Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Agnes, a virgin and martyr of the Church. She is thought to have lived and died in the third century, but little is really known of her life. She is mentioned in the first Eucharistic Prayer in the list of saints: “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”

What is known about Saint Agnes might not be one hundred percent factual, but it is instead meant to foster our own lives of holiness and dedication to the Lord. Legend tells us that Agnes was a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, and very beautiful. Many young men longed for her, lusted after her, really, and one such man, having looked at her lustfully, lost his eyesight. But his sight was restored when Agnes herself prayed for him.

Because of her dedication to Christ, she refused the advances of the men who lusted after her. And one such man, having been refused, reported her to the government for being a Christian. She was arrested and confined in a house of prostitution, and was eventually put to death, although the method of her death is unclear. She was buried near Rome in a catacomb that was then named in her honor, and Constantine’s daughter later built a basilica in her honor.

Saint Ambrose wrote of her in his discourse on virginity, saying: “This is a virgin’s birthday; let us follow the example of her chastity. It is a martyr’s birthday; let us offer sacrifices; it is the birthday of holy Agnes: let men be filled with wonder, little ones with hope, married women with awe, and the unmarried with emulation. It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, receives the name of Agnes [which is the Greek word for “pure”] not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be.”

May the intercession of Saint Agnes lead us all to a reclaiming of virtue and holiness, and above all, an uncompromising love for Christ.

Tuesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is opening the eyes of his hearers, which includes us, as to who Jesus is and what he came to do.  He speaks of Jesus our God, who is higher than the heavens, who became flesh, essentially “lower than the angels.”  The author points out that he did this so that he could become our brother, making all of us sons and daughters of God.  This is helpful because we sometimes don’t see Jesus clearly: maybe we think of him as so far beyond us, or maybe we see him as a best buddy, but really he is both of these, God becoming man so that we can be led to God.

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!”

That can seem remote to us because we don’t have that same kind of demon.  But the truth is, we have to deal with demons all the time: demons of ignorance or apathy, demons of laziness or short-temperedness, demons that lead us to all kinds of sin.  But in Christ, those demons never get to have victory.  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.All of this leads us to proclaim with the Psalmist: “O LORD, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the earth!”

The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today, we celebrate a feast that is commemorated in the first Luminous Mystery of the Rosary.  The Luminous Mysteries were popularized by Saint John Paul II, and illustrate the various ways that Christ’s nature and the purpose of his coming were revealed to us.  That is, they are luminous mysteries because they shed light on who Christ was and is.  I like to think of the Luminous Mysteries as particularly appropriate during the Epiphany part of the year, because as we discovered last week, Epiphany means manifestation; it refers to light being shed on the person of Jesus Christ.

I call this the Epiphany Season.  Epiphany was last Sunday, and today, the Baptism of the Lord is the end of the Christmas Season.  But the Epiphany goes on in some ways for a while: traditionally until February 2nd, the Presentation of the Lord.  So we will see in the readings in this first part of the year, more and more about who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Today we have some wonderful words of Epiphany in today’s Gospel reading.  Here, it is God the Father who speaks of his Son:“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”  Talk about a message of Epiphany.  Anyone who heard it cannot possibly be in doubt about who Jesus was. It was certainly enough to convince Saint John the Baptist, who later testifies to the “Lamb of God” and proclaims that “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

So, if you stop to think about it, we have come a long way since December 25th.  Jesus, the Son of God, has become the son of Mary, and has consecrated the world by his most loving presence.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity has taken on flesh and become one like us in all things but sin.  He took that flesh as the lowliest of all: as a baby born to a poor young family in the tiniest, poorest region of a small nation. He has grown up now, and stands ready to take on his ministry – we will hear more about that next week.  He begins all this by doing what is a very odd gesture: he receives John’s baptism, which is for the forgiveness of sins.

I say it’s an odd gesture because obviously, Jesus didn’t have sins to be forgiven.  So what is this all about?  Why would he set foot into waters that could not wash him from anything?  Well, traditionally, scholars find two reasons for that.  First, by accepting John’s baptism, Jesus identifies himself with sinners, that is, with all of us – the people he came to save.  Nowhere in the Gospels did he ever distance himself from sinners, because of his great love for us.  This then signifies the beginning of his ministry to sinners: the people he would famously dine with and spend time with, and heal and call to conversion. Secondly, his baptism does something to the water.  If the water could not wash him, he could certainly consecrate the water.  By our God setting foot in the waters of baptism, he forever sanctifies the water with which all of us sinners are baptized.  So his being baptized is an act of mercy for all of us, those he came to save.

The secret to our celebration of the Epiphany is that we must be ready to accept the manifestation of Jesus in our own lives.  We have to let him be our king and priest, accepting his death for our salvation.  We have to celebrate our own baptism, which has become significant because Christ has gone through it first, long before us, sanctifying the waters.  We have to accept and treasure the mercy of sharing in his baptism.

This is Jesus: this is the One with whom the Father was well-pleased; he is the One with whom we are in awe.  We are moved to silence before our Christ who came most lovingly to sanctify our way to heaven.  That silence can only be appropriately broken by the exclamation of the Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased!”

Saturday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

By these words, St. John the Baptist indicates that the Epiphany, the manifestation of our Lord in the flesh, is complete.  John’s disciples have got it wrong; they took offense at Jesus baptizing when he himself had been baptized by John.  They assumed that because John had baptized Jesus, that Jesus must in some way be inferior to John.  But John knows his mission as the Forerunner.  He knows that his ministry was one of paving the way for Jesus and the Gospel.  He knows that his own baptism was a mere precursor of the baptism that Jesus would bring, a baptism that imparts the fullness of the Holy Spirit to all believers.

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

St. John the Evangelist tells us in his letters that we are to be on guard against those who come in the name of Jesus but are not of him.  We must be wary of pretenders and totally turn away from false idols.  He has spent this past week in our first readings giving us the standards of discernment that help us to know the Truth.  Anyone of the Truth will testify to the Incarnation of Jesus in the flesh.  Anyone of the Truth will love deeply, and will love neighbors as well as God.  Anyone of the Truth, he tells us today, will cast out sin, from himself and from others.  Even though he may not be perfect, still he will battle sin and turn to Christ incarnate in the flesh for the indwelling of the Spirit, for the grace of his baptism.

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

Christ came in the flesh because, as the Psalmist tells us today, the Lord takes delight in his people.  As his people then, must also delight in him.  We must remember that we are all in the service of the one who came to set us free.  We must remember that our own thoughts, our own desires, all of these are not the be-all and end-all of existence, and quite often, we must die to them in order that God be manifested among us.  As we offer and prepare our gifts for the Eucharist today, may we also offer the decreasing of ourselves in order to pave the way for the increasing of Jesus Christ.

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 do this so that all will recognize in us the presence of Christ.

Because 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.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Today’s readings

“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” This was the question those magi asked after their long and harrowing journey. They had observed the star at its rising and were proceeding to pay tribute to the newborn king. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We know the story well enough; we’ve heard it so many times. But maybe this time, we can make a resolution not to lose sight of this wonderful event in the year to come.

We celebrate Epiphany today, and Epiphany is a revelation, a manifestation of God here among us earthly creatures. Epiphany is God doing a God-thing so

that we will sit up and take notice. But it takes some awareness to perceive such an Epiphany, such a wonderful event. We, like the magi, have to ask the question, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?”

To answer that question, we well might look toward our manger scenes, or assume we’ll only find him in church or in our prayer books, or in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And, of course, we will find the Lord there – those are wonderful places to start. But the event of the Epiphany of the Lord reminds us that God wants to do a God thing in us in all sorts of circumstances. So now we have to find God at work, at school, in our homes, in our community.

Can we see the Lord in the demanding customer, the needy co-worker, the sulky teenager, the hovering parent, the snippy public servant? We have to. We dare not ever miss the opportunity to seek out the newborn King in every situation! How could we ever turn up our nose at an opportunity for grace? Why would we ever knowingly miss a situation that could help us grow in holiness?

Finding the Lord is a journey that we all must make, at every stage of our lives. God wants to do God-things in us all the time, leading us this way and that, helping us to know him in more profound ways and more relevant ways at all the stops and starts of our life-long journey of faith.

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.

Where is the newborn king for us? Are we ready to make the journey?

The Most Holy Name of Jesus

Today’s readings

Not everyone has St. John the Baptist around to point out the Messiah to them. Lots of us, I think, at one point or another, would have loved to have been in the sandals of those apostles when Jesus was passing by. As much as we believe that Christ is present in every person, place and time, I’m sure lots of us would love to have St. John the Baptist point out when we’re missing Christ’s presence in some person or situation. It’s harder when you don’t have the Forerunner showing you the way.

But not everyone even recognized Christ – or at least who he was – in that time and place either. St. John tells us in our first reading that people don’t recognize that we are children of God because they didn’t recognize God in Christ in the first place. So if we miss Jesus in some situation or person, well, our mistake is not unique to us.

During the Christmas season, we are celebrating the Incarnation: the presence of God among us. Of course, this isn’t just about the presence of God among us two thousand years ago, but his real presence among us in every person, in every place and blessing, and especially in the Eucharist. During this time, we might gaze on the manger and long to have been there gazing into the face of Christ. We can gaze into the face of Christ today by taking time for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or time to reach out to someone in need. During this time, we might imagine ourselves next to the Manger on that night long ago, and long to have been there, holding the Christ Child in our arms. In a few minutes, we can come to the Altar and receive our Jesus and hold him in our hands in the Eucharist, receiving him body and blood, soul and divinity. Jesus is just as incarnate, just as Emmanuel, God-with-us, now as he was back then.

We will be strengthened by the Word and the Eucharist today to go forward and see Christ all around us. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

Today, on the octave day of Christmas, which we still celebrate as Christmas Day, we are blessed to remember the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God. We do this because 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 intimately beheld the Word, 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, an goal which we disciples must strive to attain.  God’s call will often take us into unknown territory, as it did for our Blessed Mother, but in faith we are called to say “yes” to his plan for us anyway.  God’s call will often call for sacrifice and even sorrow in the short term, as it did for our Blessed Mother, but we are still asked to give all that we have.  Mary did that without a second thought or a moment’s regret.  How willing are we?  Can we take a leap of faith, make a fiat, and cooperate with God’s work in our lives and in the world?  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.

Today the Church proclaims courageously that 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.  We know that Jesus had two natures: human and divine.  Neither nature was subordinate to the other there was no separation or division or elevation of one nature at the expense of the other; they were both wrapped up intimately with one another, incapable of being divided.  So, because we clearly know that Mary was his mother, we say that Mary is the Mother of God.  And 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 the Blessed Trinity; 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.  And she is the Mother of Mercy, who gave birth to our Savior and birth to our eternity.  She is the Mother of God, and our mother, and we cannot sing our Christmas carols without singing our thanksgiving for her.  We honor her faith and example today, and we ask for her intercession for our lives, for our families, for our Church and for 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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