A Picture of a Prophet – A Homily for the Second Sunday of the Year

The first reading for Sunday Mass speaks to us of the call of Samuel. In examining it, we can see what it is that makes a great prophet. Put more theologically, we can see the ways in which God’s graces form a great prophet.

Samuel was surely one of the most significant prophets of the Old Testament and lived at a critical time, as Israel shifted from the time of the judges to the time of the monarchy. Ultimately, it was he who would see Israel through the difficult time of Saul’s reign and prepare and anoint them for David’s kingship to follow.

What, then, are some of the ways in which God prepares Samuel and every prophet (this means you) for mission? Consider these five.

1.  The CLOSENESS of a great Prophet – In the first reading, we find the young Samuel sleeping in the temple of the Lord. In those days, the temple was not yet in Jerusalem nor was it a permanent building; it was a tent structure in Hebron. Samuel, as one in training for temple duties, is sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant, which carried the presence of God. Thus we see that a great prophet begins and remains so by staying close to the Lord.

We must do the same if we wish to be great prophets to our family and friends. How will parents give prophetic witness to their children if they are distant from the Lord? How will a priest preach with authority and power if he does not stay close to the Lord?

How do we draw close to the Lord? Daily prayer, devout reading of Scripture, frequent confession, weekly reception of Holy Communion, and a spirit of wonder and awe. Ask for these virtues. Stay close to the Lord. Great prophets stay close to the Lord.

2.  The CONSTERNATION of a great Prophet – The first reading depicts Samuel as struggling with some confusion as to what he is hearing and from whom. God is calling, but Samuel doesn’t get it. He struggles to figure out what is happening to him. A look at the call of the great prophets reveals that most of them struggled with their call. Moses felt old, inarticulate, and inadequate. Jeremiah felt too young; Isaiah, too sinful. Amos would have been content to remain a dresser of sycamores. Most of the prophets felt overwhelmed and experienced consternation.

Samuel eventually figures it out who it is that is calling him and begins his journey. He had to listen for a while to do that, however.

How about you? Many of us too would want to run if God made it clear that He had something for us to do. In a way, that is a proper response, for pride is a bad trait. To be troubled, to experience a bit of consternation and anxiety, helps us to remain humble and to keep leaning on the Lord.

What is the Lord asking of you? Perhaps, like Samuel, you struggle to understand at first. Stay close to God and things will eventually become clear.

The great prophets struggled, but that is the point. They struggled with God for an answer and for a vision.

3.  The CONNECTEDNESS of a great Prophet – Notice that Samuel does not discern on his own. He seeks counsel from a wiser man. Although Eli is not a perfect teacher, God does make use of him to help Samuel.

We, too, ought to seek good, strong spiritual influences, friends and clergy, to help us to discern. Scripture says, Seek counsel from every wise man (Tobit 4:18). It is a bad idea to try to discern alone. We should cultivate relationships with wise and spiritual men and women in our journey.

The great prophets were connected to spiritual leaders and teachers. They read and consulted other prophets. God does not just call us to a vertical, private relationship with Him. He also calls us to a horizontal relationship with others. Seek wise counsel—great prophets do.

4.  The CORE of a great Prophet – Samuel is advised by Eli to say to God, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. A great prophet listens to God, but God does not always say easy things. He often challenges, but great prophets listen very carefully to Him. They do not try to bury His word; they do not forget what He says. They take what they hear seriously and do not compromise God’s Word.

What about us? It is easy to avoid listening to God or to compromise what we have heard, but great prophets listen carefully to Him by doing these things: reading and studying His word, observing how He speaks through creation and in the events of each day, studying the teachings of the Church, and listening to the small, still voice within carefully and prayerfully.

Do you want to be a great prophet? Then listen.

5.  The CAPABILITY of a great Prophet – We see in Samuel’s life how was gradually transformed into a great prophet of God who never compromised God’s word. The text says, Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect. Because Samuel was close to the Lord, faced his own consternation, was connected to the wise, and had that core virtue of listening, he became a great prophet. The Hebrew text is more literal in saying that God did not let a word of Samuel’s fall to the ground.

Being a great prophet is a work of God. We who would and should be great prophets ourselves ought to heed the way in which God works to make great prophets. Learn from Samuel. Study all the prophets and you will see what God can do.

While most of us wish that our words had greater effect, it is less clear that we want to undertake the process necessary to get there. Ask for the gift. Ask for the gift to stay close to God, to struggle and accept some of the consternation that comes with being a prophet. Seek to be connected to wise counsel. Learn the core value of listening. In this way will God bring about in you a conversion such that none of your words will ever fall to the ground.

Welcome to “Ordinary Time”

Welcome to the wearing of the green, green vestments that is. The weeks of the year outside of seasons such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter are termed “ordinary time.” It’s a rather dull-sounding description, isn’t it? “Ordinary” time, hmm …

But in this case, the word “ordinary” does not refer to its typical meaning: “common, usual, or unremarkable.” Instead, it comes from the English word “ordinal” meaning “relating to a thing’s position in a series.” Some examples of ordinal numbers are “first,” “second,” and “third.” Thus ordinary time refers to weeks/Sundays that are numbered (e.g., 15th Week/Sunday in Ordinary Time).

The Latin description for this time is Tempus per annum (time through the year). Each week is merely designated as “Hebdomada # x” (Week # x).

These terms or titles seem somewhat uninspiring. This is especially the case when we consider that the old calendar (replaced in 1970, but still used in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) numbered these Sundays and weeks in reference to Epiphany or Pentecost (e.g., Third Sunday after Epiphany, or Fourth Sunday after Pentecost). The pivotal events of Epiphany and Pentecost therefore set the tone for the following weeks e.g., “This is Third Sunday since our Lord was manifested to us,” or “This is the Fourth week since the Holy Spirit was granted to us for our mission.”

Alas, we are not likely to see the current calendar replaced any time soon, so welcome to Ordinary Time, and more specifically to the First Week of the Year!

But maybe there is some inspiration here after all. The faith is not just something reserved for extraordinary moments and seasons. It is meant to be lived in all the ordinary moments of life, too; it is meant to be lived throughout the year.

The liturgical readings and prayers of Ordinary Time emphasize discipleship. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in matters involving money, time, priorities, etc.? How do we encounter the Kingdom of God and perceive it in our daily lives? What are the conditions of discipleship? How will we ultimately be judged? These are some of the themes of Ordinary Time.

So encounter God in the “ordinary,” in the time throughout the year, even when on vacation this coming summer. There is no vacation from our vocation. Do not miss what God is doing, even in the ordinary.

Wading in the Troubled Water Saves You, Not Taking a Bridge Over It – A Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord provides a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s baptism, but also on our own. For in an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of His body. As Christ enters the water, He makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water and we follow. And in these waters He acquires gifts to give us, as we shall see below.

Why was Jesus baptized? It has been asked in every generation why Christ sought baptism. The baptism of John surely pointed to sin, of which Christ  had none. The question has been well answered by the Father and many others. In effect, Christ descended into those waters; He troubled those waters, stirring them up to make them holy for our sakes. And by this descent, which points to the Paschal mystery, obtained manifold blessings for us. St. Maximus of Turin speaks of Christ’s baptism this way:

I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed. … But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people. … At the time of the Exodus the column … made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism (de sancta Epiphania 1.3).

So Christ, as it were, opens a way for us by troubling the waters, just as He did at the Red Sea,  and obtains for us victory over our spiritual enemies.  He brings us forth to freedom on the other side. He is baptized for us. Ephesians 5:30 says, we are members of Christ’s body. Thus when Jesus goes into the water, we go with Him. And in going there, He stirs up the water; He troubles the water for us, acquiring gifts on our behalf.

Don’t be afraid of troubled waters; there is a blessing on the other side. A songwriter once spoke of seeking a bridge over troubled waters. Biblically, this is poor advice. For it is only by going through, or wading into, the troubled waters that the blessing is found. More on this in a moment. For now, simply observe that Christ wades in, troubles the water, and obtains blessings for us out of the troubled waters.

And what are the gifts He obtains for us? The texts speak of them somewhat figuratively, but clearly. In effect, there are four gifts spoken of in the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ baptism:

  1. Access – the heavens are opened. The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, the text says that the heavens are opened. Jesus acquires the gift of sanctifying grace for us. And by this grace, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says, Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand (Romans 5:1). It also says, For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence the heavens are also opened at our own baptism and we have access to the Father.
  2. Anointing – the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove. Here, too, Jesus acquires the gift of the Holy Spirit for us. In baptism, we are not just washed of sins, we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After baptism, there is the anointing with chrism, which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults, this is Confirmation. But even for infants, there is an anointing at baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
  3. Acknowledgment – this is my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from His Father. He allowed this to be heard by some of the bystanders for the sake of their own faith. But He also  acquires this gift for us. In our own baptism, we become the children of God. Since we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your baptism, the heavenly Father acknowledged you as His own dear Child. Scripture says, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26).
  4. Approval – I am well pleased. Jesus had always pleased His Father. But now He acquires this gift for you as well. Here, too, is another acknowledgment of the sanctifying grace that the Lord gives us in baptism. Sanctifying grace is the gift to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph 1:1-3).

Thus, at His baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us, so that at the troubled, stirred up water of our own baptism, we could receive them. Consider well the glorious gift of your baptism. Perhaps you know the exact day. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday. Christ is baptized for our sakes, not His own. All these gifts had always been His. Now, in His baptism, He fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for you. It’s alright to say, “Hallelujah!”

This video I put together shows that God has a way of bringing blessings when He troubles the water.

He troubled the waters in the great flood to cleanse the earth,
He troubled the waters at the Red Sea to bring forth victorious escape and freedom from oppression,
He troubled the waters in the desert to satisfy the Israelites,
He troubled the waters of the Jordan so they could enter the promised land,
Jesus troubled the waters at His baptism and obtained many a gift for us,
And from the troubled waters of His pierced side came salvation and the Holy Spirit.

So don’t build a bridge over troubled waters; wade on in! There’s a blessing on the other side.

A Deeper Look from Scripture at What Afflicts Us

In a pandemic, and after a summer of violence, a contentious election and now more violence, a reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is striking  by the fact that the ancient diagnosis of Israel applies to our times as well. By the following I don’t intend a commentary on the events of the last few days. Rather, I think the text from Isaiah and my remarks seek to go to a deeper and wider level of what ails us and has been growing for decades. Here is what Isaiah says: 

And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor. The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable. … Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves (Isaiah 3:5-9).

When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord … My people—a babe in arms will be their tyrant, and women will rule them! O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow (Isaiah 3:6-12).

Let’s note four fundamental issues that God assigns to that age (and, I would argue, ours as well). Our culture and nation have become:

Dominating and Loud And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor.

These are indeed contentious times—so contentious that we cannot seem to have honest debates or disagreements; we just yell at one another. On college campuses, students shout down speakers with differing views and accuse them of hate. Demonstrations both on campuses and elsewhere often devolve into a kind of mob violence, which has included vandalism, setting cars afire, breaking windows, looting, and even murder.

Pope Benedict XVI warned of the tyranny of relativism. By this he meant that as relativism and subjectivism have shifted the source of truth from the object to the subject, from reality to opinion, there is no longer any basis for reasonable discussion.

In such a climate, whose views win the day: Those with the most money, power, and political clout or those who shout the loudest or are best able to intimidate others?

Dishonoring and Low – The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable.

What is described in this verse has been going on for a considerable time. Those of us who are older remember a time when disrespect for elders was not tolerated. Beginning in the 1950s and picking up speed through the 1960s, our culture devolved into one centered on youth. Youthful vigor and youth itself were esteemed over maturity. Young people were “hip” and relevant; “old people” were out of touch and had nothing to offer. If something was old, it was bad; if something was new it was good. Rock music emphasized rebellion and the rejection of tradition. Television sitcoms featured children who were all-wise and parents (especially fathers) who were stupid and buffoonish.

All of this has led to a breakdown of respect for elders and those in authority. And, frankly, elders and authority figures have not helped matters, as many of them have fearfully declined to insist upon proper respect.

When there is no respect, there can be no teaching. When there is no teaching or handing down of what has proven best and most worthwhile, what is base and low-brow too easily appeals to those who are schooled only in their lower passions.

Rap stars, news media, Hollywood actors, and other pop-culture figures have more influence than Scripture, faith, literature, and tradition. Much of popular culture presents that which is base and most of those who represent it reject the honorable and time-tested traditions that have built our culture. Cultural iconoclasts dominate; those who build on what is honorable are fewer, both in number and influence.

Destructive through Lust Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves.

Today, promiscuity of every sort is celebrated. Again, those of us who are older can remember a time when living together outside of marriage was scorned; it was referred to as “living in sin” or “shacking up.” Now, not only is it widely tolerated; it is even encouraged.

Movies and popular songs since the 1960s have depicted and spoken of illicit sexual unions of every kind as normal, acceptable, routine, and even beautiful. Homosexual acts are now celebrated, made the matter of pride. Contraception, widely rejected by every Christian denomination prior to 1930, is now called virtuous or responsible by most. Divorce, once considered shocking and discouraged by our very laws, is now common; it is often encouraged as a way to happiness.

God warns through Isaiah in this text: Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves. In other words, if we don’t get marriage and sexuality right as a culture, it will kill our civilization. Sexual distortion leads to distortions about marriage. Distortions about marriage lead to broken families. Broken families lead to broken children. Broken children become broken adults. Broken adults have a hard time leading or making good decisions.

The breakdown of culture and civilization continues. In our sins we deal out evil to ourselves. We sow the wind and we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). We sow in the field of the flesh and we reap a harvest of corruption (Gal 6:8).

Declining in Leadership When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the LordO my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow.

This is an especially controversial part of the text. Yet, honestly, there is a crisis of leadership in our culture at nearly every level. In families, many parents do not lead their children, choosing instead to try to be their friends. Many priests and bishops timorously hide, speaking in abstractions and generalities rather than teaching clearly. Too many do not vigorously summon the faithful to a proper moral vision.

In terms of social and political leadership, mob rule is becoming more common, and leaders succumb to many notions simply because a loud and sometimes violent group demands it. Further, many leaders mislead by looking only to their political survival and “playing to their base.”  There is a kind of hypersensitivity to the feelings of aggrieved individuals or groups of self-described victims. Many leaders are more preoccupied with not giving offense to certain popular groups than with making difficult decisions that may demand sacrifice and that will not please all, but are still the best answer. What is best can sometimes be hard; the truth is not always pleasing to everyone.

Disclaimer: Without a doubt, some of what Isaiah said was controversial in his day. And without a doubt my application of the text to this day and age will likewise be controversial. But what if ensuing conversations and debates are the result? What if you get a chance to register your comments and complaints in the comment box here and other people get to respond to you? What if my imperfect post is meant to encourage conversation in a culture that increasingly wants to shut down conversation and forbid “politically unapproved” speech and replace an open mouth with a clenched fist?

Finally, remember that biblical passages have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. We’re all a little of both and we need both.

This song, recorded in my parish church, was performed by the St. Luke Ordinariate Choir:

A Reflection on the Virtue of Patriotism in a Time of National DIstress

Yesterday, January 6th (the official day of Epiphany) was quite and epiphany of its own,. Currently in our country we are dramatically and almost evenly divided. The huge crowd that gathered yesterday was largely peaceful and came to express concerns about the conducting of the last election. Fine; and probably worth further investigation. But the rioters who broke into the Capital acted immorally and deserve the same condemnation as those who rioted in the racial demonstrations of the summer. Legitimate grievances do not allow the endangerment of life, the destruction of property, or the desecration of sacred or  special places.

None of us will be happy about the outcome of every situation, debate or election. Traditionally we have accepted defeats and used legitimate processes to continue our struggle for what we think is right or best. That seems far less the case today with our burning cities and now violated Capital. Any talk about understanding the anger of rioters simply adds to the injury and seeks to excuse what is heinous and immoral behavior.

Personally, I have never been so worried about the condition and future of our country as I am today; not simply because we have deep differences, but especially because we no longer seem to have a way to resolve our differences civilly.  It is the tyranny and chaos of relativism of which I have written elsewhere  Click HERE.

There was a time when we all agreed that we loved our Country and only wanted what we thought best for it.. Even that agreed premise seems less obvious today. Yet it still seems to me that healthy patriotism is among the first places we should look to begin a recovery.

Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC #2239).

Much of this is reflected in a beautiful song written for the Ken Burns series “The War.” It is called “American Anthem.” The lyrics are touching and moving. The central themes are just what the Catechism teaches: gratitude and the serving of the common good. Let’s explore some of the themes of this song on this Memorial Day of 2019.

The song begins in this way:

All we’ve been given
By those who came before
The dream of a nation
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers
Of centuries
Have brought us to this day

So we begin with gratitude. The works and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day. Each day we wake up in a land of beauty and plenty. We live in freedom because others died to win it and protect it. We drive on roads that others paved, make use of an electrical grid that others created and built. We depend on technologies that others developed. The Constitution, our legal system, civil society, the Church and her time-tested teachings—all these things and many more we have received from the hard work and ingenuity of others. Every day I am blessed to be able to walk into a beautiful church built by others.

Those who came before us were not sinless, but they exhibited bravery, virtue, perseverance, and patience in carefully setting forth a nation and a commonwealth that we often carelessly take for granted. When I ponder these things, I am overcome with gratitude.

The song also speaks of the dream of a nation in which freedom would endure. Today, many interpret freedom as the license to do whatever one pleases, but true freedom is the ability to obey God, live virtuously, and benefit from the fruits of that behavior: freedom from excess and the slavery to sin. It is only in this freedom, a freedom from self-absorption, that one can leave the sort of legacy of which the song next speaks:

What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

Remember that America is not merely a nation-state or a legal entity—it is our patria, our homeland, from which we get the word “patriotism.” There is both a fatherly and motherly image we can derive from our country, America. We are sprung from its loins and nurtured in its womb. We have shared in its freely bestowed resources, taken our meals from its rich soils, and learned from the best of its teachings and traditions.

Thus, patriotism is a beautiful virtue linked to the fourth commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Sadly, some people today dismiss the virtue of patriotism, calling it “nationalism” and portraying it as evidence of xenophobia. That some have exhibited extremes of patriotism does not remove the truth that patriotism is a virtue and is both commended to us and commanded of us. From it we derive a requirement to do our part to protect, preserve, and contribute to the common good. We are to leave a legacy that others will recognize, that we carried our share of the burden, that we did our very best for the land and people we are called to love.

Each generation from the plains
To distant shore
with the gifts they were given
Were determined
To leave more
Battles fought together
Acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds
From which America has grown

It is perhaps enough to simply do no harm or merely hand on what we received, but love is expansive. It leads us leave to our descendants more than we received. It is the American and human spirit to build on what is received, to bring things to greater perfection and beauty.

As the song mentions, we often do this by working together, but sometimes we must take up the lonely and often-despised role of the prophet summoning the nation to greater justice and holiness. Both traditions are needed. Many of us have had to raise our voices in protest at the straying of our land from its biblical roots, but this has been and is done out of love for our people and land, so that we attain to a greater and more perfect union.

In times like these a song like this feels healing. It ends this way:

In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

America
America
I gave my best to you.

The Journey of Faith – A Homily for Epiphany

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

In this meditation, I would like to follow these Magi in their journey of faith to become “Wise Men.” As magi, they followed the faint stars, distant points of light; as wise men, they follow Jesus, who is the ever-glorious Light from Light, true God from true God.

We can observe how they journey in stages from the 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 ultimately serve to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey from being mere magi to becoming, by God’s grace, wise men.

Stage 1: The CALL that COMPLETES – 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 the identity of these individuals: they are labeled magi (μάγοι (magoi) in Greek) and are from the East.

Exactly what “magi” are is not clear. Perhaps they are learned men; perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as kings, though the text of this passage does not call them that. It also seems likely that Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern kingdom. We often think of them as kings because 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 rather “magi.”

Yet here is their key identity: they are Gentiles who have been called. Up until this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the Gospel is going out to all the world. This call completes the Church, which needs both Jews and Gentiles.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul rejoices in this fact, saying, the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Because most of us are not Jewish by ancestry we ought to rejoice, for the call of these Magi prefigures our call.

Notice that God calls them through something in the natural world: a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the “star” that God uses to call each of us? Perhaps it is Scripture, but more typically God uses someone in our life in order to reach us: a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, a religious sister, or a devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life through whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation, as he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a magnificent church, or a beautiful painting, or an inspirational song that reached you. Through something or someone, God calls each of us; He puts a star in our sky. These Wise Men, these Magi, followed the call of God and began their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2: The CONSTANCY that CONQUERS – Upon arriving 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. The Magi likely assumed that the newborn King would be related to the current king, so Herod’s surprise may have confused them. And Herod seems more than surprised; he seems threatened and agitated.

Even more puzzling, Herod calls in religious leaders to get further information about this new 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 about the newborn King, and after providing the location of His birth, make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people to tell them that a longed-for King has finally been born, not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (Herod and his court) are wakeful while the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi! Perhaps they even thought about abandoning their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this new King’s birth, and those people who did know about it seemed rather uninterested.

Ah, but praise the Lord, they persevered in their search; they did 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 to Jesus were either asleep, 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 daunting obstacles (e.g., poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy, and poor role models). God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested, but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

To persevere is to open the door to wisdom, which often must be sought in spite of obstacles. This constancy is often what it takes to overcome the darkness and discouragements of the world.

Stage 3: The CONDESCENSION that CONFESSES – 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, the Magi 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 now in a house. Apparently they have been able to find decent lodging. Has it been days or weeks since Jesus’ birth? Regardless, it is likely not Christmas Day itself.

Notice, too, that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word used is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan), which means “to fall down in worship” or “to give adoration.” This word is used twelve times in the New Testament and each time it is clear that religious worship is the reason for the prostration.

This is no minor act of homage or sign of respect to an earthly king; this is religious worship. It is a confession of faith. The Magi manifest faith! The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. And these Magi are well on their way from being mere magi to being wise men!

But is their faith a real faith or just a perfunctory observance? It is not enough to answer an altar call or to get baptized. Faith is never alone; it is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So let’s look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4: The COST that COMES – There is a cost to discipleship. The Magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. They are costly gifts.

Gold symbolizes all of 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 a resin used in incense and symbolizes the gift of worship. In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (e.g., 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, to render Him the praise and worship He is due, to listen to His word and consent to be fed the Eucharist by Him, to worship Him worthily by frequent confession, and to praise Him at all times.

Myrrh is a strange gift for an infant; it is usually understood as a 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.”

Yes, these three gifts 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 are we.

In their holy reverence for God is wisdom in its initial stage!

Stage 5: The CONVERSION that is CLEAR – 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. 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 perfunctory worship; they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what He tells them (cf Luke 6:46).

No longer mere magi, they are now wise men!

So there it is. Through careful stages, the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you and me) to conversion. He called these Magi to wisdom. 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 these Wise Men! Wise men still seek Him; even wiser ones listen to and obey Him. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is ongoing conversion part of our journey home to Heaven? Epiphany means “manifestation.” How is our faith made manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the (now) Wise Men went home by another route, they were singing this gospel song:

It’s a highway to heaven!
None can walk up there
but the pure in heart.
I am 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.

Does anybody really know what time it is? A meditation on the mystery of time.

 

I began our New Years Eve adoration at 11:00 AM with the observation that we begin this prayer in one year, and end in another. New Years Eve features the mysterious passage from one year to another. In a way I suppose it is no more mysterious than the passage from Tuesday to Wednesday or from 10:00 AM to 10:01 AM.

In one sense, nothing could be simpler than time. What time is it? It is 1:15. Simple! But time has mysteries about it.

What is time? Some say it is merely a measure of change. But that doesn’t really make a lot of sense since change doesn’t happen at a steady pace at all.

Some say it is just another way of clocking distance in the space/time continuum. Time and distance surely are related. To look out at the stars at night is to look into the past, for is has taken sometimes millions of years for the light of many stars to reach us through the vacuum and vast distances of space. Even the light of the sun is eight minutes old before it reaches us.

But there’s just more to time than distance and we all know it. The Greeks had several words for time. Chronos was clock-time. Kairos was a complex notion of time as experienced subjectively. Thus ten minutes can seem like an hour or an hour pass swiftly. Further things can seem fitting at certain times and not at others. Kairos is thus an elastic notion of time. And lastly there is Aeon (eternity, or the fullness of time). More on Aeon below.

Yes, every New Year I ponder the mystery of time, I guess because time is so much on our mind. And as I ponder time, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is, until we are actually asked to define it in some meaningful way. Something makes me think of what St Augustine once said about another mystery (the Trinity). And thus if someone asks me to define time I am tempted to say with Augustine: If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know. So time, while plain at one level is mysterious at other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider a few puzzlements about time.

  1. The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity – We like to think that time is unvarying. 10 minutes here, is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has largely disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slow down time. On a very large planet with stronger gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe a big difference, but the Law of Relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way it is almost symbolized by a large, lumbering elephant compared to a tiny little mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) the speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were in a different time frame.
  2. The Mystery of Lifespans – And speaking of animals, why are life spans so different? My cat Daniel is, like me, a mammal. He has heart and lungs, a very similar physiology to me in most respects. Yet his clock is set to 15 years, my clock is set to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years, Many types of parrots can live to be over 100. Other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but Carp (a fish) live up to 100 years. And so on. We all see to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar species. We seem to carry the mystery of time in us. I have never heard a satisfying answer to the wide variability of life spans.
  3. The Mystery of our “inner clock.” Most of our demarcations of time are clearly rooted in the celestial cycle. Thus, a “day” is the cycle of the sun, as is a year. A month (a least originally) is rooted in the cycle of the moon, and “month” is just a mispronunciation of “moonth.” Seasons too follow the Sun’s trajectory in relation to the horizon and length of day. But more mysterious is the 7-day cycle we call the “week.” Where does it come from? Anthropologically most cultures manifest a need to “reset the clock” every seven days. The Genesis account of creation in seven days, surely influenced the Judeo-Christian culture,  but other cultures show a similar tendency of seven days. Where does the seven day week come from? Mysterious. But we seem, as humans to have some inner clock in this regard.
  4. The Mystery of Eternity – Lastly there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word eternity simply to mean a long, long, time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity, (Aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” That is to say, Eternity is the past, present and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the clock to the upper right. The time is 1:15 in the afternoon. That means that 10:00 AM is in the past and 6:00 pm is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock and see that at that spot 10 AM, 1:15 PM, and 6 PM are all the same, they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not. God lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, and future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering if you or I will get to heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, 10,000 years ago is just as present as 10,000 years from now. Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages. For example, But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8). Psalm 139 says, Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. (Ps 139, 15). Psalm 90 says, For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (Ps 90:4). And then there is simply the God’s name: “I AM” In this Name, there is no past, no future, just an eternal now, the present tense. Jesus declared to the crowds, “Before Abraham ever was, I AM.” (John 8:58). So here is the most awesome mystery of time, the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of His creature, time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time.

A Christmas Like No Other

For many this fateful year, Christmas will be like no other. In previous years many of us would be asked, “Are you going somewhere for Christmas? Will you gather with family?” We often had many and rich answers to those questions. This year many of us will answer, “No, I am not going anywhere and will try to connect “virtually” with family. Some are even warned and scorned by public officials not to yield to the natural instinct to gather with family or go to church.

It is in this climate that we do well to meditate this Christmas on the astonishing gift of God’s presence among us. The Book of Hebrews wondrously describes this gift:

In many and in varied ways God spoke unto our fathers by the prophets. But now, in these last days He has spoken unto us through his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and by whom also he made the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

And St. John says,

The Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:1,14)

In Jesus, the Lord does not simply speak to us through creation or Scripture or the Prophets. No, he comes to us personally and is present to us. In Christ, God is made visible, tangible, and present. In Jesus we can see the face of God, hear his voice and touch him. He is emphatically, physically present to us. There is nothing “virtual” or online here, nothing televised or remote. He is truly present.

Yes, he who the very heavens cannot contain, now becomes a little infant held in the arms of his Mary. From his hands, now the hands of a little infant, the galaxies and the very universe tumbled forth. From his voice, now like that of an infant, reality was commanded into existence. He who looks down upon all creation, now looks up from a cradle. It is a very great mystery and an astonishing humility that we behold. Our God is made visible and approachable; he is present to us. Some lines from old Christmas Carols come to mind that illustrate the tenderness and joy of God’s presence among us:

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.

Another sing saysm

Alpha et O (Alpha and Omega)
Matris in gremio (is sitting in mommy’s lap).

So, Christ, the Lord, the Eternal Word and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became physically present at the Annunciation and visible to us at Christmas. Alpha and Omega is indeed sitting in mommy’s lap! It is an astonishing gift that our minds can barely comprehend.

For human beings this gift is important since we, though having spiritual souls, also have physical bodies. We are used to experiencing things through our five senses. The Lord in his mercy extended this gift of his presence in the Nativity and his public ministry. And even now, though he has ascended, we still encounter Him in the Liturgy and the Sacraments, most especially in Holy Communion where he is present: really, truly and substantially.

In this Christmas like no other, some have said, “It’s OK that we can’t all gather at Church, we can watch the live-stream.” Although for some this may be necessary it is not “OK.” It is very sad and unfortunate. This is because we are not disembodied spirits. We all experience disappointment when someone says, “I can’t join you, but I’ll be with you in spirit.” This is disappointing because we all know that physical presence is important and strongly preferred. Truly being together involves a bodily presence. Further, we can’t receive sacraments virtually or over the internet. All of the Sacraments touch our body in some way: by the pouring of water, anointing with sacred oils, the laying on of hands, and most excellently by the reception of Holy Communion where Christ touches and feeds us with his very self. We can’t do this over the Internet. Praying for an end to this pandemic and the return of all of God’s faithful is critically important. While virtual options are helpful, it is not the same as being at Mass.

It is interesting, the word “virtual” has come to mean something we do on the computer. But “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really,” as in, “He virtually went crazy.” In other words he isn’t crazy but was “sort of” like that for a time. So virtual has its parameters but it lacks the essential metrics  of the real thing.  

Perhaps for Protestants, whose services are less sacramental and resemble a bible study, virtual, online or streamed services make sense, but for Catholics whose faith is incarnational and involve Sacraments and realities meant to touch the body and thereby the soul, virtual cannot long remain an option.

At Christmas we celebrate a savior who actually, physically, comes among us and can be touched, even held! The Catholic Church has combined a wonderful intellectual tradition that is carefully blended with an incarnate worship that touches the soul AND the body. There is incense, candles, an audible word proclaimed, priestly actions, and the actual touching of the body through Sacraments, especially Holy Communion.

Allow me to make this personal. I miss many of you! Knowing that you are out there and seeing our televised Masses is a consolation. But it will not equal the joy of being with you here again where I can see you, hug you, and, above all, offer you the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord. Currently only 30% of our congregation has returned to Church. This is the average, nationwide. I cannot decide for you when it is right to return. Some of you have immune systems and other conditions such as age that make returning now inadvisable. But know this, I love you and miss you and look for the day when I can offer you Jesus once again, in the most Holy and Blessed Sacrament. Some of you have permitted me to come to your homes. Others have indicated that no visitors are permitted. I understand. But never forget that Jesus ultimately wants to feed us with his very Body and Blood. Whatever you think is necessary for you to feel safe, I will comply and come to you, when you are ready. This is very important.

At Christmas we celebrate the actual physical presence of Jesus among us. In the sacraments and the sacred Liturgy he left us his real, true and substantial presence. Nothing compares to this presence. Prudence has its place, but never cease longing for this presence of the Lord available only in the Mass and celebrations of other sacraments. If you have not been able to return, pray and long for the day when you can. Remember too that we take many precautions to keep you safe! Going to Church is not just going to a building or a pew, it is to be drawn into the presence of Him who is born this Christmas to be among us, really, truly, physically and tangibly.

A blessed Christmas to all