Monthly Archives: December 2010

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

The Passionists have daily reflections on the Mass readings and I was the reflector for today:

The final days of the year are days for looking back and looking ahead.  It’s a favorite time for pundits and experts of all kind to take their seats on radio and television talk shows to measure the times.  They mostly see the past and future through the lens of politics and economics. Power and money explain it all, they say.  But do they?

Our readings for today advise measuring things differently. “Children, it is the last hour; ?and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming,? so now many antichrists have appeared.” A grim assessment isn’t it? St. John’s 1st Letter seems to paint the times dark and haunted by evil spirits.

Yet, the opening words of his gospel that follow look beyond the darkness, beyond time and space, to the beginning of it all.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, brings to the world life and light, and darkness cannot overcome him. That’s something to remember as commentators throw up their hands trying to make sense of the world today. Or, more personally, when we hear ourselves thinking we’re going to be overcome by the dark.

The Word became flesh and has made his dwelling among us. “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace.”

God in a Creche

In The New York Times the other day Maureen Dowd’s column was about a visit she and her brother made to see a collection of Christmas crèches in New Haven, Ct. She’s a columnist who makes fun of things, and in this column she made fun of those who compulsively collect crèches. In fact, she bought for herself a bizarre crèche to illustrate how wacky it can get. As I put down the paper, though, I wasn’t laughing.  I had the impression that a crèche doesn’t mean much to her at all.

Today I read a selection from an early Roman saint, Hippolytus,  “Against the Noetic Heresy” and I thought of her and the crèche.  The Noetics, if I remember, were Gnostics who looked down on Christianity because they thought they were smarter than anything it had to offer. They were smart, sophisticated people.

Hippolytus said something like this:

“When God speaks we better pay attention, and God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.  Look at what the scriptures say about him. Learn from what they teach. Believe in what they tell us. You don’t decide the way God reveals himself. God decides that. Look at the way he reveals himself and learn from him.”

We learn so much from the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ. Look at the humility of God, who comes to us as a tiny infant. Look at the way he invites the rough shepherds to be the first to see him as he lights up the dark hills with his glory. So he  welcomes the poorest among us. We are invited to see him too and share in his life and light.

We should pay attention to the revelation of God we celebrate these holy days. It tells us of a God who loves us.  It says that God wants to be near us, to be part of our lives, to lead us to a new life.

Window on the World

The window in my room faces west to a slice of Union City that includes the old monastery church and parking space, some city athletic fields, a crowded  block of houses along 21st Street and a few big oak trees that somehow have survived the urban sprawl.  It’s a wonderful window for taking in the world.

Earlier this morning, Jose reached into the van carrying some neighborhood people to work to bless them, anticipating the morning sun that blesses everything now. A  few minutes ago, a flock of pigeons momentarily touched down on the wires along the street, thenflew away. I can’t figure out their unpredictable ways.

I leave the tiny figures of Mary and Joseph and the Child on the window sill all year because they seem to complete the picture.  Keep your eyes fixed on examples of faith, St. Ambrose said yesterday in his commentary on the Visitation.  Mary saw it in Elizabeth and Elizabeth saw it in Mary. Joseph certainly had eyes of faith too.  The Child is so small.  Only eyes of faith can see him–and everything else as well.

Fishing in the Text

One thing the Christian preachers from patristic times seem to do well is to lead you to the scriptures to search for God’s wisdom there. They seem to do it better than many preachers today who use the scriptures rather like “proof texts” to back up their own observations and ideas, good as they may be.

The patristic homilists  don’t just give you the dish of fish to eat. They teach you how to fish. Here’s St. Ambrose on Luke’s gospel about Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth in today’s Office of Readings. He’s fishing in the text.

Notice in the third paragraph the beautiful way he uses the simple detail that Mary made haste to go to the hill country. It’s a place of grace revealed. “I lift up my eyes to the mountain, from whence shall come my help…”

“The angel Gabriel had announced the news of something that was as yet hidden and so, to buttress the Virgin Mary’s faith by means of a real example, he told her also that an old and sterile woman had conceived, showing that everything that God willed was possible to God.

When Mary heard this she did not disbelieve the prophecy, she was not uncertain of the message, she did not doubt the example: but happy because of the promise that had been given, eager to fulfill her duty as a cousin, hurried by her joy, she went up into the hill country.

Where could she hurry to except to the hills, filled with God as she was? The grace of the Holy Spirit does not admit of delays. And Mary’s arrival and the presence of her Son quickly show their effects: As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting her child leapt in her womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

See the careful distinction in the choice of words. Elizabeth was the first to hear the voice but her son John was the first to feel the effects of grace. She heard as one hears in the natural course of things; he leapt because of the mystery that was there. She sensed the coming of Mary, he the coming of the Lord — the woman knew the woman, the child knew the child. The women speak of grace while inside them grace works on their babies. And by a double miracle the women prophesy under the inspiration of their unborn children.

‘Blessed are you,’ said Elizabeth, ‘who believed’.

You too, my people, are blessed, you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognises his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”

The World Waits Mary’s Reply

Here’s the wonderful  reading from St. Bernard in today’s Office of Readings, which you can get online here:

“You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

“The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
“Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.
“Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word…
“And Mary says, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.'”

Patron of Blended Families

The great old stories from the scriptures have a way of speaking to us today, if we  hear them right. Tomorrow’s gospel from Matthew is about the announcement of Jesus’ birth made by an angel to Joseph.

Joseph is ready to divorce Mary who is mysteriously pregnant, but prompted by the angel he takes her into his home and raises her Child as his own. Anything like that going on today?

How about all the blended families we meet now, where divorce or death have created other groupings not based on original marriage vows or blood relaltionships? The holidays will bring many of them together. Stepfathers and stepmothers, stepchildren.  Some of these families have known divorce, maybe once, or twice or three times. There are kids and relatives from family number one, number two, number three.

Joseph loved  Jesus and Mary with a love, not based on flesh and blood, a love that made him father, husband, and all the other relationships that blood or vows are supposed to bring. He showed us that love is what counts after all.

Later on, Jesus said in Capernaum, when they announced that his family were outside waiting to see him: “Who are my mother and my brothers? “  He was proclaiming a love higher than that based on flesh and blood. He saw it in Joseph.

How about naming Joseph, Patron of Blended Families?

Genealogies tell us who we are

We may stumble over the names in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, our reading for today’s liturgy, but  Pope Leo the Great says in our Office of Readings, the genealogies tell us who he is. “To speak of our Lord, the son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man is of no value to us if we do not believe that he is descended from the line of ancestors set out in the Gospel.”

I reflected about this gospel elsewhere today, but here’s what Leo says about it:

“No doubt the Son of God in his omnipotence could have taught and sanctified us by appearing in a semblance of human form as he did to the patriarchs and prophets, when for instance he engaged in a wrestling contest or entered into conversation with them, or when he accepted their hospitality and even ate the food they set before him. But these appearances were only types, signs that mysteriously foretold the coming of one who would take a true human nature from the stock of the patriarchs who had gone before him. No mere figure, then, fulfilled the mystery of our reconciliation with God, ordained from all eternity…The divine nature and the nature of a servant were to be united in one person so that the Creator of time might be born in time, and he through whom all things were made might be brought forth in their midst.

For unless the new man, by being made in the likeness of sinful flesh, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan. The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition.”

So that’s where the battle and the victory takes place today, in our human condition, where our names are found.