Monday, December 29, 2014

Saint Zdislava - Open to God, Open to the Poor

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me.
—Matthew 25:35-36

In 1995, Saint John Paul II canonized two very different saints from the Czech Republic. The first was Jan Sarkander, a Jesuit priest and martyr who was killed by militant Protestants in 1620, partly because he refused to reveal what he had heard in the confessional. The other person canonized in that ceremony was Zdislava (or Zedislava) of Lamberk, a wife and mother whose commemoration is celebrated on January 1.

Zdislava was born in the early part of the thirteenth century in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). There are stories about her piety as a child and of her desire to live a life of prayer and solitude. However, her family prevailed upon her to marry Count Havel of Lamberk, with whom she had four children.

Zdislava lived a life centered on prayer and charity. She was especially devoted to the Eucharist and received communion almost every day. (This was very unusual in an age when people received Holy Communion only once a year, at most.) Her acts of charity especially benefited the many refugees who were seeking shelter and protection after their lands were pillaged by Tartar invaders from Eastern Europe. Many people sought refuge in the castle of Gabel, where she and her family lived. Although Havel initially opposed his wife’s generosity and hospitality, he eventually experienced a change of heart. An ancient story relates that he was angered that Zdislava had given a fever-stricken beggar a bed in the castle. Prepared to throw the poor man out, Havel had a vision of the crucified Christ lying in the beggar’s bed. He was so moved by this vision that he allowed Zdislava to continue her charitable works and he supported her efforts to establish a Dominican convent in Turnov. For the rest of her life, she remained closely associated with the Dominican Order; she is often referred to as a Dominican Tertiary (lay affiliate) and depicted in art as wearing a Dominican habit. Following her death in 1252, she was buried in the convent she founded.

It was only in 1907 that Pope Saint Pius X approved devotion to Saint Zdislava in her native land. Finally, in 1995, Pope Saint John Paul II officially canonized her, more than 700 years after her death, recognizing that she is indeed a saint for the entire Church. In his homily for the canonization, he praised Zdislava as a witness to the “Gospel of Life” because of the eloquent witness of her charity and the importance she placed on family, openness to God, and openness to the needs of the poor.

In this Christmas Season, Pope Francis has asked us to remember, in a special way, the many refugees, exiles, and immigrants who have been forced to leave their homes and who are living without the basic necessities of life. Certainly our support of charitable organizations like Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org) and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (www.cnewa.org) give us opportunities to continue Saint Zdislava’s work of caring for refugees, but we are also challenged in these days of Christmas to recognize the presence of the One who is Emmanuel—God With Us—in the poor and needy: 
While we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? ... More so, do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today! The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God. (Pope Francis in his Homily for Christmas 2014)

May the example of Saint Zdislava inspire you to recognize the presence of Christ in the poor, hungry, and homeless in your own communities and throughout the world. Pray about how, this Christmas Season, you can provide care for those who most need it.

 
A Prayer in Honor of Saint Zdislava +
Faithful God, by her married life and works of charity you taught Saint Zdislava to pursue the way of perfection. By her prayers, may family life be strengthened and be a witness to Christian virtue. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Prayer from the General Calendar of the Order of Preachers)

This reflection was originally prepared for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their website the week of December 28, 2014.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Holy Family

This reflection on the Holy Family is slightly adapted for one written for the community at Seaside Community Church, UCC, in Torrance, California,  for their service on the Sunday after Christmas (the Feast of the Holy Family), December 28, 2014.

Merry Christmas!

There’s lots of talk about family these days. And, I don’t only mean this “holiday season” of Thanksgiving and Christmas. For years now politicians, churches, and civil rights groups have been debating how we can and should define the important realities of marriage and family. These are important conversations for all of us to be having and they have to continue.

But, even with these ongoing conversations about family, Christmas brings “family” into focus in a special way. Think about how many holiday movies center on family: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “The Family Stone,” “White Christmas,” and pretty much everything on the Hallmark Channel. And all of these movies celebrate some of the most beloved holiday traditions: gathering with family and friends, favorite foods and holiday treats, preparing for Santa, exchanging gifts, decorating, and Christmas music. And, these movies can even be a good reminder that Christmas can also be a bit stressful and that family squabbles can be just as much a holiday tradition as the Christmas tree or the wreathe on the door.
 
Image from It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
 
But, I want to propose that all of those great traditions and symbols aren’t really about Christmas. They are all ways that we celebrate the pre-Christmas holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving (or before!) until December 25. After all, if we look around, don’t we already see “Christmas” decorations coming down and aren’t the Christmas songs disappearing from the airwaves? On December 26, Disneyland even posted a message on Facebook saying that “Christmas may be over, but there is still time to experience the holidays at the Disneyland Resort.”

Christmas only begins on December 25! And I think it’s important—even essential—that we remember that Christmas is only a beginning.

When I say this, I mean more than Christmas Day being the beginning of the Christmas season (which still lasts for two more weeks). But we should also remember that at that first Christmas two-thousand years ago, God began something new and it’s something that we should celebrate every Christmas and every day, including now: God became a human being. And why? So that each and every person, regardless of their gender, or race, or place in society would know how much they are loved. Saint Leo the Great, taught that God became human, so that humans might become like God. God became one of us, so that we might become like God.

And that, my friends, is what Christmas is about. These days aren’t just a celebration of Jesus’ birthday. Christmas is the time to remember and celebrate and glory in the truth that we are loved and redeemed and made holy because what it means to be a human being was forever changed by what began on that first Christmas.

And this brings us back to family.

When God came to live among us—in the birth of Jesus—he didn’t descend from the skies with angelic fanfare or with lightning and fire. Instead, God came as a baby: Jesus was born into a family as a helpless, vulnerable infant. For nine months he lived in Mary’s womb, protected and nourished by her body. And after he was born, Mary and Joseph watched over, fed, changed, bathed, and protected that tiny infant who was also the Lord of Heaven and earth.
 
 
The Holy Family by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
 
That family—the Holy Family—teaches us what it means to be a family and their message is much richer than what we discover in all these holiday movies. They were a family who knew how to hope. They trusted in God and they invite us to trust in the promises of God, as well.

The family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph knew about poverty, uncertainty, and fear. Mary was an unmarried teen mother. Joseph, the man Mary was engaged to, had to make a very difficult decision about whether or not to accept Mary and her child. Then, after Jesus was born in a barn in a strange town, this Holy Family became refugees, fleeing to Egypt so they could save the baby’s life. The Reading that we heard a few minutes ago from the Gospel of Luke also tells us that they were faithful, handing on the faith of their ancestors to this holy child. And Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40)

As surprising as it might seem, our families probably resemble that Holy Family more than the families of the classic Christmas movies. Many families—possibly even yours—have experienced pain and loss that are only intensified by the joy we see happening all around us. Maybe you have a family member or close friend who is fighting in a war or fighting cancer. Maybe old hurts are keeping you apart from a relative. Perhaps you’re watching your children and grandchildren deal with the fall-out of a failing (or failed) marriage.  
 
As we celebrate our real-life Christmases, we can look to the struggles, joys, and faith of the Holy Family and, hopefully, take some comfort from the fact that they understand what it is we go through day after day. And part of the beauty of Christmas is that, because Jesus has transformed all of humanity by choosing to be born as one of us, all of our human family is part of his Holy Family. Those of us who are committed to a life of discipleship, can especially rejoice in the truth that we are all brothers and sisters in this beautiful and imperfect family. 

The second reading that we heard this morning, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians could be said to be the rules for our family because they provide a blueprint for healthy relationships in every part of our life: “clothe yourselves with compassion, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another… forgive one another. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:12-14). Then, Paul brings everything together: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… and be thankful” (v. 15). 

Membership in God’s Holy Family is that simple… and that difficult. And we can feel confident that that Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph struggled at times to live these virtues. But, we can take some inspiration from their trials and their successes. The same gifts of faith, hope, and love that were offered to them are offered to us… especially, I think, at Christmas.

In a sermon for this feast, Deacon Greg Kandra shared these words: “When we find ourselves overwhelmed, we need to remember where we look today and remember to look toward the crèche. There is our model for living: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. But we need to see them in full, remembering the closeness to the cross. That was their life and it’s ours, too. Yet, through all their hardships, in a time of anxiety and difficulty, persecution, and tragedy—a time very much like our own—they showed us how to be people of faith, people of forgiveness, and people of love.” 

And that brings me to my final point. What happened—and happens—at Christmas is a beginning. Christmas isn’t an end in itself. The entire life of Jesus was leading to a Cross on a hill and an empty tomb. This is another lesson that Christmas has for us. Each day is a Christmas Day when we can welcome Christ into our hearts. Each day is an opportunity to begin again by allowing ourselves to be transformed by Christ’s renewing and re-creating love.

So, this year, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, remember that Holy Family and offer a prayer of thanks that you and I have become members of that same family. Take comfort in the knowledge that the Family understands the trials, challenges, and joys of you and those you love, and remember that every day is a Christmas Day full of possibility and the gift of always beginning again.

 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

December 24 - The Ancestors of Jesus

Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant…
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide their feet into the way of peace.
- Luke 1:70-72, 78-79
 
The story of our salvation is a story of trees.
 
Beginning in the Garden of Eden, God placed a tree from which Adam and Eve were forbidden to take the fruit (cf. Genesis 2:16-17). This tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, became the great sign of humankind's fall from original grace. But, this original sin wasn't that our first parents ate the fruit of this tree; the sin was their disobedience: "In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God... Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully 'divinized' by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to 'be like God,' but 'without God, before God, and not in accordance with God'" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 398; quoting St. Maximus the Confessor).
 
In the fullness of time, however, a new tree would become the great means and sign of our salvation: the Cross. Through his obedience and death on the Cross, Jesus undid the sin of our first parents. As St. Paul observed, "Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:18-20). Here we are given an insight into the true meaning of Christmas and the Incarnation: the salvation and renewal of fallen humanity.
 
But, standing between these two trees--the tree of the Garden and the tree of the Cross--is the powerful symbol of the Tree of Jesse.
 
The Tree of Jesse
from "The Capuchin's Bible" (ca. 1180)
in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
 
A medieval image, the Tree of Jesse depicts the generations of the ancestors of Jesus, with the great prophets and kings of Israel who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. These ancestors of Jesus are also our spiritual ancestors and we owe them a debt of thanks. Pope Francis reminded us of this in one of his General Audiences this past summer:
If we believe, if we know how to pray, if we acknowledge the Lord and can listen to his Word, if we feel him close to us and recognize him in our brothers and sisters, it is because others, before us, lived the faith and then transmitted it to us. We have received faith from our fathers and mothers, from our ancestors, and they have instructed us in it.
As I conclude this series of Advent reflections, in which we've journeyed through Advent with the saints, it only seemed fitting to end by looking back at those who looked forward. And so, in these final hours of Advent, as we anticipate sunset on Christmas Eve and the beginning of the Christmas Feast, let the powerful symbol of the "Jesse Tree" remind you of the countless generations of faithful women and men who hoped and watched for the coming of Mary's Child. Ask them to help you persevere in your faith and obedience every day of the year.


A Prayer for December 24 +
Come quickly, we pray, Lord Jesus,
and do not delay,
that those who trust in your compassion
may find solace and relief in your coming.
Who live and reign with God the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal, Mass for the morning of December 24)

Monday, December 22, 2014

December 23 - St. John the Baptist

Thus says the Lord God:
Lo, I am sending my messenger
To prepare the way before me…
Lo, I will send you
Elijah, the prophet,
Before the day of the Lord comes,
The great and terrible day.
- Malachi 3:23-24
 
The words of the Prophet Malachi come at the very end of the Old Testament and, as Richard Rohr, O.F.M., observes, they form a perfect segue to the New Testament:
They describe the one who will be the fitting precursor for any coming Messiah. Christians have, of course, usually applied this passage to John the Baptist, as Jesus himself and the Gospel writers already had done... [Malachi] describes  the work of the God Messenger as both 'great and terrible,' both wonderful and threatening at the same time. It is not that the Word of God is threatening us with fire and brimstone, but rather it is saying that goodness is its own reward and evil is its own punishment. (From Preparing for Christmas).
However much we might we might want it to be otherwise, the prayers and Readings of the Mass for December 23 remind us that we are still in Advent. And the words of Malachi highlight for us the power of the One who is to come:
And suddenly there will come to the temple / the Lord whom you seek, / and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming? / And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner's fire, / or like the fuller's lye.
Although most Christians celebrate December 25 as the "birthday" of Jesus, the liturgy in the final days of Advent challenges us to really reflect on the One whom we will welcome in a special way as we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is not only about recalling the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago, but it's also about recognizing how Christ comes to us in so many mysterious ways in our own time and celebrates how he will come again in glory at the end of time.

A contemporary icon of Emmanuel -
"A child shall be born for us,
and he shall be called God, the Almighty;
every tribe of the earth shall be blest in him."
- Entrance Antiphon for December 23

Throughout this Holy Season, the great prophet John the Baptist has continued to point out for us the One who is the Lamb of God (cf. John 1:29-30): Emmanuel.

In these final hours of waiting, ask John the Baptist, the "prophet of the Most High" (Luke 1:76), to help you be worthy to welcome the Promised One at Christmas.

A Prayer for December 23 + O Emmanuel
O Emanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations,
Savior of all people,
come and set us free, Lord our God.

 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

December 22 - Mary of Nazareth

His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
- Luke 1:50-52

Our tradition has ascribed many titles to Mary. But I don’t believe there are many of us who would call the Mother of God a revolutionary. But in her Magnificat, which is re-told in today’s Gospel, we hear Mary speaking as a prophet: The One who has done great things in and for her is also changing the order of the world. The poor will be lifted up, the hungry will be fed, and the least of all the peoples will be glorified. There is no embrace of the status quo in her words. Instead, they celebrate the seismic shift that the Incarnation caused in hearts and in the world itself. John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, describes Mary’s words in this way:
What it says is the language, not of sweet maidens, but of Maccabees: it speaks of dethroning the mighty and exalting the lowly, of filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. Mary’s praise of God is a revolutionary battle cry.

Mary’s words were fulfilled in the ministry of her Son, the Divine Physician and Good Shepherd, who came to save those who were deemed least in eyes of the world. And, in spiritual terms, Yoder continues, Mary was rejoicing in “gospel.”

In this sense, "gospel" doesn't mean the time-tested and Church-approved account of the life of Jesus. Originally not a religious word, evangelion was a secular term for “good news.” But this news wasn’t just a welcome piece of information. Instead, this “good news” was the report brought by a messenger that a distant battled had been won and that freedom had been preserved; it could also mean that a son had been born to a king, securing stability for the realm. So, “gospel” is good news that affects our welfare.
 
"O King of the Nations" - Christ in Glory
from the Baptistery of the Duomo, Florence
attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo, 13th century

In these final days before Christmas, Mary’s revolutionary song of praise reminds us—in no uncertain terms—why this long-awaited child was coming into the world. This is truly Good News because he is bringing freedom and peace to a war-weary world. And our world today needs to hear this revolutionary call for peace: peace in our communities, our parishes, our homes, and, most especially, in our hearts.

May Mary, the Queen of Peace, continue to inspire us to create a space of welcome for the one who is the Prince of Peace.

 
A Prayer for December 22 + O Rex Gentium
O King of all the nations,
the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man,
come and save the creatures
you fashioned from the dust.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Fourth Sunday of Advent - Waiting with Mary

Reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. 202) wrote that “God is man’s glory. Man is the vessel which receives God’s action and all his wisdom and power.” In these final days of Advent, the Church shifts her focus from the advent of Christ at the end of time, to preparing for Christmas. In a particular way, today we are invited to reflect on Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  

Although the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38, the Gospel for this Sunday) is one we know well, it’s a powerful testimony of God’s power to initiate, invite, and create. Here, we have a teenage girl, undoubtedly indistinguishable from other young women of her time and place. But, in an instant, God broke into the normalcy of her life in a way that left her—and us—forever changed.

Our Lady of Expectation
(15th century)

For Mary, the Annunciation initiated a period of waiting. She was waiting as an expectant mother and also waiting for events around her to unfold: would Joseph reject her? What was to become of her and her unborn child? We can only wonder what her parents and family thought about the news of her pregnancy and can imagine what the local gossip might have been. But, we can also trust that Mary’s waiting was filled with promise, because she carried within her womb the One who was the fulfillment of generations of promises and hopes: “People who have to wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow” (Henri Nouwen, from the essay, “A Spirituality of Waiting”). This kind of waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. Rather, it is a movement from something to something more.

As I reflected on the Readings for this Sunday’s liturgy, I was reminded that, for centuries, a sign of God’s covenant promise to Israel was the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was an icon of God’s presence, a reminder that God was with his Chosen People, accompanying the people as they wandered through the desert and fought to claim a home and identity (cf. Numbers 10:35-36). Mary became the new tabernacle, the new, living Ark of the Covenant, who carried God within her. In Mary, God was now present in a person, in a heart. And, just as David danced before the Ark of the Lord (2 Samuel 6:14), we can think of John the Baptist, still in Elizabeth’s womb, leaping for joy because the Lord had come.

On the Second Sunday of Advent I reflected that this season had been an underwhelming time for me. As I have been distracted by the unrest in our communities, our nation, and so many parts of the world, I let myself lose sight of the fact that our Advent (and Christian) hope is not for something but, rather, in someone. And so, my prayer has changed. And these final “O” Antiphon days are a powerful time for each of us to remember that, as we continue to watch and wait, the Promised One, Emmanuel, is already with us, waiting for us to welcome him into our hope-filled hearts.

Mary teaches us how to receive the Word of God, whose coming we to celebrate at Christmas. As Saint John Paul II observed, “She exhorts us, first of all, to humility, so that God can find space in our heart, not darkened by pride or arrogance. She points out to us the value of silence, which knows how to listen to the song of the Angels and the crying of the Child, not stifling them by noise and confusion. Together with her, we stop before the Nativity scene with intimate wonder, savoring the simple and pure joy that this Child gives to humanity” (Angelus, December 21, 2003).


A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent +
Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord,
Your grace into our hearts,
That we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son
Was made known by the message of an Angel,
May by his Passion and Cross
Be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)
 

 

 

 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Decembrer 20 - Ss. Anne and Joachim

Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Or who may stand in his holy place?
He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean…
He shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
A reward from God his savior.
- Psalm 24:3-4ab

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). In this sense, purity of heart means more than simply avoiding sin (i.e. being "pure"). Its broadest, fullest meaning involves cultivating a spirit of simplicity and focus: “Remain simple and innocent, and you will be like little children who do not know the evil that destroys man’s life” (Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 2:1). Being pure of heart means to focus our attention, our thoughts, and desires on God’s holiness and to allow ourselves to be filled with God’s love.
 
An ancient fresco depicting the "Harrowing of Hell,"
when Jesus freed from Hades all those souls who had awaited the opening
of the gates of Heaven. This image reminds us that Jesus is the "Key of David."
 

The most perfect expression of this kind of purity is to be found in the virginal heart of Mary, which Caryll Houselander tells us is characterized by emptiness:
“It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended.
It is emptiness like the hollow of a reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart… She was the reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd’s song” (from The Reed of God).
Tradition tells us that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, were righteous, hope-filled believers, who prayed that God would grant them a child in their old age. Mary was God’s gift to them and it was Joachim and Anne who formed Mary to be a woman of faith. Saint John Paul II reminds us, “On the threshold of the New Testament, it is precisely Joachim and Anne who prepare for the Messiah’s coming by welcoming Mary as a gift of God and offering to the world as the immaculate ‘ark of salvation’” (Angelus, July 25, 1999). 

Mary, together with Anne and Joachim, and innumerable saints through the ages, have embodied the hope and trust that are so essential to the Christian life. The faith-filled longing of Anne and Joachim allowed them to become important, although hidden, participants in the salvation of the world. In these final days of Advent, as we begin to celebrate Christmas, keep watching and waiting so that you can truly welcome Christ with a pure heart.
 
A Prayer for December 20 + O Clavis David
O Key of David,
O royal Power of Israel
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
come, break down the prison walls of death
for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death;
and lead your captive people into freedom.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 19 - The Holy Angels

The woman went and told her husband,
“A man of God came to me;
he had the appearance of an angel of God,
terrible indeed.
I did not ask where he came from,
nor did he tell me his name.
But he said to me,
‘You will be with child and will bear a son…
The boy shall be consecrated to God from the womb.’”
 - Judges 13:6-7

Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition provide us with an understanding of angels that far surpasses our culture's caricature of these divine beings. First, the angels stand before God, giving God honor by virtue of their very existence (cf. Matthew 18:10). Second, angels are messengers, bringing the needs of humanity to God, watching over us: “The Angels speak to man of what constitutes his true being, of what in his life is so often concealed and buried. They bring him back to himself, touching him on God’s behalf.”[1]  The account of the birth of Samson (Judges 13:2-7), the angel’s visit to the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25), and Mary’s encounter with Gabriel at the time of the annunciation (Lk. 1:26-38) are all signs of God’s care and abiding presence with us. And these same angels that stand before God’s throne, stand in front of us. Speaking with God, they speak to us.

The Root of Jesse  by Jeanne Kun
Our God, the God who speaks to us through his messengers, wants us to believe in peace, in love, in him. As Karl Barth said, “Even if we have never seen angels ‘on the right of the incense altar,’ the fire of God can actually burn us, the earthquake of God can still shake us, the flood of God can rush around us, the storm of God actually wants to seize us. Oh, if we could actually hear, if we could but hear this voice that resounds so clearly within us as actually God’s voice. If only we could believe.”[2] 

These days before Christmas are a time of watchful awareness. It is also a time of prophecy and proclamation—a duty that has been entrusted to us, who are called to be angels ourselves.


A Prayer for December 19 + O Radix Jesse
O Root of Jesse, that stands as a sign for the people,
before whom the kings keep silence
and to whom the nations shall make supplication:
come, to deliver us, and tarry not. Amen.

 


[2] Karl Barth, “Lukas 1:5-23,” from Predigten 1917, pp. 423-431 of the original German version; Copyright Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1999. Transl. Robert J. Sherman. Taken from Watch for the Light, 136-137.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December 18 - St. Joseph

An angel of the Lord appeared to him
in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife
into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
- Matthew 1:20

In the 15th century “Cherry Tree Carol,” Joseph and Mary are making their way to Bethlehem when, stopping in a cherry orchard, Mary asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her. Joseph, with spite, answers, “Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.” In the carol, it is only after witnessing a miracle of the cherry tree bending down to offer fruit to Mary that Joseph accepts the divine nature of his young wife’s pregnancy. 

This song, however, hardly reflects the simple obedience and faith Joseph shows in the Gospel for December 18. Although the gospels do not relate any words of Joseph, his presence and actions testify to his silent love for Mary and her Son. And, while Joseph is, in many ways, only a silent figure standing at the edges of these well-known gospel stories, he is an essential part of the Advent mysteries. 

As a “righteous man,” Joseph would have been a devout observer of Jewish law and custom, a faith which he would have dutifully handed on to Jesus. But Joseph’s relationship with Jesus was that of a father to his son and, as Lucien Deiss, C.Ss.P., has observed, “The most beautiful and truest thing we can say on this topic is that Joseph was so good, so tenderly lovable that as a child Jesus learned to discover in him the heavenly Father’s image” (from Joseph, Mary, Jesus).  
 
Moses and the Burning Bush (by Marc Chagall).
This reminds us of the title ascribed to Christ
in this evenings "O" Antiphon. 
 
Like Joseph, each of us is called to trust that what God has promised us will be given to us. Beyond this, however, we are also called to obedience - the willingness to listen with the "ear of our heart" which Joseph embodied. The fear and frustration he might have experienced because of Mary’s pregnancy or the angel’s command gave way to love and an openness of mind and heart that allowed him to see with the eyes of faith the gift God had given to him and to the world.


A Prayer for the 18th Day of December + O Adonai
O Lord and Ruler of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
come and redeem us with outstretched arm.

An Advent Appeal - Supporting Elderly Religious

Yesterday afternoon I received an financial appeal from the Oblate Sisters of Providence. This is a community founded in 1829 by Mother Lange, a Cuban who eventually settled in Baltimore where she established a community to work with French-Speaking Haitians. This was the first community dedicated to the care of African Americans and was, itself, the first African American religious community. They were - and continue to be - champions of racial justice and ministry to the poor.

For a number of years I have been aware that this community (which has continued their founder's mission to serve in African American communities throughout the U.S.) has struggled to provide medical care for their elderly members. The money just isn't there. And, sadly, this is a reality for many, many religious communities. (This fact was highlighted in the report on U.S. religious women's communities released this week by the Vatican.)

Mother Mary Lange
Foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence

I want to invite you in these days before Christmas to make a financial gift to a religious community to help cover the expenses of caring for the elderly and infirm priests, brothers, and sisters. Some communities literally have hundreds of individual members who need acute and ongoing care. 
This is the Year for Consecrated Life and a great time to say "Thank You" to all of the men and women religious who have given their whole lives to teaching, healthcare, social justice, evangelization, pastoral care, and prayer. Religious deserve our respect and admiration but, sadly, our culture has done an amazing job dismissing the work of generations of holy and loving women and men of faith. It is our responsibility to care for them the way they have cared for so many others.

Even if you aren't Catholic, I encourage you to consider this invitation as well. My guess is that wherever you are, there is a hospital, mission, food pantry, school, or some other charity that was or is run by a religious community that needs your help.

Although I mentioned Oblate Sisters of Providence, there are needs in every religious community. If you were taught by religious sisters, priests, or brothers or have ministered with them, considering sending a gift to that community as a sign of your gratitude. If you would like to give a gift to the U.S. Bishops "Retirement Fund for Religious," click here.

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider this Advent invitation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December 17 - St. Aloysius Gonzaga

* December 17 marks the beginning of the "O" Antiphons, privileged days celebrated the week before Christmas. The image that will accompany of each of the reflections for these days is inspired by the proper "O" Antiphon for that day and the concluding prayer is a translation of each of these seven texts that celebrate the coming of Christ using the powerful imagery of the Old Testament. To read an article I've written on the "O" Antiphons, please visit: http://www.cuf.org/2014/01/o-antiphons-prayers-waiting-world/.


He crouches like a lion recumbent,
the king of beasts--who would dare rouse him?
The scepter shall never depart from Judah,
or the mace from between his legs,
While tribute is brought to him,
and he receives the people's homage.

- Genesis 49:9b-10

The entrance of God into the world at the birth of Jesus is an event which forever changed the course of human history. In fact, the Incarnation of Christ is the fulfillment of history. The promises made to the patriarchs and prophets, the hopes of God’s chosen people, and the visions of seers and sages from far-away places were realized in the birth of the Christ at Bethlehem.

The power of the new-born King, the One who would rule God’s people with justice, and the afflicted with right judgment (cf. Psalm 72:2), found its most perfect expression not in the signs and wonders that Jesus worked, but in his stretching out his hand, granting freedom and absolution to his people, as he hung upon the cross: “He stretched out his hands when he suffered in order to deliver from suffering those who believed in him" (St. Hippolytus of Rome, Traditio apostolica).
 
An ancient icon of Holy Wisdom (center) -
with Mary and St. John the Baptist -
the title of Christ celebrated on December 17.
 
Saint Aloysius Gonzaga was the eldest son and heir of one of the most powerful, influential, and, at times, corrupt families in sixteenth century Italy. A prince of the Holy Roman Empire, he walked away from wealth and power, his birthright, to enter the Society of Jesus. Far from the safety and privilege of the palaces of his youth, Aloysius died at the age of twenty-three after carrying to a hospital a plague victim he found lying on a Roman street.
 
Aloysius knew the importance of family and of family history. He would have recognized his own family story in the genealogy of Jesus—a mix of saints and sinners. The unlikely assortment of the good, bad, and indifferent that makes up Jesus’ family tree (proclaimed in today's Gospel) is also a perfect image of the Church. As Gail Godwin observed, “Matthew’s genealogy contained—and continues to contain—the flawed and inflicted and insulted, the cunning and the weak-willed and the misunderstood. His are an equal opportunity ministry for crooks and saints.” (from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas). It is a powerful testament, as we enter these days of final preparation for Christmas, that God is using us, with our gifts, talents, flaws, failures, and like Aloysius, family histories, to bring him into the world today.

 

A Prayer for December 17 + O Sapientia
O Wisdom who came from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly.
Come, and teach us the way of prudence.
 
 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent - St. Mary of Egypt

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
And those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The Lord redeems the lives of his servants;
No one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.
 - Psalm 34:19, 23

Sacred Scripture reminds us that God “knows how we were formed; that we were made of dust” (Psalm 103:14). These simple, unsophisticated words are in fact a profound statement of faith. They acknowledge that all that we have and are is a gift of God. Beyond this, we are also reminded that we are all made of the same “stuff”—we are all capable of every sinful act the human mind can imagine. Our shared, broken human nature is the great equalizer.

Mercy is that compassion or forgiveness that is shown toward someone, even when it is within one’s power to punish or harm the offender. To say that God is all-merciful is to acknowledge that God also has absolute power. For our part, we show mercy because we remember that we are like other people.

Many of us have a stereotype of saints that make them larger-than-life figures possessing an extraordinary holiness that is so far removed our experience that they become irrelevant. And yet, in reading their lives and writings, we quickly discover that the saints recognized their need for God’s mercy much more readily than many of us in our most contrite moments.
 
An icon showing scenes
from the life of St. Mary of Egypt

For Saint Mary of Egypt, God’s mercy became the sole focus of her life. After undergoing a profound conversion, abandoning life as a prostitute after being moved by an icon of the Mother of God holding her infant Son, her entire life became one long vigil, wandering in the desert, “looking for the Lord who saves the poor.”[1]

We don't often think of Advent is a season of mercy. But, as we look forward to celebrating the coming of Christ in history, mystery, and majesty during the Christmas Season, we have these days to prepare. So, don't spend these final days of Advent passively allowing time to pass while we wait for Christmas. Make the most of the time we have by seeking reconciliation for yourself and offering forgiveness to those who need your mercy and compassion.


Prayer for Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent +
O God, who through your Only Begotten Son
have made us a new creation,
look kindly, we pray,
on the handiwork of your mercy,
and at your Son's coming
cleanse us from every stain of the old way of life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)



[1] See “On Mary the Egyptian and Zosimus” by Flodoard of Rheims in Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse, Hugh Feiss and Ronal Peppin, transl. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2005. 64

Monday of the Third Week of Advent - St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The utterance of one who hears what God says,
and knows what the Most High knows,
Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,
enraptured, and with eyes unveiled.
I see him, though not now;
I behold him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel.
- Numbers 24:16-17
 
With today’s prophecy from Balaam (Numbers 24:15-17a), a non-Israelite prophet, our attention is drawn more and more to who Jesus is: the star rising from Jacob and the staff for Israel (cf. Isaiah 11:1).  

Even a brief reading of the Old Testament will reveal that the people of Israel were a hope-filled, expectant people. Israel’s longing for the Messiah was shaped by the ways that God had manifested his power throughout their history, and prophets, like Isaiah, Amos, and later, John the Baptist never stopped reminding the people that God was coming to save his own. But, Israel also recognized that God had already shown his power and “visited his people.” The God of Israel was a God who was always with them, ready to support and protect them.
 
It was from this waiting people that the German-born Jewish philosopher, Edith Stein, was born. Like her ancestors, she was a seeker. Although she rejected her Jewish heritage as a young woman, her search for truth ultimately led her to know Christ and to commit herself to him as a Carmelite nun, known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Acutely aware of the sufferings of the Jewish people during World War II, she willingly accepted their common fate, seeing that Christ’s cross redeemed all aspects of life, even the horrendous violence perpetrated against her people: “To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk in the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels—this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.”[1]

As we continue Advent, take time today to reflect on the ways God has revealed himself in your life--both in his power and in the whispers of your heart.

Prayer for Monday of the Third Week of Advent +
Incline a merciful ear to our cry, we pray, O Lord,
and, casting light on the darkness of our hearts,
visit us with the grace of your Son.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(From The Roman Missal)




[1] Edith Stein, The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts. L. Gelber and Michael Linssen, O.C.D. eds. Waltraut Stein, transl. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1992. 93.