Tuesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It is always interesting to me how clearly the unclean spirits know who Jesus is.  For them, Christ our God inspires fear and rebellion.  But even these unclean spirits, hearing his voice, begrudgingly obey.  Jesus teaches with authority, as the people standing by admit of him.  This is a teaching that cannot be ignored.  Each person may hear it and respond differently, but they do respond.  Many hear his voice and follow.  Others turn away.

In these early days of Ordinary Time, we essentially have the continuation of the Epiphany event.  We continue to see Christ manifest in our midst, and continue to decide what to make of him.  Today we see him as one who teaches with authority and who has authority over even the unclean spirits within us.  Today he speaks to our sinfulness, to our brokenness, to our addictions, to our fallenness, to our procrastinations, to whatever debilitates us and saddens us and says “Quiet! Come out!”

This Epiphany of Christ as dispossessor of demons is an epiphany that does more than just heal us.  It is an epiphany that calls us out of darkness, one that insists we come out of our hiding and step into the light, so that the light of God’s love can shine in us and through us.

Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It seems like just yesterday that John the Baptist was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.  Oh wait, it was just yesterday!  But today’s reading fast forwards a bit and takes us to a time after John has been arrested.  John isn’t dead yet, not yet out of the picture, but clearly he is decreasing, as he says in another place, so that Jesus can increase.

And Jesus is certainly increasing.  His ministry is kicking into full swing, and he begins by preaching that the kingdom is at hand – a theme that will continue his whole life long.  And he begins to call his followers.  Simon and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers, two groups of fishermen, give up their nets and their boats and their fathers and turn instead to casting nets to catch men and women for God’s kingdom.

You know, even though today is the first day of Ordinary Time, we continue some aspects of Christmas and the Epiphany right up until February second, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  So today’s Gospel fits right in with that.  Today’s Gospel gives us a little more light to see what Jesus is up to.  He calls us all to repentance and to accept the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.  He says to us just as he said to Simon, Andrew, James and John: “Come follow me.”  The year ahead can be an exciting spiritual journey for us.  Who knows what Jesus will do in us to further the kingdom of God?  We just have to answer that wonderful invitation – “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

The Feast of the Baptism of the 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 are Epiphany readings, too, because they show us even more about who Jesus is and why he came.

But 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’s see if we can recognize this a bit more clearly.  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.  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 just 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.  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.  None of this is adequate; it all falls short of saying who we really are.

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 we go through life confused.

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 surely 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 does nothing but please 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.  It is our task to live that identity with authenticity.  And all of this is hard to do.  But thank God he gives us himself and gives us the Church to help us on the way to him.  We sons and daughters of God live for that day when he tells us that with us, too, he is well-pleased.

Thursday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

The feast of Epiphany is a celebration of the fact that Christian life looks like something.  Because Jesus has appeared on the earth and taken our own human form, because he has walked among us and lived our life and died our death, we know what the Christian Way looks like.  We know that the Christian life consists of embracing our humanity, with all its weaknesses and imperfections.  We know that it consists of living our own lives well, mindful of the needs of others, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and spreading the light of the Gospel wherever it is that God puts us.  The Galileans in the synagogue in today’s Gospel were amazed at Jesus’ speaking words of grace.  We too are called to witness in such a way that all will recognize in us the presence of Christ.

This is urgent because we know that Christ is still manifest among us.  Every encounter with someone else is an opportunity for Epiphany.  It is an opportunity for us to look for the presence of Christ in that other person, and for them to see Christ at work in us.  How we do that depends on the situation, certainly, but it must always be our top priority if we are eager to be called Christians.  John’s words in the first reading are clear, and are words of indictment on those times we forget to be the Epiphany to others: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Christ is made manifest in all of us and among all of us.  In the ordinariness of our lives, we can find Christ’s grace abundantly blessing us, or we can reject it.  If we make it our priority to be Christ’s presence in the world in every encounter with a brother or sister, we may find that we are blessed with epiphany upon epiphany, constantly growing in God’s grace.  This is all part of our faith, of course, and it is this faith, as John tells us, that conquers the world.

Monday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

Perhaps our devotion for this Epiphany week should be to pray the Mysteries of Light on the Rosary.  Epiphany is a time of manifestation, of light coming into the dark place that our world can be at times.  We long to see, and more than that we long to see Christ, the one who comes with peace and justice to make all things right.

Today’s mystery, then would be “Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God with its call to repentance,” the third Mystery of Light.  This preaching is accompanied by the great and mighty acts of healing, which have the crowds flocking to him in droves.  They definitely see in Jesus a light that shines into the darkness of their lives, marked as they are by illness both physical and mental, but also perhaps overwhelmingly spiritual.

Saint John speaks to us today in the first reading about the discernment of spirits, which is a very important spiritual practice, a skill we all need to develop.  How do we know what is of the spirit of God and what is of a spirit of deception?  Saint John tells us that the decisive test is whether or not that spirit acknowledges that Jesus is incarnate in the world, that he has come to live among us and continues to shed light on the darkness of our world and of our lives.  Anything that prefers the darkness, then, is of a spirit of deception.

And we know very well that there were all sorts of people who didn’t flock to Jesus.  Many saw him as a charlatan and thought his healings were smoke and mirrors.  They preferred the darkness.  The same is certainly true today.  Many hear the word and turn away from it.  Many hear of the kingdom with its call to repentance and would rather live as they want to live.  But we cannot be that way.  We have the Light, and we are called to live in the Light.  Living in that Light, as the Psalmist tells us, gives us the nations for our inheritance.

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Today we gather to celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord.  Epiphany is the traditional “twelfth day of Christmas” and we celebrate it on January 6, or the Sunday nearest that date.  Many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters celebrate this as we do Christmas, with the giving of gifts as the astrologers brought gifts to the Christ Child.

Epiphany is for us and experience of coming to know the Lord.  Epiphany is the day we can begin to see who Christ really is, when our eyes are enlightened, and our hearts are opened.  There is a gift to be had here today; more precisely, I think there are three gifts to be had here today.  The magi famously offered their three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Those aren’t the gifts I mean.  The gifts I mean are gifts that today’s Scriptures speak of: gifts that come with this Christ Child … the one who continues to lay sleeping in the manger on this holy day.

The first fist gift he brings us is justice.  Justice is what people long for in every age.  When everyone has what belongs to them, when no one is poor or needy, when the marginalized are brought into the community, when the wrongly imprisoned are free, when everything is as it should be and we are all in right relationship with one another and with God, that is justice.  People have striven for justice in every age and place.  While we are all called upon to do what we can to make justice happen in our world, we know that we do not ultimately have the power to bring the real justice that this world longs for all by ourselves.  That can only be done by God, and in God’s time.  Our psalmist today says, “Justice shall flower in his days…” The gift the Christ Child brings is the possibility of that great day of justice.  We know that because Christ has died and risen, we can count on the salvation that will be ours on that day when everything is made right.

The second gift Jesus brings is peace.  Peace, too, can be difficult for us to achieve, and peace, too, has been sought after for ages upon ages.  I don’t think we even really know what peace is or should be.  We often think of peace as the absence of conflict.  And that alone is daunting.  We have conflict in many places today.  We think of Iraq, Afghanistan, and many places in the middle east, to say nothing of Africa, Korea, and many other places.  I’m not even sure, honestly, how to count the number of wars being fought today.  And this says nothing about the lack of peace that is violence in our communities, discord in our families, and unrest in our hearts.  If we are to define peace as just the absence of conflict, it is clear that even that is beyond us.

But that’s not how God defines peace.  Peace is more than a feeling: it is a way of living, or more exactly, a way of being.  It stems from the right relationship that is justice.  In fact, we are told that if we are to desire peace, we must work for justice because peace can’t happen in an unjust world.  If the mere absence of conflict is a peace that we can’t seem to achieve, how much less will we ever be able to come to a peace that is a completeness of right relationships with God and every other person?  And yet, this child in the manger is the one who has come to bring “peace till the moon be no more.”

The third gift Jesus brings is light: the revelation of the mystery.  And that’s what we celebrate today.  “Epiphany” means “manifestation;” it means coming to know what’s right in front of us.  Coming to see the revelation of Christ in the Scriptures, in the Church, in the Sacraments, and in every person and place.  It is a celebration of light, light that is the glory of God, appearing and overcoming the darkness of a world that does not know God.  Jesus came to a world that was darkened by the absence of justice and peace, into a world which in some ways didn’t want to be brightened by his life.  So basically, he was coming into a world not much different than the one we experience today.  Our time’s need for justice and peace is obvious, and the world’s refusal to come to the light is well-known.  But we have the light.  Jesus came to bring us that light.  Maybe it’s not the light of the star on that night, but it’s the light of Scripture, of his presence in the Eucharist, and his activity in the Church and in our hearts.We who have received the wonderful gifts of his justice and peace and light, are called to bring those gifts to the world, because the gifts we receive are never just for us.  St. Paul tells the Ephesians – and us too – that we are called to be stewards of these gifts, given to us in grace. And so, just like the magi, we are the ones who need to bring our gifts and open our coffers.  And just like the magi, we are supposed to go look for Jesus so we can offer those gifts.

The gospel story tells of a light in the sky that guides the astrologers to Christ.  We don’t have the star; but grace is continually given to help us find Christ.  God’s grace does what the star did for the Magi, it guides us to the out-of-the way places where Christ can be found.  The Magi came bearing the types of gifts one would bring to royalty in a palace.  But today Christ isn’t found in a palace; he isn’t rich, he is poor.  The Epiphany reminds us that each day Christ manifests himself to us in the world’s lesser places and in surprising people.  Those are the places to go looking and bearing gifts—starting with the most important gift, which is the gift of ourselves.

We will come forward in a few moments to pay homage to our king, just as did those Magi so long ago.  When we offer our gifts on this holy day, perhaps we can also offer the gift of ourselves.  Maybe we can offer the gifts that we have received from God.  As we begin this year, perhaps we can resolve to make our giving an act of gratitude for all that we have received.  Nourished by our Savior today, we can go forth in peace to bring gifts of justice, peace, and light to all the world.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Mother Seton is a major figure of the Catholic Church in the United States.  Her accomplishments contributed greatly to the growth of Catholicism in this country.  She founded the first American religious community for women, the Sisters of Charity.  She opened the first American parish school and established the first American Catholic orphanage.  All this she did in the span of 46 years while raising her five children.

And she didn’t start out Catholic.  She was born to an Episcopalian family and married an Episcopalian, William Seton, bearing five children with him before his untimely death.  At 30, Elizabeth was widowed, penniless, with five small children to support.

While in Italy with her dying husband, Elizabeth witnessed Catholicity in action through family friends.  She was drawn to Catholicism because of the Real Presence, devotion to Mary, and the apostolic succession which led back to the original Apostles and to Christ.  She converted to Catholicism in 1805, and because of that, many of her family rejected her.

But perseverance was a special aspect of her spirituality.  She wrote to her sisters: “Perseverance is a great grace.  To go on gaining and advancing every day, we must be resolute, and bear and suffer as our blessed forerunners did.  Which of them gained heaven without a struggle?”

It is especially appropriate that we celebrate St. Elizabeth’s feast day during this Christmas season.  Just in the Gospel reading today, Saint Andrew brought his brother Saint Peter to Christ, so Saint Elizabeth radiated Christ in her works of charity and in living the spiritual life.  Praise God that the light of Christ’s most merciful coming has continued to shine in our Church, through the hard work and intercession of holy people like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen

Today’s readings

St. 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.

The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

The Church gives us this wonderful feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on this, the octave day of Christmas.  In a very real way, the Church still celebrates this day as Christmas day – that’s one of the wonderful things about being Catholic.  We don’t have to cast off Christmas with the wrapping paper; we don’t toss the trees out on the curb on December the 26th; we get to celebrate for many days.  But to celebrate the eighth day of Christmas as the feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God is a wonderful and appropriate thing to do.  We all know that Mary’s faith made possible our own lives of faith and even more wonderfully made possible the salvation of the whole world and everyone ever to live in it.  She was the one, chosen by God, to see the Gospel come to life before her very eyes.  She held our God in her faithful and loving hands, treasuring each moment in her heart.

So Mary’s faith is a model for us.  We often do not know where God is leading us, but in faith we are called to say “yes” to his plan for us anyway.  How willing are we to do that?  We are often called upon to take a leap of faith, make a fiat, and cooperate with God’s work in our lives and in the world.  Just like Mary, we have no way of knowing where that might lead us; just like Mary, that might lead to heartache and sorrow; but just like Mary, it may lead to redemption beyond belief, beyond anything we can imagine.

And so, yes, Mary is the Mother of God.  And let me tell you, this was a doctrine that came at great price.  People fought over whether a human woman could ever be the mother of God.  How would that even be possible?  But the alternative, really, would be to insinuate that Jesus was not God, because we clearly know that Mary was his mother.  So to say that Mary was not the Mother of God is to say in a very real and theologically dangerous way that Jesus was not God, and we know that’s just wrong.  Jesus was fully human but also fully divine, his human and divine natures intertwined in his person without any separation or division or elevation of one nature at the expense of another.  And so, as theologians teach us, Mary is the Mother of God the Word according to his human nature.  She didn’t give birth to his divine nature; that was begotten by God.  She is not the mother of the First or Third Persons of God; she is the mother of the Second Person, God the Word.  Sister Sarah made us memorize all this in seminary, and every once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly theologically courageous, I reflect on this doctrine and marvel at its beauty.

So, Mary is the Mother of God, but Mary is also the Mother of the Church, leading its members to her son Jesus and to faith in God.  She is mother of priests, caring for us in a special way and interceding for the faithful work of our calling.  She is the mother of mothers, interceding for them and showing them how to nurture faith in their children.  She is the mother of the faithful, showing us how to cooperate fully with God’s plan.  She is mother of Scripture scholars and those who just love the Scriptures, having seen the Word unfold before her and treasuring it in her heart.  She is the mother of disciples, having been the first of the disciples and the most dedicated of them all.  She is the Mother of God, and our mother, and we cannot sing our Christmas carols without singing her praises too.  We honor her faith and example today, and we ask for her intercession for our lives, for our families, for our Church and our world.

Pray for us, o holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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