Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Adaptable Word

 

The Christmas season is a time to reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation, “The Word was made flesh.” God’s love sent him to us, John writes in his 1st Letter:

“In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only-begotten Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.”

St. Maximus the Confessor reflects further on this mystery of love. It’s an adaptable love he says:

“The Word of God, born once in the flesh (such is his kindness and his goodness), is always willing to be born spiritually in those who desire him. In them he is born as an infant as he fashions himself in them by means of their virtues. He reveals himself to the extent that he knows someone is capable of receiving him. He diminishes the revelation of his glory not out of selfishness but because he recognises the capacity and resources of those who desire to see him. Yet, in the transcendence of mystery, he always remains invisible to all.

For this reason the apostle Paul, reflecting on the power of the mystery, said: Jesus Christ, yesterday and today: he remains the same for ever. For he understood the mystery as ever new, never growing old through our understanding of it.”

An adaptable, respectful love. That’s the way Jesus loved us. That’s the way to love others.

 

The Word Made Flesh

Questions about Jesus Christ didn’t end with Mary and Joseph, who brought him into the world and raised him in Nazareth. They continue. The birth of Jesus has consequences that can’t be dealt with in a day.

Some of the questions appear in the readings that follows the Christmas feast, especially in the office of readings.

For example, in the reading for December 30th,  the 3rd century Roman theologian Hippolytus deals with questions his society asked about Jesus Christ– similar in many ways to what our society asks today.

Why pay attention to Jesus Christ at all?

In Hippolytus’ day some denied divine revelation altogether– God was unknowable, they said. Most of his contemporaries believed strongly in a divine presence in the world.

In fact, there was a supermarket of revelations about God, a pantheon of divine beings, all acceptably true. The Roman empire itself tolerated many beliefs and systems, as long as they did not threaten the empire and its institutions.

Hippolytus called Jesus Christ the unique Word of God. “He is the Word through whom you made the universe, the Savior you sent to redeem us.” Words of Hippolytus found in our 2nd Eucharistic Prayer.

Addressing the Jews, the Roman theologian claimed  the prophets spoke “dimly” about God’s Word. Now the Word made flesh speaks clearly through his humanity, and so listen to Jesus Christ.

To the gentile world, Hippolytus also spoke about the Word, Creator and Redeemer. Yet, like today, his world was awash in various philosophies and beliefs. How  hear his message among so many?

We turn away quickly from the Christmas story today, too quickly, and return to the “real world.”  Practical concerns have to be dealt with. Yet, how can they be dealt with if we neglect the great fundamental truths that anchor everything.

So speak out, Hippolytus and those like you, even if you’re not heard. Truth must be told, and told insistently.

Why December 25th?

Ever wonder why we celebrate December 25th as the day of Jesus’ birth? A popular theory  says December 25th was a Christian attempt to replace a pagan festival honoring the Unconquerable Sun. More likely, December 25 was chosen because it was tied to March 25th, the day some early Christian sources say Jesus was conceived and crucified.

Andrew McGowan advocates that theory in Biblical Archeology.

“ There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

“Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

Matthew’s gospel relates the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem by King Herod shortly after Jesus birth, reminding us of the fate awaiting this Child. Artists like the one who painted our picture above– which is honored by my community, the Passionists– also saw the connection.  Mary was warned that a “sword” would pierce her heart.

The mysteries of Christ are joined together. We celebrate his birth, but we also keep in mind his death and resurrection– mysteries  never far apart, in him and in us.

Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more. (Matthew 2, 13-18)

The Feast of the Holy Innocents has its origin in Matthew’s gospel which describes events after the visit of the magi from the east who, led by a star, come searching for the new-born king of the Jews.

An angel tells Joseph in a dream to take the Child and his mother into the safety of Egypt because Herod the Great will search for the Child to destroy him. They will stay there till the death of Herod.

Other children born in Bethlehem will not escape the powerful ruler, who orders a massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under.

Matthew’s gospel is the only source for the massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem by Herod the Great. No historical source from the time mentions it. The massacre is not inconceivable, though, since Herod was notoriously cruel and capable of actions like this, especially when his own power was threatened. His thirst for power led him to kill a wife and three sons in intrigues over succession to his throne, historians of the time report. There were countless other innocent victims of Herod besides.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a reminder of evil in our world, evil that seems to control all, evil that can seem to overwhelm the “great joy that is for you and all the people.” The problem of the suffering of the innocent is never far from us. Philosophers, ordinary people, all of us face it in different ways. Matthew’s gospel sums it up in the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem. Why does God permit such a thing?

The Child Jesus will return from Egypt on a journey his ancestors made before him. Innocent, he will stand later before Pontius Pilate, who will condemn him to a cruel death. And he will rise again from the dead, with the promise of life for those who share in a death like his. Our feast today sees the children of Bethlehem safe in God’s hands, in God’s presence.

“Clothed in white robes, they will walk with me, says the Lord, for they are worthy.” (Antiphon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents)

Matthew’s story is directed, first of all, to Jewish Christians living after Jerusalem has been destroyed and thousands killed by a massive Roman army in 70 AD. Why did God permit this, they ask? Where is the kingdom Jesus Christ promised would come? His message is meant for us too.

Evil will not triumph, Matthew writes. Powerful forces like Herod and the Romans stride the world seemingly unopposed; they take innocent lives, but God will save the weak, the small, the helpless through Jesus, his Son. Another stage in God’s plan is beginning, magi bring his message to other nations. God’s kingdom will come.

Still, Matthew ends his story recognizing the experience of those who must bear suffering in the meantime. He hears the sobbing and the loud lamentation: “Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.”

“She would not be consoled, since they were no more.”

The Word Made Visible

 

 

John evangelist

 

The Feast of St.John the Apostle (December 27) follows the birth of Jesus because the writings attributed to John– the 4th gospel and letters– treat the great question: Who is Jesus, the child born of Mary, who lived in Nazareth, preached in Galilee and Judea, died and rose again in Jerusalem?

John was one of the first disciples called by Jesus at the Sea of Galilee to bear witness to him; John sat beside him at the Last Supper; he went into the Garden of Gethsemane with him, then stood beside his cross. 

As the gospel reading for his feast reminds us, John saw the empty tomb and recognized Jesus risen from the dead. “‘It is the Lord,’ the other disciples whom Jesus loved said to Peter” on the Lake of Galilee as the Risen Christ appears. (John 21, 7) John has a special role identifying Jesus as human and divine. 

Tradition says John was the last of the apostles to die, and so writings identified with him proclaiming belief in both the divinity and humanity of Jesus had special authority in the early church. 

The gospel of John is assigned as the final gospel for Christmas day: “In the beginning was the Word.” The letters of John read at Mass most of the days after Christmas until the Feast of the Baptism continue to proclaim a theme of the gospel of John, that the Word became flesh, and  uphold the humanity of Jesus against those who deny the possibility that God would take human form. 

We know Jesus Christ through his humanity, just as the apostles did, the Ist Letter of John says. The One we know through his humanity is also the Word of God who is God.

“What was from the beginning,

what we have heard,

what we have seen with our eyes,

what we looked upon

and touched with our hands

concerns the Word of life —

for the life was made visible;

we have seen it and testify to it

and proclaim to you the eternal life

that was with the Father and was made visible to us—

what we have seen and heard

we proclaim now to you.” 1 John 1-4

Still Wondering

 

We don’t stop wondering at the Christmas crib. Christmas is over for most people today. The tree’s taken down, decorations put away. But the Christmas mystery is too big for a one day celebration; that’s why the church prepares for this celebration through the four weeks of Advent and continues through the days of the Christmas season till the Feast of the Epiphany. Christmas Day may be over, but our celebration and reflection on the Christmas mystery is not over.

This mystery raises questions and has consequences, which the feasts that follow Christmas Day explore. Since ancient times churches of the east and west have celebrated the feast of Stephen, one of the first disciples of Jesus and the first to die giving witness to him. (Acts 6,8 ff) on December 26.

When Jesus was born “all who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.” (Luke 2,18) But Stephen would be stoned to death when he told about the One who was sent. The message will not always be heard, yet still must be told. 

“The love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven,” St. Fulgentius says of the martyr Stephen.

December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents;  little children from Bethlehem put to death by Herod the Great so no rivals would challenge his power and throne. (Matthew 2, 13-18) When Jesus was born “all who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.” (Luke 2,18) Yet Herod the Great heard the message and tried to end it. The birth of Jesus does not bring an end to evil in the world. The Child is born “for to die for poor orn’ry creatures like you and like I.”  

December 27th is the feast of St. John, the apostle. This is another feast celebrated along with the Christmas feast by all the churches of the east and west from earliest times. It explores the great question: Who is this Child born of Mary? Writings identified with John the Apostle– the 4th Gospel and letters–  are read at Mass on Christmas Day and days that follow the feast. 

Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, is true God and true man, “the Word made flesh, the Word of God who made all things, dwells among us.”

Like the shepherds who watched in the darkness we need to keep our eyes on this sign of light:  “the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Like Mary, we need to keep reflecting on this mystery in our heart to appreciate what it means for the world and for us. Like Joseph we don’t stop wondering.

 

mary 10