Tag Archives: Prophets

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple

 

 

Mary temple

Mary, Presented in the Temple: Giotto

The Presentation of Mary, November 21,  is an ecumenical feast that originates, not in the bible, but in an ancient tradition of the church of Jerusalem. The tradition claims Mary was born near the temple in Jerusalem, where her father Joachim provided lambs for the temple sacrifices. He and his wife Ann were old and childless until they were blessed with a daughter whom they presented in the temple as a little child. The tradition is honored by Christian churches of the east and west.

The present church of St. Ann in Jerusalem, next to the ancient temple site, is where the tradition says Mary was born. Besides Jerusalem, Nazareth and a city nearby, Sepphoris also claim to be where she was born.

st.ann basilica

Church of St. Ann, Jerusalem

The Jerusalem tradition may have some support in Luke’s gospel, which says that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was married to Zechariah, a temple priest.  Could Mary’s family also be connected to the temple?

Luke links Mary a number of times to the temple.. Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph go there “when the days were completed for their purification,” (Luke 2,22) Luke also says Mary and Joseph brought Jesus as a child to the temple to celebrate the feasts. Mary’s Son calls the temple familiarly “my Father’s house.”

According to the gospel of James Mary was presented in the temple as a little girl and it gives the impression she lived there until her arranged marriage to Joseph. But the four gospels seem to place Mary far from the temple most of her life, in Nazareth. That’s where the angel speaks to her.    

We might say that for Mary the temple signifies God’s presence, where prophets speak and wisdom can be found. Like Jesus she loved that holy place, but like him she believed the temple of God can be found everywhere, (cf. John 4, 22-26), in Nazareth, Bethlehem, even on Calvary. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Paul would say later to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 3, 16) 

St. Paul of the Cross,  founder of the Passionists, had a great devotion to this mystery and dedicated his first retreat on Monte Argentario in Italy to the Presentation of Mary. He saw his retreats as places where his religious, like Mary, would find themselves in God’s presence, where they could pray, where they would meet prophets and teachers, where they would gain wisdom. 

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.

Lamp for a Dark Place

Spring Lake even

The sky over the boardwalk at Spring Lake, New Jersey, is sometimes swept with colors before nightfall. Then, a lamp is the only light till dawn.

The sun will rise again and the great Sun will also rise again, Augustine says. Then  “lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.”

Darkness is temporary; we are meant for light.

“I implore you to love with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You will come to the fountain, with whose dew you have already been sprinkled.

“Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. Dearly beloved, John himself says, we are the sons of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

“I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.”

We Need Prophets

We’re reading the Books of Samuel  and other “historical” books of the Old Testament at Mass. The readings are wise commentaries on church and state.

We need prophets, they say, but sometimes those you expect to be prophetic don’t seem up to the task, like Eli the old priest in the sleepy temple at Shilo, who misinterprets  Hannah praying for a son and is slow to see his potential successor in Samuel,

The Israelites, split as they were at the time into tribes and clans, need a prophet.  The Philistines smashed them to pieces and took away the Ark of the Covenant. The Israelites scatter; every man flees “to his own tent.” In bad times the temptation is always to flee to your own tent.

Then, they begin asking for a king. Let’s get a king, an army, a strategic battle plan. “That’s not going to save you,” Samuel says, ”In fact, kings, and armies and strategic battle plans can so absorb your attention that you can miss hearing the Word of God.”

One message running through the historical books of the Old Testament is that we need prophets to revitalize both our religious institutions and our political institutions. Our parishes, our dioceses, our religious communities can become sleepy places. “Boring, boring” people say.

That same complaint can be leveled against our political institutions. David is like a Jewish George Washington, but he needs prophets like Samuel to inspire him and prophets like Nathan to correct him. Without the prophets, the people perish.

It seems that Pope Francis is taking on that role for our church and our world today.

25th Sunday C: The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor

Listen to the homily here:

As our young people begin school we pray for them, but let’s not forget to pray for good teachers for them. When I entered my community, The Passionists, in 1950, I was fortunate to have a teacher who went on to become one of the leading figures in the environmental movement. His name was Father Thomas Berry. You can find information about him on Wikipedia. He died in 2009.

I remember the first day he came into class with a stack of booklets in his hands. “We have to know what’s going on today in the world,” he said, “and so we’re going to study The Communist Manifesto.”

Now remember, this was 1950. Senator Joe McCarthy had begun a witch-hunt to root out Communist sympathizers and I think The Communist Manifesto was on the church’s list of forbidden books. We studied it.

Fr. Tom never mentioned Joe Mc Carthy or the threats of a Communist takeover in Europe or what was happening then in China. No, he was interested in where the Communist Manifesto came from. Beyond Karl Marx and Lenin, he traced it back to the Jewish prophets and their demands for justice for the poor and human rights. Probably the prophet with the strongest voice against injustice to the poor was the prophet we hear in our first reading today: the Prophet Amos.

Amos was sheepbreeder, he bred sheep in northern Israel about 700 years before Christ. In those days Israel prospering and so were the countries around her, Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, yet prosperity came at a cost. They were getting everything they wanted–at least, the elite of those societies were getting everything they wanted– and more often than not it was at the expense of the poor.

You can hear Amos’ indictment, not only the people of Israel, but her neighbors as well, for trampling on the needy and destroying the poor of the land.

“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”

Amos was an ordinary sheep herder, but he knew what was going on, and he wasn’t afraid to say what he saw. A prophet calls out everyone, kings, rulers, political people, priests, religious leaders, business people, anyone who’s cashing in on the needy and the poor of the land.

The Lord won’t forget what you have done, he tells them.

God won’t forget what you have done. Notice, the prophet doesn’t appeal to economics and say it’s not good economics to neglect the poor and have a society of “have’s and have nots.” The prophet doesn’t appeal to politics and say a fractured society isn’t good for a community; it will lead to or to violence, riots, internal instability. The prophet doesn’t appeal to human good feeling and say that being good to the poor will help you feel better about yourself. No.

A prophet like Amos sees the world through God’s eyes and God’s values. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” Saints like Mother Theresa do the same thing. They see the world through God’s eyes and God’s values.

That’s why we need to listen to prophets and saints. They help us see things, even the complicated things, right.

1st Sunday of Advent: C Waiting for the Birth of a Child

Audio homily here:

We’re beginning the season of Advent, a season to get ready for the feast of Christmas and the birth of a Child. For four weeks we will light a candle reminding us of the Light to come. We will hear the Old Testament prophets who spoke of his coming, and John the Baptist and his mother Mary who welcomed him when he came.

But today’s readings seem to be getting us ready for the end of the world. And they are. How else can we read what Jesus says in Luke’s gospel?

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Sounds like a nightmare. And it is.

Now, a nightmare’s the last thing we want as we prepare for Christmas and the birth of a Child.
Why read scary things today that seem to echo today’s grim headlines about terrorism, planes shot down, people killed for no reason at all, climate change? We want normal lives. Like the people from the days of Noah whom Jesus describes, we’re looking for good, safe lives “eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building” (Luke 17, 26-30) and seeing the birth of children. We’re looking for a peaceful world.

How shall we understand these readings that seem to describe, not only the reality of our world today, but a world in turmoil and falling apart? Is Jesus telling us, as we listen to them, that God is with us, not only when life is ordinary and good, but also when life holds wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and persecutions. God’s with us at all times, no matter what. God’s kingdom will come, no matter what. So don’t be afraid when you see signs like these, Jesus says. “Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” (Luke 21,28)

Not a hair of our heads will be harmed; we will have the strength to endure whatever happens, we will have the wisdom to keep going, Jesus says.

At the same time, we’re told in the gospel not to live lives of denial or lives of escape. We can’t live unthinking lives, lives of “carousing and drunkenness.” Lives swallowed up by “the anxieties of daily life.“

In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us to live each day as best we can and take up the cross we have to bear each day as best we can. He gives himself to us as an example. As a Child born in Bethlehem, he lived under threats of death and eventually faced death; he lived most of his days in ordinary Nazareth and brief days when he was recognized for powerful deeds. Live each day as it comes, he says, not swallowed up by “the anxieties of daily life,” trapped by small concerns. Live each day as you’re given it; God is there in the ordinary day.

We’re in Advent, getting reading for the birth of a Child, a powerful Child who holds in his hands our future and the future of our world. This same Child is with us each day. We welcome him as the Lord who lives with us each day. The Child we welcome at Christmas is also the Son of Man who will come on the clouds of heaven on the last day, bringing God’s kingdom and judging the living and the dead. He is our Savior and Lord.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: B Elijah, Prophet on the Run

 

For the past few weeks the Old Testament readings at Mass on Sunday from the Book of Exodus have focused on the journey the whole Israelite community made through the desert after being freed by God from enslavement in Egypt. Today, the Old Testament reading at Mass from the Book of Kings recalls the journey of one man, the Prophet Elijah, who fled from the wicked King Ahab and his notorious wife Jezebel.

The Book of Exodus reminds us that God is with us as a people making our way to the Kingdom. The Book of Kings, as it tells the story of Elijah, reminds us that God’s with us individually as we make our personal journey through life.

Elijah is one of the greatest and most powerful of the prophets. He raises people from the dead and brings fire down from heaven on his enemies. He causes the rain to stop in punishment for unbelief. At the time of Jesus people wondered if Jesus weren’t Elijah appearing again. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, Moses and Elijah, two great figures from the Old Testament, appear at his side.

Yet, Elijah leaves no writings, as most of the prophets do, which means we know him mainly from the life he leads.

According to the Book of Kings, Elijah spends most of his life fleeing from Ahab and his wife Jezebel, his mortal enemies. They follow him from water hole to water hole as he flees south from northern Israel. He has to hide in mountain caves and isolated wadis in the desert, with scarcely enough to eat. Elijah may be a powerful prophet, but most of time he’s a prophet on the run.

It’s a difficult, humbling flight. A popular icon of Elijah pictures him hand to his head, wondering if he will make it, as a raven hovers behind him bringing bread for the day. He’s living through a desperate drought; the king and his all his followers are after him. He scrounges for food, even relying on a poor widow with almost nothing of her own. He wishes God would end it all.

The powerful prophet is helpless. He’s living through a drought that God alone can lift. He needs food that God alone can give. He has to wait for God alone to act.

Yet Elijah learns from this experience. It trains him to see. From experience, the prophet learns to see what others may not see, and so he sees God’s redeeming presence in the far-off tiny cloud that promises rain and the whisper of a wind that says God is here, or in a poor widow whom most would say is useless.

In Jesus’ time, people were hoping for a Messiah. Elijah was one type of Messiah some hoped for. He’s closest to the kind of Messiah Jesus was.

Isn’t that true? Isn’t Elijah on the run like Jesus in the mystery of his Incarnation and Passion? “He humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave.” That humbling led to death on a cross. He ended his life a rejected, helpless prophet, yet God raised him up in power.

Elijah invites us to learn from the journey we make, particularly from our experiences of weakness and death. We learn to see through the mystery of the cross. We gain the greatest wisdom through this mystery. What wisdom is better than the wisdom that sees God’s power in a tiny cloud, the slight whisper of a breeze, the helplessness of the poor? That’s a wisdom our times can use.