Thursday, December 29, 2022

Memorial of Saint Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr

Readings: 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Ps 34:2-9; Matthew 16:24-27

Once again, on this Fifth Day of Christmas, we don red to commemorate a martyr. The martyr we commemorate today is not one from the pages of Sacred Scripture. Rather, one from the Middle Ages: Archbishop Thomas Becket.

Becket served as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral on the Fifth Day of Christmas in AD 1170. He had only returned from France, where he was exiled for seven years fleeing from the wrath of the English king, Henry II, earlier in December. As the film Becket, starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, and T.S. Eliot’s verse-play Murder in the Cathedral depict, Becket was named Archbishop of Canterbury, then England’s primatial see, due his friendship with King Henry.

Because of the nature of his appointment, the king expected a compliant prelate, one who would bend the Church to his will. Already a deacon, upon being named archbishop he was ordained priest and consecrated bishop in rapid succession. Before and after his episcopal consecration, Becket served the king as Lord Chancellor. As Chancellor, he saw to it that income for the king was gathered from all landowners, including churches and bishoprics.

Much to King Henry’s surprise, Thomas took his call to holy orders and his consecration as a bishop quite seriously. Becket seems to have undergone a genuine conversion. As a result, he resisted the king and sought to reassert the Church’s rights, a reassertion that put him at odds with the monarch. This led Henry to issue the Constitutions of Clarendon.

The Constitutions sought to limit the Church’s independence and to weaken its connection to the Holy See. Henry, a formidable politician, succeeded in having the bishops of his realm agree to these. Becket, however, refused to sign. His refusal was the cause of his seven-year exile to France. His return at the beginning of December 1170 was risky.

All of this is so much history, albeit interesting and even important history in terms of the Church’s relationship to the state. Getting to the heart of the martyrdom of Becket and of martyrdom itself is what truly matters. Here is where the archbishop’s Christmas sermon from T.S. Eliot’s play is so wonderful.

Murder in the Cathedral consists of two parts. The first part is Becket’s return from France in early December. The second part takes place on 29 December, the day of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. Between the play’s two parts, Becket's Christmas sermon serves as an interlude. This brings us to our Gospel reading, in which Jesus teaches that forfeiting your soul for anything in the world or for everything in the world is the worst deal imaginable.

In his Christmas preaching, Becket seeks to set forth that the deep mystery of Christmas lies in both celebrating Christ’s birth while, at the same time, calling to mind his death. Linking the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross calls us to rejoice and mourn simultaneously. He notes that this tension, this paradox, can appear strange but that it is just this tension that makes Christian experience unique.

At the end of his sermon, Becket turns toward the attention of his listeners to martyrdom. He mentions that on the Second Day of Christmas, the Church celebrates the martyrdom of Stephen. Celebrating Stephen's martyrdom, he insists, evokes the tension between mourning and celebrating. This tension marks the true spirit of Christmas.

The archbishop goes on to insist that we shouldn’t think of martyrs merely as good Christians who’ve been murdered for being Christians. This would only be to mourn. Neither should martyrs be reduced to being Christians who’ve been “raised to the altar” by the Church This is only to rejoice. To do one of these at the expense of the other is to let go of the tension not only that our faith requires but that is the essence of Christian faith. He says, “and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world’s is.”

Becket sets forth a further tension, the tension between martyrs being “made by the design of God” and also being those who freely and totally submit to God’s will. His overarching point, then, is because of this paradox (i.e., the martyr both submits and is simultaneously submitted by God’s plan)—the way we celebrate them must match that complexity.

Thinking dualistically about martyrdom and Christian life fails to match our calling, our Christian vocation. In this regard, as Christians, we are not faced with a dilemma, either being a victim of God’s harsh will or recklessly embracing death, either celebrating the Paschal Mystery by mourning or by celebrating. Rather, in true Catholic fashion, we are invited to embrace the both/and. Frankly, this requires a lot from us.

Eliot puts this response on Thomas Becket’s lips, a reply that gets back to the complexity of the existential and metaphysical tension of martyrdom:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason
Today’s memorial invites each of us to reflect on our own call to follow Jesus. You and I are asked to consider what temptations, what besetting sins, get in the way of either discerning God’s will for your life or doing God’s will with your life. "Martyr" simply means witness. Christian discipleship is nothing other than a call to bear witness to the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, allowing yourself to be fully immersed in the Paschal Mystery.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

Readings: 1 John 1:5-2:2; Ps 124:1-5.7-8; Matthew 2:13-16

It's interesting that two of the first four days of Christmas are days we celebrate martyrs. Stephen on the Second Day and the Holy Innocents on the Fourth Day. In a homily for Stephen’s Feast, Fulgentius proclaimed: “And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven.”

Indeed, we are saved by love. One of the best-known verses of scripture is John 3:16- “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” It is only through Jesus Christ that anyone is saved.

Herod unleashed lethal violence against the children of Bethlehem to kill the king born there. He was fearful that this king would take his kingdom from him. Maybe he called to mind the prophet Samuel anointing the boy David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, to become king, replacing Saul.

David, too, came from Bethlehem. Saul’s efforts to kill David all failed. David, even when he had the chance, refused to harm, let alone kill, Saul. In reality, Jesus posed no threat to Herod. In the end, Herod was the enemy of Herod.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, the Church celebrates the holy innocents. Specifically, we remember those children of ancient Bethlehem, who were killed on Herod’s order. Today, we should also call to mind those innocent children who have suffered terribly throughout the ages, including those children who even now are victims of violence, abuse, and war.

Saint Quodvuldeus, in a sermon delivered on this feast, declared: “The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself.” This is “the kind of kingdom” Jesus came to establish. It is a kingdom of the meek and lowly, of the vulnerable and defenseless.

In Stephen and the Holy Innocents, we see how God’s deliverance works and how Jesus saves. These witnesses show us in a stark and dramatic way the central paradox of Christian faith, taught by Jesus later in Matthew’s Gospel: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We frequently make the connection between the wood of the manger and the wood of the cross. In our Gospel today, the murder of these innocents foreshadows things to come.

Now, let’s be clear, God did not cause or will the violent death of innocent children either then or now. Neither was the Father complicit in or responsible for the death of his beloved Son. As Owen Cummings observed:
God did not predetermine that Jesus would have to suffer on the cross, just as God does not predetermine that any of us has to suffer on our own crosses. That would turn God into a cruel tyrant [and us into something like marionettes acting out a script]. What God did in the whole event of Jesus, in the incarnation and crucifixion, was to enter into the messy details of our world, a world marked by arbitrariness and unpredictability. The God who is nothing but unconditional Love, embodied and made visible in Jesus, lets the consequences of being Love in our flawed human world happen without evasion or avoidance
And so, it was Herod who willed and caused the massacre of the infant boys in Bethlehem. In his infinite love and mercy, God can and often does bring good from our evil. What else can resurrection be about?

Bringing good from evil is precisely what our first reading, taken from John’s first letter, is about. To receive forgiveness for your sins, you must acknowledge and confess them. The inspired author calls our all-too-human bluff by boldly stating that if you deny you are a sinner you are dishonest. This, he goes on to note, is the height of self-deception.

By contrast, if we walk in the light, acknowledging our sins, through Jesus Christ, God will mercifully forgive us. By definition, a sin is a deliberately wrong thought, word, action, or inaction. Because sin is wrong, we must commit to trying not to keep doing it. This is what we call having “a firm purpose of amendment.” There is the part of the Act of Contrition where we say: “I firmly intend, with [God’s] help, to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”

Herod’s heart was proud, vain, and fearful. As a result, he became wicked. You put your own heart at risk when you deny your sins and refuse to examine your conscience. This is nothing less than to reject your need for God. This, too, smacks of vanity, pride, and perhaps fear. Someone who insists that her/his sins are greater than God’s mercy, whether they know it or not, far from being humble, is prideful on a rather grand scale. We’ve all heard the old saw that goes something like, “If I went into a church it would collapse.” In addition to being a boast rather than a statement made in humility, such an attitude reveals a pagan understanding of God.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn learned from his experience of the Soviet gulag: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts.” This is why you should examine your heart regularly.

Here's the good news: you don’t go to confession to find out whether God will forgive you your sins. Because of Jesus Christ, you’re always already forgiven. Then why go to confession, you might ask? You go to experience for yourself the great mercy of God, to admit your sins, have them heard, and then receive the saving grace of this beautiful sacrament, thus being able to see for yourself how God can bring good from evil. So, my friends, let’s walk together in the light of Christ.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr

Readings: Acts 6:8-10.7:54-59; Ps 31 Matt 10:17-22

Not having grown up Catholic, I never understood the beginning of the carol “Good King Wenceslas.” If you remember, it starts out- “Good King Wenceslas looked out/On the Feast of Stephen…” It’s a lovely carol about the “good” king reaching out to help a poor man on a cold winter’s night. Kind of diaconal in its way. My main memory of the tune, however, is from a Sprite commercial about the soda's taste being “crisp and clear and even” and being like a “limon.”

In those days, I had no idea what the Feast of Stephen was, only that it was in the winter around Christmastime. This was the result of the Sprite commercial. Of course, for me then, Christmas was a day, not a season. Even as a fairly small child, Christmas always resulted in an anticlimax. As it turns out, Santa Claus is pretty thin gruel.

As a priest friend of mine humorously likes to say, "Today is throw a rock at a deacon day."

It's beautiful to celebrate Christmas as a season. While celebrating the birth of our Lord, it's nice to observe several beautiful feasts. The first of these is today’s feast, the Feast of Stephen. Along with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, Stephen is revered by the Church as one of her first deacons.1

The twofold criteria set forth by the apostles for those to be set apart for service was that they be filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom.2 So, the primitive Jerusalem community, before it was dispersed due to persecution, selected these seven men. Their immediate charge was to ensure the just distribution of resources to the widows, who were dependent on the community.

Of the seven men named in the sixth chapter of Acts of the Apostles, we only subsequently hear about two of them. Philip, who relocated to Samaria because of persecution, and Stephen. Philip continued preaching the Gospel, baptizing those who believed, and casting out evil spirits and healing in Jesus’ name.3

Stephen, “filled with grace and power,” we are told, worked “great wonders and signs among the people.”4Like Philip, he continued to boldly bear witness to Jesus Christ. Unlike Philip, he didn’t flee Jerusalem and faced the full force of persecution.

The Stoning of Saint Stephen, Rembrandt's first signed painting, 1625

One has to ask, “Did God save, or rescue, Stephen?” The answer is “Yes.” Stephen grasped the teaching of Jesus that urges those who would be his followers not to fear those who can destroy the body but not your soul.5 As a result, at the instigation of one Saul of Tarsus, a very zealous Pharisee, Stephen became the first Christian martyr.

Like our Lord himself, far from condemning those who killed him, he pleaded for God to be merciful to them. This is set forth beautifully in the Collect for today’s feast:
Grant, Lord, we pray,
that we may imitate what we worship
and so learn to love even our enemies6
I often wonder what role Stephen’s witness played in Saul’s conversion. For it was this same Saul, whose first appearance in scripture is at the stoning of Stephen, who later, under his Roman name and the office given him because of his encounter with the risen Lord, came to be known as Paul, the apostle.

I often wonder what role Stephen’s witness played in Saul’s conversion. For it was this same Saul, whose first appearance in scripture is at the stoning of Stephen, who later, under his Roman name and the office given him because of his encounter with the risen Lord, came to be known as Paul, the apostle. It bears recalling that the apostle himself would die a martyr’s death in Rome.

Please permit me a personal note on this feast. My middle name from birth is Stephen. Stephen is my father's name. Therefore, when I converted, I didn’t feel I needed to take a saint’s name. As far as I was concerned, I already had not only a Christian name, but a wonderful Christian name. I suppose this may also have been an indication of my own vocation, though at that time it did not even enter my mind.

In Greek, martyr simply means “witness.” Among Ukrainian Catholics, a small community of whom I was privileged to serve over the course of a few years at the Cathedral, everyone who attends a baptism is given what is called a “martyr’s pin.” These pins, which you put on your lapel, feature a blue and gold ribbon. You are given this because, being present at someone’s paschal death, burial, and resurrection, you are a witness, like Stephen was a witness, like Paul was a witness, to the saving power of God. Baptism is the sacrament of Christian life.

I started by quoting a carol and so I will end by quoting one. My ending citation, the chorus of well-known hymn, is one that urges us to bear witness, one that exhorts us to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord and to glorify him by our lives:
Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

1 Acts 6:5.
2 Acts 6:3.
3 See Acts 8:4-38.
4 Acts 6:8.
5 Matthew 10:28.
6 Roman Missal, Proper of Saints, 26 December, Saint Stephen, the First Martyr.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Christmas- an addendum or afterthought

John 1:10

Proclaiming the Prologue to Saint John's Gospel during Mass today, I became aware that close to the middle of this pericope, of this unit of holy writ, the mystery of the Incarnation of the Father's only Begotten Son is set forth. I believe the heart of the mystery can be found in the tenth verse of the first chapter of the fourth Gospel:
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him
These sixteen words (in Greek- twenty in the NAB translation) really capture the mystery of God-made-man.

Jesus often didn't make sense to people of his own day. Quite frequently, he still baffles us today. Take the Gospel and politics- those who want to politicize Jesus are as wrong as those who want to de-politicize him. In other words, the Gospel certainly has political implications that followers of Jesus have to take seriously but neither does Jesus present us with a political program. In fact, he seems to repudiate programmatic politics.

Part of living between the already of his first coming, which inaugurated God's kingdom, and the not-yet of his return, when that kingdom will be fully established, requires Christians to find a way to continue on the Way amid the realities of this world. Just as we must make some peace with how to handle wealth, we must continually discern how to relate to power. We get a flavor of this in Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans as well as in Saint Justin Martyr's First Apology.

Again, I am only using politics as a case-in-point for showing the crisis the Incarnation foments and also how we try to evade the mystery by reducing it, in various and manifold ways, to our own measure. By his becoming truly human, the Son, through whom the world came to be, willingly submitted himself to his creation, to his creatures, those made in his divine image but who, through sin, forfeited their likeness to him. As with creation, the Incarnation shows us God taking a risk, a big one. I don't think that we think about God as a risk-taker often enough.

To jump from John to the Synoptics, it is by becoming human through the Blessed Virgin Mary that God's Son becomes Emmanuel- God-with-us. Christ is God's solidarity with us. As Paul asks, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" We state this even as, along with Saint Teresa of Avila, who a hagiographical anecdote has saying to God: "If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!" This is why Christian life requires a lot of patience and perseverance. Even in this, Jesus shows us the way.

Urbi et Orbi- Christmas 2022


Christmas 2022

Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the world, happy Christmas!

May the Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, bring to all of you the love of God, wellspring of confidence and hope, together with the gift of the peace proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those whom he favours” (Lk 2:14).

On this festive day, we turn our gaze to Bethlehem. The Lord comes to the world in a stable and is laid in a manger for animals, since his parents could find no room in the inn, even though the time had come for Mary to give birth. He comes among us in silence and in the dark of night, because the word of God needs no spotlights or loud human voices. He is himself the Word that gives life its meaning, he is the Light that brightens our path. “The true light, which enlightens everyone” – the Gospel tells us – “was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9).

Jesus is born in our midst; he is God with us. He comes to accompany our daily lives, to share with us in all things: our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears. He comes as a helpless child. He is born in the cold night, poor among the poor. In need of everything, he knocks at the door of our heart to find warmth and shelter.

Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, surrounded by light, may we set out to see the sign that God has given us. May we overcome our spiritual drowsiness and the shallow holiday glitter that makes us forget the One whose birth we are celebrating. Let us leave behind the hue and din that deadens our hearts and makes us spend more time in preparing decorations and gifts than in contemplating the great event: the Son of God born for us.

Nativity of the Lord: Mass during the Night

Readings: Isa 9:1-6; Ps 96:1-3.11-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-4

The Christmas season is now here. So, Merry Christmas! Now is the time to really to celebrate! In the words of a contemporary Christian song, which takes its cue from our Isaiah reading:
Celebrate the child who is the Light
Now the darkness is over
No more wandering in the night
Celebrate the child who is the Light1
Christmas, our celebration of the coming of the Son of God into the world through the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a reason to rejoice, to make merry, and to celebrate. I read something yesterday that made me scratch my head a little, words to the effect that with the busyness of the season now past, it's time to focus on the true meaning of these days.

It made me scratch my head a bit because the whole purpose of the beautiful Advent season is to prepare us to celebrate at Christmas. It's a minor thing, but when it comes to the practice of our faith, we need to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Christmas is our annual celebration of God's only begotten Son, who for us "and for our salvation... came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man."2 In short, we celebrate God becoming one of us.

As Roman Catholics in the United States, we have three extra days of Christmas. For us, Christmas goes until the feast of the Lord's Baptism, which this year falls on Monday, 9 January. 25 December is just the first day of Christmas, the "a partridge in a pear tree" day!

Christmas season consists of many beautiful feasts: St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents, just to mention those that occur during the Christmas octave, which also features the memorial of Saint Thomas Becket. On our liturgical calendar, only Christmas and Easter have octaves, that is, eight days when every day is, liturgically, Christmas day. The Christmas octave ends with the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, on New Year’s Day.

If we’re serious about Christianity being countercultural, about keeping Christ in Christmas, then we need to take our observance of the liturgical year seriously. Being serious and celebrating are not opposites. During Christmas, we need to be serious about celebrating. “Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption,” Saint Augustine exhorted. “Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.”3

Beyond the octave, there is Epiphany, our celebration of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus bearing gifts. Traditionally, Epiphany is the day for exchanging gifts. Finally, as indicated, the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism.

The appropriate response to God becoming man in the person of Jesus, Son of Mary, is worship, praise, and celebration. Nighttime seems a fitting time to celebrate so deep and rich a mystery as the Incarnation of God. To enter the Church from the dark cold of a winter’s night and experience the light and warmth inside is already to experience the meaning of Christmas.

Our reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus, which is often overlooked, points us, on Christmas, toward the Savior’s second coming. Salvation history, whether before or after Christ’s birth, consists mainly of waiting. So, Advent is the Christian mode of being. The difference between these two long periods of waiting for the Lord to come is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended to constitute the Church.

To be a Christian, then, is to “await the blessed hope” of Christ’s return.4 The way we are to live between the already of Christ’s birth and not-yet of his glorious return, according to this New Testament epistle, is “to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”5 This reading for Christmas Mass during the Night serves to remind us not to reduce faith to sentimentality.

Our Gospel itself helps us to avoid this reduction. "Manger" refers to a feeding trough for animals and “swaddling clothes” is a dressed-up way of saying rags. Let’s not forget that the fruit of the third mystery of the Holy Rosary (i.e., Jesus’ birth) is poverty. This is brought into bold relief elsewhere in scripture: “though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not deem equality with God something to be grasped,” or held onto. "Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself…”6

We come to Church, not just on Christmas, but throughout the year and throughout the years, to receive the greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ. By the power and working of the Holy Spirit, he gives himself to us in the form of bread and wine. So, each time we come to Mass, we come to the manger, to mangiare (the Italian verb “to eat”). By eating together, we become his verum corpus, his true Body, the Church, his presence in the world until he until he returns. This is the “devoutly” part of how we live this Advent, this time of tension between the already and the not-yet.

Being devout also means celebrating our Savior’s birth throughout this glorious season. After all, the fruit of the fifth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary (i.e., finding Jesus in the Temple) is the joy of finding Jesus. This Christmas, may you experience again, or maybe for the first time, the joy of finding Jesus, who is the greatest gift of all. More than anything else, joy is the hallmark of being a Christian.

Have joyful, blessed, and Merry Christmas!

1 Michael Card. Song-"Celebrate the Child."
2 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec, 18.
3 The Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, Second Reading, December 24.
4 Titus 2:13.
5 Titus 2:12.
6 Philippians 2:6-8.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Year I Fourth Monday of Advent

Readings: Judges 13:2-7.24-25a; Ps 71:3-4a.5-6ab.16-17; Luke 1:5-25

In our readings today, the parallel between Samson and John the Baptist is clear.

Barren women unexpectedly conceiving is something that happens a number of times throughout the Bible. In addition to Samson’s mother (who is not named) and Elizabeth, there is Sarah, wife of Abraham, who conceives Isaac in her old age. Let’s not forget Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, whose pleading with God was answered by her giving birth to a son whom she promised to dedicate to God’s service (see Genesis 17:15-17 ; 1 Samuel 1).

In the society and culture of ancient Israel, being a married woman without children was a cause for shame. Children were seen as blessings from God. The source of shame was likely the idea that because God had not so blessed a barren woman, she must’ve done something to incur God’s displeasure.

Theologically, these women naturally conceived their sons. It is only Miriam of Nazareth, who comes to be with child, God’s only begotten Son, by the Holy Spirit, that is an exception to this. But we can also make a connection between Samson and Jesus. Samson, according to the Book of Judges, will deliver “Israel from the power of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). Jesus will save his people, that is, all who put their faith and hope in him, from death and from their sins.

In our readings today, the contrast between the disbelieving Zechariah and the mother of Samson (as well as all the other faithful women mentioned above) is clear.

Both Samson and John the Baptist were “Nazarites.” A Nazarite dedicates himself to God, either for a specified period or for life. As indicated in our readings, a Nazarite avoids grape products, primarily wine, does not cut his hair, and also avoids graves and contact with corpses.

In a move that would seem more like one the inspired author of Matthew might make, Luke has the archangel Gabriel make clear to the incredulous Zechariah that his and Elizabeth’s unexpected son would fulfill the prophecy of Malachi, outlined in the final two verses of the final book of the Old Testament (see Malachi 3:23-24). Their son would point people to God by pointing them to Jesus Christ.

While we’re not likely called to be Nazarites, it’s important for us not to forsake or avoid ascetical practices. In former times, beginning on or around the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours, Roman Catholics observed Advent much like we’re still supposed to observe Lent: by fasting and abstinence, increased almsgiving, and more time devoted to prayer. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians still observe what is called the Nativity Fast in preparation for their celebration of the Lord’s Nativity.

Zechariah's Vision in the Temple

It's safe to say that for many of us, probably even most of us, the time leading up to Christmas is a time of increased almsgiving. But I don’t think it is a time of deeper prayer and it certainly doesn’t seem to be a season marked by any sort of fasting and abstinence. While no longer obligatory, there are still Ember Days. Ember Days are days of fasting of abstinence, meaning you abstain from meat and either fast from food altogether or follow the rules of fasting set forth by the Church.

Advent Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the Feast of Saint Lucy on 13 December. If nothing else, these days provide us with opportunities to prepare ourselves for Christmas, for Christ’s coming, for his dwelling in and through us. To modify something G.K. Chesterton wrote: It’s not that fasting has been tried and found wanting or useless for spiritual life. It’s that it’s been found hard and left untried. Nonetheless as taught by Jesus himself, along with prayer and almsgiving, fasting is a fundamental spiritual discipline.

In case you’re wondering, the next Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the First Sunday of Lent. Beyond that, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost.

“We fast,” observed Richard Foster, “because it reveals the things that control us. We fast because it helps to give us balance in life. We fast because there is an urgent need. Most important of all, we fast because God calls us to it. We have heard the kol Yahweh, the voice of the Lord, and we must obey” (Richard J. Foster “Understanding Fasting”).

Cistercian monk, Fr. Charles Cummings, who for many years was resident at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville, noted: self-discipline is “a secret path to freedom.” He goes on to observe that the word “discipline” is of Latin origin, from disciplina, which means “instruction.” Hence, he concludes, practicing spiritual disciplines fosters “an attitude of listening and learning, an attitude of discipleship” (Monastic Practices, Revised Edition, 117).

As followers of Jesus, asceticism should not be foreign to us. While it features more prominently in monastic life, cloistered monastics are not the only Christians who should engage in ascetical practices. Like all spiritual disciplines, the fruit these practices bear takes time to grow and ripen before they can be harvested.

So, while the practice of the spiritual disciplines, things like Ember Days, Angelus bells, and Friday abstinence throughout the year and not just during Lent, may no longer be woven into our lives by way of ecclesial obligation, we are free to use our freedom to take them up. In fact, we are encouraged in our freedom, not by way of obligation on pain of sin, to still practice penitential disciplines.

We can take up these practices in the confidence that they are time-tested ways of becoming more like our Lord. The rhythm of the Christian life laid down by the beat of living between the already-and-not-yet is fasting and feasting. This is how we live what the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World calls “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of our age (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et spes], sec. 1).

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Year A Fourth Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 7:10-14; Ps 24:1-6; Rom 1:1-7; Matt 1:18-24

While today is the fourth and final Sunday of this Advent, we still have almost an entire week to go before Christmas. Because the beginning of the season of Christmas is on Sunday this year, Advent is as long as it can possibly be. By contrast, next year Advent will be as short as it can be, when the Fourth Sunday of Advent is immediately followed by the beginning of Christmas at sundown on the same day. “Kind of cool to know,” you might be saying to yourself, “but so what?”

Well, the “so what” takes the form of a question: How are you going to “use” this final week of Advent? Will it be all hustle and bustle, flurry and rush, or will you dedicate some time, even if just a little each day, to prepare yourself for Christ’s coming? This “time gift” is a great grace.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of Christ’s three advents, or comings.1 Advent does not just prepare us for the celebration of Jesus’ birth or even for his return at the end of time- though, as Christians, our lives are dedicated to awaiting “the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”2

While a relatively short liturgical season, Advent has two distinct emphases. For the first two weeks, Advent extends the Solemnity of Christ the King, exhorting us to live our lives in readiness for Christ’s glorious return, which can happen at any time. Beginning with Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, the season pivots, drawing our attention to the Lord’s birth in Bethlehem. According to St. Bernard, these are the first two advents.

What is Christ’s third advent? Well, the Lord’s third coming happens between his first and second. It is when Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is born in you, comes to dwell in you, and lives through you, through us, his verum corpus, his true Body, the Church.

While our reading from Isaiah and our Gospel today clearly focus on the Lord’s first advent, our reading of the beginning of Saint Paul’s letter to the Christians of ancient Rome addresses his third advent: Through Jesus Christ, the man from Tarsus wrote of himself and his fellow witnesses to Christ’s resurrection “we have received the grace of apostleship.” “Apostle,” in Greek, refers to one who is sent. In a Christian context, an apostle is one who has encountered the Risen Lord and who is sent bear witness. This grace is given, according to Paul, “to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of [Christ’s] name…” Along with Christians of first-century Rome, we, too, “are called to belong to Jesus Christ… called to be holy."3

More than any other way, you bear witness to Jesus Christ by how you live your daily life. To be holy is to be like Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God with us. The Holy Spirit is the mode of this third advent. In other words, just like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christ comes to be in you and manifests himself through you by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This why we pray the venerable prayer Veni sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam (Come Holy Spirit, come through Mary). As some of you probably noticed, our Collect, or opening prayer for Mass, is the same prayer that concludes the Angelus. By prayer the Angelus each day, we call to mind the amazing event of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.

Our Gospel tells of the first of four dreams through which God made known his will to Saint Joseph. In this dream, an angel is instrumental in helping Joseph resolve his serious dilemma concerning Mary, his betrothed, who unexpectedly turned up pregnant with a child he knew wasn’t his. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” the angel tells him “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”4 When he awoke, Joseph did as the angel instructed him and took the pregnant young woman into his home as his wife.

“Obedience,” Pope Francis noted, “made it possible for [St. Joseph] to surmount his difficulties and spare Mary.”5 You would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the “obedience of faith,” about which Saint Paul wrote than Joseph’s response to learning God’s will for him. It is one thing to know God’s will and quite another to do it.

Maybe that’s a focus for reflection for this “extra” week of Advent: discerning God’s will for your life and committing, with God’s help, to doing it. This seems especially timely as an old year gives way to a new one. I don’t know about you, but Christmas (New Year’s Day is the seventh day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God) always gives me genuine hope. Genuine hope, because it is a gift from God, the flower of faith, reaches far beyond any human-generated optimism. Optimism can and sometimes does lead to disappointment. Whereas hope begins with disappointment. One can easily imagine the disappointment Joseph felt upon learning of the unexpected pregnancy of his betrothed.

As we sing in the first verse of the beautiful Christmas Carol, O Holy Night:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn6
My dear sisters and brothers, as we read in the Letter to the Colossians: “it is Christ in you, the hope for glory.”7 It is Christ in you that enables you to not only discern but to do God’s will. Holiness consists of doing God’s will.

1 Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, Wednesday, First Week of Advent. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Sermon 5.
2 Roman Missal, Order of Mass, sec. 125.
3 Romans 1:5-7.
4 Matthew 1:20-21.
5 Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde, sec. 3.
6 John S. Dwight, Placide Cappeau, Adolphe-Charles Adam. O Holy Night. Genius Lyrics. Accessed 15 December 2022.
7 Colossians 1:27.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Jesus is the one: wait for him


"Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" The Baptist's question is the question of many people who have put their faith, their trust, and their hope in Jesus.

Matthew kind of gives away the answer when, even before posing the question, he refers to Jesus as "the Christ." "Christ," of course, means "Anointed." Anointed in the anglicized Hebrew is Messiah.

Jesus answered John's disciples knowing that, as the seal of the Old Testament prophets, the Baptist would surely know the prophets. Our reading from Isaiah, to which Jesus refers, is a Messianic prophecy. Hence, John would grasp that, indeed, Jesus "is the one who is to come."

But how much comfort was it for the imprisoned and doomed Baptist to have Jesus' Messianic identity confirmed? It's impossible to say, really. It seems likely that it was at least some small comfort for him to know that his ministry, which is what led to his predicament, was not in vain. I would be remiss not to note that Jesus' answer did not rescue him from jail nor spare him execution at Herod's command.

This brings me to my point: Jesus saves us through our experience, not from it. It's one thing to generally believe that God is at work in the world and in your life. It's another thing to experience for yourself just how God is at work in whatever circumstances you face.

Experiencing how God is present and active in your life, especially when things seem bad, is vital for anyone who would follow Jesus. Having such an experience might well make the difference between keeping and losing faith. No doubt, many have lost faith in God because they feel God broke faith with them, let them down, didn't answer their plea, failed to meet his/her expectations, or perhaps even seemed to crush expectations.

I am not being harsh on people who've not experienced God's way of working in and through experience. Doubting God is something virtually every believer, maybe even including John the Baptist, does at some point. Doubting to the point of giving up belief is a temptation most serious Christians face at one time or another. Maybe it's because someone wants a result s/he is not getting. Overall, I attribute this to our desire for the peace, hope, joy, and love that we celebrate successively on the four Sundays of Advent.

"You too must be patient," the scripture exhorts. Hope is perhaps best expressed as patience with God, with his means and methods of making all things work together for your good, which can sometimes seem like the opposite.

St. John the Baptist in Prison, Visited by Salomé, possibly by Guercino, 1591-1666

We experience the peace, hope, joy, and love God gives through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through what we experience, not in some other way. In other words, God meets you in the ordinary circumstances of your life. Along with faith, hope and love are theological virtues. As such, these are gifts from God. Peace and joy are fruits of the Holy Spirit. Hoping and loving in times of difficulty produce peace and joy. This is the witness of so many saints, including Mother Mary and John the Baptist, and our Lord himself.

In his second letter to the Church at ancient Corinth, Saint Paul states this rather forthrightly:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
Keeping faith, even when all seems dark and there appears no way out, is what it means to hope. You see, hope kicks in when optimism runs out.

Hope is not optimism. If nothing else, hope not only permits but is strengthened by lament, doubt, and even anger at the way things are (in the awareness things could be different, better). "Joy comes when the sun rises, dispelling the darkness. At dusk weeping comes for the night; but at dawn there is rejoicing" (Psalm 30:6).

Advent is about waiting for the light to dispel this present darkness. Advent prepares us to celebrate the dawning of that "new and glorious morn" at Christmas. The promise in our readings today does not come from our Gospel reading. Instead, it is found in our first reading:
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee
Jesus is the Christ, the one who ransoms us, opening for us the gates of Zion. Wait patiently for him, not another.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Reflecting about blogging

I am giving both my readers an up-front warning: this is a post about blogging. Don't worry, it won't be long. It is the second post of the last month of 2022. This hardly seems possible.

I haven't been a terribly diligent or consistent blogger this year. But this is my sixteenth year of blogging. My goal this year was to post somewhere around 120 times, which amounts to 10 posts per month. This is my 101st post. With Advent and then Christmas, I may still make that goal.

It's probably because I've had a bit more time than I usually have on a weekend that I am both thinking and writing about this. I started this blog in August 2005 and then began blogging in earnest in the July of the following year. My diligent blogging started with the post I titled "How Occasional?"

For several years, it was frequent, not occasional. Over the years, it has become more occasional but still works out to roughly twice a week on average.

Like a lot of people who started blogging a long time ago, I now post on social media quite a few things about which I would formerly compose a blog post. Once in a while, there is something I want to write about in an extended way and so make recourse to this cyberspace.

Lately, I've been thinking I need to do more blogging and spend less time on social media. We'll see what the rest of this month and early 2023 brings. I do think maintaining a blog is worthwhile. If not for others, then it is for me. Blogging has been a means of growth for me. Writing is a way to materialize what I think.

Oh sure, there were times when I was on the verge of being a really popular Catholic blogger. I am equally sure that isn't what I aim for with my modest efforts here.

I appreciate those who read what I write. I am grateful for the occasional comments I receive on my posts. I don't envision quitting this endeavor in the foreseeable future.

My dilemma


For me, the worst thing about a reading like today's Gospel is that it's easy to apply to someone else or everyone else. In reality, it is directed at me and nobody else.

John the Baptist is utterly correct: God can raise up children of Abraham (i.e., people of faith) from among the stones. The question is, can God transform my heart of stone? Stated simply, yes God can.

More precisely, will God, taking a cue from the prophet Ezekiel (36:26), remove my stony heart and replace it with a living, beating heart of flesh? I don't think he'll do that without me surrendering my heart, handing over the stone, no matter how precious it might be to me.

It's a true dilemma. I can surrender or resist; repent or remain as I am now. It seems to me that for an increasing number of professing Christians, repentance isn't necessary and so not terribly urgent. But that is precisely to project the Baptist's challenge onto others. This is a false move, a way of deflecting it, rejecting it. Do I hear what he says? Am I responding to what I hear?

St. John the Baptist, by Jen Norton

I know the right answer is "surrender." After all, it's an easy enough word to say. It's not like I can't make recourse to two surrendered hearts: Mother Mary's Immaculate Heart and Jesus' Sacred Heart. Isn't surrendering an admission of defeat? Does God really want to beat me at my own game? But, as the Baptist warns: Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. But that is to mix metaphors. Most of the time, axes can't cut through stone. In any case, a cut stone is just two stones.

I'd be lying if I said I am always disposed to surrendering my stony heart to God. Sometimes this stone is very precious to me (think Gollum). But surrender I must.

"There are only two kinds of people in the end," noted C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, "those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'"

One more thing I feel I must do is pray the one-word prayer of the primitive Church. This is invoked only once in Scripture, by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:22. This is a prayer lost, forgotten, replaced with so many other petitions: Maran atha: "Come, Lord."

You see, Jesus isn't just the reason for the season. He isn't the raisin in the cookie. He is, as our reading from Colossians for the Solemnity of Christ the King a few weeks ago, declared, "preeminent". All things were created by and for him. He is the giver and the gift.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...