The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for December, 2010

Lament and Hope for Holy Innocents

[The following is a very moving excerpt from Michael D. O’Brien’s Waiting: Stories for Advent. It is a reflection on the connection between the feast of the Holy Innocents and the Passion of Jesus.]

“Every year on this feast-day I ask myself if the blood of my children would have flowed with the blood of the holy innocents [if he had been living in that place and time].  Would their last little screams echo in my ears forever? … And when the soldiers have wiped their swords and gone home, and the rulers go back to their affairs of state, and when in the world of commerce it is business as usual, would we just stand there with holes in our hearts, bleeding from an incurable wound? … Would I have bitterly said to the silent skies, over and over, ‘Where were You?  Why did You not save us?’

“What is God’s reply?  Thirty-three years later we hear it: The mother of Jesus stands beneath the Cross.  Darkness covers the earth.  Her son’s death-cry echoes across the mount, splits the sky and the city and penetrates the heavens and to the depths of hell.  All of creation is shaken. Time slows, then appears to stop, but the sound goes on and on.  It tears through minds and hearts like an unending wail.  From the depths of memory Mary hears interiorly the sound of a newborn baby crying out in the night, for milk, for warmth, for love.  These cries mix together with the deep agonized voice of the dying man, and they become one sound in her heart—this is the sword, and it pierces her through and through.

“When he is dead there is only silence… She does not weep at this moment.  It is possible only to stare into the total blackness, feeling nothing but the incurable wound in her heart.  This is the pain too deep for utterance, the agony too cruel for sound.

“Later she weeps.  When they take the lacerated body down and put its stiff, distorted limbs into her lap she sees the baby she once held in her arms.  [His humanity] had been created for love and now he lies here again, covered with the filth of the world, battered by its malice, torn into pieces by its diseased soul.  Then, through the gash in her heart, all the anguish of mothers pours out and the night is filled with cries… they are cries like no other in the history of mankind, before or to come.  The angel had rescued her and Joseph and the child from the slaughter of the innocents.  Now, at last, she too is called to weep the unbearable tears of Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more.

“If we Christian people rejoice on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, it is because God answered us.  He says, ‘When the worst happens, you are not alone.  I am with you.  I suffer with you and within you, and even beyond what you could ever suffer.  I have known absolute abandonment and horror.  The heart of God was pierced.  The heart of my mother too was pierced, and she felt all that you can feel.  She holds you now, just as she once held my body on Calvary.’

“Satan, that old master of illusions and father of lies, thrust his sword hard, hard, into the hearts of Jesus and Mary.  It was his major gamble, his great effort to spread the belief that darkness triumphs utterly over everything.  But he could not prevent the dawn.  He killed a son of God and the Son of God rose up again on the third day and turned absolute defeat in to heaven’s victory.  Satan killed some children through a corrupt, proud king and ten thousand times ten thousand children rose up believing in their place.  If, in our era, he is permitted for a brief period to slaughter many children through the instrument of deluded parents and proud or cowardly legislators and heartless medical technicians, his time is short and his last gamble will likewise be defeated.  For every life that he destroys, ten thousand times ten thousand souls will rise up to praise the victory of God.  It is for this reason that we celebrate a ‘feast’ of the slaughter of innocents.  For in eternity all our defeats will be revealed as victories and our incurable wounds will be healed, and we will rejoice forever with the Lamb who was slain.”

The Time is Fulfilled

Christ is born!  As St Paul tells us in the epistle reading (Gal. 4:4-7), the fullness of time has come.  This is true as regards this moment, which is the climax of our liturgical and ascetical preparations for the feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But St Paul meant much more when he first wrote that.

The fullness of time that he wrote about is the culmination of millennia of preparation in human history, and especially the history of God’s chosen people.  This fullness of time is not merely an arrival at a pre-determined date on the calendar, but rather it signifies the fulfillment of God’s plan, manifested in the incarnation and birth of his only-begotten Son. In a few brief words, St Paul indicates both the divinity and humanity of this Son of God: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman…”  There are prophets and apostles whom God has sent forth, but these were adult people who heard his call to do his will.  The fact that God sent forth his Son, who was subsequently born of woman, means that the Son already existed with the Father, as St John so eloquently says in the prologue of his Gospel.  So before his birth as a human being, He was eternally with God, and hence could be sent forth into this world.

Why did St Paul have to say that He was “born of a woman”?  Isn’t that redundant?  Isn’t everyone who is born, born of a woman?  But this is important to emphasize the full humanity of Him who was God from all eternity.  Christ did not suddenly appear in the form of a man; He was not a heavenly apparition.  He was actually conceived in the womb of the immaculate Virgin and was born as a human baby.  So, in a very simple and non-technical way, the Apostle has told us that Jesus Christ is true God and true man.

St Paul also says that He came to redeem us, so that we could be adopted by God the Father as his children.  As I said yesterday, God wants to make of us a family, Himself as our Father, and the Mother of Jesus as our Mother, and Jesus Himself, as St Paul says elsewhere, the firstborn of many brethren.  Our adoption as children of God is sealed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for St Paul goes on to say that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, so that, like Jesus, we too may cry out to God: “Abba, Father!”  This is a great and divine work.  St Paul uses the same word to say God sent his Son into this world as man, and to say that God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.  It is as if to say that it is just as important that the Spirit of Jesus enter our hearts as that the Son of God enter this world to save it.

So let us look a little closer at the Lord’s entry into this world, which we have proclaimed in the Gospel (Mt. 2:1-12).  At the vigil Liturgy we heard of the shepherds coming to worship the newborn Savior, and now we hear of the magi, who traveled a long way to encounter the mysterious King of the Jews.

Having no idea what an evildoer Herod was, the magi did him the courtesy of visiting him first and explaining their reason for entering his territory. Once Herod heard this news and consulted those who knew the Scriptures, he discovered that a king was prophesied to arise from the town of Bethlehem.  So he began to be afraid.  There’s another prophecy, which isn’t mentioned in this Gospel, but which, if the scribes told Herod about it, would have made him even more afraid.  For he was not a Jew but an Edomite, and one of the messianic prophecies reads, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel… and Edom shall be dispossessed” (Num. 24:17-18). So Herod tried to deceive the magi into letting him know the whereabouts of the newborn King, that he might destroy Him.

The magi, however, couldn’t care less about the political fortunes of the current government of Israel, so they simply went in search of the Child.  And when they found Him with Mary his Mother, they rejoiced with exceeding joy and fell down to worship Him.  We cannot know precisely why they were filled with this spirit of joy and of adoration, being foreigners and practitioners of a different religion.  But whatever God had revealed to them about Him whom they were sent to seek, it was clearly manifested to them in the Child Jesus.

Then they offered Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These traditionally symbolize respectively the kingship, divinity, and humanity of Christ, the last in reference to his sacrificial death and burial.  Myrrh was used as an anointing oil both for the priesthood and for burial, so this highlights Jesus’ mission as both priest and victim in his sacrifice on the Cross.  So, as the Christmas hymn goes, these gifts identify the incarnate Son as “King and God and Sacrifice.”

The focus on worship is a special characteristic of the feast of the Nativity of Christ.  The adoration of the magi and of the shepherds, and the hymns of glory and praise of the angelic choirs, are constant themes of our liturgical texts. We sing “Come, let us adore Him” in our Christmas carols. So this ought to be our approach to this mystery: we should come to Him on our knees or even prostrate before Him, with a spirit of profound adoration, of love and thanksgiving that the Son of God has humbled Himself so radically as to become a child, subject to all the limitations and sufferings of humanity, born of woman, subject to the law, yet coming to redeem us from the curse and to make us children of God.  It would cost Him his life to do this, but He valued our immortal souls even more than his own human life, which He gave up for us, that our sins might be forgiven and we might inherit eternal life.

The Book of Revelation, despite all its strange images and obscure prophecies, is basically a book of heavenly worship, and the Church draws some of her own praises of God from there.  We are given, as St John describes, an “open door” into Heaven, where we receive a glimpse of the magnificent worship offered to God by the angels and saints.  “Worthy are You,” they sing to the Father, “for You created all things, and by your will they exist…”  “Worthy are You,” they sing to the Son, “for You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed men for God…”  This culminates in an exultant hymn of praise and worship coming from the mouths of every creature in heaven and on earth: “To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever… Amen!” (4:11; 5:9, 13-14).  Then they all fell down and worshipped.

This is what our Christmas celebration should be about.  Like the magi, we should not be distracted by the power plays of earthly rulers or all the things that unbelievers pursue, but rather we should fall down in worship before the Lord who came to save us, offering the gifts of our faith, hope, and love, our repentance and our sacrifice.  We should join in the heavenly praise of all those who now see Him face to face in all his glory and who ceaselessly sing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”  For worthy is the Lord God who created all things, and worthy is the Lamb who was slain to take away our sins.

There is another theme in the Book of Revelation that can apply to the great mystery we are celebrating: it is that of Christ who holds the key.  As the One who died and rose from the dead, He says, “I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18).  As the One who decides who enters the Kingdom of Heaven, He says that He is the holy and true One, “who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens” (3:7).

Jesus Christ not only holds these keys, He is the key.  He is the key to the meaning of human life and history, the key to the Father’s plan of salvation revealed in the fullness of time, the key to our own access to God and the revelation of the All-holy Trinity, to our becoming children of God by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  That is why this feast is so important.  All of these divine mysteries are wrapped in the very human mystery of the birth of a child, of the love of a mother, of the simplicity of a life lived under the blessing of God and his watchful providence.  Thus Christmas is the feast of man as well as the feast of God, for it is the feast of the God-man.

Yet the fact that there is such human warmth, tenderness, and joy should not make us forget the utter seriousness of the reason the Lord was born for us.  He came to deliver us from the eternal damnation that we had earned for ourselves by our sins, so He came to judge sin and to save the repentant.  He manifested Himself at the fullness of time as a child, humble, accessible, inviting our love and fidelity.  He came as a sacrificial lamb, who would open not his mouth under the cruelty of those who hated and crucified Him.  Yet there is another fullness of time to come, which will be the end of time.  At that time He will not be a child, but will manifest Himself as King and God and Lord and Judge of the living and the dead.  The Herods of this world, and all those who did not accept his gentle invitation to follow Him in this life, will then try in vain to flee from Him.

But as for us, come, let us adore Him.  Let us approach with love and with confidence, knowing that we are still living in the time of mercy, the time in which God is gathering all his elect who will worship Him in joy forever at the everlasting wedding feast of the Lamb.  We don’t know when the time will be fulfilled for us individually, when the Lord will say, “this night your soul is required of you.”  That is why we must worship the Lord not only at Christmas and other specially blessed times.  Worship must rather become our way of life; we must follow the Lamb wherever He goes, offering our lives to Him who offered his life for us.

Christ is the key—to our life, to our happiness, to the meaning of all that exists, to our eternal salvation.  Let us join the wise men of all ages, serving the Lord Jesus with gladness and with the best of our love and labors, recognizing that He is our Lord and God and Savior, Son of God and Son of Mary, sent by the Father, born of woman, that we might become children of God in the Paradise of Heaven.  Christ is born!

A Warm Place on a Cold Night

We have now come to what is traditionally known as “the holy night.”  It is the moment of the revelation of Emmanuel, God-with-us; it is the occasion of the joyful angelic announcement that the Savior of the world has appeared in the flesh.

Even though we haven’t quite made it yet to our midnight Liturgy, the events we now proclaim happened beneath a starry sky, while most of the world was wholly unaware of the astounding divine mysteries being manifested in an obscure corner of a tiny nation.  But this revelation was not meant for only one nation.  There’s a text in the Book of Wisdom that is often quoted as a sort of prophecy for this feast, and it goes like this: “While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful Word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed… and touched heaven while standing on the earth” (18:14-16).

So it was when silence enveloped all things, which means that this event has universal significance, that the Word made flesh made his appearance on Earth, while still remaining in Heaven on the “royal throne” as the eternal Son of God within the Holy Trinity.  He came to “the land that was doomed,” that is, to this world that was under the curse of sin and death ever since the fall of Adam and Eve.  He not only “touched heaven while standing on earth” in his own person as the incarnate Son of God.  He also came to reconcile, to unite Heaven and Earth through the sacrifice of his life, for He was born in this world to die for our sins and to reopen the gates of Paradise.

This passage from the Book of Wisdom refers to the event of the Exodus, and it speaks of the deliverance of the people of God from their slavery in Egypt.  So it applies well to the mystery of Christ, who came from Heaven, not as the destroying angel of the original Passover, but as the Savior who would manifest the love and mercy of God by delivering all those who would believe in Him from the slavery of sin, which leads to eternal death and damnation.

The reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:1-12) picks up on this theme of connecting the Old Testament to the New.  It begins with a very concise summary of God’s revelation in human history: “In many and various ways, God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.”  By this we know that God has been concerned with the welfare and salvation of his people ever since our first parents were banished from Paradise.  God communicated his word through the prophets over many generations, gradually revealing Himself and calling his people to repentance and fidelity. When the fullness of time had finally arrived, God set his plan of salvation in motion: He created the Immaculate Virgin Mary to be the Mother of his Son in the flesh.  He created John the Baptizer to be his forerunner, who would eventually announce to the world the advent of the sacrificial Lamb of God.  Finally, God overshadowed the Virgin’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Word became flesh, being born nine months later in a manger in Bethlehem.  So now the stage was set for God to speak to us through his only-begotten Son and not any more through the veiled oracles of the prophets.

This epistle reading further connects us with the mystery of Christmas when it says: “When he brings the first-born into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’”  This brings us to the exultant hymns of the angelic choirs over the little town of Bethlehem, which filled the startled shepherds with fear and wonder and joy.  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those upon whom his favor rests!”  We share in this hymn, in this heavenly worship, repeatedly in our liturgical hymns and also, I trust, in the depths of our own hearts.

Let us look closer at this mystery.  The first thing the angel said to the shepherds, as they were awestruck and even terrified over the sudden manifestation of the glory of the Lord all around them, was: “Be not afraid.”  Now the immediate application was to what they were experiencing at that moment.  But let us go back to the passage from the Book of Wisdom.  These shepherds were, like everyone else, living in “the land that was doomed.”  At the time of the Exodus, the land that was doomed referred specifically to Egypt, and the word that leapt from Heaven was the command to the destroying angel to kill all the first-born of Egypt so that the Israelites could be set free.  So, if the shepherds were theologians who were reflecting on the Scriptures that night (which is highly unlikely!), they might have feared that this angelic manifestation was another destroying angel come to a doomed land.  But the angel told them not to be afraid, for his message was completely different.  It was a message of great joy, the angel said, not of doom but of salvation.  For a Savior was now born, the first-born and only-begotten Son of both God and the Virgin Mary.  This angel was not coming to slay the first-born of the evildoers, but to introduce the divine First-born into the world as its anointed Savior and Lord.

When reflecting on the mystery of Christmas, however, we have to do more than recognize the great theological and biblical themes.  The mystery of the incarnation of God can boggle our finite minds for all eternity, yet there are certain elements of this feast that are more accessible, though they presuppose the incomprehensible fact of the Word made flesh for our salvation.  Indeed, of all divine mysteries, I think this one makes God most accessible to us, since by becoming a human infant the Lord has broken down all barriers to Him that his blazing divine majesty might naturally have erected.

By becoming a human being, God did things the hard way, which is to say, the sacrificial, loving way.  He proved to us that his was a full acceptance of human life, from conception to death.  Just look at Him!  The Creator of the universe has become a baby, depending upon his Mother’s breast just to stay alive.  He cried and gurgled and played with his toes just like any other human baby.  The infinite God let Himself become so radically limited as to have to gradually learn with a human brain all the things that any human being has to learn while growing up.  This is a sign not only of the divine kenosis, his setting aside, as it were, of his divine privileges and powers for the sake of his becoming really human and not just an apparition in the form of a man.  It is also an indication that the Lord embraces all that is truly human.  Man as such, created in the image of God, is, as Genesis tells us, “very good.”

The Incarnation is the ultimate divine pronouncement that man and woman created in God’s image are very good.  The only thing the Lord rejects is sin, for sin destroys the “very good” of human beings, since it is beneath human dignity to sin.  Sin turns us into grotesque caricatures of humanity, and as such we cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is the more urgent reason why the Lord came to us with a human body and soul.  He had to redeem us from sin, to raise us anew to our proper dignity and even to exalt it further through personal communion with Himself.  As our Liturgy says, “Christ is born to restore our long-lost likeness to God.”

Let us return now to the cold night in Bethlehem’s cave, but also to the warm and loving embrace of the Virgin Mother.  This world is cold and harsh, because it is steeped in sin.  The powers of darkness are hell-bent on returning this once-redeemed world to the state of a doomed land.  They spare no effort in trying to destroy the human dignity of those created in the image of God.

One of the reasons that Christmas inspires so much hope in people, even in those not among the devout, is that it is a kind of antidote to the coldness and harshness of this world. The image of the Mother and Child silently communicates warmth and tenderness.  Despite our varied personal experiences of family life, this image reaches the deepest places in our psyche, if only unconsciously or inarticulately.  This is because God has written this mystery into the very makeup of our humanity, and He has personally entered it Himself to further sanctify that which He made “very good” in the beginning.  I think one of the reasons the Word became flesh was so that he could feel what we feel.  He could feel with human senses the raw cold of the winter night, and He could feel the warm flesh of his Mother as she pressed Him to her heart.  He felt all this, and it was very good.

So here is our access to inscrutable divine mysteries and complex theological formulae and unapproachable majesty: because God took flesh from the Blessed Virgin, emerging from her very body as a human being, we now know that God can feel what we feel, in both body and soul.  God has entered the flesh of humanity, with all its limitations and pains, with its joy and its energy of life.  He has adopted a perspective that could be gained only through human eyes, though a human heart.  And as one of us, He came to deliver us from evil.  He came to restore that which we had lost through our sin, and He chose to bear our sin in his own flesh, now that He had the capacity to suffer.  This is the ultimate divine blessing upon his creation.  The “very good” of humanity was too good to lose, for it was created in God’s image, so He came to us as man to save it.

So, as we meditate upon the image of the Madonna and Child, the warm and most gentle icon of the love of God, let us open our hearts to receive this warmth, this tenderness.  Let us beg to be allowed, unworthy as we are, to enter into this loving embrace, that we may always know where to find warmth on our coldest of dark nights.  To the extent the world closes itself to this Gift, it will become ever more cold and dark, driven to madness by despair, having believed the demonic lie that we have no father, no mother, no family in Heaven, no warm welcome, no mercy, no place to sleep in heavenly peace.

But let us approach, for God has made Himself approachable in the Child Jesus.  God has given us a family; He has created us for this.  He wants us to feel like we belong in this family, for He has traveled the infinite distance to seek us out, to tell us that He knows how we feel, and to proclaim the good news that there is a place for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Christ is born to restore the lost likeness, to return us to Paradise, so He can look upon us forever with delight—and tell us that we are indeed very good.

Abraham, David, Mary, Joseph, and Emmanuel

We have arrived at the final stage of our preparation for Christmas, at least as far as the Sunday Gospels go.  We hear of both the remote and proximate preparations for the Nativity of Christ in this Gospel (Mt 1:1-25).  The remote preparation is the human ancestry of Jesus Christ as found in the genealogy provided by St Matthew, and the proximate preparation is found in the account of Mary’s conception by the power of the Holy Spirit and the role of St Joseph in the mystery of the Incarnation.

We also have another sort of remote preparation recounted in the Epistle from Hebrews (11:9-10, 32-40).  This is not the physical genealogy of Christ, but a summary of some of his spiritual forebears, those who were faithful to God before the coming of the Messiah but who “did not receive what was promised,” having died before the advent of the Son of God in the flesh.  But they are given to us as examples of how to live in this world in a manner that is pleasing to God, willing to endure anything for his sake, fighting against all evil even unto martyrdom.

The genealogy of Christ according to St Matthew is a genealogy of patriarchs and kings. The genealogy is divided into three sections, the first beginning with Abraham and the second beginning with David.   The third covers the time after the Babylonian exile and culminates with St Joseph, who is the legal father of Jesus, the one through whom Jesus can claim to be the Son of David.  This is made clear when the angel of the Lord addresses Joseph as a son of David, perhaps to remind him that it was the Son of David, the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, whom Mary carried in her womb, and so Joseph could not back out of this deal, as he evidently considered doing.

To be a descendant of Abraham is the most basic dimension of Jesus’ human identity.  He has to be known as a member of the chosen people, the people of the covenant, if He is to be their Messiah and Savior.  But Jesus traced his lineage from Isaac and not Ishmael, then from Jacob and not Esau, and then from Judah and not any of the other eleven sons of Jacob.  This places him in the line of kings, for David and all his royal descendants were of the house of Judah.  One of the few righteous kings, Hezekiah, was actually the one about whom the famous prophecy of Emmanuel was first uttered.  But the prophecy was fully and definitively fulfilled only in Jesus Christ, who is not merely an instrument of God’s presence and will, but in his very being and person is “God with us.”

So the Bible takes pains to show us that even though Jesus Christ is the divine and eternal Son of God, He is true man as well, for He entered into the history and the succession of human generations of his chosen people Israel.  Even though God the Father was Jesus’ divine Origin, and St Joseph was not his father according to the flesh, Mary was still his human and only mother, the source of his humanity. Therefore Jesus could truly say, “this is My Mother,” and He could claim Abraham as his forefather, along with the others in his genealogy.

The genealogy ends with St Joseph, and at this point the pattern changes.  Each of the foregoing names was followed by “was the father of…”  But since Joseph was not the father of Jesus, after his name we read “was the husband of Mary.”  So the legal paternity of Joseph switches over to the biological maternity of Mary.  Most men in that time and culture were not known in relation to their wives, but rather in relation to their fathers and their sons.  But in this unique case, Joseph’s place in the history of Israel, and in the history of our salvation, is to be the husband of Mary.

Yet at a certain critical moment, circumstances seemed to force Joseph to relinquish his role as husband of Mary.  The biblical account gives only a few basic facts, which leaves us some room for interpretation of them.  Joseph and Mary were betrothed, which held the legal force of marriage, even though they hadn’t yet begun to live together.  To break a betrothal, one needed to obtain a legal divorce.  Joseph discovered that she was pregnant by someone other than himself, and so he decided to quietly break off the relationship, until God’s will became clear.

According to a comment in my Bible, there are three ways in which this mystery has been interpreted by various saints of the Church.  The first is that which seems to be the usual assumption: Joseph thought Mary committed adultery, and being a righteous man could not marry an adulteress, so he decided to divorce her.  The second is that Joseph could not bring himself to believe that his holy and pure bride could ever do such a thing, but was so utterly perplexed by the fact of her pregnancy, that he just withdrew in confusion and dismay.  The third interpretation, which I’ll focus on here, is that Joseph was actually given insight into what had really happened, but due to his fear of God and his humility, he decided he was unworthy of such transcendent and incomprehensible mysteries, and so considered removing himself from the picture, realizing he was in over his head and could not bear the incredible task of raising the Son of God as if He were his own child.

There are a couple points to recommend this interpretation. One is a kind of common sense approach.  We can assume that Mary and Joseph loved each other very much; otherwise, they wouldn’t have decided to get married in the first place.  One would think, then, that unless Mary had been specifically commanded by God not to tell Joseph of her encounter the with Angel and his words about who her Son really was and how He had been conceived—and there is no evidence of this in the Scriptures—she wouldn’t have allowed her beloved to remain in anguish over the fact of her pregnancy.  He may not have understood very well even if she told him, but I think she would have done everything possible to ease his distress.

Another point is in the translation that usually reads that Joseph did not want to “put her to shame.”  This is more of an interpretation than a translation. The word simply means to expose or to show publicly.  So it doesn’t have to mean that Joseph thought she was an adulteress and was trying to keep her from reproach or even stoning.  It could mean that he knew this mystery was not meant to be public knowledge—for who would understand or accept it anyway?—and so it was simply a matter of keeping this divine mystery out of the public eye until such time as the Lord chose to reveal it.

But he still had a dilemma.  If he really was in such trembling awe at this divine mystery—as some of his ancestors were in God’s presence, and as later was Peter, when he cried out, “Depart from me, Lord!” (Lk 5:8)—then he felt he was not up to the task and had to withdraw from this mysterious woman, whom he thought he knew so well, but whom he now realized had enjoyed unprecedented intimacy with God.

The Scripture tells us that even as he decided he couldn’t do it, he still was considering the whole matter.  That is when an angel of the Lord came to him to reassure him that it was OK for him to assume this role.  First of all, the angel called him “son of David,” as if to say: you are in the line of kings, from which the Messiah is to come.  So you are in a position to take care of the Messiah, whom Mary will soon bear.  Then he said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife,” and he reiterated that her Child was there because of the power of the Holy Spirit.  Joseph wouldn’t have known that “Holy Spirit” meant the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, but the term, and similar ones like “Spirit of God” were sometimes used to speak of God in the Old Testament.

The “do not fear to take Mary as your wife” in this case would not mean, “do not fear the shame of marrying an adulteress,” but rather, “do not let your holy fear of incomprehensible divine mysteries make you back away from fulfilling the task to which God calls you.”

Perhaps the angel also reminded Joseph of that messianic prophecy of which St Matthew reminds his readers: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (“God with us”).  Well, the Bible really came alive for St Joseph at that point!  His own beloved little bride is the holy and chosen Virgin who was predicted centuries before to give birth to God-with-us!  Henceforth, as the Scriptures tell us, Joseph did precisely as he was directed on several occasions by the angel of the Lord. He accepted his mission.  He overcame his fear.  He entered, still humbly, yet now with great confidence, into the awesome mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God and his assigned role in salvation history.

We, who are about to celebrate once again the mystery of God with us at Christmas, need to let the Bible come alive for us, too.  We hear the various Christmas readings frequently during the holy days, and maybe we think we know all there is to know, or perhaps we just don’t let them speak to our hearts any more.  But God is still with us, and when his word is proclaimed He wants us to open our hearts and to rejoice, to stand in awe of the mysteries, but not to withdraw out of fear or even our sense of unworthiness.  We do, of course, need to repent of our sins if we are fruitfully to celebrate these holy mysteries, but the Lord wants us to take our places and fulfill our tasks in his plan of salvation, which is ongoing until the last soul is saved.  Jesus is the One who saves us from our sins, so to whom else shall we go?

Let us apply the words of the Gospel to our present lives in a spiritual manner. We aren’t descended from David, Mary isn’t to be our wife, and Jesus isn’t to be our Son.  But the angel can still address us as sons and daughters of David, for we are the heirs of the royal promises made to the Son of David.  And the angel can say: Do not fear to receive Mary as your Mother and Queen, for her Child is of the Holy Spirit, and He is the King.  His name is Jesus, and He will save you from your sins.  The Virgin has conceived and has borne a Son, and He is Emmanuel, God with us, God for us, God within and all around us.

So let us take our place among those who have been faithful to God.  We are the fortunate ones who have received what has been promised.  Now it is up to us to offer our lives in gratitude for the unmerited Gift, to live the Gospel courageously even unto martyrdom—beginning now with living charitably and sacrificially the requirements of our vocations.  The angels will soon be singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” and we are invited to sing it with them, both now and forever.

Blogging Down

I seem to have come to a point at which I can’t keep up the pace of the blog.  It’s partly because the well is evidently running dry, and partly because I’m just getting dog-tired, but more because I just have too many other demands to meet.  There are projects I’ve set aside for a long time that I finally have to start doing, and there are other time-consuming things that just don’t allow me the freedom for regular writing.

But Word Incarnate will remain, and not only for the sake of the archives.  I will still be posting my homilies (there will be at least six between now and January 6), and I hope to post some book excerpts and recommendations, as well as the occasional fantastic insight that might be given me.  I’m hoping to give a little more time to reading and study as well—if nothing goes in, nothing can come out.  I don’t want to write simply because one must write if one is to maintain a blog, but rather because I really have something intelligent or spiritually beneficial to say.  I’ve posted over 1,100 reflections here, which include almost every article I’ve written in the past decade or so, as well as numerous homilies and just about every insight I’ve ever had about Scripture and spiritual life.  I trust there will still be more, but I’m unable to keep up a regular schedule of posting.  The fact is, though, that I think I cannot not write for very long without somehow interiorly imploding, so when something forces its way out of my little brain, you’ll be the first to know!

So I don’t know what the future holds, or if and when I might be able to write regularly again, or what the Lord is preparing that He hasn’t yet shown me.  But I’m grateful for this forum I’ve made use of for the past 5-1/2 years, and I think it has borne some good fruit.  God willing, there will be more to come, in one way or another.  I’m hoping to be able to discern the Lord’s will in whatever way He may be leading me, for the sake of his greater glory and the salvation of souls.

The Immaculate Queen

We’re celebrating a profound and rather delicate mystery today, one that proceeds both from God’s eternal plan and power, and from the intimacy of a childless couple who begged God to make their love fruitful, for his glory and for their blessing and joy.  The conception of Mary, who would become the Mother of God, in the womb of St Anne is indeed for the glory of God, and it is for the blessing and joy not only of her parents but of the whole world.

The Gospel (Lk. 8:16-21) speaks of hidden mysteries that become manifest, of secret things that eventually become known.  The beginning of the life of Mary in the womb of St Anne is one of these hidden mysteries that have been revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Church.  It was a secret, so to speak, kept in the Heart of God, but made known according to his good pleasure when the fullness of time had come.

This divine mystery is known as the Immaculate Conception, the extraordinary preparation of the unique vessel of the Incarnation of God, a sinless body and soul which alone could be worthy to bring our Savior, the all-holy Son of God, into this world as man.

God has made Our Lady essential to his plan for our salvation.  He wasn’t compelled by some ontological necessity to do so, for Christ could simply have appeared in this world as a full-grown man without taking the trouble to be conceived and born of woman.   But God chose to do it this way, because God always does the most loving thing, and He always prefers to engage human persons in whatever He is doing, because He is a personal God.  It pleases Him to involve in his mighty and mysterious works those whom He has created in his image.

So God has foreseen from all eternity Mary of Nazareth, the girl that He would choose to become the Mother of his only-begotten Son, when the time had come for Him to begin his mission in our world as our Teacher, Healer, and especially our Savior through his sacrificial death and bodily resurrection.

As this mystery was foreseen from all eternity, the mission and the relationships that are the fruit of this mystery are perpetual and permanent.  For example, the very fact that God chose Mary to be the means by which the Son would come into the world means that He was establishing her as a mediatrix. This role is not a disposable one; it is an essential part of who she is. Thus Mary has been constituted “she by whom God came into this world as man.”  Therefore she remains mediatrix for all time, not only bringing God’s grace to us, but since she was the way Christ came to us, she is also the preferred way for us to come to Christ. The Church’s spiritual traditions have made this increasingly clear, and they have borne immeasurable fruit for the sanctification and salvation of souls, and will continue to do so, for no one can undo what God has done.

There has been some controversy at times concerning the proper way to understand or speak of this precious mystery of Our Lady.  Theologians of East and West have different approaches or emphases, and sometimes it seems that they go out of their way to make sure that their approach is different from that of those they consider their opponents.  But such attitudes should have no place in the hearts and minds of those who say they are servants of God and disciples of Christ.  So the Lord Jesus, perhaps weary of the bickering here below, resolved the issue in an extraordinary way: He sent his Mother to earth to tell us the truth!

He did this in 1858, and the answer was given to an illiterate teenage girl who was probably about the same age Mary was when the Angel Gabriel came from Heaven with his own stunning revelation.  Well, Our Lady came to little Bernadette (who knew nothing of theological controversies), and she revealed to the girl her identity.  This is what she said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  As far as I’m concerned, all arguments cease when the answer comes straight from Heaven, straight from the lips of the one over whom the controversy began in the first place.

Through the way the apparition and revelation are recounted, we can see that Our Lady herself is in awe of what the Almighty had done for her.  Bernadette had asked the Lady her name, and in the sixteenth apparition, the girl recounted: “[The Lady] lifted up her eyes to heaven, joined her hands as though in prayer, which had been held out and open towards the ground, and said to me: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’”  The content of this vision testifies to the awesome wonder of this unique gift of God.  Before she would even speak the words, Mary brought her hands together in prayer, looked up to Heaven in adoration of the One who lovingly bestowed this ineffable grace upon her, and only then said: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

The early fathers of the Church wrote of Mary as the New Eve, for she gave birth to the New Adam, stood with Him at the Cross, and in her glory represents the whole Church, which is Bride to the Divine Bridegroom, as the words and imagery of the Book of Revelation express.  From a similar perspective that relates to the original paradise, Mary is called the paradise of the New Adam, for it was from her very physical substance that the body of the Incarnate God was formed—as God formed the body of the first Adam from the physical substance of the original earthly paradise.

But Mary is the New Eve for another reason.  The fathers compare her faithfulness to God with the unfaithfulness of the first Eve.  The first Eve was created sinless, yet she wasn’t omniscient or omnipotent.  She still had freedom of choice, so she was capable of obeying or disobeying God’s commandments.  She chose to disobey and so brought a curse upon the whole of mankind.  But God was not content to let his creation be damned forever, so immediately after Adam and Eve’s sin, He spoke of a future redemption, a definitive crushing of the satanic serpent who led the first Eve into her tragic sin.

So, when the fullness of time came, God re-created, as it were, certain elements of the original paradise to prepare the coming of the New Adam, who would save the world.  As the New Eve, Mary was created sinless, drawing uniquely from the redeeming grace of Christ which was not yet manifest in earthly time.  But this Immaculate Conception, while freeing Mary from the pervasive and perverse proclivity to sin that burdens the rest of us, still left her with the freedom of choice.   Like the first Eve, Mary was neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and it was within her power to choose for or against God’s will.  But to our eternal joy, gratitude, and immense relief, Mary, unlike the first Eve, chose to say yes to God when the offer came to bear his divine Son as her own, as a human being.

Having canceled Eve’s disobedience with her own obedience, Mary, the New Eve, was then made the paradise of the New Adam, and his body was formed out of hers, and the doom of the infernal serpent was sealed.

In the Epistle (Gal. 4:22-31), St Paul speaks of the “Jerusalem above,” that “she is our mother.”  The fathers of the Church, and especially the liturgical hymnographers, often connect any image of a dwelling place (tent, city, temple) with Our Lady, for she is par excellence the dwelling place of God.  Now St Paul seems to be talking about Heaven when he says “Jerusalem above,” and this image takes us to the Book of Revelation, where we find a kaleidoscopic array of images concerning woman, mother, bride, city, and dwelling place of God.

I can’t go into detail about all that here, but we do find a striking image of the Mother of God, portrayed as a celestial Queen, robed with the sun, crowned with stars, and with the moon under her feet.  Now this image can admit certain symbolic interpretations, but let’s not miss the obvious one: this Queen of Heaven is giving birth to a Son, the One who is taken up to the throne of God, there to rule all the nations.  This can only be our Lord Jesus Christ, and the only woman ever to give birth to Him was Mary of Nazareth, Our Lady and Blessed Mother.

We also see in this image a reflection of the mystery of Mary as the New Eve.  In the first paradise, the serpent sought out Eve to subtly deceive her and bring ruin upon the human race.  But now that his cover is blown, he abandons all subtlety and appears as flaming dragon, filled with fury and hatred for this Woman who has resisted him at every step and who has succeeded in bringing the Savior into the world.  So he pursues her and tries to destroy her, but, as it was from the first moment of Mary’s conception, the devil could not touch her.

The serpent-dragon then turns his rage upon—you guessed it—those who have allied themselves with the Woman, who are identified in the Bible as “the rest of her offspring” (Rev. 12:17).  We are further identified as “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”

All of this is a revelation of what was formerly hidden, the secret that has come to light.  The revelation of God is full of profound mysteries, and we’ll likely not get to the bottom of them all while we live on earth. But the Church has brought much to light for us, for the sake of our growth in faith and love, in understanding and in the practice of the Christian life. The Immaculate Conception is one of these mysteries that the Church has formally pronounced to be a revelation of God. So let us rejoice in this and receive the grace of this mystery, honoring Our Lady for her unique and unsurpassed holiness, beauty, and fidelity to the will of God.  And let us give glory, thanks, and worship to God for what He has done in and through her, for it was all done out of love for us.

Jesus also says in the Gospel today: to the one who has, more will be given, but the one who doesn’t have, even what he thinks he has will be taken away.  If we receive in faith and love the mystery we are celebrating today, God will take us deeper into his mysteries, and more will be given. We will become rich in the knowledge and love of God, of Our Lady and all the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.  So let us be among those who are given more and not among those who lose even what they think they have.  And let us not fear to engage the serpent in battle, for we are fighting under the banner of the Immaculate Queen, whose divine Son reigns from the right hand of the Father.  By his grace we shall conquer, so let us hear his words: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).

New Book is Now Available

My new book is finally available.  It is entitled, A Place Prepared by God: Through the Virgin Mary, the New Eve, Paradise Will Not Fail Twice.  It is an extended reflection on the great mysteries of our salvation, and of our spiritual lives, in which Our Lady plays a prominent role, and it includes a number of my own personal experiences of her love and presence in my life.  All this is an invitation to you to open your heart to discover the “hidden treasure” that is the Mother of God, for she loves you and wants to assist you on your arduous journey to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Presently, the book is available only through our monastery, but in a week or two it will be available at Amazon as well.  The price is $12.95 (258 pages, rather densely packed; 100,000 words).  If you want to order multiple copies as gifts for family and friends, email me and I’ll work out a substantial discount for you.  California residents need to add $1.07 sales tax.  Shipping and handling costs are $3 for media mail and $6 for priority.  Either email me (see email link on right)  or write me at Mt Tabor Monastery, P.O. Box 217, Redwood Valley, CA 95470.

You cannot go wrong by growing in knowledge and love of your heavenly Mother.

St Nicholas and the Coming of the Lord

“Obey your leaders and submit to them,” says the Apostle in today’s first reading (Heb. 13:17-21), “for they are keeping watch over your souls.”  This reading was chosen for our father among the saints Nicholas of Myra, whose feast we celebrate today, and who is the patron of our monastery temple.  He is one of the patrons of Eastern Christians as well, so it is indeed his task to keep watch over our souls.  The whole history of devotion to St Nicholas and his interventions in the lives of those who sought his intercession is testimony to the fact that he is vigilant in interceding for our souls.

St Nicholas wears many hats, so to speak, besides his bishop’s miter, since he is the patron of many different categories of persons.  Perhaps he is best known as a patron and provider for children, since through his legendary generosity he has morphed into the modern figure of Santa Claus, though this fairy-tale figure has little to do with the historical virtue and holiness of the great bishop St Nicholas.

In our liturgical texts, his mission is described as something much more serious than giving gifts to needy children.  He is, in general, seen as a sort of universal provider and protector, but the context is usually our struggle for virtue and our spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness.  St Nicholas is invoked as a healer of souls, a heavenly intercessor, and a deliverer from evil.

There is often a play on words concerning his episcopal see, Myra (in modern-day Turkey), and the term “myrrh.”  This is not only because they have a similar sound, but also because a fragrant oil or myrrh has exuded from the relics of St Nicholas for centuries.  Sweet myrrh is then used as a spiritual analogy to the grace of God.  So we often have texts that ask St Nicholas to apply the sweet-smelling myrrh of grace to the “foul stench of our passions,” in order to heal them and convert us to true repentance and consistent devotion to the Lord.

I came across something interesting in the writings of St Louis de Montfort, concerning the foul stench of our passions.  He says that even after our sins are forgiven, a certain spiritual “odor” remains, because every time we sin, we advance our concupiscence.  So even though our sins are forgiven through repentance and absolution, the very fact that we have sinned yet again has made us more susceptible to committing new ones, because despite forgiveness, we reinforce the habit.  It’s kind of a vicious circle: when we sin, we advance our concupiscence, and this makes us more vulnerable to sinning again by strengthening the habit, which again advances our concupiscence, which again increases our vulnerability, etc.  The repeated return to sin is what St Louis de Montfort says maintains the odor of our concupiscence, which the Byzantine Liturgy calls the foul stench of our passions.

St Louis’ answer to this, as we might expect, is to surrender all this to Our Lady, offering all our prayers, sacrifices, etc, to God through her, so that we are not presenting an impure vessel before God when we come to Him. When we attach ourselves to the all-pure Queen of Heaven, who is at the same time our tender and loving Mother, she makes us presentable to God by making our offering as her own.

So there is more than meets the eye when we ask St Nicholas to bring his fragrant myrrh to deal with our passions.  He may in fact respond to this prayer by turning us toward Our Lady, who will present us to God as her own, for the sake of our full transformation in his grace.  We need more than mercy when we sin; we also need spiritual healing.  That is why the psalmist, when coming to the Lord in repentance, does not merely say “forgive me, for I have sinned against you,” but rather “heal my soul, for I have sinned against you” (Ps. 40/41).

St Nicholas died on December 6, and that is why we celebrate his feast on this day, but it seems providential that he died in the middle of Advent.  This is an additional element of his association with Christmas.  If he directs us to seek Our Lady’s intercession for the healing and conversion of our souls, he also directs us to Christ as the goal of both Advent and the whole of our lives.

Children spend the days and weeks before Christmas waiting for Santa Claus and the gifts he will bring—if they are good, that is.  But St Nicholas says, no, you should be waiting for Someone Else at Christmas, the One who grants the gift of eternal life and all the other gifts of grace that help us attain our ultimate goal.  Jesus offers us his gifts even if we aren’t good—but the catch is that if we are not good his gifts won’t do us any good, because we will not be well-disposed to receive them and hence will not bear any fruit.  If, however, we are at least “men of good will,” as the Christmas hymns put it, there will be an opening in our hearts for the gifts of Christ, and we will be able to find healing for our poor souls that have sinned against Him.

So we should earnestly long for the coming of Christ, whose coming in the flesh as our Savior we celebrate solemnly every year.  We might wonder sometimes why in our liturgical texts we keep asking Christ to come, when He has in fact already come and accomplished the work of Redemption.  Well, there are different ways that He comes. His definitive coming in the flesh and his earthly ministry, and his death and resurrection, are unrepeatable, so we’re not asking Him to be born again as a human baby in this world.  But we are asking Him to come into our hearts and lives in a more profound and intimate way, so that we may grow in our relationship with Him and bear much fruit for the good of souls and for his glory.  We are also asking Him to make his presence felt in the world around us in a more perceptible and effective way, for the transformation of society, the greater sanctification of the Church, and for the awakening of those sleeping in sin unto death.  Finally, we are asking Him to come and get us!  We pray for his second and definitive coming, the fulfillment and manifestation of his Kingdom, the final overcoming of all evil in this broken and suffering world, and the ushering in of his eternal reign over the whole of humanity. Then we will all sing an unceasing chorus of glory, which even now we try to anticipate in this world through our Christmas hymns of praise.

St Nicholas is here to help us with all that.  He knows that if we are to receive Christ worthily in our hearts and thus become icons of Christ and good examples to those around us, thus making both ourselves and our own spheres of influence ready for the return of the Lord, we have to prepare the way.  This was the mission of St John the Forerunner, but we all have a share in this.  Preparing the way doesn’t necessarily mean we have to publicly preach repentance and the coming judgment, though it might in some cases and at some times.

But the Gospel reading chosen for St Nicholas (Lk 6:17-23) shows us a way that is not only available to everyone, but also required of everyone who wants to be found worthy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven when the Lord returns.  This is the way of the Beatitudes, the way of the poor, the hungry, the mourning and the persecuted.  We don’t have to go out of our way to make ourselves such, for life brings us many opportunities to put the Gospel into practice. We just have to respond with an open, humble, and willing heart.  The monastic life especially is supposed to be a school of the Beatitudes, but we have to learn our lessons well.  Our vow of poverty may not actually leave us destitute, but we are supposed to learn from it to accept and even embrace certain deprivations, discomforts, or inconveniences for the sake of Christ, who chose poverty as his way of life.  Our fasting puts us in the company of the hungry, though our temporary hunger for part of the day is nothing compared to those who do not know where their next meal is coming from. But we can still please the Lord if we offer our little sacrifices with patience and even joy.

Our repentance, according to the monastic fathers, puts us in the company of the mourners, for we are mourning over our sins, how they offend God and damage our souls.  If we truly repent and actually change our attitudes and behavior, break our bad habits and embrace virtue with humility, we will find ourselves among the blessed.  And as we bear the burden of the world, as Fr Boniface used to say, in our prayer and sacrifice, feeling the pain in our own hearts of the blasphemies that wound the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, enduring the misunderstanding or lack of charity of others, and turning it into intercession for their conversion and our own growth in patience and humility, we will receive at least something of the reward of those who are reviled or persecuted for Christ’s sake.

So we begin to see that celebrating St Nicholas is not a superficial thing, not just an occasion for merrymaking or gift-giving.  He is not merely an icon of benevolence and providence, but he directs us to a serious and sustained effort to live a life that is pleasing to God, a life that is always—and not only during Advent—a life of preparing the way of the Lord, in our hearts and all around us.  No one who follows Christ should think that he will be received into the Kingdom of Heaven without much sacrifice, struggle, prayer, and humble self-giving.  But after presenting this program in the Beatitudes, Jesus says: Blessed are you if you live this way.

St Nicholas, like all the heavenly friends and intercessors the Lord mercifully puts in our lives, is not here to make life easy for us or to satisfy our desires for earthly happiness.  He comes to prepare us for the coming of the Lord, for the Kingdom of Heaven, for the transformation of our souls through God-pleasing virtue and the renunciation of sin.  Let us ask St Nicholas, then, not to place something for us under the Christmas tree, but rather to obtain for us the sweet myrrh of divine grace to heal our souls and make them pleasing in the sight of God.  This is how he watches over our souls; this is how he leads us to live the life that the Lord calls blessed.

God Above Us, God With Us

We’re more than halfway to Christmas now, and even though the Byzantine tradition does not supply special Advent Sunday readings until next week, we can always find in the word of God something that helps us enter into his mysteries, something that helps our hearts prepare for that which we will soon be celebrating.  The readings today give us a glimpse of both the transcendent reality of God expressed in the pre-existence and pre-eminence of Christ (Col. 1:12-18), and in the down-to-earth manifestation of his love and compassion (Lk. 17:12-19).

Let us look first at the Epistle reading, in which we find some understanding of both the person and work of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose coming in the flesh is the basis of our coming celebrations as well as our salvation.  “He is the image of the invisible God,” writes the Apostle, and that one phrase in itself ought to enkindle our meditation for the rest of Advent.  The great grace and gift of the Incarnation is that God has taken on a human face; He has become visible and tangible to us in Jesus Christ.  God as such is pure Spirit, invisible to the human eye and beyond the comprehension of the human mind.  Before the coming of Christ, man had to be content with somewhat obscure revelations of God, in the riddles of prophecy, in various natural phenomena, and in certain divine interventions in the events of human history.

But the only-begotten Son, who is the Image of the Father, “bearing the very stamp of his nature,” as we read in Hebrews (1:3), has taken on a material image.  The mystery of the Incarnate Son was eloquently described by the eyewitness St John as “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, the Word of Life…” (1Jn 1:1).  Both John and Paul testify that this Image, this Word of God, is He through whom and for whom all things were created, and who holds all things in existence.  The invisible God became visible in Jesus Christ, and this astounding act of divine love and condescension has become the basis not only for our redemption but for all iconography and the whole sacramental structure and life of the Church.

Through Christ, says the Apostle, we have redemption, which means we have been delivered from the dominion of darkness—that is, of sin and death and Hell—and established as citizens of Heaven, the Kingdom of God.  These great divine mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, of creation and redemption, are all manifested in the Person of Christ.  They have been revealed by Him, and everything is led back to the Heart of the Holy Trinity by and through Him.  This is the “vision,” the theological foundation of everything that we read about in the Gospel.  For our sake and for our salvation, the Son of God lowered Himself to our level, got involved in all the details of life in the cities and countryside of Israel, bringing the grace of God to the poor and afflicted and the sinners.  Yet at all times He was still the Image of the invisible God, the One who holds the whole universe in existence.

In the Gospel today, we see an example of Christ reaching out to the most miserable and afflicted of the Jewish society, the lepers.  They were not only plagued with an incurable and loathsome disease, they were ostracized as ritually unclean and hence excluded from fellowship with those who enjoyed the benefits of the covenant of God with his people.

That is why they stood at a distance from Jesus as He passed by and called out loudly to Him as their only hope in their desperate situation: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  The Lord had compassion on them and immediately began to work the miracle of their cleansing, but it wasn’t fully manifest until a short time later.  Jesus simply told them, according to the prescriptions of the Law: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Then they realized that they were cleansed, but only one, a Samaritan, returned to give glory and praise to God, prostrating at Jesus’ feet and loudly giving thanks.

Jesus’ response is perhaps not what we might expect: “Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Jesus then blessed and dismissed the man, pleased with his faith and gratitude.

It is interesting to see how Jesus responds to the Jews and the Gentiles in the course of his ministry. On the one hand, He favors the chosen people, saying things like: “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” and comparing Jews to children and Gentiles to dogs (Mt 15:24-26).  And the non-Jew in today’s Gospel He simply refers to as “this foreigner.”  On the other hand, He repeatedly demonstrates that Gentiles—like this Samaritan, or the “Good Samaritan” of the parable, or the Canaanite woman with the possessed daughter, or the Roman centurion with the paralyzed servant—often manifest greater faith than the chosen people.  Perhaps his intention was similar to St Paul’s, who said: “I magnify my ministry to the Gentiles in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Rom. 11:13-14).  In any case, what is important to Jesus is faith and love and gratitude and the acknowledgement of the mercy and saving power of God.  He will not withhold his grace from someone who is not a Jew, and He will not give his grace to someone who is a Jew merely on that basis.  All must manifest the dispositions that are pleasing to God if they wish to receive his benefits.

There’s something else we can learn from this Gospel event, which applies to the sacramental life of the Church.  A priest once told me that if anyone said to him that they don’t need to confess their sins to a priest, he reminds them of what Jesus said to the lepers: “Go and show yourself to the priests.”  This invites a closer look, and even though the analogy is not altogether precise (analogies never are), the point is quite clear.

When we are infected with the spiritual leprosy of sin, the first step is to repent from the heart and call upon Jesus to forgive us.  Because of our sin, we are unworthy of God, and so we stand afar off, as it were, raising our voices, saying, as did the lepers: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  This is the indispensable first stage of our forgiveness. Now Jesus, being God, can do whatever He wills, including forgiving us directly.  Yet He has shown us elsewhere in the Gospel (see Jn 20:22-23) that his will is that certain chosen disciples of his be empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive sins in his name.

In the Old Testament, the priests were required to witness the healing of the leprosy and then declare them clean, and thus the cleansed lepers could be restored to the covenant community and share in its blessings.  In the New Testament, whose grace we are living in today, it is still the power of God that heals, but the priests are needed to be witnesses of the repentance of the sinner and of what God is doing in them, and the priests are also needed to declare them clean, that is, pronounce the words of absolution that declare that God has indeed granted forgiveness of their sins.  Thus they are restored to the fellowship of the members of the Body of Christ and may approach Holy Communion and receive all the benefits of those who are in a state of the grace of the Lord.  Even though Jesus directly cleansed the lepers in the Gospel account, they would not have been readmitted to the life and worship of the chosen people without the priests declaring them clean.

So we return to what St Paul said of Christ in the Epistle: “In Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.”  Because of the power of the atoning sacrifice of Him who is the Image of the invisible God, we have forgiveness. We are transferred from the dominion of darkness to the Kingdom of the beloved Son of God.  This Kingdom has its preliminary manifestation on earth as the Church, the Body of Christ. So the forgiveness won by Christ for us through the Redemption places us in the community of those initiated into the Mysteries, those baptized into the Holy Trinity, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and nourished by the Body and Blood of Jesus.  It is through the Church—her faith, her works, her worship, her sacramental, ascetical, mystical, and moral life—that we are rescued from the power of darkness and signed, sealed, and delivered to the Kingdom of Heaven.

We ought to reflect upon these and other mysteries of our faith as Christmas approaches.  Does the mystery of the Incarnation draw us into profound meditation?  I wonder what the Blessed Virgin was reflecting upon as the first Christmas drew near, as her divine Son grew within her womb.  How far did she see?  How did she think the words of the Angel Gabriel applied to the whole future of mankind?  What must it have been like for her to be aware that the world’s Salvation was at that time contained within her own body, soon to be held in her arms, held to her breast?  These are mysteries that perhaps will only be revealed in Heaven, yet we do see what actually did happen by Christ’s coming into the world. It was the inauguration of the whole mystery of salvation, of the Church, of our personal communion with God, who reaches out to us in our affliction and our need.  Jesus Christ is He who cleanses us of the spiritual leprosy of sin, who restores the balance of the world so grievously shaken by the great fall of mankind from paradise, and who therefore calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light.  It is our faith that makes us well, says Jesus.  That is, our faith meets the power of the Lord’s compassion, and thus we find healing and salvation.

There are less than three weeks until Christmas.  Where are our hearts and our thoughts?  To what are we giving the best of our energy and attention?  Christmas is always a busy time, but we should be about our Father’s business, hearing the word of the Lord and doing it, entering into contemplation of Him who is the Image of the invisible God, who holds not only the universe but our own little worlds in his hands.  I know it is not possible to spend the whole time of Advent in contemplation, but it is possible to spend more time than we customarily do.  Let us reduce our busyness to only what is essential, and then choose the better part of meditation on the Gospel of the Lord, on his love, his glory, his self-emptying, his hearing our cries for mercy and reaching out to us in our mortal illness, on the touch of his hand and his word of blessing that make all things new.  Then we will have good reason to give Him loud thanks and praise, not as mere foreigners, but as beloved children and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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