A Palestinian Christian prays in the Church of Nativity on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, West Bank.
CNS photo/Debbie Hill
A Palestinian Christian prays in the Church of Nativity on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, West Bank.
CNS photo/Debbie Hill
Baptism of our Lord, Year C – Sunday, January 10, 2016
The theme of Christ’s epiphany — of Jesus inaugurating his divine mission on earth — reaches its fulfillment in the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The feast seemingly brings an end to the Christmas season, but Christmas really ends with the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2.
In today’s Gospel story (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22), Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee after the baptism preached by John. In describing the expectation of the people (3:15), Luke is characterizing the time of John’s preaching in the same way as he had earlier described the situation of other devout Israelites in the infancy narrative (2:25-26, 37-38). John the Baptist tells of one far greater than he, one with a more powerful baptism.
In contrast to John’s baptism with water, Jesus is said to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). From the point of view of the early Christian community, the Spirit and fire must have been understood in the light of the fire symbolism of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). As part of John’s preaching, the Spirit and fire should be related to their purifying and refining characteristics (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Malachi 3:2-3).
When Jesus is baptized, the voice from heaven booms out and names him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This affirmation is the defining moment for the prophet from Nazareth. It is God’s declaration of love to God’s new Israel; it is God’s naming to supreme accountability; it is God’s surprise for the world of the proud and powerful.
Through his baptism by John in the muddy waters of the Jordan, Jesus opens the possibility to us of accepting our human condition and of connecting with God the way we were intended to. Jesus accepts the human condition, and this includes suffering and death. He stretched his arms out in the Jordan River and on the cross. In the Jordan, Jesus received his commission. On the cross he completed it. Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan identifies him deeply with the people he has come to redeem.
We, too, are called to a prophetic career.
When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. Our baptism is a public, prophetic and royal anointing. We receive the life of the Church and are called to sustain that faith life. Faith is about concern for others. Faith is a public — not private — responsibility.
Baptism is a call to a prophetic career. How we live that out may vary from person to person. The ways may not be as dramatic as the adventures of an Isaiah or a John the Baptist, yet they are in that same great prophetic tradition. To be prophetic is to become involved and to get our hands and feet dirty.
Through our own baptism, we can become a light to others, just as Jesus is a light to us, and to the world. Our own baptism fills us with a certain boldness, confidence and enthusiasm, reminding us that the Gospel must be proclaimed with gratitude for its proven beauty.
When we slowly discover the demands of that faith, and where the way of repentance leads, when we can tell good from evil; when we search for what God wants to do in our lives and ask him to help us accomplish it; when we learn as much as we can about God and his world; when we come near to God, then — at that moment — the person for whom the heavens opened is revealed also to us.
Baptism in today’s Church
In many parts of the world today, baptizing children has already become the exception. The number of unbaptized infants, children, young people, and adults is on the rise. The decline in the practice of baptism is the result of an erosion of family ties and a departure from the Church. During numerous priests’ retreats, gatherings of priests and pastors, I have often heard it discussed that when the priest does not see visible signs of the practice of faith, then the Church would have the right to refuse the sacraments to people, especially baptism. It is a very complex question.
Could we not, however also listen anew to the Gospel missionary injunction to “baptize, preach and teach” not by waiting for the people to come to us but by going out to meet the people where they are in today’s messy world? What is demanded of us is a new missionary fervor and zeal that do not require extraordinary events. It is in ordinary, daily life that mission work is done. Baptism is absolutely fundamental to this fervor and zeal.
The sacraments are for the life of men and women as they are, not as we would like them to be! I can hear Saint Pope John Paul II crying out to us: “Duc in altum!” It is not in the shallow, familiar waters that you will find those who most need you!
The dilemma of withholding baptism and other sacraments from those believed to be unfit because they are not practicing has always been present in the Church. It is a dilemma that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger experienced personally as a young man, and finally resolved later in life. Listen to what Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, said in replying to a related question from a priest of Bressanone in northern Italy, in a public question-and-answer session with the clergy of the diocese on Aug. 6, 2008. The priest, Father Paolo Rizzi, a pastor and professor of theology, asked Benedict XVI a question about baptism, confirmation, and first communion:
Benedict XVI responded with these words, so fitting for us on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord this year:
May today’s feast of the Lord’s Baptism be an invitation to each of you to remember with gratitude and renew your own baptismal promises. Relive the moment of the water that rushed over you. Pray that the grace of your own baptism will help you to be light to others and to the world, and give you the strength and courage to make a difference in the world and in the Church.
[The readings for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord are: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7, or Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Acts 10:34-38, or Timothy 2:11-14; 3:4-7; and Luke 3:15-16, 21-22]
Solemnity of the Epiphany – Sunday, January 3rd, 2016
The term epiphany means “to show,” “to make known” or “to reveal.”
The solemnity of the Epiphany had its origin in the Eastern Church. In Jerusalem, close to Bethlehem, the feast had a special reference to the Nativity.
Today in Eastern Orthodox churches, the emphasis for this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and second person of the Holy Trinity at the time of his baptism.
Usually called the feast of the Theophany, it is one of the great feasts of the liturgical year. “Theophany” comes from the Greek for “God shining forth.”
The West took up the Oriental January feast, retaining all its chief characteristics, though attaching overwhelming importance, as time went on, to the visit of the Magi who bring gifts to visit the Christ child, and thus “reveal” Jesus to the world as Lord and King.
The feast is observed as a time of focusing on the mission of the Church in reaching others by “showing” Jesus as the Savior of all people. The future rejection of Jesus by Israel and his acceptance by the Gentiles are retrojected into this scene of the Matthew’s narrative.
King Herod reigned from 37 to 4 B.C. The “magi” were a designation of the Persian priestly caste and the word became used of those who were regarded as having more than human knowledge. Matthew’s Magi are astrologers. As for the star in Matthew’s story, it was a common ancient belief that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth.
Matthew also draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that “a star shall advance from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17), though there the star means not an astral phenomenon but the king himself.
The act of worship by the Magi, which corresponded to Simeon’s blessing that the child Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), was one of the first indications that Jesus came for all people, of all nations, of all races, and that the work of God in the world would not be limited to only a few.
At home in their distant, foreign lands, the Magi had all the comfort of princely living, but something was missing — they were restless and unsatisfied. They were willing to risk everything to find the reality their vision promised.
Unlike the poor shepherds, the Magi had to travel a long road; they had to face adversity to reach their goal. The shepherds also knew adversity, and it had prepared them to accept the angels’ message.
But once they overcame their fright, they simply “crossed over to Bethlehem” to meet the Christ child. It was anything but a romantic, sentimental pilgrimage that we often see in our manger scenes!
The Magi from the East, foreigners in every sense of the word, were guided not only by their own wisdom and knowledge of the stars, but were aided by the Hebrew Scriptures that now form the Old Testament.
The meaning of this is important — Christ calls all peoples of all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews, to follow him. We could say that Jerusalem and the Old Testament serve as a new starting point for these Gentile pilgrims on their road to faith in Jesus.
The people of the big city, indeed even Herod himself, were instrumental in leading the magi back to Christ!
A tragic adult story
Matthew’s Gospel shows us that right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, the one who is to rule Israel is greeted with the cheers of some and the fearful fury of others. Matthew introduced “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” as advisers of the sinister Herod.
It might appear that they do no more than answer a theological question. Matthew certainly implies something else. In the first place, they, too, had been troubled by the Magis’ word of birth of the Messiah. Knowing that he was paranoid on the subject of any threat to his throne, the Magi should have realized that he would not look kindly upon an infant “king of the Jews.”
By disclosing to Herod the birthplace of the Messiah, the advisers became, effectively, collaborators in his evil intent. In fact it is they, not Herod, who will later bring about the death of the “king of the Jews.” It is the “chief priests and elders of the people” who will plot to arrest and kill Jesus [Matthew 26:3-5, 47; 27:1-2, 12, 20]; “the scribes” are mentioned in 26:57 and 27:41. He was a threat to Herod and to them: to the throne of one, to the religious empire of the others.
The negative reaction of Herod and his advisers, the chief priests and scribes, turns the infancy narrative into a veritable gospel. If we read the story carefully, we realize that far from being a children’s tale, it is a tragic adult story.
Already at Christmas, we see a hint of the inevitable sacrificial death of this “newborn king” — the schism between a worldly ideology and a godly one. The battle lines are drawn and the forces are being marshaled.
Matthew’s Gospel shows us that right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, the one who is to rule Israel is greeted with the cheers of some and the fearful fury of others. To those who are alert to the signs of the times and the places, the coming of Jesus is an invitation to risk and to embark on a journey of faith and a journey of life.
Finding Christ today
A child is born at the same time as a death-dealing power rules. King Herod tries to co-opt the wise men to betray their journey, to end their commitment to future possibility and new life. At the centre of the whole story of striking contrasts lies a baby who is joy. Herod is afraid of this “great joy for all the people.”
Our societies and cultures are becoming increasingly afraid of human life — the greatest joy for all peoples! We must recommit ourselves to life — preserving it, upholding it, blessing it and giving thanks to God for this greatest of gifts.
Some of us are destined to find the Christ child only after a long, tedious journey like that of the Magi. Our worldly wisdom and worldly ways, our ecclesiastical façades need to disappear; we must make sacrifices to find our deepest meaning and peace that is Christ. Most wise people need to make quite a trek if they are to find any lasting meaning.
Simple folk can usually find the Lord by crossing a field like shepherds; they bring their poverty, humility and simple openness. But knowledge, wisdom, power, prestige, and the lack of humility often lead to despair. People who believe they have the immediate, final truth and clarity about anything often are led into bleak, dead-end streets or they remain lost in the desert of solitude, self-sufficiency, selfishness and despair.
In the end, the magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore.
If we are truly wise, let us do what the wise astrologers did. When we hear the voice of the old king of death and fear and cynicism, let us have the courage to go our own way — rejoicing. The star and the journey will send us onwards, by newer paths, to come into the presence of the Child of Light and the Prince of Peace, who is the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest hopes and desires for light, justice, love and peace.
The journey continues
The words of the great French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) speak beautifully of the meaning of this great feast in our day:
[The readings for the feast of the Epiphany are: Is 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; and Matthew 2:1-12]
Reflection for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – Friday, January 1st, 2016
The Christian New Year is celebrated on Jan. 1, one week after the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Jan. 1 has been given several different names that reveal something of the nature of the feast. First of all, the Christian New Year is within the Octave of Christmas (i.e., eight days after the birth of Jesus.) Before the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus or the Naming of Jesus (Holy Name of Jesus) was celebrated on this date to commemorate the Gospel account of Jesus’ circumcision according to the ritual prescriptions of the Mosaic law, thus becoming officially a member of the people of the covenant: “At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus” (Luke 2:21-24).
Following the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council, Jan. 1 has now been known as the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of the Lord, and it has also been designated as the World Day of Prayer for Peace.
We may wonder if New Year’s Day has accumulated so many different meanings that people no longer pay attention to the feast. Is it also not true that the atmosphere of revelry attached to New Year’s Eve hardly leaves anyone with the energy, desire or willingness to consider New Year’s Day as a religious feast? Let us consider some of the biblical foundations for the various meanings attached to the Christian New Year.
Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
In antiquity and in the Scriptures, it is a common belief that the name given to a person is not just a label but part of the personality of the one who bears it. The name carries will and power. The name conjures up the person; there is a desire to know the name and even a reluctance to give it in the Scriptures.
Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2). At his conception, it was announced by an angel that his name would be “Jesus.” The Hebrew and Aramaic name “Yeshua” (Jesus) is a late form of the Hebrew “Yehoshua” or Joshua. It was a very common name in New Testament times. The meaning of the name is “The Lord is salvation” and it is alluded to in Matthew 1:21 and Luke 2:21.
“Yeshua” refers to the Savior and was one of the Christian ways of naming and identifying Jesus. The Greek christos translates the Hebrew mashiah, “anointed one”; by this name Christians confessed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. In the New Testament, the name, person and work of God are inseparably linked to those of Jesus Christ. True disciples of Jesus are to pray in his name (John 14:13-14). In John 2:23 believing in the name of Jesus is believing in him as the Christ, the Son of God (3:18). The name of Jesus has power only where there is faith and obedience (Mark 9:38-39). Believing in the holy name of Jesus leads to confession of the name (Hebrews 13:15). Calling on this name is salvation.
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of the Lord
The second person who is celebrated and honored on the Christian New Year is the mother of Jesus. This young woman of Jewish descent took upon herself the full responsibility of the word “yes” to a mysterious visitor at the Annunciation. By her response, she broke out of the cultural and religious boundaries of her time, manifesting great courage and faith. She literally brought heaven down to earth. Mary of Nazareth lived the memory of events and their meaning — always showing the ability to interpret the whole thread of her life through repeatedly calling to mind words and events.
“Mary” comes from the Hebrew “Miriam” whose etymology is probably from the Egyptian word meaning “beloved.” She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. Her womanhood is not in itself a sign of salvation but it is significant for the manner and way in which salvation happens. There is salvation in no other name but that of the man Jesus; but through this woman, Mary, we have humanity’s assent to salvation. Only in this way can we speak of a feminine realization of God’s salvation.
Today we celebrate the Mary, Mother of God, who is a model for every believer. I cannot help but recall the powerful words of Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright of Durham, England, during the 2008 synod on the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. Bishop Wright, one of the papally-appointed fraternal delegates to the synod, spoke of the four great moments of Mary’s life with four words: Fiat, Magnificat, Conservabat and Stabat. Through her “fiat,” Mary gave assent to God’s Word with her mind. Through her “magnificat,” the Virgin Daughter of Nazareth reveals her strength and courage. In her heart, Mary meditated on and kept God’s Word: “conservabat.” Her fidelity to the end is described by the word “stabat” as she stood at the foot of the cross and waited patiently in her soul for the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy and experienced the new, unexpected and perhaps unwelcome, but yet saving revelation.
God calls each one of us through Scripture in complete love and grace, and the response of the obedient mind is “fiat”: Let it be to me according to your word. We, too, celebrate, with our strength, the relevance of the word to new personal and especially political situations: “magnificat.” Then we ponder in the heart what we have seen and heard: “conservabat.” But Scripture tells us that Mary, too, had to learn hard things: She wanted to control her son, but could not. Her soul is pierced with the sword, as she stands “stabat” at the foot of the cross. We too must wait patiently, letting the written Word tell us things that may be unexpected or even unwelcome, but which are yet salvific. We read humbly, trusting God and waiting to see his purpose unfold. Mary is truly a model and paradigm of belief for Christians.
World Day of Prayer for Peace
The World Day of Peace is an observance launched by the Church under Pope Paul VI in 1967. Christians are invited to begin a New Year praying for peace. The message of Pope Benedict XVI for the celebration of the 43rd World Day of Peace had as its theme: “If You Want To Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” a deliberate play on Paul VI’s famous words, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
In his message that year Pope Benedict presented “a cosmic vision of peace” a peace which “comes about in a state of harmony between God, humankind and the creation. In this perspective, environmental degradation is an expression not only of a break in the harmony between humankind and the creation, but of a profound deterioration in the unity between humankind and God.”
Benedict XVI had already earned a reputation as the “green Pope” because of his repeated calls for stronger environmental protection. The Pope’s language in that New Year’s message was quite forceful. “How can one remain indifferent in the face of problems such as climate change, desertification, the degradation and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase in extreme weather, and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical areas?
“How can one overlook the growing phenomenon of so-called ‘environmental refugees,’ meaning persons who, because of environmental degradation, have to leave — often together with their belongings — in a kind of forced movement, in order to escape the risks and the unknown? How can we not react to the conflicts already underway, as well as potential new ones, linked to access to natural resources? […]
“These are all questions that have a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the rights to life, to food, to health and to development.”
Benedict accented a vision of the cosmos as a gift of God, which human beings have an obligation to “care for and cultivate.” The Pope called for “a profound and farsighted revision of the model of development,” based not only on the needs of today’s “living beings, human and non-human,” but those of generations to come.
At the same time, Benedict XVI insisted that protecting the environment is “the duty of every person,” one which demands changes in personal habits and attitudes. Benedict called for “new styles of life,” based not solely upon the logic of consumption but also “sobriety and solidarity,” as well as “prudence.” For this reason, it is imperative that mankind renew and strengthen “that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.”
“Our present crises … are ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated. They require us to rethink the path which we are traveling together.”
Today, as we celebrate the Mother of the Lord who truly reconciled the many meanings given to today’s feast in her very life and witness, let us echo the words of St. Basil the Great whose feast immediately follows today’s celebration (Jan. 2):
On the Solemnity of the Birth of the Lord, Pope Francis appeared on the Central Loggia of the Vatican Basilica and before imparting the “Urbi et Orbi” Blessing, gave his traiditional Christmas address to the faithful present in St. Peter’s Square and to all those listening via radio and television. Here is the Pope’s 2015 Christmas Message:
Watch Pope Francis deliver his 2015 Urbi et Orbi Christmas Message below:
Christmas Message of Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon
Bishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, SK, Canada presents his 2015 Christmas message. Music by Zjelko Bilandzic of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Saskatoon.
On Thursday, December 24, 2015, Pope Francis celebrated the Christmas Eve Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica. Read the full text of his homily below:
Watch Pope Francis celebrate Christmas Eve Mass below:
Advent is only four weeks long, but from mid november onwards we are bombarded with Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and Christmas Parties. Despite the commercial packaging those songs, symbols and festivities come in, they are actually rooted in our Christian traditions. Tune in Christmas day for Signs of the Season as we explore the Christian roots behind these signs and symbols and how they have become part of the tradition at the heart of the church. Plus we walk through the liturgical traditions of the Christmas season.
Watch Signs of the Seasons Friday, December 25, 2015 at 9 pm ET.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, wrote a special Christmas piece for CNN. Read an excerpt below:
Continue reading the full piece on CNN here.