Friday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“We have never seen anything like this.”

That statement, from today’s Gospel reading, can be taken in a at least a couple of different ways.  It could be an expression of amazement: the people were seeing something new in Jesus and found it to be astonishingly wonderful.  “We have never seen anything like this!”  That’s almost too much to hope for from them, unfortunately, so what they probably meant was something much different.  They probably meant, we have never seen anything like this, and since it’s not what we are used to, we dislike it, we distrust it and refuse to go there.  “We have never seen anything like this.  Harumph!”

What’s sad about that is that we react that way too sometimes, don’t we?  The old joke is that the last seven words of the Church will be, “we’ve never done it that way before.”  If someone challenges us in new ways, we have a tendency to automatically assume it’s wrong.  People tend often to distrust anything that puts them outside their comfort zones.

And Jesus was dragging people out of their comfort zones all the time.  The scribes, Pharisees, and religious leaders all distrusted him because he hit them right where they lived.  He challenged them to new ways of thinking and praying and fasting and giving and even loving.  He showed them a Messiah that was much different than anything they ever expected.  And so they dismissed him: “We have never seen anything like this.”

But it cannot be so for us.  Jesus still challenges us today, beaconing us out of our comfort zones, challenging us to live for God and for others, and to reach out and live the Gospel with wild abandon.  Will we dismiss him and his message too?  Or will we say with eager expectation: “We have never seen anything like this!” – with eyes wide open to see where he will lead us next?

Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

My 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 Julia 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.”

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.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Today’s readings

See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples.

Barbara hated Christmas this year.  Every time she went into a department store, she had to get out as quickly as she could; taking with her a depression that fatigued her and permeated throughout the day.  The bright lights and the festive decorations were all reminders to her of the joy she should feel this time of year, but could not bring herself to actually experience.  Whenever she had a quiet moment to think, she would recall her father, who passed away last August.  Dad had been Christmas for the family.  His joy at this time of the year built up to frenzy on Christmas Eve, and rubbed off on everyone around him.  This was the first Christmas without him, and Barbara could not begin to have that Christmas spirit without Dad.  Last night, she talked to her son Bill from Syria, and was reassured that he was safe and that things were going well.  He had received her care package, and that made her feel a little better, but nothing could truly fill the emptiness.  She didn’t enjoy the family celebration with the kids and the gifts and all the rest.  Even in a festive gathering like that, she always found herself feeling so alone.

See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples.

Herod was a jealous and insecure man. His authority rested on the good will of the Roman government, and he was always on the lookout for those who would usurp his throne.  The truth was, his throne wasn’t all that big a deal to begin with. Jerusalem wasn’t that important in the grand Roman scheme of things, but well, it was his.  Three visitors from afar were bad enough to get him feeling uneasy, but when they came asking for the newborn king of the Jews, Herod was furious with jealousy.  He was indeed “greatly troubled” and all Jerusalem – at least all the nobility, the ones who mattered – were troubled with him.  He put into motion several schemes to defend his position.  He interrogated the visitors, he put the scribes and chief priests on the case, he even eventually had all the boys less than two years old murdered.  He turned out to be a rather pathetic and miserable king.

Both of these stories are indicative of anything but the Christmas spirit.  But, brothers and sisters in Christ, this is what’s out there.  I am sure several of you here today resonated with Barbara’s story.  And if you didn’t, you probably know someone who would.  The joy of Christmas is lost on those who have suffered the death of loved ones, or are afflicted with depression, or put up with abuse, or don’t have enough money, or have just received a bad diagnosis of illness, or any one of a thousand forms of thick dark clouds that affect us.  It’s easy for people to identify with Isaiah’s observation of darkness and despair.  And if that’s where you find yourself these Christmas days, then the joy of everyone around you only adds to the misery and sadness that you feel.

I remember a time years ago, shortly after my grandmother had died.  We were always very close, and I used to call her every week when I was in college.  She supported me and prayed for me, and in truth is a big part of why I’m a priest today.  Shortly before Christmas the year she died, I went into one of the little shops in Glen Ellyn where I lived – I don’t even remember what I was looking for.  The store was all decorated with warm holiday home decorations and just screamed Christmas from every part of the store.  After being in there for only a minute or two, I was overcome by a sense of sadness and depression that surprised me.  It just came out of nowhere.  I had to leave right away, and when I got home I think I cried for ten minutes.  I wasn’t ready for Christmas, and didn’t want it forced on me.

To those of us who have had to deal with this kind of feeling, or perhaps are still dealing with it, Isaiah’s words today provide the best comfort we can hope for:

but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.

Out of the darkness that sometimes permeates our lives and our world, God’s light appears.  Maybe this doesn’t seem like much comfort to those who are suffering in darkness, but here is what we need to hear: God created light out of nothing at all.  The universe was awash in darkness and chaos, but out of that, God brought order and light and everything that exists.  Every light that we see: stars, moon, sun, love, grace, forgiveness, and all the rest; all of these have been created by God and are ways that the Lord shines upon us.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany.  An epiphany is a divine revelation into the world of humanity.  It’s God doing a God-thing.  An epiphany is when God breaks through all the mundaneness of our human condition and destroys the limitations of our fallen world and makes his presence known among us.  On this feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we celebrate our Lord revealing his light to those of us who spend a lot of time observing the darkness.

Wherever you may find yourself on the darkness spectrum right now, the Epiphany of the Lord can be your redemption.  Indeed, the Epiphany celebrates that the light that God brings in his Epiphany is a radical transformation.  It’s not the paltry comfort of a pat on the back and a “there-there.”  It’s not the relatively small comfort of the resolution of all your problems.  It’s instead the great opulence of brightly-shining gold and the rich fragrance of the most precious incense.  Isaiah says it will be like this:

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

In the darkness of the created world two millennia ago, magi from the east observed a star rising in the eastern sky.  That bright star guided them to the place where they found the newborn king of the Jews. The brightness of that star was nothing compared to the brightness that came into the world with that tiny Child.  In Him, God revealed himself as a loving, compassionate God who does not just observe his creation from afar, but rather breaks into our world, takes on our human condition, and redeems us from the inside out.  The Epiphany takes hold of the world in the glory of the Incarnation, and that Incarnation reaches its fulfillment in the Paschal Mystery.  Christ comes to take on our human form, wipe away our sins, and bring us back to the glory of God for which we were created.  The Epiphany is a radical transformation of our world and our lives – for the better.

May this new year find us watching for our rising star, and finding light for our darkness in Jesus Christ, the light of the world.  May we all find God’s Epiphany in every place we look.

Saturday after the Christmas Octave

Today’s readings

The readings in these Christmas days find us unpacking the gift we have been given.  Now that we realize Christ incarnate among us, what does it mean?  Why did he come?  What has changed?  Today’s first reading from Saint John’s first letter gets right at it: Jesus came through water and Blood and brought the Holy Spirit.  And so we have water which washes away our sins through holy Baptism; the Blood of Christ which releases us from the grip of sin and death, and the Holy Spirit which sanctifies our lives so that we can become one with God.  All of this made possible by the glorious incarnation of Christ, through his holy birth, which we have the grace of celebrating in these days.

Saint John the Baptist echoes that in the Gospel reading.  Jesus is the mightier one that will come after him, baptizing not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit.  The Baptism Jesus brings will not simply aid in the repentance of sins, as John’s baptism did, but will more importantly claim us for divinity and catch us up into God’s own life.  And the testimony to this most incredible gift comes not just in the voice of someone telling us something important, or even the words of a man on the pages of a book, but from the mouth of God himself: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

And so in these Christmas days, as we continue to unwrap and appreciate the greatest gift we will ever get, we find ourselves reflecting on our own holy Baptism, remembering our sins washed away in the Blood of Christ, open to the Spirit who longs to fill us with his grace.

Saint John Neumann, Bishop

Today’s readings

Saint John Neumann is one of the first great American saints, the first American archbishop to be beatified.  He is not to be confused with John Henry Cardinal Newman, of state university “Newman Center” fame.

John Neumann was born in what is now the Czech Republic.  After studying in Prague, he came to New York at 25 and was ordained a priest.  He did missionary work in New York until he was 29, when he joined the Redemptorists and became its first member to profess vows in the United States.  He continued missionary work in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio.  Saint John was well-known for his holiness and learning, spiritual writing and preaching.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Philip to be his apostle, and promises that he will see great things.  Philip is amazed by Jesus’ ability to see the best in him.  Saint John Neumann had that kind of vision too, being able to see the kind of people who would contribute well to the cause of Catholic education in the United States.

As bishop of Philadelphia, he organized the parochial school system into a diocesan one, increasing the number of pupils almost twentyfold within a short time.  Gifted with outstanding organizing ability, he drew into the city many teaching communities of sisters and the Christian Brothers.  During his brief assignment as vice provincial for the Redemptorists, he placed them in the forefront of the parochial movement.

We owe much to Saint John Neumann for his ability to organize Catholic education in this country.  So today we are thankful for our teachers and educators and catechists who over the years have led us all to the faith, and given us a glimpse at the light of Christ.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

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

 

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.  It’s kind of like she was keeping a 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.  She 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.

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.

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 if just once a week – 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.

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