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.

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.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

I always feel like it’s appropriate that we celebrate the Holy Family today, shortly after Christmas.  This feast helps to underscore that Jesus came to live among us in a very familiar way: by taking flesh and becoming one of us, even being part of a family.  As we praise the Holy Family today – and we certainly should – I’m aware that some families who are here today may have just managed to get here on time, or a little after.  Maybe there was the constant argument with the kids about why they have to go to church.  It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from the latest toy they just got for Christmas.  And so, as we hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is the furthest thing from our minds.

So maybe it’s hard to relate to the Holy Family.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, how do I get one of those?”  Honestly, there are all sorts of families out there: families broken by divorce or separation, families marked by emotional or physical abuse, families fractured by living a great distance apart, families grieving the loss of loved ones or agonizing over the illness of one of the members, families of great means and those touched by poverty, homelessness and hunger, families torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts.  Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but have been unable.  There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in its history.

Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges.  An unexpected – and, without the eyes of faith,  inexplicable – pregnancy marked the days before the couple was officially wed; news of the child’s birth touched chords of jealousy and hatred in the hearts of the nation’s leaders and caused the young family to have to flee for their lives and safety.  Even this Holy Family was saddened, in some ways, by an extremely rocky beginning.

The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing.  We know this.  God knows this.  Yet it was into this flawed but holy structure that the God of the universe chose to come into our world.  Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and to sanctify the whole world by his most loving presence.

St. Paul exhorts us all to be marked by holiness, part of the family of God.  We do this, he tells us, by showing one another “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”  Living in a family, living the Christian life, requires sacrifice.  Some days we don’t feel very compassionate, but we are still called to treat others with compassion.  We might not feel like showing someone kindness, or patience, or being humble. But that’s what disciples do.  But the real sticking point is that whole forgiveness thing.  Because everyone is going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another.  In our families that kind of failure happens all the time.  So just as the Lord has forgiven us, so many times and of so many things, so must we forgive one another.  We live our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this.

But it’s not insurmountable: the Holy Family is the model for us.  I say that because I think what we’re supposed to be seeing in the Holy Family today is not some kind of idyllic perfection.  Certainly they attained more perfection than any of us could ever possibly hope for in this life, but that’s really not the focus.  What I think is worth focusing on is that, even though they knew there would be hard times ahead for them, they faithfully lived their lives through it all.  They continued to be a family, Jesus continued to grow and become strong in his human nature, and to be filled with wisdom and the favor of God.  And that, for us, is something worth striving for.  Being perfect might seem unattainable, but being faithful is in our grasp and faithfulness leads us to holiness.

For Jesus, Mary and Joseph, their faithfulness helped them to absorb the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world.  For us, faithfulness can help us to get through whatever rough spots life may have in store for us and not break apart.

I am aware, however, that as I speak about faithfulness, that it all can still seem far-fetched.  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 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.  Sometimes we have to let go of the hurt we’ve been hanging on to so that we can be free to love.  I know that’s easier to say than to do, but we can rely on the intercession of the Holy Family when we attempt to do this.

Holiness will make demands of us.  It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Simeon and Anna were quite clear that sorrow lay in store for them.  But they continued to live their lives, aided by the Spirit of God, and they all grew strong in wisdom and grace.  Those same blessings are intended for us also, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit and to strive for holiness in our own human families.

Saint Thomas Becket: Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

The birth of Christ in our world ought to mean something to us: the birth of Christ ought to mean a change in our attitudes and our behaviors and even in the course of our lives.

Today is a commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who ultimately lost his life to the man who gave him that prestigious post. When King Henry began to usurp Church rights, Thomas Becket found himself in a bind. Would he be beholden to the king, or would he protect the Church on behalf of the King of Kings? While it was a struggle for Thomas, he ultimately knew that the he must take a stand, no matter what the cost.

In today’s first reading, St. John makes the point very clear. We cannot say we love God and yet defy his commandments. And we certainly cannot love God who is love itself, while at the same time refusing to love our brothers and sisters. Being Christian looks like something, and the world looks at us to see what it is. If the birth of Christ means something to us, we have to share that meaning with the world by loving, no matter what the cost.

Perhaps the one who knew this best was Mary herself. Simeon the prophet knew that he had seen the promise when he looked at the child Jesus. Then he clearly told his mother that this Savior would cost her some happiness in life. Because Jesus would be a contradictory sign in the world, her heart would be pierced with sorrow. But all of this was to make manifest God’s glory.

The birth of Christ in our world and into our lives this Christmas ought to mean something to us. A watching world should be able to look at us and see Christ. May this Christmas find us changing our hearts and minds so that we can be that Christ for all the world to see, no matter what the cost.

Saint Stephen, First Martyr

Today’s readings

Saint Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, chosen to aid in the distribution of food to those in need, so that the Apostles could continue their work.  He was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was unafraid to speak the truth.  And that, of course, is what brings him to today’s celebration.  His unwillingness to cover over the truth and his powerful, indisputable words, did not make him friends with everyone, to say the least.  He was stoned to death, an event in which we see perhaps the beginning of the conversion of a man named Saul, who of course, we know, later becomes Saint Paul.

The truth may, as Jesus tells us, set us free, but not without cost.  Saint Stephen, and later Saint Paul of course, paid for it with their lives, as Jesus did.  But covering over the truth or refusing to speak the truth would have been death of a far worse kind: a death that had no hope of salvation.  Giving his life for the truth and for the faith united Saint Stephen forever with his God, who was his salvation and his joy.

And so on this Christmas day, we are reminded that Christ came to bring the truth, and that that truth would change everything, which, sadly, is not always a welcome thing.  The gift of this Christmas day is the truth, given to us to guard and proclaim and shout without fear.  It is the Spirit who gives us the words of truth to say in any situation, that same Spirit who gave Jesus to Mary in the first place.  We too rely on that same Spirit to help us fearlessly witness to the truth, fixing our eyes as Saint Stephen did on Christ, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.

The Nativity of the Lord: At the Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

A few years back, there was a great commercial out 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 like we 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 can do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.

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!