Walking with the Wise: A Meditation on the Gospel for the Feast of the Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, here is their key identity: they are Gentiles and they have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. But now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the gospel is going out to all the world.

St. Paul rejoices in this fact in today’s second reading as he says: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Most of us are not Jewish by ancestry, and hence we ought to rejoice for in the call of these Magi is prefigured our call.

And notice that God calls them through something in the natural world. In this case a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the star that God used to call us? Perhaps it was Scripture, but more usually, it is first someone God has used to reach us, a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, religious sister, or devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life by whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation like he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a beautiful Church, a painting or a song. By someone or something God calls. He puts a star in our sky. These wise men, these Magi, follow the call of God and begin their journey to Jesus.

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

Even more puzzling, he calls religious leaders to further inform him of this King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah! So the birth of this king has religious significance! How interesting!

But, these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic of the newborn King and after giving the location of his birth seem to make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people that a longed for king had finally been born. Not even further inquiry!

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

Ah, but praise the Lord they persevere in their search. They do not give up!

Thanks be to God too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy and others, who should have led them joyfully to Jesus, were either asleep, or ignorant or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard, people who found their way to Christ and his Church, despite some pretty discouraging obstacles like poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy and bad example. God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

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

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

Notice too that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan) which means more literally “to fall down in worship” or “give adoration.” The verb is used 12 times in the New Testament and it is clear each time that religious worship is the purpose of the prostration.

This is no mere homage or a sign of respect to an earthly King, this is religious worship. This is a confession of faith. So our Magi manifest faith!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 5. CONVERSION – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

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

So there it is. Through careful stages the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you) to conversion. He called. They remained constant, confessed him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?

Walk in the ways of the Wise men! Wise men still seek him. Even wiser ones listen to him and obey. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is on-going conversion part of our journey home to heaven? If Epiphany means “manifestation” how is our faith manifest in our deeds and conversion?

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

A Knock at Midnight – A Homily for Christmas Midnight Mass

In this reflection, perhaps we can consider but one line in the Gospel which both challenges our love, and is a sign of God’s humble and abiding love for us: For there was no room for them in the Inn.

I. The Scene – There is a knock at midnight. Joseph speaking on behalf of both Mary and Jesus (who is in her womb still), seeks entrance to the homes and lodgings of those in Bethlehem. And though the Jewish people, in those ancient days, placed a high obligation upon the duty of hospitality to the stranger and passerby, the answer is repeatedly, “No room here.” Mary’s obvious pregnancy and  imminent delivery make little difference, it would seem.

This indeed is a cold night, not so much in terms of the air temperature, but in terms of the hearts of the people. Even at the local Inn, (Surely someone could make room for a pregnant woman!), No room at the Inn.

Yes!  A cold night. The only warmth will be found among the animals of that town. An old Latin antiphon for Christmas says, O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, un animalia viderent Dominum natum iacentem in praesepio. (O great mystery and stunning sacrament, that animals would see the newborn Lord lying in a feedbox).  Here warmth will be found, among the animals. It is sometimes said that man can be brutish. But the reality is that we can sink even beneath the beasts, doing things to ourselves and to each other that even animals do not do.

Scripture says,

The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know me, my people do not understand….They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (Isaiah 1:3-4)

And again,

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:10-11).

A knock at midnight, the animals received him and gave warmth. His own people, knowing him not, received him not. And into this very midnight darkness and cold the light and warmth of God’s love will shine forth. The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone (Is 9:1)

II. The Stooping – Surely God stoops low to come from lightsome heaven to our war torn, dark and cold world. And as he stoops, he stoops to the lowest place, being born not in a palace or even a comfortable home. He stoops to a manger. For God will defeat Satan’s pride with humility. And all who will find him this fateful night must also stoop.

And this stooping of God is illustrated even in the very topography of this night. The towns of the Holy Land built on the tops of the tall hills (something we almost never do here in America). But this is done (where land is more scarce)  so as to leave the fertile valleys for agriculture. And Bethlehem too is perched on the higher land and the shepherd’s fields lie below. The streets of Bethlehem are steep and built on tiers or levels. Thus, the back lot of many homes and buildings drops steeply down and beneath the buildings. And beneath the buildings they hollowed out caves where animals and tools and tools were kept.

It was there, down under, where Joseph and Mary sought hasty shelter, for it was a cold and dark midnight, and Mary’s time had come. God stoops with them to be born, among the animals and agricultural implements, in the damp under-cave of some house or inn.

And, for those who will find our God. They too must stoop low. Even to this day when one visits Bethlehem and wants to see the place of Jesus’ birth, one must first enter the Church through what is termed the “Door of Humility.” For security reasons this ancient door was built only about four feet high. And one must stoop greatly to enter the church. Yes, we must stoop to find our God. The site of the birth is at the other end of the basilica, under the altar area. Here again, more stooping; down steep stairs and through another low and narrow door, into the cave. To touch the spot, one must kneel and reach forward, into a narrower part of the cave. Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, says the inscription. And the only to get there is to stoop.

Yes, Our God stoops, he stoops to the lowest place, and to find him, and be with him we too must be willing to stoop. God hates pride, he just can’t stand it. For he sees what it does to us and he comes to break its back, not with clubs and swords, or by overpowering, but with humility. Darkness does not defeat darkness, only light can do that. Hate does not defeat hate, only love can do that. Pride will not defeat Pride, only humility will do that. So God stoops.

And tonight God calls us with this same humility. He could have ridden down from Heaven on a lightning bolt and stunned us into fearful submission. Instead he goes to the lowest place. He comes quietly, non-violently, without threat, as an infant. But even in this lowly way, he is still calling.

And so there is a knock at midnight. Scripture says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). An old song says, “Somebody’s knocking at your door! Oh Sinner, why don’t you answer?”

And this leads us to the final point –

III. The Saddest thing – When human history is complete and the last books are written, one of the saddest lines in all of that history will be simply the line, For there was no room for them in the Inn. No room, no room. How strange and sad for this world that God simply doesn’t fit. He does fit our agendas, our schedules, our priorities. No room, He just doesn’t fit.

Again, as Scripture says,

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (Jn 1:11)

But that same passage goes on to add:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the power to become children of God— (John 1:12)

What could be more sad than to miss this gift to become the very Children of God? Yes, the saddest line that will ever be written of this world is that there was no room for him in the Inn.

And what of us? Is there room for Jesus in the “Inn” of our hearts? For if there is, Jesus comes bearing many gifts. Tonight is a night of gifts. There is a knock at this very midnight. Sounds like Jesus! Oh Sinner, why don’t you answer, somebody’s knocking at your door.

Make room for Jesus. Every year he comes knocking, he stoops low and invites us to find him in the lowly places of this world, in the lowly places of our own life. What are the things in your life that may be crowding out Jesus? What obstacles and preoccupations leave little or no room for Jesus? What keeps you from recognizing him and opening the door wide when he comes?

If you’ve already opened the door to him for many years, praise God, and ask the Lord to help you open wider. For it remains true for many of us that although Jesus has been invited in, his accommodations are poor, perhaps the couch or the floor.

Make room for Jesus, make more and more room for him, in the Inn of your soul and I promise you that what Scripture says is true: Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the power to become children of God— (John 1:12).

If you will receive the gift of him tonight, and make greater room for him in your heart, I promise you total victory and transformation in Christ Jesus. There will come to you the increasing gift of transformation into the very likeness of God. For tonight is a night of gifts and Jesus stoops low to give us a priceless gift: the power to become the children of God.

It’s midnight…. there is a knock at the door.

To See What the End Shall Be – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

In today’s Gospel we step back nine months to March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, an event all but hidden, but which changed the world.

God whose focal presence had 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 less than three hundred, a town so small that no road went to it.

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

And at this moment we do well to consider four aspects of this pivotal moment. As we do so, we consider, not only Mary’s glories, but also ours in a subordinate but real way. For Mary is the perfect disciple and typifies in a most excellent way the glories that God also wishes to bestow on us, in perhaps a different but still substantial way. Lets look at for 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 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 of Mary her cooperation. Although the Angel Gabriel’s words are not in the form of a question, that Mary considers this to be a request from God is clear from Mary’s response. She says yes, and thus understands it as a request, not merely a statement of what shall be.

In this regard we see an important indicator of the respect of God for her freedom. Surely he has prepared her and equipped her with every good grace to say, yes, but in the end, her free “yes” is significant, and something that God looks for and respects. Otherwise, why send an angel at all? Why 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.”

And this respect for her free “yes” is also a respect God extends to us. Indeed we can see here how God’s respect is in contrast to the devil, who shouts, is invasive, provocative and intrusive. Through cultural noise etc., he tempts and provokes. But God whispers and respectfully invites. He does not force our decision but summons us in love and awaits our answer.

In scripture we read 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, though all powerful and able to coerce, God does not do so, he does not act violently or impose his will. He repsects the freedom He Himself gave us, and invites us to cooperate in his plan for us.

Mary (and we) are thus respected by God in terms of our freedom.

II. The REGARD of God – Note in the text the great love of God, appreciation and regard extended to Mary through the Angel. The text says, Hail, Full of grace! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid Mary. You have found favor with God...

As the great and glorious Angel, Gabriel comes to Mary, (and every angel is glorious) he must still, in an astonishing way acknowledge Mary’s beauty, holiness, and perfection, by God’s grace. Imagine an all glorious Archangel rendering a kind of debt of praise to a mere human being! And in so speaking this way He is speaking for God, of the deep love, appreciation and regard that God has for Mary, his greatest human work.

Indeed, we should never forget the Love and deep regard God has for Mary and also for us. Mary is surely God’s masterpiece. But she is also the result of His grace and work.

In a less perfect way, but a still true manner, 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)

We are not good, and therefore God loves us. God loves us and therefore we are good, if we accept his love. Mary was, by a singular grace wholly open to God’s love and perfection. But, if we are faithful, we too will one day become the man or woman God has always intended us to be.

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

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

Some hold that the question here is not really her question, but is rhetorically placed here by Luke so that the angel can inform us, the readers, that God alone is the true Father of this Son. But such a notion seems more made up by nervous moderns in an attempt to solve the mystery. Reducing a pivotal question like this to a mere literary device seems unbecoming.

Catholic tradition surely sees evidence here of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. To be sure many other questions are are raised by this resolution of the question: Why would two people get married and live as virgins?….Were such arrangements common at that time? (it would seem not). And so forth.

In the end Mary’s question would surely seem to point to some expectation of Mary that she would “not know man” in some sense, going forward. But at any level we are not going to wholly satisfy our curiosity, and maybe it is none of our business.

One thing is sure, the Church teaches, without ambiguity that Mary remained ever virgin. That this question of hers indicates she was clear on this here, seems a reasonable conclusion, but there remains also a mystery that we must respect and understand, that it is none of our business, ultimately.

In this case, Protestants have some thinking to do. For Mary’s question is not meaningless or naive, it is a true question, with a true context that ought to be respected as at least pointing to her virginity, even if it alone does not alone prove it. For more on this topic read here: New Theological Movement.

IV. The REASSURANCE of God – Mary is in the presence of an Archangel. This alone is frightening enough. But it is also true that her world is shifting quite dramatically. Hence her natural fear and anxiety is understandable. Thus Archangel Gabriel gives a number of reassurances to Mary: 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 St Gabriel is saying to her that, however the details unfold, in the end there will be total victory, for 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. Hence, whatever her concerns,  this all leads to victory.

Mary will need this reassurance for, to be clear, there ARE some difficult days ahead: the crisis of homelessness at birth, the flight to Egypt, Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, and the actual thrusting of that sword at the foot of the cross. This knowledge of ultimate victory is an important reassurance for her to hold close, and not forget.

So too for us. For we too have some difficult valleys to cross, some hills to climb. We must constantly keep in mind the end of the story, that Jesus is already the victor and that however our eyes my think that we are losing, in the end, total victory belongs to Jesus, and to us, if we stay with him. The end of the story is already declared: Jesus wins, overwhelmingly, and all his enemies are 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. It may at times seem that evil has the upper hand. Evil has its day, But God has the victory. No matter how dark it can seem, God has already won, only the news has not yet leaked out.

But in our hearts this truth and reassurance must be emblazoned. For, like Mary, we have difficult days in our future. All the more reason God’s reassurance is essential for us. It got Mary through the Cross and it will get us through ours.

Hence, we have here a pivotal moment in History. God’s presence returns to the human family. And it all happens so quietly, in a town of 300, so small that there was not even a road that went to Nazareth. Quietly, but clearly and powerfully, God has thrust the first blow at Satan’s realm. Victory is sure.

Painting above: Annunication by H. Tanner

I have it on the best authority that Mary sang this song after the Angel left: Done made my vow to the Lord and I never will turn back, I will go, I shall go to see the end shall be.

It occurs to me that Mary, at this time was not much older than the young ladies in this choir.

Sweet, Beautiful, Soul Saving Joy – A Reflection on the Epistle 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 (from Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice). This theme is developed most fully in today’s readings  in 1 Thessalonians 5:16ff. It too begins with the salutation and imperative: Rejoice always!

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

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

Thus, our text ask more of us than an emotional fervor. Rather, and more richly, it invites us to become joyfully aware of God’s grace and favor toward us, to consider the magnificent and unmerited gift of God’s love and favor, and thereby, to experience a kind of stable and deeply rooted joy, based on this abiding knowledge. Hence the text bids us to rejoice “always.”

The text goes 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 tell us to rejoice always, but goes on to say 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.

A. In all circumstances give thanks thanksgiving is an important discipline that trains our mind to focus on reality. For it so happens that we tend to be negative, perhaps due to our fallen nature. The reality is that, everyday, ten trillion things go right and a few things go wrong. Now if you think ten trillion is an exaggeration, it is not. Consider all things that have to go right with every cell in your body. Add to that all the many things and factors on this earth, indeed in the whole universe that must be delicately balanced for you and I to be her, be alive and be flourishing. Ten trillion is not an exaggeration.

However, it we are not careful, we going to focus on the five or six things that went wrong today. And, mind you, some of them may feel serious at times (usually they are not). Nevertheless, even the truly serious mishaps cannot deny the reality of the ten trillion things that have gone right.

Thanksgiving disciplines our mind to focus on the bigger reality of countless blessings. Even some of the mishaps of a day can be blessings in disguise.

Hence we are told to give thanks in all circumstances. Daily thanksgiving disciplines our mind to focus on the blessings in astonishing number. What you feed grows, and 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. Give thanks in all circumstances.

B. Pray without ceasing – Here too is a discipline of the mind. Paul does not mean to stay in a chapel all day. He means that we should lay hold of the normal Christian life, which is to be in living 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 stable.  Thus we are able by this ongoing sense of His presence to “rejoice always.”

C. Do not quench the Spirit – That such gifts (on-going 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 seek these things. But rather, we should heed His promptings and seek after 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 deepen our prayer and gratitude, so we don’t even ask. We also quench the Spirit by cluttering our lives with endless distractions and we never sit still for a moment to listen to the small, still voice of God. But if we will fan into flame the gifts of God’s love, God the Holy Spirit will kindle a fire in us that never dies away. And as the gifts of his love, to include deeper prayer and constant thankfulness, take hold, our joy too deepens and we can “rejoice always.”

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

In the first place, “prophetic utterance” is 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 which, at best, gropes in the darkness, and at worst, is deceitful and erroneous. We ought not despise God’s Word in any way, but accept it wholeheartedly and, to the degree that we do, it assures us 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 are, also, the teachings of the Church, the utterances of the Fathers of the Church and the teachings of the saints down through the ages. There is a great deposit of faith carefully collected and loving 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. And so too for us who ought to seek for every instruction prophetically uttered by Mother Church, nothing is to fall to the ground.

The Fathers and saints too have left us a wondrous testimony that we should not despise or 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 true. Added to this number are trustworthy people in our own time who teach us the Word of God. They include our parents, priests, religious, and holy men and women who have inspired us. And 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 prophetic utterance, the foundation of our joy becomes more sure 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, the biggest killer of joy in our life, is our sin. To the degree that we indulge it, our joy is sapped. But to the degree that we allow the Lord to deliver us from sin and make us more and more holy, our joy will become deeper and lasting. The words “holy” and “whole” are not far apart. And to the degree that we become more whole, more perfected, more free of sin, more perfectly holy and blameless as the text says, our joy becomes deeper and we can increasingly “rejoice always.” God can do this for us if we are willing, and if we ask.

Thus we see that the mandate, the exhortation, to “Rejoice always” is far more than whipping ourselves up to an emotional high. Rather it is a stable and serene joy rooted in prayerful gratitude, 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!

The Fire Next Time – Meditation on the Epistle for the Second Sunday of Advent

An old spiritual says, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, but the fire next time. The second reading in today’s Mass speaks to us of the “Fire next time” and again reminds of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. Note four aspects of this reading:

1. 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 (2000+ years!), the text tells us that this patience is so that as many of us can be saved as possible.

But notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. So God’s patience should not be seen as a place for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to say, “Later.” This is a time to be serious about repentance and preparation to meet the Lord.

Note too that the Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), referring not just to better behavior, but also to new mind. For our transformation is not merely external but also internal. 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 as well. Conversion and repentance are the result of being a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.

2. 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. And when he comes it will be

A. Sudden – For the text says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. This is quite a consistent image that Jesus used for the Day of Judgement as well. But the image should not be true for 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 the thief is also not for us if we realize that all we have and are belong to God. For those who are worldly, and claim authority over themselves and ownership over their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly, and in a hidden way. He overtakes their apparent ownership and possession and puts an end to it. To them he seems a thief as he “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.

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

B. Shocking – For the text speaks of the heavens as roaring and of fire which overwhelms, and by it, all will be dissolved with fire.

Now here too, the image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, and personally, at our baptism and confirmation, the Lord lit a fire in us to set us spiritually on fire; to  bring us up to the temperature of glory. Thus, for those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the twofold experience 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 (Son) of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).

An old spiritual glosses on this verse saying, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time. Thus 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.

C. Showing – for the text says, all things will be revealed.

So it would seem that this fire burns away the masks many people wear and they are seen for they 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). And again 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).

Now even the just may wince at this, for all have a past and would prefer the past stay in the past. But I have sometimes seen, when I have visited 12 Step meetings, how many will recount vividly what they did when they were drinking. And they do so with little shame and much laughter, for they share it among those who understand, and as one who has been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps for the just on that disclosing Day it will be like that.

But for those who are among the unrepentant, consider the embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins and injustices are disclosed among those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. A bad scene really.

3. 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 rhetorically “What sort of persons ought you to be?!” The answer in a word is “fiery.” God has lit a fire in us to purify and refine us. Hence on that Day, when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. And though some final purifications (purgation) may take place, the fact that the fire has been kindled in us, and fanned into flame, will mean just that, purification, not destruction. St Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purfication 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 that we let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire now of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us  and permit us later 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 by fire.

4. 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 this fiery judgment of God. While the text may also signify a total destruction of all that now is, and a replacement of it by a new heavens and earth, it is also debated that the created world will instead be renewed, rather than destroyed and replaced. This view would correspond with other texts (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 solution, to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a heaven wedded to earth in which full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish and at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah. And God’s fire purifies that which is holy, and burns away all which is lacking or unholy. God will restore all things in Christ!

Crying Out For the Savior – A Meditation on the Readings for the First Sunday of Advent

The Gospel today surely announces a critical Advent theme: Watch! And while I want to comment primarily on the Reading from Isaiah, the Gospel admonition surely deserves some attention as well.

For it is too often the case that many today hold the unbiblical notion that most, if not all, are going to heaven. But for four weeks now we have been reading gospels wherein the Lord Jesus warns us that some (perhaps many, possibly even most) are not heading for heaven. There are wise and foolish virgins, industrious and lazy servants, sheep and goats, and today, those who keep watch and those who do not.

And though many today like to brush aside the teachings on judgment, or teachings that some are lost, to those who do, and to all, Jesus says, Watch! In other words, watch out, be serious, sober and prepared for death and judgment. Realize that your choices are leading somewhere.

Some have tried to tame and domesticate Jesus, but it is not the fake Jesus they have reinvented that they will meet, it is the real Jesus, the Jesus who warns repeatedly of the reality of judgment and the strong possibility of Hell. At the beginning of Advent we do well to heed Jesus’ admonition and realize our need to be saved.

And that leads to the first reading from Isaiah which rather thoroughly sets forth our need for a savior. Isaiah distinguishes five ailments which beset us, and from which we need rescue. We are: drifting, demanding, depraved, disaffected and depressed. But in the end Isaiah reminds us of our dignity. Lets look at each in turn.

1. Drifting – The text says, Why [O Lord] do you let us wander from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.

It is a common human tendency that we wander, or drift. It is a rarer thing that most people, in one moment, reject God, especially if they were raised with some faith. Rather, what usually happens is that we just drift away, wander off course. It is like the captain or pilot of a boat who stops paying close attention. Soon enough the boat is farther and farther off course. At first things are not noticed, but the cumulative effect is that the boat is now headed in the wrong direction. He did not suddenly turn the helm and shift 180 degrees, he just stopped paying attention and drifted, and drifted some more.

And so it is with some of us who may wonder how we got so far off course. I talk with many people who have left the Church, and so many of them cannot point to an incident or moment when they walked out of Church and said, “I’ll never come back here.” It is usually just that they drifted away, fell away, from the practice of the faith. They missed a Sunday here or there, and little by little, missing Mass became the norm. Maybe they moved to a new city and never got around to finding a parish. They just got disconnected and drifted.

Funny thing about drifting, the further off course you get, the harder it is to get back on course. It just seems increasingly monumental to make the changes necessary to get back on track. Thus Isaiah speaks of the heart of a drifter becoming hardened. Our bad habits become “hard” to break, and as God seems more and more distant, we lose our holy fear and reverence for Him.

Interesting how, in taking up our voice, Isaiah, “blames” God for it all. Somehow it is “His fault” for letting us wander for he lets us do it.

It is true that God has made us free and that he is very serious about respecting our freedom. How else could we love God, if we were not free. Compelled love is not love at all.

But what Isaiah is really getting at is that some of us are so far afield, so lost, that only God can find us and save us. And so we must depend on God being like a Shepherd who seeks his lost sheep.

Thus, here is the first way that Isaiah sets forth our need for a Savior. And so in Advent, reflecting this way, the Church cries out, Come Emmanuel, Come Lord Jesus! Seek and find us for many of us are drifting.

2. Demanding – The text says, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.

There is a human tendency to demand signs and wonders. Our flesh demands to see. And when we do not see, in a fleshly sort of way, we are dismissive, even scoffing.

This human tendency has reached a peak in our modern times when so many reject faith because it does not meet the demands of empirical science and a materialist age. If something is not physical and measurable by some human instrument, many rejects its very existence. Never mind that many things that are very real (e.g. justice, or fear) cannot be measured on an atomic scale. What most moderns are really about doing is more specific: rejecting is God and the demands of faith. “Since we cannot see him with our eyes, he is not there and thus, we may do as we please.”

Isaiah gives voice to the human demand to see on our own terms. We demand signs and wonders, and then we will believe. It is almost as though we are saying to God, “Force me to believe in you” or “Make everything so certain that I don’t really have to walk by faith.”

Many of us look back to the miracles of the scriptures and think, “If I saw that, I would believe.” But faith is not so simple. For many who did see miracles (e.g. the Hebrew people in the desert), saw but still gave way to doubt. Many who saw Jesus work miracles, fled at the first sign of trouble or when he said something that displeased them.

Our flesh demands to see. But, in the end, even after seeing it usually refuses to believe.

Further, God does not usually do the “biggie-wow” things to overwhelm us. Satan does overwhelm us. But God is a quiet and persistent lover who respectfully and delicately works in us, if we let him. It is Satan who roars at us with temptation, fear, and sheer volume, so that we are distracted and confused. God more often is that still, small voice speaking in the depth of our heart.

Thus the Lord, speaking through Isaiah, warns us of this second ailment, the demand for signs and wonders. Our rebellious flesh pouts and draws back in resentful rebellion.

Thus our need for a Savior, to give us a new heart and mind, attuned to the small still voice of God in a strident world. And so in Advent, reflecting thus, the Church cries our, Come Emmanuel, Come Lord Jesus! Calm our souls and lets us find you in the daily and small things.

3. Depraved The text says, Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.

The word depraved comes from the Latin pravitas, meaning crooked or deformed. It means to be lacking what we ought to have. Hence, the Lord though Isaiah here describes our deformed state in the following ways. We are:

A. Unthinking – the text says that we are “unmindful” of God. Indeed our minds are very weak and we can go for long periods, so turned in on ourselves, that we barely, if ever, think of God. Our thoughts are wholly focused on things that are passing, and almost wholly forgetful of God and heaven which remain forever. It is so easy for our senseless minds to be darkened. Our culture too has “kicked God to the curb” and thus there are even fewer reminders of Him than in previous generations. We desperately need God to save us and give us new minds. Come Lord Jesus!

B. Unhappy – the text says of God “You are angry.” But, biblically we need to remember that the “wrath of God” is more in us, than in God. God’s anger is his passion to set things right. But God is not moody or prone to egotistical rage. More often than not, it is we who project our own unhappiness and anger on God. The “Wrath of God” is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. God does not loose his temper, or fly into a rage, he does not lose his serenity. It is we who are unhappy, angry, egotistical, scornful etc. We need God to give us a new heart. Come Lord Jesus!

C. Undistinguished – the text says, we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people. We are called to be holy, that is, “set apart” and distinguished from the sinful world around us. But too often we are indistinguishable. We do not shine forth like a light in the darkness, we seem little different than the pagan world around us. We divorce, fornicate, fail to forgive, support abortion, contraception, fail the poor, etc., in numbers akin to secular people who know not God. We do not seem joyful, serene or alive. We just look like “everybody else.” And we seem to have as our main goal to “fit in” and be like everyone. Save us O Lord from our mediocrity and fear. Come Lord Jesus!

4. Disaffected – The text says, There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.

In other words we, collectively speaking, have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, the lottery, a T.V. show, etc. But when it comes to God, many can barely rouse themselves to pray, go to Church, or read scripture. We find time for everything else, but God can wait.

Here too Isaiah gives voice to the human tendency to blame God, for he says (i.e. we say) God has hidden his face. But God has not moved. If you can’t see God, guess who turned away? If you’re not as close to God as you used to be, guess who moved?

Our heart and our priorities are messed up. We need a savior to give us a new heart, a greater love and better priorities and desires. Come Lord Jesus!

5. Depressed – The text says, All our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.

One of the definitions of depression is anger turned inward. And while Isaiah has given voice to our tendency to direct anger and blame at God, here he gives voice to our other tendency, to turn on ourselves.

Thus, our good deeds are described like polluted rags. It may be true that they are less than they could be, but calling them polluted rags is the kind of exaggeration that bespeaks a frustration with our seemingly hopeless situation, and addiction to sin and injustice.

Ultimately the devil wants us to diminish what little good we can find in ourselves and to lock us into a depressed and angry state. If there were no good in us at all, why bother?

There is such a thing as unhealthy guilt and a self loathing that is not of God, but from the devil, our accuser. It may well be this that Isaiah articulates here. And from such depressed self loathing (masquerading as piety) we need a savior. Come Lord Jesus!

And so the cry has gone up: Come Lord Jesus, save us, Savior of the world! We need a savior, and Advent is a time to mediate on our need.

But Isaiah ends on a final note and the song goes from D minor to D Major. And the final Note is our

Dignity – the text says, Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

Yes, we are a mess, but a loveable mess. And God has so loved us, as to send his Son, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren.

We are not forsaken, and in Advent we call upon a Father who loves us. And our cry, Come Lord Jesus is heard and heeded by the Father, who loves us and is fashioning us into his very image. God is able and he will fix and fashion us well. Help is on the way!

Here’s a magnificent Advent Hymn that so beautifully expresses the longing of the Church for her savior to come. The second verse says:

Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
Her hearts leaps up with joy undoubting!
She stands and waits with eager eyes.
See! Her Love from heaven descending,
Adorned with grace and truth unending.
Her light burns clear her star doth rise!

Now come our precious Crown,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son