The Gospel for Sunday, January 1st , 2016

The Gospel for Sunday, January 1st, 2016: “The Solemnity of Mary”

Luke 2: 16-21

Reflection: The Interplay of Dialogue and Contemplative Prayer

I greet readers with joy today as many celebrate a new year and we in the Church celebrate a feast dedicated to our Christian mother, Mary. A day focused on the significance of Mary, our Lady, should be joyful, and yet I will admit that such moments sometimes take me down a road that does not immediately lighten my heart. That road is one of research and study on difficult questions. The mystery of Mary’s role in salvation history can be confusing and is still a stumbling block for many of our Protestant brothers and sisters as well as non-believers. The questions are fair. Could Mary really have been fully human and yet without sin? If we pray to Mary, are we worshipping her instead of God the Father? Does her role as wife and mother mean all women should accept those vocations without question, whether it be in marriage to a Catholic man or to the Church as a religious who is married to Christ? As Catholics our answers to those questions affect how we practice our faith, instill it in our children, and discuss it with non-Catholics. So the research is important, whether it occurs in the form of reading materials from recognized Catholic authorities, listening to the message from bishops and priests within our local parishes, discussing it with other laypersons, or surveying the wide range of opinions expressed on the internet by bloggers and forum posters who represent an incoherent cross section of the general public.

In reading today’s gospel, I started down that road again and decided to turn back. While I think at times God speaks to us in this sort of dialogue, it is also possible to lose sight of faith’s simplicity and perhaps become paralyzed with uncertainty by theological and dogmatic study and debate. We are not all called to defend the faith with words, but simply to try to live it each day in the hope of salvation. In reaching the decision to avoid providing answers to deep Marian questions, I realized today’s reading has a lot to say about dealing with the confusion that can arise when the discussion of faith becomes esoteric or controversial if we focus on Mary’s reaction as the shepherds come to the manger and tell her and Joseph what they have learned from the angels.

Consider this brief sequence of events described by Luke:

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart (15-19).

Mary has given birth in some sort of cave primitively arranged as a shelter for livestock. Indeed the livestock are still there with her husband and new born child. While Mary has been told by Gabriel she will give birth to a child bestowed by the Holy Spirit who will be given “the throne of David his father” and who will “rule over the House of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1: 30-33) and has accepted this role on faith, she could not possibly have a full understanding of God’s plan for her family and for Jesus, her son. So it must have been very tempting to doubt the revelation that her new son was a king given the circumstances of his birth. Then along comes the shepherds as she is struggling to keep her baby warm, saying the angels have told them the Messiah is born and that a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes is a sign of this truth (Luke 2: 10-12). I imagine this would have been exciting to Mary, perhaps reassuring based on what she already knows, definitely overwhelming, but also a cause for more questions. Does this mean Jesus is the Messiah? Could He possibly born under these circumstances? And finally, how do I raise the Messiah, a king?

So what does Mary do when confronted by these confusing, uncanny messages from surprising sources? She ‘keeps all these things and reflects on them in her heart.’ In this response I see tremendous help for those of us who, like Mary, find themselves trying to live God’s plan in the face of unbelievable, befuddling messages from both inside and outside the Church. Although Luke doesn’t call it this, I think Mary engages in contemplative prayer. She takes in all she knows into her heart where she can reflect on it in the presence of God (in this case Jesus may very well have been at her breast as she did so). And of course this is enough for her to move forward, still unaware of all the terrors that wait, with faith and love. In the coming days, she will meet the Magi, another sign, and then be forced to evacuate with her family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by slaughtering the baby boys of Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 16). Her roller coaster ride of highs and lows as the mother of Jesus lasts a lifetime.

We can take Mary as a model and pray for her help with our own rollercoaster rides that cause us to doubt and fear. Her feelings of confusion, doubt, and terror, as well as of relief, excitement, and joy would have been every bit as intense as our own. God sees fit to send her incomplete messages about her mission in a variety of means just as he does with us through scripture, tradition, dogma, a variety of commentators on morality and faith both good and bad, and life experience. To sort this out, to simplify our faith, Mary reminds us to go to Jesus in the quiet of our hearts–to pause in contemplative prayer, wherever we may be, to stave off the threat of being overwhelmed and to reorient ourselves to the simple grace of Jesus for the moment at hand.

Let our hearts be light on this feast of Mary. She has shown us that contemplative prayer can turn the cacophony of voices and life experiences into perfect faith. Instead of attempting to shut out and escape the confusion, we simply take it into our hearts and let Jesus transform it into quiet, peaceful guidance for the next step. God bless Mary, Jesus’ mother and ours.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, December 25th, 2016

The Gospel for December 25th, 2016, Mass During the Day: “John, Chapter 1”

John 1: 1-18

Reflection: Acceptance, Not Understanding

Let me begin by wishing readers, “Merry Christmas.” On this day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom God sent to rescue us from the darkness of sin and death. It is a reminder of His love for us, and that He is present among us. This is an occasion for joy, which I truly wish for the whole of humanity today and in the coming year.

That said, I am going to be honest. As I write this on December 23rd, I don’t feel joyful. I feel emotionally exhausted. The build-up to Christmas has worn me out. It would be easy to blame the secular-inspired hype of the season—it is a factor for sure. But I also think the Advent message is factor as well. I have tried to repent, to love my neighbor as well as my enemies, to surrender to God’s call as Mary and  Joseph did, and to purify myself as John the Baptist did by going to the desert to preach. In this effort, I find myself trying to act charitably toward the other humans, a class of beings who are just so irritable even when they are trying to do right. They seem to be consistently asking more of me than I have to give, without any awareness that I might be at my limit. And keep in mind, so much of the cajoling and politicking is justified in the spirit of Christmas!

I just don’t understand why it all has to be so hard.

Furthermore, I don’t understand how the pregnant Mary could have hastened to help Elizabeth when she learned her cousin was with child too, how Joseph could have married an eternal virgin carrying a child that was not his own, or how John could have moved to the desert to preach and baptize, wearing camel hair. In comparison to the faith of all of these Advent heroes, I just feel like a worn-out failure. I don’t feel like trying any more, just two days from Christmas.

But alas, along comes the first chapter of John to usher in Christmas day. Instead of stories filled with venerable saints, John speaks with poetry, philosophy, and prophecy to announce the Messiah. About the Incarnation he says, “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God” (11-12). In these words, I see part of my problem. I have been trying to understand everything: the gospels, the saints, God the Father’s salvation plan, and most of all, the other humans. When all along, Jesus was just asking me to accept Him, so that He might give me the power to become a child of God. Acceptance first, not understanding; then peace; and then joy.

The grace of that insight in God’s word is enough to relieve weeks of building tension inside.

In acceptance, the gospel becomes a source of joy. Consider the ending lines of today’s reading: “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses,  grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (16-18).

So I accept. I accept a love that I don’t fully understand, but that is revealed through Jesus Christ. I accept a destiny that I can’t control, but to which I can only surrender. And finally, I accept that I don’t understand the other humans, just as they probably don’t understand me; nevertheless through simple acts of charity, we can be joined together in our Lord through his merciful grace.

With that in mind, I feel the peace and joy of Christmas. And I wish it to all the other humans with an open heart on this joyful feast.

 

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, December 18th, 2016

The Gospel for December 18th, 2016: “The Birth of Jesus”

Matthew 1: 18-24

Reflection: Saint Joseph, the Quiet, Obedient Christian

For the fourth Sunday of Advent, the arrival of our Lord nears with this reading about His birth. In this passage, I am struck by the fact that our Savior’s birth into a loving family is made possible by Joseph’s quiet obedience in the face of God’s surprising and challenging plans for him. I imagine Joseph was heart-broken from perceived betrayal when he discovered Mary was pregnant with a child that was not his, perhaps enraged. We are told his reaction was “righteous” (19) both legally and morally. By this I mean, on the one hand, he will not marry a woman who appears to have broken the law by having relations with another man; and on the other, he will not expose her shame so that she will be punished by stoning. In short his response is thoroughly Christ-like, showing absolute firmness of faith, loving compassion for others, and complete disregard for his own desires and fears. This decision must have cost him a tremendous emotional toll.

On the heels of this turmoil, Joseph is visited by an angel in his sleep with unbelievable news and a shocking command from God. Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit and the promised Messiah from the Father; Joseph must take Mary back as his wife and raise the Savior-child as his own (20-22)! His reaction in the midst of an emotional roller-coaster ride? Matthew simply reports, “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus” (24-25). God has never asked so much of me, and yet I frequently bristle at His requests and protest His asking. Not Joseph. He quietly obeys.

While this display of faith wins my admiration for its selflessness, I think I almost missed the most important part of the message. I almost drew the conclusion that Joseph’s virtue is worthy of imitation for its own right. But the goal is not living a life of self-denial for its own sake in some aimless spiritual quest. The goal is to bring Christ into our lives and those of others to experience salvation. We are told through the Prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means ‘God is with us’” (23). Joseph’s reward for obedience is to be with Jesus intimately in the present. Our reward for obedience to the Lord’s call in our own lives is the same. It is an outcome that far surpasses any dream we can imagine for ourselves in its everlasting peace and joy. I pray that one fruit of our Advent preparation may be a renewed obedience to Christ’s invitation to serve, so that we may welcome Him into our lives right now, as Joseph and Mary did.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, December 11th, 2016

The Gospel for December 11th, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11: 2-11

Reflection:

Rather than providing my own gospel reflection this week, I would like to invite readers to check out Bishop Robert Barron’s daily gospel reflections that can be delivered through e-mail. Bishop Barron’s reflections are shorter and less personal than mine, but they provide theological insight and optimism that I find very inspiring.

This link will allow you how to sign-up. May God bless you as you continue your advent journey.

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, December 4th, 2016

The Gospel for December 4th, 2016: “The Preaching of John the Baptist”

Matthew 3: 1-12

Reflection: The Lost May Be More Likely to Repent in Response to Love than Criticism

On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear the words of John the Baptist in what I would call a quintessential Advent message—repent! The language of John’s message is harsh, critical, and divisive as he speaks to the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come with other Jews out to John in the desert to be baptized.  I have not responded well to this sort of evangelization and find myself wondering about John’s intent in speaking this way. For example, he accusingly says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (7-9). John sounds like an Old Testament prophet. Perhaps, this is the reason he uses these words, a language these scriptural scholars can understand. While I don’t know the reason these men came out to see John, it is possible it was not to repent with an open heart. Instead, they may have gone to check out this crazy Rabbi who is drawing crowds for baptism, concerned that his popularity might cut into their own influence. His criticism of them suggests they are complacent in their quest for holiness. They may believe wrongly their birth and legalism has secured their favor with God. John is wasting no words to unveil the error in this view. He is preaching that all should acknowledge their sinfulness and turn to God for salvation. Despite the harshness of his message, he is giving them just what they need at that moment, in full agreement with God’s will. For how else will they be ready for Jesus’s message of selfless love for all, including Gentiles, if they do not question the beliefs to which they are clinging? If this view fits, it does make sense to me.

Still, regardless of John’s intent, which I do not question in the least nor claim to fully understand, I am more concerned with what this gospel means for me and my own efforts to repent this advent season. Certainly, I think it is a strong reminder of the need for the sacrament of reconciliation, to admit fully my own sinfulness and need for God’s grace, in order to prepare for the coming of our Savior.  I also think it gives me pause to consider the possibility that this aggressive language is just what some need to hear to bring them back to God, even if I find it generally ineffective for me personally.

However, as I consider the use of this sort of evangelistic rhetoric as used by others and for my own efforts, I would like to share this insight. There is a righteousness John speaks with that few of us can carry off with authenticity. And even though at times, Jesus speaks with such brute honesty as well, the predominant theme of His ministry is love of God and neighbor. In fact when we consider this gospel in light of the supplemental readings, we see this is subtly present in John’s message as well. In calling for repentance in preparation for Jesus’s coming, he refers to “of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken” (3).  So we go back to Isaiah’s words in the first reading. Notice the conciliatory language of love and unity Isaiah uses to describe the kingdom of Jesus the Messiah:

Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair (Isaiah 11: 3-8).

While I will not pretend to know what it feels like to be struck with the “rod of his mouth” or be slain by the “breath of his lips,” I think it is significant that Jesus is not using violence from the weapons of the world in this revelation to bring justice. Furthermore, the majority of this vision speaks to a level of peace and unity among enemies that is truly inspiring and comforting.

My point is a comprehensive reflection on what it means to repent this advent season should include a consideration of our evangelization efforts. And yet, I would argue that we should make sure that those efforts, whether by word or action, speak of love, peace, and reconciliation. For if we adopt the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric of the Old Testament prophets, not only do we risk turning away the lost who are put off by a self-righteous, apocalyptic tone, but we also may very well forget to tell and show the best reason to return to Jesus—love, peace, and joy. May God’s love guide our every interaction with others this Advent season as we prepare for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. His judgment speaks of mercy and peace and lasts forever.