A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

Here in the middle of the Christmas Octave, the Church bids us to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. On the old calendar, the feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday after Epiphany, which makes some sense. It is a bit odd to read, a mere five days after celebrating Jesus’ birth, a Gospel in which He is 12 years old. And then, next week, we have the Feast of Epiphany in which Jesus is an infant again.

Nevertheless, here we are. Perhaps, it is a good time to reflect on family life, as immediate and extended family often gather together during the Christmas season. Let us consider the family and marriage along three lines: structure, struggles, and strategy.

I. Structure All through the readings for today’s Mass we are instructed on the basic form, the basic structure of the family.

  • God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2).
  • May your wife be like a fruitful vine, in the recesses of your home; your children like olive plants, around your table (Psalm 128:3).
  • Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so that they may not become discouraged (Colossians 3:20–21).
  • Each year, Jesus parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover … Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety … (Luke 2:45, 51).
  • And he was obedient to them … And Jesus advanced in age and wisdom and favor before God and man (Luke 2:51–52).

In these passages we see the basic structure of the family:

  • A father in honor over his children
  • A wife and mother who is supportive of her husband and his authority
  • A husband who supports, loves, and encourages his wife
  • A mother in authority over her children
  • Children who honor and obey their parents
  • Fathers, and by extension mothers, who instruct and admonish their children, not in a way that badgers or discourages them, but rather encourages them and builds them up
  • A family structure that helps children to advance in wisdom and age and in favor before God and man
  • A father, a mother, and children, all reverential and supportive of one another in their various roles and duties

Here, then, is God’s basic teaching on family and marriage. Here is the basic structure for the family as God sets it forth: a man who loves his wife and a woman who loves her husband. Within this stable, lasting, and faithful union of mutual support and love, they conceive and raise their children in the holy fear of the Lord.

Add to this the principal description of the book of Genesis, which describes how God sets forth marriage: A man shall leave his father and mother, cling to his wife, and the two of them shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). To this first couple, God gave the mandate, Be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:22).

Thus, we have set forth biblically the basic structure of the family: a father, a mother, and children, all reverential and supportive of one another in their various roles and duties.

Note how the structure of the family take its basic form in terms of its essential fruit: procreation and rearing of children. Why should marriage be a stable and lasting union? Why is Adam told to cling to his wife and to form a stable and lasting union with her?

Because this is what is best and most just for children! Children both need and deserve the stable and lasting union of a father and a mother, the complementary influences of the two sexes. This is the best environment in which to raise and form children. Hence, the family structure of a father and a mother, a male and female parent, flows from what is best and most just for children. The structure of the family, as set forth by God, is rooted in what is best and most just for children. It is what is sensible and what is best, sociologically and psychologically, for the proper development of children.

Even without looking in the Bible, one can see how sensible it is for a child to have the influence and teaching of both a father and a mother, a male and a female. There are things that a father can teach and model for his children that a mother is not as well-suited to impart; conversely, a mother can teach and model for her children things that only she knows best.

This much is clear: both male and female influences are essential for the proper psychological and sociological development of children. Clearly, then, God’s biblical mandate that marriage should consist of a father and a mother is not without basis in simple human reason and common sense.

To intentionally deprive a child of this environment is both unwise and unjust to children. Hence, we see that the basic structure for marriage takes its shape from what is best and most just for children. Both God and nature provide for a father and a mother, a male and a female, to conceive and raise a child.

It also makes sense based on simple human reasoning that the marital relationship should be stable, something that children can depend on from day to day, month to month, and year to year.

Here, then, is the proper structure for marriage. It is set forth both by God and supported by human reason.

II. Struggles – Yet what should be obvious seems to be strangely absent from the minds of many. Sin clouds our judgment and makes some think that what is sinful and improper is in fact acceptable or even good. It is not. In our current modern culture, we gravely sin against God and against our children through consistent misconduct and by refusing to accept what is obviously true. The words of St. Paul are fulfilled in our modern times: their senseless minds were darkened, and they became vain and foolish in their reasoning (Rom 1:21).

It is clear that the family is in crisis today, and it is also clear that it is children who suffer the most. The modern Western world displays a mentality that is both deeply flawed and gravely harmful to children.

Marriage and family are in crisis due the willfully sinful habits of many adults in the areas of sexuality, marriage, and family life. This includes sins such as cohabitation, fornication, abortion, adultery, homosexual acts, pornography, the sexualization of children, and the sexual abuse of children. Add to this the widespread acceptance of contraception, which has facilitated the illusion of sex without consequences and promoted the lie that there is no necessary connection between children and sexual relations. The rebellion of adults against the plan and order of God has caused endless grief and hardship and created a culture that is poisonous to the family, the dignity of the individual, and the proper raising and blessing of children.

III. Strategy What are we to do? Preach the Word! Whatever the sins of this present generation (and there are many), we must be prepared to unambiguously re-propose the wisdom of God’s Word to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Even if we have fallen short personally, we cannot hesitate to announce God’s plan for sexuality, marriage, and family.

Our strategic proclamation must include these key elements:

  • There must be no sex before marriage, ever, under any circumstances. Sexual intercourse is rooted in the procreation of children and there is no legitimate engagement in it outside of the bonds of marriage. There are no exceptions to this.
  • Children deserve and have the right to expect two parents, a father and mother, committed to each other until death do them part. Anything short of this is a grave injustice to children and a mortal sin before God.
  • Neither homosexual unions, nor single parent households are an acceptable alternative to biblical marriage. To allow children to be subjected to such environments for the sake of political correctness does them a grave injustice.
  • Marriage is about what is best for children, not adults.
  • Married couples must learn to work out their differences (as was done in the past) and not resort to divorce, which offends God (cf Malachi 2:16).
  • The needs of children far outweigh the preferences, “rights,” and needs of adults.

Whatever the personal failings of any of us in this present evil age (cf Gal 1:4), our strategy must be to preach the undiluted plan of God for sexuality, marriage, and family to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

 Back to the Bible! Back to the plan of God! Away with modern experiments and unbiblical schemes! God has given us a plan. Thinking that we know better, we have caused great sorrow and hardship for our descendants. We have acted unjustly; we have murdered our children through abortion. Sowing in the wind, we have caused those who have survived our misbehavior to inherit the whirlwind. It is time to repent and help our heirs to rejoice in chastity, marriage, and biblical family. Otherwise, we are doomed.

God has a plan and it must be our strategy, our way out of our struggles and back to His structure for our families.

A Meditation on the Bloody Octave of Christmas

Many are shocked to walk into daily Mass on December 26 and instead of hearing more of the “Baby Jesus” we are confronted with Martyrdom, “The Feast of Stephen” is ancient on the Church’s calendar. More ancient than the Christmas cycle and hence it was not removed to another time.

Bu the martyrdom does not stop there. We are in the midst of the Christmas Octave, an Octave filled with blood as we shall see.

What is an Octave? But first, there may be some of you who wonder what is meant by and “Octave.” An Octave is a period of eight days wherein a feast of the Church is celebrated for that whole period as though it were all the same day. In the modern liturgical calendar we only observe two octaves explicitly: Christmas and Easter.

During the week following Christmas many of the prayers speak of each day as though it were still Christmas. For example some of the prayers and antiphons say, “Today is born our savior, Christ the Lord.” A purist might say, but it is NOT today that he is born, it was back on Saturday the 25th that he was born. But, in certain sense this IS still Christmas day. Christmas Day is one long day of eight days from Saturday the 25th to Saturday January 1st.

It is the same with Easter where for one whole week we announce: “This is the day the Lord has made…”

Why eight days? Some say it is a reference to the eighth day on which Christ rose. I know, you thought it was the third day. But it was also the eighth day! For God made the world in seven days, resting on the seventh (Sabbath or Saturday). But Christ rose on the 8th day (Sunday). So resurrection morning is both the third day AND the eighth day! Others say the practice of the octave goes to Jewish times where some of the feasts (e.g. Dedication and Tabernacles (Booths)) were celebrated over 8 days.

In the old calendar there were more Octaves such as: Epiphany, Pentecost, All Saints, Immaculate Conception, Ascension Sacred Heart and others). Not all of these were privileged Octaves in which no other feasts could be celebrated. Easter and Pentecost were really the only two that blocked out all other feasts entirely. Others, like the Christmas Octave, allowed the celebration of other feasts but still referred to the feast of the octave as well.

So here we are in the Christmas Octave and, in a strong sense it is thus still Christmas Day. TODAY is born our savior Christ the Lord. This feast is so important that we stretch its observance a completed week and into the eighth day.

Bloody Octave – But one of the striking things about the Christmas octave is its bloodiness. It is one of the bloodiest weeks of the Church’s years. Thus, on December 26th, when we have hardly digested our Christmas dinner, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the Martyr who was stoned to death. On December 28th we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young and infant boys who were murdered by Herod seeking to kill Christ. On December 29th we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Becket who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Even St. (King) Wenceslaus of whom we happily sing “on the Feast of Stephen” was brutally killed by his brother.

Why all this blood, why this martyrdom? It is almost as though the red poinsettias that we put out in festive Christmas spirit look back to us in testimony. For it is clear that Jesus came to this world, ultimately to die. His crib (likely of wood) in which he was laid, arms and feet bound by swaddling clothes, points inevitably to the wood of his cross where, once again, his arms and legs were bound by nails and, after dying, he was wrapped tightly in a linen shroud.

The blood of the Christmas octave also reminds us that many of us too will share in Christ’s lot. This world hated Christ and had “no room for him.” Neither does this world have room for true Christians and the blood of martyrs stretches down through the centuries in testimony to the world’s hatred for authentic disciples of Christ and the truth they propose.

From this bloody octave the words of Christ ring out: If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). The martyrs of the Christmas Octave say, Amen.

And even St. John the Apostle, whose feast also occurs in the Octave (Dec 27), also says Amen. For, though he did not suffer martyrdom he proclaimed his Amen also from his prison cell on Patmos: I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Rev 1:9).

Victory – But all these martyrs and sufferers (St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas Becket, and St Wenceslaus) proclaim too the victory that is theirs with Jesus Christ who also said, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). And again, Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Rev 2:10) Yes, Lord, the Spirit and the Bride say, Amen.

Did I wish you a merry Christmas?

The fourth verse of this carol says, 

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
    Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—
               Sorrowing, sighing,
               Bleeding, dying,
    Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

See What the End Shall Be – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

In the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we step back nine months to March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation, an all-but-hidden event that changed the world. God, whose focal presence departed the Temple just prior to the Babylonian invasion (cf Ez 10:18) and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, now returns to the ark of Mary’s womb. The glorious presence of God returns now to His people, in an obscure town of fewer than three hundred, a town so small that no road led to it.

We are reading here of a pivotal moment in the history of mankind. God not only returns to His people but also becomes one with them in the Incarnation.

We do well to consider four aspects of this crucial moment. As we do so, we consider not only Mary’s glories but ours as well (in a subordinate yet real way). Mary is the perfect disciple and her glories typify in a most excellent way the glories that God wishes to bestow upon us, though in a different but still substantial way. Let’s look at four aspects of this Gospel.

I. The RESPECT of God – The text says, The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man name Joseph and the virgin’s name was Mary … Mary said “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Note that God asks Mary for her cooperation. Although the angel Gabriel’s words are not delivered in the form of a question, it is clear from Mary’s response that she considers this to be a request from God. She says yes, understanding it as a request rather than merely a statement of what shall be.

Here we see an important indicator of God’s respect for Mary’s freedom. Surely He has prepared her and equipped her with every good grace to say yes, but in the end her freely offered yes is significant. It is something that God seeks and respects. Otherwise, why would He bother to send an angel at all? Why would He come through Mary at all? Why not simply appear suddenly as a full-grown man and start to work? As it is, God wills to come through Mary (cf Gen 3:15) and seeks her yes in the place of Eve’s no.

God’s respect for Mary’s freely offered yes also extends to us. Indeed, we can see here how God’s respect is in direct contrast to the behavior of the devil, who provokes, shouts, and intrudes. Through cultural noise and other avenues, Satan tempts and provokes us. God, however, whispers and respectfully invites. He does not force a decision on us but rather summons us in love and then patiently awaits our answer.

In Scripture we read this of Jesus: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). Hence, although all-powerful and able to coerce, God does not do so; He does not act violently or impose His will. He respects the freedom He Himself gave us and invites us to cooperate in His plan for us.

God respects Mary’s and our freedom; He “needs” us to open the door for Him to go to work.

II. The Revelation of God – Note the great love, appreciation, and regard that God extends to Mary through the angel. The text says, Hail, Full of grace! The Lord is with you … Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

Gabriel reveals Mary’s sinless state. Mary is surely God’s masterpiece, the result of His grace and work. She is sinless by being “full of grace.” Filled with grace, she has no room in her for sin.

In his greeting, Gabriel speaks to Mary’s dignity and perfection: Χαιρε κεχαριτωμενη (Chaire, Kecharitomene) (Hail, full of grace). Kecharitomene (full of grace) is a perfect, passive participle indicating an action completed (perfected) in the past but still operative in the present. Thus Gabriel salutes her not by her name, “Mary,” but in a different way: “Hail to her who was perfectly graced and is so now!” Mary had been freed of all sin in the past. She was and is perfectly, fully graced. Gabriel greets Mary and regards respectfully the work of God in her.

In a less perfect (but still true) way, God also loves us and loves in us the perfection we will one day attain by His grace and mercy. A couple of texts come to mind:

    • I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving kindness (Jer 31:3).
    • Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior … you are precious and honored in my sight, and … I love you (Isaiah 43:1-3).

God does not love us because we are good. Rather, God loves us and then if we accept His love we are good. Mary was, by a singular grace, wholly open to God’s love and perfection. If we are faithful, each of us will one day become the man or woman God has always intended us to be.

God shows great regard for Mary (through Gabriel) and also knows the glory we will one day share.

III. The RIDDLE in the middle – There remains Mary’s mysterious question: “How will this be since I do not know man?” Had she been thinking in biological terms she would have known the obvious answer to the question: she and Joseph would conceive. But her question implies that she had other notions about her future than regular marital relations.

Some contend that the question does not really come from Mary, but rather is a rhetorical question or literary device  placed here by Luke so that the angel can inform us, the readers, that God alone is the true Father of the Son. Such a notion seems more like the concoction of nervous moderns attempting to solve the mystery. Reducing a pivotal question like this to a mere literary device seems unbecoming.

A better solution is to explore the ancient tradition that there is a backstory supplied to us in the Protoevangelium of James. This is  a brief text from the early Second Century that focuses on the infancy and early years of both Mary and Jesus. While not a book of scripture, the text provides an important historical of how the early Church and Christians understood these early events. It also helps to solve the “riddle” of Mary’s question “How shall this be since I know not man?” The text explains that Joseph was an older widower and appointed by the High Priest as a kind of guardian for Mary who was a consecrated virgin who had lived and worked in the Temple. Here are some verses:  

And Anna said: As the Lord my God lives, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life….And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. And she said to the midwife: What have I brought forth? And she said: A girl….and [Anna] called her name Mary….And the child was three years old…she, [with Joachim and Anna] went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her….And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel. And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her? And they said to the high priest: You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto you, that also will we do.

And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. And the heralds went out through all the circuit of Judæa, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all ran.

And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid… [But the high priest said], “And now fear the Lord, O Joseph…And Joseph took her into his keeping. (Protoevangelium 8-10) 

This back-story provides a context for Mary’s unusual question. Catholic tradition sees evidence in her question of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. 

In the end, Mary’s question seems to point to some expectation on her part that she would “not know man” going forward. We are not going to be able to completely satisfy our curiosity in this matter and ultimately it is none of our business.

One thing is sure: the Church teaches, without ambiguity, that Mary remained ever-virgin. It seems reasonable to conclude that Mary’s question indicates that she was clear on this. There remains also an element of mystery that we must respect.

Protestants and others who deny Mary’s perpetual virginity have some thinking to do. Mary’s question is neither meaningless nor naïve. Ancient Christianity as evidenced by the Protoevangelium of James already had an understanding of Mary’s perpetual status as a consecrated virgin and saw Mary’s question as a true question with a true context and it ought to be respected as at least pointing to her virginity even if it does not prove it.

IV. The REASSURANCE of God – Mary is in the presence of an archangel. This alone is frightening enough, but in addition her world is shifting dramatically. Hence, her fear and anxiety are understandable. Gabriel gives Mary a number of reassurances: Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God … Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the most high, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end …

In effect, Gabriel is telling Mary that however the details unfold, there will be total victory in the end; she is to bear a son, who is the Son of the most High God and who will have a kingdom that will never end or be conquered. In spite of any concerns she has, this will all lead to victory.

Mary will need this reassurance for there are some difficult days ahead: homelessness at the time of Jesus’ birth, the flight to Egypt, Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, and the actual thrusting of that sword while she is at the foot of the cross. This knowledge of ultimate victory is an important reassurance for her to hold close.

It is an important reassurance for us as well. We, too, have some difficult valleys to cross, some arduous hills to climb. We must constantly keep in mind the end of the story: Jesus is the victor. Even if we might think that we are losing, total victory belongs to Jesus in the end and to us if we stay with Him. The conclusion of the story is already declared: Jesus wins, overwhelmingly. All of His enemies will be placed under His feet (e.g., Rev 20-22; 1 Cor 15:25-26; John 16:33 inter al).

Consider this magnificent passage from Isaiah:

I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).

If we were to memorize and internalize this passage, so many of our fears and anxieties would flee; our trust would build and we would live victorious lives. At times it may seem that evil has the upper hand, but God has the ultimate victory. No matter how dark it may appear at any given time, God has already won; it’s just that the news has not yet leaked out.

This truth and reassurance must be emblazoned on our hearts, for like Mary, we have difficult days in our future. All the more reason that God’s reassurance is essential for us. It got Mary through the cross and it will get us through our trials.

Hence, we have here a pivotal moment in history, when God’s presence returns to the human family. And it all happens so quietly, in Nazareth, a town so small that there was not even a road that led to it. Quietly, but clearly and powerfully, He has thrust the first blow at Satan’s realm. God’s Victory is certain.

Sweet, Beautiful, Soul-Saving Joy – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

This Sunday is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, based on the Introit for the day: Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete (Phil 4:4) (Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice). Today, this theme is developed most fully in the 2nd reading, which is from 1 Thessalonians. It also begins with the salutation and imperative, “Rejoice always.”

Let’s take a closer look at that reading and what is meant by the admonition to “rejoice.”

The text begins, Rejoice always. The Greek word translated as “rejoice” is χαίρετε (chairete). However, more is intended than merely rousing ourselves to some sort of the emotional state of joy or happiness. Note that the root word charis (within chariete) refers to grace. Hence chairete means to delight joyfully in and by God’s grace, to experience God’s favor (grace), to be conscious of and glad for His grace.

Because it is a work of grace, this sort of joy is more fully understood as serene, confident, and stable, a joy not rooted merely in the passing moods of our fallen human state.

The text continues further to identify three basic ways that our joy can become both stable and deeply rooted in our personality and psyche. In effect, the text does not merely instruct us to rejoice always, but tells us how this can be done. Let’s look at these three ways.

I. PERSEVERANCE IN PRAISE – The text says, Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Hence we see the first three foundations for rejoicing always. Let’s take them a little out of order.

Grateful (In all circumstances give thanks) Thanksgiving is an important discipline that trains our mind to focus on reality. We tend to be negative, perhaps due to our fallen nature, but the reality is that every day trillions of things go right while only a few go wrong. Now you may think that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not. Consider all the things that have to go right with every cell in your body. Add to that all the many things on this earth—indeed in the whole universe—that must be perfectly balanced in order for you and me to even be here at all, alive and flourishing. Trillions is not an exaggeration.

However, if we are not careful, we focus on the handful of things that go wrong each day. Mind you, some of them may feel serious at times (although usually they are not). Nevertheless, even the truly serious mishaps cannot negate the reality of the trillions of things that have gone right.

Giving thanks disciplines our mind to focus on our countless blessings. Some of the mishaps of a day can even be blessings in disguise.

Hence we are told to give thanks in all circumstances. Daily thanksgiving disciplines our mind to focus on the astonishing number of blessings. What you feed grows, so if the negative is fed, it will grow; but if the positive is fed, it will grow and become an important basis of stable joy in our life. Yes, give thanks in all circumstances.

Prayerful (Pray without ceasing) – Prayer is also a discipline of the mind. Paul does not mean to say that we should stay in a chapel all day long. He means that we should lay hold of the normal Christian life, which is to be living in conscious contact with God at every moment of our day. To the degree that we are consciously aware of God’s presence and in a dialogue of love with Him all day, our joy is deeper and becomes more stable. Thus we are able, by this ongoing sense of His presence, to “rejoice always.”

Spirit-filled (Do not quench the Spirit) – That such gifts (ongoing prayer and thanksgiving) are “God’s will for us,” means that God wants to give us these gifts. Hence, we should not quench the Spirit, which bids us to seek these things. Rather, we should heed His promptings and seek these gifts, even pester God for them. Too often we quench the Spirit by not taking seriously the promises He offers us in Christ Jesus. We are not convinced that the Spirit can give us a whole new life and can deepen our prayer and gratitude, so we don’t even ask. We also quench the Spirit by cluttering our lives with endless distractions, never sitting still long enough to listen to the small, still voice of God. If we fan into flame the gifts of God’s love, God the Holy Spirit will kindle a fire in us that will never die away. As the gifts of His love (including deeper prayer and constant thankfulness) take hold, our joy deepens and we can “rejoice always.”

II. PERSPECTIVE THROUGH PROPHECY – The text says, Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good.

First, the phrase “prophetic utterances” refers to Scripture itself. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. It describes the world as it truly is and sets forth a clear vision. It is an antidote to the muddled and murky suppositions of worldly thinking that at best grope in the darkness and at worst are deceitful and erroneous. We ought not to despise God’s Word in any way, but rather should accept it wholeheartedly. To the degree that we do so, we are assured of the ultimate victory of God, His truth, and His Kingdom. Our own victory is also set forth in the paschal mystery of God’s Word, wherein every cross, faithfully carried, produces for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (cf 2 Cor 4:17). This vision, this prophetic interpretation of reality, produces in us a serene joy that allows us to “rejoice always.”

“Prophetic utterances” also refers to the teachings of the Church, the words of the Fathers of the Church, and the teachings of the saints down through the ages. There is a great deposit of faith that has been carefully collected and lovingly handed down from apostolic times. The dogmas and doctrines of the faith are like the precious fragments gathered up by the apostles at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. For the Lord had told them that nothing was to go to waste. We, too, ought to seek out every instruction prophetically uttered by Mother Church, allowing nothing to fall to the ground.

The Fathers as well as the saints have left us wondrous testimony that we should neither despise nor ignore. They, along with the Church, utter wisdom and announce victory to every believer. In the laboratory of their own lives, they have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. Added to this number are many trustworthy people in our own time who teach us the Word of God. They include parents, priests, religious, and holy men and women who have inspired us. To the degree that we will let the Church and the saints teach us, along with trustworthy souls of our own time, to the degree that we do not despise these prophetic utterances, the foundation of our joy becomes surer and we can rejoice always.

III. PROGRESS TOWARD PERFECTION – The text says, Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.

The greatest source of sorrow in our life, the biggest killer of joy, is our sin. To the degree that we indulge it, our joy is sapped, but to the extent that we allow the Lord to deliver us from sin and make us more and more holy, our joy becomes deeper and more lasting. The words “holy” and “whole” are not far removed from each other. As we become more whole, more perfected, freer from sin, more holy and blameless, our joy deepens and we can increasingly “rejoice always.” God will do this for us if we are willing and if we ask Him.

Thus we see that the mandate, the exhortation, to “rejoice always” is far more than a command to whip ourselves up to an emotional high. Rather, it is a call to stable and serene joy rooted in prayerful gratitude, to a mind transformed by God’s truth and a growing holiness. Allow the promise of the Lord to be fulfilled in you. For He has said,

Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (Jn 15:9-11).

This song says, “Joy, Joy, God’s great joy! Joy, Joy, down in my soul. Sweet, beautiful soul-saving joy. Oh Joy! Joy in my soul!”

Our Lady of Fatima – Her Prophecies and Warnings Remain as Essential as Ever!

fatimaAs a kind of follow-up to Monday’s post on Our Lady of Guadalupe, we do well to recall also her warnings about the need for prayer and fidelity to God. Without these we are afflicted in every way and war and destruction are our lot.

Our Lady’s warnings of the consequences if we did not pray and convert have proven to be sadly accurate. She warned of another, more terrible war (World War II). She spoke of great lights in the sky that would serve as a final warning before the terrible war. (They appeared all over Europe just before Hitler invaded Poland, in the form of a stunning display of the Aurora Borealis.) She said that Russia would spread her errors, that the Church would have much to suffer, and she warned of a pope who would be struck down.

A final and belated prophecy from Fatima seems to have come in the form of a letter written by Sister Lucia to Cardinal Carlo Caffara. He had written to her asking for her prayers as he had been commissioned by Pope John Paul II to establish the Pontifical Institute for the Studies on Marriage and the Family. The year was 1981. According to Cardinal Caffara, she wrote back with the following:

[T]he final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. And then she concluded: however, Our Lady has already crushed its head. [*]

Thus, from Fatima comes one accurate prophecy after another. Here we are today, locked in a terrible battle over the most basic units of any civilization: families and the marriages that form them. Fatima, the great prophecy of our time and a summons to sobriety and prayer!

Something else that has always intrigued me about Fatima is the name of the town itself. Fatima is a town bearing the name of the daughter of Mohammed; this is so stunning! Why of all places would Mary appear there? Is it just coincidence? If you think so, you have not pondered that everything about the apparition of Fatima is prophetic.

The great Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his book The World’s First Love, reflected on its significance and posed a few questions. Please note that the book was written in 1952 and therefore some of the spellings are not the modern ones. Here are some excerpts:

The Koran, which is the Bible of the Moslems, has many passages concerning the Blessed Virgin. First of all, the Koran believes in her Immaculate Conception, and also, in her Virgin Birth … The Koran also has verses on the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity. Angels are pictured as accompanying the Blessed Mother and saying, Oh Mary, God has chosen you and purified you, and elected you above all the women of the earth. In the 19th chapter of the Koran there are 41 verses on Jesus and Mary. There is such a strong defense of the virginity of Mary here that the Koran in the fourth book, attributes the condemnation of the Jews to their monstrous calumny against the Virgin Mary.

Mary, then, is for the Moslems the true Sayyida, or Lady. The only possible serious rival to her in their creed would be Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed himself. But after the death of Fatima, Mohammed wrote: Thou shalt be the most blessed of women in Paradise, after Mary. In a variant of the text Fatima is made to say; I surpass all the women, except Mary.

This brings us to our second point; namely, why the Blessed Mother, in this 20th Century should have revealed herself in the significant little village of Fatima, so that to all future generations she would be known as “Our Lady of Fatima.” Since nothing ever happens out of Heaven except with a finesse of all details, I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fatima” as pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her divine Son too.

Evidence to support these views is found in the historical fact that the Moslems occupied Portugal for centuries. At the time when they were finally driven out, the last Moslem chief had a beautiful daughter by the name of Fatima. A Catholic boy fell in love with her, and for him she not only stayed behind when the Moslems left, but even embraced the Faith. The young husband was so much in love with her that he changed the name of the town where he lived to Fatima. Thus the very place where our Lady appeared in 1917 bears a historical connection to Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.

Missionaries, in the future will, more and more, see that their apostolate among the Moslems will be successful in the measure that they preach Our Lady of Fatima. Mary is the advent of Christ, bringing Christ to the people before Christ himself is born. In any apologetic endeavor, it is always best to start with that which the people already accept. Because the Moslems have devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and develop that devotion, with the full realization that our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her divine Son. She is forever a “traitor,” in the sense that she will not accept any devotion for herself, bit will always bring anyone who is devoted to her to her divine Son.

A beautiful reflection by Archbishop Sheen and one we can surely hope will come to pass! Relations are much tenser between Christians and Muslims today than in 1952. But Fatima is the apparition that just keeps prophesying.

It is nothing less than astonishing that Mary should appear in a town with the name of Fatima. Surely this is no mere coincidence. As Sheen points out, Heaven does nothing without purpose. It is very clear to me that we are not to pass over this detail. “Our Lady of Fatima” has a different ring to it when we consider that Fatima is more than a place; Fatima is the daughter of Muhammad and the greatest woman in Islam. “Our Lady of Fatima” sounds and feels so different when it is heard in this context of person rather than place. It is hugely significant.

It seems clear that Mary will play an important role in the years ahead as the Muslim/Christian conflict likely grows sharper. Perhaps, as Sheen notes, she will be the bridge that connects two vastly different cultures; the common mother who keeps her children talking. Right now this connection seems little pursued, even (as far as I can tell) by the Vatican.

The Guadalupe connection – I wonder, too, if the history of Our Lady of Guadalupe presents some historical parallels to our current struggle with the Muslim world. In the early 16th Century in Mexico, missionaries had made only meager progress in bringing the Aztec people to Christ. This was a combination of the sometimes rude and cruel treatment of the indigenous people by the Spanish soldiers, and also of the fearful superstition surrounding the Aztec gods. The people were locked in with the fear that unless they fed these gods with horrific human sacrifices, their greatest god, the sun, would no longer shine.

Into this fearful and suspicious setting entered Mother Mary. The miraculous image she left in 1531 was richly symbolic. Her face is that of a mother: gentle and compassionate, unlike the appearance of the frightening Aztec gods, who wore fierce masks. Her features seem to be both Aztec and European, two cultures combined in kindness and peace. Her attitude is one of humble prayer, so she is clearly not a god(dess). She is a merciful mother who consoles and prays for us. She is to be honored but not adored. The black band around her waist means that she is with child and offers Jesus to the people. Her message is about Him. The sun was the greatest of the Aztec gods, so by standing in front of it, Mary shows that she is greater than even their greatest god. To the Aztecs, the moon represented the god of darkness and death. That Mary is standing on the moon is a sign that these powers, too, are defeated by the Son she bears.

Mary brought the breakthrough. Within ten years, over twelve million Mexicans came to Christ and entered the Catholic Church.

This history is paralleled in many ways today in the current tensions with the Muslim World. In many Muslim lands today, conversions are few. Part of the reason for this is a strong aversion to the Western culture from which Catholicism comes. Many Muslims also hold grievances due to alleged American and Western “mistreatment.” Finally, a large factor is fear. In many parts of the Muslim world, leaving the Muslim faith is likely to get one killed. So, it is a combination of a wide cultural gulf, grievances, and fear that keep conversions low. All of this is not unlike the situation in 16th century Mexico.

Is Mary key to this? It took Mary to bridge all these similar gaps between the Aztecs and the Christian missionaries. Might Mary also be that bridge today when similar gaps divide people? Time will tell, but one of her greatest modern titles is “Our Lady of Fatima.” And then there is the crescent moon, upon which Mary stands in the image of Guadalupe. In modern times the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam. By God’s grace, and with love and humility, Mother Mary of Guadalupe was victorious in overcoming the false religion of the Aztecs.

Might this crescent moon on which Our Lady of Guadalupe stands also point to our times and the crescent moon of Islam? Might it indicate that her victories, by God’s grace, are not at an end? Perhaps we can hope that what our Lady of Guadalupe was to the Aztec people of Mexico, Our Lady of Fatima will be to the Muslim people of the world.

As always, I invite your comments and answers to my questions.

Here is “Immaculate Mary,” sung in Arabic:

A Mid-Advent Picture of What Our Savior Offers

jesus-heals-the-paralyticThe Gospel for last Monday’s Mass (Monday of the Second Week of Advent) is the well-known story of the paralytic. There are many wonderful details that I could discuss (e.g., the four friends who bring him to Jesus—talk about great friends!), but I’d like to focus today on Jesus’ command: “Rise, take up your stretcher, and go home.” It is a small picture of the grace unto salvation offered to us by the Lord. Here is a man who is powerless to help or heal himself, so the Lord helps and heals him. Though “dead in his sins,” he now rises and lays hold of a whole new life.

This is a mid-Advent picture of why we need a Savior, and what He offers. Note three aspects of what Jesus says to the paralytic:

Rise – In other words, receive new life, new capacities. No longer be weighed down by weakness. Be set free. Rise to new life! When Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, he said to the bystanders, “Untie him and let him go free.” St. Paul says of us, “You were dead in your sins … but made alive through Christ” (Col 2:13). And thus the paralyzed man, once powerless to move or take control, is now strong and free. His paralysis represents our weakness, our spiritual palsy, our inability to walk uprightly and in justice. To all this, Jesus says, “Rise!” He bids us no longer to be in bondage to sin, Satan, the world, and the flesh.

Rule – The Lord tells the paralytic man to take up his stretcher. He wants him to take authority over that on which he once depended. Whatever crutch you once leaned on, be strong enough now to carry it; don’t lean on it any longer. If you once depended on sin for happiness, take authority over it now. If you once needed alcohol to calm your nerves, take authority over it now; don’t lean on it anymore. If you once depended on gossip and detraction to feel important, take authority over it. Don’t be dependent on any sin. By being healed, have the power to carry it off like a trophy of victory. While it is true that we will always need some help in this life, no longer should we be wholly dependent on anything or anyone in this world. The Lord has authority in our life and He grants us increasing authority over our passions, desires, struggles, and gifts. He tells us to take up the authority He has rightly granted us and command our soul in justice and truth.

Return – The Lord says to him, “Go home.” In other words, make your journey back to God, back to your true home in the heart of the Father. Sin had separated us from God and driven a wedge between us. But now the veil in the Temple has been torn from top to bottom. Through Jesus, we have access to the Father. Like prodigal sons, we are now heading home. Look off in the distance! It is the Father, running to us to greet us! By offering forgiveness for our sins, Jesus has opened the gates of Heaven and restored us to a right and just relationship with His Father. If we will accept this gift and celebrate it regularly, our return is well underway; it is just over the next hill (Calvary). And just beyond is the heavenly Zion. “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go up to the House of the Lord!’”

Arise Jerusalem, and Shine, for thy Light has come.

In the Midst of Much Blood, God Extended a Rose – A Meditation on Guadalupe and Mother Mary

dec12-blogI’d like to reflect this evening on the first reading from today’s Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky
and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.  She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed” (Rev 12:1-10).

I. Drama In this great passage, there is a kind of a pulling back of the veil, a disclosure of what is really going on: There is a great and cosmic battle that reaches upward and outward, across generations, across nations and empires, and down into the close quarters of every human heart. It is the great battle between darkness and light, between the great Red Dragon and the Lord of Glory.

During this battle, there is a great sign in the heavens. There stands a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars about her head. She brings forth a son, destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron, to crush the dragon with the heel of his foot.

Many seek to localize the descriptions from the book of Revelation into either the first century or the end of time, but in fact they are fulfilled both then and now. For this great struggle was then, is now, and will continue until Christ comes again in glory to definitively apply the victory He has already won.

This great cosmic drama explains most of the struggles we see around us and within us. It explains the insanity of war, retribution, violence, promiscuity, abortion, sexual confusion and every evil afflicting us today. It explains our greed, our unreasonable fears and suspicions, our cynicism, and the fact that so often we are just plain mean to one another.

But this drama in the Book of Revelation also shows the woman clothed with the sun, Mary, and her son Jesus. And so it also explains our love, our thirst for justice, our appreciation for truth and beauty, and our capacity for caring, forgiveness, and living chastely and uprightly.

A wonderful documentary released in 2012, The Blood and the Rose, depicts this great drama. The title describes beautifully how in the midst of a bloody and violent world, the Lord often extends a rose, His mother.

There she is at the foot of the cross, with all its blood. There she is at the turning back of Muslim invaders at Lepanto. There she is at Guadalupe in the face of bloodthirsty Aztec gods. There she is at Fatima between two horrible wars.

But in the midst of all the blood and drama, the Lord extends a rose, His mother.  Her message is never complex, it is simply the Gospel: repent and believe the good news. Yes, do whatever my Son tells you. Repent; forsake your evil ways. Come to a new mind and begin to live in the kingdom that is now available to you. As a good mother, she warns us and tells us to pray, pray, pray. During the blood of conflict and the dramatic battle between light and darkness, a rose: mother Mary.

II. Dramatis personae – The second thing that occurs to me is the cast of characters and the simplicity of the setting of the great drama. To whom does God extend the rose of His love at the beginning; to whom does Mary trust her message?

The pattern began with the incarnation itself. God sent Gabriel not to a powerful queen of this world, not to a woman of great access, power, or money. Rather He sent him to a humble maiden in a town so small that there was no road that even went to it. Nazareth, a town of 300, accessible only via footpath—that is where Gabriel was sent, and to a woman few had ever heard of—Mary of Nazareth. Some have described this is as a daring raid, conducted secretly behind enemy lines.

Down through the centuries, the pattern continued. Mary herself most often goes to the most hidden and humble of people: Juan Diego, a simple working man; Bernadette Soubirous, a peasant girl; and the three children young children of Fatima. None of these was a scholar, theologian, bishop, powerful businessman, king, queen, or prince. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor 1:27-29).

We tend to think that solutions come through the great and powerful, through the “big cheeses” of the time. But the pride of this world will be conquered with humility; Heaven reaches out to the merest children. In the midst of the blood and horrible roar of war, the rose is extended quietly; its message goes forth to the humble.

III. Direction – A final matter to consider on this Feast of Our Lady Guadalupe is the direction to which it points. And frankly, it points to the south. The center of the Church has shifted south and her complexion has become browner.

As the lights are going out in the West and much of the developed world, many other lights are coming on: In Africa the number of Catholics has increased dramatically over the past fifty years.

Guadalupe somewhat signaled this all the way back in the 16th century. At the very time when Martin Luther was leading a revolt against the Church, at the very time when some two million Germans walked out of the church, nine million Mexicans walked in. In the midst of the bloody Aztec meltdown, in the midst of the blood feuds in Europe, Our Lady extended a rose in Mexico. The faith lit up in Mexico, Central America, and South America, even as it began its death throes in Europe.

In 1917 in Fatima, The Lord extended a rose through Our Lady. She warned three young children of a coming war that would be far worse than any that had ever been known before. She warned that if people did not repent and pray, Russia would spread her errors far and wide. But unlike 16th century Mexico, Europe did not heed her offer and disaster ensued, disaster that continues to unfold today.

Surely Africa, Central America, and South America are not without their problems. Protestant errors have infected too many. In Africa especially, many Catholics are being martyred at the hands of Muslims. There are still problems with government corruption and the lack of resources, but the blood of martyrs is the seed for the Church; it has always been so and will continue to be so until Christ comes again.

But in the midst of all the blood, in the midst of all the difficulties, God extends a rose to the poor and humble, the rose of His Mother Mary.

Happy Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe. For those of you who at times feel discouraged, remember the beautiful image of the blood in the rose. Stay calm and Viva Christo Rey!

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now have salvation and power come, and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed.”

Here is an old song based on an even older text that points to Mary at Guadalupe, whom many Mexicans call “La Morena,” the dark-skinned lady. The text (translated to English) says,

I am the little dark girl, I’m the dark girl.
It is said that darkness,
is caused by sin,
but sin was never found in me nor it will ever be.

I am the little dark girl, I’m the dark girl.
I am the thornless rose,
about whom Salomon rhapsodized:
I am black, and beautiful and for me they will sing.

I am the little dark girl, I’m the dark girl.
I am the flaming bush,
that burns but is not consumed,
nor am I touched by that fire that will touch the others.

The Fire Next Time – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

The second reading for Sunday Mass speaks to us of “the fire next time” and reminds us of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. In this homily I will focus on that reading, in which St. Peter reminds us of the passing that will come for us all one day.

Because Advent is a time to prepare, through prayer and repentance, we do well to heed this sacred teaching and warning. It is echoed by St. John the Baptist, of whom the Gospel today says, A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:2-3).

Note four aspects of the second reading:

I. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL The text says, 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. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Though the Lord seems long-delayed in coming (about 2000 years!), the text tells us that this delay is so that as many of us as possible can be saved.

Notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. God’s patience should not be seen as an excuse for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to be saying, “Later.” It is a time to be serious about repenting and about preparing to meet the Lord.

The Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), and refers not just to better behavior but also to a new mind. Our transformation is not merely external, but internal as well. When what we think changes, so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change. Conversion and repentance are the result of becoming a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.

II. The PASSING that is PERILOUS The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

In effect, the text says that God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days. When He comes it will be

Sudden – The text says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief.

This image is quite a consistent with the one Jesus used for the Day of Judgment. However, this image should not be the future for those of us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).

Further, the image of God as a thief is not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to Him. For those who are worldly and who claim authority over themselves and their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their perceived ownership and possession, putting an end to it. To them, God seems to be a thief, as He “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.

For those who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give. He comes to bestow and reward as we inherit His Kingdom.

Shocking – The text speaks of the roaring heavens and of a fire that overwhelms; all will be dissolved by fire.

This image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, as well as at our individual baptism and confirmation, the Lord lights a fire within us in order to set us on fire, to bring us up to the temperature of glory. For those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the different experiences of the day of the Lord in this way: Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the just, it is a sunny day wherein the sun of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).

An old spiritual refers to this verse saying, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time.” God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a Holy Fire, then we must become fire ourselves in order to endure the day of His coming.

ShowingThe text says that all things will be revealed.

It would seem that this fire burns away the masks that many people wear, leaving them to be seen for what they really are. The Lord says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). In the Gospel of Luke He says, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).

Even the just may wince at this, for all of us have a past; most would prefer that the past stay in the past. When I have visited “12-Step” meetings, I have sometimes seen people recount what they did when they were drinking. They seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, probably because they are sharing it with others who understand, who have also been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps, for the just, the “day of disclosing” will be like that.

For those who are unrepentant, though, imagine their embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins, and past injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. It’s a bad scene, really.

III. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire … Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

The text asks us to consider what sort of persons we ought to be.

In a word, the answer is “fiery.” God has lit a fire within us to purify and refine us. Hence, on that day when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. Although some final purifications (purgation) may take place, because the fire has been kindled in us and has already been fanned into a flame, we will be purified, not destroyed.

St. Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than destruction in Hell: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).

So the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us; it will permit us to endure the day of His coming and be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10; Matt 3:7; Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9), when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.

IV. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by God’s fiery judgment. While it may also signify a total destruction of all that now exists and a replacement of it by new heavens and a new earth, some argue that it means that the created world will instead be renewed rather than destroyed and replaced. This view is supported by other passages (e.g., Isaiah 11 and Romans 8). For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21).

Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a Heaven wedded to earth; the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish; we will be at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah! God’s fire purifies that which is holy and burns away all else. God will restore all things in Christ!