Ash Wednesday (February 14th, 2018)

This year, on February 14th, the celebration of a saint of popular interest and devotion and the beginning of Lent coincide. February 14th is the occasion (since 469 AD) for the commemoration of the martyr, Saint Valentine and it is also Ash Wednesday.

The Festal Day of Saint Valentine has not, since 1969, been part of the Universal Calendar of the Church (a calendar that assigns particular days in the course of year to honor the witness of the saints). This does not mean, as some continue to insist, that the Church has declared that Saint Valentine did not exist, but instead it means that the commemoration of the saint is not obligatory for the whole Church, but can happen locally on February 14th. In terms of his existence, Saint Valentine remains enrolled in the Roman Martyrology (which is an official list of saints recognized by the Church for liturgical celebrations and promoted for popular devotion). The historicity of the saint may be questioned, and the specific details of his life may be lost, but the Church continues to mark his martyrdom as worth honoring.

In terms of Saint Valentine himself, it has been hard to determine which saint bearing the name Valentine is the martyr being commemorated on February 14th (other than the martyr Valentine, there are at least a dozen saints with this name). There are three likely candidates for the February 14th designation- one a priest, the other a bishop, the other is a martyr, who the specific details of his life have disappeared into the past. The medieval text entitled the Legend Aurea (or the Golden Legend) has a priest by the name of Valentine killed by the Roman emperor Claudius the Goth in 269 AD. The story is that Valentine had the audacity to try to convince the emperor to accept the Christian faith and paid for this attempt with his life. It is a later text, the Nuremburg Chronicle, from 1493, that provides the detail that the priest Valentine was killed for marrying Christian couples when forbidden to do so by an imperial edict (ours is not the only era where marriage is a point of political tension, or where insistence on the Christian understanding of marriage is controversial).

It is the story of the priest Valentine, uniting Christian couples in holy matrimony that is likely where the association of the festival day with romantic gestures originates. Though some trace the practice of sending notes to one’s beloved on Saint Valentine’s Day with a miracle associated with the saint, his restoration of the sight of a blind girl, who is graced with a note from the saint on the day of his execution. Other scholars note the proximity of Saint Valentine’s Day with the pagan feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th. Pope Gelasius established the commemoration of Saint Valentine in the year 469 AD and it is surmised that he was offering a Christian alternative to the sybaritic and sexualized displays of Lupercalia, romantic, marital love sanctified by the Church rather than unrestrained desires running amok in the streets. It seems that if this is actually the case, Pope Gelasius’ calculated decision actually worked, though Lupercalia has of late made its own kind of resurgence in the popular culture.

Ash Wednesday commemorates the beginning of the Church’s Lenten observance. Lent is a season of the Church’s year during which the faithful are to prepare themselves to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, mysteries which recount through acts of worship and prayerful devotion the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Preparation for Holy Week during Lent is threefold- prayer, fasting and almsgiving and to commemorate the beginning of these observances, the faithful receive ashes. In the United States the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross, creating one of the few moments in American public life when one’s identity as a Catholic is visibly displayed. In other parts of the world the ashes are sprinkled on the top of the head (which is a far gentler reminder, I suppose, than having the ashes thrown in one’s face).

The coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday has resulted in several dioceses publicizing directives that are intended to remind the faithful that the observances of Ash Wednesday take priority over the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day. This would not likely not be necessary should the date of Ash Wednesday coincide with most any other saint. Why? Few saints have the resonance in the popular culture that St. Valentine does. Customs that promote feasting and reverie continue to be celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th is a day reserved by the culture to celebrate romantic love and affection. These gestures are usually expressed through gifts or celebratory meals. The actual relationship of these customs to the martyr Valentine are lost for most, but he is one of the few remaining saints whose feast day still has some cultural traction. It is for this reason that there is the concern that the preference for the customs of St. Valentine’s Day might supplant the penitential character of Ash Wednesday. It is believed, that most would prefer a party and a box of chocolates to a penitential sermon and forehead full of ashes. We will know on St. Valentine’s Day, I mean Ash Wednesday, which preference prevails.

While the cultural celebration of Valentine’s Day seems contrary to the practices of Ash Wednesday, the commemoration of the witness of the martyr Valentine remains in sync with the beginning of Lent. A martyr gives witness to his faith in Christ through an act of self-sacrifice, that is, an act of love. Love is not, contrary to the many of the pretenses of the popular celebration of Valentine’s day, reducible to romantic affection. Instead, love which is authentic and true, always demands a sacrifice, the gift of one’s very life for the sake of one’s beloved. This is what is supposed to happen in Christian marriage, indeed in every Christian vocation, and it is what the martyr displays par excellence in their willingness to suffer and die rather than to deny or repudiate their love for Christ.

The practices of Lent, though low key in their sacrifice, have the same intentionality, they are sacrifices intended as expressions of love for Christ and appreciations for his own self-sacrifice for our sake. A martyr does not need the practices of Lent to prepare them to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, for in their suffering and death they embody these mysteries in their flesh and blood. Making up in their own bodies for what lacked in the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul testified, the martyr reveals that Christ’s Body in the world, his mystical body in his Church, continues the revelation of the Incarnation itself. This witness is in sacrifice and in suffering.

This Incarnation of God in Christ does not merely manifest God’s glory in heaven, but such radiance is still on earth embodied in the glory of the Suffering Servant, who because there is no love in this world without sacrifice, revealed the extent of his love for his creation in the sacrifice of the cross. The martyr recapitulates this sacrifice and this love, revealing that God’s glory in his Church is manifested in the willingness of Christians to accept, that for the sake of their love for Christ, they are willing to become like him, suffering servants, for the sake of the world.  It is in this way that the witness of the martyr Saint Valentine and the commemoration of Ash Wednesday will always coincide.

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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 28th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy means “second law”, which is a way of saying that it is a second of two law books, the other being the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Deuteronomy presents the content and promulgation of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses is more than just a collection of rules, it is a description of a culture, a unique way of life, through which the Israelites displayed to one another and to the world their relationship with God. The Law of Moses as a unique way of life made the Israelites a visible sign of God’s presence in the world.

Moses was, of course, the great savior of the Israelite people, having acted as God’s instrument to free his people from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians. However, once freed from this bondage, the Israelites needed a way to be a people, they needed an identity and a mission, and this is what the Law of Moses gave to them.

The liberation of the Israelites from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians is described in the Old Testament Book of Exodus and in this book God declares war on the gods of the Egyptians and in terrifying displays of his power, he defeats them. These displays of power are truly frightening and impressed upon the Israelites that God was not to be provoked and his direct intervention in their lives was not be necessity something to look forward to.

Thus, in today’s scripture, the Israelites insist that they desire that God’s power and presence would be mediated for them, that someone would stand between them and the Lord and this someone would make his will known.

Moses then announces that this is precisely how God will act. The Lord will call forth prophets, like Moses, and through these prophets, he will speak. Great and lofty will be the mission of a prophet, but lest the unworthy grasp at this vocation, great and terrifying will be the judgment that falls on false prophets.

This scripture from Deuteronomy helps us to understand the significance of prophets in the Bible. Prophets are not mere predictors of the future, but they are mediators between God and his people, communicators of his will.

The biblical prophets remind the people who God is and what God wants.

But this scripture also indicates how God desires to act in our own lives and in the world- through secondary causes rather than directly. In this way God can meet us in the midst of the events and circumstances of our lives, making his presence known in what is apparently ordinary. Remember, the one, true God is not an idea or a feeling or a cosmic force, but a living, divine person, who seeks a relationship with us, and who chooses those ways in which we relate to the world and to one another as the means of making himself known.

This preference by God, to meet us in the events and circumstances of our lives, reaches its great culmination in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God, who in his desire to share his life with us, accepts a human nature as his own and lives a real, human life. The mediation of God’s will, his presence, his power in the prophets prepares us to receive God’s will, presence and power in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament God speaks his will through the voices of the prophets. In the New Testament God speaks his will through the human voice of Christ the Lord.

Listening to Christ we listen to God.

St. Paul speaks to us through his first Letter to the Corinthians and his words express a message that is as off putting and counter cultural today as it was two thousand years ago.

His words are for Christians, for the Church and in them he expresses that his preference is that Christians choose celibacy as an expression of their fidelity to Christ and availability for the Church’s mission.

Family life produces enough demands on the Christian and the person who accepts celibacy will be able to accept different responsibilities and dedicate themselves to important aspects of the Church’s mission that the responsibilities of a family would inhibit.

Paul insists that the commitment to celibacy should not be imposed, but that it should be freely chosen and Christians should consider as whether or not they have been chosen by God to remain unmarried so as to give a unique witness to Christ and make themselves available in extraordinary ways for the mission of the Church.

What St. Paul is saying is, as I said, no less off putting and counter cultural today as when he said it centuries ago. Remaining unmarried for the sake of Christ and the Church seems to many Christians to be so radical and extreme that it is unintelligible and perceived to be dangerous. Celibates are caricatured as sad losers or hiding some kind of pathology. For other Christians, it is merely a quaint archaism, a hold-over from another time that the Church would be well rid of, its endurance in the Church today inhibits the modernization of the Church and makes it difficult to take care of pragmatic concerns.

And yet, for centuries, it has been the willingness of men and women to choose a celibate life for the sake of Christ and the Church that has moved the Church’s mission forward and often times, take the Gospel into places that most others would not prefer to go.

Finally, in his Gospel Christ the Lord confronts the dark powers in of all places, a holy place, a place of prayer and worship, a synagogue.

Christ is not simply opposed by worldly powers, but by darker and more malevolent forces that have sought to subvert God’s plans from even before the world was created. The Gospels present Christ as actively engaged in defying these dark powers and liberating humanity from their influence. As it was then, so it is now.

The dark powers know that with the revelation of Christ in the world, their domination and influence is threatened, indeed, that it is coming to an end, and since they have been rendered powerless to harm him, they strike out against what Christ loves. Christ will protect us, but we must let him, inviting his power and presence into our lives, into our minds, into our hearts, and letting him defend us.

But what the dark powers fear most from Christ, and therefore from the Church, is the manner in which he teaches- with authority, with the truth- and not merely some worldly opinion elevated to truth, but with God’s truth- God’s word about who we are, what he wants and what will lead to human flourishing. This is the truth that Christ speaks with authority and it is the truth that Christ gives to his Church to speak on his behalf.

The dark powers prefer that the Church would contain the power of Christ’s truth, reducing it to clichés or dumbing it down and making it insipid. The dark powers would prefer that the Church would not speak with authority, but would instead reduce the truth to an idea and a feeling, a mere opinion, that has little power to change one’s life and even less power to redeem and save.

Christ will have none of this and we should have none of it too!

There is another lesson in this Gospel- one even harder to take and more frightening.

Sometimes, opposition to Christ comes, not from outside the Church but from within, from our own no to Christ, our own refusals to love and to serve. We must never forget that in each of us there lurks the potential to refuse Christ, even betray him. In this case, the dark power that opposes him is not a power outside of us, but within us. The enemy is not a demon, the enemy is ourselves.

It is our own refusals of Christ that subvert the Church more than anything else. It is our own resistance to Christ’s authority that deprives the Church of the energy needed for our mission.

Let us not forget that Christ comes into our lives to protect us from dark powers, but also, and perhaps more importantly, he comes to liberate us from our own refusals and resistance to his presence and his power.

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Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 21st, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jonah.

We only heard a small fragment of the Book of Jonah and so were deprived of much of the joy of hearing the story of the Prophet Jonah in its entirety.

The prophet Jonah is called by the Lord God to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh the significance of which is lost if one doesn’t know the historical context of the story.

The city of Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, located in what is today known as Iraq. The Assyrians were the mortal enemies of the Israelites, having invaded and conquered the northern territories of the once mighty Kingdom of David. The inhabitants of these territories were 10 of the ancient 12 tribes of the Israelites, and as a result of the Assyrian invasion, these 10 tribes would disappear from history. Think about what a catastrophe this must have been like for the Israelites- to have so many of members of their nation deported, enslaved, killed and finally, disappear.

If the Israelites despised the Assyrians they had good reason.

Jonah is an Israelite and God wants him to go to the capital city of the Assyrian empire and preach repentance so as to save the people there from God’s wrath.

The great drama of the Book of Jonah is that the Israelite prophet doesn’t want to do what God is asking him to do. He would prefer that Nineveh and the Assyrians were destroyed. But despite the creative ways Jonah resists, God has his way and Jonah preaches repentance, and barely utters a word of warning and he becomes the most successful prophet in Israelite history- the Assyrians repent and the city of Nineveh is spared destruction.

The lesson here is not an easy one, especially if one has been wronged by someone and expects that what we would prefer to happen to that person is also what God also wants.

When we have been hurt by someone, as the Israelites had been hurt by the Assyrians, our desire for justice is often such, that what we want most is for that person to experience at the very least, the pain they have inflicted on us. Wickedness should be punished and the wicked should know wrath. God setting things right means him bring to bear on wrong doers a terrifying justice- this is what we expect.

But the Book of Jonah offers us God’s perspective on matters of justice and articulates that his preference is that sinners repent, and by repenting be saved, rather than destroyed. The lesson might strike someone who has never really been hurt as comforting and edifying. But if you have been hurt, you might find yourself as perplexed as Jonah that God is willing to be so generous- even to those who have done terrible things.

The ultimate expression of God’s willingness to forgive is revealed in the cross of the Lord Jesus. In the terror of the cross, humanity proves itself capable of torturing and killing God and God in response, would have been justified at bearing down upon us with the full force of his wrath, and yet, surprisingly, mysteriously, that is not what God does- but instead he transforms the very means we used to torture and kill him into the means of reconciling us to him.

Most of us have our own ideas about how God should set a world gone wrong, right, and the lesson of the Book of Jonah is that God has ideas of his own.

The Apostle Paul has his own warning for us in our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament First Letter to the Corinthians. His warning is about becoming unduly attached to worldly things and realities, even good and important things and realities. Why? Because this world is passing away and ourselves along with it. We can appreciate what is worldly, even love it. But worldly realities can only suggest to us what is eternal, and we should never elevate what is worldly to our ultimate concern or give to it an honor and attention that should only properly belong to God.

To do so is to make idols, false gods and the great temptation and capital sin of the Bible is to do precisely this. We may take comfort in our idols, convince ourselves that their false promises are true, but in the end, our idols are swept away along with us- they cannot endure the test of time nor grant us access to eternity. Only the one true God can do so, only he can restore what we believe to be lost and bring life out of death. This is what God has accomplished in Christ, and he has revealed Christ to us so that we might believe and understand that beyond this world is a world for us that is without end, and this world without end is the one that really and truly matters, and what we have in the here and now is not an end in itself, but a means to bring us to eternity.

Finally, Christ’s Gospel connects our first and second reading, demonstrating that the two texts are preparing us to receive Christ’s revelation.

Note that the first words of Christ’s public mission are a call for our repentance, reminding us that we are all, each of us, sinners and in need of a Savior, in need of forgiveness.

Christ comes into the world, into our lives, as Jonah came to Nineveh, insisting that we repent. The difference between the two being that Jonah was reluctant, and Christ is zealous to set us right. He wants to forgive us, for what we have done, for what we have failed to do, and our willingness to repent will indicate that we want the forgiveness that he wants to give. Repentance is receptivity to the grace Christ offers to us.

It is not an easy thing to repent because we are proud and to repent means admitting that we have been wrong or that we are lacking. But no one truly receives the Gospel who has not first repented. Yes, we might hear the words, even know the great doctrines and dogmas of the Church, even appear to the world to be virtuous and righteous, but we will not be in a position to receive the Gospel, the revelation of Christ, unless we first repent.

Also in this Gospel, Christ summons the first of his disciples, the men who will become for him his apostles and the progenitors of the new tribes of his Church.

Once summoned, the do for Christ what the apostle Paul would later insist that we all one day must do- take leave of worldly things and realities.

So extreme is the detachment of these first disciples that they even leave behind, for the sake of following Christ, the means of their livelihood and even their families.

It would be this radical response to Christ’s summons that would become the condition for the possibility for the flourishing of the Church in every age of her long life. You see, the Church is not sustained and does not grow from bureaucracies, offices, procedural handbooks, personnel departments, corporate centers, property management or employees. It is not institutions that sustain and grow the Church, for institutions do not give life, they merely, at their best, house the life-giving activities of the Church.

The Church is sustained and grows from the commitment of men and women who are willing to make the commitment of the first disciples their own- to leave all things for the sake of Christ, to give their lives over to him with the same totality that Christ gives his life to us.

If you sense a kind of stasis, a neuralgia, depriving the Church of the vital energies needed for its mission. If you perceive in the Church an absence of generativity and life, ask yourself and try to identify where are those men and women who embody in their way of life the commitment of the first disciples- forsaking all for themselves so that Christ might sustain and grow his Church from the gift of their lives. Where are disciples such as these- because it is from them, and only from them, that the Church can flourish and grow.

 

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Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (January 14th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the First Book of Samuel, one of the historical books of the Bible.  This means that the emphasis of this book is on people and places, events and circumstances that were significant to the Israelites.  Memory of these things gave the Israelites a sense of identity and purpose and helped them, most importantly, to understand their relationship with God.

Remember, the God of the Israelites, the God of the Bible, our God, is not a concept or a feeling or some kind of cosmic force.  The God of the Israelites is a living, divine person, who seeks to be known and acts in history, in the events and circumstances of our lives.

The story of Samuel is about Samuel, but more importantly, it is about God, and how he acted at a time of great crisis.  The Israelites were at the time of Samuel’s youth governed by judges and priests who had been corrupted by worldliness and were using their offices, not to serve the needs of the people whom they governed, but for their own self-aggrandizement and material advantage. Further the disparate tribes of the Israelites were in a constant state of conflict, leaving the people vulnerable to their enemies and threatened with the loss of their homeland.  And finally, the Israelites were tempted by the customs and beliefs of their pagan neighbors with their false gods.  The promises of these false gods to give the people wealth, pleasure, power and honors challenged Israelite faith in the one, true God.

What God does in response to this situation is to raise up a man named Samuel as his servant, and it is Samuel who will be charged with the mission of bringing order out of the chaos and through his efforts, assuring the survival of the Israelites as a people.

The excerpt from the First Book of Samuel that you heard this morning concerns the quickening of Samuel’s mission.  Young Samuel, whose parents had dedicated him to God’s service when he was but a toddler, experiences an uncanny call, a divine summons, to which Samuel finally responds that he is ready, waiting and listening for God’s instructions, and what God asks of him- Samuel will do.

And the Book of Samuel will tell us precisely what God has Samuel do!

What is the perhaps the meaning of this scripture for us?

Here’s a way of thinking about it.

We live in a culture of self-invention and self-actualization.  We are convinced that we can create not only our own destiny, but impose upon ourselves, on others, on the universe, even on God, the meaning and purpose of our lives- such is our belief in the power of our own will, our own power to invent and actualize ourselves.

This is our vision of what accomplishes human flourishing- the sovereignty of the self and our will to invent our own identity and mission.

It is not a biblical vision.  The story of Samuel’s call is a singular example of the biblical vision of life and human flourishing, how we come to know who we are and what we are to do- a vision that is not self directed or self invented, but God directed and God created.

Samuel finds himself, who he really is, what he is to do, when he listens to what God wants and gives himself over to the mission he gives God gives to him.

This vision is not an archaism from a biblical past, but it is the Christian vision of life and Christian vision of what leads to human flourishing, listening, as Samuel did, to what God wants and then doing what God wants us to do.

That’s the lesson for us.

The great Apostle Paul reminds us that our body is not insignificant in terms of our relationship with God.  Our body matters to our spiritual life.

How we treat our bodies and the bodies of other people has soul impact and influences, not just our lives in the here and now, but is a matter of eternal consequence.  God cares deeply about our bodies and what we are doing with them.  In fact, God cares enough about our bodies to accept a human body as his own, and in communion with that human body, living like us a real, human life.  For this is what God does in Christ.

Why do bodies matter?

Here is an insight from the great Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas taught that the body and soul, bodies and souls do not exist in a dualistic or antagonistic relationship.  Nor, is your soul in your body, like milk in a bottle.  Instead, the soul, your soul contains your body.  So, what the soul and body are, what they represent, is the totality of who we are in relationship to God.  If you are in a relationship with God you do not get to choose which aspects of your life will be part of that relationship.  Instead, God relates to the totality of who you are and this means your mind, your will, your emotions, your soul and yes, your body.

If your body is so significant to God’s plan and purpose that he accepts a human body in Christ as his own, and meets you in that body, establishes a relationship with you in Christ’s body, then we must know and believe as Christians that our bodies matter and it is through our bodies that we will work out our salvation.

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus is acclaimed by the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God.  What does this mean?

It does not mean that Christ is gentle and meek like a lamb.  It means that Christ’s mission will be to make of his life a sacrifice, a sacrifice that will bring God and humanity together.

That’s his mission- to offer his life as a sacrifice so that God and humanity might be in relationship with one another.

And that is what we receive in the Blessed Sacrament- his sacrifice, his offering of his life, so that through his offering, through his life, we might have a relationship with God.  That’s what the Blessed Sacrament is- it is a relationship with God.

And that’s why the Blessed Sacrament is important.  That is why the Blessed Sacrament matters.  And it is for sake of receiving and adoring the Lamb of God, the sacrifice, the Blessed Sacrament that we are here.

The Mass has become distorted in its meaning for so many in the Church.  Some perceive it to be irrelevant.  Others, in a mistaken and misguided attempt to restore its relevancy, make of it a cultural jamboree or a form of faith based entertainment.  But these are just corruptions of the meaning and purpose of the Mass.

What the Mass is, is the privileged moment that you see and receive what John the Baptist saw and received- God, who in Jesus Christ, becomes for you, and for the world, the Lamb of God.

The Epiphany of the Lord (January 7th, 2018)

Today the Church celebrates the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus.

By Epiphany is meant a “revelation”, as such today the Church celebrates a revelation of Christ and what precisely this revelation is is extraordinary and quite frankly, upsetting.

The day of the Epiphany is associated with the visit of the Magi to the Holy Child of Bethlehem, an event that is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (the Gospel for today).

The Magi are usually depicted as 3 kings, but they are not identified in the Gospel of Matthew as territorial sovereigns or rulers of nations and the Gospel of Matthew gives us no specific number as to how many Magi sought the Christ child. Further, the Gospel of Matthew describes visitors from the East by the word “Magi” (a word from which our word “magician” comes from). It would not be a stretch to say that the Magi would have been perceived to be sorcerers or wizards, men possessing esoteric knowledge and even supernatural power, a combination of astrologers and alchemists.

We know from the Gospel that the Magi who sought the Holy Child of Bethlehem were well versed in the movements of the stars and they interpreted astral phenomena as indicative of communications from the gods. In the Gospel, the Magi discern that the appearance of a star portends the birth of a king in the lands of Judea. The Magi travel from the East, likely from either Persia or Mesopotamia (lands we know today as Iran and Iraq) to Jerusalem, inquiring of King Herod, the King of the Israelite territory, as to whether there has been in his household a royal birth. This sets the stage for the drama which will follow.

The Magi hearing that no child has been born of Herod’s household are told of an ancient prophecy of the Israelite king who would be born in Bethlehem. Herod then asks them to make inquiries and return to him with information. The star leads them to the location of the Holy Child, whom they offer homage and gifts befitting royalty. The Magi, aware that Herod means to do harm to the Holy Child, return to their home in the East.

It’s one of the most memorable of all the stories in the Gospels, indeed in all the Scriptures.

But what does it mean? I mean the “epiphany” or “revelation” that the Church commemorates today is not that a well-crafted and memorable story about the adventures of Persian sorcerers, but a revelation of the Lord Jesus- so what is the revelation?

The revelation is discerned in the relationship of two kings in the story, not the three kings of the popular imagination- but the two kings are Herod and Jesus.

Herod the King, also known as Herod the Great was King of Judea from the year 36 BC until his death in 4 AD. He was by the worldly standards of the ancient world’s most successful rulers. During his reign he negotiated a settlement with the Roman Empire which enabled him as ruler to keep the Israelite territory for the most part self-governed, rather than under direct imperial control. He revitalized the economy of Judea through massive public works projects which so dazzled the emperor of Rome that he remarked that Herod had made Judea one of the great jewels of his empire. He extended the territory of the Israelites so that it encompassed the borders that had defined the ancient kingdom of David and he rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem on such a scale that it was known as one of the wonders of the ancient world.

And he was a brutal tyrant, a murderer, which was actually a necessary criteria for effective governance in the ancient world. His brutality was such that Augustus Caesar, himself not lightweight when it came to brutality, once commented that he would rather be Herod’s dog than Herod’s son. Herod brokered no opposition and had even his own children killed when it seemed that they were plotting against him.

As I said, Herod’s cruelty, his brutality, would not have been at all unusual. It was an acceptable political tactic and it was masterfully employed by Herod to his benefit and as a result of the effectiveness of his governance, there was prosperity and wealth for many in the lands of the Israelites. And he was also a master propagandist.

His great accomplishments were all calculated to present his very shaky claims to Israelite kingship as having divine approval. Herod was really a propped-up figure, who ruled because he had the backing of the Roman Empire, so he needed something more to maintain his power- and his scheme was to present himself as the promised Messiah- the savior of Biblical prophecy.

One by one, he did all the things that the promised Messiah was expected to do- the crowning achievement of which was the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Herod and his dynasty were not just successful, they were the promised kingdom of God- they were the new kingdom of David, not just restored but surpassed.

This is the man to whom the Magi make their inquiry about a new king born in the lands of Judea. Herod, hearing this news, would have been thinking treason, the undoing of his schemes. The last thing he needed was news spreading of a child born in Bethlehem, King David’s city, under the light of a star, a child who was King David’s true heir and the legitimate king of the Israelites. Herod likely clenched his fists tightly knowing that his power could slip out of his hands.

And it was literally slipping from his grasp.

Thus, his scheme to find the child and his fury when he realizes that the Magi had not cooperated with his plan.

The Holy Child in Bethlehem was truly the rightful king and David’s royal heir, but more than this, the Holy Child of Bethlehem is the King of creation itself- for he is God, who has in Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real human life.

His kingship will not be maintained by force of violence, but by love and he will not manifest his power by murder and threats of death but by giving his life so as to conquer the power of death itself.

This is the king that Herod fears, because it is the king that brings the world that men and women created out of the sinful desires and egoism to its end. Herod, and his successors hate King Jesus because he exposes their alleged successes as failures and their accomplishments as foolish tragedies.

The point of this story and its lesson, and its revelation, is that we have to choose our king- is it Herod or the Lord Jesus?

You may think that this choice is self-evident and easy, but think again.

The dark power of Herod lurks in the world to this very day- in all our politics, all our economics, all our worldly preoccupations with wealth, pleasure, power and honors and our desire to attain these things. Herod manifests himself in our preoccupations with politicians, financiers, and celebrities. And Herod echoes in each of our hearts when a decision for Christ is expected of us and our answer is no.

The Herods of the world offer us promises of success, prosperity, comfort and security and will deliver enough of these to us to give legitimacy to their scheming and distract us from their cruelty.

This is why they want to remain in the dark, rather than pay homage to Christ under the light of his star.

If we choose God in Christ as our King, then we join him in his opposition to the power of all the Herods in the world. We will not cooperate with their schemes and we work with Christ to undermine their power and seek with Christ to remake the world. We also learn how to distinguish the true Kingdom of God from its facsimile because we know who the true Messiah, the real Savior of the world truly is.

Like the Magi we will refuse to cooperate and like the Holy Family, we accept that we will suffer. But it is better to suffer ourselves in this world in opposition to Herod than it is to prosper in this world and make others suffer.

So, the great revelation, the great Epiphany of God in Christ is that the true King has come and now, in the light of this revelation, each and every one of us has to make a decision- in the choice between Herod and Jesus, who is our king?

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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (December 31st, 2017)

Today the Church celebrates the Holy Family- the relationship of the Lord Jesus to his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary and her spouse, Saint Joseph.

It is my perception, that as a general rule, the emphasis of preachers in regards to today’s celebration is moral- how the faithful can enhance their own relationship with Christ and the members of their own families by imitating the virtues of the Holy Family. Be obedient as the Christ Child is obedient. Be humble as Christ’s Mother is humble. Be stalwart and just as Saint Joseph is stalwart and just.

All this is true. In terms of the virtues of family life, Christ’s family serves as a model and guide. Imitating their virtues, aspiring to be Christ-like or Mary-like or Joseph-like would go a long way in helping families to thrive in their relationships with one another.

However, as important as the moral lessons of the Holy Family are, it is not the moral lesson that is of primary significance for discerning the meaning of today’s celebration.

Instead, the meaning of today’s celebration is discerned through the great revelation of Christmas- the revelation of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

The Incarnation of God in Christ is the stunning fact that God has, in Jesus Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. God in Christ’s acceptance of a human nature was so total and complete that he experienced for himself the limits of a physical body- even to the point that he accepted the experience of suffering and death. God in Christ immersed himself in ordinary course of growth and development that make all of us human- God gestated for nine months in the womb of his mother. God was born into the world as a baby. God accepted the dependency and vulnerability of having to be cared for by others. God immersed himself in the process of learning how to do the practical tasks of daily living. God grew from infancy, through childhood and adolescence, and faced for himself all the challenges of coming to maturity as an adult.

God became human in Christ.

This descent into our humanity is his gift for us and imparted to our humanity a dignity that we could never give to ourselves. Through his Incarnation, God met us face to face in what is raw and real for us- he met us face to face.

This astounding fact has a tendency to get lost in the culture’s annual celebration of Christmas, which has become over time more and more a winter festival, than a distinct and unique expression of the Church’s profession of faith. The customs of Christmas are cherished and honored, even adopted and adapted and appreciated by those who do not profess or practice the Church’s faith, but the substantial reason for all the fuss is no longer at the forefront of what we are doing. And when Christ is mentioned, it is often to done so to cite him as a great man of history, a person of influence whose main contribution was to provide a life to be imitated and to impart moral values toward which we should aspire.

None of this is wrong or evil, but it is incomplete, because it misses the point of who the Lord Jesus reveals himself to be- God, the one, true God, who has remarkably and unexpectedly, accepted for himself a human nature and lived, like us, a real, human life.

And lest we get caught up in flights of fancy about the human life that God in Christ lived, that somehow because he is God that is must have been easier for him that it is for us, consider carefully how those who knew him personally described his life- the manner of his conception which would have exposed his mother to accusations of madness and promiscuity; his birth in straw poverty; the degrading burden of living in a region of the world that was governed by cruel tyrants and subject to invasion at any moment; and do not forget the manner in which he suffered and died- tortured and killed by the very people that he called his own, abandoned by his friends, and bereft of any consolation, even experiencing for himself what it feels like to be abandoned by God.

Sure, there were mysteries of his experience of human life that were joyful and glorious, luminous with his divinity, (it wasn’t all a pain-filled slough through suffering) but his divine identity did not make things easy, but more complicated and difficult. He is truly, as the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews testifies- like us in ALL things but sin.

And being like us in all things means that God in Christ was born into the world at particular time and in a particular place and accepted as his own a particular family.

The family he experienced in its immediacy, is his Holy Mother, Mary and her husband, Joseph. Mary accepted becoming Christ’s Mother knowing it would make her life difficult, not easy. Joseph accepted the Christ Child as his own son, even though he knew that he was not. Mary and Joseph reared the Christ Child in accord with the customs of their Israelite culture, making sure he knew himself not just as their child, but as a Child of Abraham, and as a member of a people with an extraordinary mission in the world- which was serve as a living witness to the Law of the one, true God.

And it is also true that the family of the Lord Jesus, God’s family, extended into a vast network of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and from there the bonds of kinship worked their way through the whole culture- God’s family, in Christ, was literally the family of Israel, which is why two of our great Gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin, not with stories about the Lord Jesus or lists of his teachings, but with genealogies, that is, family histories, that show us God in Christ’s family’s relationship to the family of Israel- and through Israel, to the family of humanity.

All this is meant to demonstrate that the revelation of God in Christ in the world is not just a myth and that Christ is not just a legendary figure whom we value so much that we make a god out of him. No. Instead, God revealed himself in Jesus Christ in reality, a reality so concrete, that we can point to his place in a specific family, in a specific culture, in a specific time. All this is meant to say that God has in Jesus Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real human life.

Today is first and foremost about what God has done in Christ- to himself.

Now, because humans are practical minded, the realization and acceptance of what God has done in Christ provokes us to think about what we have to do about it. If I accept God has done something as extraordinary as living a human life like my own, what should I be doing as a result?

This is where the call from preachers to imitate the virtues of the Holy Family comes from, and as I said, such an invitation is a good thing. We lose the point however, if moral imitation is all we get out of this extraordinary revelation.

God became human in Christ, he accepted a human nature and lived a real human life, so that the human nature he accepted and the human life that he lived, could become for us an invitation to know him, to love him, to serve him and to become his friends.

An invitation to a personal relationship, to friendship with God in Christ, is what the Incarnation is about. God didn’t want our relationship with him to be superficial, or based solely on culture, or even on kinship, he offers himself to us through Christ a way to become his friends.

As such, the challenge to today’s celebration of the Holy Family, is whether or not friendship with God in Christ is what we have accepted or is even something that we want.

Friends want to be with one another, and they want to know one another. Friends want to share their lives with one another.

This is what God offers to us. But is it what we have accepted from him?

How well do we know God in Christ? If we met him face to face (which one day we all will) would we even recognize him? Is Jesus Christ merely a distant, historical figure whose teachings we basically agree with? Or is he truly and really a living, divine presence in our lives? Is our relationship with Christ personal or is it merely a cultural expectation? Have to come here to today because you want to know Christ and be with him, or has your presence here become merely a habit, something forced out of custom or obligation? If someone asked you who Jesus Christ is for you, whom or what would you describe- someone whom you know as a friend, or merely an idea or a feeling? Would you speak about those truths that Christ himself gives you in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments or in the lives of the Saints, or would you contrive something from opinions that you heard about from CNN or FOX news or that you cobbled together from a “world religions” lecture you heard long ago?

You see, the challenge for today’s celebration of the Holy Family goes further than the imitation of virtue. The challenge for today’s celebration is to consider how God in Christ relates to you and how you relate to him.

God in Christ relates to you Divine Person to Human Person, Body and Blood and Face to Face. God in Christ wants to relate himself to you friend to friend.

The challenge for today’s celebration is to ask yourself whether or not the relationship you have to God in Christ can even be vaguely described as something like being his friend.

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The Nativity of the Lord (December 25th, 2017 0

The Church’s Gospel proclamation from the Gospel of John for the Mass of Christmas Day comes as a surprise to many.

There is, in this Gospel, no reference to the Holy Child laid in a manger or to the Virgin Mother or to Joseph her husband. There is no mention of a crowded inn or angels or shepherds or a star. Instead, we hear a poem or what sounds like the text to a hymn that speaks of Christ as the Word and that this Word became flesh and as such was his glory as God revealed- in the flesh.

Those seemingly cryptic references to Christ, far less accessible to us than the story of the Holy Child laid in a manger, lulled to sleep by the angels, worshipped by shepherds and kings, and bathed in the radiant light of a star, but they tell us the same truth, refer to the same revelation.

This truth, this revelation, is that the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God, and it is this truth, this revelation, that discloses the great mystery of Christmas: that in Jesus Christ, the eternal God has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real human life.

How this is possible remains utterly inexplicable. Why this has happened is easier to understand, even if it remains hard for us to fully accept.

God did this, he allowed himself to live in this world as a man, being born first as a baby, is because the one, true God is a personal God, meaning that he is a not just an idea in our minds or a feeling in our hearts, or some kind of cosmic force. Instead God is a living, divine person, who created us for communion, that is, friendship with himself. And to make this communion, this friendship possible he does not just send us an invitation at a distance, but in Jesus Christ he meets us, quite literally, face to face.

The communion or friendship that the one, true God seeks with us is such that God accepts from us a human nature and in doing so offers us a share in his divine nature- opening for us possibilities that are way beyond what our humanity alone can accomplish or achieve.

The ancient sages of the Church called God’s gesture, his willingness to be born into this world and live and die as a man, a marvelous exchange. This means that God accepts a human life for himself so that we can receive from him a divine life. This the heart of the Gospel and its revelation is the deep mysticism of the Christ’s revelation- he accepts a human life so that we can have a divine life and by this divine life is meant that we can share communion or friendship with God.

How this happens for us is as strange and wonderful as God being born into this world, and living, like us, a real, human life. Looking at that Holy Child in a manger, few would have understood that the Child gazing back at them was the eternal God made flesh, and yet there God was, in the flesh, sharing communion with us and offering us a reason to become his friends.

The same strange experience happens in our reception of the Sacraments of the Church. For the Sacraments of the Church are not merely expressions of culture or a means through which we give religious significance to important events in our lives. The Sacraments of the Church are encounters with the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself- they are the privileged means, in this world, in the here and now, that God makes communion or friendship with him possible. The Sacraments serve the same purpose as the human nature of the Lord Jesus- they are his privileged means through which he makes himself known to us.

At the beginning of the Advent season I spoke from this pulpit about the coming of Christ in the world- that God in Christ comes to us in history, in mystery and consummation of all things that we refer to as the end of the world.

The first and the last, history and the end of the world, receive the most attention from us. History offers us the story of the Holy Child in the manger, a story that we love to hear over and over again. The end of the world captures our attention because it is something that we all fear. However, in our preoccupation with these two, we can lose sight that Christ comes to us now- in mystery, which means in his Sacraments, particularly in the Blessed Sacrament that we call the Eucharist.

The Eucharist delivers to us the true and living presence of the Lord Jesus himself. The same divine presence that rested in a manger becomes for us a source of divine life and nourishment. In fact, the revelation of the Holy Child resting in a manger, a feeding container for animals is a foreshadowing of how God in Christ will feed us with his divine life in the Blessed Sacrament.

Thus, on the very day the Church commemorates the birth of God in Christ in the world, the faithful are called to, not a play or performance or a pageant, but to a Mass- the Christ Mass, an event the culture has come to call Christmas, but what the faithful know as the Mass.

The Mass, this Mass and every Mass, is the occasion where God does for us now what he did in Bethlehem centuries ago- he shares communion with us and invites us to be his friends.

It is here that we can be the recipients of the “marvelous exchange” where God in Christ gives us a share in his divine life while asking us to give him a share in our own lives.

Giving Christ a share in our lives is what he asks of us, and in exchange he gives to us, through the Blessed Sacrament, a share in his life. This is what holy communion is. This is how friendship with God in Christ happens.

Christ who came to us in History and will come again into this world at the end of time offers himself to us right now in this Mass- the Christ Mass.

In this mystery of the Blessed Sacrament we see and can receive the very same divine life and presence that revealed himself to the world centuries ago as the Holy Child of Bethlehem.

For his Word is even now made flesh and blood, and makes his dwelling place among us and we can see his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth…

Here today for us in mystery…

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