brings disease. And this is just the biological evidence. Even a high school biology student can figure out that these practices are misguided.

But so deep is our confusion, that even the most obvious aspects of things evade us as we get lost in our rationalizations and foolish attempts to justify what we know, deep down, is wrong. Yes, unplugged from God, we get a little slow in our thinking.

The Lord goes on to compare His distant children to oxen and donkeys. Yes, even they are smarter than some of us, for they know their owner and who feeds them. Are you and I smarter than a donkey or an ox? There is a reason our nativity sets usually feature a donkey and a cow. They were there for the birth of Christ, but we had no room for him in the inn.

So the first reason we need a savior is that we tend to stray from God. And having strayed, we get lost in more ways than one. God has to come find us, just as in the garden when the first couple sinned He went through the Garden calling, “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9) So now He seeks us, His distant children.

II. Disease-StruckWhy will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot: Wound and welt and gaping gash, not drained, or bandaged, or eased with salve (Isaiah 1:5-6).

This is a bad situation. The Lord says simply, “There is no sound spot.” The damage caused by sin is enormous and the Lord describes it sickening terms: wounds; welts; and horrifying, pus-filled, gaping gashes.

We tend to make light of sin, but God does not. St. Paul put things more bluntly and tersely: “You were dead in your sins” (Eph 2:1).

But making light of our sins we stand there and continue to get struck; we continue to rebel. We ignore the body count of abortion, the toll that divorce and promiscuity take on children, the high price of greed, and the foolishness of casting aside God and His wisdom.

As God describes it, our stance is unreasonable and just plain stupid. We rebel, glory in evil things, and assert a false notion of freedom. But God says to us that if we could only see ourselves as He does, we would be sickened: gaping wounds and foul discharge.

Jesus said to Sister Faustina, You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. … But because you are such great misery I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy (Diary II. 718).

Here, then, is the second reason we need a savior: Our sins and stubbornness have made us wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:17). We cannot save ourselves. Only with grace and mercy do we stand a chance. We need more than an angel; we need a savior.

III. Desolate Scene Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire. Your land before your eyes strangers devour, [a waste, like Sodom overthrown]—And daughter Zion is left like a hut in a vineyard, Like a shed in a melon patch, like a city blockaded. Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a scanty remnant, We had become as Sodom, we should be like Gomorrah (Is 1:7-9).

Ruined cultures eventually produced ruined cities and plundered landscapes. You don’t think it can happen today? Throughout the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, countries have come and gone, and powerful coalitions have gathered and fallen apart. None of them thought that they would collapse either. But they are all gone. Where is Rome? Where is the Napoleonic Empire? Where is the USSR? It was once said, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. The Church alone, by Christ’s promise, is indefectible. And she, too, needs often-severe purifications.

In the Bible the usual focus was on land, crops, and buildings. In our age, we speak of “economies.” But no matter what we call it, we cannot have strong economies or unless we are strong, true, consistent and disciplined. Our moral decline produces a decadence (from the Latin for “to be fallen down”) and a laziness.

We are even too lazy to have children. And thus the text above speaks of “strangers devouring your land.” Once-Christian Europe is soon to become a Muslim caliphate. Hagia Sophia became a mosque; will the great cathedrals of Europe go the same way?

In America the situation is more complex. Thankfully, most of our immigrants are Catholic Christians. But it does seem clear that our years of being an economic and political leader among the nations is fading; the thinning soil of our culture can little longer sustain the taller growths. Our economy has been stagnant for at least a decade now, and unemployment is shockingly high. There’s no telling where it will end up, but things don’t look very vigorous right now.

And here is the third reason we need a savior: to save us from the mess we’ve made and reinvigorate us with the things that make for healthy families, healthy communities, a healthy culture, and a healthy Church. We need rebuilding, reinvigoration, restoration, refocusing, and reformation.

IV. Disconnected Sacrifices Hear the word of the Lord, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:10-19).

Even our worship lacks integrity. That which is supposed to glorify God and bring forth in us a holy obedience has become lip service. God seeks hearts that are humble, docile, loving, and repentant. We cannot buy Him off by just singing hymns, saying a few prayers, or attending Mass. These things, good though they are, are meant to effect a conversion in us that makes us more loving of both God and neighbor, less violent, more just, more merciful, more generous to the poor, and more holy. Our worship should effect change in us such that we cease doing evil and learn to do good, we strive for justice, we address injustice, and we defend and help the poor.

An additional problem with our worship today is that God has become almost an afterthought. Much of our liturgy is self-centered, self-congratulatory, and anthropocentric (rather than theocentric). We are “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” While the Mass should focus on God and summon us to humility and joy before Him, too often it seems more an exercise in pride and self-congratulation. We are very narcissistic, even in a communal setting.

God cannot be pleased with all of this. Even if our worship is rightly ordered, we are not going to buy God off. God wants an obedient heart more than sacrifice. Sacrifice without obedience is a sham.

This is the fourth reason we need a savior: We need God to restore our integrity and give us a new heart. We are “dis-integrated,” in the sense that pieces of our life that should be together (e.g., worship and obedience, liturgy and healing) are not. Too often our worship does just the opposite of what it should. Instead of drawing us more deeply into the love and obedience of God it becomes the very occasion of keeping God at a distance and seeking to placate him with superficial gestures. This makes our worship an insult and a lie. God doesn’t mince words in the passage above when He says how displeased He is with this.

We need God to give us a new heart, one that loves Him as well as the people and things that He loves. Only then will our worship will truly reflect the heart that God seeks: a loving, humble, and generous heart.

V. Desire to Save Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Is 1:18-20).

God says that we should get started. Let the healing begin! And all the people must say,

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until you, O Lord, the Son of God appear.”

A Late Advent Message From the Lord

As the end of Advent approaches, the Office of Readings features some final admonitions from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. On the one hand they console; on the other, they challenge us to remain firm.

Let’s look at these admonitions from the Lord (Isaiah 46:3-13), which were addressed to three different groups in ancient Israel. However, let’s apply them to three groups in our own times:

        • the faithful remnant,
        • the foolish rebels, and
        • the fainthearted at risk.

To the Faithful RemnantHear me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Israel, my burden since your birth, whom I have carried from your infancy. Even to your old age I am the same, even when your hair is gray I will bear you; It is I who have done this, I who will continue, and I who will carry you to safety.

This is directed to the devoted, to the remnant, to those who remain after the cultural revolution in our times, to those sometimes discouraged and sorrowful over the infidelity of loved ones and of the world around them. To these (often the elderly among us who remember a more faithful even if imperfect time) the Lord first speaks.

In effect, He says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Who are the mournful? They are those who see the awful state of God’s people: not glorifying the Lord in their lives, not knowing why they were made, spending themselves on what neither matters nor satisfies. Yes, those who mourn shall be strengthened, and, as their sorrow has motivated them to pray and work for the kingdom, they shall be borne to safety.

This faithful remnant should never forget that God has carried them from the beginning, even in the strength of their prime. Now, reduced by age, they are still carried by the Lord. He has never forgotten them and will carry them to safety; their faith in difficult times will be rewarded.

To The Foolish Rebels Remember this and bear it well in mind, you rebels; remember the former things, those long ago: I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. Whom would you compare me with, as an equal, or match me against, as though we were alike? There are those who pour out gold from a purse and weigh out silver on the scales; Then they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god before which they fall down in worship. They lift it to their shoulders to carry; when they set it in place again, it stays, and does not move from the spot. Although they cry out to it, it cannot answer; it delivers no one from distress.

The word “rebel” is from the Latin re (again) + bellum (war). In this context it refers to those who are forever at war with God and His plan for their lives. They foolishly forget His saving deeds. They imagine vain things: that there are other gods or entities that could save them. Even more foolishly, they craft other “gods” that they have to lift upon their shoulders to carry.

Many in our day act in the same way: always at war with God, His Church, and His plan. As G.K. Chesterton once noted, when people stop believing in God, it is not that they will believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything. Chesterton also wrote that when we break God’s big laws, we don’t get liberty; we get small laws. We transfer our trust away from God to false, crafted gods like government, or science, or the market. We hope that they will carry us, but we end up carrying the weight of these gods on our own shoulders. We carry this weight in the form of taxes, debt, and anxiety about everything in our health or environment (demanded by the increasingly politicized scientific and medical communities).

Science, the market, and government are not intrinsically evil, but they are not gods, either. They cannot deliver us from ourselves; only God can do that. To the many who rebelliously and foolishly persist with their “non-gods,” He says, “I am God; there is no other.”

To the Fainthearted at Risk Listen to me, you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give to Israel my glory. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every purpose. I call from the east a bird of prey, from a distant land, one to carry out my plan. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it, and I will do it.

Among the faithful there are some who are at risk, who are nearly ready to give up. God encourages them, but also warns that His plan will stand whether or not they endure. Thus there is an implicit warning from Jesus here (and an explicit warning elsewhere) that we must persevere. Jesus says that because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (Matt 24:12-13).

St. Augustine wrote, [God has] devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan … All this had therefore to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future, in order that we might wait for it in faith, and not find it as a sudden and dreadful reality (From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (In ps. 109, 1-3: CCL 40, 1601-1603)).

God’s plan will stand whether or not we do. We must stand as well, even when we want to faint or fall back. Our love must not grow cold nor our strength fail. God has triumphed and Satan has lost. We must choose with whom we will stand.

The evidence of the present age does not seem to show this, but as Scripture reminds us,

Therefore, we do not lose heart … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-17).

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn 2:16-17).

Here, then, are some final instructions from the Lord this Advent, instructions for us who wait for Him: be faithful; the plan will come to pass. Do not be a foolish rebel, nor one of the at-risk fainthearted. Rather, be part of the faithful remnant. St. Paul says, Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved” (Romans 9:27).

The song performed in the clip below is entitled “Lord Help Me to Hold Out.”

Crisis At Christmas – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

j-and-m-and-jToday’s Gospel gives us some background for the Christmas feast that we need to take to heart. It speaks to us of a crisis at Christmas.

We tend to sentimentalize the Christmas story as we think of the baby Jesus in the manger. It is not absolutely wrong to be sentimental, but we must also be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was, and about the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in making it come to pass.

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages: distress, direction, and decision.

  1. DISTRESS This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

The marriage is off. When we read that Mary was found to be with child before she and Joseph were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation was. Pregnancy in this circumstance  brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the continuation of the marriage permanently off.

Why is this? We read that Joseph was a “righteous man.” To our ears this like saying that he was a “good man.” Most of the Fathers of the Church interpreted “righteous” here to refer to Joseph’s gracious character and virtue where he steps back from a sacred situation. And we surely suppose all this of him. More recent biblical scholarship includes the idea that it meant Joseph was also an “observer of the Law.” He would thus do what the Law prescribed. This explains his decision to divorce Mary because of her apparent lack of virginity prior to their coming together in the  marriage. Here is an example of the Mosaic Law in reference to such a matter:

But if the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 22:20-21).

While this seems quite extreme to us, we can also recognize how far we have gone in the other direction in modern times, making light of promiscuity. I doubt that anyone would argue that we should stone such a woman today, and rightly so, but this was the landscape in Joseph’s time.

What about stoning? It would seem that Jews of the first century had varying interpretations about whether stoning was required or whether it was simply permitted (cf John 8). As a virtuous and patient man, Joseph looks for and senses some freedom in not “exposing” Mary to the full effects of the Law (stoning). But it does not seem he can find a way that he can take her into his home. Thus, as a “righteous man” (i.e., follower of the Law) he decides that divorce is required even if stoning is not.

This leads us to two important reflections, one about Mary and one about Joseph.

Mary – We can see into what a difficult and dangerous position her yes (her fiat) to the angel placed her. She risked her very life by being found with child outside the normal marital act with her husband. We know that it is by the Holy Spirit she conceives, but her family and Joseph and his family do not yet, or at least cannot verify it. And even if Mary explained exactly how she conceived, do you think you would accept such a story? Mary’s fiat placed her in real danger. It is a great testimony to her faith and trust in God that she said yes to His plans.

Joseph – We can also see the kind of pressure he would be under to do what the Law and custom required. There is no mention of Joseph’s feelings at this point, but we can assume that when Mary was found to be with child prior to their being together in marriage, the social pressure on him to be legally freed from Mary were strong, regardless of his feeling or plans.

  1. DIRECTION Such was his intention [to divorce] when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Be not afraid. The principal exhortation of the angel was that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful because fear was a very big factor. Joseph had much to fear in taking Mary. Some of the Fathers of the Church believed that what the angel meant was that Joseph should not fear God’s wrath, since he would not actually be taking an adulterer or fornicator into his home. Others think that the angel meant that Joseph should not fear taking God’s chosen instrument (Mary) as his wife.

One can also imagine some other fears that needed to be allayed by the angel. For example, Joseph could easily be rejected by his family for taking Mary in. The community could likewise shun him, and as a businessman, Joseph needed a good reputation to be able to ply his trade. All of these threats loom if Joseph “brings evil” into his house rather than purging the (apparent) evil from the midst of his house. But the angel directs him not to fear; this will take courageous faith.

The angel’s explanation is unusual to say the least. What does it mean to conceive by the Holy Spirit? It’s not exactly a common occurrence! Would his family buy such an explanation? What about the others in the small town of Nazareth? Yes, people were more spiritual in those days, but it all seems so unusual!

Further, Joseph hears all this in a dream. We all know what dreams can be like. They can seem so real at the time, but when we are fully awake we wonder if what we experienced was real at all. Joseph has to trust that what he was told is real, and that he should not be afraid because God has given him direction. As is often the case with things spiritual, we have to carefully discern and walk by faith, not by fleshly sight and certitude. Joseph has a decision to make.

  1. DECISION When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

We can see the strong faith of Joseph and the kind of trust he had to put in God. He had been told not to be afraid, to rebuke fear. Manfully, Joseph does this. He makes the decision to obey God whatever the cost. We are given no information about how his family and others in the town reacted. However, the fact that the Holy family later settles back in Nazareth indicates that God did come through on His promise that Joseph need not be afraid.

Heroes of Faith! Recognize the crisis of that first Christmas and the powerful faith of Joseph and Mary. Their reputations were on the line, if not their very lives. They had great sacrifices to make in the wondrous incarnation of our Lord. Quite simply, Mary and Joseph are great heroes of the faith. For neither of them was their “yes” easy. It is often hard to obey God rather than men. Praise God that they made their decision and obeyed.

Mary and Joseph’s difficulties were not yet over. There was a badly timed census, which required a journey to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy. Imagine walking 70 miles through mountainous terrain in such a condition! There may or may not have been a donkey, but I doubt that riding a donkey in the ninth month of pregnancy is all that comfortable either. And then there was no room in the inn; Jesus had to be born in a smelly stable. Shortly thereafter they had to flee through the desert to Egypt because Herod sought to kill Jesus.

Jesus is found in a real Christmas, not a “Hallmark” one. The crisis of the first Christmas prefigures the passion. This where Jesus is found: in the crisis of the first Christmas. You may wish for the perfect Christmas, but there is no perfect Christmas. Jesus will find you where you are, in real life, in the imperfect Christmas, where loved ones have passed away and there is grief, where a job has been lost and there is anxiety, where health is poor and there is stress, where families are experiencing strife. That’s where Jesus will be found, in your real Christmas. A Christmas of joy, yes, but also of imperfections, even crises. He is there waiting for you to find Him, in the real Christmas of your life.

This is an old African-American spiritual that reflects on the fact that true discipleship isn’t always easy. Joseph and Mary surely experience and exemplify what these words express.

I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed my name

Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If He changed mah name

Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If He changed mah name

But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed mah name

On The Hidden Mercy of the Tilma of Guadalupe

On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it is a chance for us to rejoice in the great mercy of our divine Lord and our blessed Lady. I am drawn to mediate on the miraculous quality of our Lady’s eyes on the tilma.

As many of you know, recent discoveries using modern magnification and ophthalmological equipment have shown the seemingly miraculous reflection of as many as a dozen persons in her eyes. How such tiny and accurate reflections could occur in both eyes at just the angles that human stereoscopic sight requires is mysterious to say the least. Even more, there are claims from eye specialists who have had the opportunity to look into our Lady’s eyes on the tilma that they have an iridescence that make the eyes seem almost alive.

I do not propose to write an article here on all the findings and evidence. You can read more our Lady’s eyes HERE and HERE and also in the video below. Rather I propose a short and simple reflection on two merciful facts.

First that our this image demonstrates, in effect that God’s people are the “apple of Mary’s eyes.” Seen there are Juan Diego, the bishop and an assistant, an indigenous family, a woman from Africa and several others. Remarkable; in her own self-portrait, our Lady includes us. In the book of Psalms the cry goes up to God,

Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O Savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand.

Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings (Psalm 17:7-8
)

Deuteronomy also says of God,

He found Israel in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled them, he cared for them, he kept them as the apple of his eye. (Dt 32:10)

And by his Grace, our Lord has often dispatched his mother to us. She finds un in difficult days, and in difficult places, speaking to us in love and sometimes in motherly warning. But, by the grace of God we are the apple of her eye too.

She came to Guadalupe at difficult time, to summon the Mexicans from the fearsome religious bondage of their ancient and often bloody religions, to Christ, their true and only Savior. The image on the tilma shows so many reflected in her eyes, reflected in love. They were the apple of her eye.

May our Lord be pleased to continue to send Mother Mary to us and remind us that we are loved and that heaven knows our struggles and is concerned for us. May none of us every forget that we are still reflected in Mary’s eyes and in the eyes of God to whom she intercedes for us. What a beautiful mercy.

And the second mercy is that images in her eyes, unknown for centuries in any detail seem to have been put there for us, who live now, to later discover. The same can be said for the Shroud of Turin. It is as if, knowing of cynical and unbelieving times where the physical sciences are almost idolized, Our Lord and our Lady left images that both speak to science and also confound it.  How were the image made? How do they have three dimensional effects and display scientific knowledge or techniques unknown in their time? 

Both the shroud and the tilma stand up to rigorous scientific investigation. The amazing truths about both images are backed up by science but also defy simple scientific or technical answers. Many of the “imponderable” mysteries were largely unknown in previous eras without photographic and scientific procedures and techniques. It is almost as if they were hidden there, waiting for us.

And that may in fact be the case. It is a love letter to a scientific but often unbelieving time. Despite our sometimes cynical demands for evidence, to our Lord and our Lady, we are still the apple of their eye. They look to us from afar, from an ancient shroud and very old tilma and they seem to say, “I am here for you to see. And I see you, you whom I love. You are the apple of my eye.” 

For such mercies, thank you Lord.

The Perfect Gift: A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

What is the perfect gift? We tend to answer this question more in terms of what we want, but today’s Gospel teaches us that the perfect gift is what God is offering. One of the goals of the spiritual journey is to come to value, more than our latest desire, more than our perceived need—more than all else—what God offers.

The Gospel opens with John (who is in prison) sending his disciples to Jesus with a strange question: “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” This is a strange question coming from the one who pointed Jesus out and spoke so powerfully of Him! Many of the Fathers of the Church (e.g., John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia) interpreted John’s question as a rhetorical one,designed to teach his reluctant disciples to follow Jesus.

Essentially it does not matter if it is John or his disciples that are puzzled. It is we readers who really have this question. It is us that must accept the Messiah, Jesus as he is, not as we would wish him to be.

Today’s Gospel is best seen in three stages, as we are encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification, to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect is gift is not one of our own imagining but of God’s true offer. It is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift.

Puzzlement When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

This is a strange question given what St. John had already done!With delight, John had pointed out Christ as He approached, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God(John 1:29). With humble hesitation, John had baptized the One who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the One who was mightier than he. So why this unusual question?

If John or his disciples seem puzzled, Consider that John’s comments in last week’s gospel had spoken of a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors, and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last Sunday’s Gospel:

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire(Mat 3:10-12).

John is now in prison, relegated there by a tyrant, an oppressor—the very sort of man John was sure that the Messiah would cut down and cast into the fire. Some might have wondered, based on that, Where was the hoped-for deliverance? Where was the exaltation of the lowly and the casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root of the tree? Jesus was not doing this sort of thing at all. Although He had some confrontations with religious leaders, His main work seems to have been healing the sick and summoning average people to repentance and faith.

Hence the question of some: Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?

Other Old Testament texts had spoken of a wrathful coming of the Messiah. Here are a few:

        • Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come. … Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it! … I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. Therefore, I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger(Is 13:6-10).
        • Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him(Nahum 1:6).
        • But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)

John had worked hard calling people to repentance in order to get them ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord. Hence the  puzzlement is thus understandable from him or his disciples; Jesus goes about healing and preaching, and instead of slaying the wicked, endures scorn and ridicule from those in power.

The “perfect gift” for John or his followers would be to see all injustice rooted out, to see the threshing floor cleared and the distinction between the wheat and the chaff made obvious, to see the wicked burned with fire and the righteous shine like the firmament. Like many of the prophets, John sensed that the perfect gift was this: let judgment run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream(Amos 5:24).

Of itself this is a good and biblical vision that will one day be accomplished. But at this point is it the perfect gift? Is it the gift that Jesus wants to offer? What is the perfect gift?

Purification Jesus gives an answer to John’s disciples that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than those John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of His wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of His healing and mercy.

The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with the context, the audience, and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while the comments John the Baptist last week were not wrong,  these wrathful and vindicating texts of the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more in terms of the Messiah’s second coming than his first.

Jesus thus gives the following answer to those sent by John:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

In this answer, Jesus stitches together many quotes and prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example, consider the following:

        • In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel(Isaiah 29:18-19).
        • The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn(Is 61:1-3).
        • The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall(Is 26:19).
        • Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy(Is 35:5-6).

There is a need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do, to come to a better appreciation of the perfect gift.

To those who are disappointed in His lack of wrathful vengeance, Jesus says something quite remarkable: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

Many of us have been hurt by others or have been deeply troubled by the fact that the wicked seem to prosper while the just struggle.When will God act? Why doesn’t He do something? It is very easy for us to be puzzled, discouraged, or even offended by God’s seeming inaction.

To all this Jesus simply says, And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

It is essential to accept Jesus’ teaching in order to have our sense of the perfect gift purified.Rejoicing in any other gifts than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors, or wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world, is very dangerous. The last time I checked, all of us are sinners.

Here, then, is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies; it is His Son, Jesus. He is the Perfect Gift.

Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is His greatest gift; it is His grace and mercy. That is the perfect gift from the Perfect Gift.Without Jesus and a whole lot of His grace and mercy, we don’t stand a chance.

Perfection – And thus we see that the perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus. It is not the destruction of our enemies. It is not a sudden, swift ushering in of justice before God’s chosen time. The perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus, which all of us without exception desperately need.

In order to emphasize the absolute necessity of grace and mercy, and the perfect gift that they are, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks of St. John the Baptist:

Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”

And thus St. John the Baptist is the best that this world has produced. But pay attention to what the Lord says next:

Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Do you see what grace and mercy can do? Do you see that they surpass any worldly excellence? The world can produce only human, worldly excellence. Grace and mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. Without these gifts of God, we don’t stand a chance. John the Baptist needed grace and mercy; Mother Teresa needed grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are perfect and necessary gifts.

One day the perfect justice of God that we all seek will roll in. But unless and until you receive the perfect gift of grace and mercy through Jesus, you will not be able to endure the perfect justice of God. So until that time, it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of His Son, who by His grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.

If you are looking for the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus. He alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we so desperately need. If even the holy St. John the Baptist was in need, how much more so you and I? Grace and mercy far exceed anything we can ask for or imagine.

Do you want to give the perfect gift to others?Then bring them to Jesus; bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in His Word proclaimed, and in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift; their conversion and salvation is.

Find the perfect gift this Christmas; find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas; give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas; give Him the give of your very self—the perfect gift.