Are We Modern Clergy Even Remotely Close to St. Paul’s Description of the Earliest Preachers?

It is amazing to think that 30 of the first 33 Popes died as martyrs. Of the other three, two died in exile and only one died in his bed. It’s hard to imagine such suffering today among the lowliest of priests let alone Church prelates.

On the Feast of St. Thomas Apostle (July 3rd) we read this description of the apostolic life by St. Paul:

As I see it, God has put us apostles at the end of the line, like men doomed to die in the arena. We have become a spectacle to the universe, to angels and men alike. We are fools on Christ’s account. Ah, but in Christ you are wise! We are the weak ones, you the strong! They honor you, while they sneer at us! Up to this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, poorly clad, roughly treated, wandering about homeless. We work hard at manual labor. When we are insulted we respond with a blessing. Persecution comes our way; we bear it patiently. We are slandered, and we try conciliation. We have become the world’s refuse, the scum of all; that is the present state of affairs (1 Cor 4:8-12).

As a priest reading this description, I don’t whether I should feel grateful, or ashamed and embarrassed. Frankly, nothing describes our life today less than what St. Paul described. We clergy live rather comfortable, even privileged, lives.

The bishops of the Church are typically surrounded by staff, often layers of staff, insulating them from the lay faithful, who have little hope of ever being able to contact or speak with him directly. There are titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture with insignias.

As for us pastors and parish priests, we are often protected by staff as well. We live in rectories that are often well-appointed. Unlike the faithful we serve, we have job security and few personal financial concerns. We are given food, shelter, health insurance, and retirement benefits, and the people of God are enormously generous with us. Staff stand ready to assist in our administrative tasks, and repair and clean our homes and churches. Many of us even have cooks and laundresses. We too have our titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture.

It is so different from what St. Paul described and himself experienced!

It must be said that there are many priests and bishops who are generous and who live lives of sacrificial service. Many work long hours and seldom are those hours regular.

However, few of us are hungry, thirsty, or poorly dressed, let alone wandering about homeless. Manual labor has become almost unknown to many of us. Perhaps things should be that way. It makes sense that in a settled Church, the faithful should care for their clergy and set them apart so that the clergy may pray for them, study for them, and do the works that feed and form them spiritually.

Of greater concern to me, however, is the inability and even unwillingness of too many clergy to suffer as a result of preaching the Gospel as St. Paul describes. Paul speaks of the apostles as persecuted, slandered, roughly treated, considered refuse, sneered at, scorned, last in line, and like unto those doomed to die in the arena. Lest we think that this is mere Jewish hyperbole, recall that St. Paul himself was cast out of many a synagogue, flogged, stoned, run out of towns, jailed, shipwrecked, and finally martyred. All of this was because he preached the Word of God.

Yet we clergy today can hardly bear to have an eyebrow raised at us. Too many of us play it safe when it comes to preaching. Perhaps we are afraid of upsetting our benefactors. Or perhaps it is just the human tendency to avoid conflict, to want to be liked and to fit in. Perhaps for some (I pray only a few) it is the fear that clerical advancement might be hindered by preaching too boldly or even just preaching clearly.

The lay faithful notice that many of us avoid Gospel teachings that are too challenging. They notice the retreat into abstractions, generalities, and even obfuscation. Indeed, they notice that many clergy dare not risk offense or the pain that comes from being the object of another’s anger and opposition.

Even if we modern clergy are far from Paul’s experience of homelessness and hunger, we ought not to be so far from his experience of persecution and suffering for the Word of God. As the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests and the Second Vatican Council teach, the Word of God is the primum officium (the first or primary duty) of the priest (See Presbyterorum Ordinis # 4). This is because no one can be saved who does not first believe, and faith proclaimed is necessary to unlock the sacraments. If we don’t get our preaching and teaching right and are not willing to suffer if necessary, then we don’t have anything else right.

I am less concerned about the fact that we clergy no longer live in abject poverty than that we may have become soft on account of the comforts that have been extended to us. Our comfortable lives have made some of us soft and given us the sense that we have too much to lose. Unlike St. Paul, we can hardly bear the slightest critique or scorn. We even fear that children won’t like us, won’t think we’re “cool.” It is hard to imagine most of us being willing to join Paul in jail, at the flogging post, in the stoning pit, or shipwrecked on the way to execution. We might even be among the naysayers who would say, “Paul is too extreme. He is too certain and argumentative.” Frankly, most of us modern clergy would find the real Jesus shocking, too.

It has been my experience that the people of God can handle strong preaching more than we clergy think. Indeed, many are outright appreciative of courageous, bold, and clear preaching. Even if we encounter resistance, though, we are supposed to preach anyway: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction (2 Tim 4:2).

We do not seek a fight or to provoke anger, but if we preach the Gospel in season and out of season, anger and fights often find us. Does the persecution on account of the Word described by Paul even remotely resemble anything we face in modern clerical life? And if not, why not?

What I say to priests, I say to parents, to elders, and to every Catholic baptized and sharing in the prophetic office of Christ.

On The Significance of the "N" in the Eucharistic Prayers

032513Tonight we celebrated the Chrism Mass for the Priests of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Cardinal Wuerl gave an insight that he shares partially on his own blog, and developed a bit further in the homily tonight.

Let’s begin with what he posed on his own blog regarding the election of the Pope:

What a joy it was when that plume of white smoke came out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel announcing the election of a Pope.  Almost an hour passed between the emergence of the smoke and the arrival on the balcony of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran to announce “Habemus papam!” (“We have a Pope!”).  Yet already in the Square during that wait there were roars of “Viva il Papa!” (“Long live the Pope!”).  Without even knowing who was chosen to be the new Pope the crowd, estimated at about 100,000 people, were already rejoicing and wishing him well.  This scene said something quite profound.  We wish well the Pope whoever he is – because he is the Pope – the Successor to Peter.

How true this is. We Catholics were prepared to love the Pope and support him long before we knew his name. Somehow, for faithful Catholics,  we instinctively know, despite all the anti-authority attitudes of Western culture, that the Pope is Christ’s true vicar and the one who unites us. Whatever his name, nationality or background, he represents Christ, and is the successor to Simon Peter to whom the Lord entrusted the task of uniting and strengthening us, whom the devil would sift (divide) like wheat. (cf Luke 22:31)

And thus, even before knowing the name of the Pope we cried out: Viva il Papa!

But as Cardinal Wuerl went on to develop in tonight’s homily, we must not overlook the “N” that is in the Eucharistic prayer. And thus we see reference to “N., our Pope,” and “N., our Bishop.” “N” of course stands for “Name.”

At first glance the “N” reminds us that the men in those offices come and go, though the office remains.

But we must also not forget that, except for brief periods, that “N” is filled in with a name of an actual person. “N” signifies a real man. For our allegiance to the Lord Jesus, through the Pope and  our Bishop, cannot simply be an abstraction. Our unity with the Lord and one another cannot only be a concept or idea. Rather it is incarnationally lived and experienced in union with the actual “N” who holds that office. I am not merely in union with the Pope or the Papacy, but rather with Francis our Pope, and, for me, Donald our Bishop.

This is important especially in the context of the Protestant notion of the (so-called) “invisible Church.” For most of them the “Church” is not something or anything to which they can actually point and say, “Now here is a manifestation of the Church.” Rather, for most of them, the Church is an invisible and hyper-spiritualized entity. In a way it can mean almost anything the individual believer says it means, and one can pretty much set their own parameters for what the Church means to them.

But Catholicism is incarnational. And while admitting that there are obviously spiritual dimensions to the Church, we insist on understanding the Church incarnationally and sacramentally.

Consider the sacraments for example. They convey spiritual realities, but are  mediated through physical and incarnational realities: Water, bread, wine, oil, the laying of hands and so forth. Ritual and human interaction are essential to faith in the Catholic, and I would argue biblical, understanding of faith and the Church. Christ Jesus does not merely speak out of the ether to individual believers in their rooms. He speaks through his Church, and through the Word, sacraments and rituals he inspired within his Church.

None of this is an abstraction or generality. Jesus is not just an idea and did not merely leave teachings behind. He is an actual person, Human and Divine. And rather than write a book or simply leave teachings behind, he founded an actual Church, with actual leaders, structures and sacraments. Jesus called actual men to be is Apostles, and an actual man, Simon Peter to unite and strengthen the apostles and all the faithful through them.

And so too today, there is an actual Church, actual successors to the apostles, and and actual representative of Christ, an actual vicar (or representative of Christ the Head) to whom we can point: Francis our Pope. There are actual successors to the apostles, whom we can name. For me it is “Donald” our Bishop.

So the Church is not some invisible or ghostly reality. And like any sacrament, the spiritual reality of the Church is manifest incarnationally through physical realities and actual people to whom we can point.

There’s something about the “N” in Eucharist prayer, something beyond the abstract, the general, something beyond a mere idea. Indeed, “N” is not merely something, it is someone: Francis, Donald, your own bishop’s name.

No “invisible Church” here. Quite visible (see photo above), quite incarnational.

There’s something, someone, about those “N”s

A Day in the Life of the Church: A Meditation on How the Lord Still walks this Earth in His Mystical Body

logo impact-2014® copyMany Catholics seldom think past their own parish when the consider the Church. And yet the Catholic World is huge and quite vibrant:

  1. 1.2 Billion Catholics in the World.
  2. 412,236 Priests
  3. 721,935 Religious Sisters
  4. 221,055 Parishes
  5. 92,847 Catholic Elementary Schools with 31 million students.
  6. 43,591 Catholic Secondary Schools with 17 Million Students [*]
  7. 117,000 health care facilities, including hospitals, clinics, orphanages,” as well as “18,000 pharmacies and 512 centers” for the care of those with leprosy, all comprising 26% of the total of  the world’s health care facilities. [*]

There is probably never a moment during the day in which Mass is not being celebrated somewhere on this planet, where the Liturgy of the Hours is not being celebrated. At every moment, Catholic school bells ringing, the poor and sick attended to by the Church, confessions being heard, counsel being given.

I am mindful of the words of an old hymn: The sun that bids us rest is waking, our brethren ‘neath the western sky.

Scripture also comes to mind

  1. Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation (Mk 16:15)
  2. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
  3. Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Rom 10:18)
  4. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 1:11)
  5. Like your name, O God, your praise reaches to the ends of the earth; your right hand is filled with righteousness. (Psalm 48:10)
  6. In that day you will say: “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. (Is 12:4-5)
  7. I am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory. (Is 66:18)
  8. And many others.

Yes, the Lord has done a glorious thing. It is so common to hear the failings of the Church and of her apparent irrelevancy to the modern Western World. And she remains, by God’s grace, strong, vital and worldwide. What a marvelous thing the Lord has done.

And if perhaps the worldwide picture overwhelms, consider even the life in one diocese in this country. My cousin John Clem alerted me to the video below, from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. It pictures the life of the Church in just one Archdiocese. As the clock in the video ticks by there is not a moment where the Church is not teeming with life, by God’s grace. The video beings in the early hours of the night where religious are praying the hours and shelters and crisis centers are up and running. As the morning dawns Masses are celebrated, parishes and school come to life, hospitals and clinics hum with activity. And as evening comes, more prayer, parish meetings and and the settling in of people in shelters. And in the late hours of the night an Archbishop prays for his people. One day in an Archdiocese.

Here in the Archdiocese of Washington, we did something similar in written form, a document called Catholic Impact. In its forty pages a similar story is told of a local Church, and Archdiocese,  that teems with life.

There are surely struggles in the Church about which we must be sober today. But too easily we focus on the negative, on what is wrong, and we look right past a lot of what is right, what is good, life giving, healing, vivid and true. Let this video and book remind us of that.

The Lord continues to do a marvelous work in his mystical Body, the Church.

Halloween and the Communion of Saints?

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph


Halloween is one night of the year when adults and children alike seem to be full of imagination for the realm of the dead.  Maybe it is a fascination with ghosts and goblins, or maybe it is more sinister than that, but there is a profoundly Christian explanation for Halloween, and it has to do with today’s “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” question, and the Communion of Saints.

There is no coincidence that the world is fascinated with the realm of the dead on the evening of October 31st, which is the night before All Saints Day – that day when the Church celebrates the lives of those whom we know have made it to heaven.

The first thing the doctrine of the Communion of Saints should teach us – whether we’ve graduated from the fifth grade yet or not – is that there is a bridge between this life and the next – between the land of the living and the land of the dead.  Jesus Christ is that bridge, and He makes heaven possible.

Every human person will continue to exist after death, as every one of us is created by God with an immortal soul.  This is not to say that all of us will go straight to heaven when we die.  The ghoulish character of Halloween should remind us that not all of us are saints.  Someone recently reminded me that you have to be made perfect to go to heaven.  For all of us who are yet far from perfect, this gives us pause to reflect and to pray about what we merit in this life – and to consider what happens after death.

But, the Communion of Saints is not just about the souls in heaven; neither does this phrase simply refer to the canonized saints.  In fact, the Communion of Saints refers to (D) all the faithful living and dead. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, there is a universal call to holiness.  That is, we are all, in fact, called to become saints by God’s grace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us the context, “After confessing ‘the holy catholic Church,’ the Apostles’ Creed adds ‘the communion of saints.’ In a certain sense this article is a further explanation of the preceding: ‘What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?’ The communion of saints is the Church.” (CCC 946)

All of the faithful – both living and dead – make up the Communion of Saints, and this Communion makes up the Church.  This is the way that we are joined together as believers. The love that unites us in Jesus Christ unites us even beyond the grave.  As The Catechism says, it is a “communion in holy things (sancta)’ and ‘among holy persons (sancti).” (CCC 948)

The goal is heaven, as my grandmother liked to say.  However, few of us have an imagination for heaven these days, it seems to me.  While some may argue for Halloween’s merits, it seems it would benefit all of us to know of this night’s real meaning of the great splendor of the Communion of Saints, who are present to us from beyond the grave.

In this Year of Faith, it is well to remember that faith joins us in a real way with all the faithful souls living and dead.  Faith makes this possible by joining us to God Himself.

Join us on November 8th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.

Please don’t forget to follow our questions on the Archdiocese of Washington Facebook page.

“I know Him in whom I have believed.”

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith seriesWritten by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

You see the computer screen flicker and a blue screen pop up.  You read there has been a fatal error.  Not knowing what to do, you take out your cell phone and call your brother-in-law.

I think we’ve all had this experience before.  In the world today, no one can be an expert in everything.  Whether it’s a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic—or your brother-in-law the computer guru—we need to trust experts in different fields.  Having faith in matters of human expertise is so normal we hardly think about it.  We couldn’t live in society, or pass a single day if we didn’t.

Why does faith make sense?  The answer is fairly simple.  We look for people who are certified, who have experience, and who know how things work.   Since they have “vision” or direct knowledge about their skill or field of expertise, it makes sense to enter into a relationship of trust with them and rely on them.

This is why the Catholic faith also makes sense.  The substance of the Catholic faith is above earthly experience.  We won’t literally “see” the truths of the faith until we are with God in heaven.  But God knows these truths.  God “sees” them.  And in heaven, we will see them finally.  Since we cannot see them now, we have to rely on God’s authority to receive them.  This is what St. Thomas Aquinas is getting at in his famous hymn about the Eucharist where he says, “what God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;/ Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.”

This shows us the connection between our personal relationship with God and believing all of God’s truth.  This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that faith is first of all “a personal adherence of man to God,” and “at the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” (CCC 150).  Believing in God, we also believe everything He tells us.  So the Catechism says that believing means first believing the Person and then believing the truth, “by trust in the person who bears witness to it” (CCC 177).

Jesus Christ Himself—both God and man— revealed the fullness of the truth of God.  The apostles handed on the truth of Jesus Christ in its fullness, and entrusted to the bishops of the Church in communion with the Pope the authority to teach in their name.  So when we receive the faith of the Church we receive it, “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).  For this reason, our personal faith must always completely acknowledge the Church’s faith to be authentic.  Perhaps this is why St. Cyprian says, “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (CCC 181).


As we gaze upon God in faith, let us exclaim that intensely personal and creedal confession of the Apostle Thomas:  “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28).

The Name Above Every Name

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph


Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is the largest Catholic Church in the world, and it is one of the most beautiful. For centuries, Christian faithful have traveled to Saint Peter’s on pilgrimage. The original Basilica was built in the fourth century on the exact spot where the Apostle Peter – the first Pope – was martyred and buried in Rome. It is no coincidence that the place where Saint Peter was crucified upside down is the site of the largest Catholic Church in the world. It is a testament to faith in the saving power of Christ – that from death comes new life in Christ with the promise of the resurrection.

It never ceases to amaze me that visitors of all faiths – and those with no faith at all – walk into Saint Peter’s Basilica, and it takes their breath away. Saint Peter’s is beautiful, and one feels the awe and wonder of God when entering the church.

A majestic church like St. Peter’s Basilica is huge, shocking and unavoidable. When we encounter it, it overwhelms us with how there and real it is. At the basis of faith is a similar encounter with the immensity and reality of God. Someone said to me once, “I’m trying to discern whether I believe in God.” Isn’t this backwards? Too often we begin thinking of faith as something I do. But faith begins with God. Faith is about a response to what God has done for us.

St. John teaches us that it is not that we first loved God — but that God first loved us and gave His life for us. When this Love pursues and encounters us we are humbled, and overwhelmed. And so St. Paul says that, “it is not that I have already taken hold of it… but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ” (Philippians 3:12).

Since faith is a response to God, the question our hearts ask is, “Who is God?” God told Moses His own name: Yahweh. It means literally, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:13-14). The Israelites held it in such awe that they didn’t speak or even write it. What does it tell us about God?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is – infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the ‘hidden God’, his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men.” (CCC 206)

Finding ourselves in “the fascinating and mysterious presence” of God, we realize how small and “insignificant” we are—and how great He is (CCC 208). This shouldn’t make us fear Him.  Rather, it should increase our desire to know His mysterious being. It should inflame our hearts to know Him better.  In the heart of every Christian is the desire to “seek His face.”

Today is the first day of the “Year of Faith,” called for by Pope Benedict XVI. Please follow our weekly series — “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader” — as we delve deeper into the truths of the faith, so we can come to a deeper relationship with the One True God.

Be sure to follow the Are You Smarter series on the Archdiocese of Washington Facebook page.

Cardinal Wuerl Launches a Blog

I am glad to see that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has launched a blog, “Seek First the Kingdom,” Cardinal Wuerl writes that his plan for the blog is to take the teaching of the Catholic Church and “to share why it is that our Catholic faith brings so much to the world around us, why we are all empowered to begin to manifest the kingdom of God and what we can do to make sure that things don’t become one great mess.”

He uses a good focal story to illustrate the kind of reminders we need to give to people today. For indeed, many in our culture discount the critical role that faith has played in crafting a better world. Some even demonize our history, role and place. I look forward to reading future posts and encourage you to create a bookmark, or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Cardinal Wuerl writes, My hope is that in this digital world we will have an opportunity, as Pope Benedict XVI once said, ‘to meet each other beyond the confines of space’ in a way that we might create ’an entirely new world of potential friendships.’


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

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

1. Puzzlement – John the Baptist is discouraged, or so it seems if we interpret this text correctly. John had been looking for a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last week’s gospel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Purification –  Jesus gives an answer to those sent by John that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than what John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were  complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of his wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of his healing and mercy. The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with context, audience and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist is not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more of the Messiah’s second coming than of his first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah yes, the perfect gift. And God wants to get us ready for it. A day of strict justice is on the way which John envisioned. But until that time it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of his Son, who by his grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.

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

The destruction of our enemies is not the perfect gift. Their conversion and salvation is. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift, their conversion and salvation is.

Find  the perfect gift this Christmas, find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas, give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas, give him the give of your very self. The perfect gift.