Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

A long time ago now, someone once gave my family an ornament for our Christmas tree.  It was very curious: basically just a large nail hung from a green ribbon.  You probably already know the significance of the nail: when looking at the manger, we remember the cross.  When gazing on the Christmas tree, we remember the tree from which our Savior hung.  The nail was a reminder that Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are all part of the same mystery.

Saint John of the Cross is a good reminder of this truth.  Born in Spain, he eventually became a Carmelite.  He came to know a Carmelite nun by the name of Teresa of Avila, and through her urging, joined her in a reform of the Carmelite order.  His great writings helped to accomplish this and are noted as spiritual masterpieces, and helped him to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.  But not everyone, of course, agreed with the reform of the order, and he paid the price for it by being imprisoned.  In some ways, Saint John of the Cross reminds me more of Lent than Advent.  But then, so does that nail ornament.

Even as we wrap ourselves in the hope and promise of Advent, we have to pause and remind ourselves of what the promise is all about.  Jesus came to pay the very real price for our many sins.  And that, dear brothers and sisters, is a gift of incomprehensible worth!

Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

The whole progression of Advent is one that has always captured my imagination. I see Advent as a kind of dawning of a new day. Just as the day doesn’t come all at once, so Advent progresses and we see the coming of Jesus ever more gradually as we participate in each day’s Liturgy of the Word. At the same time though, night doesn’t last forever, and the day arrives more quickly than we might be ready for. I think that’s kind of where we are at this sort of late-middle point of Advent.

Today we see some glimmers of light. The prophet Balaam speaks of a star advancing from Jacob and a spear from Israel. This wasn’t terribly good news for Balaam’s people, but it sure is for us. The hope of all the earth was in the somewhat distant future for the people of Israel, and even though in the Gospel that hope was standing right in front of them, the Truth of it all had not yet dawned on the chief priests and elders.

Today we celebrate Saint John of the Cross, who was ordained a Carmelite priest at age 25, in 1567.  With Saint Teresa of Avila, he undertook to reform the Carmelite order.  He pursued holiness by embracing the cross of Christ, which is why he is named, “of the Cross.”  He had the opportunity to embrace that cross, because his efforts to reform the order met with quite a bit of opposition, leading eventually to being imprisoned.  During his months in prison, he experienced what he called a “dark night of the soul” or a feeling of abandonment in his spiritual life.  The agony of this situation led ultimately to light, or as he called it, an ascent to Mount Carmel.

Balaam and Saint John of the Cross both prophesied the coming of the light. Balaam’s people weren’t ready, Saint John’s critics weren’t ready, and in our Gospel, the chief priests and the people weren’t ready. But the light is near, for us in this more than halfway point of Advent, and for our world in what can be a dark time. The questions is, are we ready? Have we been progressing faithfully this Advent? Has the light been made ever brighter in our hearts? Are we progressing toward the dawning of the day, or will it happen all at once and find us unprepared? This is the time to light the lamp if we’ve been keeping it dim. This is the time to wake from our sleep. Our salvation is near at hand.

Saint John of the Cross

Today’s readings

Today at Mass we hear from three prophets.  A prophet is a person who helps us to see God.  And during Advent these prophets help us to see God coming to be born in us.

And we have to admit: lots of times we don’t see God.  We’re either too busy to notice God, or too wrapped up in ourselves to care about God, or just completely disinterested in the whole notion of God.  Sometimes we just don’t want to see God because we would rather be doing what we want to do and not what’s best for ourselves or others.  God can see through all of that, and prophets help us to see through it too.

We hear from three prophets today.  The first is the prophet Isaiah, and we heard from him in today’s first reading.  The people of Israel had turned away from God a whole lot.  God often made a new covenant with them, and then after a while, they would lose interest and get distracted and turn away from God all over again.  So in today’s reading, Isaiah is trying to wake them up once again.  He tells them if they had stayed on the right path, the path God marked out for them when he made a covenant with them, if they had followed his commands, they would have been blessed by good fortune, many descendants, and a rich land and nation that would never have been destroyed.  It’s too late for that now, but maybe by seeing what caused their misfortune, they can turn back to God and let him heal them.  Which is something God is always longing to do.

The second prophet we hear from today is St. John the Baptist, and we hear about him in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus is frustrated with people of Israel – again! – because just about nothing could get their attention.  When John the Baptist went around fasting and staying away from strong drink, the people thought he was weird and couldn’t relate to his message to repent of their sins.  But when Jesus came along asking them to repent also, he ate and drank just as they did, so they judged him harshly and wouldn’t listen to him either.  They always had an excuse, and of course it was never their fault.  Kind of sounds like us sometimes, doesn’t it?  Basically, no matter who was calling them to reform their lives and no matter how they proclaimed that message, the people wanted to do what they wanted to do, and nothing was going to persuade them to change.

The third prophet we hear from today is Saint John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today.  Saint John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar, a kind of monk who was vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience.  He was called by God and by his friend, Saint Teresa of Avila, to reform the Carmelite Order.  The Carmelites had relaxed some of their rules over time, and had basically turned away from the life that had been envisioned when the Order started.  Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila founded a reformed Carmelite Order, and Saint John suffered for it terribly.  In those days, religious affairs were all tied up in the government of the nation, and so there was a lot of politics.  People didn’t agree with Saint John, so he was taken prisoner for over nine months.  Even when he was released, his fellow friars who didn’t agree with him went around to all the monasteries making trouble for him.  He was oppressed for his preaching of reform almost until the day he died.

Each of these prophets had been given a message by God.  Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist called the people of Israel to turn back to God.  Saint John of the Cross called his fellow Carmelites to turn back to the ideals on which their Order was founded.  All of them suffered for their witness to the truth.  Prophets don’t usually have an easy life.  But if we will get past the politics and get over ourselves, we might hear from them a call that leads us back to God who will make us happier than we’ve ever been.

During Advent, we remember that Christ is always near to us, and we remember that we must always turn back to him and let him be born in our hearts once again, stronger than ever.  And so during Advent, we hear from the great prophets like Isaiah, John the Baptist, and John of the Cross who are calling us to turn back to God and to prepare a way for Christ in our lives, in our hearts, and in our world.

Today in our Psalm we hear what God is trying to tell us through all these prophets:

Blessed the one who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.

And we will be happy too, if we hear God’s call through the prophets and follow in his ways.

St. John of the Cross

Today’s readings

St. John of the Cross was ordained a Carmelite priest at age 25, in 1567.  With St. Teresa of Avila, he undertook to reform the Carmelite order.  His personal pursuit of holiness by embracing the cross of Christ, living up to his name.  He had the opportunity to embrace that cross, because his efforts to reform the order met with quite a bit of opposition.  During his months of imprisonment, he experienced what he called a “dark night of the soul” or a feeling of abandonment in his spiritual life.  The agony of this situation led ultimately to light, or as he called it, an ascent to Mount Carmel.

In those moments when we too feel abandoned, may St. John’s journey give us hope that we will come through our dark nights into the light of Christ.