Gospel for Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

Gospel for January 3rd, 2016: “The Visit of the Magi”

Matthew 2: 1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:  ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Reflection:

In the process of writing these blogs I am learning to pay attention to details that I had previously taken for granted in gospel passages that are familiar. This one successfully penetrated the distraction of the Santa-centric Christmases of my childhood enough so that this mission of homage from the three Eastern kings or wise men is part of the landscape of my Christmas memories. In addition, the ubiquitous Nativity imagery at Christmas usually includes their presence, therefore these rather mysterious figures do not seem like strangers as I read this gospel. Perhaps they should.  As I look with fresh eyes, their behavior is incredibly strange by both ancient and modern standards.

Matthew is trying to draw our attention to the strangeness of their journey in the first line by using the word “behold” before providing the plot detail that “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage’” (1). Behold comes from the Greek word “ide,” which means be sure to see what follows. Mystical wise men from the East don’t typically show up in the first century Jerusalem inquiring about the King of the Jews. And if this happened in any major city today, it would be newsworthy despite being met with stubborn skepticism by most everyone. This was indeed a phenomenon that moved these learned men to take what must have been a very difficult journey which was so mysterious their only map for guidance was a star in the sky. I find myself humbled by this leap of faith. I am not at a point in my own spiritual journey that I could have done it. Imagine the conversations with friends and family. How many times were they called crazy? How many skeptics asked them, what if you are wrong and don’t make it home? These are men of faith on par with the greatest prophets of the Old Testament and saints of the history of the Church. They dropped everything for Jesus.

With this renewed understanding of their mission and its radicalness, I want to dwell on one other detail, while skipping over the intrigue with Herod and his attempts to use them to find and destroy the threat presented by the “newborn king of the Jews.” Instead I wish to consider the reaction of the Magi on arrival. It must not have been what they expected when the star led them to a stable for livestock.  Disappointment would have only been natural at this humble setting for the Messiah. However, their behavior is marked again by radically strange intensity in their adoration. Matthew tells us, “… on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage” (11). In other words, they immediately lay on the ground in reverence before this baby. I don’t think one can fake that level of reverence, especially at that moment when anyone who had doubts would have started by asking a lot of questions. No, they lay down before the Messiah. I have never prostrated myself to anyone in my life. Yes, I kneel in Church humbly and gratefully, but this is behavior I struggle to comprehend.

So for me, the lesson of this classic Christmas gospel is to open my heart and mind to the radical strangeness of authentic Christian worship. I acknowledge I still struggle with a fear of being seen as weird by others in how I integrate the central role of Christ into my life. Ultimately, I must be willing to be unusual in the eyes of others to live righteously in the eyes of the Lord, as the Magi so clearly do in their fearless pilgrimage to and worship of Jesus. So much of what Jesus’s Word and His Church ask me to do are strange to non-Christians and secularized Christians. Therein lies so much of the challenge of living the faith in a secular society. Am I willing to be different? This gospel would suggest it is the wise choice. In the end, the wisdom of the Magi is not the wisdom of the world, but rather divinely inspired wisdom.

 

 

 

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The Gospel for Sunday, December 27th, 2015

The Gospel for December 27th, 2015: “The Boy Jesus in the Temple”

Luke 2: 41-52

Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

Reflection:

This passage is the subject for mediation in the fifth Joyful Mystery of the Holy Rosary prayer sequence. The spiritual gift of this episode is obedience. I have often wondered what it is about this passage that should lead us to contemplate obedience. Is it line 51 only where Jesus is “obedient” to His parents’ wishes for Him to return to Nazareth with them? Certainly, I admire the boy Jesus’s honoring of His mother and father’s wishes, and yet I think this passage has more to say about obedience than the modeling in that example alone.

The other instructive manifestation of Jesus’s obedience can be inferred from His innocent response to His mother’s scolding question, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety” (48). Jesus is surprised and yet without shame. He replies, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (49). Why must He be in His Father’s house? I think it is His Father’s will that the boy who will soon be a man is beginning to prepare for His public ministry, and where better than the temple. In fact according to the study notes of my NAB Revised Edition, the second question may also be read, “I must be about my Father’s work.” While it creates a difficult experience for Mary and Joseph that He didn’t tell them, the essential fact is Jesus acts on His Father’s call to begin His vocation. In other words, His obedience to His Heavenly Father supersedes His obedience to His worldly parents. Furthermore, it is necessary that Mary and Joseph begin to learn this to prepare them for the more difficult parting with His death on the cross. As parents, they will need to accept God’s will in their earthly son’s destiny as well.

Once revealed in our lives, obedience to God’s will can be difficult to accept. Like Jesus, we will have to disobey worldly expectations from ourselves or others or both. Jesus goes to the temple not as a disobedient twelve-year-old running away from His parents, but rather as the son of God responding immediately to His heavenly Father’s call. I think the deeper lesson is that we must do the same and also without shame when God calls us to carry out His plans for us. And if we hesitate to act out of fear, let us remember the position of this story in the Rosary. This is a joyful mystery. We will experience the joy of closeness to our Lord in acting as an instrument of His love.

Gospel for Sunday, December 20th, 2015

Gospel for December 20th, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Advent: “Mary Visits Elizabeth”

Luke 1: 39-45

Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Reflection:

In reading this gospel, I am going to resist my first inclination to dwell on Mary’s charity in going to help her cousin Elizabeth through pregnancy in her advanced age. This is acknowledged in the second joyful mystery of the rosary and certainly is a proper Advent focus, to look to help others as we wait for Christ’s coming at Christmas. However, on re-reading I am struck by the combined effect of Mary’s arrival on both Elizabeth and her unborn child, John the Baptist. Both react to the presence of Christ in their midst. Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” shouts the lines we recognize from the Hail Mary prayer, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (41-42). Then she shares John’s reaction in the womb is to leap for joy (44).

How did they know? How did they not only sense the presence of our Lord, but then react with joy rather than surprise or fear as the apostles do in Christ’s transfiguration? Elizabeth must have lived with a sense of expectation that the Messiah was coming. Her sense of expectation must have increased when God blessed Zechariah and  her with a child after many long years of barrenness, heightened to the degree that her child in the womb shared that expectation. This is the state of mind we are trying to foster in Advent, isn’t it? If we expect Jesus to come at any moment, walk through our front door as Mary does, won’t we too be moved to joy immediately when He comes.  Of course this doesn’t just prepare us for the second coming of Jesus, but for every encounter with Him in our daily lives. He is present in the people from all walks of life that cross our path daily. This is especially true of those who need our help, and who we go to help with the charity exemplified by Mary in her visit to Elizabeth. However, it is also true of those who try to help us. I think about how often I refuse the help of others out of pride rather than receive it with joy as Elizabeth does. Those who genuinely wish to help are carrying Christ’s love in their hearts as Mary did the Incarnate Word in her womb. A joy-filled life is available year around if we just expect Christ to arrive in our lives through those God sends our way each day. If we look for Jesus in others, we will find Him.

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, December 13th, 2015

The Gospel for December 13th, 2015, Gaudete Sunday: “The Preaching of John the Baptist” Continued

Luke 3: 10-18

The crowds asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it would should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.

Reflection:

My reading of this gospel, as with last week’s gospel, owes a great deal to the influence of Matthew Kelly’s interpretation of this series of Advent readings in his CD “Becoming the Best Version of Yourself.” As Kelly does, I wish to connect John the Baptist’s message to the experience of genuine joy, as the third Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete, or Joy Sunday, represented by a rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath.

In last week’s gospel, the people who have heeded John’s message of repentance and been baptized ask him, “What should we do?” He replies, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (11).

Why are his directions so specific? I think he is grounding the largely interior experiences of repentance and baptism in the more concrete, external behavior of good works. Jesus calls us to action to love each other as He loves us. We do that when we help those in need as Jesus does. In so doing, we draw nearer to Him and to His love.

True as this may be, the question may still be asked, why this reading on Joy Sunday? What is the connection between good works and joy? I propose the answer is that it reveals the true nature of joy in living, which is nearness to Christ. This passage is rich with opportunities to be nearer to Christ that are not necessarily obvious in a modern world that equates joy with self-gratification. In the baptism John and the Church administers one in joined to Christ, creating a pathway for nearness. Those who repent turn away from sin and toward Christ, moving nearer to Him on that path.  Finally, there is John’s instruction to give from our surplus to those in need, as Christ gives from His abundant love, drawing us near to Him once again. This opportunity for good works is always available to walk the path toward holiness, even we when temporarily turn back in our sinfulness. Consider St. Paul’s words in the auxillary reading to the Phillipians:  “Rejoice to the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near” (4: 4-5). Yes, we rejoice–we experience joy–when the Lord in near. So John’s message is critical this Advent season as we prepare for the coming of Christ. We should not wait for Him to come to us; but instead, we should move nearer to Him in joyful unselfishness. In this approach will we celebrate the joy of Christmas as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi did, in the presence of our Lord, for He is near.

The Gospel for Sunday, December 6th, 2015

The Gospel for December 6th, 2015, Second Sunday of Advent: “The Preaching of John the Baptist”

Luke 3: 1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. He went throughout [the]whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of words of the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.

Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth,

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Reflection:

I have a specific and meaningful memory of this year’s series of Advent readings. It is the same series that occurred in the year Matthew Kelly recorded his speaking engagement that became the audio CD, “Becoming the Best Version of Yourself” (check it out). The message of that CD spoke to me in way that led to the first authentic conversion in my life. As a part of his presentation, he considers the message of these advent readings collectively. When he comes to this reading about John the Baptist, he considers the meaning of John’s proclamation of repentance in preparing for the coming of Jesus. Kelly asks, what does it mean to repent? His answer is to turn back to God. And then he adds a comment that makes so much sense that it rises to level of true wisdom: To turn back to God, you’ve got to turn away from something. That one hit me hard. To repent we must turn away from those pursuits , habits, and relationships that are drawing our attention away from God’s plan for us, or as Kelly puts it, that are not helping us become the best version of ourselves (BVOO).

Kelly makes it clear that if we ask ourselves which pursuits, habits, and relationships are not helping us become the BVOO, we will know which of those we need to turn away from to turn back to God. From my own self-examination of my life I learned this alarming insight, it is those that smack of selfishness. I knew which items on my list I needed to turn my back on because they benefitted no one but me. The other crushing truth I discovered was these are the same ones on my list that I held most dear!

Fortunately, I also discovered that turning to God brings with it a sense of inner peace that is not possible from those aspects of my life that are selfish in nature. While those sins (let’s call them what they are) may bring temporary pleasure, they always leave me wanting more, always in the turmoil of dissatisfication. So turning back to God is the better move, in spite of the sacrifice for which it calls. But how does one do it? How does one break the cycle of sin, selfishness, addiction (choose your favorite reference for a bad habit)? Well, spoiler alert, next week John the Baptist is going to give a pretty enlightening answer to how one repents.

But in the meantime, consider this. The Church builds in help by promoting the sacrament of reconciliation during Advent season, often in many parishes in the form of community celebrations of the sacrament in addition to the weekly opportunities that already are available. I am reminded in this focus to go to confession where I will confess my need to turn away from my sins and back to God. There, the priest will absolve our sins and break their stranglehold on us, so that we may receive the peace and joy of our savior with open hearts. “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (6). Amen, Isaiah. Amen, John the Baptist. I hope to see you at the confessional. It is an act of repentance.