Monthly Archives: December 2014

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is an important figure in Advent and Christmas Time. She’s known mostly from events of this time, in  fact. The angel visits her at Nazareth, she visits  her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the coming of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple, the finding of the Child Jesus in the temple after his loss for three days. All these events are  recorded in Luke and Matthew’s gospels.

We remember them especially on the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. (January 1st)

The gospels offer only a sketchy profile of Mary because they focus on Jesus, her Son. She’s a witness to his humanity and divinity. “For us and our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” (Creed)

The Christmas liturgy reminds us that through her, Jesus took “a body truly like our own.” (Collect, Monday of Christmas Time) Jesus “accepted from Mary the frailty of our flesh.” (Collect, Monday of Christmas Time) She’s the way the Word became flesh. The First Letter of John, read in Christmas Time, warns against the denial of this fundamental truth of faith.

By taking a body “truly like our own” and accepting “from Mary the frailty of our flesh,” Jesus humbled himself, assuming the limitations that come from being human. Mary is his way, giving him birth, nursing him as a infant and raising him as a child.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” For 30 years Jesus led a hidden life in the silence of that small town in Galilee. Mary was his companion. “I confess I did not recognize him,” John the Baptist says twice when Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized. (John 1,29-34) His own in Nazareth did not recognize him either.

He went unrecognized, and so did Mary, who shared his hidden life. She performed no miracles, did not publically teach; no angel came again after the first announcement to her.

We can pass over the Hidden Life that Jesus embraced too quickly, I think, even though the Christmas mystery tells us of it. We forget that to be transformed into glory means accepting “the frailty of our flesh,” which  Jesus accepted it to raise it up.

“…though invisible in his divine nature, he has appeared visibly in ours;
and begotten before all ages, he has begun to exist in time;
so that, raising up in himself all that was cast down,
he might restore unity to all creation
and call straying humanity back to the heavenly kingdom.”
(Preface II of the Nativity)

St. Mary Major is the main church in Rome dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. You can visit it in the video above. It’s also called “Bethlehem in Rome” because many of the Christmas mysteries were first celebrated there and relics from Bethlehem were brought to it after the Moslem invasion in the 8th century.

SuperStock_1788-1275[1]The great mosaic of Mary in heaven crowned by Jesus, her Son, stands over the altar in the church as its focal point. She was his companion in his hidden life; he raised her up through the mystery of his resurrection.

The Word of God

Here’s a Christmas sermon by St. Augustine, who’s reflecting on the mystery of Jesus Christ. If you think about it, many of the paradoxes we see in him are analogously evident in us. “Wonderfully, fearfully made,” “children of God” we are godlike, yet at the same time we experience the limits of a fallen humanity. Revealing who he is, the Word made flesh reveals who we are.

The Word of God, maker of time, becoming flesh was born in time.
Born today, he made all days.
Ageless with the Father, born of a mother, he began counting his years.
Man’s maker became man; the ruler of the stars sucked at a mother’s breasts,
Bread hungered,
the Fountain thirsted,
the way was wearied by the journey,
the truth was accused by false witnesses,
the life slept in death,
the judge of the living and the dead was judged by a human judge,
justice was condemned by injustice,
the righteous was beaten by whips,
the cluster of grapes was crowned with thorns,
the upholder of all hung from a tree,
strength became weak,
health was stricken with wounds,
life died.
He humbled himself that we might be raised up.
He suffered evil that we might receive good,
Son of God before all days, son of man these last days,
from the mother he made, from the woman who would never be, unless he made
her. (Augustine, Sermon 191, 1; PL 38, 1010)

Readings here.

The Beautiful Unknown



King David is told by the Prophet Nathan in today’s reading from the Book of Samuel that God comes in unexpected ways. The king wants to build a great temple to honor God– perhaps a palace of costly cedar wood like his own – but God needs no royal palace, the prophet says. Buildings  inevitably fall. God promises David something that will never fall. Through generations, God will be with David’s descendants. Good or bad, it does not matter, God will be faithful to the promise.

It’s a  promise meant for us too. God abides with us in Jesus Christ, from one generation to another. Civilizations come and go; nations rise and fall, cities prosper and decay, but God remains with the world he created. He will not abandon it. We hope too in the promise made to David. “The Lord is king; let the earth rejoice.” The Tree of Jesse grows.

In our gospel reading, Zechariah praises God for the child he doubted would come. John does not follow his father as a priest in the temple, but instead goes into the unpredictable wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. Like John each generation must go out to meet the beautiful unknown.

We misunderstand the mystery of the Birth of Jesus if we see it solely as something of the past. We limit our hope for the future if we see it only in terms of the world we know. The Birth of Jesus, like all his mysteries, is never over; it abides and throws light on the world to come.

The Gospel of St. Matthew and the Virgin Birth

holy family

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about,” today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel begins. He describes it through the experience of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Matthew’s account is summarized in the creed. “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God…who by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

Is this true? Here’s Pope Benedict XVI:

“The answer is an unequivocal yes. Karl Barth pointed out that there are two moments in the story of Jesus when God intervenes directly in the material world: the virgin birth and the resurrection from the tomb, in which Jesus did not remain, nor see corruption.

“These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain–but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point. God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter also belong to him?

“Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing with the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense, these two moments – the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb–are the cornerstones of faith.

“If God does not have the power over matter then he is simply not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.”

(The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, pp 56-57 )

Like the temple rulers in Jerusalem who rejected Jesus in his time, there are those who reject him today.

You can find the scripture readings for today here.

3rd Sunday of Advent: Who are You?

To listen to the audio of today’s homily, please select play on the audio bar below:

According to today’s gospel, Jewish officials and Pharisees from Jerusalem sent representatives to John the Baptist as he was baptizing in the Jordan River near Jericho asking “Who are you?” “Are you the Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet?” “Why are you baptizing?”

John the Baptist is an interesting figure in the gospels. He’s a strong figure who knew who he was and who he was not and wasn’t afraid to be the person God wanted him to be. “I’m not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet,” John answers. “I am the voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. ’”

John knew who he was. He could have said he was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Zechariah, John’s father, was a priest in the temple of Jerusalem who surely expected his son to follow him as a priest. That was an important religious role in Judaism which was handed down from father to son.

But John chose a different course. God led him another way. He didn’t follow his father into the temple as a priest. We don’t know when, but John went down to the Jordan Valley where the road ascended to Jerusalem, and preached and baptized the crowds going up to Jerusalem to the temple of the Lord. The clothes he wore, his style of life set him apart from everyone else.

John doesn’t seem to care how he looked or what people thought of him. He certainly didn’t choose an easy place to be, a desert place. There’s a strength and determination in John that later Jesus himself praised.

John was what God called him to be, and he wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. He had a voice for God, even if he sounds at times like a drill sergeant getting people ready for the battle of the last days. He said unpopular things to powerful people and faced the consequences. Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea, arrested him and put him to death.

Jesus admired John the Baptist for being who he was.

It’s so important to be who we are and who God calls us to be, isn’t it? I suppose that’s one of the graces of our Advent season. It reminds us that Jesus Christ came into this world for a reason, but we are reminded too that we came into this world for a reason. We have our unique gifts and should recognize them. We have been given a voice to speak as God would have us speak, and we should use it.

Who are you? Why are you doing the things you’re doing? Those are wonderful questions. “Who am I? And what am I doing with my life?”

Looking at John the Baptist


John the Baptist, in the fierce wilderness of the Jordan Valley, preaches and baptizes pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. What do we learn from him in the days of  Advent? Son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, John is six months older than Jesus, as Luke reckons it in his gospel. We wonder how close they were as children growing up.

John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River at the beginning of his ministry, but then they seem to part ways. Even as they do, John offers Jesus two of his own disciples, Peter and Andrew. Their only contact afterwards, however, seems to be through messengers.

Both preach a message of repentance, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 3.2; 4,17). Both call for people to change, but Jesus’ message contains a surprising mercy not found in John’s preaching:

“When John speaks of the One who is to come, he is thinking of an executor of divine judgment, not so much of him through whom God’s mercy and love are made visible. He expects the kingdom of God to arrive in a storm of violence, in the immediate future, with the Messiah’s first appearance… From what we know of his preaching, he seems transfixed by the vision of the judgment and finds nothing to say about the salvation the Messiah will bring.” ( Rudolf Schnackenberg Christian Existence in the New Testament, Volume 1, University of Notre Dame 1968, p 39)

“The ax is ready to cut down the tree that bears no fruit,” John says. Repentance dominates his message. I think of him as a drill sergeant readying troops for the coming battle.

Jesus urges repentance too, but with a tenderness and compassion not found in John. “Go tell John what you hear and see…” he says to messengers John sends. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the dead are raised.

Jesus reveals God’s mercy, not only  through his many miracles, but also in his teaching. Think of the stories of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the thief on the Cross– signs of God’s mercy, God’s patient mercy.

You must take a desert road, John says in his preaching. You must take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, but again, the way’s not hard–his yoke is easy, his burden light.

Jesus doesn’t dismiss John. There’s none born of woman greater that he, Jesus says. John has integrity, he’s not swayed by what other people think or say, not swayed by public opinion or the fear of failure, or sickness, or deprivation, or death. He’s not swayed by winds good or bad. His face is turned to God, his ears hear God’s word, his voice speaks what he hears.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

We tend to see the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, which says that Mary was preserved from original sin from conception, as a gift just for her and not affecting us at all. It’s a gift that makes her unlike us.

St. Anselm, the 12th century monk who became archbishop of Canterbury, sees it differently. Mary shows us what being human and being part of God’s creation was meant to be. She is the first to be blessed by Jesus Christ, her son. All of us, yes even creation itself, also benefit from the gift:

“Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to our power or use – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. All creatures were dead, as it were, useless to us or for the praise of God, who made them. The world, contrary to its true destiny, was corrupted and tainted by human acts of idolatry. Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices.

“The universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God, its Creator, it sees God openly, working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.

“Through the fullness of the grace given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain.

“Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance. Virgin, blessed above all creatures, through your blessing all creation is blessed, not only creation from its Creator, but the Creator himself has been blessed by creation.”