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.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Today’s readings

One of the great snapshots of Christmas for me has always been the manger scene. These beautiful figurines give us a glimpse as to what God is doing at the Incarnation of Christ – an amazing moment in time!  But I am aware that the idyllic holiness, peace and love the crèche depicts is often quite foreign to the experience of many families, including many families in this assembly. I know there are families where communication is anything but good. There are families who may never have known the kind of love that is shared between Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There are families who struggle with abuse: physical, sexual, or emotional.

Even in the “best” of families, there is often hardship. I know there are families who struggle to keep up with all the activities that are expected of them. There are families who can’t find time to have a meal together, let alone take a trip together. Families often struggle to make ends meet. There are families who struggle with the changing needs of children as they grow older. Families may be separated by great distance, or may have suffered the sickness or death of one of the members. Other families may find themselves changing roles as a parent, the one who provided for his or her children, grows old and becomes ill and then becomes the one in need of care.

Families can be and are the source of our greatest joys and our deepest anguish. Sometimes all in the same day. The truth is, and perhaps you find yourself thinking this as you sit there and listen to these readings today, none of our families is perfect. Few of us would rush to describe our families as well-functioning, let alone holy. And so we can sit there and look at the manger and find its serenity meaningless in the hectic anxiety of our day-to-day family lives.

But maybe we need to look a little deeper or listen a little harder today. “Holy” and “perfect” are not the same thing. We don’t need to be perfect to be a family. That was true of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as well. Would a perfect family have lost their child on the way home from a trip? I don’t think so, but that’s exactly what happened, isn’t it? Mary says to Jesus when they find him that she and Joseph had been looking for him with “great anxiety.” Those of you who are parents can well imagine the anxiety and can totally identify with what Mary and Joseph had to have been feeling.  

Nothing was perfect in that family, not even from the beginning. Right at the beginning, there was a hint of scandal about the pregnancy; they had to flee for their safety; they suffered from poverty and violent threats. Like many modern families in various places in the world, they suffered under political and military oppression, had to settle far from their original home and had to start a new life in a foreign place. Two thousand years may separate the modern family from the “Holy Family,” but there are so many similarities.

So, what we are supposed to see in the Holy Family is something perhaps different from perfection.  I think it is faithfulness.  Faithfulness to God and faithfulness to one another: indeed, it is this faithfulness that leads them to the holiness we celebrate today.  Look at the way the situation in the Gospel reading today was resolved among them.  Even though they were panicked and anxious about the disappearance of their son; even though they did not understand what was going on with him, yet they strove to understand him and loved him beyond measure, and Mary kept all of these memories in her heart, kept them to be sorted out and understood much later.  And even though Jesus was ready to grow into adulthood and ready to begin his mission, yet he understood the concerns of his parents and continued to be obedient to them as he continued to grow in wisdom and grace. They were faithful to one another.

I continue to be aware that even as I pull that theme of faithfulness out of today’s Scriptures, that can still seem insurmountable to many of you. Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger? That’s a hard one to address, but the call to faithfulness is still there for all of us. And we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful. Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please know that this Church family supports you with prayer and love as you do that.

Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters. And every single one of our families is called to be holy. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. Some days we’ll be pretty far from it. But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect. It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship. It means we will love when loving is hard to do. Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die. What we see in the model of the Holy Family for us is not perfection, but faithfulness and holiness.

That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Holiness demands that we seek it; it doesn’t just descend from above. If we want holy families, and we certainly should, we will have to make decisions and even sacrifices to pursue it. We will have to make an honest priority of worship; attending Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation as a minimum without fail. We will have to surround our families in prayer, praying at meals, teaching and reviewing prayers, praying together at night, reciting the rosary together, reading the Scriptures together. Holy families are not going to be perfect in these things, but they will not fail to pursue that holiness every single day. It takes a daily decision to do that; but that is the vocation of the family in the world.

Jesus, emerging from childhood to adulthood, reminds us that in his name, we must be ready to live faithful and holy lives, regardless of whether others are doing the same, and no matter what the personal cost. Because the cost of rejecting holiness in our lives is just too great, and the loss of an earthly family is nothing compared to losing our place in the family of God.

Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

“He saw and believed.” The “other” disciple, often called the “beloved” disciple or the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” is Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, the one we celebrate today. Saint John had a very special relationship with Christ. He wasn’t as zealous and boisterous as Peter could be, but he had a faith as strong as Peter’s in his own way. His was a faith that observed and processed and believed. His was a faith that grew quietly, as he made connections between what Jesus prophesied and what came to pass. It’s no wonder that when he stood at the tomb, “he saw and believed.”

In Saint John’s writings, the theme of love is almost overwhelming. We hear that in today’s first reading, from his first letter. That love is bound up in the whole theme of fleshly existence. John proclaims that because God loved the world so much, he could not bear to be apart from us or aloof from our nature. Instead, he took on our fleshly existence, this body that can so often fail us, can so often turn to sin and degradation, can so often lead us in the wrong direction. Taking on that flawed human flesh, he redeemed it for glory. Through the Incarnation, God proclaims once and for all that we have been created good, that we have been created in love, and that nothing can ever stand in the way of the love God has for us.

Saint John’s preaching of love and the goodness of our created bodies is a preaching that has a very special place in the celebration of Christmas. It was because of that love that God had for us, a love that encompasses our bodies and our souls, that he came to live among us and take flesh in our world. His most merciful coming was completely part of his loving plan for our salvation. That’s the message Saint John brings us on his feast day today, and throughout this celebration of Christmas.

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

There was a great commercial a few years back that has three senior ladies talking.  One of them, the hostess, has taped all kinds of photographs to her living room wall and says that it’s a really quick way to share these memories with her friends.  Just like her car insurance: it only took 15 minutes to get a quote.  One of her friends said she was able to do that in half the time, so the hostess says, “I unfriend you.”  Her former friend says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works!”

I thought of that commercial because I think that, often, many people don’t get how God works. They either think that he’s a capricious policeman who’s always looking for some kind of way to catch them in a trivial sin so that he can send them to the place downstairs, or they think he’s a friend who overlooks all their faults and doesn’t mind if they never give him a second thought.  Both positions are not how God works!

And if you asked a lot of people why Christmas is so important, if they have any religious answer at all, they might tell you that probably God finally found the right answer after so many years of failure.  That all along, from the time of Adam and Eve, people had been doing whatever they wanted, and so God was at his wit’s end and finally just sent his only begotten Son down here to straighten things out.  But that’s not how God works!

The truth is, (as we see in today’s Gospel), that God had always intended to save the world by sending his own Son who was with him in the beginning.  The Word – God’s Son – was with him in the beginning and everything that has ever been made has been made through him.  Not only that, but in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.  The Greek here says literally that he “pitched his tent” among us.  That was the plan – from the beginning – for God’s own Son to become flesh so that we could become like God.  It’s a marvelous exchange!

And when he became flesh, he lived as one of the people in that time.  He walked among them and had all the same concerns they did. He was like us in all things but sin. When the appointed hour came, he took on our sins and was crucified for our salvation.  He died, as we all must do, but so that sin and death would no longer be able to hold us bound to the earth, he rose from the dead and attained eternal life.  Now we the opportunity to do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.  

And he didn’t do that because we are good enough or have earned his mercy and grace.  Because we could never do enough to earn something so amazingly precious.  He did that because he created us in love, and won’t stop loving us until we’re where we belong in that place he has prepared for us in heaven.  It’s all grace, it’s all mercy, we don’t deserve it, but God offers it to us anyway, if we will accept it.  Because that’s how God works.

It’s kind of like the kid in one of my favorite movies, A Christmas Story.  He wanted the Daisy Red Ryder Air Rifle more than anything.  He thought he could earn it by being good enough, but he just gets in a fight with a bully and calls him every name in the book.  He thought he could earn it by helping Dad change a tire, but he drops the lug nuts and says something that was certainly not “oh fudge!” He thought he could write an amazing essay to convince everyone he should have it, but the teacher just points out he’ll shoot his eye out.  But his father gets it for him anyway, because he wants him to be happy, and that’s what fathers do.

Our Father gives us heaven, not because we can earn it or convince him we should have it, but just because he loves us, and he wants us to be happy – happy forever.  And that’s what our Father does.

Jesus became one of us, pitching his tent among us, so that he could gather us all up and bring us back to heaven with him, to the kingdom of God for which we were created, in the beginning.  That was always the plan.  But sin and death keeping us from friendship with God is obliterated by the saving act of Jesus.  Sin and death no longer have the final word, because that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!

Thank God.