Friday of the Second Week of Easter (April 28th, 2017)

Our first scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Acts, describes the Church in crisis- facing a persecution that threatens its young life.

An unexpected advocate emerges who intervenes on behalf of the persecuted Christians, insisting that the Church’s opponents stand down and let the Christians alone. Time will tell if this new movement survives, and as the Church is beleaguered and weak, it poses no real threat. And besides, if the Church is, as the adherents of this new Faith testify, a work of God, no merely human power will be able to stop it.

This advice seems to be accepted and the persecutors relent, at least for a time.

The Church has known persecution in every age of its life. Hatred from the outside oppresses the Church while wickedness from the inside subverts her mission- and yet the Church mysteriously endures. Why? Not because of merely human ingenuity or accident. But, instead, the Church endures because the Church is not merely an institution, a construct of our own making, but instead is mystically Christ’s Body, the continuation of his Incarnation in space and in time. The Church is Christ’s life and presence enduring in history. Like his earthly body, the Church is afflicted and suffers, but this affliction and suffering cannot overpower the divine power of God that the Church, as the mystical body of Christ, bears into the world. And because the divine power of Christ resides in the Church, affliction and suffering can become redemptive.

The early Christians knew and believed this. Do we?

Today’s Gospel is a brief selection from the Gospel of John, testimony to the divine power of Christ to work miracles. What does Christ do? He multiplies mere fragments of bread and fish so as, to satisfy the hunger of a vast crowd.

Christ does what only God can do, and in doing what God can do, he gestures towards the mystery of his identity- that he is God.

But today’s mysterious revelation in the Gospel does not just signal to us Christ’s divine identity, but also presents a type or foreshadowing of the mystery of the Eucharist.

How so? The Eucharist is a marvelous intervention of God in our lives, bearing into our lives a power that effects a surprising change- mere fragments of food and drink become Christ’s Body and Blood, imbued with his divine power to reconcile us to God and draw us into an extraordinary relationship with him.

The Eucharist is no more just a symbol or metaphor than it is merely bread and wine. The Eucharist we receive is Christ’s life and presence, given to us as food and drink, given to us, to satisfy the hunger of our souls for communion with God, but also given to us, so that partaking of his life, our life might become like his.

May we who partake of this holy mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, appreciate what Christ is giving to us, and permit ourselves to become like the One that we receive.

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The Baptism of the Lord (January 10th, 2016)

Last Sunday, the Church in the United States celebrated the great solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus.

We learned that an Epiphany is an extraordinary revelation, and the revelation of the Epiphany continued the revelation of Christmas- that is the one, true and eternal God was born into this world as we were all born into the world. God, in Jesus Christ, accepts a human nature and lives a real, human life. This revelation, which we Christians call the Incarnation, is the central and most important truth of the Church’s faith- it is what we believe about God and what we believe about the Lord Jesus.

God is not just an idea or a feeling or a vague cosmic force. God reveals himself in Jesus Christ to be a living, divine person who offers us a relationship with him. Jesus Christ is not just a prophet, philosopher or guru. Jesus Christ is God become man.

We also learned last week some of the details of the story of Christ’s epiphany, particularly about the Magi who were led to the Child Jesus by a heavenly portent that is described in the Gospel for last Sunday as a star. The Magi were masters of mystical arts and esoteric teachings. The popular imagination presents the Magi as being 3 kings, but they really were not kings, and the Gospel doesn’t tell us how many came to see the Lord Jesus.

We also learned last week that there were two kings in the story of Christ’s Epiphany- one is God become king- Christ himself, and the other is worldly king by the name of Herod, who was, at least, in a worldly sense, one of the greatest kings in the history of the Israelites.

Herod was born around the year 74 BC and died in the early years of the Christ Child’s life. Though successful in worldly matters, such as politics, economics, and possessed of wealth and power that brought him any pleasure he wanted and the honor of powerful and influential people, Herod was a brutal and murderous fiend. He plotted to kill the Christ Child, and having failed in his plot, murdered the innocent children of Bethlehem.

Such was the world into which God allowed himself to be born! It was also one of the reasons God came into our world as our Christ- to deal with men and women like Herod and create a means by which they would always be challenged, subverted and ultimately defeated.

I bring up Herod today because though he died was Christ was just a child, the shadow of his life is cast throughout the Gospels. And this is important to remember today, on this the day the Church commemorates the Baptism of the Lord.

Please let me explain.

Like Christ’s Holy Birth and his Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord Jesus is a mysterious event. The Baptism that the Lord Jesus receives is NOT the Baptism of the Church. Instead, Christ is participating in a purification ritual that would have been familiar to Israelites of his time, but is likely unfamiliar to us. The Baptism of John, which Christ permits himself to receive, gestures towards the ritual washing which faithful Israelites would undergo so as to enter into the temple precincts so they could participate in the worship of God.

Why the Lord Jesus receives the Baptism of John is as mysterious as why John is baptizing people at all.

The Gospel of Luke identifies John as a temple priest who has evidently gone rogue. Rather than fulfilling his role as an Israelite priest he is off in the wilderness telling people not to go to the temple and warning them that something has gone so wrong with that temple, that God himself was coming to set things right.

Remember, the temple of Jerusalem was the center of Israelite culture, indeed the Israelites considered the temple to be the center of the world. The temple was not just a civic monument, but also the house of God on earth. The fate of the Israelites, indeed the whole world, was bound to the temple and the worship that was offered there.

 

John’s Baptism, is meant to prepare the people for the day when God arrives to set whatever had gone wrong with the temple. John was offering a ritual washing so that when God came and cleaned up his house (the temple) the people would be ready to worship him.

All of John’s concerns about the temple and the mysterious Baptism he offers are also where the shadow of old king Herod is cast.

Herod had rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem on such a magnificent scale that it was considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world. He had done this, not so much to honor God, but to insure his legacy, and as a kind of propaganda, that he and his dynasty were the long awaited successors to the mightiest kings of the Israelites, David and Solomon.

John the priest would have none of this. He knew Herod was a fraud and that his temple was corrupted by the influence of his dynasty, and also knew that God was coming to kick Herod’s family out and clean up the temple and priesthood that Herod had corrupted with this wealth and power.

And then John sees the Lord Jesus and understands that he (the Lord Jesus) is the one who is the means by which God will deal with the temple and priesthood that Herod had corrupted.

This is the great revelation of Christ’s Baptism- he is God come to set things right, in particular, to expose a king like Herod as being a fraud, and to bring about the kind of temple and priesthood that God wants for his people.

Jesus Christ is God, and therefore the true king. In Christ the Lord, God becomes the king. But more than this, Christ the Lord, who is God, has as his mission to set right the temple and the priesthood so that people can worship God as he wants to be worshipped.

This is what Christ’s Baptism is signaling to us, gesturing toward. Removed centuries from all this history, it might be hard for us to see, but it is what today’s commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord is about. It is another great revelation that is manifesting to us, as we saw at Christmas and at Epiphany, that Christ the Lord is God, but that God has come into the world with a mission and as he accomplishes his mission, the people will receive from him, the true king, a new temple and a new kind of worship.

And Christians… This is precisely what we are participating in today- the temple of Christ and the worship that God wants. This is what the worship of the Church called the Mass is- temple worship, Christ’s temple worship. Here in the Mass, you enter into Christ’s sanctuary and Christ your king presents himself as your priest and makes of his own body and blood the sacrifice by which he shares his divine life with you.

This is what the Mass is and also why the Mass is the worship God wants, because in the Mass, God in Christ acts to give you his divine life, and he does so in the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist.

What John the Baptist longed for and did not live long enough himself to receive, is now given to you- you have in Jesus Christ your king, you have access to his temple, and you can offer him the worship through which you do not simply remember who the Lord Jesus is, but through which you receive his very life and adore his very presence.

The Mass becomes boring and even oppressive when we forget what it is- it is not just an expression of culture or faith based entertainment that we create out of our own ideas or feelings or skills. The Mass is Christ’s temple and the worship he wants- it is the means by which he shares his life with us and we share our own lives with him.

The revelation of Christmas and Epiphany is that God has become man- he has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. Both events compel us to think back to an event that changed the world centuries ago. The revelation of the Baptism of the Lord compels us to think back to that event centuries ago when God revealed himself in such an extraordinary way, but then insists that we not only remember what God in Christ did in the past, but what it is doing right now, right here in his temple- in this very Mass!

God in Christ has come into this world, yes, and in his Mass he reveals to us that he is still here!

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Saturday after Epiphany (January 9th, 2016)

In today’s excerpt from the First Letter of John we are offered distinctions about sin and a practical strategy for fraternal correction.

Sin is the willful, intentional resistance of God’s will and purposes that lead to actions that explicitly reject God’s commandments. The First Letter of John testifies that some sins will not be as serious as others and that this distinction is very important. At times, the gravity of a sin will threaten, not only a person’s relationship with God, but also the community of disciples, and as such, there must be an intervention.

However, not all sin will necessitate this kind of response, and in some respects, the best remedy for sin is prayer. A person who sins does not merit our hate, but our compassion. Sin is a wound, and like the treatment of a wound, our intervention must be such that leads to healing, not harm.

The greater the sin, the greater should be our will to love. In practice, this is very difficult, especially if a person’s sins have had a negative effect on us personally. Compassion for the sinner is one of the great demands and risks of discipleship. The purpose of any intervention is restoration and reconciliation, not to excoriate and punish. If restoration and reconciliation cannot be accomplished, then it is best to pray.

At the conclusion of today’s excerpt from the First Letter of John there is a warning- guard against idolatry.

Idolatry is the worship of false gods. Idolatry is not limited to the worship of mythological beings, but the elevation of any form of worldliness to our ultimate concern. For some it might be wealth, for others it is power and honors, still others, pleasure. Wealth, pleasure, power and honors are the most prevalent of the idols of our own making, and the most destructive.

The temptation of idolatry lures us into sin and it is sin that results in our alienation from God. In terms of the Bible, it is idolatry that is the capital sin and perhaps the most pernicious.

The Gospel today present John the Baptist, who testifies that he is not the expected Messiah.

Who then is John? For John, the answer to this question is not all that important, the more important question is whether or not we will prepared to receive the Messiah when he comes.

Christ is the Messiah and his coming among us is not simply a matter of the end of days or the end of our lives. Christ the Messiah comes to us in his Church, particularly in the Blessed Sacrament, and he always demands our attention as he makes himself known to us in the suffering bodies of the poor. Thus there should be an urgency in our preparations to receive him and our approach should be that Christ is here now and not think that he is delayed or that preparation to receive him can be put off to another day. When Christ comes will we meet him as a stranger or as a friend?

John the Baptist also introduces an important insight, an insight that is not only about his mission, but the mission of every disciple- Christ must increase as we must decrease.

In other words, our mission as disciples is not about personal gain, self promotion, or advancing our causes. Foremost for the disciple is what Christ wants, not what we might want. We serve the mission he gives us, it is not for us to personally tailor the mission to fit our own desires.

Readiness for mission demands self-sacrifice and a death to self, particularly in regards to our own egoism, that is necessary, for it is only through self-sacrifice and death to self that the life and presence of the Lord Jesus can increase in us. We must all decrease, so that Christ might increase.

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Thursday after Epiphany (January 7th, 2016)

The Church presents yet another excerpt from the First Letter of John as our first scripture for Mass, and this particular text emphasizes the integral relationship between our profession of Faith that God is Love and our way of life. If you profess in Faith that Jesus Christ is God then you are also professing in Faith that God is the Trinity and to profess in faith that God is the Trinity is to profess in faith that God is love.

If we believe that God is Love then we will live in ways that manifest God’s love for others. If we do not, we make our profession of Faith a lie.

The First Letter of John then goes on to testify that love expresses itself in fidelity to God’s commandments. If we want to know what love looks like in actual practice, our guide is not merely ideas or feelings or intuitions or ideologies or political platforms or culture, but the commandments of God.

The emphasis on the relationship of love to the commandments rescues love from abstraction, a means that we often use to evade the demand of love. The commandments of God are clear, concise, and specific- they are also the means by which true love, authentic love happens.

Love is not, as many might prefer, merely an idea or a feeling. Instead, love is an act of the will. Love means that we will the good of another person, often placing their good above our own, and willing their good even if our love is not reciprocated, even if our love is not deserved. It is in these rare, radiant and beautiful opportunities that our love manifests itself most intensely to be like God’s love.

Love is therefore, greater than mere affection and its motivation is greater than self, or even mutual interest. Love always expresses itself in sacrifice, and it is through that sacrifice, that the true depth, and intention of our love is revealed.

As such, the demand of love is great (mere ideas and feelings are not, which is why they are so often preferred). We also do not have to go far to encounter love’s demand, as it most often presents itself in the immediacy of our circumstances. It is in the fulfillment of the demand of love that we keep God’s commandments and prove ourselves to be people of integrity in terms of our profession of Faith.

Today’s Gospel presents a dramatic scene in which the Lord Jesus announces the beginning of his public mission as the Messiah of not only the Israelites, but of the whole world. He cites the prophet Isaiah as the reference point for what his mission will be and as such, what he will do.

The testimony of the Gospels is for the most part unintelligible if we do not understand how it is presenting Christ as the Messiah. Folks have tried to bracket this for the purposes of reducing Christ’s identity to being that of merely a prophet or teacher or guru or even worse than these, a vague idea or feeling. Usually these reductions are presented to serve some ideological purpose or because a person cannot bring themselves to make an act of faith that what the testimony of the Gospels has to say about the Lord Jesus is actually the truth. The result is that the Gospels make little if any sense and the Jesus who is presented as merely a prophet or teacher or guru is hardly worthy of belief and his way of life even less worthy of commitment (and worse than even this- the Jesus presented is a lie).

A willingness to learn about and understand what the Gospels have to say about Christ’s identity as Messiah is essential to knowing Christ himself. If we do not know him, we will not be able to serve him, and if we do not know him and cannot serve him, we cannot truly be his disciples.

And if we cannot be his disciples, then the meaning and purpose for which God has created us will forever remain elusive…

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Homily for January 2nd, 2016

The Church continues her presentation of excerpts from the First Letter of John.

As it was several days ago, the First Letter of John continues to warn us about antichrists, deceivers who will infiltrate the Church and undermine the Church’s profession and practice of the faith. One of the particular intentions of antichrists is to cast doubts on Christ’s revelation “in the flesh” and by this is meant a denial of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

The Incarnation is the startling revelation that God in Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. In our own time this denial often manifests itself in a reduction of Christ to being merely a religious symbol of God, rather than God himself or in the reduction of Christ to being merely a prophet or social activist or spiritual guru. These kinds of reductions are lies and these lies are usually told in service of some ideological purpose or agenda.

Antichrists lurk in all our refusals of Christ. Our “no” to Christ will always have a negative consequence. If our “no” to Christ is expressed in a stubborn refusal to accept who he reveals himself to be, a person will either leave the Church that he established or a person will remain within the Church and foment division and subvert the Church’s mission.

Thus does the Church insist that at our great Sunday liturgies that the Profession of Faith be publically professed. The profession of faith as expressed in the Creed might be likened as a solemn oath that we take by which we testify to the truth of Christ’s revelation and commit ourselves to resist those refusals of Christ that will divide and undermine the Church.

Our profession of faith as expressed in the public recitation of the creed at Mass reminds us that we are disciples of the Lord Jesus, not religious dilettantes. Faith in Christ’s revelation compels a decision- are we for or against him, we will gather with him or scatter? Our qualifications of the truth of his revelation manifest our refusal.

The Gospel for today presents the testimony of John the Baptist.

John is not himself the revelation of God. He makes this absolutely clear. Instead, he is a mere man with a mission from God, and this mission is to direct people to God’s revelation. God’s revelation is Christ the Lord.

All disciples of the Lord Jesus should pay careful attention to John the Baptist’s testimony, as it illuminates our own mission.

The mission of a disciple, of a follower of the Lord Jesus, is give testimony to Christ and to invite people to know Christ and become his friends. Like John’s mission, this is public work.

The great twentieth century spiritual master, Hans Urs von Balthasar once remarked that the Christian is placed by Christ out on the streets of the world. St. John Paul II did not travel the world so as to provide faith- based entertainment, but to give public testimony to Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict echoed this when he testified that faith in Christ is always public. Pope Francis’ emphasis on a Church that is willing to go out to what he terms “the existential peripheries” is also expressing the truth about what it means to be a disciple- being a disciple is a public, not private act.

If the Church is always public, then the parish can never be just a private club that is closed in on itself and attentive only to those concerns and causes that preoccupy its members. Instead, the parish, like the Church (of which the parish is only a part) looks outwards and towards the world, seeking to invite people to know Christ and share the gifts he wants them to enjoy.

Inward looking parishes may get some strength from their narrowness for a time, but will ultimately falter and fail. Christians who reduce their profession and practice of the faith to a private matter will ultimately undermine the faith they seek to profess and practice privately.

Like John the Baptist, our testimony to Christ must be boldly public.

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The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas (December 31st, 2015)

The Church’s scripture for today, an excerpt from the New Testament’s First Letter of John, warns us of the coming of antichrists.

The popular culture, through the mediums of movies and television, has presented the antichrist as a satanic political figure who is hell bent on taking over the world. This terrifying construct of the human imagination is not what the First Letter of John has in mind.

The antichrist that John warns us of is plural, not singular, meaning that there is more than one, and is someone or something that is really what amounts to be a counterfeit version of Christ. These counterfeit versions of Christ are as active, if not more so, in the Church, as they would be in the world.

A counterfeit version of Christ is a lie, a deception, and lies about the Lord Jesus have been told throughout the long history of the Church. The most pernicious of lies told about Christ are variations of refusals of his revelation that he is God come to us in our flesh. These lies about the Lord Jesus have the effect of dividing the Church, even forming sectarian groups that compliment their faith in the antichrist with the formation an antichurch.   Worldly powers are pleased when the Church is divided against itself as it disables the Church, and prevents Christians from accomplishing the mission that Christ has given to us.

Antichrists originate for the most part in our own pride and egoism and grow as a result of our own refusals of Christ and the Church. Rather than accepting Christ for who he reveals himself to be and the Church for what he wills the Church to be, we construct a counterfeit Christ out of our own ideas, feelings or opinions and a Church out of our own causes that serves our own ideological pre-occupations.   These idols of our own making are given the appearance of Christ and the Church, but beneath the surface of these glittering idols are lies.

Whenever Christ is reduced to being whatever it is that we want him to be and the Church is used simply as a means to sanction of worldly causes, then this should be taken as evidence of antichrists.

 

Today’s Gospel repeats the proclamation of Christmas day- the magnificent prologue of the Gospel of John.

The prologue to the Gospel of John is testimony to the revelation of God in Christ who reveals himself in the flesh, that is, in a real, human body. Remember, we believe that God in Christ has accepted a human nature and has through that human nature lived a real, human life.

It is God’s willingness to immerse himself into the totality of human experience, particularly the experiences of suffering and death that transforms and changes us, effecting what the great saints and ages of the Church call “a marvelous exchange”. This means that God accepts from us the experience of a human nature so that we can experience his divine nature.

The experience of Christ’s divine nature happens for us through the Church’s Sacraments, which are not just merely experiences of fellowship in the community or artifacts of ethnicity, but are real encounters with the Lord Jesus.

Thus we do not cherish the Sacraments simply because they are important customs, but because they are occasions through which we meet Christ and learn from him the meaning and purpose of our lives.

God in Christ who revealed himself in the flesh and blood of the body of his human nature also reveals himself in the flesh and blood of the body of his Church. Just as the body (the flesh) of Christ’s human nature served as the privileged means by which he revealed that he loves us and abides with us as God and also as our friend, so now Christ continues to reveal that he loves and abides with us as God and also our friend in the Church.

The revelation of God in Christ who comes in the flesh is the central truth of the Church’s profession (and practice) of the Faith and the Church is the means that Christ uses to introduce his revelation in the flesh to the world.

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Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist (August 29th, 2015)

Today the Church celebrates the Passion of St. John the Baptist. A popular understanding of the word “passion” is taken to mean intense, romantic affection, but the word passion really means suffering, and suffering of an extreme kind.

The sufferings of John of Baptist were not just associated with his death, which was particularly brutal and cruel, but with his life. John’s mission set him against the great powers of his culture- those of temple, priesthood and king, and because of his opposition to these powers, his life was one of self-imposed exile, a life on the margins.

From his exile he cried out for the great powers to repent, and announced an end to their reign. God was coming into the world to set things right and with him would arrive a new temple, priesthood and kingdom. Of course, power is rarely surrendered willingly, and the powers of the old order set themselves in as fierce an opposition to John as he had placed himself in opposition to them.

The passion of John the Baptist was fueled by his love for God, a love that he understood to be most often resisted and refused. The great powers of the world were manipulators of the people’s affection for God and a distraction that prevented their conversion. John had no patience for their pomp and pretense and proclaimed that their only option was to repent before God revealed himself to the world. With the revelation of God, the world of the great powers was coming to an end, and if they were to have a place in God’s new world, they would have to change.

Christ would be the revelation that John longed for.

John also perceived correctly that behind the great powers of the world were fallen spiritual powers, sin, death and the devil. These were not powers with whom it was possible to negotiate. Those earthly powers that had aligned themselves with these dark powers would face along with those powers the full opposition of God. John believed that now was the time for earthly powers to extricate themselves from their relationship with the dark powers no matter the cost.

Many of the earthly powers considered that cost and refused to abandon their commitment to the dark powers much to the dismay of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist, burned with a passion that the world be set right, and grieved that so many would choose to be ruined, rather than changed.

Today’s Gospel provides the grisly details of the murder of John the Baptist. It is truly a tale of terror.

There are profound levels of meaning that are enveloped in the succinct description of the events leading to John’s death.

John is the prisoner of Herod, the son and namesake of the tyrant Herod who murdered the children of Bethlehem. Herod has imprisoned John because John insists that Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, is a sham and an affront to God’s law. John sees in this sham marriage a kind of elitism, which insists that the wealthy and powerful are not held bound by the standards of decency that bind everyone else. John has the audacity to proclaim this truth publically and for this reason he is imprisoned.

Herod, who as king should be the great driver of the events proves in reality to be merely a pawn of his own and other people’s desires. In fact, corrupting desires are the real movers of the events. These desires are infectious, and their corruption comes to its terrifying fulfillment in the request of the daughter (Herod’s niece) of Herod’s lover, (Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother) who asks her uncle for the head of John on a platter, a request that is has no motive other than to fulfill the vanity of the her mother, the awful Herodias.

Adding to this horror is a detail that is often missed (or ignored): The original language of the text, which is Greek, reveals that young girl who dances before Herod and his courtiers is not a sultry seductress, but a mere child. This makes the story all the more disturbing. A mother sends her little girl to perform a suggestive dance before her husband, the child’s uncle, in hopes of stirring up his perverse desires so that she can manipulate the situation to effect the murder of an innocent man.

Herodias is awful. Herod is despicable. The child is an unwitting accomplice in murder. Like I said, truly a tale of terror.

This story, which is as dramatic as the libretto for an opera, is a profound reflection on what happens when to serve our own corrupted desires, rather than God. It illuminates what happens when we try to use our willfulness to control and manipulate others. In these circumstances, the end always justifies the means, and the end is usually satisfying the desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors.

Today’s Gospel is not just a tale of terror but a cautionary tale in regards to what happens when as a result of our desires, we abandon God’s will and seek instead the fulfillment of our own will.

When we are unreflective in our moral choices, enamored of our own egoism, caught up in the rapacious need to be admired or to get our own way- disaster will follow, and it will come not only for us, but also for all those around us.

When we connive and scheme to get our way, when the commandments of God are always met with an insistence that one is exempt or excused from responsibility, no one is safe, not even the innocent. In fact, it is the innocent who will suffer and the innocent who will die.

Attending to this story of the passion of John the Baptist we can understand better why he resisted the fallen powers of the world and so looked forward to the revelation of God who would come into this world to set things right.

What about our own passion to resist? What about our own passion for God to come into our own lives and set us right?

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