Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Adaptable Word:December 31

What Child is This?

We try to understand the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, in the Christmas season, but it’s beyond our understanding.  Yet the carols, the art, the scriptures, the liturgy, the customs of the season keep reflecting on it.

This morning we sang “What Child is this?” remembering the shepherds and the angels from Luke’s gospel, who greeted “with anthems sweet” the Child on Mary’s lap, sleeping. We sang of the “Silent Word”, pleading for us–John’s gospel. “So bring him incense, gold and myrrh.“ We join the magi from Matthew’s gospel, honoring him. 

Looking through some portrayals of the Nativity recently, I noticed how some 15th century artists influenced by St. Bridget of Sweden’s visions have Mary and Joseph adoring the Child, not in a stable, but on the bare earth, which he has come to save.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’ gospel for today is the inspiration for our Mary Garden. Mary holds her Child up to creation, symbolized by the garden, the Silent Word who blesses all.

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God’s love sent him, John writes in his 1st Letter, repeating the Prologue of his gospel: It was not a show of power, but a revelation of love. “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.”

How can we understand it? St. Maximus the Confessor says that God comes among us according to our capacity to receive him. God adapts his coming to us, his love is an adaptable love:

“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 recognizes 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 God loves us. That’s the way to love others.

An 84 Year Old Apostle: December 30

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St.. Luke begins his account of the infancy of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem; where an angel announces the birth of John to Zechariah. He ends his account as  Mary and Joseph take the Child to the temple, “to present him to the Lord.”

Two elderly Jews, Simeon and Anna, meet the Child. Simeon joyfully takes  the Child in his arms. “Now you can dismiss your servant in peace, Lord, because my eyes have seen your salvation.” No temple priests, no officials, no angels, just two old people meet the Child.

Anna, an 84 year temple regular and a widow after being married for only seven years,  also sees the Child. “Coming forward at the very time,” Luke says, “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting ttion of Jerusalem.”

The Lord comes to the 84 year old woman, to Simeon, to Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds in the hills, the wise men from afar. He comes to all. John’s letter read also today says that too.

Anna gives thanks at the sight of the Child and speaks about him to everyone she meets. At 84, she becomes an apostle.

It ain’t over till it’s over.

His Kindness Has Appeared

What does Jesus Christ reveal about God? He is the Word of God who reveals God to us, St. Bernard says, and in him “the kindness and love of God has been revealed and  we receive abundant consolation in this pilgrimage, this exile, this distress.”

Before he appeared as human, God’s kindness lay concealed, Bernard says. “Of course it was already in existence, because the mercy of the Lord is from eternity, but how could we know it was so great? It was promised but not yet experienced: hence many did not believe in it. At various times and in various different ways, God spoke through the prophets, saying I know the plans I have in mind for you: plans for peace, not disaster…”

“What greater proof could he have given of his mercy than by taking upon himself what needed mercy most? Where is there such perfect loving-kindness as in the fact that for our sake the Word of God became perishable like the grass? Lord, what is man, that you make much of him or pay him any heed?”

“See how much God cares for us. See what God thinks of us, what he feels about us. Don’t look at your own sufferings; look at God’s sufferings. Learn from what he was made for you, how much he makes of you; let his kindness be seen in his humanity.”

“ The lesser he has made himself in his humanity, the greater has he shown himself in kindness. The more he humbles himself on my account, the more powerfully he engages my love. The kindness and humanity of God our Saviour appeared says St Paul. The humanity of God shows the greatness of his kindness, and he who added humanity to the name of God gave great proof of this kindness.”

Days Following Christmas

December 30 Mon Sixth Day within the Octave of the Nativity

1 Jn 2:12-17/Lk 2:36-40 

31 Tue Seventh Day within the Octave of the Nativity

[Saint Sylvester I, Pope]

1 Jn 2:18-21/Jn 1:1-18 

JANUARY 2020 1 Wed SOLEMNITY OF MARY, THE HOLY MOTHER OF GOD

([Holyday of Obligation]

Nm 6:22-27/Gal 4:4-7/Lk 2:16-21

2 Thu Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen,

 Bishops and Doctors of the Church Memorial

1 Jn 2:22-28/Jn 1:19-28 

3 Fri Christmas Weekday

[The Most Holy Name of Jesus]

1 Jn 2:29—3:6/Jn 1:29-34 

4 Sat USA: Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Religious Memorial

1 Jn 3:7-10/Jn 1:35-40

At the Shepherds' Field

By Orlando Hernández

     East of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem lies the mostly Christian suburb of Beit Sahur. It is believed that somewhere in the area of this town is the site where the hosts of angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas morning (Lk 2: 8-20). In a large open space one can visit ruins of Byzantine monasteries and churches doing back to the 4th Century. An Orthodox Church and a nearby Catholic Church commemorate the event. This place, known as Shepherd’s Field, is beautiful, located on a high point looking into a barren valley that is believed to once have been the field where Boaz and Ruth first met, surrounded by hills dotted with modern Israeli settlements in the distance. It is certainly a good vantage point from which to see heavenly things on a starry night. 

     Grottoes can be visited, where the ancient shepherds once kept their animals, and where artifacts from the 1st Century have been found, In these grottoes Franciscan priests celebrate the Mass with pilgrims all day long. One place that caught my attention and devotion was the “Chapel of the Angels”, designed by Antonio Barluzzi in the early 1950’s. It has a strange dodecagonal ( twelve-sided)shape, with a steep dome, supposed to resemble a shepherd’s tent. Inside it is graceful, peaceful, and filled with light from the many star-like openings in the dome. There are three semicircular chapels, each with a painted mural telling the story of the shepherds on Christmas morning. I have tried everywhere to find the name of the artist but I have not been able to. Our guide said that if we look carefully at the murals we can see the different reactions that persons of different ages can have in the presence of the Divine. 

     In the first mural one can see that their initial reaction was one of dread and awe as “the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were struck with great fear.”(v 9b) The young shepherd looks shocked, but still dares to look up at the angel. There is even a sort of smile on his face, showing the child-like wonderment that a young person can still feel. The adult shepherd cannot even get up. He looks scared and puts up his hand to shield himself from the Light (don’t we do that too!), but still he peeks through! The old man (to whom I relate the most), cannot even look up. Is it reverence, or a sense of guilt and unworthiness before such a Holy Presence? 

     The angel reassures them: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”(v 10) Then the angel sends them on a mission (“You will find an infant …”). So many times in our own lives our loving God soothes our fears and doubts, and then inspires us to action. 

     In the second mural their mission takes place: “They went in haste and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying on the manger.”(v 16) The mural depicts a scene of light and peace. Time seems to almost stand still. The young man kneels relaxed, but respectful, transfixed. He holds the little lamb with care, as if holding a baby. The adult shepherd, no longer afraid, is inspired to activity, to play a lullaby to the child Jesus. He seems moved by tenderness (God is Love!). The old man genuflects with open hands, in reverence , worship, invitation. He no longer shows fear. Instead he seems peaceful. He dares to look, smiles, loves, fells gratitude in the comfort of God’s benign presence. St. Joseph has an expression of contentment, maybe even a father’s pride. Mary, who is our greatest example of the Christian life, seems thoughtful, in meditation: “Mary kept all these things reflecting on them in her heart.”(v 19) All this happens in the light of the Divine Presence of the Newborn King: a sweet little baby!

     In the third mural we see the shepherds returning to their hill, still being showered by Grace, displaying the fruits of such intense contact with God. The youth is full of wild, delirious joy. He dances and sings. The adult channels this energy in a creative way, making a music that calms the sheep. The old man displays incredible joy in his eyes. We see such gratitude and love as he touches his heart and looks up to heaven. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them .”(LK 2:20)

      Dear Sisters and Brothers. I pray that your Christmas experiences in 2019 leave you with some of the grace, wonder, and glory that the shepherds found on that Christmas morning at Beit Sahur.

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)

Matthew’s gospel alone describes the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the Innocents. An angel tells Joseph in a dream to take the Child and his mother into the safety of Egypt to stay till the death of Herod.

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

What do we make of this story?. No historical source from the time mentions it, but the massacre isn’t inconceivable. Herod was notoriously cruel, especially if his own power was threatened. He killed his wife and three sons, historians of the time report. There were countless innocent victims besides. New Herods still kill the innocent. Just listen to the daily news.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us evil is in our world, seeming to contradict the “great joy that is for you and all the people.” Philosophers, ordinary people, all of us face it in different ways. Why does God permit such things?

The Child Jesus returns from Egypt unharmed, but later Jesus will stand innocent before Pontius Pilate who condemns him to a cruel death. Then, he rises from the dead, promising life to those sharing in a death like his. Our feast today sees the children of Bethlehem sharing in his resurrection, safe in God’s hands. Evil does not have the last word.

“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 was destroyed in 70 AD,, when thousands of innocent people were killed by a massive Roman army. Why did God permit this? Where is the kingdom Jesus Christ promised, they must have asked? We ask this too.

Evil doesn’t triumph, though it stride the world seemingly unopposed. But God saves the weak, the small, the helpless through Jesus, his Son. Matthew’s story of the Magi promises God ‘s kingdom will come to all.

Still, Matthew recognizes those experiencing the suffering of the innocent.. 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.”