There is a great sense of urgency in the readings for Ash Wednesday. It is as if some great event is looming that could be awesome, but only if the warning is heeded. Consider this selection from the first reading (Joel 2:12-18):
“Even now,” says the LORD, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”
Sound the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people! Assemble the elders; gather the children, even the infants at the breast.
Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people!”
And consider this passage from the second reading (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2):
We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.! Behold, now is the very acceptable time.
What is this awesome yet potentially catastrophic event about which we are warned?The Church supplies the answer as she distributes ashes:
Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
In other words, you’re going to die, and you don’t get to say when, where, or how. So, what are you doing to get ready to appear before the judgment seat of Christ? Mother Church is figuratively shaking us and saying, “Do you understand how significant this is and how serious you ought to be in preparing for it?”
Sadly, many people are notserious about their spiritual life nor are they preparing for death. They are not praying; they do not read Scripture; they are not receiving the sacraments; they do not attend Mass; they are not repenting of their sins. In fact, many celebrate and call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin. They are majoring in all the minors, pursuing the ephemeral while neglecting the eternal.
Yes, a trumpet must be sounded; an urgent summons must go forth.It is time to repent and to get serious about the judgment day that awaits us all. Now is a time of grace and mercy, when God provides remedies for sin and graces for holiness. The time for these will end, however:
It is appointed to man to die once, and thereafter to face judgment (Heb 9:27).
So we aspire to please the Lord, whether we are here in this body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Therefore, since we know what it means to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men (2 Cor 5:9-11).
Sound the trumpet in Zion! It’s time to get ready to meet the Lord before the door of this life closes. Mother Church cries out, “Now is the time. This is the place. Turn from your sins and return to the Lord!”
This song asks, “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”
In the Gospel today the Lord describes metaphorically what a Christian is and what He expects of us. Note five things about what God says:
I. The Definitiveness of His Proclamation– The text says, You are the Salt of the earth. … You are the light of the World. … But if salt goes flat it is good for nothing. … No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.
The Lord is definitive in two ways. First,He says, “You.” He is not talking just to people long ago or to the person next to you. He is not merely talking to your pastor or the Saints. He is talking to you. Youare salt. Youare light. You. It’s too easy to say, “Look at what the Lord is saying to those people long ago near the lakeside.” It’s not long ago; it’s now. It’s you.
The second way that the Lord is definitive isin saying that bothimages depend on us; if we are not salt and light then no one else will be and we will have utterly voided our worth.
The metaphor of salt: You are either salt or you are nothing; in fact, you are good for nothing. As Christians, we have signed up to be specialists. This means is that if we go off and do something else instead, we arenothing and are good for nothing. It’s an all-or-nothing scenario. Jesus says that if you have decided to be His disciple you are either going to do that or else be nothing. You may go on to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, laborer, or social worker, but the Lord has plenty of those (and so does the devil). Your first and only mission is to be a true and uncompromised Christian; everything else is mere commentary. You may be a great doctor, but if you don’t do it as a clear and visible Christian you are nothing. You may be a skilled social worker, but if you don’t do it as a Christian you are good for nothing. Any non-believer can be socially useful as a doctor or social worker, but only a Christian can be a Christian. If you don’t do “job one,” you are nothing. If you supply your children with every good thing, but do not act as a Christian witness to them and bring them to Christ, you are good for nothing. Any parent can provide his children with material things, but only a Christian can give them Christ. Got it? You’re either salt (a true Christian) or you are nothing.
The metaphor of light: The Lord says that you are thelight of the world, not merely alight. What this means is that if we do not shine, the world is darker; no one can take our place. If we don’t shine by living our faith and proclaiming it, the world is in darkness. Buddha can’t help. Mohamed can’t pull it off. Science and humanism can’t substitute. Either we are light or there is none. Some may call this arrogant, but I just call it Scripture. The Lord said it, not us. We are either light or else the world is dark. And if the world is getting darker, whose fault is that? We need not go far. Too many Christians fulfill Isaiah 56:10, which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. You may be an exception, but too many Christians are not.
Therefore, notice the definitive pronouncement the Lord makes here. We Christians are either with the Lord or we’re nothing. We’re either light or the world is in darkness.
II. The Dynamics of Salt– When Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, what are some of the lessons we can learn? Consider these four things:
Salt seasons.Christians are called to add spice to life, to bring beauty, joy, and hope to the world. Joy is the surest sign of a Christian. Even our keeping of the Commandments is a source of joy, as we experience God’s power to put sin to death in us and bring forth order, self-discipline, and holiness. Hope, too, ought to distinguish us from a world that is often cynical and thinks sin is inevitable. To this world we are not only to declare that the Commandments are possible and bring joy, but to demonstrate it in our lives. We are to be zesty, passionate, alive, and free from sin in Christ. Yet, sadly, we Christians are known more for what we are against. Too many Christians are not spicy; they do not really add flavor. They are more like bored believers, depressed disciples, fearful faithful, and frozen chosen. In our best moments, look what spicy things the faith has contributed: Art, music, churches, hospitals, universities, the scholastic and scientific methods, and holidays (a mispronunciation of Holy Days). Our tradition and Scriptural teaching of justice, mercy, love, and the dignity of the human person has blessed the world. Do you bring spice to the lives of others? Do you bring hope and joy? Scripture says, Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you(1 Peter 3:15). That means that people notice hope in you! Do they? How?
Salt preserves. Before refrigeration, people often used salt to cure or preserve meat. The salt killed bacteria and other microorganisms that caused rot and decay. As Christians, we are called to prevent further decay in this sin-soaked world. The truth that we proclaim is meant to preserve people from the decay of sin and overindulgence. Chastity, justice, generosity, and the proclamation of the truth, are like salt that preserves this world from decay. We must be salt. If we are not, nothing else is. Youare the salt.
Salt heals. In the ancient world, salt was used on wounds. It helped to stop bleeding, killed bacteria, and prevented further infection. So, too, the Christian faith. Through our doctrinal and moral teaching, and our living of it, we are called to bring healing to this world, which is wounded by sin, strife, war, jealousy, anger, bitterness, retribution, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, greed, and countless other errors. The Word of God and His plan is a healing medicine for what ails this world.
Salt burns. Yes, salt stings when applied to wounds. We Christians aren’t just sugar and spice and everything nice. When salt is applied to wounds it burns and often brings out loud protest. The truth stings, too. The truth of the Gospel can be irritating to a world that is wounded by sin. But despite the protests of the world, the sting is a healing one. It is driving out the disease of the world and preventing further infection. Just because people protest the Church and howl in complaint at the truth of the Gospel does not mean we have done anything wrong. In fact, protests often show that we are doing exactly what we must.
III. The Destination of Salt– The Lord says that you are the salt of the earth. He did not say that you are the salt of the Church. For salt to be effective it has to get out of the shaker! Too many Christians are bold in the pew but cowards in the world. They will speak of the faith in the relative security of the Church and among certain friends, but don’t ask them to preach to their spouse, their co-worker, or even their children; that’s too scary. And don’t even thinkabout asking them to knock on doors, or to go to the local mall and witness, or to stand in front of an abortion clinic.
Salt in the shaker is useless. It has to come out of the shaker in order to make any difference. You don’t salt salt. Witnessing to fellow Christians may have a limited benefit, but it is not really the true destination of salt. The salt has to go forth. When the priest or deacon says “The Mass is ended go in peace,” he might as well be holding up a salt shaker and shaking it!
It’s long past time for the salt (you and me) to go forth. Consider these observations about life in our country today:
In the last fifty years there has been an increase of more than a 500% in violent crime.
There are more than half a million abortions each year.
Since 1970, the divorce rate has quadrupled. The overall number of divorces may have declined recently, but it is due more to people not getting married in the first place.
More than 40% of children today do not live with both their biological parents. Since the 1970s, the percentage of children living in single-parent homes has tripled.
As the family has broken down, here is what has been happening to our young:
a quadrupling in juvenile arrests,
a 400% increase in births outside of wedlock,
one million teenage pregnancies annually,
three million teenagers treated annually for sexually transmitted diseases,
a 200% increase in the rate of teenage suicide,
a drop in average SAT scores,
two-thirds of high school students have experimented with illegal drugs.
In the schools, one cannot pray or mention religion, yet condoms are freely available and all sorts of aberrant and alternative lifestyles and philosophies are openly promoted.
Parental consent is required for a child to go on a field trip or to get an aspirin, but in many states abortion referrals can be made without parental consent.
Our neighborhoods are devastated by poverty, injustice, crime, and despair.
All of this has happened on our watch. It’s time for the salt to work. The world needs the salt to get out of the shaker and do its work of seasoning, purifying, and preserving.
The Designation of Pure light– You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.You don’t light light; it is the darkness that needs the light. Light is meant to be seen. There are too many undercover Christians, secret agent saints, and hidden holy ones. Jesus didn’t light our light so that we could hide it under a basket out of fear. He wants the Church, you and me, to shine. The Lord wants every Christian to be a light so that it’s like a city on a hill! He wants us to shine so that we can’t be hidden.
The Details of Light– Jesus goes on to say, Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. Let’s consider four things about this light:
The CAUSE of the light – Notice that little word: “Let.” We are to yield to Christ, to allow Him to shine through us. He is the cause of our light. Let your light shine. There’s an old gospel song that says, “When you see me trying to do good, trying to live as a Christian should, it’s just Jesus, Jesus in me.”
The COST of the light– The light is to shine, but there is no shining without burning. Shining costs us something. It may be Christ’s light, but it shines through us. This means sacrifice. It means letting Him use you. It means not always sleeping when you want to. It means not just sitting at home and saying, “Ain’t it awful.” It means getting out and getting involved. It means getting “out there” and risking a few things. It means being visible, targeted, and identified with someone (Jesus) who is hated by many. And in a world that prefers the darkness to light (cf.John 3:19-21), it means being called harsh, out-of-touch, and hateful. There is no shining without burning.
The CONCRETENESS of the light –Letting our light shine is no mere abstraction. Jesus speaks of deeds. Shining involves concrete behavior. Your light shines by the way you live, the choices you make, the behavior you exhibit. It shines when Christians get married and stay married, stay faithful to their commitments, and are people of their word. Our light shines when we tell the truth instead of lying, live chastely instead of fornicating, are courteous and respectful instead of rude. It shines when we respect life, drive safely, and shun reckless and risky behavior. Our light shines when we clean up our language, give to the poor, and work for justice. It shines when we refuse to purchase pornographic, violent, or other degrading materials. Our light shines when we love instead of hate, seek reconciliation instead of revenge, and pray for our enemies instead of cursing them. It shines when we walk uprightly and speak the truth in love, without compromise. That’s when our light begins to shine.
The CONSEQUENCE of the light– God is glorified when our light shines. We do not act or get involved merely to vent our own anger or to fight for our own sake. We are light to glorify God. It is not about our winning, it is about God shining and being glorified. When we do get involved, too often we seek merely to win the argument rather than to glorify God. Often we act in order to garner praise rather than to have God glorified. We need to pray for good intentions, for it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The desired result is God’s glory not our glory.
The liturgical focus of the Feast of the Presentation, which we celebrate today, is light. Christ is our light, and the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! In the Gospel, Simeon holds the infant Jesus and calls Him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Thus, this feast has long featured the carrying of candles by the faithful in procession and the blessing of candles. For this reason, the feast was often called Candlemas.
Today’s feast celebrates the “purification” of Our Lady. As a Jewish woman, she presented herself forty days after giving birth to be blessed and welcomed back to the community. I have written more on the history of that practice here:The Churching of Women.
In this reflection, we will attend to four teachings or perspectives gleaned from the readings. We are taught that our relationship with Jesus is cleansing, consoling, compelling, and communing.
Cleansing– The Gospel opens with this description:When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
It might strike us as oddor even irritating that a woman would need to be purified after giving birth, but ancient Jewish practice exhibited great reverence for the rituals of both birth and death. On account of the deep mysteries of life represented by these events, as well as the fluids (e.g., blood, amniotic fluid) that accompanied them, a purification or blessing was deemed necessary for return to the community. (Read more at the link above.)
Remember that this is nota moral purification, for nothing immoral had been done. Rather, it was a ceremonial purification wherein one was cleansed or made fit again to enter into the public worship and liturgical actions of Israel. Consider, for example, that even in our culture a person who has been outside working and comes back sweaty and in soiled clothes is expected to bathe and put on clean clothing before going to Mass; this does not mean that there is anything sinful in good, honest, necessary work. The Jews extended this idea much further than we do today and there were detailed (frankly, often bewildering) rules about what made one unclean and how/when one should be purified. Very early on, the Church simplified and/or largely abrogated these ideas about certain foods being unclean and what made a person unclean (see Acts 15).
While we may wonder (or even scoff) at these older notions, all of us need purification and cleansing. We are sinners, and we live in a world tainted by sin. The Lord must purify us all; unless this happens, we will never be able to endure the great holiness, glory, and purity of God.
Jesus our savior alone can cleanse and purify us to make us able to endure the glory of God. The first reading describes our need for purification and points to Jesus as the one who purifies us:
But who can endure the day of [the Lord’s] coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire, or like the fuller’s lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD. Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in the days of old, as in years gone by(Mal 3:2-4).
Yes, only the Lord Himself can purify us to endure His glory. Thank you, Jesus, our light and our savior, for the sanctifying grace without which we could never hope to endure and rejoice in the glory that awaits. Thank you, Jesus for your grace and mercy, by which we are able to stand before our Father and praise Him for all eternity. Thank you, Jesus, our purifier, our savior, and our Lord.
Consoling– Well aware of the burden of sin, ancient Israel longed for a savior. The pious knew well that sin brought strife, pain, and grief. Among the pious who longed for the Messiah were Simeon and Anna, who frequented the Temple looking and longing.
Of Simeon we are told:
[He] was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
Of Anna, who is described asamong those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem, we are told:
[She was] a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
Simeon and Anna are two of the pious of Israel longing and looking for the Messiah who would save the people and bring consolation and peace.
What does it mean to have true consolation and peace? It is to be reconciled to the Father, Abba; to once again see Him and be able to walk with Him in the Garden in the cool of the morning. True consolation and peace are found only when the gates of Heaven are opened, and we look once again upon the glorious and serene face of our Father who loves us.
This is a gift that can come only by the ministry of Jesus, for no one knows the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son reveals Him. Jesus is our peace and our consolation by leading us back to His Father in and through His Sacred Heart and by His Holy Passion.
Holding the baby Jesus, Simeon is holding the Gift of the Father, a tremendous gift of peace and consolation come to him in a kind of prevenient way. So, Simeon can say,
Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.
Such a consolation it was to hold the infant Jesus and know that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to save us! Simeon could now go forth in peace from this world for He had beheld the light of God’s saving love in Jesus.
Compelling– In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus is no inconsequential figure. He is the one on whom all human history, collective and personal, hinges. The “hinge” is our choice either for or against Jesus.
Simeon says to Mary,
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.
Jesus compels a choice.We are free to choose for or against Him, but we mustchoose. Upon this choice depends our rise or fall.
Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters(Matt 12:30).
St. Paul writes (in Acts), In the past God overlooked ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead(Acts 17:30). And in Corinthians he writes,We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God(2 Cor 5:20).
Where will you spend eternity? That depends on your stance toward Jesus. Will you choose Him? You are free to choose, but you arenot freenot to choose! On this choice your very life will rise or fall.
Communing– Jesus did not merely save us from on high. He became flesh and lived among us.
In today’s Gospel we read,
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Consider the intimacy of Jesus dwelling among us then and tabernacled among us now in the Blessed Sacrament and in the temple of our heart through His Spirit. Our Lord seeks communion with us and is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Heb 2:11).
On this Feast of the Presentation, allow the Lord into the temple of your heart. Give Him access to your soul by receiving Him in Holy Communion and seeking His presence tabernacled in our churches. Today, Jesus is presented not only in the ancient temple but to you. Reach out to hold on to Him. Like Simeon, receive Him in your heart. Like Anna, run and tell others to come.
Jesus, our light and our salvation, is here.He brings with Him cleansing, consoling, and communing. He also compelsa choice. Choose Him now; run to Him. He is here, and He is calling!
In these early weeks of “ordinary” time, we are being introduced to Jesus and the beginnings of His public ministry. Matthew’s Gospel today describes how Jesus began His public ministry in the wake of the arrest of John the Baptist. Matthew tells us four things about Jesus’ ministry: its context, its content, its call, and its comprehensiveness. Let’s look at each in turn.
The CONTEXT –When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.
The relocation of Jesus northward from Judea up to Galilee coveys some important truths. First, it tells us of the hostility of the southern regions to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus. The area in and around Judea (which included, principally, Jerusalem) was controlled by a sort of religious ruling class (the Sadducees, especially, and to a lesser extent, the Pharisees). Because they were in strong but often controversial control in these areas, they were far less open to ideas that in any way threatened their leadership or questioned the rituals related to the Temple.
And so Jesus moved north to more fertile territory in order to begin His public ministry; the Jewish people in Galilee were less hostile. In fact, the people of Jerusalem often looked down upon them for their simple, agrarian ways and their “rural accent.” But it was more fertile ground for Jesus to begin His work.
There is an important lesson in this: While we must carefully preserve Christian orthodoxy and only accept doctrinal development that is organic and faithful to the received Apostolic Tradition, we can sometimes inadvertently stifle the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us through unexpected people and in unexpected ways.
The Pharisee leaders simply rejected the notion that any prophet could come from Galilee.When Nicodemus encouraged them to give Jesus a hearing they scoffed, Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee (Jn 7:52). Sometimes we can insist upon a single position in matters in which Christians are allowed freedom. For example, there are various degrees of expression permitted in the liturgy; there are also different schools of theological thought that are allowed by the Church.
Balance is required of us.We may prefer Thomistic formulations, Carmelite spirituality, charismatic worship, or the traditional Latin Mass. Such things are legitimate matters for discussion; we ought not to feel threatened by what the Church currently deems to be legitimate diversity. Discovering the range and limits of diversity is an ongoing matter for the Church; we should not permit the field of our own soul to be hostile to Jesus and His ministry, which may come to us in more diverse ways than we would prefer.
How tragic it wasfor Judea that Jesus thought He had to move on to more fertile territory, and what a blessing it was for Galilee that He moved there. But for Galilee there was this boon:The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (Is 9:2).
The CONTENT–From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
We have discussed before the careful balance of Jesus’ preaching. He is willing to challenge and so to say, “Repent.” But He also declares the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Accepting the ministry of Jesus requires that we avoid the two extremes of presumption and despair.
To those who make light of sin and their condition as sinners, Jesus says, “Repent.”It is wrong to presume that we do not need continual healing power from the Lord in order to overcome our sin. Perhaps our greatest sin is our blindness to it. Most do not seem to comprehend how serious their condition is.
The word translated here as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite), which means more literally “to come to a new mind,” or “to come to a new way of thinking.” In our sin-soaked world, a world in which sin is so pervasive as to almost go unnoticed, Jesus says, “Come to a new mind. Understand your condition and your need for mercy and grace. Come to understand that without the rescue that only God can provide, you are lost.” And hence we are told to reject presumption.
But we are also told to reject despair, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, the grace and mercy of God are available to rescue us from this present evil age and from our carnal condition. Through Christ we are granted admittance to the Kingdom. The Spirit of God can overcome our carnal, sinful nature and bring us to true holiness.
The proper balance between presumption and despair is the theological virtue of hope. By hope we confidently expect God’s help in attaining eternal life. By proper metanoia(repentance) we know that we need that help; by hope we confidently reach for it.
In our own proclamation of the Kingdom we also need the proper balanceexhibited by Jesus. Consider that if children hear nothing but criticism they become discouraged (they despair), but if all they hear is praise they become spoiled and prideful, presuming that everything should be just as they want it.
For the Church, too, balance is necessary.Many people expect the Church only to affirm and “be positive.” This leads to a selfish and incorrigible world and to the presumption that nothing matters (as we can plainly see today). Thus the Church must announce the call to repentance, but must also offer hope and mercy to sinners. She must offer grace though the Sacraments and her preaching, which, with God’s power, makes the Kingdom of God to be “at hand.”
The CALL– As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.
In building His Kingdom, Jesus summons men to follow Him.He will train them to be the leaders of His Church as Apostles. The Kingdom of God is not just concerned with calling disciples, but also with developing leaders to provide order and authority in the Church.
Even the most “democratic” of organizations requires authorityand leadership. Without these there is anarchy and a battle of wills. Hence, in the early stages of His public ministry, the Lord calls disciples and also grooms leaders. Consider three things about the Lord’s call.
HisARTICULATENESS– He says to these apostles, Come, Follow me.His announcement is unambiguous. Good leaders make clear what they ask, indeed, what they demand. Jesus is clear to set the course and point the way; Heis that way.
His APPEAL –Jesus must have had tremendous personal appeal and exuded a strong, reassuring authority. His appeal to them was personal: “Come, follow Me.” He did not merely say come and “learn my doctrine,” or “accept my vision.” He said, “FollowMe.” So, as we hand on the faith to our children and others, we cannot simply say, “Here is the Catechism; follow it.” Each of us must also take the next step and tell them to follow the Lord with me. We cannot simply parrot what a book says, correct though that book might be. Ultimately we must be able to say, “I am a personal witness to the fact that God is real and that the truth He has given to the Church is authentic and is changing my life.” Our appeal must include the personal testimony that what we proclaim is real and is changing our life: “Come, and go with me to my Father’s house.”
His APPROACH–Note that the Lord builds on something they know: fishing. He starts with the familiar in order to draw them to the less familiar. In a way, He is saying that the gifts they are currently using are just the ones they need to use as leaders in God’s Kingdom. Fishermen are
Patient– They often wait long hours for the fish to bite. Apostles and bishops must also be patient and have the ability to wait for long periods before there is a catch for the Lord.
Perceptive– They learn to know the fish, their behavior, and what attracts them. Apostles and clergy must learn about their people and what will attract them to Christ.
Persevering– They must go through many days in which they catch very little; only through perseverance is there real gain in fishing. So it is with the work of the clergy, who may go long stretches with little to show for it. The Gospel may go “out of season,” even for decades in certain cultures (like our own). The good leader will persevere, will stay at the task.
The COMPREHENSIVENESS– He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.
Note that all of Galilee was His mission field and He covered it comprehensively.He also cured people of every disease and illness. And thus the Church is catholic, and must address every part of the world, providing a comprehensive vision for life. We may not have the power to solve every problem, but we can provide the vision of the Paschal mystery, which sheds light and brings spiritual healing to every affliction. If we are suffering and dying, we must remember that Jesus did as well, but only to rise and be glorified on account of his fidelity and obedience.
For the Church and for the Christian, the comprehensive answer to every affliction isthat we are always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Christ so that the rising of Christ may also be manifest in us(2 Cor 4:10). We seek to bring healing to everyone we can, and where physical remedies are not possible, the truth of the Gospel reassures us that every Friday, faithfully endured, brings forth an Easter Sunday.
Here, then, are four crucial insights from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. They are important for us to acknowledge and to imitate.
Journey with me back to 1971 (a year of funny hair, to be sure) and listen to this old classic: “Come and Go with Me to My Father’s House.”
It is not difficult to demonstrate that most of our modern problems center around marriage, sexuality, and the family. In our thinking and our behavior in these three fundamental areas, we have departed significantly from the teachings of God and from common sense.
Today’s Feast of the Holy Family provides a rich tapestry of Scripture readings and presents us with an opportunity to reflect. Many of these teachings are not politically correct, but for that I make no apology. They remain God’s teachings and it is hard to argue that modern notions of sexuality, marriage and family have produced anything short of catastrophe. And, as is often the case, it is children who suffer the most.
Any look at statistics reveals facts and trends that are not merely alarming but downright astonishing, especially given how suddenly they have occurred. More than 40% of children in this country today are raised in homes without both parents. The numbers are even lower within minority communities.
In 1961, the year I was born, 80% of black children were raised in a two-parent family; today that number is 20%. And for whatever assertions may be made regarding ongoing poverty, the poverty rate overall and in the black community is substantially lower today than it was in 1961. Even with far greater pressures, black families used to stay together and work through their difficulties. Today, despite far greater affluence, this is no longer the case. White families and other ethnic/racial groups may have numbers that are slightly less shocking, but when we factor in age and generational differences, the numbers are not that far apart across the races/ethnicities.
The two-parent, heterosexual family is becoming an endangered species. Many grave consequences have resulted from this decline: lower student test scores and graduation rates; higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, declared homosexual inclination, and juvenile delinquency. Clearly, as the model of the stable, faithful heterosexual marriage becomes rarer, young people become less and less likely to be able to establish strong families of their own.
Despite the claims that this disordered state of affairs is just fine and that “alternative families” are just as good as traditional ones, most people know that this is a lie. It’s just common sense that the best for any child is to be raised in what nature and nature’s God has set forth as the proper environment: a father and a mother, a male and female, in a stable, committed, lasting marriage. In this safe environment of trust, children learn the male and female genius of being human. A mother alone or a father alone or two fathers or two mothers or any other combination is far less than ideal; to intentionally subject children to this is an injustice to them.
Yet such departures from God’s plan for marriage and family are increasingly the norm today. There is much about which to pray and reflect on this Feast of the Holy Family.
Having reviewed in a general way the problems regarding sexuality and family life today, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of today’s readings and see five basic teachings or themes.
Honor – The opening of the first reading says, God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2). The reading goes on to state the blessings that come from this honor and obedience.
Yet, in modern culture, honor directed toward parents and elders has increasingly disappeared. The steady diet of most children, whether through television, music, or other media, leads them to think that they are the smart ones while adults are clueless and out-of-touch. And when fathers are even present, they are often depicted as buffoons.
When I was a child, my father forbade us to watch The Flintstones. He said that he would not allow his children to watch a cartoon that presented adults as stupid because this would discourage respect for elders. He was right. Of course, The Flintstones is pretty mild in its depiction of adults compared to what is common today.
God teaches and commands children to honor their father and their mother. Without respect and honor, there can be no teaching or handing on of wisdom from previous generations. The lack of honor and respect for parents, elders, and authority figures in our culture goes a long way to explain why we are repeating foolish mistakes long since discarded by our forebears.
While previous generations of Christians were by no means sinless, it is evident that we are moving rapidly backwards; the folly and sinfulness of the pagan world described by St. Paul in Romans Chapter 1 have reemerged on a wide scale. Our folly is even worse, though, because unlike the pagans of old, we have access to the gospel and our culture has emerged from the Judeo-Christian wisdom. But in a kind of adolescent rebellion, we have collectively cast off the respect and honor that is due our elders as well as the traditions and wisdom that they and the Church can offer us.
We must restore honor to our parents, elders, and lawful authority (e.g., the Church) if we want to see our families and culture strong again. Parents and those in lawful authority must also learn to teach and act as those worthy of commanding respect.
Hierarchy– Although it is currently politically incorrect, the Lord through Scripture teaches that the family must be hierarchically ordered, with the father and husband as its head.
Today’s text from Colossians says clearly,
Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:19-21).
Headship is required of every group. A body with two heads is freakish, and a body with no head is dead. It is the same for organizations and groups. Even in consultative bodies, headship is required. God sets a husband and father as head of the household, the domestic church. This is consistently taught in scripture (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1, inter al).
The authority a husband and father has is for service, not domination. He exercises it among those of equal dignity before God, but he has this authority and it ought to be acknowledged and observed. He is not to be bitter toward his wife or lord it over her, but he must be willing, with love, to manifest headship in his household. (I have written more on this topic here: A Unpopular Teaching on Marriage.)
Many today have set this teaching aside, and the result is that many marriages resemble more an ongoing power struggle than a loving, cohesive unit. It is not necessary or even wise for a husband to micromanage everything in his household; he does well to keep deep communion with his wife and often defer to her judgment. However, there are some matters that require a final decision-maker, someone to whom everyone turns for direction and for a final decision. Scripture assigns this role to the husband and father.
Scripture says,Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:20). God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sir 3:2). While we have already commented on these verses in terms of respect and honor, we ought to note them here in terms of hierarchy. Children are to respect the hierarchy of the family. They are not on par with their parents and should not act as if they are.
When I was growing up, my Father made sure to confirm my mother’s authority over us children; he would not tolerate us being disobedient or disrespectful toward her. A good husband and father is careful to do this. Even when we were adults, my father would not allow us to speak ill of our mother or behave disrespectfully toward her.
Thus, while all the members of the family have equal dignity before God, not all have the same role. Hierarchy is important in the family for good order and teaching. God sets it forth and it ought to be observed carefully.
Helpful virtues – The first part of the second reading today from Colossians 3 provides a veritable encyclopedia of virtues to cultivate.
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts…And be thankful (Col 3:12-15).
When I am preparing couples for marriage, I spend an entire session talking about this passage. All the virtues here are essential for good family life.
Notice how many of the virtues emphasize compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Families are composed of sinful human beings who have issues and struggles. Day-to-day life, too, can be difficult, causing strain on marriage and family. How essential, then, to develop these virtues!
Every now and again people come to me for advice in preparing for Confession; I often refer them to this very passage. I ask them to read Colossians 3 and assure them that if they read it carefully, they’ll have plenty to confess before they’re halfway through!
So many stresses and strains could be either avoided, endured, or handle charitably if the virtues of Colossians 3 would only be cultivated.
Holy teaching – The text from Colossians goes on to say, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col 3:16).
Nothing can be more essential in having a godly and holy family than having godly and holy teaching.
With rare exception, we have utterly failed in this regard. There is nothing more important than instruction for eternal life. Yet in how many families is this instruction seldom or never given?
If a child is failing math or some other subject in school, most parents react with alarm, realizing that their child’s future may be at stake. They will often spend money to secure tutors and other help. If their child knows little or nothing about God, about why they were made, about the purpose of their life, though, who cares?
Parents put bumper stickers on their car boasting that their child is on the honor roll but have little interest in whether he or she can recite the Hail Mary or the Glory Be or knows the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. Where’s the bumper sticker that says, “My child knows the Lord!” or “My child is smart enough to pray!”
Parents will spend tens of thousands of dollars so their child can get a college degree, a career, a car, a house. Yet do they even inquire as to whether their child attends Mass or is living anything close to a Christian moral life?
This is a tragic situation: the ladder of “success” is leaning up against the wrong wall. Great effort is expended on things that pass away and almost none on things that will last forever, come Heaven or Hell.
Scripture is clear: the home must be a place where godly wisdom is taught, lived, modeled, and proclaimed. Parents should read their children Bible stories every day. Children must be taught God’s law and how to walk in the holy fear and reverence of Him. Family members should not only teach one another; they must admonish as well, summoning back to what is right and true.
Parents are the principal educators of children in the ways of faith. While much is rightly said about the dearth of teaching coming from the pulpit, ten minutes a week is not going to accomplish what is necessary or called for in a text like this. Even if a particular parish lacks a good preacher, that is no excuse for failing to teach one’s children. There’s nothing to prevent parents from carefully studying the catechism and teaching their children from it or reading them stories from a children’s Bible every day and teaching them God’s Word. Holy teaching should be the hallmark of every family.
Heroic sacrifice – In this matter we look to St. Joseph in today’s Gospel reading. Through an angel, God instructs Joseph to protect his wife and child by taking them to Egypt immediately, for King Herod seeks to kill the child.
How many fathers, indeed parents in general, struggle to get their priorities right? Too often career eclipses their vocation. For many fathers, their work takes priority over their role as husband/father. While the two are not directly opposed, there are times when the focus on career can to damage the capacity to be a good husband and father.
What Joseph has to do in going to Egypt will clearly have an impact on his career and his agenda. Scripture speaks of him as a tekton, which many think means “carpenter,” but it is more literally translated as “builder.” Joseph probably worked in the building trades. Going to Egypt in the middle if the night will certainly hurt his business. In addition, he would likely have preferred to return home than to go to a foreign land. But his child and wife need him. He is their protector; the husband, father, and head of the household.
Heroically, Joseph obeys God and immediately takes his wife and child out of harm’s way. He does not count the personal cost. This is the kind of heroic sacrifice sometimes required of parents and family members. Joseph approaches this situation as a husband and father, not a businessman.
Doing this is hard, and it is heroic; many a man’s ego is strongly linked to his work. As would most human beings, men naturally fear losing their livelihood. Joseph heroically trusts God and witnesses that his vocation as husband and father is more important than even his “paycheck.”
More than ever today we need more heroism of this sort. The pursuit of wealth and a comfortable lifestyle too often trump the essential work of being a parent and spouse. Lifestyles today are often too costly to maintain, requiring two incomes and/or long hours. But children need their parents at home more than they need a big house or nice cars. Having a vacation home may be nice but having your parents at home is better.
Too many parents today are willing to let strangers raise their children so that they can earn more money. For what? For the children? Really? If it is “for” them, why are they often pushed to the margins? Life is complicated, but every now and then it is good to re-examine our priorities and be willing to sacrifice for what is more important than what we merely desire.
Here, then, are some teachings on marriage and family from today’s feast. We do well to heed what the Lord teaches. Our families are in crisis. Individual choices have led us here and individual choices will have to lead us out.
God has a plan for marriage and family: one man and one woman in a stable, faithful, and fruitful union, raising their children in that context and bringing them up in the holy fear of the Lord. We must heed this plan or suffer the consequences.
Finally, there is a tendency when hearing teachings with which one has struggled to lash out in anger (“You’re judging me!”) or to become despondent and retreat into silence. Please do not do either. All of us, whether we have been able to keep to God’s teaching or not, ought to proclaim it. Perhaps you have not been able to get married and/or stay married. Perhaps you wanted to remain married, but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps you had a child outside of marriage. This is all the more reason to speak clearly to your children and grandchildren and urge them to seek God’s graces early. God has a plan, and it is for our good not our ill. Teach it boldly and with courageous love!
Here is a video that describes typical family homes in Jesus’ time.
The Christmas Gospel from Luke provides us with many teachings. One thing that surely stands out, however, is the permeating theme of humility. Throughout the account, God confounds our prideful expectations and insists on being found in the lowest of places.
The newborn Christ is not found where we expect Him to be nor does His birth conform to any script we would design. Right from the start, He gives us many lessons in humility and begins His saving work of healing our wound of pride. Let’s look at these lessons in four stages.
I. The Procession to the Place – In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So, all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
There is a sort of “cast of thousands” that leads Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to be in Bethlehem. The distant Caesar Augustus sends out a decree affecting millions. He wants a census taken in order to update his tax rolls. He also likely wants to measure his power and may have military deployments and a draft in mind. Soon enough, dozens of governors deploy thousands of troops to enforce the edict. Even in the small town of Nazareth, a town of barely 300 people, Roman troops enforce the decree. Mary is nine months pregnant, but there will be no exceptions.
For many of us, this offends our sense of what should justly happen. Jesus, who is Lord and Savior, should be born in comfort; Mary should be surrounded by loving family and in the care of midwives.
The first lesson in humility is our surprise and even indignation at the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
God, however, is neither surprised nor stymied. All this fits into His plan to get Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all of us to the place of blessing. Whatever evil the Emperor intends, God intends it for good (see Genesis 50:20). The Messiah, it was prophesied, would be called a Nazarene (Matt 2:23), be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and die in Jerusalem (Lk 13:33). God is setting things in place for the blessing.
And here is the second lesson in humility: Your life is not just about you. You and I are part of something far larger. Just as millions were set on the move at the birth of Christ, so you and I are part of the larger plan and providence of God involving billions of people now living, countless others who have lived, and still others who will live in the future. God sees the bigger picture, yet not one detail is lost to Him. Humility! God has more in mind than our comfort and personal agendas. We are part of something bigger as well.
The third lesson in humility is that God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. And they may be strange places, ones we would not choose. Getting us there may involve hardship for us: disappointment that our own plans have not come through, and the painful loss of places, things, and people we love. Yes, God has blessings waiting for us in strange places, involving circumstances we never imagined.
For Joseph and Mary, the procession to the place called Bethlehem involved hardship. But this procession is necessary for them and for us. Bethlehem was where the blessing would be found—there and no other place. And the same is true for us in so many ways.
God has been good to me and blessed me in ways and in places I never expected or planned. God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. I am and have been blessed; I am a witness.
Don’t miss the procession to the place that opens this Gospel. It is a paradigm for our lives. Where is your Bethlehem? Where does God need to get you in order to unlock your blessings? Are you humble and teachable enough to go there?
Remain humble and don’t quickly despair when the surprises and vicissitudes of life emerge. God may be up to something. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.
II. The Paradox of His Poverty – While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Don’t miss the poverty that is manifest here—it is a chosen poverty. St. John Chrysostom said,
Surely if [the Lord] had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts; but such was not the way of His going forth; His desire was not to destroy, but to save… And, to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man, and has chosen a poor mother, who had not even a cradle where she might lay her new born Child; as it follows, and she laid him in the manger (Quoted in the Catena Aurea – Lection 2 ad Luc 2:6).
The paradox of poverty is the fourth lesson in humility! We who are worldly think that poverty is the worst thing, but it is not—pride is the worst thing. And thus the Lord teaches us from the start that greatness and blessings are not found merely in what is high, mighty, pleasant, or pleasing. Blessings are often found in unusual ways and under unexpected circumstances.
The greatest blessing ever bestowed is not found in a palace, or in Bloomindales, or on beachfront property; He is not even found in a cheap Bethlehem inn. He is found in a lowly manger underneath an inn. It is poor and smelly and He rests in a feeding trough. But there He is, in the least expected place, the lowest imaginable circumstances. In this way He confounds our pride and our values.
Are we humble enough to admit this and to stop being so resentful and crestfallen when things don’t measure up exactly to our standards?
He chooses this poverty. Whatever its unpleasant realities, poverty brings a sort of freedom if it is embraced. The poor have less to lose and thus the world has less of a hold on them. What does a poor man have to lose by leaving everything and following Jesus? Wealth has many spiritual risks. It is hard for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth is too easily distracting and enslaving. And even knowing all this, we still want it. In choosing poverty, Jesus confounds our pride, greed, lust, and gluttony.
The Lord does not just confound us; He also chooses this to bless us. St. Paul said,
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).
He also said,
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5).
Bede, the 7th century Church Father, wrote,
He who sits at His Father’s right hand, finds no room in an inn, that He might prepare for us in His Father’s house many mansions; He is born not in His Father’s house, but [under] an inn and by the way side, because through the mystery of the incarnation He was made the way [for us back to our Father’s House] [Catena, Ibidem].
Thank you, Jesus, for the paradoxical perfection of your poverty. Through it you confound our human ways and bless us more richly than we could ever expect! Thank for this lesson in humility.
III. Proclamation to the People –Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
The fifth lesson in humility throws into question our overemphasis on politics and worldly power. This section of the nativity narrative serves to strongly remind us that our salvation is not to be found in the statehouse, the courthouse, or the White House. We are not to put our trust in princes. Our salvation is in Jesus, only in Jesus. Are we humble enough to admit this and stop exalting worldly power?
Note that in this Gospel, lots of “emperor words” are used to describe this newborn infant, Jesus. Yet here He is in a lowly manger!
Emperors had heralds that preceded their arrival and summoned their subjects. The infant Jesus has the angel of the Lord to announce Him. Later, this heralding angel will be joined by a “host” of angels. The Emperor Augustus has his Legions, but Jesus has His myriad angels.
The angel also uses words appropriate for an emperor. He says, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” This is how the declarations of emperors began. The Greek text makes this even clearer: the angel uses the word εὐαγγελίζομαι (evaggelizomai), which means “I evangelize you,” “I announce good or life changing news.” This word for “evangelize” was associated especially with an edict or announcement from the Emperor. But what the emperors questionably claimed for their edicts is really true with Jesus!
The emperors also claimed the titles “savior” and “lord.” The angel calls Jesus Savior (σωτὴρ – Soter) and Lord (κύριος – Kyrios), and He alone deserves these titles.
Here is the irony that we must humbly accept: this true Lord and Savior, this God of Armies with plenary authority, is not in some palace drinking from goblets and being fanned by slaves. He is lying in a lowly feed box, attended to by animals.
It is a divine comedy. One can almost imagine the shepherds wrinkling their noses or scratching their heads as they hear this great announcement of a King, Savior, Lord and Messiah, and then hearing that He is to be found in a stable, lying in a feeding trough. Perhaps one shepherd said to the other, “Did that angel say ‘manger’?” And another replying, “Yup, a feeding trough.”
It’s a bit anticlimactic! But thank the Lord, they humbly accept the procession that they must now make to the place of true blessing. It is an unexpected place to be sure, but that is where He is to be found. He is King and Lord to be sure, but He is humble and comes to serve and to save. He will wash the feet of the worst sinners and die for the love of them.
IV. Praise that is Perfect–And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Note the praises of the angels! Who or what could ever match them? They are a multitude. They are perfected in their glory and acclaim God’s praises more gloriously than any human choir could ever hope to do.
Yet even here there is a humility to consider. For the Lord has taken a human nature to Himself, not an angelic one. In the order of creation, angels are far higher and more noble than we are. Their mere appearance overwhelms us and strikes fear in us. Yet to none of these did God ever say, “You are my Son. This day I have begotten you” (See Hebrews 1:5).
God humbly takes up our human nature and bestows on us an astonishing dignity that comes only from Him. It is due to His choice, not our merits. And though the angels can surely praise the Lord in far more glorious way than we, they cannot say, “One of us is God.”
And glorious though the angel’s praise is, there is a perfect praise that only we can give to God. It was beautifully expressed by the poet Christina Rossetti:
Angels and Archangels may have gathered there. Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air. But only his mother in her maiden bliss could worship the beloved with a kiss.
And thus, our final lesson in humility is to accept that it is our lowliness which the Lord embraced. We have no glory to give that is even close to what the Lord deserves, but a simple kiss will do, a simple act of love. It is our lowly and sinful hearts that the Lord seeks, so as to heal and exalt them. Our palaces, honors, and titles are of no interest or value to Him. It is our humility that pleases Him most, and He desires to meet us there.
Today’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.
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.
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.
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
A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows the rather unsurprising fact that sermons at Catholic masses are much shorter than those at Protestant and Evangelical services. The Catholic News Agency reports:
An analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons, given across a variety of Christian denominations during the months of April and May this year, found that the median length of a sermon was 37 minutes, but for Catholic priests, the average length was just 14 minutes.
Pew found that historically black Protestant sermons had the longest median length of 54 minutes, while mainline Protestant sermons were an average of 25 minutes long, with evangelical churches falling in between at 39 minute [sic] per sermon (CNA).
Catholic clergy are generally considered to be poorer preachers than their Protestant counterparts, and I would argue that the shorter sermon length has something to do with that. The expectation that a sermon be brief, about twelve minutes, affects what is said and how it is said. It also makes a number of forms of preaching, some of them among the most satisfying for the congregation, impossible.
Some years ago, a brother priest asked one of his parishioners who had left for a large Protestant denomination why he had done so. “They teach the Word,” was the man’s answer. We can certainly lament that the man would not have left the faith had he understood the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but people also have a hunger for God’s Word effectively taught and presented. For this reason, a good sermon deeply rooted in a biblical text is very satisfying. Long before I was ordained a priest, I listened to recordings of Protestant preachers like Adrian Rogers and Tony Evans. I marveled at how these men could take a text and teach from it line by line, creatively applying it to life. Even if I did not agree with every point they made or thought that they missed something that a Catholic would see, they saw the text as full of meaning and served up rich spiritual fare for their listeners.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen had this ability, too. He’d find a crucial point most others would miss and develop it beautifully. I remember once he noted that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat and emphasized the detail in the text that said, “They had only one loaf with them in the boat.” With the authority that only Sheen could command he proceeded to say, “And the loaf was Christ, who alone is our necessary Bread.” From this insightful teaching he went on to develop four aspects of it.
This sort of teaching and preaching takes time. I would argue that the relative inferiority of Catholic preaching isn’t just that Catholic clergy are poorly trained; it is also the limited time tolerated by the faithful. With such an abbreviated length, Catholic sermons tend to present a single principle drawn from the readings without being able to fully develop it. Good biblically based preaching usually involves going through a passage in the following steps: read it, analyze it, organize it, illustrate it, and then apply it. This sort of preaching isn’t likely to happen in a twelve-minute homily.
I also am told by many Catholics that priests need to teach more from the pulpit. There is a very long list of topics that they want to hear preached about more. I would argue that this also requires more than a mere twelve minutes.
I do not say that every member of the clergy should preach longer. Some simply don’t have the skill to do so. Others are in situations were a longer sermon is not possible due to the overall Mass schedule. There are also going to be ethnic/racial differences that factor in. So, neither do I argue that longer sermons teaching in depth out of a biblical text should be used in all situations. However, I do argue that if they want the “better” sermons of the denominations noted for excellent preaching, more Catholics might want to consider tolerating a longer sermon, at least at certain Masses.
I have spent most of my priesthood in predominantly African-American parishes. In such congregations, longer sermons are assumed. The people have high expectations of the sermon; they also interact with the preacher through encouraging interjections such as “Amen” and “All right now.” In these settings I routinely preach about thirty minutes; it is a great luxury. This permits me to preach through a biblical text examining its stages or exploring several aspects of the teaching it sets forth. Most of you who read my Sunday sermons posted here or listen to them onlineknow this. One sermon might cover four aspects of discipleship derived from a Gospel pericope. Another might explore the stages of faith the man born blind goes through in the Gospel of John. Most of my parishioners would be surprised if I gave a ten-minute sermon, wondering what had happened. Once when I gave a short sermon a woman playfully rebuked me, saying, “Father, you left too much fruit in the tree this morning. We need a better harvest next week.”
Some Catholics have told me that they think long sermons are a mistake no matter who is in the pulpit because the purpose of the Mass is not to be a glorified bible study; it is an act of worship. Perhaps, but isn’t the Lord being worshipped when the faithful are attending to His proclaimed and preached Word with devotion?
Over the years, I have found that people have pretty strong opinions about sermons, both length and content. I suppose the best way for me to end this piece is by saying that perhaps we can all make a little room for one another in the Church. Some priests preach longer and are good at it. Some are not and better off keeping the sermon short and to the point. Other priests preach brilliant, memorable homilies that are quite brief. Vive la différence! Even in my own parish, not every liturgy is the same: our 11:00 AM Mass runs well over an hour, while our 7:00 PM Mass is no longer than forty-five minutes. Hence, in my own sermons, both content and length vary.
The one thing that is most clear to me is that rigid declarations that no sermon should be longer than a certain number of minutes (8, 10, 12, or whatever) are disrespectful of legitimate differences across cultures, liturgical traditions, and even personal temperaments. Pastors and congregations can and should work out their own situations and provide variety even there. Live and let live.
This sermon clip shows that, when I have to, I can preach in under four minutes. This was a half-hour TV Mass and only four minutes for the sermon is allotted. I certainly don’t consider it one of my better efforts and would liked to have developed the possibility that St. John did have supernatural grace. But all that one can do in so brief a moment is to throw out a few thoughts and exit gracefully. In my written online sermonI developed, in three stages, going from the imperfect gift we merely want to the perfect gift that God is actually offering. In my recorded parish homily, given the generous time allotted in that setting I was able to sample well from the Prophets as well as the Gospel text itself.