Slideshow of Sanctity – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for this Weekend’s Mass we are well into the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and today we cover a good deal of Chapter 5. In a way the Lord is drawing a picture for us of the transformed human person. He is presenting a kind of slide show of what sanctity really is. In understanding this rather lengthy text we do well to reflect on it in three parts.

I.  The Power of New Life in Christ – We have discussed before that an important principle of the Christian moral vision is to understand that it is essentially received, not achieved. Holiness is a work of God. The human being acting out the power of his flesh alone cannot keep, and surely not fulfill, the Law. The experience of God’s people in the Old Testament bears this out. True holiness (and not mere ethical rule keeping) is possible only by and through God’s grace.

In this sense we must understand the moral vision given by Jesus as a description rather than a mere prescription. Notice what the text says here: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the Law]. It is Jesus who fulfills the Law. And we, who are more and more in him, and He in us do what He does. It is His work.

Thus, what Jesus is doing here is to describe what a transformed human being is like:

  • When Jesus Christ really begins to live his life in us (Gal 2:20),
  • When the power of His cross goes to work in us and puts sin to death (Rom 6:2),
  • When Jesus increases and we decrease (Jn 3:30),
  • When our old self is crucified with him so that sin will no longer master us (Rom 6:6-7),
  • When and as all this takes place we are transformed.

This is a work of God, the power is in the Blood and the cross. The power comes to us by grace. It is all a work of God.

Hence, Jesus, in today’s Gospel is not giving us a rigorous set of rules to follow (and they are rigorous) but, is describing what the transformed human person is like. Clearly his description is not some merely impossible ideal, but is set forth as the normal Christian life. The normal Christian is a transformed human person. The normal Christian, to use Jesus description from today’s Gospel, has authority over his anger and sexuality, loves his wife and family and is a man of his word. All this comes to him as the fruit of God’s grace.

It is very important to understand that this is a life offered to us by God. Otherwise we are simply left with moralism here: “Stop being so angry and unchaste, stop getting divorced, and stop lying.”  Rather, what is offered here is new life in Christ where, on account of an inner transformation by the power of grace, we see anger abate, unchastity diminish, the love of others increase, and we speak the truth in love. So the power to do this is not from our flesh, but from the Lord, through the power of his cross to put sin to death and bring forth new life in us.

II. The Principle of New Life in Christ – The key word in Jesus’ moral vision is that, by his grace we do not merely keep the Law, but fulfill it. The key word is “fulfill” and to fulfill means to fill something full, to meet more than what is minimally required and to enter into the full vision and meaning of the Law.

Thus, to use Jesus’ examples in today’s Gospel:

  • It is not enough to refrain from killing, true life in God means that vengeful hatred is removed from me and I love even my enemy and am reconciled with people I have wrongfully hurt or offended.
  • It is not enough merely to avoid adultery, true life in Christ means that I am chaste and pure even in my thoughts, that by God’s grace I have authority over what I am thinking and shun unchaste thoughts.
  • It is not enough to merely follow proper divorce law. True life in Christ means I don’t even want to divorce my wife. I actually love her, and my children. I am reconciled to her and accepting that she is not perfect and neither am I.
  • It is not enough to simply refrain from swearing false oaths. True life in Christ means speaking the truth in love, being a man of my words. The grace of God keeps me from being duplicitous and deceitful.

In all these ways the law is not merely kept, it is fulfilled. It is filled full in that all this implications are abundantly and joyfully lived as Jesus Christ transforms me. Christ came to fulfill the Law and in Christ, as our union with him grows more perfect we also fulfill the Law. For what Christ does we do, for we are in him and he is in us. As he says,  I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

III.  The Picture of New Life in Christ. – The Lord then goes on to six pictures of what a transformed human being looks like. In the Gospel for today’s Mass we look at only four. These pictures are often called “antitheses” since they are all formulated as:  You have heard that it was said……but I say to you. But the key point is to see then as pictures of what happens to a person in whom Jesus Christ is really living. Let’s look at each.

A.  On Anger – The text begins: You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Thus the Lord teaches us that the commandment not to kill has a deeper meaning that must be filled full. For, what leads to murder? Is it not the furnace of anger, retribution, and hatred within us? We may all experience a flash of anger and it passes. Further there is such a thing as righteous anger which is caused by the perception of injustice and sin. The Lord himself exhibited this sort of anger a lot. These sorts of anger are not condemned. Rather the anger that is condemned is the anger that is born on hate and a desire for revenge, an anger that goes so far as to wish the other were dead and to deny that they possess any real human dignity. This is what leads to murder.

That the Lord has this sort of anger in mind is revealed in the examples he uses of the expression of this anger: Raqa and fool. These words express contempt and hatred. Raqa is untranslatable, but seems to have had the same impact as the “N-word” today. It is a very hurtful word expressing deep contempt. Now this has to go. It cannot remain in a person in whom the Lord authentically lives. And it will go, to the degree that we allow Christ to live in us. If that be the case then increasingly we cannot hate others, for the Lord is in us and he died for all out of love. How can I hate someone he loves?

The Lord makes it clear that if this doesn’t go, we are going to jail: Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. Thus, either we allow the Lord to effect this reconciliation in us or we’re off to jail. Whether the jail is hell or purgatory (for it would seem there is release from this jail after the last penny is paid), jail it is. We are not going to heaven until and unless this matter is resolved. Why delay the issue? Let the Lord work it now. Don’t  go to jail because of your grudges and stubborn refusal to admit your own offenses.

B. On LustThe text begins: You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Thus the Lord teaches us that the commandment against adultery has a deeper meaning beyond merely transgressing marriage bounds. To fill this Law full means to be chaste in all matters and in mind and heart.

It is wrong to engage in any illicit sexual union, but if one is looking at pornography, and fanaticizing about others, sexually, beyond the bounds of marriage, one is already in adultery. What the Lord is offering us here is a clean mind and pure heart. He is offering us authority over our sexuality and thoughts. To some in the world, such a promise seems impossible. But God is able to do and increasingly for those who are in Christ, self-mastery increases and purity of mind and heart become a greater reality. Our flesh alone cannot do this, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Christ. It is his work in us to give us these gifts.

The text goes on to say: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. Therefore we have to be serious about these matters. The Lord is using hyperbole, but he is using it to make a firm point. It is to say that it is more serious to sin in this matter than to lose your eyesight, or limbs from your body.

Now, most moderns don’t think this way. They make light of sin, and sexual sin, in particular. But God does not make light of it. Jesus here teaches that it is worse to lose our soul than to lose parts of our body. If we were losing our eyesight or a limb to cancer we would probably be begging the Lord to deliver us. But why do we not think of sin in this way? Why are we not horrified by sexual sin in the same degree? We are clearly skewed in our thinking. Jesus is clear that these sorts of sins can land us in hell (which is here called Gehenna). Lustful thinking, pornography, masturbation, fornication, adultery, contraception and homosexual acts have to go. They are not part of life in Christ who wants to give us freedom and authority over our sexual passions.

Let’s be clear, a lot of people today are in some pretty serious bondage when it comes to sexuality. Jesus stands before us all and says, “Come let me live in you and give you the gift of sexual purity. It will be my gift to you, it will be my work in you to set you free from all disordered passion.”

C. On Divorce – The text says, It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife – unless the marriage is unlawful – causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery – At the time of the Lord Jesus, divorce was permitted in Israel, but a man had to follow the rules. But the Lord says to fulfill marriage law is to love your wife, love your husband. He teaches that when He begins to live his life in us, love for our spouse will grow, love for our children will deepen. The thought of divorce won’t even occur! Who wants to divorce someone they love?

If the Lord can help us to love our enemy he can surely cause us to love our spouse. It is a true fact that some of the deepest hurts can occur in marriage. But the Lord can heal all wounds and help us to forget the painful things of the past.

Here too the Lord is blunt. He simply refuses to recognize all this little pieces of paper people run about with saying that some human judge approved their divorce. God is not impressed with the legal document and may well still consider the person married!

Here too the Lord says, “Come to me, bring me your broken marriage, your broken heart and let me bring healing. It is a true fact that sometimes one has a spouse who simply leaves or refuses to live in peace. Here too the Lord can heal by removing the loneliness and hurt that might drive one to a second marriage where (often) there is more trouble waiting. Let the Lord bring strength, healing and restore unity. He still works miracles, and sometimes that is what it is going to take.

D. On Oaths – The text says, Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one. The people of Jesus’ time had lots of legalism associated with oaths and lots of tricky ways of watering down the truth. The Lord says, just cut it all out, and be a man or a woman of your word. When Jesus begins to live his life in us, we speak the truth in Love. When we make commitments we are faithful to them, we do not lie and we don’t play games with the truth. God is truth, and as he lives in us, we too become the truth, speak the truth and live the truth. This is the gift that Jesus offers us here.

So then, Here are four pictures of a transformed human being. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount is filled with promises more than prescriptions, descriptions more than prescriptions. The Lord is promising us here what he can and will do for us.

I am a witness to the transformative power of Jesus’ grace and love. And I promise you brethren, in the Lord Jesus Christ,  that everything he offers us here, he will do. It is already happening and taking deep root in my life. How about you? Are you a witness?

This song speaks of the power of Jesus to transform us and of our need for that grace. The text says:

You breathe in me, And I’m alive with the power of your holiness.
You breathe in me, And you revive feelings in my soul
That I have laid to rest
Chorus: So breathe in me, I need you now.
I’ve never felt so dead within, So breathe in me. Maybe somehow
You can breathe new life in me again
I used to be so sensitive to the light that leads to where you are
Now I’ve acquired these callouses with the darkness of a cold and jaded heart

Pass the Salt and Put on the Lights – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of the Year

In the gospel today the Lord describes metaphorically (figuratively) what a Christian is and what He expects of us. Note five things about what He says.

I. The Definitiveness of his Proclamation – The Text says You are the Salt of the earth….You are the light of the World…..But if salt goes flat it is good for nothing…..No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.

The Lord is definitive in two ways. First he says, “You.” He is not talking to people long ago, or someone next to you. He is not merely talking to your pastor, or only to the Saints. He is talking to you, “YOU are salt, YOU are light.” You. It’s too easy to say, “Look what the Lord is saying to them, long ago, near the lakeside.” It’s not long ago, It’s now, it’s you.

The second way the Lord is definitive is that both images depend on us, and if we are not salt and light then no one else is around to be this and we have utterly voided our worth.

  1. Look at the metaphor of salt:You are either salt, or you are nothing, in fact, good for NOTHING. As Christians we have signed up to be specialists. We have signed up to be Christians. What this means is that if we go off and do anything else, we are nothing, and good for nothing. It’s a very all or nothing scenario. Jesus says, if you have decided to be my disciple your are either going to do that or be nothing. You may go on to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, laborer, or social worker. But the Lord’s got plenty of those, (and so does the devil). Your first and only mission is to be a true and uncompromised Christian and everything else is commentary. You may be a great doctor, but if you don’t do it as a clear and visible Christian you are nothing. You may be a skilled social worker, but if you don’t do it as a Christian, you are good for nothing. Any non-believer can be socially useful as a doctor, sports hero, actor, lawyer, or social worker. But only a Christian can be a Christian. If you don’t do “job one” you are nothing. If you get your kids every good thing, send them off to college, paid in full, but do not bring them to Christ and be a Christian witness  to them,  you are good for nothing. Any parent can give their kids material things, but only a Christian can give them Christ. Got it? You’re either salt (a true Christian) or you are nothing.
  2. As for the light we can note something similar of this second definitiveness. The Lord says, you are THE light of the World, not merely A light. What this means is that if we do not shine, the world is darker. No one can take our place. If we don’t shine by living our faith and proclaiming it,  the world is in darkness. Buddha can’t help, Mohamed can’t pull it off, science and humanism can’t substitute. Either we are light, or there is none. Some may call this arrogant, but I just call it Scripture. The Lord said it,  not us. We are either light or the world is dark. And if the world is getting darker, whose fault is that? We need not go far. Too many Christians fulfill Isaiah 56:10 which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. You may be an exception, too many Christians are not.

Therefore notice the definitive pronouncement the Lord makes here. We Christians are either with the Lord or we’re nothing. We’re either light or the world is in darkness.

II. The Dynamics of Salt – When Jesus says You are the salt of the earth, what are some of the lessons we can learn from salt? Consider four things:

  1. Salt Seasons – Christians are called to add spice to life, to bring beauty, joy and hope to the world. Joy is the surest sign of a Christian. Even our keeping of the Commandments is a source of joy as we experience God’s power to put sin to death in us and bring forth order, self-discipline and holiness. Hope too ought to distinguish us from a world that is often cynical and thinks sin is inevitable. To this world we are not only to declare that the Commandments are possible and bring joy, but to demonstrate it in our very lives. We are to be zesty, passionate, alive and free from sin in Christ. Yet sadly,  we Christians are more known merely for what we are against. Too many Christians are not spicy, do not really add flavor, but are more like bored believers, depressed disciples, fearful faithful, and the frozen chosen. In our best moments though look what spicy things the faith has contributed: Art, music, churches, hospitals, universities, the scholastic and scientific methods, holidays (just a mispronunciation of Holy Days). Note how our  tradition and Scriptural teaching of justice mercy, love, and the dignity of the human person has blessed the world. Do you bring spice to other’s lives? Hope and joy? Scripture says, Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15). Well that means that people notice a hope in you! Do they? How?
  2. Salt Preserves – Before refrigeration, people often used salt to cure or persevere meat. The salt killed the bacteria and other microorganisms that caused rot and decay. We as Christians are called to prevent further decay in this sin soaked world. The truth that we proclaim is meant to preserve people from the decay of sin and over-indulgence. Chastity, justice, generosity, the proclamation of the truth, and so forth,  are like a salt that preserves this world from decay. We must be salt, if we are not, nothing else is. YOU are the salt.
  3. Salt heals – In the ancient world salt was used on wounds. It helped stop bleeding, it killed bacteria and prevented further infection. So too the Christian faith. Through our doctrinal and moral teaching, and our living of it, we are called to bring healing to this world wounded by sin, strife, war, jealousy, anger, bitterness, retribution, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, greed, and countless errors. The Word of God and his plan is a healing medicine for what ails this world.
  4. Salt burns – Yes, salt stings when applied to wounds. We Christians aren’t just sugar and spice and everything nice. When salt is applied to wounds it burns and often causes loud protest. The truth stings,  and the truth of the Gospel can be irritating to a world that is wounded by sin. But, despite the protests of our world, the sting is a healing sting. It is driving out the bacteria and disease of the world and preventing further infection. Just because people protest the Church and howl in complaint at the truth of the Gospel, does not mean we have done anything wrong. The protests often mean we are doing exactly what we must.

III.  The Destination of Salt – Note that the Lord says you are the salt of the EARTH. He did not say you the salt of the Church. For salt to be effective it has to get out of the shaker! Too many Christians are bold in the pew but cowards in the world. They will speak of the faith in the relative security of the Church and among certain friends. But don’t ask them to preach to their spouse, co-worker, even children. That’s too scary. And don’t even think to ask them to knock on doors or to go to the local mall and witness, or stand in front of an abortion clinic.

But salt in the shaker is useless. It has to come out of the shaker to make any difference. You don’t salt salt. Witnessing to fellow Christians may have a limited benefit,  but it is not really the true destination of salt. The salt has to go forth. When the priest or deacon says the Mass is ended go in peace, he might as well be holding up a salt shaker and shaking it.

It’s long past time for the salt (you and me) to go forth. Consider:

  • In the last fifty years there has been a 560% increase in violent crime. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • There are 1.7 million abortions each year in this nation.
  • Since 1970 there has been a quadrupling of divorce rates. And if the overall number of divorces has declined recently it is due more to people not getting married in the first place. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • 43% of children today are no longer living with both their biological parents. That’s a tripling in the number of children living in single-parent homes since the 70s. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • As the family breaks down what happens to our young:
    • A quadrupling in juvenile arrests,
    • 400% increase in births outside of wedlock,
    • 1 million Teenage pregnancies annually,
    • three million teenagers are treated annually for sexually transmitted diseases.
    • 200% increase in the teenage suicide rate,
    • dropping in the average SAT scores,
    • 2/3rds of high school students have experimented with illegal drugs.
    • It’s time for the salt to work.
  • In the schools you cannot pray or mention religion, but condoms are freely available and all sorts of aberrant and alternative lifestyles and philosophies are openly promoted.
  • Parental consent is required for a child to go to the zoo or get an aspirin but in many states abortion referrals are made without parental consent.
  • Our neighborhoods are devastated by poverty, injustice, crime and despair.
  • All this has happened on our watch. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • This world needs for the salt to get out of the shaker and do it’s work of seasoning, purifying, and preserving.

IV. The Designation of Pure lightYou are the light of the world.A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. – Here too, much that is similar can be said. You don’t light light. It is the darkness that needs the light. Light is meant to be seen.  But there are too many undercover Christians, secret agent saints, and hidden holy ones. Jesus didn’t light our light to have it hidden under a basket out of fear or secrecy. He wants the Church, he wants you and me,  to shine. He wants every Christian to be a light so that it’s like a city on a hill! He wants us to shine so that we can’t be hid.

V. The Details of light:  Jesus goes on to say,  Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”Notice four things about this light:

  1. The CAUSE of the Light – See that little word: “Let.”  We are to yield to Christ, to allow him to shine through us. He is the cause of our light. Let your light shine. There’s an old Gospel song that says, When you see me trying to do good, trying to live as a Christian should, It’s just Jesus, Jesus in me.
  2. The COST of the light – The light is to shine,  but there is no shining without burning. To shine costs us something. It may be Christ’s light but he shines through us. This means sacrifice. It means letting him use you. It means not always sleeping when you want to, it means not just sitting at home and saying “Ain’t it awful.”  It means getting out and getting involved. It means being “out there” and risking a few things. It means being targeted, visible,  and identified with someone (Jesus) who is hated by many. And in a world that prefers the darkness to light (cf  John 3:19-21) it means being called harsh, out of touch, hateful,  etc. There is no shining without burning.
  3. The CONCRETENESS of the light –  Letting our light shine is no mere abstract thing. Jesus speaks of deeds. It involves concrete behavior. Your light shines by the way you live, the choices you make, the behavior you exhibit. It’s when Christians get married and stay married, stay faithful to their commitments and are people of their word. It’s when we tell the truth instead of lie, live chastely instead of fornicating, are courteous, and respectful. It’s when we respect life, stop reckless driving and all other reckless and risky behavior. Our light shines when we clean up our language, give to the poor and work for justice. Our Light shines when we refuse to purchase pornographic, violent or degrading materials. Our light shines when we love instead of hate, seek reconciliation, and pray for our enemies instead of seek vengeance. Our light shines when we walk uprightly and speak the truth in love, without compromise. That’s when the light begins to shine.
  4. The CONSEQUENCE of the Light– God is glorified when our light shine. We do not act or get involved merely to satisfy our own anger, or to fight for our own sake. We are light to glorify God. It is not about our winning, it is about God shining and being glorified. Too often when we do get involved we can get confused and merely seek to win an argument, rather than glorify God. We can seek for our own priase rather than to have God glorified. We need to pray for good intentions for it is possible to do the right things for the wrong reason. The desire result is God’s glory not our glory.

OK, Pass the salt and put on the lights!

Here’s another video from Fr. Francis Martin here in DC. As he spoke, I was shoutin a few Amens and saying “Make it plain preacher!”

Hat tip to Cynthia for sending me the link to this video. Try not to tap your toe too much:

Description more than Prescription – A Meditation on the Gospel of the Beatitudes from the 4th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel passage on Beatitudes is one of the most familiar of Scripture. Yet, though familiar, these Beatitudes remain difficult to understand. This is because they are very paradoxical.  The word paradox refers to a statement that goes against the common understanding or intuition. We do not usually call the poor blessed, but rather the well off. We do not usually call those who mourn blessed or happy, rather we call joy and laughter blessed. And so forth. So the Lord is presenting us with paradox and we may struggle to grasp the truth of what he says.

It helps to explore the notion of Beatitude for a moment and then apply it to each beatitude.

  1. To begin it is critical to understand that beatitude is not something we do, but something we receive. The beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The indicative mood should be taken seriously, and not transformed into an imperative of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, start being poor or meek, then God will bless you. Rather, he is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit  and so forth we will experience that we are being blessed. Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to his saving work in us. We are blessed when we accept and yield to the work that God alone can do. With this understanding we can see the beatitudes not as a prescription of what we must do per se, but as a description of what a human being is like who is being transformed by Jesus Christ.
  2. The Greek word is makarios and translates the Hebrew ashere. The Hebrew word is really more of an expression than just a word. It is an exclamation which might well be translated O the blessedness of…. In this sense the Hebrew ashere emphasizes that something is being described more than prescribed.
  3. In ancient Greek times, makarios  (blessed) referred especially to the happiness of the gods.  They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. They lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people. In taking up this term to translate the Hebrew ashere, the New Testament teaches on the stability of beatitude, if it is from God. It is, to a large degree a stable, deep and serene beatitude not sharply affected by the vicissitudes of this world. Since the world does not give it, the world cannot take it away.  There is an old saying,  Happiness is an inside job.  Too many people seek to locate their happiness in a world that is unstable and fickle. But the Lord wants to confer on us an inner  beatitude that is deeply rooted, stable, and not easily swept away by worldly conditions. This helps explain the paradox of some of the beatitudes. Thus, one is still blessed even when poor, mourning, and persecuted. Even more, they are confirmed in their blessedness by such realities,  since these things are reminders that we are not at home in this world and that God and His kingdom are our preoccupation and the source of our true beatitude.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of God is theirs – Who are the poor in spirit? They are those who, by God’s grace, shun  anything that would deprived of the joy of being totally dependent on God. Now, all of us are dependent on God, we just don’t know it. The poor in spirit are those who delight in the experience of dependence on God.Those in the flesh strongly resist any such sense of dependence or  lack of control. As such they acquire wealth, power, and resources to create the illusion that they are in control. But they are not and ultimately their whole system will fail. It is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.

Further, control is like an addictive drug. The more we get, the more we need to feel less anxious. Our modern age illustrates this. Consider for example modern medicine through which we can control things we never could before. Fine, so now all our fears are gone right? Hmm… we have never lived so long and healthy, and yet, we have never been so anxious about our health. Worried doctors, health care professionals and pharmaceutical companies,  goaded and aided by the fear mongering media warn us of one threat after another.  Worried as never before our medicine cabinets fill will prescriptions and OTC  meds. And still we worry. Control is an illusion and an addiction all its own. Medicine is fine, but control is still an illusion and, in the end, it seems we can never have enough of it to feel “safe.”

But how blessed are those who delight to depend on God! Who realize that every beat of their heart is His gift, that everything they have is from God and belongs to God. They not only realize this, but delight in it. They are blessed because they are free of countless fears that flow from the illusion of control.

Now Matthew adds “in spirit” because it is evident that not all who are materially poor are thereby freed of the obsession with wealth, power and the need to control. To be poor is not merely a measure of what is in my wallet, but rather, what is in my heart.

However, to be sure, wealth is a very grave danger to inheriting the kingdom. And those who have it are far less likely to experience with delight their dependence on God. Rather, they will fear it. Let’s be clear, most of the saints were broke and the Son of Man, Jesus,  had nowhere to lay his head. And it makes sense that he did not for he thus had nothing to lose in terms of this world. Wealth on the other hand brings with it many fears and the strong tendency to compromise our faith. The wealthy have too much to lose and thus are filled with fears and an increasing obsession with control. This is a curse and an illusion, for the truth is the whole thing is sinking fast and no amount of temporary control is going to change that. This world is not the Kingdom, but heaven is. And how blessed are those delight to know and experience their utter poverty and dependence on God for, quite literally, everything. They already have the Kingdom by faith and that Kingdom is growing for them. The kingdom of this world however is passing away.

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted – Who are those who mourn? They are those who, delighting in the Kingdom of heaven, see the awful state of most of God’s people. They see that so many do not know God, or why they were made. They see others locked in sin and darkness, often willfully. They see still others who are victims of the sins of injustice and oppression. And they mourn, and they moan, and they pray. Indeed, this beatitude is the basis of intercessory prayer and deepening love for sinners. Because I mourn I pray for the world.

Distinction – Note then the object of this beatitude is rooted in the Kingdom of God and its values, not the passing values of this world. If my Porsche is scratched, or if the stock market is down  and I mourn, that’s not a beatitude.

But oh how blessed are those who mourn over what really matters and who pray. God will console them, strengthen them and encourage them. To mourn is this way is to be blessed. It is a grief that “hurts so good” for we know that it brings abundant blessings for the world as it intensifies our prayer and our own commitment to God and his Kingdom.

Blessed are the meek,  for they shall inherit the earth  – Anger is a very difficult passion. It can sorely vex us but is also a necessary zeal for what is right. Aristotle spoke of meekness (praotes) as the proper balance between too much anger and not enough anger. For sometimes we merely vent our anger to excess. But at other times we fail to be angry enough, and evil and injustice go unaddressed and un-resisted.  But oh how blessed are those who, by God’s grace have authority over their anger. They do not unnecessarily or excessively vent their anger. But they also have the necessary zeal and courage to stand up for what is right and express righteous indignation at sin and injustice.

The meek have authority over their anger and other passions and thus will inherit the earth. How?  Because self control conserves resources and uses them appropriately. But unrestricted passions dissipate resources and squander the gifts of God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. – Many fight God and ridicule the values of God’s kingdom. Chastity, forgiveness, and mercy are especially ridiculed today. Many hunger for anything but God,  you name it:  wealth, power, popularity, the latest fad, anything but God. But Oh how blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness and justice of God and the values of his Kingdom. God will satisfy them with the joy of living under his law and they will rejoice to see the wisdom of His ways.  They hunger for God’s word and devour it when they find it. They rejoice to see God put sin to death in them and bring about virtue. They are excited and satisfied at what God is doing in their life. They are blessed indeed.

Blessed are the Merciful for they shall obtain mercy – We live in a world that often prizes revenge and the destruction of one’s enemies. But we ought to be very careful about this for Scripture teaches that the measure that we measure to others will be measured back to us (Matt 7:2). We are also taught that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven (Matt 6:15) and that merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12). It’s just simply misguided and a bad idea to go around condemning others and throwing the book at everyone. But how blessed are those, who by God’s grace, have experienced God’s mercy and are equipped to share that mercy with others. They are able to leave most vengeance to God and, though they correct the sinner, they do not need to avenge themselves. According to God’s promise they, by showing mercy, will also experience mercy from God. They are blessed indeed.

Blessed are the Pure of Heart for they shall see God – The Greek here is really better translated as “single hearted.” It is so easy for us to be torn asunder by many contrary drives and wishes. The Book of James says that the double minded mind is unstable in all his ways! (James 1:8). But Oh how blessed are those who can say with St. Paul: this one thing I do…I press on to the prize marked out for me in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13), or to say with the psalmist: There is only one thing I ask of the Lord: to dwell in the courts of the Lord and behold his face!(Psalm 27:4). Oh how blessed to be single-hearted, to be centered on one thing, to have but one purpose, to be undivided and uncompromised. Oh how blessed!

Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God – Everyone loves peace, but only some are actually working for it. And true peace can only be based on the truth. Hence being a peacemaker is more than being a nice guy and overlooking stuff. True peacemakers announce the kingdom and bring souls to Christ. True peacemakers strive for righteousness and justice and announce its demands. How blessed are those whom God inspires with a dedication to such work. They are indeed sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the Kingdom of God.  In life we are going to suffer. It might as well be for something decent and noble. How blessed are those who, because they have loved God and his kingdom, are hated by this world. At least they share a common lot with Jesus. And they are blessed because they know that only false prophets are loved by all (Lk 6:26). There is a paradoxical serenity that comes from this sort of persecution for it is a sign that we are no longer of this world and that it has lost its hold on us and thus hates us (Jn15:19). Having forsaken this world and been hated by it, they are blessed because the Kingdom of God is theirs in abundance.

One of my mentors has been Fr. Francis Martin a great Scripture scholar, teacher at the Dominican House of Studies and many other places and author of many books and articles. He has also had a great ministry to priests over the years through the giving of retreats. Here are some reflections of his on today’s Gospel.

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

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

1. CONTEXT of Jesus Ministry – The text says,  When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.

The relocation of Jesus northward from Judea up to Galilee tells us some important truths. First, it tells us of the hostility of the southern regions to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus. The area in and around Judea which included, principally, Jerusalem was controlled by a sort of religious ruling class (the Sadducees especially, and to a lesser extent the Pharisees). Since they were in strong but often controverted leadership in these areas, they were far less open to ideas which in any way threatened their leadership or questioned the rituals related to the Temple. As we know, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but he did come to fulfill it and this was threatening to those tied to the current status quo, most of whom did not distinguish fulfillment from abolition, and saw only threat. Further, the Herodian dynasty was also threatening especially in the south and had arrested John the Baptist.

Jesus thus, moves north to more fertile territory to begin his public ministry. The Jewish people in Galilee were less hostile. In fact the people of Jerusalem often looked down upon them for their more simple, agrarian ways and “rural accent.” But here was more fertile ground for Jesus to begin.

Now there is an important lesson for us in this. While we must carefully preserve Christian orthodoxy and only accept a development of doctrine that is organic and faithful to the received Apostolic Tradition, it is also true that we can sometimes stifle the Holy Spirit who will speak to us through unexpected people and in unexpected ways. The Pharisee leaders simply rejected the notion that any prophet could come from Galilee. Whne Nicodemus encouraged them to give jesus a hearing they scoffed:  Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee (Jn 7:52).  It is possible for us to insist upon things where freedom is permitted the Christian. There are various degrees of expression permitted in the liturgy and there are often different schools of theological thought which the Church sanctions. Balance is required of us. There may be preferences that we have for Thomistic formulations, Carmelite spirituality, charismatic worship or traditional Latin Mass worship. Such things are legitimate matters for on-going discussion, but we can too easily be threatened by what the Church currently deems to be legitimate diversity. Discovering a the range and limits of diversity is an on-going matter for the Church but we ought not permit the field of our own soul to be hostile to Jesus and his ministry, which may come to us more diverse ways that we, of our self,  prefer.

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

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

For Galilee there was this boon: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (Is 9:2)  But for others, Jesus had only this to say, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. (Matt 21:43)

2. The CONTENT of his MINISTRY – The text says, From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

We have discussed before the careful balance of Jesus’ preaching. He is willing  to challenge and so say, Repent! But he also declares the good news that the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Accepting the ministry of Jesus requires that we avoid both presumption and despair.

To those who make light of sin and their condition as a sinner, Jesus says repent. It is wrong to presume that we do not need an on-going healing power from the Lord to overcome our sin. And perhaps our greatest sin is our blindness to our sin. Most human beings do not seem to comprehend how serious their condition is. The word translated here as “Repent!” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite) which means more literally to come to a new mind, or a new way of thinking. In our sin soaked world where sin is so pervasive as to almost be unnoticed, Jesus says, “Come to a new mind. Understand your condition and need for mercy and grace. Come to understand that without the rescue that only God can give, you are lost.” And hence we are told to reject presumption.

But we are also told to reject despair, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, the grace and mercy of God are now available to rescue us from this present evil age and from our carnal condition. Through Christ we are granted admittance to the Kingdom and the Spirit of God can overcome our carnal, sin nature and bring us true holiness.

The proper mean between presumption and despair is the theological virtue of Hope. By hope we confidently expect God’s help in attaining eternal life. By proper metanoia (repentance) we know that we need that help, and by hope confidently reach for it.

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

3. The CALL of his Ministry The text says,  As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

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

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

B. His APPEAL – Jesus must have had a personal appeal and exuded an authority that was strong and reassuring. His appeal to them was personal: come follow ME. He did not merely say come and “learn my doctrine,” or “accept my vision.” He said, follow ME. So too, as we hand on the faith to our children and to others, we cannot simply say, here is a Catechism follow it. We must also take the next step and say follow the Lord with me. We cannot simply say what a book says, correct though that book is. Ultimately we must be able to say, I am a personal witness to the fact that God is real and that the truth he has given to the Church is authentic and is changing my life. Our appeal must include the personal testimony that what we proclaim is real and is changing our life: COme and go with me to my Father’s house.

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

  • Patient – Fishermen often wait long hours for the fish to bite. So too as Apostles and Bishops there must be a patience, a capacity to wait long periods before there is a catch for the Lord.
  • Perceptive – Fishermen learn to know the fish and their behavior and what attracts them. So too Apostles and clergy must learn of their people and what will attract them to Christ.
  • Persevering – Fishermen must often go out for many days with little catch. Only through perseverance is there real gain in fishing. So too with the Work of the clergy who may go long stretches with little to show. The gospel may go “out of season” even for decades in certain cultures (like our own). The good leader will persevere, will stay at the task.

3.  The COMPREHENSIVENESS of his Ministry – The text says, He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Therefore note that all of Galilee was his mission field and he covered it comprehensively. He also cured of every disease and illness. And thus the Church is catholic and must also address every part of the world and provide a comprehensive vision for life. We may not have the power to simplistically cure every ailment and problem, but we can provide the vision of the Paschal mystery that sheds light and brings spiritual healing to every affliction. If we are suffering and dying, so to did Jesus but only to rise and be glorified on account of his fidelity and obedience. So too for the Church and for the Christian, the grace and the comprehensive answer to every affliction is that we are always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Christ so that the rising of Christ may also be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10). We seek to bring healing to everyone we can, and where physical remedies are not possible, the truth of the Gospel reassures that every Friday, faithfully endured, brings forth, by God’s grace an Easter Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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