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Temptations Correspond to Our Vulnerabilities

Jesus Tempted cropped

First Sunday of Lent, Year C – February 14, 2016

An ancient proverb says: “Good habits result from resisting temptation.” On Ash Wednesday we heard three fundamental orientations for this season in the rich Scripture readings: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

Lent is a season of solidarity, of sharing, of openness to our neighbor, especially toward the most needy. Lent is also the favorable time for personal and community prayer, nourished by the Word of God as proclaimed each day in the liturgy. This year at the beginning of Lent, we are invited to focus our attention on Luke’s account of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. How can we develop some good habits this Lent as we strive to overcome our temptations?

Led by the Spirit into the wilderness

Most of us are very familiar with the three graphic temptations of Jesus as related by Matthew and Luke in their Gospel accounts of Jesus in the desert. As a result of the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism (Luke 3:21-22), that same Spirit leads Jesus into the desert for 40 days to be tempted by the devil. The mention of 40 days recalls the 40 years of the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites during the Exodus (Deuteronomy 8:2).

At the outset we must ask ourselves as countless people have asked throughout the ages: How could it be said that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into temptation? If Jesus was God, and God is incapable of being tempted, how could Jesus have been tempted? Such questions arise when we consider the temptations of Christ. How do we reconcile what we know about God, Jesus, and temptation, with what is said to have happened in the gospel accounts regarding Christ‚s temptations?

Lukan aspects of the temptations of Christ

Let us consider several important aspects of this Sunday’s Gospel story of Jesus tempted. The Holy Spirit did not lead Jesus into temptation. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. The evil one would utilize the moment of Jesus‚ physical weakness and exhaustion in the desert to tempt him. Satan would consider this “an opportune time,” and he would look for other “seasons” as well. The devil did the tempting, not the Holy Spirit!

Neither Matthew (4:1-11) nor Luke claim to represent the chronological sequence of the temptations. Luke may have reflected on the scene from the standpoint of geography, relating the two in the wilderness first, and then the one on the temple’s pinnacle. Matthew records that after the temptation on the high mountain, Jesus said, “Away from me, Satan.” Matthew’s order, therefore, may be the chronological sequence, but there is no contradiction between the two evangelists.

Luke represents the three specific temptations as occurring after the 40 days of fasting (4:2-3). The Lord may have endured many temptations during the 40 days, but the three temptations were the culminating, most intense testing, of Jesus‚ wilderness solitude. Luke’s temptations conclude on the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem, the city of destiny in the third Gospel. It is in Jerusalem that Jesus will ultimately face his destiny (9:51; 13:33).

In the first temptation in the desert, Jesus responds to the evil one, not by denying human dependence on sustenance (food), but rather by putting human life and the human journey in perspective. Those who follow Jesus cannot become dependent on the things of this world. When we are so dependent on material things, and not on God, we give in to temptation and sin.

The second temptation deals with the adoration of the devil rather than God. Jesus once again reminds the evil one that God is in control. This is so important for us to hear and believe, especially when our own temptations seem to overpower us, when everything around us might indicate shadows, darkness and evil. It is God who is ultimately in charge of our destiny.

In the third temptation, the devil asks for a revelation or manifestation of God’s love in favor of Jesus. Jesus answers the evil one by saying that he doesn’t have to prove that God loves him.

Luke says that the devil left him when he “had ended every temptation” (4:13). Are we to understand that the devil never tempted the Lord again? Luke 4:13 indicates that the devil’s temptations ended on that occasion “for a season,” or “until an opportune time.” The devil’s opportune time will occur before the passion and death of Jesus (22:3, 31-32, 53). It was after Jesus endured the desert wilderness that he withstood temptation. Alone and defenseless against the wind and the weather, exposed to both day and night, and even exposed to the seeming absence of God, this experience of desert wilderness is a part of human growth and maturity.

Our temptations

At the very beginning of his campaign for this world and for each one of us, Jesus openly confronted the enemy. He began his fight using the power of Scripture during a night of doubt, confusion, and temptation. It will do us well not to forget Jesus‚ example, so that we won’t be seduced by the devil’s deception. We are tempted in the same ways Jesus was — wanting to have power over life and death, wanting to control our economic futures, putting our appetite for food ahead of our appetite for God. But trusting in God, as Jesus did, will make us strong.

Temptation is everything that makes us small, ugly, and mean. Temptation uses the trickiest moves that the evil one can think up. And his power is greater and stronger than our own human power. The more the devil has control of us, the less we want to acknowledge that he is fighting for every millimeter of this earth. Jesus didn’t let him get away with that.

Jesus’ desert experience raises important questions for us. What are some of the “desert” experiences I have experienced in my life? What desert experience am I living through right now? When and how do I find moments of contemplation in the midst of a busy life? How have I lived in the midst of my own desert wilderness? Have I been courageous and persistent in fighting with the demons? How have I resisted transforming my own deserts into places of abundant life?

Far from creating a great divide between Jesus Christ and ourselves, our own trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself, thanks to this man of the cross. Jesus has been tested in all respects like us — he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside — by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. For one must have suffered in order to truly feel for others. From Jesus we learn that God is present and sustaining us in the midst of test, temptation and yes, even sinfulness.

As Christians, we are in a constant fight with the desires born of our sinful natures. We are unable to resist temptation without God’s grace. We are called to trust the Lord (not ourselves) for strength to resist temptation before it becomes sin. It is not the temptation itself that leads us to sin, but the lack of resistance and trust in the Lord for deliverance.

Christ identifies with our struggles

Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and sinners, knew well that temptation could simply overcome people. Victims of poverty, ignorance, prejudice, oppression, abuse, violence and drugs reveal to us how easily people can be driven beyond endurance. Those who pray with Jesus share his profound sense of ultimate human helplessness and dependence.

Christ was human and He can identify with our struggles. Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Lord, lead us not into temptation! Rather, guide us into the pathways of justice, love and peace during these Lenten days. Give us the grace and fidelity to be faithful to our God and Father in heaven. Give us the courage to accept who we really are and where we should be.

[The readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent are: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; and Luke 4:1-13]

(Image: “Jesus Tempted” by Tissot)

Setting Out Into the Deep and Casting Nets

Depart from Me cropped

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – February 7, 2016

The Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake about 12 miles long and six miles wide. It lies some 685 feet below sea level and is about 200 feet deep. Fishing was and still is an important industry on the lake. The sea is surrounded by high hills on all sides. The great difference between the air on the top of these hills and the air on the low-lying water can cause sudden, violent storms. This body of water is referred to in Numbers 34:11 as the Sea of Kinnereth (from the Hebrew word “kinnor” meaning little harp). In the New Testament, it is referred to as Lake of Genesereth, Lake of Tiberias, and the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ preaching centered around its shores.

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus called his first disciples away from their fishing fleets on the Sea of Galilee. It was a natural barrier between the Jewish side on the west and the Gentile side on the east. The Gospel of Mark, in particular, has Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat on a number of occasions. These crossings turn the Sea of Galilee into a bridge bringing Jew and Gentile together through Jesus’ preaching and healing activities.

In the New Testament, the sea represents the moment of conversion. On the sea nothing happens normally, but always in abrupt, marvelous or very difficult ways. Some of the most dramatic nature miracles of Jesus take place on the Sea of Galilee. Mark tells the story of Jesus calming the sea after a squall had blown up, threatening the lives of the disciples (4:35). He also describes how Jesus walked on the waters of this sea and revealed himself to his disciples as “I am” (6:45 ff). In John we have the moving post-resurrection breakfast scene of Peter’s confession of faith and Jesus’ confidence in Peter, the repentant sinner (Chapter 21).

The acceptance of Jesus

Today’s Gospel story (Luke 5:1-11) takes place on the sea and has been transposed from Mark 1:16-20, which places it immediately after Jesus makes his appearance in Galilee. By this transposition Luke uses this example of Simon’s acceptance of Jesus to counter the earlier rejection of him by his hometown people.

Since several incidents dealing with Jesus’ power and authority have already been narrated, Luke creates a plausible context for the acceptance of Jesus by Simon and his partners. It is not difficult to observe the similarity between the wondrous catch of fish reported in Luke 4 and 5 and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance in John 21:1-11.

There are traces in Luke’s story that the post-resurrection context is the original one: in Luke 4:8, Simon addresses Jesus as Lord [a post-resurrection title for Jesus — see Luke 24:34; Acts 2:36 — that has been read back into the historical ministry of Jesus] and recognizes himself as a sinner. As used by Luke, the incident looks forward to Peter’s leadership in Acts (Luke 6:14; 9:20; 22:31-32; 24:34; Acts 1:15; 2:14-40; 10:11-18; 15:7-12) and symbolizes the future success of Peter as fisherman (Acts 2:41).

Into the deep

In today’s Gospel scene, Jesus is teaching by the shore and the crowds press in on him. Jesus spots the boat of Simon and gets in it, and asks him to launch out a bit from the shore so that he can preach from there. When finished, he tells Simon to take the boat into the deep water and let down his nets. Simon is wary: “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing!” These are the weary words of a veteran who knew how frustrating the sea could be. But there was something about this Galilean that made one want to comply, so Simon let down his nets.

Despite the frustration of the nightlong toil, Simon’s willingness to follow Jesus’ suggestion to put out the nets into deeper waters prepares for the miracle about to happen. Simon is brought personally into the sphere of Jesus’ mighty power, and that experience becomes the basis of a promise that is made to him. Though Simon, conscious of his utter sinfulness and unworthiness to associate with such a person as Jesus drops to his knees in reaction, he is reassured by Jesus, who promises him that he will play a role of gathering human beings into the kingdom that Jesus has come to preach. This he will do much as a fisherman gathers in fish in his net.

What follows is the “miraculous catch” — a whole school of fish, straining the nets and the boats to the breaking point. Peter sinks to his knees in awe before this mysterious figure: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In other words: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinner. If you only knew to whom you were speaking! My spirit is dull and my heart faint. I am a burden to all my companions and a laughingstock to those who know their trade. Depart from me, a sinner!”

But Jesus assures the awestruck disciple: “Do not be afraid, Simon, from now on you will be catching people.” It was as though Jesus said to this discouraged Galilean fisherman: “I shall not depart from you. I know who you are. I know your past, but that is not what is important to me. I need your hands, your feet, your heart and your very life. There is hope for you! I have cast my nets wide, and you are my best catch. See how the net is breaking and the boat begins to sink. You have labored and toiled for many years without hope. Come now to labor and spend yourself with me. I will teach you to walk on water, to cast a net of light into the waters above the abyss. Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

A compelling call

In Mark’s account of this scene (1:16-20) and Matthew’s (4:18-22) the fishermen who follow Jesus leave their nets and their father; in Luke, they leave everything (see also Luke 5:28; 12:33; 14:33; 18:22), an indication of Luke’s theme of complete detachment from material possessions. Discipleship is a powerful, compelling call to a new life: a call away from routine, away from frustration, to new purpose.

Jesus, himself, was now calling them to be fishers of people, to be engaged in the struggle with the raging waters of the sea, the sea that was both the source of their livelihood, their food, but also the sea that was a mystery, a threat and chaos, the sea that could take their lives as well as feed them.

All in together

Jesus gets into Peter’s boat in order to teach the crowds; and from the Bark of Peter, the Church, he continues to teach the whole world. At certain times, during Church history, and perhaps in our own history, it might seem as if the light of the Spirit had been all but extinguished and that Jesus is no longer with us in the boat.

But let us be honest and realize that the flame never went out and the presence of the Lord has never disappeared. The Church goes on, saving souls and journeying to its final harbor. In that blessed realm, beyond the seas of this life, all the things which threaten God’s Church in this world will be gone for ever.

We all are in this boat together with the Lord himself. We must trust the Lord to show us the way, to bring us to our goals safely, and to feed our souls on the journey. We will no doubt encounter problems — there will be days when we cast out our nets all day long, and at the end of the day, there might be nothing to show for it.

At those times, we must listen to the Lord, as Peter did, and cast the nets again into the deep — for it is our faith that is being tested — not as to whether we profess it or not — but as to whether we are ready to do something about it or not.

We are not sailing on Noah’s Ark or on the Titanic. We are on the waters with Jesus. I am reminded of the words Brother Luis de León, a mystical Spanish writer of the 16th century once wrote: “The more you navigate in God, the more seas you discover.” The Lord does not abandon those who come seeking His mercy and His forgiveness. He walks upon the waters. He calms the storm. He guides the boat into safe harbor, and brings with Him the great catch, the great feast, to which we are all summoned — the daily feast of His Body and Blood, our food for eternal life.

Questions for Reflection this week:

What have been the moments of your conversion? Have you experienced a “call” to discipleship? What experiences or people in your life have been instrumental in deepening your faith?

Are you able to identify with the disciples at sea? Is it possible to be a committed disciple of Jesus, yet still experience weakness and failure?
Let us pray:

I pray that I may live to fish until my dying day. 
And when it comes to my last cast,
Then I most humbly pray,
When in the Lord’s great landing net,
And peacefully asleep,
That in his mercy I be judged big enough to keep. Amen.

[The readings for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or 15:3-8, 11; and Luke 5:1-11]

The Cost of Authentic Prophecy

Jesus rejected Nazareth cropped

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – January 31, 2016

Today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah (1:4-5, 17-19) and Gospel passage from Luke (4:21-30) offer us an opportunity to reflect on the blessings, burdens and risks of authentic prophets in our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Among the Biblical prophets, we probably know Jeremiah best of all. The son of the priest Hilkiah, he was born in Anathoth — eight miles northeast of Jerusalem — and was called very early to carry out his prophetic mission, perhaps in 626, during the reign of Josiah (Jeremiah 22:16).

Jeremiah was so young that he begged the Lord to allow him to lead a normal life and to spare him the task of scourging the people of Israel and prophesying an invasion of foreigners “from the north” who would deport the Jews and destroy Solomon’s Temple.

Jeremiah saw the catastrophe of his people as an inevitable consequence of the guilt of an entire people who no longer remembered its history. The Hebrews, blindly counting on the Covenant guaranteed by the Lord, and on the Ark preserved in the Temple, felt that the Lord was with them, and as a result they could allow themselves any kind of sin!

Having pulled out from under the yoke of the Lord, Jeremiah told the chosen people that they would fall under the yoke of strangers. But the task assigned to him by God was not only destructive: “Look, today I have set you over the nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). It was also to build and to plant, then. But first it was necessary to uproot so that true growth could occur.

Jeremiah prefigures Christ

Jeremiah has often been seen as a figure foreshadowing Christ. Not only does he speak in God’s name and predict the future, but his very life and ministry have prophetic overtones.

Just as Jesus would do after him, Jeremiah foretold the destruction of the Temple, wept over the future ruin of Jerusalem, condemned the conduct of the priests, was misunderstood by his countrymen, and was humiliated and sentenced to death. Yet the prophet’s condemnation of sin and prophecies of misfortune are always linked to a message of hope and the prospects for rebirth, for return from the Babylonian exile.

Christ, too, in order to affirm his victory over death, would first have to endure the cross on Calvary. The prophet Jeremiah’s very life prepares for the acceptance of the bitterness of the cross and the glory of the resurrection. We should not be surprised then, when Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, they answered, “Some say You are John the Baptist, others the prophet Elijah, others Jeremiah.”

The madding crowd in Nazareth

Today’s Gospel story (Luke 4:21-30) is a continuation of Jesus’ great inaugural moment in the Nazareth that we read last Sunday. In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus set forth his universal mission repeating the words of the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2).

Into this scene of hometown pride in Nazareth, Jesus brings confusion. A murmur of excitement rippled through the congregation. “Is not this Joseph’s son? Don’t we know this son of Nazareth?”

Yet Jesus knows that his townspeople want to possess him for themselves: “Do here in your own town what we have heard you did in Capernaum.” But he refuses to do so. “No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” Jesus resists the possessive attitude manifested by his people. Jesus refuses to place his extraordinary gifts at the service of his own people, putting strangers first.

The references to Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:25-26) serve several purposes in this episode: They emphasize Luke’s portrait of Jesus as a prophet like Elijah and Elisha; they help to explain why the initial admiration of the people turns to rejection; and they provide the scriptural justification for the future Christian mission to the Gentiles.

The mood in the synagogue turned rather ugly. The crowd grew terribly envious of one of their own and tried to get rid of him (4:22-30). Jesus did not succeed in making himself heard and understood and he had to depart in haste — for his life (4:30). The rejection of Jesus in his own hometown hints at the greater rejection of him by Israel (Acts 13:46).

Reason for discontent

The people of Nazareth took offense at him and refused to listen to what Jesus had to say. They despised his preaching because he was from the working class; a carpenter, a mere layman and they despised him because of his family. Jesus could do no mighty works in their midst because they were closed and disbelieving toward him.

If people have come together to hate and to refuse to understand, then they will see no other point of view than their own and they will refuse to love and accept others. Does the story sound familiar to us? How many times have we found ourselves in similar situations?

The most severe critics are often people very familiar to us, members of our families, relatives, members of our communities, neighbors we rub shoulders with on a regular basis. The people of Nazareth refused to renounce their possessive attitude toward Jesus. When possessive love is obstructed it produces a violent reaction. This sort of reaction provokes many dramas of jealousy and passion. “Everyone in the synagogue was enraged (Luke 4:28-29) and they sought to kill him.” Refusal to open our heart can lead to such extremes.

Universal vision

Jesus was bitterly criticized because he demonstrated great openness of heart, particularly toward people on the fringes and borders of society. His openness caused rising opposition that led him to the cross.

In the Acts of the Apostles we read more than once that the success of St. Paul’s preaching to the gentiles provoked jealousy among some of the Jews, who opposed the Apostle and stirred up persecution against him (Acts 13:45; 17,5; 22,21-22). Also within the Christian community, we need only recall the situation in Corinth where similar possessive attitudes caused serious harm when many believers attached themselves jealously to one apostle or another; causing conflict and division in the community. Paul had to intervene forcefully (1 Corinthians 1:10-3:23).

Today’s Gospel shows how difficult it is for us to attain to a universal vision. When we are faced with someone like Jesus, someone with a generous heart, a wide vision and a great spirit, our reactions are very often filled with jealousy, selfishness, and meanness of spirit. His own people couldn’t recognize the holiness of Jesus, because they had never really accepted their own. They were suffering from a particular form of blindness.

They couldn’t honor Jesus’ relationship with God because they had never fully explored their own sense of belonging to the God. They couldn’t see the Messiah standing right beside them, because he looked too much like one of them. Until we see ourselves as people beloved of God, miracles will be scarce and the prophets and messengers who rise among us will struggle to be heard and accepted for whom they truly are.

Called to be prophets

Jesus was called to break boundaries and take God’s message of salvation to unexpected people and unexpected places. Obviously, pain and hostility must be endured before Jesus’ new age comes to glory.

Through our common baptism, each of us is called to be a prophet for the Kingdom of God. We will encounter many reactions from those to whom we are sent, not all of them positive. Like Jeremiah and Jesus, unswerving dedication bold courage, and deep, biblical hope must be our trademarks.

Today’s Gospel warns us to be on guard against certain attitudes that are incompatible with the example of Jesus: the human tendency to be possessive, and egoistic and small in mind and heart. We cannot forget that Jesus is the Savior of the world (John 4:42), and not of the village, town, city or nation!

Let us pray that Jesus not be amazed at our own unbelief, but rather rejoice in our small, daily acts of fidelity to him and our service to our sisters and brothers. May the Lord grant us magnanimous hearts so that we may look far beyond ourselves and recognize the goodness, greatness and beauty of other people, instead of being jealous of their gifts.

God’s power alone can save us from emptiness and poverty of spirit, from confusion and error, and from the fear of death and hopelessness. The gospel of salvation is still “Good News” for us today. How do we speak the Word of God with authority today? How do we share the “Good News” with others? How do we use our authority to further the Kingdom of God? How are our words, gestures, messages and lives prophetic today, in the Church and in the world?

[The readings for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 or 13:4-13; and Luke 4:21-30]

(Image: “Jesus rejected at Nazareth” by James Tissot)

Ezra and Nehemiah Revive the Faith

Jesus synagogue cropped

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – January 24, 2016

Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of Nehemiah, a book that tells of the reconstitution of the Jewish community after the Exile, the dispersion and the destruction of Jerusalem.

It tells the story of the new beginnings of a community and is full of hope, even through great difficulties still loomed ahead. The priest, Ezra, and a layman, Nehemiah, lived in the time when the people of Israel had been returned to their land after the years of the Babylonian Captivity and it was clearly a time of rebuilding. The people had lost the connections to their faith.

Ezra and Nehemiah were commissioned by the Lord to teach what had been lost, to rebuild the communal structures, to inspire the people once again to the high ideals of their Jewish faith — so that they could begin to live a healthy social and religious life.

The moving scene depicted in today’s first reading was the moment of the public re-proclamation of the law on which this community’s life was based. The gathered assembly listened to this proclamation in a deeply spiritual atmosphere. Some began to weep for joy at being able once again to listen freely to the Word of God after the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and to begin salvation history once again. Nehemiah cautioned them, saying that it was a feast day and that in order to have strength from the Lord, it was necessary to rejoice, expressing gratitude for God’s gifts. Ultimately the Word of God is strength and joy.

What is our own reaction to this powerful scene? This reading is an invitation to each person, and especially to pastoral ministers, to thank God for his fidelity and his gifts and to thank all who have served as co-workers in rebuilding the foundations of our faith and our Church each day.

Luke’s pastoral strategy

The Gospel according to Luke is the only one of the synoptic gospels to begin with a literary prologue (1:1-4). Luke acknowledges his debt to earlier eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, but claims that his contribution is a complete and accurate account, told in an orderly manner, and intended to provide Theophilus (“friend of God”) and other readers with certainty about earlier teachings they have received. Luke is not telling people that what they previously learned was wrong. Rather, he confirms them in their faith, affirms them in their desire to know more about Jesus, and also puts things in order for them so that faith will be strengthened. Such a pastoral strategy is still very effective in transmitting the faith today.

Hometown boy returns

Luke is not the only evangelist who records Jesus’ visit to Nazareth “where he had been brought up” (4:16). Mark and Matthew also refer to this episode, although without mentioning the name of the town, referred to simply as “his home town” (Mark 6:1; Matthew 13:54). There are however several differences between the story told by Luke and those of Mark and Matthew. In Mark, Jesus’ visit to his home town is found not at the beginning of his ministry, but after a long period of preaching the Gospel and healing, even after the discourse in parables (4:1-34) and the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (5:21-43). In Matthew, Jesus has also already pronounced his address on mission to the “Twelve Apostles” (10:2-42).

Luke chose to give this episode first place in his narration of the ministry of Jesus. At first sight we could think that it was Luke’s intention to correct the chronology of Mark and Matthew. A detail of his story demonstrates however that this supposition is incorrect: As Jesus preaches he says that the people in Nazareth will say to him: “We have heard all that has happened in Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside” (4:23). These words show that before going to Nazareth, Jesus had begun his ministry in Capernaum and had already provoked great admiration among the people, to the point that his fame had reached Nazareth.

An electric moment

When Jesus stood in the Nazareth synagogue, it was an “electric” moment. He took the Isaiah scroll and began to read from chapter 61. 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 announce his mission: to proclaim the Good News, liberate men and women, and tell them of God’s grace. The whole of Jesus’ ministry therefore must be understood in this perspective.

Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me!” (4:16-18; Is 61:1). Very significantly the last line of Isaiah read by Jesus says: “to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor” (4:19; Is 61:2), and immediately afterwards, Jesus’ message was a declaration that precisely “this text” was being fulfilled on that day. The expression of Isaiah 61:2 “year of the Lord’s favor” clearly refers to the prescriptions in the Book of Leviticus on the jubilee year (Leviticus 25:10-13).

Luke’s story of Jesus in the synagogue does not quote the whole phrase of Isaiah, which includes two compliments of the object after the verb “proclaim” in Is 61:2. The Gospel quotes only the first (“the Lord’s year of favor”) neglecting the second which is “a day of vengeance for our God”. The prophecy of Isaiah foresees two aspects of divine intervention, the first the liberation of the Jewish people, the other punishment of her enemies. The Gospel has not retained this opposition. The omission clearly has two consequences: a) the message contains nothing negative; b) it is implicitly universal. There is no suggestion of distinction between Jews and non-Jews. Universal openness is an essential character of the ministry and preaching of Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

Today’s Gospel scene ends with Jesus telling his hearers that he is the fulfillment of the prophetic words of Isaiah. In asserting that his 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.

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. God would fulfill them in his own Son who was standing in their very midst in the Nazareth synagogue. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, bringing glad tidings and proclaiming liberty to captives. Not everyone will embrace this good news, as the rest of the Gospel will show us.

The failed evangelist

If we continue reading today’s Gospel story, we realize that the mood of excitement, awe and wonder quickly change when the prophet of Nazareth doesn’t speak the words that the local people wanted him to say. After Jesus sets forth the major points of his ministry in the opening scene in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-21), the crowd grows terribly envious of one of their own and tries to get rid of him (4:22-30). Jesus did not succeed in making himself heard and understood and he had to depart in haste… for his life (4:30).

The first images of the ministry of Jesus are of a man who is defeated, unheeded and unwelcome. The people of Nazareth refused to hear his central message of liberation, freedom and reconciliation; they heard an approximation of it, highly colored by their own attitudes.

Our response to God’s Word

Like the people of Israel in the first reading, who gathered around the priest Ezra and listened to the word of God with deep emotion (Nehemiah 8:5), we, too stand to hear God’s saving message and feel his presence in this and every liturgy. Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people, their hands raised high, answered: ‘Amen, Amen'” (8:6). With this great “Amen” at the end of every Eucharistic prayer, we acknowledge the real presence on the altar, the living and eternal Word of the Father.

With the people gathered in the Nazareth synagogue, we, too, see and hear God’s Word fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh. To this proclamation, our voices also cry out: “Amen.” “I believe!” May the Spirit that anointed Jesus build us up into one body and send us forth to proclaim God’s freedom and favor for all people.

[The readings for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 or 12:12-14, 27; and Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21]

When Cronos is Transformed into Kairos

Cana cropped

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – January 17, 2016

Last Sunday gave us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and our own baptismal commitment. The wedding feast of Cana of today’s Gospel (John 2:1-11) is a manifestation of God’s glory and it continues the theme of Christ’s Epiphany and Baptism — of Jesus inaugurating his divine mission on earth.

The evocative text from Evening Prayer on the Feast of the Epiphany reads: “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.” Each event is accompanied by a theophany, by startling evidence of divine intervention; the star, the water into wine, the voice from heaven and the dove.

The story of the wedding feast in Cana may have been constructed from a real event in Jesus’ life. A careful reading of the text allows us to recognize the hand of the evangelist John reconstructing the scene, building in multiple layers of symbolic meaning. Today we look at the water becoming wine, the ordinary becoming extraordinary, and the beginnings of the Messianic age. The miracle at Cana foretells the way in which Jesus will accomplish his mission — by shedding his blood on the cross.

Key points of the story

Let us consider several key points of this highly symbolic Gospel story that has no parallel story in the other Gospels. “Sign” (semeion) is John’s symbolic term for Jesus’ wondrous deeds. John is interested primarily in what the “signs” (semeia) signify: God’s intervention in human history in a new way through Jesus. At Cana, symbol and reality meet: The human marriage of two young people is the occasion to speak of another marriage, the one between Christ and the Church, which will be achieved in “his hour” on the cross. At Cana in Galilee, we encounter the first sign when Jesus manifests his glory and the disciples believe.

The Mother of Jesus

The principal guest on the occasion of this wedding was not Jesus Himself but his mother, and the Gospel says that Jesus was also there as well as His apostles (1-2). The mother of Jesus is never named in John’s Gospel. The title “Woman,” used by Jesus for his mother is a normal, polite form of address, but unattested in reference to one’s mother (see John 19:26 where she is referred to as Woman and Mother.)

Mary appears symbolically; her function is to complete the call of the disciples. She is the catalyst for the sign that leads to the disciples’ expression of faith. Her words to the servants at the wedding banquet: “Do whatever He tells you” (2:5) are an invitation to all peoples to become part of the new people of God. Both at Cana and at Calvary in the fourth Gospel, Mary represents not only her maternity and physical relationship with her son, but also her highly symbolic role of “Woman” and “Mother” of God’s people.

Jesus’ response to Mary’s request is: “My hour has not yet come.” In other words, it was not yet time to completely reveal his glory. That would happen on the cross. But Jesus’ words to Mary are not the only indication to what this story is really about. The miracle, itself, the changing of water into wine, means that the old covenant between heaven and earth will be changed into something entirely new. At Mary’s word to her Son, a sad situation is transformed. At Jesus’ words to the servants at the wedding feast, the miracle takes place.

The “hour”

An important aspect of the Cana story is the use and meaning of “the hour”.  In the New Testament, the Greek word for hour, “hora” is more often used in reference to kairos time than to cronos time: “The hour [hora] comes and now is when the true worshiper” (4:23-24). “Hora” is used in many gospel stories of mighty works to identify the moment of healing, and in those cases it is usually translated “instantly.”  The “hour” spoken of by Jesus at Cana is that of his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension (John 13:1).

“Cronos” time measures ordinary occurrences and leaves the impression — often false — that we can control it. We can enter it into our Blackberries, iPhones and agendas and deal with time and events on our own terms.

“Kairos” time, on the other hand, represents discontinuity, when an unexpected barrier forces one to move off a planned course and adjust to new realities. Jesus’ hour, his appointed time or “kairos” moment, appeared before he wanted or expected it. Jesus had one schedule in mind; circumstances pushed him in another direction.

The wedding at Cana

Many levels of interpretation have existed for this symbolic Gospel story. One way is to view the story as a description of the contrast between what Jesus was about to offer and the inadequacy of Judaism. According to this view, Judaism had exhausted itself, run dry or empty. The finely fermented wine of Christianity was about to supplant the ordinary water of Judaism.

A second interpretation often considers the joy that characterizes the emerging realm of God. Jesus had an opportunity to announce himself to people brought together by the happiness of the union of two lives. The Lord’s revelation turned out to be a party within a party, a celebration within a celebration, a marriage within a marriage.  This perspective builds firmly on Jewish tradition where weddings are sacred moments. The first reading for today’s liturgy from Isaiah 62 begins with a wedding metaphor; the vindication of the divine will mean that Judah is no longer forsaken or desolate, for Judah will be the bride of none other than the Holy One of Israel.

The third and perhaps most profound layer of meaning shows how the disruption of “cronos” time can be transformed into an event of “kairos” time. Jesus had been expecting an introductory moment that he could identify and control. Instead, his “hora” came upon him unexpectedly, pushed on him by circumstances and by his persistent mother!

Jesus gives new life to these nuptials in Cana.  He does not provide vintage wine at the start when the palates are sharp but when the wedding banquet is in full swing! The Jesus of John’s Gospel saved the good wine until the “now” of a first disclosure of his glory (10). It was a manifestation or an epiphany, and it was meant to be that — observed later in the Church as the Epiphany on the feast of Dionysius, January 6 in our calendar, when it was reputed in the Greek world the god Dionysius turned water into wine.

Breakthrough moments

So often in our individual and community lives, in our various ministries, parishes and daily lives, we simply plod along from day to day, living with a sense of hopelessness, monotony or heaviness. We are locked into a “cronos” time, and cannot see how God wishes to break through the ordinary moments of life and transform our existence and our history into something extraordinary. The Lord invites us to allow him to fill the structures and jars of our existence with the new wine of his presence. When we listen to the Lord and do whatever he tells us, the ordinariness of our lives becomes extraordinary, the empty jars of water become filled with new wine, and we literally become the feast for one another.

The Cana Gospel episode points out to the couple a way to not fall into this situation or get out of if they are already in it: Invite Jesus to your wedding! What happens in all marriages happens in the wedding feast at Cana. It begins with enthusiasm and joy (symbolized by the wine); but the initial enthusiasm, like the wine at Cana, comes to wane with the passage of time. Then things are done no longer for love and with joy, but out of habit and routine. It descends upon the family, if we are not careful, like a cloud of sadness and boredom. Of such couples it must sadly be said: “They have no more wine!”

Today’s marvelous Gospel story is neither about Mary’s intercession nor about Jesus’ rebuke of his mother. The story is ultimately about the disclosure in ordinary family festive circumstances of the hidden glory of Jesus the Son. It is not about excessive drinking at Jewish weddings! It is neither about norms, traditions and rules of family life nor even about marriage. Nor is it about Judaism as empty and Christianity as being full.

John’s story of the wedding at Cana invites us to consider seriously whether we think that the master of the feast who gives the command: “Fill the jars with water” can make all things new in our own lives.  One’s hour comes — the kairos moment presents itself — at the intersection of frustrated plans and openness to the Divine.  Cana teaches us that the Messiah of the world had to adjust his schedule when events took a surprising turn. The story of Jesus’ coming-out event as told by John demonstrates his spiritual flexibility.  How can our “cronos” time be transformed into “kairos” — a real moment of breakthrough and hope, of promise and new possibility?

Today let us beg the Lord and his Mother to make us faithful stewards, ready to do whatever Jesus tells us and eager to share with others the wine he provides.  When we listen to the Lord and do whatever he tells us, the ordinariness of our lives becomes extraordinary, the empty jugs of water become filled with new wine, our cronos moments are transformed into kairos moments, and we become the feast for one another.

[The readings for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; and John 2:1-11]

Baptism is a Call to a Prophetic Career

Baptism of Jesus cropped

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:

“Holy Father, 35 years ago I thought that we were beginning to be a little flock, a minority community, more or less everywhere in Europe; that we should therefore administer the sacraments only to those who are truly committed to Christian life. Then, partly because of the style of John Paul II’s Pontificate, I thought things through again. If it is possible to make predictions for the future, what do you think? What pastoral approaches can you suggest to us?”

Benedict XVI responded with these words, so fitting for us on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord this year:

“I must say that I took a similar route to yours. When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and where faith does not exist, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred either. And then I always used to talk to my parish priests when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded. Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open — according to many official authorities — with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion. […]

“I would say, therefore, that in the context of the catechesis of children, that work with parents is very important. And this is precisely one of the opportunities to meet with parents, making the life of faith also present to the adults, because, it seems to me, they themselves can relearn the faith from the children and understand that this great solemnity is only meaningful, true and authentic if it is celebrated in the context of a journey with Jesus, in the context of a life of faith. Thus, one should endeavor to convince parents, through their children, of the need for a preparatory journey that is expressed in participation in the mysteries and that begins to make these mysteries loved. […]

“I would say that this is definitely an inadequate answer, but the pedagogy of faith is always a journey and we must accept today’s situations. Yet, we must also open them more to each person, so that the result is not only an external memory of things that endures but that their hearts that have truly been touched. The moment when we are convinced the heart is touched — it has felt a little of Jesus’ love, it has felt a little the desire to move along these lines and in this direction, that is the moment when, it seems to me, we can say that we have made a true catechesis. The proper meaning of catechesis, in fact, must be this: to bring the flame of Jesus’ love, even if it is a small one, to the hearts of children, and through the children to their parents, thus reopening the places of faith of our time.”

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]

A Star and a Pure Heart

Magi cropped

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

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.

Details

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:

“From the beginning, My Church has been what it is today, and will be until the end of time, a scandal to the strong, a disappointment to the weak, the ordeal and the consolation of those interior souls who seek in it nothing but Myself.

“Yes […] whoever looks for Me there will find Me there; but he will have to look, and I am better hidden than people think, or than certain of My priests would have you believe. I am still more difficult to discover than I was in the little stable at Bethlehem for those who will not approach Me humbly, in the footsteps of the shepherds and the Magi.

“It is true that palaces have been built in My honor, with galleries and peristyles without number, magnificently illuminated day and night, populated with guards and sentries. But if you want to find Me there, the clever thing is to do as they did on the old road in Judea, buried under the snow, and ask for the only thing you need – a star and a pure heart.”

[The readings for the feast of the Epiphany are: Is 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; and Matthew 2:1-12]

Mary: Model and Paradigm of Belief for Christians

Madonna and Child cropped

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):

“Let us give glory to God with the shepherds,
Let us dance in choir with the Angels,
for “this day a Savior has been born to us, the Messiah and Lord,”

He is the Lord who has appeared to us,
not in divine form, in order to terrify us in our weakness,
but in the form of a Servant, that He might set free
what had been reduced to servitude …”

Connect5: Sr. Carol Perry, SU on understanding the Biblical Jesus

SrPerry

A renowned Scripture scholar explains why most people don’t know the Biblical Jesus and how transformative knowing Him can be.


How are you going to spend the next five minutes of your time?  You could browse social media or check your email, but how about meeting a fascinating person and learning something relevant that will broaden your perspective?  Sit down with host Sebastian Gomes and his various guests, and go straight to the heart of the matter.  It will be five minutes well spent…

Connect5 airs on our network every Friday at 8:25 pm ET, immediately following Vatican Connections. Catch a new episode of Connect5 online every Wednesday.

“The Future of Humanity Passes Through the Family”

Holy Family cropped

Feast of the Holy Family – Sunday, December 27, 2015

In the afterglow of Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family, inviting the faithful to reflect on the gift and mystery of life, and in particular the blessing of family.

Today’s Gospel story (Luke 2:41-52) relates an incident from Jesus’ youth that is unique in the New Testament. Luke’s infancy Gospel, however scarce in details concerning the first part of Jesus’ life, mentions that “his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover” (2:41), an indication of their piety, their fidelity to the law and to the tradition of Israel.

“When [Jesus] was 12 years old, they went up according to custom” (2:42). “When they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, without his parents knowing it” (2:43). After searching for three days “they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46).

Jesus’ mysterious words to his parents seem to subdue their joy at finding him: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49). This phrase can also be translated, “I must be immersed in my Father’s work.” In either translation, Jesus refers to God as his Father. His divine sonship, and his obedience to his heavenly Father’s will, take precedence over his ties to his family.

Apart from this event, the whole period of the infancy and youth of Jesus is passed over in silence in the Gospel. It is the period of his “hidden life,” summarized by Luke in two simple statements: Jesus “went down with [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51); and “He progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace before God and men” (Luke 2:52). With this episode, the infancy narrative ends just as it began, in the setting of the Jerusalem temple.

We learn from the Gospels that Jesus lived in his own family, in the house of Joseph, who took the place of a father in regard to Mary’s son by assisting and protecting him, and gradually training him in his own trade of carpenter. The people of the town of Nazareth regarded him as “the carpenter’s son” [Matthew 13:55].

When he began to teach, his fellow citizens asked with surprise: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3). Besides his mother, they mentioned also his “brothers” and his “sisters,” who lived at Nazareth. It was they who, as the evangelist Mark mentions, sought to dissuade Jesus from his activity of teaching (Mark 3:21). Evidently, they did not find in him anything to justify the beginning of a new activity. They thought that Jesus was just like any other Israelite, and should remain such.

School of Nazareth

The words of Pope Paul VI spoken in Nazareth on Jan. 5, 1964, are a beautiful reflection on the mystery of Nazareth and of the Holy Family. His words inspire all of us to imitate God’s family in their beautiful values of silence, family life and work. He said:

“Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel.  Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning.

“And gradually we may even learn to imitate him. Here we can learn to realize who Christ really is. And here we can sense and take account of the conditions and circumstances that surrounded and affected his life on earth: the places, the tenor of the times, the culture, the language, religious customs, in brief everything which Jesus used to make himself known to the world. […]

“First we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset, as we are, by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times.  The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.

“Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplifying its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings — in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children — and for this there is no substitute.

“Finally, in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails. I would especially like to recognize its value — demanding yet redeeming — and to give it proper respect. I would remind everyone that work has its own dignity. On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. Its value and free character, however, derive not only from its place in the economic system, as they say, but rather from the purpose it serves.”

Challenges for today

Today we are witnesses to a worrisome lack of educational environments not only outside the Church, but even within the Church. The Christian family is no longer capable on its own of passing on the faith to the next generation, and neither is the parish, even though it continues to be the indispensable structure for the Church’s pastoral mission in any given place.

As a Christian community and as a society in general, we must do more to encourage the committed relationship of man and woman that remains so basic to all civilizations, and has proven to be the best support for the rights and needs of children. We must reflect carefully on the social consequences involved in the redefinition of marriage, examining all that is entailed if society no longer gives a privileged place and fundamental value to the lifelong union of a man and a woman in marriage.

As the keystone of society, the family is the most favorable environment in which to welcome children. At the same time, freedom of conscience and religion needs to be ensured, while also respecting the dignity of all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.

Two distinct challenges emerge from this great debates of our times surrounding marriage and family life. Today’s feast of the Holy Family issues an urgent invitation, especially to lay people, to uphold the dignity of the important institution and sacrament of Marriage. Support the Marriage Preparation Programs in your parish communities. Insist that in your parishes and dioceses, there are solid vocational programs for young adults and young people. Parishes, dioceses and lay movements that do not have creative pastoral strategies and vocational programs about marriage for young people leave the door open to tremendous moral confusion and misunderstanding, misinformation, emptiness.

At the same time, we cannot forget that other bonds of love and interdependency, of commitment and mutual responsibility exist in society. They may be good; they may even be recognized in law. They are not the same as marriage; they are something else. No extension of terminology for legal purposes will change the observable reality that only the committed union of a man and a woman carries, not only the bond of interdependency between the two adults, but the inherent capacity to bring forth children.

On this feast of the Holy Family, let us recommit ourselves to building up the human family, to strengthening and enshrining marriage, to blessing and nurturing children, and to making our homes, families and parish communities holy, welcoming places for women and men of every race, language, orientation and way of life.

Foundation of society

“The future of humanity passes through the family,” as Saint John Paul II would say so often. Today’s readings remind us that the family has a vital impact on society.

The foundation of society is the family. And the foundation of the family is marriage. The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman. As the keystone of society, the family is the most favorable environment in which to welcome children.

We need young adults to say their “I do” with joy, conviction, faith and hope. They are our future and our hope. Without married people, we cannot build the future of society and the Church. Without committed, married people, we will not have holy families today.

[The readings for the feast of the Holy Family are Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 or 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Colossians 3:12-21 or 3:12-17 or 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; and Luke 2:41-52]