Thursday, December 28, 2023

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 to the point of fascination that three of the first five days of Christmas are days we celebrate martyrs: Stephen on the Second Day, the Holy Innocents on the Fourth Day, and Thomas Becket on the Fifth Day of Christmas. 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.

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 a potential rival the magi told him had been born there. He was fearful that this rival 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 the equally jealous 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. Just so, 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. This is why the Lord teaches we must become like children to enter God’s kingdom.

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.”

Herod and the Magi

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 theologian 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
This why even though God did not predestine it, the scriptures from the beginning taught that the Messiah would suffer, die, and rise. 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 what our first reading, taken from 1 John’s, 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 a liar. Such a denial, all too common today, may be the worst sin.

By contrast, if we acknowledge our sins, through Jesus Christ, God mercifully forgives us. By definition, a sin is a deliberately willed thought, word, action, or inaction that is contrary to the love of God and love of neighbor. Because sin is wrong, when confessing it, we must make “a firm purpose of amendment,” which is why we say in confession, “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’s grace given through Christ. 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.

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, even daily.

Keep in mind the theses and antitheses from Jesus’ teaching collected in the Sermon on the Mount, also found in Matthew’s Gospel. Here’s the first one to jog your memory: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”

Often we like to think our anger is if not righteous then at least just. Most of the time, my friends, it is not. If Jesus and Stephen could not be angry with those who murdered them for doing God’s will, then what justification do you have? You can disapprove of something someone has done and not be angry with that person. You are supposed to even love your enemies. An enemy is someone who actively seeks to injure you. “Do not be overcome by evil,” Saint Paul teaches, “but overcome evil with good.”

As Jesus shows us over and over, it is always a matter of the heart. We need to look to his Sacred Heart, pierced but still on fire with love, lest we too fall into the habits of jealousy, pride, and vanity, like Herod.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr

Readings: Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59; Psalm 31:3-; Matthew 10:17-22

By long tradition and practice, the Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, the day after Christmas. This is only incongruent to people who do not really understand the meaning of Christmas. From her earliest days, the Church has identified the wood of the manger with the wood of the altar.

It was Saint Francis of Assisi, also a deacon, who also gave us the Christmas creche or Nativity scene, and who identified the wood of the manger with the wood of the cross. This is set forth nicely in a contemporary Christian song by Michael Card, in a tune entitled “The Final Word":
He spoke the Incarnation and so was born the Son
His final word was Jesus, he needed no other one
He spoke flesh and blood, so he could bleed and make a way divine
And so was born the baby who would die to make it mine1
As Christians, we must always bear in mind what the resurrected Lord said to the dejected disciples as they made their way from Jerusalem back to Emmaus: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”2 He then proceeded, as he accompanied them, to explain how the scriptures teach this front-to-back.

Saint Stephen, on the day after our celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, stands as a stark reminder of the Risen Lord's teaching. He also gives us a wonderful example of what is set forth this morning in our Gospel, taken this morning from Saint Matthew. In worldly terms, salvation is often a dirty, gritty, and at times terrifying affair. But the hope we have in Christ trumps this.

Hope is not optimism. Standing on the threshold of martyrdom, a martyr is not optimistic. Stephen knew the trajectory of what was happening to him as the result of his bold preaching of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. He was not optimistic that his brethren, incensed at what they perceived to be not only heresy but blasphemy of his proclamation, would drop their rocks and let him walk away.

It was genuine hope that theological virtue- a gift from God- that enabled Stephen not only to stand firm in his testimony of the one who died and rose, thus becoming the gate to eternal life, but to forgive and pray to God to forgive those who were going to kill him.

To push the second part of our first reading from Acts a bit further, after declaring to the hostile group his vision of the risen Lord sitting in glory at the righthand of the Father, falling to his knees from the impact of the stones, Stephen prayed: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”3

The Stoning of Saint Stephen, by Giovanni Battista Lucini, 1508

Irenaeus, it seems to me, was quite correct in his identification of these men as deacons. Along with episcopacy, the diaconate is the oldest major order of ministry in the Church, older than the presbyterate. Indeed, we see in the lives of Stephen and Philip, another of those seven men, the threefold munera of diaconal ministry: word, liturgy, and charity. Philip, who fled the persecution the earliest Church was experiencing in Jerusalem, went to Samaria with his daughters, where he continued to boldly preach the Gospel. Thus, Philip survived the persecution. Stephen did not survive the persecution. He triumphed over it!

It also bears noting that Paul, under his Hebrew name Saul (Paul, or Paulus, being his Latin, or Roman, name), makes his first appearance in Sacred Scripture at the stoning of Stephen. He was likely the one who incited the synagogue members to drag Stephen outside the city and kill him. I believe the faith, hope, and love exhibited by Stephen eventually helped facilitate Paul's conversion.

I think the Intercessions from the Church's Morning Prayer today can serve as an exhortation on this Second Day of Christmas:
Your martyrs freely embraced death in bearing witness to the faith,
     -give us true freedom of the Spirit, O Lord.
Your martyrs professed their faith by shedding their blood,
     -give us a faith, O Lord, that is constant and pure.
Your martyrs followed in your footsteps by carrying the cross,
     -help us to endure courageously the misfortunes of life.
Your martyrs washed their garments in the blood of the Lamb,
     -help us to avoid the weaknesses of the flesh and worldly allurements.4
Saint Stephen, holy martyr, imitator of the Infant of Bethlehem, pray for us, that we, too, may come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

1 Michael Card. The Final Word (album). “The Final Word” (song).
2 Luke 24:26.
3 Acts 7:60.
4 Liturgy of the Hours. Proper of Saints, December 26- Saint Stephen, first martyr- Feast. Intercessions.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Urbi et orbi- Christmas 2023


Christmas 2023

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Merry Christmas!

The eyes and the hearts of Christians throughout the world turn to Bethlehem; in these days, it is a place of sorrow and silence, yet it was there that the long-awaited message was first proclaimed: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). Those words spoken by the angel in the heavens above Bethlehem are also spoken to us. We are full of hope and trust as we realize that the Lord has been born for us; that the eternal Word of the Father, the infinite God, has made his home among us. He became flesh; he came “to dwell among us” (Jn 1:14). This is the good news that changed the course of history!

The message of Bethlehem is indeed “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10). What kind of joy? Not the passing happiness of this world, not the glee of entertainment but a joy that is “great” because it makes us great. For today, all of us, with all our shortcomings, embrace the sure promise of an unprecedented gift: the hope of being born for heaven. Yes, Jesus our brother has come to make his Father our Father; a small child, he reveals to us the tender love of God, and much more. He, the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, gives us “power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This is the joy that consoles hearts, renews hope and bestows peace. It is the joy of the Holy Spirit: the joy born of being God’s beloved sons and daughters.

Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the Day

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98:1-6; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18

Unlike Easter, when the main liturgy is the Easter Vigil, which is the main liturgy of the entire liturgical year, the main Mass of Christmas is Mass During the Day, this Mass. Apart from preparing for Christmas by observing Advent, I can think of no better way to “keep Christ in Christmas” than by assisting at Mass on the Nativity of the Lord.

Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God. As the Christian singer-songwriter, Michael Card sang:
He spoke the Incarnation and so was born the Son
His final word was Jesus, he needed no other one
He spoke flesh and blood, so he could bleed and make a way divine
And so was born the baby who would die to make it mine1
This is really the message of the Church’s readings for this main Christmas liturgy taken as they are from Isaiah, the Psalms, Hebrews, and John’s Gospel.

“And the Word became flesh…” For us and for our salvation, God became human through the Virgin Mary. It has been noted that the Incarnation of the Son of God is an event “so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world.2

This traumatic impact isn’t only the result of God becoming human in the person of Jesus, but the manner in which he did it. To wit: the Son of God was not born into the world as the emperor of Rome, who were thought by the Romans to be divine, sons of God. Rather, the Lord was born a marginal person to a marginal people in an out-of-the-way but troublesome part of the lands conquered and occupied by Rome.

As to why God became incarnate in the manner he did, Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians provides a convincing answer: “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.”3 Jesus himself is chief among “the lowly and despised of the world.”

The Word becoming flesh is not static, merely an historical event. It is the dynamic of the whole of reality, of God’s creative and redemptive work. It is the Spirit-driven dynamic of what occurs in the Mass. Hence, every Mass is a Christ-Mass.

Of necessity, the Liturgy of the Word precedes the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The culmination of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and, indeed, of the whole Mass, is the Communion Rite. What happens or what is supposed to happen in and through this sacrament is that the Word is made flesh in us and, as we are sent forth, through us.

Toward the end of the offertory, the deacon pours a few drops of water into the wine. As he does so, he quietly says words almost identical to those found in our Collect, or opening prayer, for this Mass: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”4

This happens after we listen to the proclamation of God’s word, the scriptures. We make a huge mistake when we conceive of Christmas only or mainly as something that happened a long time ago in a land far away. We also miss out when we reduce Christmas to a sentimental journey, trying to create or recreate something we never had but wanted, or something we feel we’ve lost, or, worse yet, a scene out of slick advertising.

While looking back can be useful for looking ahead, you can’t live life in reverse. Christ beckons you ever forward, forward to the realization of your destiny, which is “to become children of God,” born, “not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.”5 For this to happen, Christ must be born in you.

Hence, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, you must give your own fiat to God, saying, in effect, “May it be done to me according to your word.”6 Those born of God are those who experience that the mystery of life in Christ is that Christ can live you.7 This is the message of Christmas, which comes in so many layers of cultural and commercial wrapping and packing. I don’t know about you, but I find Santa Claus to be pretty thin gruel.

When you are born of God, as the Word becomes flesh in you, you become one who bears the glad tidings we heard about in our reading from Isaiah. Our birth as children of God, like natural birth, involves pain and travail. Sanctification, being ever more conformed to the image of Christ, takes time and unfolds, unevenly, in and through the circumstances of your everyday life.

The life of grace into which we are born through the waters of baptism is nourished by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It was Saint Augustine who preached
that the Eucharist gives us is unity. This means that after we have received Christ’s body and become his members, we are what we have received. Only then does the Eucharist really become our daily bread8
Augustine continued, noting the link between word and sacrament,
what I preach to you is also your daily bread. The same holds true for the hymns that you hear and pray… When, however, we have reached our destination… we will see the Word himself, eat, hear and drink him9
And so, my dear friends, the Word made flesh still seeks to make his dwelling not only among us but in and through us. The Spirit of Christmas is the Spirit of Christ, that is, the Holy Spirit, who, in a few moments on this altar will transform our humble gifts of bread and wine (not quite gold, frankincense, and myrrh) into the body and blood of Christ. “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”10

A Happy Christmas to all!

1 Michael Card. The Final Word (album). “The Final Word” (song).
2 John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7.
3 1 Corinthians 1:28.
4 Roman Missal. The Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the Day. Order of Mass, sec. 24.
5 John 1:13.
6 Luke 1:38.
7 Colossians 1:27.
8 Saint Augustine. Sermon 57,7,7.
9 Ibid.
10 Roman Missal. The Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the Day. Order of Mass, sec. 24.

Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the Night

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96:1-3.11-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appears and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
So goes the first verse of my favorite Christmas carol. A carol differs from a hymn in that a carol is a festive song, generally religious but not necessarily so. By contrast, a hymn is a solemn song of worship.

What is lovely about the best Christmas carols, like O Holy Night, is they are memorable and theologically dense. In other words, they convey the revelation of God in Jesus Christ simply by being beautiful. Their message goes from our heads to our hearts through our voices. This is why it said that the one who sings prays twice.

Far from being the end, tonight marks the beginning of the Christian festival of Christmas. Traditionally, Christmas lasts twelve days- the twelfth night being Epiphany on 6 January. For Roman Catholics in the United States, Christmas goes until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which we usually celebrate, as we will this year, on 8 January.

There is a lot of concern about keeping Christ in Christmas. As Christians, the best way to keep Christ in Christmas is by observing Advent. Celebrating the Annunciation on 25 March should help us keep in mind of the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph observed a nine-month Advent as they prepared for Jesus’ birth.

It is also telling that, despite his parents’ preparations, the Lord was born during their sojourn to Bethlehem and not at home in their native Nazareth. This lends some credibility to the saying, “We plan, God laughs.” But the preparation required for Christmas is not all the busyness we tend to engage in this time of year. It is not all the shopping, decorating, socializing, cooking, fretting, and fussing. It is preparing your heart so that Christ can be born in you. This requires prayer and meditation, which leads to contemplation.

Like Mary and Joseph, we need to prepare our hearts and our souls to receive Christ. We do so not knowing exactly when or how he will come to us. We wait in hope, trusting that he will come. Christ almost never arrives in an expected way and often not in the ways we want him to show up.

Jesus did not come to deprive you of your freedom or to take away your humanity by his overpowering divinity. Rather than get you out of jams, the Lord accompanies you through them, even those of your own making. Therefore, when you’re struggling, going through a difficult time, or facing daunting circumstances, it is important not to jump to the conclusion that God has abandoned you. It is precisely through those kinds of circumstances that you can come to realize Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us.

The disconnection between the manner of Christ’s appearance and our expectations is a sure sign of what O Holy Night indicates with the lyrics: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”

Like his birth in an out-of-the-way place in a nowhere town in a marginal part of the Roman Empire, Christ’s coming now as then is quiet and simple. Think about the “sign” the angel told the shepherds to look for: “you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”1 This is the sign that “Christ the Lord” is born? Yes! And therein lies its message and power.

As Pope Benedict XVI noted in a Christmas homily years ago- the Lord of the Universe
does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child… God made himself small so we could understand him2
As inauspicious as it is, Jesus’s advent, his arrival, his coming dispels the darkness, as our reading from Isaiah indicates. We know has arrived when, to quote the carol again, the soul feels its worth. The Lord’s quiet presence brings peace in the midst of chaos, inspires hope when you are tempted to despair, and enables you to see through and beyond “this present darkness.”3

From the earliest Church, the manger has served as a symbol for the altar, on which we consecrate the bread that, by the Spirit’s transforming power, the same power that made the universe- the power of divine love, “becomes Christ himself: the true food for our hearts.”4

To relegate Christ’s coming or arrival to a highly sanitized scene set a long time ago in a land far away is to do nothing more than engage in sentimentalism. As nice as it is at times, sentiment has no transformative power. A remedy for this is found in the teaching of that great Doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who noted that the Lord arrives three times.

Advent prepares us not just or even primarily for our celebration of the Lord’s first coming but is preparation for his second coming at the end of time. Christ’s third coming happens or potentially happens (if we open ourselves to receive him), between the first two.

Occurring as it does between the other two, Christ’s third coming is like a path we walk as pilgrims from his first arrival to his second coming. As our reading from the Letter to Titus indicates, our pilgrim path is the way of faith, hope, and love, making it the path of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This is how we “live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”5

My dear friends in this Holy Mass, from which the term Christ-Mass comes to us, you can experience for yourself God becoming small. So small that he can fit in the palm of your hand. As you open yourself to welcome Christ you can’t help but experience for yourself the thrill of joy that accompanies the in-breaking of that new and glorious morning: the light of Christ.

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens gives us, in his description of the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, a wonderful example of the transformation wrought by receiving Christ. In the wake of his supernatural encounters with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens wrote:
became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him6
And so, as Dickens ended his A Christmas Carol, “God bless Us, Everyone!”7 Merry Christmas.

1 Luke 2:11-12.
2 Pope Benedict XVI. Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord: Midnight Mass: 25 December 2006.
3 Ephesians 6:12..
4 Pope Benedict XVI. Homily for Midnight Mass: 25 December 2006.
5 Titus 2:12b-13.
6 Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. “The End of It.”.
7 Ibid.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Year B Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5.9-11; Psalm 85:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

Despite being a short liturgical season, Advent has a twofold character. Extending from the Feast of Christ the King, which is the final Sunday of each liturgical year, Advent begins by focusing on Christ’s Second Coming and the final judgment. Hence, during the first two weeks of Advent, we are exhorted to repent and live in readiness, to be watchful because we know neither the hour nor the day of the Lord’s return.

In human terms, two thousand years seems like an awfully long time. As our reading from Second Peter reminds us, for God a thousand years is like a day. This reading also bids us to be mindful that one way God makes his mercy manifest is through patience. God gives us time to repent. While God is infinite, by its very nature, time is not.

God graciously gives you time to acknowledge your sins and, moreover, to endeavor, with his help, to change. This scripture passage not only tells us that repentance makes you ready for Christ’s coming (Advent means to come or to arrive) but that it hastens “the coming of the day of God.”1

A Christian, that is, someone who repents and believes, far from living in fear of Christ’s return, eagerly awaits, anticipates, even longs for this day. This is why the one-word Aramaic prayer Maranatha was often on the lips of the earliest Christians. Translated it means something like “Come, Lord.” As Christians living nearly two millennia later, we should make this prayer our own.

Discussing the hypothetical, “What would you do if you knew the Lord was returning tomorrow?” is often telling. Of course, the first problem is, you will never know the hour or the day of his return- this is precisely the point made over and over in the New Testament by Jesus himself and a variety of inspired authors. But the answer is usually something like a laundry list of things you should already be doing and know you should be doing but perhaps aren’t and then feverishly doing those things in the brief time you would have.

Advent reminds us that, since Christ’s Ascension, it is always the end of time until the end of time.

The call to repent and to be repenting is not a rebuke. Rather, it is a generous invitation, an offer of genuine hope. It is, as our reading from Isaiah says, “good news.”2

Our Gospel today is the first eight verses of Saint Mark’s Gospel. In this passage, the inspired author identifies John the Baptist as the messenger from Isaiah sent to herald the coming of the Messiah, to prepare the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Throughout most of the Church’s history, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist has been highly revered, much more so than he is today. Sadly, he is often relegated to a minor figure. But he is a major figure in salvation history and should be venerated as such. During each year of the Sunday cycle of readings, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the Baptist’s call to repentance.

So, the question is not “Have you heard the call to repentance?” Rather, have you listened to it and heeded it? Hearing is different from listening. I can hear someone speaking without listening to what s/he is saying. In other words, I can relegate someone’s voice to something like that of Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher, or I can pay attention to what s/he is trying to tell me. The Baptist’s cry is as urgent and necessary now as it was when he first made it on the banks of the river Jordan. Listen to him!

Saint John the Baptist, by Alvise Vivarini, ca. 1475

A few verses on in the first chapter of Mark, after being baptized himself by John and emerging from his desert sojourn, Jesus’ message echoes the Baptist’s: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”3 Translated more literally, the words of Jesus as handed on in this Gospel are “Be repenting and be believing in the good news.” Note the present active tense, which gives these words a dynamism and an urgency the standard English translation lacks.

There are two things worth noting in both John's and Jesus’ call to conversion in Mark. First, it is a mode of life, not a one-off event. What emerges from this is a dialectic: you are both always already saved, and every day is the day of salvation- no "once saved always saved," which relegates salvation to a static past event instead of what God is always doing right here, right now. Second, repenting comes before believing. It was Saint Anselm of Canterbury, the same one who noted that theology is faith seeking understanding, who pointed out that one does not know in order to believe; one believes in order to know.

Christianity is not a philosophy or a theory but a mode of existence, a way of being in the world. Christ leads you, via the Paschal mystery and the events that constitute your daily life, into the very heart of reality.

This is dramatically illustrated a bit later in the first chapter of Mark, which is without doubt one of the densest chapters in the New Testament, when Jesus calls his first disciples: Peter and his brother Andrew. Seeing them fishing, Jesus says to the brothers, with no greeting, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”4 The following verse simply says, “Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”5

Jesus did not say to the brothers, “I‘d like for you to follow me. So, go home and give it some thought and get back to me.” Neither did he lay out for them an irrefutable argument as to why they should drop their nets, all their commitments, everything and follow him.

As the Gospel According to Mark, which we will be reading during this liturgical year, unfolds, it becomes clear just how much Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the twelve had to learn and how slow they were to grasp it both in whole and in part. This is what repenting and believing looks like existentially. To follow Jesus is just that, following him without knowing the twists and turns along the path all the while trusting him to lead you to your destination, to the realization of your destiny, that for which you are made and redeemed.

And so, my dear friends, let us heed the exhortation found in the reading for Morning Prayer for this Second Sunday of Advent, taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
…it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand6
Or, if you prefer- “Be repenting and be believing in the good news!”

1 1 Peter 3:12.
2 Isaiah 40:9.
3 Mark 1:15.
4 Mark 1:17.
5 Mark 1:18.
6 Romans 13:11bc-12a.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Hope is expectation

Well, with Evening Prayer yesterday, we ushered in a new liturgical year, a new year of grace, the Year of Our Lord 2024. Think about it, 2,024 years! That's a long time!

Towards the beginning of his short text, The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days, philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out that in many respects the Church of Christ has lost its eschatological edge. Over time, many Christian sectarian movements have sought to sharpen, to regain this edge by making predictions about the end times, about Christ's return. Those sects that survive the disappointment of the failure of their initial predictions, like the Mormons, find ways of attenuating the original end-time emphasis and subsequently tamping down eschatological expectations.

Martin Heidegger, prior to writing Being and Time, delivered a phenomological lecture on Saint Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians (as well as lectures on Galatians and 2 Thessalonians- these, along with lectures on figures such as Augustine, Kierkegaard, Luther, etc., are collected in a volume The Phenomenology of Religious Life).

For those who may not know, written about AD 50, 1 Thessalonians is very likely the first book of our uniquely Christian scriptures to be written. 1 Thessalonians has a very sharp eschatological edge, as does 2 Thessalonians. It is the eschatological edge of these texts that drew Heidegger. His take on these texts was big step on Heidegger's path on his quest to recover the question of being. His quest, in turn, is about living life authentically and, given the limits of our mortality, living life with urgency.

Christian living that takes on a dull eschatological edge easily becomes just another philosophy of life. When this happens, Christianity not only looks but actually becomes exhausted, tired, one option among many and maybe even not a very interesting option. What seems to me the root cause of this dullnes is the lack of the theological virtue of hope.

Waiting requires hope. Samuel Beckett's play, the work for which he is best remembered, Waiting for Godot, is an advent play. In this play, the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for Godot. They wait in the hope that Godot, who said he would come, will show up at some point.

As we all know, the difficult thing about waiting for someone for a lengthy period of time is the fear we will miss their arrival. Think of the old jokes about the cable guy- he will arrive sometime between 10am and 4pm. Well, you're trapped for up to six hours. The minute you decide to pop out for some reason, that is when the cable guy will inevitably come leaving a note on your door indicating that he came.

Advent means arrival. Due to its being the first season of the liturgical year, advent can also mean beginning- "The season of Advent is the advent of a new year of grace" or "The advent of Spring Training," etc.

Waiting implies expectation. I think hope is more akin to expectation than it is to wishing. Nonetheless, we often use wishing and hoping synonymously. As our Gospel (Mark 13:33-37) for this first Sunday of Advent shows, waiting for a long time for an expected arrival we tend to grow weary. It often seems to me that Christians have grown weary in our waiting. Our expectation, that is, our hope is waning.

Our weariness causes us to employ different tactics. One tactic is to point out something that, at least on Christian terms, is true, namely that Christ remains present and has never left. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence- until he returns. What is then urged is for us to "look" for Jesus in the here and now. Don't get me wrong, this is not terrible theology and it is a good exhortation but it is existential as opposed to eschatological.

Another tactic is to point out that we don't the hour or the day of our own death, neither do we likely know how we will die. So, be ready for death! This is certainly true regardless of whether or not you are a Christian or otherwise believe in God. As we heard last Sunday in our reading from 1 Corinthians 15 (verses 20-26. 28), at Christ's return all will be raised from the dead. According to Christian teaching, whether dead or alive, you will experience the parousia, Christ's second coming.

When looked through the lens of salvation history, beginning with ancient Israel, it is easy to see that most of human history is advent, waiting expectantly for God. Think of the first verse of the Advent hymn we sing every year throughout the season of Advent:"O come, O come Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel/Who mourns in lonely exile here/Until the Son of God appears." One reading of this is that Emmanuel, which means "God with us," came and ransomed Israel, thus ending this mourning, lonely exile.

In light of this (here comes the oft-repeated alright/not yet dialectic), taking our cue from the embolism- the short prayer said by the priest during the recitation of the Lord's Prayer said between "...but deliver us from evil" and "For the kingdom, the power, and the glory..." "as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ." Hence, our waiting is joyful expectation, not mourning loneliness. After all, even now, God is with us.

Maybe it makes a difference that as Christians we are waiting for someone specific, someone who has already come and has promised to return. We know Him and He knows us. Hope, then, is not only expectation but trust. Trust is the issue Vladimir and Estragon face- Godot said he coming. Is he coming or not? They're not sure. The play ends with them deciding to end their waiting and leave but as the curtain falls they remain where they are.

We need to make the prayer of some of the first Christians our prayer: Maranatha. It is an Aramaic word, the precise meaning of which is difficult to determine. It means something like "Come, Lord."

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 ...