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Child of Light, Prince of Peace

 

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Christmas Reflection on the readings for Midnight Mass
Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

Each year on Christmas Eve, the Church presents us with beautiful Scriptural readings for the traditional Christmas Midnight Liturgy. The familiar text of Isaiah 9:1-7, Psalm 96, the selection from Paul’s letter to Titus (2:11-14) and the selection from the Lukan infancy narrative (2:1-14) are filled with rich and powerful images which often do not have justice done to them because of so many other things happening around the celebration of the Savior’s birth! A closer look at the messages of the prophet Isaiah and the evangelist Luke can help us to discover words of hope and consolation offered to a world which lies in waiting for the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Immediately preceding chapter 9, Isaiah’s testimony has built up a frightening picture of the darkness and distress about to descend upon both Judah and the northern kingdom. What is this terrible fate and darkness of the people and why? After King Ahaz and his people have clearly rejected the Word of God (cf. Is 7:10-12; 8:6a) the Lord declares that he will hide his face from the house of Jacob (8:17) as an indication of his dismay and anger. In a time of anguish and panic due to the wrath of God, people have taken recourse only too easily to mediums and wizards (8:19). But Isaiah observes that it is ridiculous to consult the dead on behalf of the living. In chapter 8:16-22 we read of of the terrible fate that could overtake the people: “there is no dawn for this people”(8:20). Instead there is hunger, thirst and misery showing itself in physical as well as spiritual deprivation. People’s hearts are darkened and their spirits are greatly disturbed. They get enraged and curse their sinful king and the God whom they have forsaken.

Chapter 9 stands in total contrast to chapter 8. The opening line of 9:1 forms a transition from the darkness of 8:22. Isaiah now proclaims a message of hope and consolation as darkness and gloom give way to light and joy. The great light comes decisively into this profound darkness. It is a light which tears people away from their confusion and emptiness, from the violence and tyranny of the oppressor.

The symbols of the Assyrian oppression: the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, shall be broken (9:4). The garments of war shall feed the flames (9:5). The destruction of war-like equipment heralds an age of peace…symbolically described in 2:4 “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The description of the royal birth in 9:6 is similar to those found in coronation rescripts of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The royal child will possess the wisdom of Solomon, the valor and piety of David, the great virtue of Moses and the patriarchs (11:2). Presumably the child spoken of would be King Hezekiah. This beloved verse clearly describes the new roles for the coming King. Contemporary kings of Judah had been disastrously advised and were powerless in warfare.

By the title “Wonderful Counsellor” the new King will have no need for advisers such as those who led Ahaz astray. Former kings of Judah had been anything but fathers to their people, and they had achieved neither peace nor prosperity. “Everlasting Father” describes the quality of his rule. Isaiah portrays a king who will not be a failure in any one of these respects.

This king’s authority shall grow continually and bring about endless “Shalom”, thus fulfilling the promises to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever”(II Samuel 7:16).

The birth of this child has consequences both social and political as well. The kingdom of the future will be characterized above all by justice and righteousness– in glaring contrast to Isaiah’s contemporary Judah (cf. 5:7) and indeed to every human kingdom in some degree. The virtues of judgement, justice, and righteousness (9:7) which sustain the Davidic throne are beautifully summed up in the word “Shalom” whose Hebrew root means wholeness, harmony and completion. As a result of this new king’s reign, people will live in harmony with God, each other and nature.

It is no wonder, then, that Christians and the Church have appropriated Isaiah’s exultation of this brilliant light and royal birth for our own celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christian tradition and the Christmas liturgy have applied the royal titles of Isaiah 9:6 to the Child of Bethlehem–presenting him as “Emmanuel”, the One who is our true light and our lasting peace.

We know the Lukan Infancy narrative (Luke 2) so well that we often forget what lies at the heart of its message. It is filled with a very deceptive simplicity. Much more than a charming tale, appealing to the heart and the imagination of the believer, Luke’s story is one of God writing straight with our human, crooked lines. It is a story of poverty and simplicity, excitement and surprises, sadness and joy; a story of military occupation and oppression, a light in the darkness. Beyond the charm of the story, Luke’s message is clear: no event in our shadow-filled history of the world is alien to the coming of the Savior.

No power, however violent and oppressive, escapes the reach of God’s purposes. The Lukan Gospel story of the birth of Jesus calls for the whole world, and not only for Israel, to welcome the birth of the Son of David. We are invited to follow shepherds and kings, saints and sinners, and that long cortège of witnesses of all generations as they seek the light in the darkness and share their message of good news with a world steeped in darkness.

And yet there is a tremendous and rather terrifying paradox at the heart of the gospel story: this great heir to the Davidic line comes to inherit his ancestor’s throne in the form of a tiny, powerless baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger (2:12). There is also the joyful and saving paradox of the power of God manifested in this child…those who accept this paradox are invited to make it, in the light of the cross and the resurrection, the standard of their deepest attitudes.

Luke’s birth of the Child at Bethlehem shows us that the Lord God has indeed been faithful to these words. Our existence is an endless Advent, and these two readings for the Christmas midnight liturgy invite us once again to commit our energies to all that the Child of Bethlehem stands for and is.

He is “Wonderful Counsellor”, deeply concerned with the ultimate good and wholeness of others. His gentle advice to us never leads us into destruction but only into the fullness of life.

He is “Mighty God”, directing our human history, but also living it with us. He is more powerful than any military force or revolution, and yet his force and might are revealed in hearts and eyes meeting.

He is “Everlasting Father”, teaching us what it means to be constantly present to others, giving life, blessing life and celebrating life. He is unable to abandon us, as so many human beings are capable of doing.

He is”Prince of Peace”, the bringer of reconciliation, wholeness, harmony and completion to the human family. He knows how to nourish hope among his people. Because of him, we can live in harmony with God, each other and nature.

Is there room for such a child in our hearts at Christmas? If we allow him to truly dwell within us, then we shall know once again that in the midst of our own deep darkness and fear, from a crib in Occupied Bethlehem and a cross in Jerusalem, God’s vulnerable heart can bring light, healing and salvation to our own.

(CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Joseph: The Faithful and Wise Servant, a reflection by Fr. Thomas Rosica

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St. Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus, whose Father is God alone, and yet he lives his fatherhood fully and completely.  He is often overshadowed by the glory of Christ and the purity of Mary. But he, too, waited for God to speak to him and then responded with obedience. Luke and Matthew both mark Joseph’s descent from David, the greatest king of Israel (Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38). Scripture has left us with the most important knowledge about him: he was “a righteous man” a “just man” (Matthew 1:18).

Joseph was a compassionate, caring man. When he discovered Mary was pregnant after they had been engaged, he knew the child was not his but was as yet unaware that she was carrying the Son of God. He planned to divorce Mary quietly according to the law but he was concerned for her suffering and safety. Joseph was also a man of faith, obedient to whatever God asked of him without knowing the outcome.  When the angel came again to tell him that his family was in danger, he immediately left everything he owned, all of his family and friends, and fled to a strange country with his young wife and the baby. He waited in Egypt until the angel told him it was safe to go back (Matthew 2:13-23).

We are told that Joseph was a carpenter, (more likely a builder), a man who worked to provide for his family. Joseph wasn’t a wealthy man, for when he took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and Mary to be purified he offered the sacrifice of two turtledoves or a pair of pigeons, allowed only for those who could not afford a lamb.

Joseph revealed in his humanity the unique role of fathers to proclaim God’s truth by word and deed. His paradoxical situation of “foster father to Jesus” draws attention to the truth about fatherhood, which is much more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children.  Joseph was keenly aware, as every father should be, that he served as the representative of God the Father.

The Gospel, as we know, has not kept any word from Joseph, who carries out his activity in silence. It is the style that characterizes his whole existence, both before finding himself before the mystery of God’s action in his spouse, as well as  when — conscious of this mystery — he is with Mary in the Nativity. On that holy night, in Bethlehem, with Mary and the Child, is Joseph, to whom the Heavenly Father entrusted the daily care of his Son on earth, a care carried out with humility and in silence.

Joseph protected and provided for Jesus and Mary. He named Jesus, taught him how to pray, how to work, how to be a man. While no words or texts are attributed to him, we can be sure that Joseph pronounced two of the most important words that could ever be spoken when he named his son “Jesus” and called him “Emmanuel.” When the child stayed behind in the Temple we are told Joseph (along with Mary) searched frantically with great anxiety for three days for him (Luke 2:48).

As Pope Benedict has taught us:

What is important is not to be a useless servant, but rather a “faithful and wise servant”. The pairing of the two adjectives is not by chance. It suggests that understanding without fidelity, and fidelity without wisdom, are insufficient. One quality alone, without the other, would not enable us to assume fully the responsibility which God entrusts to us.

What great words for St. Joseph, because in Joseph, faith is not separated from action. His faith had a decisive effect on his actions. Paradoxically, it was by acting, by carrying out his responsibilities, that he stepped aside and left God free to act, placing no obstacles in his way. Joseph is a “just man” (Mt 1:19) because his existence is “adjusted” to the word of God.

Joseph, the “foster-father” of the Lord reveals that fatherhood is more than a mere fact of biological generation. A man is a father most when he invests himself in the spiritual and moral formation of his children.  Real fathers and real men are those who communicate paternal strength and compassion.  They are men of reason in the midst of conflicting passions; men of conviction who always remain open to genuine dialogue about differences; men who ask nothing of others that they wouldn’t risk or suffer themselves.  Joseph is a chaste, faithful, hardworking, simple and just man.  He reminds us that a family, a home, a community, and a parish are not built on power and possessions but goodness; not on riches and wealth, but on faith, fidelity, purity and mutual love.

How could I speak of St. Joseph here in the Crèche Museum of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal without saying something about the dreamer and architect of this magnificent place, Brother André Bessette, the Canadian Church’s newest Saint.

Brother_Andre2Brother André wanted Saint Joseph honoured on this mountain. In 1890, he took a young student with him on one of his regular Thursday meditation walks. Taking the student up to the mountainside across the street from the College Notre Dame, he told him, “I have hidden a medal of Saint Joseph here. We will pray that he will arrange the purchase of this land for us.” For six years he persevered in prayer for that intention, and in 1896, his prayers were rewarded. The Holy Cross Congregation purchased the land and Brother André put a statue of Saint Joseph in a little cave on his chosen site. Placing a bowl in front of the statue, he planned on collecting alms from Saint Joseph’s petitioners, alms which would be used to build a chapel.

What started out as a fifteen-by eighteen foot chapel in 1904 became a minor basilica in 1955, and was completed — interior and all — in 1966. In his lifetime, the shrine became big enough to warrant having a full-time guardian, a job to which Brother André was appointed in 1909.

The piety that St. André had toward the Patron of the Universal Church was simple and childlike too:

When you invoke Saint Joseph, you don’t have to speak much. You know your Father in heaven knows what you need; well, so does His friend Saint Joseph. … Tell him, ‘If you were in my place, Saint Joseph, what would you do? Well, pray for this in my behalf.’

To the people who came to him with their troubles — and thousands did — the friend of Saint Joseph recommended the use of sacramentals, like Saint Joseph’s oil or a Saint Joseph medal. Most of all, he recommended persevering and confident prayer, usually prescribing a novena to his powerful benefactor.  Because he learned how to pray with fervour, persistence and joy as a child and young religious, Brother André was able to urge people to pray with confidence and perseverance, while remaining open to God’s will.

He admonished people to begin their path to healing through commitments to faith and humility, through confession and a return to the Sacraments. He encouraged the sick to seek a doctor’s care. He saw value in suffering that is joined to the sufferings of Christ. He allowed himself to be fully present to the sadness of others but always retained a joyful nature and good humour. At times, he wept along with his visitors as they recounted their sorrows. As he became known as a miracle worker, Brother André insisted, “I am nothing … only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.”

God our Father,
You gave Brother André of Montreal,
your humble servant, a great devotion to St. Joseph
and a special commitment to the sick and the needy.
May the example of his life and ministry inspire us to ever-greater works of charity, in generous service to our brothers and sisters in need.
Give us the strength to surrender ourselves to Your will,
and to be instruments of your loving mercy.
Help us to follow Brother André’s example of prayer and love,
so that we too may come into your glory.
Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Television Network

(CNS photo/archives of St. Joseph’s Oratory)

Advent Sign of Hope and Peace: Cuba and the USA

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Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB.

In light of yesterday’s welcome announcement of a normalizing of relations between Cuba and the United States of America, and in gratitude for the heroic, diplomatic efforts of Pope Francis, who built on the foundations laid by his predecessors Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II in bringing this about, I offer below what I wrote back in 1998 when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. It was one of my first experiences commentating a papal visit for national television in Canada, long before Salt and Light Television was born! These thoughts appeared in the Newman Centre Sunday bulletin on Sunday January 25, 1998.

The Old Man and the See…

Journalist: “Your Holiness, in this historic visit [to Cuba], what would you like to hear from Fidel Castro?

Pope John Paul II: “Above all I want to hear the truth always and everywhere, that he [Castro] always tell me the truth, the truth that is proper to him, as a man, as president, as commander, one says, of the revolution. Also the truth about his country, the relations between Church and State, everything which is important for us. The Cuban President knows well who the Pope is, and if he invited him and did it after his visit to the Vatican [in 1996], it means that he thought first about who he was inviting, what he could say. Moreover, one cannot forget in this context that there is Providence, the Providence which leads the fate of the world, of mankind, of peoples, of individuals. Therefore, I think that the two of us must place ourselves in the hands of Providence. Certainly, the world is not only supported and led by us, it is guided by Divine Providence, and the history of the world is not only the history of peoples and states, it is the history of salvation.”

–From the Press Conference aboard the Alitalia jet carrying Pope John Paul II to Cuba this past Wednesday

There are electric‚ moments in life when all seems to stop and we fix our gaze on some event, some happening, some image, some person, not in tragedy or despair, but in a strange sense of admiration and awe. Such moments are few and far between, their duration ever so short. But when they happen, they leave a deep, lasting impression on us. I experienced one such moment this past Wednesday at about 3:45 P.M., sitting in the anchor booth of the main newsroom at CTV. I had been asked the day before to be the commentator for this national network’s live coverage of the arrival ceremony of Pope John Paul II in Havana, Cuba. The event was fraught with several ironies. I am American-born, therefore part of that looming, capitalistic, enemy country of this small Communist island 90 miles off the Florida coast. Castro’s revolution in Cuba began the same year I was born 1959, so I literally grew up knowing that Fidel Castro was a national enemy one of those evil names not to be mentioned aloud. I am a Catholic priest and my Polish-born leader, clearly in the twilight of his 20-year reign, and undoubtedly a towering giant of this century, was going to be welcomed by another, similar figure larger than life. A 100-year-old ideology that proposed a collective paradise of social justice and economic equality on earth would confront a 2,000-year-old belief in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Redeemer of history, a belief in the eternal power of devotion to the divine and reverence for human dignity.

Not to mention the simultaneous breaking story of the American President and the latest Washington scandal. The message John Paul II was bringing to Cuba about faith, morals, family life, human dignity, freedom, truth and justice, was so badly needed in the corridors of power and in the homes of the enemy nation some 90 miles away!  In the minutes just preceding the flight’s touchdown on Cuban soil, I watched the studio personnel around me scramble between computers and television monitors, almost as if they were trying to decide which story was more important- Castro’s and Karol’s or Clinton’s.  My own fervent request  – which was heeded by CTV – unlike all the other North American networks whose monitors were mounted on the wall above us, was not to do a split screen of the arrival ceremony with President Clinton and his cronies on one side and Castro and Karol on the other!  It seemed to me that the Cuban story was a bit more earth-shattering‚ and deserved a little more attention and respect than the latest White House scandal.

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As was pointed out on all the major television networks this week, Cuba set the stage for the meeting of two absolute rulers! Both are traditionalists and conservatives within their faiths. Each is charismatic and charming, larger than life, with power rooted his persona. Each plays a dominant role on the world stage, imposing his belief system on millions of followers. Both are skilled politicians, dressed in the uniforms of their vocations! I shared the joy of my own Church at this historic visit. On the one hand, I harbored some bitter feelings about America’s 35-year-old embargo against this small island nation that is the last hold-out for the Communist ideology that has failed. On the other hand, I was proud of Canada’s consistent policy of openness and assistance to Cuba during America’s 35-year old cold war with Cuba.

The message John Paul II was bringing to Cuba about faith, morals, family life, human dignity, freedom, truth and justice, was so badly needed in the corridors of power and in the homes of the enemy nation some 90 miles away!
…And then the moment arrived. The plane door opened and the frail Pontiff appeared to the thunderous applause of the crowd at the airport. Fidel Castro stood at the bottom of the stairs, like a little kid waiting for his grandfather to come into the house. Castro did something remarkable– he waved at the Pope! The electric moment was happening not only on the tarmac, but all around me in the studio.

…For a good 7-8 minutes, there was not a sound in the studio, except for the voices coming from the Cuban television hookup. I could not help but remember a similar airport welcoming scene several years ago when another great world leader and giant of this century [and a personal hero of mine], welcomed the poet and playwright-now-become-Bishop of Rome to the Czech Republic. In a 1974 poem, which Václav Havel quoted as he welcomed Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla wrote:

“History lays down events over the struggles of conscience. Victories throb inside this layer, and defeats. History does not cover them: it makes them stand out. Can history ever flow against the current of conscience?”

This past Wednesday, January 21, 1998, Fidel Castro welcomed a man of conscience to Cuba. I am sure that Castro didn’t fully know what he was getting into in welcoming the Pope to his country. Nor do I think that John Paul II is totally aware of the implications of his visit to the island nation, and its impact on the world. Only time will tell. Both men were acting under the impulse of Providence. What I do know is that in one electric moment, history and conscience met on the tarmac in Havana. I am certain that a new era began for the people of Cuba, but also for the people of the world. In a very particular way we look with the eyes of faith to our own century, searching out whatever bears witness not only to human history but also to God’s intervention in human affairs. John Paul II’s visit to Cuba is one of the great promissory events of the end of this century and millennium, and clearly one more great sign of God’s grace at work among us, ushering in the Great Jubilee of the year 2000.

Centuries ago when Jesus returned home to his Nazareth synagogue, there was a similar electric moment. He took the Isaiah scroll and began to read from chapter 61. The eyes of the assembly were fixed upon him. Jesus took up the Jubilee theme in the first moments of his ministry. Jesus read: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” At the end of his reading, Jesus boldly announces: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” [Luke 4:16-30] thus indicating that he himself was the Messiah and that the long-expected “time” was beginning in him.

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The words and deeds of Jesus represent the whole tradition of Jubilee in the Old Testament. The text from Isaiah was taken from a collection of poems about the last days which foretold the redemption of Jerusalem and symbolized the renewal of the people of Israel. When these words are placed on Jesus’ lips, they identify him as the messianic prophet of the final times, and they state his mission: to proclaim the Good News, liberate men and women, and tell them of God’s grace. In asserting that these words are fulfilled “today,” Jesus is saying in effect that the inauguration of his public ministry marks the beginning of the final times and the entry of divine salvation into human history.

Through Jesus’ own appropriation of Isaiah’s words to his own ministry, he was reminding us that that history did not cover up the triumphs and disasters, the fidelities and infidelities of Israel throughout the ages. Rather, history made them stand out. And now the time had come for Jesus to take history into his own hands, to confront it with his own person, to make a difference, and to remind his hearers that God had not abandoned their cries, their hopes, their sufferings, their dreams. Rather, God would fulfill them in his own Son who stood before them now in the Nazareth synagogue. Once more, history would not flow against the current of conscience. In Jesus, history and conscience meet, ‘steadfast love and faithfulness embrace; righteousness and peace kiss each other’ [Ps. 85:10]. It was an electric moment in Nazareth. It was an electric moment in Havana. May you be shocked by God’s power this week wherever you are. But once you are over the shock, do something with the new current pulsating within you.

The Advent Season’s Brightest Jewels

Antiphons

“Come, Lord Jesus!”  “Tomorrow, I will be there!”

During the final week of Advent the Church offers us an intense time of preparation for the feast of the Nativity, and the Roman Church in particular sings a series of antiphons at Vespers that magnificently set forth the nature of the coming One.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, Evening Prayer, also know as Vespers, always includes Mary’s great hymn known as the Magnificat. Each evening, the Magnificat is preceded by a short verse or “antiphon” that links the prayer to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the antiphons before the Magnificat are very special.  Each begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the prayer becomes increasingly urgent.

It is believed that the “O Antiphons” were composed in the 7th or 8th century when monks put together texts from the Old Testament, particularly from the prophet Isaiah that looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich mosaic of scriptural images. The “O Antiphons” became very popular in the Middle Ages when it became traditional to ring the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.

Each of the O Antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel.  Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah.  A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS.  These can be understood as the words of Christ, responding to his people’s plea, saying  “Tomorrow I will be there.”

Here is a rendering of this ‘season’s brightest jewels’ that can help us understand more clearly how Jesus has fulfilled the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Israel.

O antiphons 1December 17  O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God (Sir. 24:3), you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care (Wisd. of Solomon  8:1).  Come and show your people the way to salvation (Isa. 40:3-5).

December 18  O Sacred Lord of Ancient Israel (Exod. 6:2, 3, 12), who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:  come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

December 19  O Flower of Jesse’s Stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples (Isa. 11:10; Rom. 15:12); kings stand silent in your presence (Isa. 5:15); the nations bow down in worship before you.  Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid (Hab. 2:3; Heb. 10:37).

December 20  O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven (Isa. 22:22; Rev. 3:7); come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom (Isa. 42:7; Ps. 107:14; Luke 1:79).

December 21  O Radiant Dawn (Zech. 6:12), splendor of eternal light (Heb. 1:3), sun of justice (Mal 4:2):  come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Luke 1:78-79; Isa. 9:2).

December 22  O King of all the Nations, the only joy of every human heart (Hag 2:8); O Keystone (Isa. 28:16) of the mighty human arch (Eph. 2:14); come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust (Gen. 2:7).

December 23  O Emmanuel (Isa. 7:14; 8:8), king and lawgiver (Isa. 33:22), desire of the nations (Gen. 49:10), Savior of all, come and set us free, Lord our God.


How Do We Solve a Problem Like Maria?

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Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 21, 2014

“The Sound of Music” stage play and I are the same age — both from that vintage year of 1959 — and the film version was the first “motion picture” I saw as child in the mid 1960’s with my family. God alone knows how many times I have seen it since on stage, at the theater and on television!

The famed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music” has been delighting audiences around the world for decades, making theatres across the globe “alive” with the sound of music. This magnificent production first opened in England under the direction of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and arguably contains the best-loved songs of all time.

Solving the problem of Maria von Trapp

One of the memorable songs of the play is “Maria,” sometimes known as “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” It is sung brilliantly by Sister Berthe, Sister Sophia, Sister Margaretta and the Mother Abbess at the Benedictine Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, Austria. The nuns are exasperated with Maria for being too frivolous, flighty and frolicsome for the decorous and austere life at the abbey. It is said that when Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics for this song, he was taken by the detail of her wearing curlers in her hair under her wimple!

When older Austrians in Salzburg speak of Maria, it is the “Gottesmutter,” the Mother of the Lord! When the foreigners, especially North Americans, arrive in Salzburg and speak about Maria, it is usually the other one: Maria Augusta Kutschera, later Maria Augusta von Trapp, who was a teacher in the abbey school after World War I and whose life was the basis for the film “The Sound of Music.”

Because of this Maria, the abbey acquired international fame, to the consternation of some of the sisters! Having visited Nonnberg Abbey on several occasions while I was studying German in nearby Bavaria, I spoke with a few of the elderly sisters about the impact of “The Sound of Music” on their life. The prioress told me that they have no plaques up about Maria von Trapp and her escapades at the abbey nor in Salzburg! One elderly sister said to me, with a smile, “Das ist nur Hollywood!” (That is only Hollywood!)

Solving the problem of Maria von Nazareth

The Gospel story of the Annunciation presents another Maria, the great heroine of the Christmas stories — Mary of Nazareth — the willing link between humanity and God. She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. She received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” “tossed it around,” “pondered it” in her heart (Luke 2:19). At Calvary she experienced the full responsibility of her “yes.” We have discovered in the few Scripture passages relating to her that she was a woman of deep faith, compassion, and she was very attentive to the needs of others.

Maria von Trapp followed the captain and his little musical family through the Alpine mountain passes of Austria, fleeing a neo-pagan, evil regime that tried to deny the existence of God and God’s chosen people. Some would say that they lived happily ever after in Vermont in the United States, and that their musical reputation lives on through the stage production enchanting Toronto audiences at present. The hills are still alive with their music!

The “problem” of Maria of Nazareth began when she entertained a strange, heavenly visitor named Gabriel. The young woman of Nazareth was greatly troubled as she discovered that she would bear a son who would be Savior and Son of the Most High.

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” The angel left her and then the music began: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” It would become a refrain filling the world with the sound of its powerful music down through the ages.

The message Mary received catapulted her on a trajectory far beyond tiny, sleepy Nazareth and that little strip of land called Israel and Palestine in the Middle East. Mary’s “yes” would impact the entire world, and change human history.

Problem solved

Mary of Nazareth accepted her “problem” and resolved it through her obedience, fidelity, trust, hope and quiet joy. At that first moment in Nazareth, she could not foresee the brutal ending of the story of this child within her. Only on a hillside in Calvary, years later, would she experience the full responsibility of her “yes” that forever changed the history of humanity.

If there are no plaques commemorating Maria von Trapp’s encounter with destiny at Nonnberg Abbey, there is one small plaque commemorating Mary of Nazareth’s life-changing meeting in her hometown. Standing in the middle of the present day city of Nazareth in Galilee is the mammoth basilica of the Annunciation, built around what is believed to be the cave and dwelling of Mary. A small inscription is found on the altar in this grotto-like room that commemorates the place where Mary received the message from the angel Gabriel that she would “conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). The Latin inscription reads “Verbum caro hic factum est” (Here the word became flesh).

I can still remember the sensation I had when I knelt before that altar for the first time in 1988. That inscription in the grotto of the Annunciation is profound, otherworldly, earth shaking, life changing, dizzying and awesome. The words “Verbum caro hic factum est” are not found on an ex-voto plaque in the cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, nor engraved on the outer walls of the Temple ruins or on governmental tourist offices in Jerusalem. They are affixed to an altar deep within the imposing structure of Nazareth’s centerpiece of the Annunciation. “This is where the word became flesh.” This is where history was changed because Mary said “yes.”

Could such words be applied to our own lives, to our families, communities, and churches — “Here the word becomes flesh”? Do we know how to listen to God’s Word, meditate upon it and live it each day? Do we put that word into action in our daily lives? Are we faithful, hopeful, loving, and inviting in our discourse and living? What powerful words to be said about Christians — that their words become flesh!

However beautiful and catchy are the tunes of Maria of Salzburg, the music of the other Maria, the one from Nazareth, surpasses anything I have ever heard.

[The readings for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38]

Rejoicing and Waiting

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Third Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 14, 2014

Advent is the season of the prophets and the Scripture readings of these weeks before Christmas help us to focus our vision and deepen our longing for the Messiah.

In this year’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, the figure of John the Baptist appears once again on the stage of salvation history. John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John, himself, was not the light. He came to testify to the light. He didn’t spend time thinking about his shadow. He just allowed the light to shine on him.

John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize — the one coming after me — the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten” (John 1:26-27). When John’s own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he answered them confidently: “No one can receive anything except what is given them from above.” John says he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (John 3:25-30). The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.

In one of the most poignant scenes of Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist is imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 3:19). Alone, dejected and near the end of his life, John the Baptist, hailed as the “greatest of all prophets,” had to ask the question, “Are you really the Messiah?” John probably expected a fiery social reformer to come and bring about the Kingdom, certainly not someone who would associate with the poor, the lame, the blind, outcasts and sinners. Yet Christ comes in the most unexpected ways and often in the most unlikely people.

Jesus invites John to look around and see the works that had already been accomplished in the midst of people. The blind recovered their sight and the lame were walking again. Diseases and illness were healed and all those who were deaf could hear. The Good News was now preached to the poor. That was the greatest wonder of all! This is a great consolation for us. We should never be surprised if we often find ourselves asking the same question — “Is Christian living really worth it?” “Is Jesus really the answer to all the evils and sadness of the world and of our own lives?

The crowds came to John and asked him, “What then shall we do?” The Baptist advises no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be. Rather he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none. Likewise, those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry. Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them. Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation. They were to be content with their wages. What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah? To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate (cf. Luke 3:10-14).

John the Baptist’s life and mission reminds us how badly we need a Savior to save us, in order that we might be all that we are called to be and do all that we have to do to live in the Light. How are we courageous and prophetic in our Christian witness to the Light, who has already come into our world? So often we fail to recognize the one among us who is our True Light.

May John the Baptist give us strength and courage to bear the light to others, and the generosity and ability to rejoice as we wait. “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing,” Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians. We can also reverse the order of these two sentences: “Pray without ceasing, so that we will be able to rejoice always.”

In prayer we experience God’s gathering up all of our concerns and hopes into his own infinite love and wisdom, his setting us back on our feet, and his giving us fullness of life and light.

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28]

Biblical Foundations of Marian Piety and Devotion

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Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

A very significant turning point in Marian piety and devotion occurred with the Second Vatican Council’s renewal and reform of the liturgy. A decade later, Pope Paul VI issued a remarkable encyclical letter on Marian devotions ‘Marialis cultus’ in 1974. In this landmark document, Pope Paul VI provided guidelines that are as relevant today as they were when first proposed more than 40 years ago. Among the important points in that papal document, we find the following:

  1. Every element of the church’s prayer life, including Marian devotions, should have a biblical imprint. The texts of prayers and songs should draw their inspiration from the Bible and be ‘imbued with the great themes of the Christian message.’ This means that they should be free of pious sentimentality and of the temptation to view Mary as more compassionate than even her Son, who is our one and only Redeemer.
  2. Marian devotions should always harmonize with the liturgy. Novenas and similar devotional practices, including again the rosary, are not to be inserted, hybrid-style, into the very celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharistic celebration is not simply a backdrop for private prayer.
  3. Marian devotions should always be ecumenically sensitive. ‘Every care should be taken to avoid any exaggeration which could mislead other Christian brethren about the true doctrine of the Catholic Church.’ There should never be a doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus Christ is our sole Mediator with God.
  4. ‘Devotion to the Blessed Virgin must also pay close attention to certain findings of the human sciences.’ This means that the picture of the Blessed Virgin that is presented in devotional literature and other expressions of piety must be consistent with today’s understanding of the role of women in the church and in society.

We must see Mary once again for who she is: not only the Mother of God, her most exalted role in the mystery of Redemption, but also as her Son’s disciple par excellence. When she heard the Word of God, she acted upon it. As the encyclical noted, she was ‘far from being a timidly submissive woman.’ On the contrary, ‘she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions.

Only when Marian piety is liberated from what Pope Paul VI called a ‘sterile and ephemeral sentimentality’ can there be any real hope for a renewal of authentic Marian piety in our time. For many people who do not have the luxury, privilege, money, time or perhaps desire to delve into serious Scripture studies, their only encounter with the Word of God might be through the liturgy or popular piety and devotion.

Let’s consider three important moments of Mary’s life not easily understood and try to discover new meaning and relevance for us. While Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful. Many people still wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favour, was without sin from the moment she was conceived. The main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin. Today we are simply less and less aware of original sin. And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death.

When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail, full of grace,” is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. No other human being collaborated in the work of redemption as Mary did. The Early Church wanted to explain in a plausible manner how God’s Son could be ‘completely human, yet without sin.’ Their answer was that the mother of God must have been without sin.

What happens to Mary happens to Christians. We are called, gifted and chosen to be with Jesus. When we honour the Mother of God under the title ‘Immaculate Conception,’ we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, childlike curiosity, reverence, and respect, living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple. It’s rare to find both reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity, innocence and passion, inside the same person as we find in Mary.

The second moment of Mary’s life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, humility, openness, welcome, as well as a respect and dignity for all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.

The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ God didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted ‘gently but decisively’ to save his people from their sins.

The virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its saviour must come from outside.

The Church celebrates Mary’s final journey into the fullness of God’s Kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption promulgated by Pius XII in 1954. As with her beginnings, so too, with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honour in the Godhead.

Mary’s life can be summed up with four words that are found in the Gospels: ‘Fiat,’ in her response to the angel Gabriel; ‘Magnificat,’ as her response to God’s grace at work in her life; ‘Conservabat,’ as she cherished all these memories and events in her heart; and ‘Stabat,’ as she stood faithfully at the foot of the cross, watched her Son die for humanity, and awaited the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus‚ mission.

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.’

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.

(CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida Nueva)

Scripture Scholarship Today

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Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

As we look back over the sweeping changes in the life of the Church following Vatican II, we can never underestimate the important relation that exists between liturgy and the interpretation of the Bible. This relation is directly linked to the Church fathers who were first and foremost men of prayer, even when they were writing their learned treatises and pursing their theological investigations. They were never far from the Church’s worship. In the liturgy they came to know Christ not so much as a historical figure from the past, but as a living person present in the Eucharist. When they opened their Bibles they discovered this same Christ not only in the writings of the evangelists and St. Paul but also in the Old Testament. In the liturgy the words of the Scripture are alive and filled with the mystery of Christ.

The Church and the Word of God are inseparably linked. The Church lives on the Word of God and the Word of God echoes through the Church, in her teaching and throughout her life (cf. “Dei Verbum,” n. 8).

It is accurate to say that the Bible provided a lexicon of words for Christian speech and the liturgy a grammar of how they are to be used. This must always be a guiding principle in our own efforts to make God’s Word come alive for the Church today. If we read biblical texts and teach them only for their historical and philological accuracy or inaccuracy, we fail to read the Bible as a book of faith that is the privileged possession of a living, breathing, praying community. We forget that the Bible is more like a library than a single book.

In spite of its many accomplishments, a strictly historical approach to the Bible can only give us a medley of documents from different times and places in the ancient world. It cannot give us the book of the Church, the Scriptures as heard by Christians for centuries, the psalms imprinted on the Church‚s soul, the words and images that bear witness to the Trinity.

The key to biblical criticism is the recognition that, while the Scriptures are the word of God, they do not escape the limitations of history. It is not surprising that since then that several generations of Catholic biblical scholars has devoted themselves to catching up. Nor is it surprising that there have been excesses and criticisms along the way. The question is to what extent scientific methods of Scripture study should be used, as opposed to a more spiritual reading of the Bible. As one who has taught Scripture for many years, nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded, just as long as we keep clear what the purpose of the different approaches are, and what their limits are as well.

How can we make Scripture once again the ‘soul of theology’ and bridge this growing divide between those who study scripture, those who teach theology, and those who are preparing for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church? How can the hearts of our students and pastoral ministers, and the faithful to whom they will minister, be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs people to touch the text of his words?

I would like to suggest three ways to move beyond the impasse, and offer two examples of great Scripture scholars of our time who integrated the historical-critical method and their Catholic faith in remarkable ways.

Actualization

The ‘Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,’ a major document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission from 1993 emphasized the historical-critical method and accorded it primacy of place among the different methods and approaches discussed. The commission called this method ‘indispensable’ and insisted that the proper understanding of the Bible ‘not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.’ But this important Vatican document also speaks of the importance of ‘actualization,’ a term that is new to church documents on Scripture. This term, transposed from the original French text, comes from actualiser, meaning ‘to make present to today.’

To realize the potential of actualizing the word, however, requires a change of attitude and reconsideration of the biblical formation we are presently offering in our seminaries, Faculties of Theology and universities. Actualization is necessary because biblical texts were composed in response to past circumstances and in a language conditioned by the time of their composition. Interpreting Scripture for today must not be a matter of projecting opinions or ideologies on the text, ‘but of sincerely seeking to discover what the text has to say at the present time.’ Actualization, unlike strict historical-critical exegesis, demands personal faith as a prerequisite and concerns itself with the religious meaning of the Bible. According to the commission, ‘the Church depends on exegetes, animated by the same Spirit as inspired Scripture.’

Lectio Divina

Another way of moving beyond the impasse is to rediscover the art of Lectio divina, ‘divine or holy reading,’ the continuous reading of all the Scriptures, in which each book and each section of it is successively read, studied and meditated on, understood and savoured by having recourse to the whole of biblical revelation, Old and New Testament. Thanks to this simple adherence to and humble respect for the whole biblical text, Lectio divina is an exercise in total and unconditional obedience to God who is speaking to human beings who are listening attentively to the Word.

Lectio divina does not select passages suited to themes and subjects already previously chosen with a view to needs or tastes already felt or noticed by the reader or the community engaged in the reading. It does not adopt the method of ‘biblical themes’ but prefers to keep away from any theological picking and choosing from the message of the Bible. It starts with the Word of God and follows it step by step from beginning to end. Lectio divina presupposes and takes seriously the unity of all the Scriptures.

The point of departure of Lectio Divina is ‘wonderment,’ a spirit which is accompanied by listening, silence, adoration of the divine mystery and placing oneself in front of Scripture as the Word of God. It is an ideal from which we are very far removed. Current methods of teaching Scripture do not encourage wonderment, reverence, listening, silence and adoration of the mystery of God and his divine communication with human beings.

The secret of the success of using Lectio Divina lies in the fact that we do not offer students, parishioners, young adults a philological lexicon, a catechism lesson or even a homily but rather the necessary means for them to put themselves face to face with the text so that they can try out lectio divina for themselves. Lectio divina prepares us for an encounter with the living Lord.

Experiencing the Holy Land: the Fifth Gospel

A final suggestion of moving beyond the impasse in contemporary Scripture teaching is to offer the Holy Land as a backdrop and stage for the Biblical story. It is essential to tell the biblical story in the context of a long pilgrimage against the background of the Holy Land. It is even more important to go to the land and let it speak. The Holy Land is the Fifth Gospel, the key to understanding the other four!

The psalmist praises those whose hearts are ‘set on pilgrim roads’ (Ps. 84:5). We who are entrusted with the ministry of teaching and preaching Scripture must help others to prepare themselves to make the journey ‘as pilgrims.’ Tourists pass quickly through places, but the places pass slowly through pilgrims, leaving them forever changed. Teaching the Scriptures without reference to the Holy Land, or without fostering, encouraging, and, when possible, leading others to visit it, is to tell only part of the story of the Bible.

All of the best biblical renewal programs in the world, the most eloquent Vatican documents, vision statements, and even the most current analyses of the future of the church can never substitute for the hope, power and strength of the Word of God in our individual and communal Christian lives. Documents, statements and catechisms might never renew us, but the Word of God, especially experienced in its natural habitat will.

Contemporary Scripture studies have been a great blessing to the academy and the Church. I would like to pay tribute to two remarkable individuals known to all of us, and who were good friends, professors and mentors to me. The late Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. and the Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. In Frs. Stuhlmueller and Brown I observed three outstanding qualities at work, which may be instructive for other pastoral ministers and students of Scripture in their own biblical research, teaching and preaching.

First was their ability to present the Bible in an accessible way, as a ‘user-friendly’ book or library. Both men often recounted basic principles they learned in their youth: ‘Read the Bible as we would listen to a friend.’ Reading as a listener implies an openness to hear what is being said and an attitude of expectancy; listening as to a friend implies a large measure of confidence that the message will ultimately be a helpful guide for living, and sometimes for specific situations. Of course, one listens to a friend critically, that is, with the full use of one’s faculties, education and experience. By the same token, in the Catholic tradition, one never undertakes Scripture studies to master or criticize the Word, but to be mastered and criticized by it. There is a way in which we must allow the Word of God to read us.

Second was their ability to present the Biblical story as a pilgrimage, a set of stories for the long haul. How well I can still hear Fr. Stuhlmueller saying these words on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, or sitting by the lake in Galilee as we directed Scriptural renewal programs for priests and pastoral ministers in the Holy Land! After all, what is the story of our salvation if not the passage from the Paradise Lost in Genesis to the Paradise found, and symbolized beautifully, in the New Jerusalem of John’s wild dream in Revelation?

Third is the ability to see how Scripture is vivified in prayer and liturgy. For it is in the silent adoration of prayer and in the congregation’s act of worship in liturgy that the Bible comes alive. Liturgy reveals the fruits of scholarship. Hence, we must ask ourselves if our teaching and preaching leads others into celebration, prayer and adoration of the Lord of history? Or has our reliance on scientific methods and writings only compounded the confusion already found in the world?

May Fathers Stuhlmueller and Brown intercede for each of us as we study and pray God’s life-giving Word. And may our hearts be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs us to touch the text of his words.

John the Baptizer, the Advent Prophet

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Second Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 7, 2014

One of the great stars of the Advent and Christmas stories, John the Baptizer, makes his appearance on the biblical stage today. Let us consider some of the details of John’s life and see how he is such a good model for us.

John the Baptist didn’t mince words. He got right to the point and said what needed to be said. He would speak with equally straightforward words to us — words that would zero in on the weak points of our lives. John the Baptist was a credible preacher of repentance because he had first come to love God’s word that he heard in the midst of his own desert.

He heard, experienced and lived God’s liberating word in the desert and was thus able to preach it to others so effectively because his life and message were one. One of the most discouraging things we must deal with in our lives is duplicity. How often our words, thoughts and actions are not coherent or one. The true prophets of Israel help us in our struggle against all forms of duplicity.

The desert wilderness

Throughout biblical history, leaders and visionaries have gone to the desert to see more clearly, to listen intently for God’s voice, to discover new ways to live. The Hebrew word for wilderness midvar is derived from a Semitic root that means, “to lead flocks or herds to pasture.” Eremos, the Greek word used to translate midvar, denotes a desolate and thinly populated area and, in a stricter sense, a wasteland or desert.

The term “wilderness” has two different but related meanings, referring to something judged to be wild and bewildering. It is probably the unknown (bewildering) and uncontrolled (wild) character of the place that earned it the name “wilderness.” There is also another way of understanding the meaning of desert or wilderness.

A careful look at the root of the word midvar reveals the word davar meaning “word” or “message.” The Hebraic notion of “desert” or “wilderness” is that holy place where God’s word is unbound and completely free to be heard, experienced and lived. We go to the desert to hear God’s Word, unbound and completely free.

The Spirit of God enabled the prophets to feel with God. They were able to share God’s attitudes, God’s values, God’s feelings, God’s emotions. This enabled them to see the events of their time as God saw them and to feel the same way about these events as God felt. They shared God’s anger, God’s compassion, God’s sorrow, God’s disappointment, God’s revulsion, God’s sensitivity for people, and God’s seriousness. Nor did they share these things in the abstract; they shared God’s feelings about the concrete events of their time.

John the Baptist is the Advent prophet. His image is often portrayed in the finger pointing to the one who was coming: Jesus Christ. If we are to take on John’s role of preparing the way in today’s world, our lives also will become the pointing fingers of living witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus can be found and that he is near. John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?

John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and of the human condition, and that way is Jesus himself. The Messiah comes to save us from the powers of darkness and death, and to put us back on the path of peace and reconciliation so that we might find our way back to God.

The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote: “We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, ‘because it is only the voice of a man.’ And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is ‘not worthy to untie the shoelaces of its Lord who goes on before it.’ It is, indeed, still Advent.”

We may not have the luxury of traveling to the wilderness of Judah, nor the privilege of a week’s retreat in the Sinai desert this Advent. However, we can certainly carve out a little desert wilderness in the midst of our activity and noise this week. Let us go to that sacred place and allow the Word of God to speak to us, to heal us, to reorient us, and to lead us to the heart of Christ, whose coming we await this Advent.

[The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; and Mark 1:1-8.]

(Image: Detail of St. John the Baptist from the “Isenheim Altarpiece” by Matthias Grunewald)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is available in book form through our online store.

The Legacy of St. John XXIII lives on in Turkey

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02 Remembering Roncalli in TurkeyIn 1934 Archbishop Angelo Roncalli was sent to Turkey and Greece as Apostolic Delegate. There he fostered harmony among various national groups in Istanbul in a time of anti-religious fervor under Kemal Ataturk. Archbishop Roncalli introduced the use of the Turkish language in worship and in the official documents of the church and eventually won the esteem of some high Turkish statesmen. He made a series of conciliatory gestures toward the Orthodox and met with the Ecumenical Patriarch Benjamin in 1939. During World War II Istanbul was a center of intrigue and espionage, and the archbishop gathered information useful to Rome and helped Jews flee persecution.

In Istanbul, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, is remembered as the man who was a friend to the Turks and who worked to reconcile the Catholic Church with the diverse faiths of the city. In the darkness of World War II he lit a candle in Turkey and was credited with saving the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazi Holocaust. What now remains of his legacy in Istanbul is the street he lived on between 1935 and 1945, which was once called Ölçek Sokak. When John XXIII was beatified in 2000, the mayor of Sisli renamed the street Roncalli Sokak.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

04 Statue St. John XXIII Turkey

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