Saturday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, we have the continued Epiphany of Jesus manifested as one who identifies with sinners. That is not, of course, to say that he was a sinner; quite the contrary, because we know that Jesus was like us in all things but sin. In this Gospel passage, though, we see that he is certainly concerned with calling sinners to the Kingdom, and concerned enough that he will be known to be in their company. He eats with them, talks with them, walks with them.

This of course, riles the Pharisees.  And, to be fair, for good reason; Jewish law taught that sinners were to be shunned; they were cast out of the community.  But Jesus distancing himself from sinners would only reinforce the barrier that sin puts between us and God.  Not eating with sinners means there is no redemption.  So nothing that we have done can put us so far away from God that we are beyond God’s reach.  And God does reach out to us, in tangible ways, in sacramental ways, in the person of Jesus and through the ministry of the Church.

Sin is a terrible thing.  It’s often cyclical.  Because not only does the judgment of the Pharisees – and others – make sinners feel unworthy; but also does the guilt that comes from inside the sinner.   The more one sins, the less worthy one often feels of God’s love, and so the more does that person turn away from God, and then they sin more, feel less worthy, turn away again, and so on, and so on, and so on.

But Jesus won’t have any of that – he has come to put an end to that cycle once and for all.  Jesus is the One who walks into the midst of sinners, sits down with them and has a meal.  He is the divine physician healing our souls, and those who do not sin do not need his ministry.  But we sinners do, so thanks be to God for the manifestation of Jesus as one who came to dine with sinners.

Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

My eldest niece is now in college; I can’t believe how time has flown. But back when she was little, she knew how to wrap Uncle Patrick around her little finger. I remember one time when we were out at the mall, she said something like, “If you want, you can buy me a cookie.” It reminded me of the way the leper approached Jesus in today’s Gospel.  And my niece found out that I did indeed want to buy her a cookie!

You know, the most amazing thing about this miracle isn’t really the miracle itself.  Sure, cleansing someone of leprosy is a big deal.  But for me, the real miracle here surrounds those first three words the leper says to Jesus, “If you wish…”  “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Isn’t it true that we so often wonder about God’s will for our lives?  Especially when we’re going through something tragic, or chronically frustrating, we can wonder how this all fits into God’s plan for us.  If God wishes, he can cleanse us, forgive us, heal us, turn our lives around.

And here the poor leper finds out that healing is indeed God’s will for him.  But not just the kind of healing that wipes out leprosy.  Sure, that’s what everyone saw.  But the real healing happened in that leper’s heart.  He surely wondered if God cared about him at all, and in Jesus’ healing words – “I do will it” – he found out that God cared for him greatly.

Not all of us are going to have this kind of miraculous encounter with God.  But we certainly all ask the question “what does God will for me?” at some point in our lives.  As we come to the Eucharist today, perhaps we all can ask that sort of question.  Reaching out to receive our Lord, may we pray “If you wish, you can feed me.”  “If you wish, you can pour out your blood to wipe away my sins.”  “If you wish, you can strengthen my faith.”  “If you wish you can make me new.”  What does God wish to do in your life?

The Baptism of Our Lord

Today’s readings

I think we have to be a little bit careful about how we read and hear today’s readings.  We’re still in the Christmas season – at the end of it, actually – and, more precisely, we’re at the octave day of the Epiphany of the Lord, which we celebrated last week, in which we started to see Jesus revealing himself, manifesting himself, to the world.  Today’s readings for the Baptism of our Lord are Epiphany readings, too, because they show us even more about who Jesus is and why he came.  This feast is another Epiphany, another manifestation of Jesus in the flesh.

So I say that we have to be careful about how we hear these readings because I think they can lead us to define Jesus by what he does.  And that’s a start, but it’s just inadequate.  Let me explain what I mean.  In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us about the Suffering Servant, and he says that that suffering servant is one who would “open the eyes of the blind … bring out prisoners from confinement …. and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  So it’s easy to see Jesus as the suffering servant who would bring about justice.  This in itself is pretty huge, but again, if we define Jesus as a justice-bringer, then he’s just a glorified judge or legislator.  But Jesus is the true Suffering Servant: the one who would come and serve the people while himself suffering the effects of the peoples’ sins, dying the death of a criminal up there on that Cross.  Jesus did in fact came to suffer and die for us, to pay the price for our many sins.  So far from being a judge or legislator, he also stands in place of the condemned – that would be us – and pays the price we deserve for our own lack of justice.

In our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus “… went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  Going about doing good and healing those who are suffering is a great thing.  But if we see Jesus merely in this way, then he’s nothing more than a glorified social worker or physician – there’s nothing special about that.  But during this year of grace, we will see Jesus as the divine physician who heals us from the inside out and makes us fit for heaven.  That is the real healing he intends.  He won’t be just a food service worker, but instead the one who spreads the lavish feast that becomes food for the journey to heaven, where we are called to the heavenly banquet.

And we know this is hard because we get confused about our own identities all the time.  We can easily define ourselves or especially others by what we or they do.  “He’s a computer programmer … she’s an attorney … he’s a retail worker.”  Or we may even go so far as to define ourselves or others by superficial factors like nationality or sexual identity.  We may even select the pronouns we want people to use when they refer to us.  None of this is adequate; it all falls short of saying who we really are.  In fact, it clouds who we were created to be, and it flies in the face of the way our Creator God sees us.

So we’re in a quandary.  If we don’t know who we are, it will be pretty hard for us to see who Jesus is.  If we define ourselves by what we do, then we’re definitely going to look to Jesus to fill a role for us, perhaps a different role depending on where life has us at the moment.  But it’s all inadequate, and more than a little confusing.

That is, until we hear the words of God the Father in today’s Gospel.  With Jesus coming up out of the river Jordan, the Father boldly proclaims: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  So Jesus isn’t what he does: he is what he was begotten: the Son of God, who is in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit from before time began and until eternity.  Because of this, his interaction with us is life-changing.  Maybe he will heal us of this or that current ailment, but whether he does or whether he doesn’t, he will surely heal us from the inside out, and if we let him, he will lead us to heaven.  Maybe he will help us with a family issue that has us up half the night every day, but whether he does or whether he doesn’t, he will certainly give us a strength we never expected that will help us through it.  All we have to do is stop seeing Jesus for what he does, stop expecting him to fill a role, and instead enter into relationship with him as the Son of God who in his very person is everything that pleases his heavenly Father.

When we do that – when we enter into relationship with Christ – he will give us identity too.  And not just the paltry identity of what we do or our nationality or whatever, but the real identity that God created us with – our identity as sons and daughters of God.  No matter how we define ourselves, or worse, how others may seek to define us, no one can take away our identity as beloved children of God.  It is our task to live that identity with authenticity, which can be hard to do.  But thank God he gives us himself and gives us the Church to help us on the way to him.  

Central to our identity as children of God is our own baptism.  In baptism, we are united with Christ who was baptized too, who sanctified the waters that baptized us, who identified himself with us at his own baptism.  We ought to take baptism more seriously than many people do.  We ought to select godparents who live their identity as children of God so that our children might have role models.  We ought to seek to live our baptism by revering Christ before all else, by living the Gospel, by leading others to Christ in our words and example, by constantly seeking the Sacraments of the Church, and by looking forward every day to that great day when Christ will lead us to eternal life.  We sons and daughters of God live for that day when he tells us that with us, too, he is well-pleased.

Friday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

Today, as we continue to celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, we see another Epiphany, another manifestation of our Lord.  Each of these manifestations tells us a little more about who Jesus is and what he came to do in our world.  Today we see Jesus manifested as healer.

“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”  What a wonderful profession of faith!  Here is a man, full of leprosy, who has been in pain and ostracized for perhaps a good portion of his life.  He perhaps has heard about Jesus and was eager to see if he would do what no one has been able to do for him.  No one would even touch a leper, for fear of contracting the disease.  So he has been forced to live with it for all this time.

But Jesus isn’t going to be limited by anything, so he does it: he touches the man and says, “I do will it.”  Healing is the will of our Father, and Jesus came to do the Father’s work.  Responding to the man’s faith, Jesus is able to do in him what no one else could do, or even would do.

But a lot of people have come and gone who would have done the same.  Why is it that everyone is not healed?  Certainly you know of people who have suffered, perhaps you have even suffered yourself, praying and praying all to no avail.  

That’s a hard question, and it’s one that often gets cited by those who reject a life of faith.  But we know in our heart of hearts that there’s all kinds of healing.  And what God intends for us may be far different, perhaps far more important to our salvation, than the healing of a disease.  

In any case, whether the disease goes away or not, the person of faith is always given what God intends for her or him.  And that person never walks through suffering alone, because we know that our Lord suffered greatly on that Cross.  So, joining our sufferings to Christ’s, we have him to help us with our own cross, whatever it may be.  Whether God intends our disease to go away or not, he always wills our salvation, which in the end is the essence of what he came to do. 

Today Christ is manifested as healer.  Healer of our bodies, perhaps.  But healer of our souls to make them fit for heaven, for sure.

Thursday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures continue to reveal Christ manifested in the flesh, and the way his manifestation looks today is like love.  We have the great joy of continuing our reading from the first letter of John today, and, as I mentioned on Tuesday, John is always about love.  Today John gives us a discerning test, so that we can see if a person is of God.  The test is whether that person loves his or her brothers and sisters.  Because one cannot claim to love God who is so very much beyond us, if we cannot love the brother or sister who is right in front of us.

That can prove to be a very daunting test to be sure.  Because I don’t think I’m too far out on a limb to say we’re not very often irritated by the God who is beyond us, but are often irritated by the brother or sister who is always right there in our face!  Still, the commandment is clear: “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

Jesus Christ is the personification of God’s love for us.  God came to be among us not in some kind of ethereal nature, but with a human face and a human heart, and a love that overcomes all the flaws of our flesh.  It is that love that sets us free.  In Jesus, all the prophecies of deliverance are fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus says, “because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

And if our own love for our brothers and sisters can transcend our petty day-to-day irritations, or even our deep-seated hurts and resentments, than maybe we can set people free, and even set ourselves free, and make Jesus incarnate in the world yet again.

Tuesday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

During this Epiphany time, we continue to see various Epiphanies of the Lord, that is, we continue to see Christ manifested in different ways.  Today, I think we see our Lord manifested as lover.

If you have time today, go back, and prayerfully read the first reading.  It’s one of my favorite selections from the first letter of Saint John.  This reading tells us quite clearly that you can see the presence of God in those who love one another.  I think we should all memorize the first line of that reading, because it’s key:

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.

Any time you’re in the presence of real love, you’re in the presence of God.  “Knows God” here carries special meaning: knowing God in this sense means you have entered into his life and are wrapped up in his presence.  Love is how you know you’re a disciple, how you know you’re on the way to heaven.  

And it’s not something we do on our own; in fact it’s never something we do first: God is always the first lover.  Listen to the last verse of the first reading again:

In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

God chooses to love us first and love us best.  God shows us how to love, right up there on that ugly Cross.  There is nothing God won’t do for love of us.

So as Jesus comes into his life and ministry, we see him manifested as a lover.  He would sooner turn five puny loaves of bread and a couple of scraggly-looking fish into a sumptuous meal for thousands, than turn them away to fend for themselves.  Love always gives, love never stops until it has given everything, and then love still gives more.  That’s why the Cross is not the end, and the Resurrection is a glorious beginning.

Today, Jesus is manifested as God’s love, freely given if we would freely receive it.  May God’s love change us all today, make us look more like God himself.  Happy Epiphany!

The Solemnity of the Epiphany

Today’s readings

I’m going to make things pretty simple today. If someone asks you what my homily was about, you’ll be able to sum it up in just four words: “Walk toward the light.”

And that’s good advice, I think, for us who walk around in what can be a very dark world. Today’s first reading speaks of that darkness: “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples…” We’re not talking about some kind of simple darkness that is cured by simply turning on a lamp. This darkness is pervasive, not just physical darkness, but a darkness that has psychological effects, and even affects communities and nations. When Isaiah speaks of the thick clouds covering the peoples, that’s what he means: “peoples” means nations. 

And we don’t need to look too much farther than the newspaper or evening news to see that darkness. The year ahead of us might seem rather foreboding. The upcoming election promises to be as divisive as ever an election was in the history of our nation.  January 1st saw the dawning of new laws in our state that negatively affect the unborn and the poor.  We continue to see violence in our cities, and over the holidays, in places of worship. The wars raging in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa, all over the world really, those are dark places for combatants and non-combatants alike. Christians in other lands find their lives in danger every day. There’s plenty of darkness to go around, and it may not seem like there’s enough light in all the universe to make it better, to illuminate that darkness, to help us to break free of it all. 

There may be darkness in our own lives too. Maybe we have patterns of sin of which we cannot seem to break free, maybe there are family difficulties that cloud our day-to-day living, maybe there are old hurts among family or friends that prevent us from moving forward in grace. Even our own personal and spiritual lives can be such dark places at times. 

Today’s Liturgy acknowledges all the darkness and invites us: “Walk toward the light.” 

Because the light that we have to scatter all that darkness comes from God himself. Isaiah says again: “but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.” A darkness as pervasive as the one that covers all peoples takes a very bright light to scatter it. Does this mean that all that darkness will go away immediately? Of course not. But it does mean that God has provided a way, lit up a path, for people of faith to take steps – baby steps if necessary – to walk toward that light. We see that light in the Church, through the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our celebration of the Eucharist, when we reach out to others in service, in our interaction with each other as people of faith. Those thick clouds may make it pretty hard to see at times, but ultimately they are no match for the bright light of the glory of the Lord.

Isaiah goes on to point out that all that light isn’t intended just for us. When we have approached the light, we need to share that light with others. “Nations shall walk by your light,” Isaiah says, “and kings by your shining radiance.” Having received the light of the glory of the Lord, we are meant to spread it over our corner of the world. We are meant to radiate that light as a beacon in a dark place, so that all peoples – all those peoples that are covered by those thick clouds of darkness – can see their way to the Lord too. We spread that light by changing our lives. We spread it by being people of integrity. We spread it by doing everything we can to reinvigorate our spiritual and devotional lives. We spread the light by paying it forward, by giving of ourselves, by having concern for those in our lives and those the Lord puts in our lives. We spread the light by reaching out to those in need. 

And what is wonderful is that spreading the light never leaves us in the darkness. There is always more light to shine on us. Listen to Isaiah again:

Then you shall be radiant at what you see, 
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.

The glory of the Lord is never diminished by shining on others. In fact, when we share that light with others, we only receive more, so that our hearts are throbbing and overflowing, beholding all the riches that we could ever hope to find. We may find a talent we never knew we had, one that can reach others for Christ. We may find a new energy that comes to a spiritual life that was previously rather listless. We may find new challenges, new opportunities, and always new grace. The riches and wealth of our God are never exhausted. 

All we have to do is walk toward the light. 

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.” Today, and in the next couple of weeks, we will see Christ’s Lordship manifested in a few different ways. Each of these epiphanies will call us to a deeper appreciation of who Christ is in our lives and a deeper reflection on our own discipleship. 

The light that we walk toward today is very-likely life-changing. The Magi came to seek the light in today’s Gospel reading. All we get from Matthew is a description of the encounter. But we have no idea what the encounter did in the lives of those wise astrologers. We don’t know how it changed them, what it cost them, where it ultimately led them. We see that the light was not intended just for the Jews, but also for all of the nations, pagans and religious people alike. All could come to the light, all could be affected by the light, all could experience the true light of the world. 

And in just the same way, we have no idea how walking toward the light will affect us. We don’t know how it will change us, what it will cost us, where it ultimately will lead us. All we know is that, coming to the light, we will be changed, with the promise of grace upon grace. Just as the Magi were led to return by another way, we too might find ourselves taking another way in our lives. Epiphany is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning for us. What difference will what is manifested to us today make in our lives? Will we accept the one who not only lies in a manger as a newborn, but will also be rejected? Throughout this liturgical year we will hear Jesus’ preaching, observe his works, follow him to his death and then experience his resurrection. We will be exposed to the light many times and in many wonderful ways. It will be a year of many epiphanies for us. 

May this coming year find us walking toward the light countless times and in countless ways, and open to the many riches of grace that the Lord has in store for us.  Walk toward the light!

Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors of the Church

Today’s readings

Saint Basil the Great was born in Caesarea in Cappadocia in the year 330.  He was known for his learning and virtue, and his fight against the Arian heresy.  He also wrote many wonderful works, the most revered of which is his monastic rule.  He is known as the father of Eastern monasticism.  Gregory Nazianzen was born in the same year.  He too pursued learning and was eventually elected bishop of Constantinople.  Basil and Gregory were friends, and Gregory reflected on their friendship in a sermon, of which I’d like to share some excerpts this morning.

“Basil and I were both in Athens.  We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

“Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other.  When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal.  Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

“Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it.  With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions.  We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue.  If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

“Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements.  But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.”

Like John the Baptist in our Gospel today, Basil and Gregory sought to point the way to Jesus, the one among us whom people do not recognize.  It was their goal to help all to come to know him rightly, to make straight the way of the Lord.  Their friendship led them deeper in that pursuit.  Today, let’s reflect on our friendships and relationships, and give thanks for those who have led us deeper in our friendship with our Lord.

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.

This is definitely the kind of reflection a mom would do. Saint Luke notes all throughout Jesus’ young life that Mary kept the events of Jesus’ life and reflected on them in her heart. At the visit of the shepherds, and again after finding Jesus in the temple, Mary kept those memories for later reflection. Maybe she understood them, or perhaps had to work them out later, but keeping them in her heart, she was able to ponder the Word. She got to savor those moments over and over; it shows us the joy of Mary’s heart as a mother.

This idea of Mary reflecting on these things in her heart almost reminds me of a kind of It’s kind of scrapbook of memories in her heart, and I found myself wishing during these Christmas days, that I could take a look at that scrapbook.  She had a first-hand view of how Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, and as Luke tells the story, her perspective of God’s work in the life of her family had to be incredible.

Mary’s reflection on the life of Jesus is really a model for us.  Keeping those events close to her and reflecting on them later is her way of reflecting on the Word of God.  Whether she understood them at the time or not,  she didn’t just live through the moment and move on.  Sadly, in our frantic-paced lives, we do that all too often.  But Mary went back to those events later in her life – even after the death and resurrection of Jesus – and came to a new understanding guided by the Holy Spirit.  And thank God she did that.  It’s probably her later reflection on those events that made the early Church Evangelist able to record them and pass them on to us.  I can just imagine Mary sharing those reflections with Luke and the other disciples.

We too, must reflect on the Word of God.  We have to put ourselves in the presence of the Story, and ponder it in our hearts.  If we’re confused by Scripture, we have Mary as our patron to help us reflect on that Word and come to understand it, guided as we are by the Holy Spirit.  But we also have her encouragement to keep those Scriptures in the scrapbook of our hearts, to keep coming back to them.  That’s the only way the Spirit can work on us and help us to come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Word of God, and in doing that, to come to a renewed and vibrant relationship with our Lord.  But we have to do that following the example of Mary’s reflective pondering, or just like everything else in our lives, we’ll fly through the moment and miss it.

In Advent, I encouraged all of us to take some quiet, reflective time to be with the Lord.  Today Mary shows us how to do that, pondering her God incarnate in her own arms.  Imagine that!  The Incarnation is definitely a mystery worth pondering!

If we would make a resolution for this new year, maybe it could be to follow Mary’s example.  Maybe we could set aside some time on a regular basis – even just those five minutes – to put ourselves in the presence of the Word of God.  And not just here at Mass, although that’s a good start.  But maybe in private prayer or even in an organized Bible Study – we have a few of them going on in our parish on a regular basis.  If we regularly open ourselves up to the Word of God, maybe we too could come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Scriptures; and a closer and more beautiful relationship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God.

Mary, mother of God the Word, help us to understand the Word as you did.  Help us to ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation and savor its joy every day. 

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God:
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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