Come and Go With Me to My Father’s House: A Meditation on the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of the Year

In these early weeks of “ordinary” time we are increasingly introduced to Jesus and to the beginnings of his public ministry. In Matthew’s Gospel today we hear described how Jesus began his public ministry in the wake of the arrest of John the Baptist. And Matthew tells us three things regarding this ministry of Jesus: it’s Context, its Content, and it’s call. Let’s look at each in turn.

1. CONTEXT of Jesus Ministry – The text says,  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 tells us 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). Since they were in strong but often controverted leadership in these areas, they were far less open to ideas which in any way threatened their leadership or questioned the rituals related to the Temple. As we know, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but he did come to fulfill it and this was threatening to those tied to the current status quo, most of whom did not distinguish fulfillment from abolition, and saw only threat. Further, the Herodian dynasty was also threatening especially in the south and had arrested John the Baptist.

Jesus thus, moves north to more fertile territory 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 more simple, agrarian ways and “rural accent.” But here was more fertile ground for Jesus to begin.

Now there is an important lesson for us in this. While we must carefully preserve Christian orthodoxy and only accept a development of doctrine that is organic and faithful to the received Apostolic Tradition, it is also true that we can sometimes stifle the Holy Spirit who will speak to us through unexpected people and in unexpected ways. The Pharisee leaders simply rejected the notion that any prophet could come from Galilee. Whne 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).  It is possible for us to insist upon things where freedom is permitted the Christian. There are various degrees of expression permitted in the liturgy and there are often different schools of theological thought which the Church sanctions. Balance is required of us. There may be preferences that we have for Thomistic formulations, Carmelite spirituality, charismatic worship or traditional Latin Mass worship. Such things are legitimate matters for on-going discussion, but we can too easily be threatened by what the Church currently deems to be legitimate diversity. Discovering a the range and limits of diversity is an on-going matter for the Church but we ought not permit the field of our own soul to be hostile to Jesus and his ministry, which may come to us more diverse ways that we, of our self,  prefer.

How tragic it was for 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. The fact is that unfounded stubbornness can be hinder the Word of God in us. Jesus moved on to a more accepting context wherein his ministry could bear the greatest fruit. St. Gregory the Great has this to say about the context for preaching and necessary fertility of the field:

For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness. as the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (PS 50:16) On the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly as the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. (Ez 3:26) He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away for they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth. It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock. – (St. Gregory the Great Hom. 17,3, 14)

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)  But for others, Jesus had only this to say, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. (Matt 21:43)

2. The CONTENT of his MINISTRY – The text says, 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 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 both presumption and despair.

To those who make light of sin and their condition as a sinner, Jesus says repent. It is wrong to presume that we do not need an on-going healing power from the Lord to overcome our sin. And perhaps our greatest sin is our blindness to our sin. Most human beings 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 a new way of thinking. In our sin soaked world where sin is so pervasive as to almost be unnoticed, Jesus says, “Come to a new mind. Understand your condition and need for mercy and grace. Come to understand that without the rescue that only God can give, 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 now available to rescue us from this present evil age and from our carnal condition. Through Christ we are granted admittance to the Kingdom and the Spirit of God can overcome our carnal, sin nature and bring us true holiness.

The proper mean 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, and by hope confidently reach for it.

In our own proclamation of the kingdom we also need the proper balance exhibited by Jesus. Consider how, with children, that if all they hear is criticism they become discouraged (despair). But if all they hear is praise and are never corrected: they become spoiled and prideful and presume everything should be just as they want it. For the Church too, a balance is necessary. Too many expect the Church only to affirm and “be positive.” But this leads to a more selfish and incorrigible world and to a presumption that nothing matters (as we can plainly see). Thus the Church must announce the call to repentance. But the Church must also offer hope and mercy to sinners. She must offer grace though the Sacraments and by her preaching which, with God’s power, makes the Kingdom of God to be “at hand.”

3. The CALL of his Ministry The text says,  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.

Jesus, in building his kingdom,  summons men to follow him. He will train them to be the leaders of his Church as Apostles. The Kingdom of God is not only about calling disciples but also about developing leaders to provide order and authority in the Church. Even the most “democratic” of organizations requires authority and leadership. Without these there is anarchy and a battle of wills. Hence the Lord calls not only disciples, in the early stages of his public ministry, he also grooms leaders. Consider three things about the Lord’s call here.

A. His ARTICULATENESS: He says to these apostles, Come Follow me! Notice that his announcement is unambiguous. Good leaders like the Lord are clear to make known what they ask, indeed, what is demanded. He is clear to set the course and point the way. And HE is that way.

B. His APPEAL – Jesus must have had a personal appeal and exuded an authority that was strong and reassuring. 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, follow ME. So too, as we hand on the faith to our children and to others, we cannot simply say, here is a Catechism follow it. We must also take the next step and say follow the Lord with me. We cannot simply say what a book says, correct though that book is. 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.

C. His APPROACH – Note that the Lord builds on what they know: fishing. He starts with the familiar to draw them to the less familiar. In a way he is saying that the gifts they are currently using are just the gifts they can use as leaders in God’s Kingdom. Fishermen are:

  • Patient – Fishermen often wait long hours for the fish to bite. So too as Apostles and Bishops there must be a patience, a capacity to wait long periods before there is a catch for the Lord.
  • Perceptive – Fishermen learn to know the fish and their behavior and what attracts them. So too Apostles and clergy must learn of their people and what will attract them to Christ.
  • Persevering – Fishermen must often go out for many days with little catch. Only through perseverance is there real gain in fishing. So too with the Work of the clergy who may go long stretches with little to show. 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.

3.  The COMPREHENSIVENESS of his Ministry – The text says, 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.

Therefore note that all of Galilee was his mission field and he covered it comprehensively. He also cured of every disease and illness. And thus the Church is catholic and must also address every part of the world and provide a comprehensive vision for life. We may not have the power to simplistically cure every ailment and problem, but we can provide the vision of the Paschal mystery that sheds light and brings spiritual healing to every affliction. If we are suffering and dying, so to did Jesus but only to rise and be glorified on account of his fidelity and obedience. So too for the Church and for the Christian, the grace and the comprehensive answer to every affliction is that 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 that every Friday, faithfully endured, brings forth, by God’s grace an Easter Sunday.

Here then are three crucial insights to the beginning of Jesus public ministry. They remain for the Church and for all of us who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps important insights for us to acknowledge and imitate.

Now journey with me back to 1971, a year of funny hair to be sure, but here is the old Classic “Come and God With Me to My Father’s House”

Who is Jesus Christ? A Meditation on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of the Year

As Ordinary time (tempus per anum) opens up, the lectionary continues to “introduce” Christ to us. Last week he was baptized obtained many gifts for us as he was manifested by the Father.

 This week is a continuation of sorts as John the Baptist elaborates on Who Jesus is. John’s words are brief but they are packed with Christological teaching. In this Gospel we learn at least five things about Jesus. He learn that he is prefigured,  pre-existent, pre-eminent, powerful and the presence of God. Let’s look at each one.

1. Prefigured – The text says, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Now, unless you know the history of this moment, it seems a little odd. A full grown man approaches John the Baptist and he says, Look! There is the Lamb of God.

But for those who know the scriptures John is really answering a question that was asked by Isaac some 1800 years prior to this event. Abraham has received from God a strange and terrible command that he take his son to Mt. Moriah (present day Jerusalem) and there offer him in sacrifice. As they arrive at the foot of Moriah, here is where we join the Genesis text:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Gen 22:6ff).

Do you get it? A promised son has wood laid upon his shoulder and is made to carry it up a hillside, the same hillside where “Golgotha” will one day be found. There, on the top of that hill he is to be laid on the wood and killed. Sound familiar? Of course, it is a prefigurement of Christ, or a “type” of Christ.  Things are starting to look grim for Isaac who gets nervous and says, “Daddy – where is the Lamb?” You know the rest of the story. It is true that there was a ram caught in the thicket which God provided that day, but that ram pointed to Christ.

And so the question, “Where is the Lamb?”  wafted up on the breeze  and got repeated down through the generations. Some five hundred years later at the end of the Egyptian slavery the blood of the lamb also protected Isaac’s descendants from death. And every Passover the question was still asked, where is the Lamb, referring to the Passover lamb. Here too, the Passover lamb was but a symbol, a prefigurement of Christ.

Now, standing on the banks of the Jordan John the Baptist answers Isaac’s questions repeated down through the centuries: “Where is the Lamb?” “Look! There is the Lamb of God!” So the first thing we learn of Christ is that he was prefigured, here and in many other places in the Old Testament.

2. Pre-existent – The text says, He is the one of whom I said,  ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’  Now this too is a strange thing for a man to say about his younger cousin. Jesus was born six months after John the Baptist, yet John says, he existed before me.  But John is clearly teaching us here of Christ’s pre-existence. Before his assuming a human nature, Jesus existed eternally with the Father. There never was a time when Jesus the Son was not. He is eternally begotten by the Father, he existed before all ages.  Scripture says of him:  for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities ‑‑ all things were created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:16) Likewise,  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God;  all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1). And yet again, Jesus himself said, Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”  The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  (John 8:56)

3.  Pre-eminent  – The text says I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water  was that he might be made known to Israel.” In effect John is saying,  I exist for him. My purpose is to reveal him. He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30)  Jesus is greater than John or any prophet or any world leader. Jesus is the Groom, John is but the best man.

4. Powerful – The text says, John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’  The baptism of John could only announce repentance and call for it. But it could not truly wash away sins. The Baptism of Jesus can. Even more, it does not only take away sins but Jesus’ Baptism also confers the Holy Spirit. We are thus given a whole new life. Sin is taken away and in its place grace upon grace is given. Grace to restore us, renew us and refashion us. Grace that equips, empowers and enables us. Grace that sanctifies, gives sonship and seals us with the Holy Spirit. All this is in fulfillment of Ezekiel  36:25ff which says  I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Scripture also says, But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God; (Jn 1:12)

5. Presence of God – the text says, Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” Jesus would say elsewhere, To see me is to have seen the Father, the Father and I are one (John 14:9) As the Son of God, he manifests the Father, he is the presence of God in this world. He shares fully in the one divine essence and as Son shows us the Father. He is the presence of God among us.

So here in a brief passage are five important teachings about Jesus Christ. He has existed forever, was prefigured in the Old Testament, has priority above and beyond anyone we know or think important, he has the power not only to save us from sin but to give us the very life of God, and as Son of God, He is God, and thus is God’s very presence among us. He is not just the man from Galilee, he is very God from Heaven.

Walking with the Wise Men: A Meditation on the Feast of Epiphany

Note: Here in America Epiphany is (sadly) transferred to a nearby Sunday instead of January 6. Hence, this Sunday we read of this event and celebrate it liturgically. With that in mind here are my homily notes for Epiphany, which, for some of you in other parts of the world may seem a bit premature.

There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, the nations, and their enthusiastic response,  the significance of the star they see and the gifts they bring,  the dramatic interaction with Herod and their ultimate rejection of him in favor Christ.

In this meditation I would like especially to follow these wise men in their journey of faith. We can observe how they journey in stages from the dim light of a star to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story serve ultimately to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey to Jesus, let’s walk the way of the wise men.

Stage 1. CALL – The text says – When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” – Notice first  the identity of these individuals. They are called Magi, (μάγοι, (magoi)  in Greek) and they are from the East.

Exactly what “Magi”  are is debated. Perhaps they are wise men, perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as Kings though the text does not call them that. It also seems Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern Kingdom. In our imagination we often think of them as Kings since Psalm 72, read in today’s Mass, speaks of “Kings” coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s gospel does not call them kings, but “magi.”

Yet, here is their key identity: they are Gentiles and they have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. But now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the gospel is going to go out to all the world. St. Paul rejoices in this fact in today’s second reading as he says: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Most of us are not Jewish by ancestry, and hence we ought to rejoice for in the call of these Magi is prefigured our call.

And notice that God calls them through something in the natural world. In this case a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them. We do well to wonder what is the star that God used to call us? Perhaps it was Scripture but more usually it is first, someone God has used to reach us, a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, religious sister, or devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life by whom God called you? God can even use inanimate creation like he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a beautiful Church, a painting or a song. By someone or something God calls. He puts a star in our sky. These wise men, these Magi, follow the call of God and begin their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2. CONSTANCY – Upon their arrival in Jerusalem the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning King, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. It must have seemed probable that the newborn King would be related to the current King so his surprise may have confused them. But Herod seems more than surprised, he seems threatened.

Even more puzzling, he calls religious leaders to further inform him of this King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah so the birth of this king has religious significance! How interesting! But, these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic of the newborn King and after giving the location of his birth seem to make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people that a longed for king had finally been born. Not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (Herod) are wakeful and the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi. Perhaps it occurred to them to suspend their search. After all, the actual King knew nothing of this birth and those who did seemed little interested.

Ah, but praise the Lord they persevere in their search. They do not give up! Thanks be to God too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents clergy and others who should have led them joyfully to Jesus were either asleep, or ignorant or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard, people who found their way to Christ and his Church despite some pretty discouraging obstacles like poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy and bad example. God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

Stage 3. CONFESSION OF FAITH –  The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. – With what little information they have they set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable but it seems not. Mary (Joseph) and Jesus are found now in a house. It would seem that decent lodging has now been found. Has it been days since the birth? Perhaps even longer, but we are likely dealing with a different day than Christmas Day.

Notice too that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan) which means more literally “to fall down in worship” or “give adoration.” The verb is used 12 times in the New Testament and it is clear each time that religious worship is the purpose of the prostration. This is no mere homage or a sign of respect  to an earthly King,  this is religious worship. This is a confession of faith. So our Magi manifest faith! But is it a real faith, or just a perfunctory observance? It’s not enough to answer an altar call, or to get baptized. Faith is never alone. It is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So lets look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4. COST There is a cost to discipleship. The magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. And they are costly gifts.

Gold is a symbol of all our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense. is the gift of worship, for in the Bible incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (eg.  psalm 141). In laying down this gift we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life. To be in his holy house each Sunday and render him the praise and worship he is due. To listen to his word and to consent to be fed the Eucharist by him. To worship him worthily by frequent confession and to praise him at all times. And they give

Myrrh – a strange gift for an infant. Myrrh is usually understood as burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, my life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will. So here are gifts that are highly symbolic.

The magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts so too are we.

Stage 5. CONVERSION – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. Here then is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get happy in Church, we have to obey. Hence, these wise men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction, they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in a possibly perfunctory worship, they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what he tells them (cf  Luke 6:46).

So there it is. Through careful stages the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you) to conversion. He called. They remained constant, confessed him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I? Walk in the ways of the Wise men! Wise men still seek him. Even wiser ones listen to him and obey. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is on-going conversion part of our journey home to heaven? If Epiphany means “manifestation” how is our faith manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the wise men went home by another route they were singing a Gospel song:  “It’s a highway to heaven! None can walk up there but the pure in heart. I walking up the King’s Highway. If you’re not walking start while I’m talking. There’ll be a blessing you’ll be possessing, walking up the King’s Highway. “

Why is it 2011? (or) Why New Years is Not Simply Secular

It is New Year’s Eve and everywhere throughout the world celebrations are planned as the New Year 2011 is upon us. You can be sure that large signs will flash “2011!!!” and “Happy New Year!” But why is New Year’s January 1st and why do we call this 2011? Time, and our understanding of our place in it are mysterious and historically complex, but many answers to how we designate time in the western world are very Catholic and Christian. And, although most consider New Years to be a very secular holiday I would like to explore the religious roots as well, for they are many. I blogged on this a bit last year so you may find some of these reflections familiar but I have also updated them a bit to reflect some of the comments you made last year. So let’s just reflect a bit on time which is so significant for us tonight and tomorrow.

  1. Why is this year designated 2011? It is clear that the world and human history stretch back much farther than that 2,010 years. What we are announcing this year is that it is 2011 Anno Domini(usually abbreviated A.D. and meaning “the year of the Lord). What this most clearly means is that it is 2,011 years since the Birthof Jesus Christ. Christ at his birth and through his passion, death and resurrection ushered in a new era for the world. The Christian West acknowledged this fact quite radically by resetting the calendars. As far as we know, the AD system was developed by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus in Rome in 525, as an outcome of his work on calculating the date of Easter. It was especially at the time of Charlemagne (8thCentury) that the AD dating system become widespread in Western Europe. However, the calculations as to the exact year of Christ’s birth were not perfect and today, by surveying history and the data of Scripture it now seems rather more certain that Christ was born closer to what we call today 6 B.C! Nevertheless the current dating system remains a reference to Jesus Christ. Even the most secular of people calculate their place in time by Jesus Christ. Every letter that is dated, every check that is written, every appointment that is made is swept up into the life of Christ! Let us hope that the ACLU or some militant atheist group will want to tamper with the calendar. It is already a fact that many secularists and scholars who want to avoid “offending” by referencing Christ in any way and have begun to abandon the BC/AD system in favor of a BCE/CE system (Before the Common Era/Common Era). Well, even if they want to try and call it something else that “2011” still has Christ for its reference point.
  2. But if 2011 is a reference to the Birth of Christ why do our dates change on January 1st and not December 25th? There are likely two things at work here. It would seem that the Ancient Romans had fixed what we call today January 1st at the first Day of their New Year. But this still leaves the question as to why Christian Europe when setting the calculation of the year to Christ’s Birth did not also switch New Years day to December 25th. The answer to this seems rooted in what we discussed yesterday regarding the Christmas octave. Most people think that Christmas Day is one day called December 25th. That is not accurate. It is the Catholic practice that we celebrate the “Octave” of Christmas. (We do the same thing with Easter). So important is this feast that we celebrate it for eight whole days (Dec 25,26,27,28,29,30,31, Jan 1). But the “Octave” is really considered one long day. Upon the completion of this long day, on January 1 the Birth”day” of Christ is complete and our calendars advance to the next year. Hence it is fortunate that the Ancient Roman practice of January 1 and the Christian notion of the Octave both coincide to have New Years day on January 1. January 1st is really the completion of Christmas Day, marking another Birthday of Christ and thus the year advances.
  3. So there are strong Catholic Christian components for the celebration of New Years and in the Date we write on every check and how we understand our place in time. Surely we owe the Jews as well for our seven day weeks for it is the Old Testament that records the 7 days of creation, though interestingly enough many ancient cultures seem also to have a seven day cycle. It almost seems written in human nature. The sun of course gives us the length of our days and the years. The moon gives us our months for “month” is just a mispronunciation of moon – as in, “what “moonth” are we in?”
  4. Now to be sure there ARE other designations out there a to what year we are in. For the Jews whole celebrate their New Year (Rosh Hashana) in September it is the year 5771. The Chinese reckon this year as 4708, 4707, or 4647 depending on what system they use. Arabic reckoning makes this the year 1432 (AH). They start their count based on the number of years since Muhammad completed his journey to Medina. Despite the existence of these and other systems, it is the Christocentric date that really unites the world, it’s the common point of reference.

Some one once said that Jesus is Lord of History since history is “his-story”

An interesting calendar matter places Jesus in the US Constitution. It is usually claimed by secularists that God is nowhere mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Actually He is, right at the very end there is a clear reference to Jesus:

Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names:

Notice, “the year of OUR Lord.” Not even just “the year of THE Lord.” That would offend secularists enough, but they went further and described 1787 as the year of “our” Lord. Some will say, “Well that’s just how they talked then.” But that is just the point. The Founding Fathers did not hesitate to use this expression because they did not have the idea that the public square had to be a “religion-free zone.” The Constitution does not provide freedom FROM religion, it provides freedom FOR religion.

I wish you a very blessed and happy Year of our Lord 2010!

When I was a kid I used to love these Moody Bible Institute films on faith and science. I spliced a couple of excerpts here from the one on the Mystery of Time. Please consider watching this 5 minute video. I don’t think you’ll regret that you did. It really spells out the mystery of time which we focus on today.

St Joseph: Model Husband and Father – A Reflection for the Feast of the Holy Family

I remember once being amused to hear that a certain Franciscan Theologian from the 19th Century (whose name I cannot remember) wrote a six volume “Life of St. Joseph.” Six volumes?! How could one possibly get enough material? We know so little of Joseph from the Scriptures. He seems to have been the strong, silent type. Not a word of his is recorded. But his actions have much to say, especially to to men. On this feast of the Holy Family we do well to ponder him as a model for manhood, for husbands and fathers.

1. A man who obeys God and clings to his wife – We saw last Sunday the Gospel  that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. This is more than being engaged. It means they were actually married. It was the practice at that time for a couple to marry rather young. Once betrothed they usually lived an additional year in their parents’ household as they became more acquainted and prepared for life together. Now at a certain point it was discovered that Mary was pregnant, though not by Joseph. Now the Law said that if a man discovered that a woman to whom he was betrothed was not a virgin, he should divorce her and not “sully” his home. Joseph as a follower of the Law, was prepared to follow its requirements. However, he did not wish to expose Mary to the full force of the law which permitted the stoning of such women. He would thus remained  quiet as to his reason for the divorce and Mary would escape possible stoning. To fail to divorce Mary would expose Joseph to cultural ramifications. Just men just didn’t marry women guilty of fornication or adultery. To ignore this might have harmed not only Joseph’s standing in the community but also that of his family of origin. But you know the rest of the story. Joseph is told in a dream not to fear and that Mary has committed no sin. Matthew records: When Joseph awoke, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. (Matt 1:24).

Now a man obeys God even if it not popular, even if he may suffer for it. Joseph is told to cling to his wife. He may suffer for it but he, as a man, “obeys God rather than men.” It takes a strong man to do this especially when we consider the culture in which Joseph lived, and in a small town, no less. Joseph models strong manhood and has something to say to the men of our day. In the current wedding vows a man agrees to cling to his wife, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health. This is what a man is to do. Our culture often pressures men to bail out when there is trouble Joseph shows the way by obeying God over the pressures of prevailing culture, even if he will personally suffer for it.

2. A man whose vocation is more important than his career – In today’s Gospel set likely in Bethlehem Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream: Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him (Matt 2:13). Joseph may well have had much to lose in this flight. Back in Nazareth (or perhaps Judea)  he had a business, a career if you will. He had business prospects, business partners and contacts. Fleeing to a distant land might mean others would take his business etc. But Joseph was a father and husband before he was a businessman. His child was threatened and his first obligation was to Jesus and Mary. His vocation outweighed his career. In a culture like ours where too many parents make their careers and livelihoods paramount and their children are too easily placed in day care Joseph displays a different priority.

It is true that many parents feel they have no choice but to work. But it is also true that many demand a lifestyle which requires a lot of extra income. Perhaps a smaller house, less amenities etc would permit a daycare free childhood for more of our children. Joseph points the way for parents: vocation has priority over career. For fathers especially Joseph shows that a man is a husband and father before he is a businessman.

3. A man who protects his family– And for men, Joseph also models a protective instinct that too many men lack today. Our children, like Jesus was, are exposed to many dangers. Our American scene does not feature a lot of physical dangers but moral dangers surely abound. Fathers, what are your children watching on TV? What are their Internet habits? Who are their friends? What do your children think about important moral issues? Are you preparing them to face the moral challenges and temptations of life? Are you teaching them the faith along with your wife? Or are you just a passive father, uninvolved in the raising of your children? A man protects his children from harm, physical, moral and spiritual. Joseph shows forth this aspect of manhood.

4. A man of work –The Scriptures (Matt 13:55) speak of Joseph as a “carpenter.” The Greek word however is τέκτονος (tekton, os) which can mean more than a worker in wood. It can also refer to a builder or any craftsman. It seems unlikely that Joseph and Jesus would have worked exclusively in wood since wood was more rare in the Holy Land and used more sparingly than in our culture. Stone was surely plentiful and so it may be that Joseph also worked with stone as well as wood in his work. It was and through his work Joseph supported his family. It is the call of a man to work diligently and to responsibly and reliably provide for his family. Joseph models this essential aspect of manhood. Paul felt it necessary to rebuke some of the men of his day for their idleness: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teachingyou received from us….For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ that with quietness they earn the bread they eat. (2 Thess 310-12)

Joseph is a model for manhood. Nothing he ever said was recorded but his life speaks eloquently enough. He is referred to at the Guardian and Patron of the Universal Church. He has these titles for he was guardian, protector and patron(provider) of the Church in the earliest stage, when the “Church” was just Jesus, Mary and himself. But since the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, in protecting and providing for Jesus he was doing that for us for we are in Christ as members of his body. Men especially do well to imitate St. Joseph and invoke his patronage in all their endeavors as Husbands, Fathers and providers.

St. Joseph, pray for us. Holy Family Pray for us.

Crisis at Christmas – A Reflection on the Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent

The Gospel today 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 about Christmas but we also have to be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was and the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in its coming to pass.

 Let’s look at the gospel in three stages: Distress, Direction and Decision.

 1. DISTRESS  – The text of the Gospel says, 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 in this text that Mary was found to be with child before Joseph and she were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation is. The pregnancy prior to marriage brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the marriage permanently off.

Why is this? We read in the text above that Joseph was “a righteous man.”  To our ears this sounds akin to saying he “was a good man.” Most of the Fathers of the Church interpret “righteous” here refer generally to his gracious character and virtue. And we surely suppose all this of him. More recent biblical scholarship also includes the notion that to say he was “a righteous man” also  means that he was “an observer of the Law.” He would thus do what the law prescribed. And this explains his decision to divorce Mary on account of her apparent lack of virginity prior to 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)

 This of course is quite extreme to modern ears, but we can see too how far we have come in making light of promiscuity compared to ancient times. No one would argue that such a thing be done today, and rightly so. However this was the landscape taht the Law provided Joseph.

 What about stoning? It would seem that Jews of the First Century had varying interpretations about whether stoning was required or simply permitted (cf  John 8). Joseph, on account of his virtue and patience, 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 see a way that he can take her into his home. Thus, as a “righteous man” (i.e. follower of the Law) it seems he decides that divorce is surely required, even if stoning is not.

 Now this leads us to two important reflections. One about Mary, and one about Joseph.

Regarding Mary, we can see what a difficult and dangerous position her “yes” (her fiat) to angel placed her. She risked her very life by being found in this conception 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 know this, or at least cannot verify it. And even if Mary indicated exactly how she conceived, do you think YOU would merely accept such a story? Mary’s fiat  placed her in a real danger, culturally speaking  and it is a great testimony to her faith and trust in God that she said yes to his plans.

 Regarding 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 when Mary was “found to be with child” prior to the couple’s being together in Marriage,  the social pressures on him from  family  to be rid of Mary were likely strong, whatever his feeling or plans for her were.

As we shall see, Joseph too will undertake great risk to obey God. And thus we go to the second stage of the story.

 2. DIRECTION – The text from the Gospel says, 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 – One will note that the principle exhortation of the angel that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful since fear WAS a very big factor in this whole matter. Joseph had much to fear in taking Mary. Some of the Fathers of the Church indicate that the thing the angel said he should not fear was God’s wrath, since in fact, he would not actually be taking an adulterer or fornicator into his home. One can also imagine however some other fears that also needed to be consoled by the angel. For example, Joseph could  easily be rejected by his family for taking Mary in. Likewise neighbors and others could shun him. As a business man Joseph needed a good reputation to be able to use his skills and ply a trade. All of these threats loom if Joseph bucks the law and custom and “brings evil into his house” rather than “purge the evil from the midst”  of his house. But the angel directs his 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? Not exactly a common occurrence! Would his family buy such an explanation? What of 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, but when we are fully awake we wonder if what we experienced was real at all. Joseph too has to trust that what he was told is real and that he should not fear. God has given him direction. But 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.

 3. DECISION – The text from the Gospel says,  When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

Now given all that we have reflected upon, 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. Joseph manfully does this. He makes his decision to obey God whatever the cost. We are given no information on how his family and others in the town may have 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! But here again note the crisis of that first Christmas and the powerful faith of Joseph and Mary. Quite literally 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.

And, as we know their difficulties were not over in the crisis of that first Christmas. 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 the ninth month! There may or may not have been a donkey, but I doubt riding a donkey in the ninth month is all that comfortable either. Then there was no room in the inn and Jesus had to be born in a smelly animal stable. Shortly thereafter they must flee through the desert to Egypt for 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. But this where Jesus is found: in the crisis of the first Christmas. You may hope for the perfect Christmas but there is no perfect Christmas. Yet, Jesus will find you where you are – in real life, in the imperfect Christmas where loved ones may have been recently lost and there is grief, where a job has just been lost and there is anxiety, where health is poor or families are experiencing stress and 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 song 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 the these words say:

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

Finding the Perfect Gift – A Reflection on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent

The Gospel today is best seen in three stages as John the Baptist and we with him are encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification to perfection. Here is a Gospel that encourages us to find the perfect gift.

1. Puzzlement – John the Baptist is discouraged, or so it seems if we interpret this text correctly. John had been looking for 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 week’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)

With delight John had pointed out Christ when he came: Look there is the Lamb of God! (John 1:29). With humble hesitation he had baptized the one who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the one who is mightier than I saying,

A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He  must become greater; I must become less. (Jn 3:28-30)

Yet now John is in prison! Placed there by a tyrant,  an oppressor. The very sort of man John was sure that Messiah would cut down and cast into fire. Where was the hoped for deliverance? Where was the exultation of the lowly and casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root?

So John was discouraged, or so it would seem. And thus we see the very one who had announced Jesus, and pointed him out when he came, sending his disciples to Jesus with a question:

Are you he who is to come,  or should we look for another?

Now John was not wholly baseless in his expectation of a wrathful coming of the Messiah. There are many texts that spoke of it. For example here are three:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)

So John had worked hard to call people to repentance to get them ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord. John’s discouragement and puzzlement are thus understandable as Jesus does not slay the wicked, but instead goes about healing and preaching and, istead of slaying the wicked he is  enduring scorn and ridicule from those in power.

And we can see, John’s notions, while understandable, are in need of some purification.

2. Purification –  Jesus gives an answer to those sent by John that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than what 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 context, audience and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist is not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more of the Messiah’s second coming than of 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 is stitching together many quotes and prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example consider the following:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  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)
  4. 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)

Thus, John and all of us, thus need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do. Jesus says in today’s Gospel to those who are disappointed in his lack of wrathful vengeance: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

It is essential to accept Jesus teaching here. This not only because we better conform to scriptural tradition but also, because rejoicing in any other gift than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Notice, John was hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors. We too can fall into the trap of wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world. But it is a very dangerous thing to call down God’s wrath upon sinners, since, last time I checked, none of us are outside the category “sinner.”

Here then is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies. God’s greatest gift is His Son Jesus. Further, it is not Jesus’  wrath that is his greatest gift, it is his grace and mercy. Without Jesus and boatloads of his grace and  mercy we don’t stand a chance. Even John the Baptist of who Christ says, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist, even he needs lots of grace and mercy as we shall see.

3. Perfection – And thus we are left with the directive by the Lord to find the perfect gift. And Jesus announces this perfect gift by first describing the best that the world can do. And what was that best accomplishment of the world? Let’s read:

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 John the Baptist was the pinnacle. 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? For the world can produce only human and worldly excellence. But Grace and Mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. If you seek the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus, for he alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we desperately need. If even the holy John the Baptist was in need, how much more you and I. Grace and mercy far excel any thing we can ask or imagine. I have quoted before the vision of St. Catherine wherein she describes a glorified soul in heaven:

It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful” [1].

Ah yes, the perfect gift. And God wants to get us ready for it. A day of strict justice is on the way which John envisioned. But 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.

Do you want to find the perfect gift this Christmas? Then look for Jesus. Do you want to give the perfect gift to God? Then give yourself to Jesus. To you want to give the perfect gift for others? Then bring them to Jesus, bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in his Word proclaimed, in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift.

The destruction of our enemies is not the perfect gift. Their conversion and salvation is. 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.   http://findtheperfectgift.org/


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Principles of Powerful Prophecy – A Meditation on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent

The Gospel today presents some Practical Principles of Powerful Prophecy as we focus on the ministry of John the Baptist. All of us have been anointed as prophets by virtue of our baptism. Now, a prophet is not usually someone who foretells the future but, rather, someone who speaks for God, who announces the truth of the Lord to this world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this prophetic office in the following way:

 [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God. (CCC, 1270)

 So, we have an obligation to evangelize and to be prophets in this world. But how can we do this effectively? What are the some of the essential ingredients? The ministry of St. John the Baptist in today’s Gospel provides four “Principles for Powerful Prophecy.” Let’s look at the elements that are displayed

 1. The  Poise Powerful Prophecy. Poise here refers to balance. The text says, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea  and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Note the content of John’s preaching is twofold. He first says, “Repent!” And then adds, “For the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  Here is a balance to get right. The preacher and the prophet must speak frankly of sin and call people to repentance. But the prophet must also speak of the grace available to conquer that sin and the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven is now  open and available.  Hence John the Baptist is willing and able to declare the reality of sin and the necessity of repenting from it. But he is also able to declare the availability of the Kingdom wherein one is able to find the grace to overcome sin.

 Too many preachers, catechists and even parents lack this balance. In the past, some argue,  that sermons were all fire and brimstone. Today it is too often, the steady diet “God is love” with little reference to the need to repent. This is one explanation of why our Churches have emptied in the past 40 years. This is because  the good news only has relevance and significance if the bad news is first understood.

 To illustrate, suppose you are looking at a newspaper and see a headline that announces a cure for a deadly disease has been found. But what if you have never heard of this disease and don’t even know you have it?  It is not likely you will read the article, it will be only of passing interest. But, now suppose you know of this disease, and that you have it, and you know others who have it. Suddenly this headline jumps out, is very relevant, causes joy and is an  article to read very carefully by you! Because you know very personally the bad news of the disease, the good news of the cure now means everything to you. It is the same with the Kingdom. We have to know the bad news of sin in a very personal and profound way if the Good News of Salvation is going to be appreciated. But in the Church we have lately soft-pedaled the bad news. Thus the Good News is irrelevant to people and the medicine of the cure is pointless. Why pray, receive sacraments or read scripture if everything is really fine? Why bother coming to Church for all that stuff? Hence our Churches have emptied, in part, due to a lack of the proper balance of repent and the Kingdom of God is at hand.

If we are going to be powerful and effective prophet we are going to have to be able to speak frankly to others about the reality of sin and balance it with the joyful announcement of the Kingdom with its grace and mercy now being available.  Prophecy must be proper by having the right balance.

2. The Product of Powerful Prophecy. The text says, At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.  Here is the desired product of powerful prophecy: repentance unto salvation for all who believe.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this aspect of prophecy and preaching. He is aware that he grieved some of them due to a strong rebuke he gave the community (cf 1 Cor 5) but he is glad that it produced a godly sorrow which in turn produced repentance and holiness. He also distinguishes between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation [at sin], what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done…..By all this we are encouraged. (2 Cor 7:8-13)

An old priest once told me, “Never think you have preached well unless the line to the confessional is long.” Good preaching, among other things produces repentance unto salvation. It may cause some to be mad or sad, but if it is proper prophecy, it will produce a godly sorrow and the madness and sadness gives way to gladness. Here is the expected product of proper preaching: repentance unto salvation.

 3.  The Purity of Powerful Prophecy. The text says: When [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you,  God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit  will be cut down and thrown into the fire. John the Baptist had no fear of people’s opinion and would not compromise the message based on his audience. All the credentials of the temple leaders did not impress him. Neither did the status of the Jews as the chosen people cause him to soften his message. John had no fear of human opinion, no need for the good favor of others, especially the rich and powerful.  Because of this his preaching had purity. He did not compromise the message out of fear or the need to flatter others. He spoke boldly, plainly and with love and desire for the ultimate salvation of all. If that called for strong medicine he was willing to do it.

The ancient martyrs went to their death proclaiming Christ but many of us moderns are afraid even of someone raising their eyebrows at us. Fear is a great enemy of powerful prophecy for by it many remain silent when they should speak. The fear of what other people may think causes many to compromise the truth and even sin against it. This sort of fear has to go if our prophecy is going to have the purity necessary to reach the goal.

4. The Person of Powerful Prophecy. The text says, I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn,  but the chaff he will burn with  unquenchable fire.  John’s  audience and disciples were fascinated by him, and drawn by his charisma. But as they want to know more about him, John talks instead about Jesus. That’s the message, “Jesus, not me.” If we are going to be powerful prophets the message has got to be about Jesus, not about me and what I think. We are not out to win an argument and boost our own egos. We are not out to become famous. We are about Jesus Christ and his gospel, his message, his truth. John said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). A prophet speaks for the Lord, not himself. A prophet announces God’s agenda not his own. A prophet is about Jesus.

Here then are four Principles of Powerful Prophecy. You are that prophet whom the Lord seeks. Some one was John the Baptist for you. Someone brought you to Christ. Thank God for that individual or those individuals. But you too are to be John the Baptist for others. Learn from John, apply his principles and make disciples for Jesus Christ.

This song says:

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they’re travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain
.