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

Archive for December, 2007

Newness of Life in the New Year

Well, we’ve gone and done it again—finished one year and started another. I always have the impression when Ihope4anewyear1.jpg give a homily on New Year’s Day that I’m not going to make it to the next one, yet somehow I always do, though I’m quite certain that one of these years my impression will actually be true!

As each year comes to an end, I also have the impression that I’ve just barely “escaped the snare of the fowler,” that I’ve survived the sorrows and sufferings of the previous year only on a wing and a prayer. So what is going to happen this year? It’s going to be something of an apocalyptic year, I think. I’ll be turning 50 this year, so that surely means that the world will soon be coming to an end. The Feast of Annunciation falls after Easter this year, another rather bizarre event. Ushering in the collapse of civilization as we know it will be the presidential election toward the end of this year. So, we have a lot to look forward to!

Even though New Year’s Day is a secular feast, and there are other reasons on our liturgical calendar why we’re having a solemn Divine Liturgy today, there is a kind of “theology of the new” that is worth reflecting upon at this time. This doesn’t mean a “theology of new, untested, untraditional, and untenable ideas,” but rather looking at the mystery of newness in light of the good news of the Gospel. Christ is the New Adam who has inaugurated the New Covenant through his death and resurrection, so that we can, through the Holy Spirit, “walk in newness of life,” as St Paul says, and eventually find our way to the New Jerusalem coming down from Heaven in the glory of God, who says: “Behold, I make all things new.”

The first day of the new year is significant not only for marking time or having a party or getting a day off from work. The irruption of the New into our weary “oldness” is a sign of hope, an influx of energy (hopefully the Uncreated Energy that is Divine Grace), and a motivation to persevere. It throws back the towel to us that we have thrown in, and says, “Get up and fight; you can do it!” It’s easy enough to collapse into a blob of dejected jelly after a long year of hardships and disappointments, but the arrival of the new brings with it a whispered promise of better things to come—or at least better ways to deal with whatever is to come! Like it or not, we still have to get up every day and face the music, leaving the comfortable world of unconsciousness for the land of the living, where lives are made or broken, where souls are saved or lost. We are there, and we have a role to play, a mission to accomplish, and miles to go before we sleep. We will have to account for the choices we make in 2008, the acts we place, the words and thoughts that proceed from within, the fruit we bear—or not—the talents we multiply—or not.

So the coming of the new year is not a time for dissipation and juvenile frivolity, but for regrouping, re-vitalizing, and setting our sights on the accomplishment of the will of God in the situations in which He will place us. This is why we are celebrating the Divine Liturgy and not cracking open a keg of beer! The Liturgy is, of course, a joyful celebration, but this joy grows out of a serious commitment to the truth of the Gospel, to receiving and sharing the love of God which upholds us on our perilous pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us have open eyes concerning the times in which we live, and not mindlessly play the fiddle while Rome burns.

This year will be an important one, as the tensions mount in several ways: the conflict between the new and best-selling breed of atheists and those who are trying to keep Christianity and its values high-profile in this country; the conflict between those who call themselves Catholic but do not believe or practice as the Church requires—and who still dare approach the Sacred Mysteries—and the leaders of the Church who are entrusted with the stewardship of the Holy Eucharist. There are other conflicts in the Church, like that between those who uphold the traditions of the Church and those who want to lead the Church down the deceptive path of new-age adulteration and quasi-paganism. And the geopolitical tensions that increase between the Middle East and other Islamic countries with the countries of the increasingly unstable West. Much more can be said, but you get the picture. Decisions will have to be made that will affect us all.

Now we may not be directly involved in world events or in high-level decisions of the Church, but we do have a role to play, and on the spiritual level this takes place primarily through prayer, fasting, sacrifice, fidelity to the sacraments and the other elements of spiritual life. We don’t have to sit on U.N. councils to influence world events. For the Lord God is the Creator and Savior of the world and He has the power to work all things for the good, even when things look like they’re going bad. To a certain extent, perhaps a quite large extent, He relies on us, on our union with Him through prayer and sacrifice, to bring his grace to bear on the persons and events shaping this world on the “horizontal” level.

And here we finally get to the readings for this feast. First of all St Paul warns us in the Letter to the Colossians (2:8-12) about the need for purity in the true faith. This is the bedrock of our spiritual life and hence of our spiritual influence in the world. He writes: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by empty philosophy and deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” There sure is a lot of empty philosophy and deceit out there, and people worshiping the spirits of the universe and claiming their personal divinity, even daring to use the holy name of Christ to describe the source of their bogus spiritual transports. But that is not according to the true Christ, that is, Jesus Christ, who actually lived and died and rose from the dead and who sits at the right hand of the Father and who is coming to judge the living and the dead!

We are celebrating the feast of the circumcision of Christ, and you might think that circumcision has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here. But St Paul doesn’t think so, because he immediately brings it up in the same passage from Colossians. Circumcision involves a cutting away of something, for the sake of inclusion in the people of the covenant. In a spiritual sense, he goes on, the sacrament of baptism is for Christians what circumcision was for Jews. It is our incorporation, by immersion into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, into the Body of Christ, the Church, the people of the New Covenant, the New and Final and Everlasting Covenant.

But Paul speaks of circumcision not only in a sacramental context but in that of faith, which is the context of our daily spiritual life. We still have to cut away that which is not of Christ, whatever tends to cling to us that belongs not to Christ but to the world, to those “elemental spirits of the universe,” and to our own unredeemed tendency toward selfishness and sin.

Christ submitted to circumcision in his “new year,” the very first few days after He was born in this world as a new human being, to show that He wished to save his people as a member of his people, to show that the promises made to his people of old were true and that He had come personally to fulfill them—even at the price of suffering. His life was marked with the shedding of blood from the very beginning, but this was his will, out of love for us. As powerful and enduring as his words of preaching and teaching were, they were insufficient to draw the whole world out of its darkness and stubborn sin. He had to go to the Cross; only his complete sacrifice in love and obedience to the Father’s will would be sufficient to atone for all the sin of the world.

Let us not, then, fear the sacrifices which fidelity to Jesus require. Let us courageously cut away all that is not of Him: “circumcise our hearts,” as the biblical saying goes. Only thus will we have the wisdom and the strength to face whatever the new year brings, and we will make our personal contribution to the advancement of the peace and the salvation of the world. God is counting on us—the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who makes all things new and who prepares even now the New Jerusalem for those who shall be judged worthy to enter his glory. So, as we are exhorted in the Letter to the Hebrews, this is no time for drooping hands and weak knees; make straight paths for your feet, run the race with perseverance, strive for the holiness without which no one will see God. This is really the only way to have a happy, blessed new year.

All in the Family

The Sunday after Christmas is kind of a family feast in the Byzantine tradition. We’re still in the post-festive st-joseph.jpgtime of Christmas and so there’s a kind of representative selection of Jesus’ relatives here. We already celebrated his Mother on the day after Christmas, so today we celebrate first of all someone who is not actually a blood-relative, but who is closer to Jesus even than that: St Joseph, the one whom God the Father had chosen to take his place, as it were, fulfilling the role of the father of Jesus in a human way. Blood may be thicker than water, but grace is thicker than blood, so to speak, and so this relationship of Joseph to Jesus was profound and intimate. We also celebrate a blood-relative, a cousin, St James, who seems not to have been a follower of Jesus until after his resurrection, since St John remarked that not even his relatives believed in Him. But he ended up as the first bishop of Jerusalem and the author of one of the books of the New Testament, so I guess he made up for lost time.

Finally we also celebrate the most famous ancestor (and the most important, as far as the Messiah is concerned), the holy King David. He also connects to St Joseph—who is the only person in the New Testament besides Jesus who is called “son of David”—because the lineage of Jesus is traced through Joseph, not Mary. It is because of Joseph that Jesus is reckoned to be of the tribe of Judah. The liturgical services keep saying that Mary too is of David’s bloodline, but the Scriptures give us no evidence of this. The only hint about Mary’s lineage comes from St Luke, who says she was a relative of St Elizabeth, who was of the tribe of Levi (one of the “daughters of Aaron”), not the tribe of Judah. Well, perhaps we’ll have to wait till we enter Paradise ourselves before we get the whole story on this.

But let us look at the Gospel (Mt. 2:13-23). The first thing we hear is that Joseph receives an urgent message in the middle of the night from an angel who tells him to get up immediately and flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, because the Child’s life is in danger. Now, if Joseph was not such a devout and obedient man, he might have looked at the Child and said what the wicked thief would say decades later from the cross: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us!” We might think that God would simply have miraculously shielded his only-begotten Son from those who would destroy Him, rather than putting the whole family through such a dreadful ordeal. But the Father never worked miracles to make things easier for Jesus, and Jesus never worked miracles to make things easier for Himself. His commitment to entering the fullness of our wretched human condition, for better or worse, was absolute. He voluntarily abandoned Himself to the vicissitudes of earthly life, for He was fully man as well as fully God. Of course, He did benefit from the angelic warning, but that was only so the plan of salvation wouldn’t be ruined from the very beginning. He had to be kept alive so that He could later die for our sins.

Let’s see if we can also look at the time frame of this event. It’s a bit difficult to harmonize the accounts of Luke and Matthew concerning the chronology of events and the places that Joseph and Mary lived. But we have to say that the flight into Egypt had to have happened after the presentation in the temple, which was 40 days after Jesus’ birth. This also means that the magi arrived sometime after the presentation (so the Christmas cards and nativity scenes with the magi at the manger are not historically accurate, but the theological message is sufficient for not having to overthrow venerable customs). Three things from Scripture verify this: it says that when the magi arrived, they “went into the house” and saw the Child with Mary, so Jesus was out of the manger by then. Also, if the magi had left them with gold and other valuable gifts, they would not, only 40 days later, have to give the offering of the poor in the temple, unless they were incorrigible spendthrifts, which I seriously doubt. Finally, St Matthew says that Joseph got the angelic message to go to Egypt right after the magi left, so if they had come to the manger, the Holy Family would have been in Egypt 40 days later and not in the temple at Jerusalem. It is implied that they stayed in Egypt for a considerable amount of time (it’s hard to know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but it looks as though they had to stay in Egypt 2-3 years, for they had to remain there until the death of Herod).

So, one of the things that all of this chronology has established is that by the time the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt, Mary had already heard and pondered Simeon’s prophecy that her Son was going to be a sign of contradiction, set for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and that a sword would pierce her own soul, too. It didn’t take long for this first stage of the fulfillment of the prophecy to begin. Mary and Joseph were just starting to realize the price they’d have to pay for being chosen to raise their little bundle of joy!

This brings to mind a word that came to me several times during our Advent retreat. [I mentioned this in a previous post, but I decided to use it again, reworked, for this one.] I was reading some of Pope Benedict’s reflections on the priesthood, and he kept referring to what Jesus told Peter on the shore of the sea, after the Lord rose from the dead. He said that Peter would be led where he did not wish to go. The Pope said that this word is one for priests, and it highlights the difficulty of the vocation as well as the importance of obedience at all costs, if one is going to fruitfully endure the hardships that are entailed in being a disciple of Christ crucified. The priest is specifically configured to the person of Christ, particularly in Christ’s own high-priestly sacrifice on the Cross. The Lord does not ask of us anything He wouldn’t do first. He was led to the Cross where, humanly seen, He did not wish to go, for He had said to his Father in Gethsemane: “take this cup away from me.” But the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience through suffering, and being thus perfected, He became the source of salvation to all who obey Him, the High Priest according to the order of Melchisedek (5:8-10).

But this word is not only for priests, because all who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death, says the Apostle, so all share in that cruciform configuration. So we can all expect, in one way or another, that fidelity to our Christian vocation will require that we be led where we do not wish to go. The example was given to us in today’s Gospel. I’m sure that Mary and Joseph had hoped to live a relatively quiet and happy life with their beloved Son, and most certainly to do this within the borders of the holy land of the chosen people. But guess what? Before they could even get fully settled, an angel from Heaven came and told them to get up and go where they did not wish to go! They had to go to pagan territory, a land of idols, the very place from which their ancestors were rescued by the mighty hand of God, who swore to give them a new land, one flowing with milk and honey. “Well, honey,” said Joseph to Mary, “we have to leave the land of milk and honey—right now!—and go to the land of sand and scorpions and foreigners and demons.” This was a harsh trial, but all God’s chosen ones are tested like gold in the fire. As we know, there would be another, though quieter, exodus from Egypt a few years later when they returned to Israel under the blessing of God.

Meanwhile, Herod’s face was turning as purple as his royal robes, as he furiously fumed over being tricked by the magi, so he initiated a massacre of babies, hoping to catch that newborn pretender to the throne in his bloody dragnet. Isn’t it strange how people can become indignant over Herod’s killing of innocent babies and at the same time claim a woman’s “right” to do the same thing? Herod actually had better reasons than most of today’s abortion-minded women. He at least feared for his kingdom and possibly for his life because of the supposed usurper. He was trying to remove a mortal political enemy. But children are killed for less serious reasons today: it’s inconvenient to have a child now; I’ll have one later, maybe; can’t afford it now; cramps my style, interrupts my career; it’s a burden I don’t want to deal with; or even: oops, forgot to use contraception; well, abortion’s a good back-up plan.

Such women are being asked by God to go where they do not wish to go, for the sake of preserving human life, out of respect for the image of God imprinted upon the souls of these little ones. But they refuse. They don’t want the cross, so they’re not going to get the resurrection. Their little victims will rise up as living testimony against them on Judgment Day—unless, of course, they had sincerely repented and forever disavowed such evils.

As for us, let us be aware of the great responsibility and even the sufferings that being a member of the family of Jesus entail. But let us also know the joy that awaits us who faithfully follow Him even to the point of being led where we do not wish to go. This life is a pilgrimage through sometimes unfriendly places, but our destination is the Promised Land of Paradise, the Heavenly Jerusalem, from which there is no banishment, and no sorrow or pain. If we accept to be led to the Cross in this life, we will ultimately be led to the place to which we really do want to go: the family reunion with all the holy ones in the Heart of God.

Going to the Synagogue of Our Lady

We gather together on the day after Christmas to celebrate the “synaxis” of the Mother of God. This is appropriate, since synaxis means “gathering” or, more literally, a bringing or leading together. The root of the word is the same as that for “synagogue,” which is the place where the gathering happens. In the context of the mother-of-god.jpgfeast of the Nativity of Christ, the synagogue of Our Lady would be found in Bethlehem, and gathered together would be St Joseph, the shepherds and magi, and a large choir of angels. Today we join them as we celebrate another aspect of this mystery. We focused yesterday more on the divine aspect of the eternal Son and Word of God becoming man for our salvation, so today we look at the human side of it, at the woman who was chosen to be the means by which the Word became flesh. We celebrate her faith and her love, and the radical gift of herself for the fulfillment of the divine will, and the unique privilege she enjoyed of being able to give birth to the Son of God in the flesh, to nurse Him and raise Him as her own son.

Since the Gospel reading for this feast is the same one I’ll be posting in a couple days (for the Sunday after Christmas), I’ll focus less on that and more on the person of Mary, her place in this mystery and especially in our own lives.

We’ll first take a look at the epistle, however (Heb. 2:11-18), for it has its application here. It begins with the statement: “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin.” He who sanctifies is Christ, and we are those who are sanctified by Him. The “one origin” that both Christ and we have is presumably God, but let’s look a little closer. Of course the Son’s origin is the Father, for the second person of the Holy Trinity is the eternally- and only-begotten Son. Our origin in God comes from the fact that we have been created by Him. Obviously this is a different type of origin than that which the Son of God can claim.

The very next verse in the epistle reads: “That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren.” So it seems that the “one origin” has something to do with the reason He can call human beings his brethren. He can’t call us “brethren” in virtue of his eternal origin from God the Father, for we are not brethren in divinity. As God He is uncreated; we are created. So He can only call us “brethren” in virtue of his human origin. And Jesus’ human origin is from his human mother. Is there some way we too can speak of finding our origins in Our Lady?

We know that she was given to us as a universal spiritual Mother when Jesus, from the Cross, said to St John (the beloved disciple who at that moment represented all beloved disciples of Christ): “Behold, your mother.” We see also in the Book of Revelation the mysterious and glorious “Woman clothed with the sun.” She can be symbolically identified in several different ways, but her identification with Mary has to be one of them, for this woman gives birth to a Child who is Ruler of the nations and who is taken up to God’s throne. Obviously the Child is Christ, and Mary is obviously the Mother of Christ. In harmony with the universal spiritual motherhood Jesus granted her from the Cross, it says in the Book of Revelation that those who are disciples of Jesus are offspring of the Woman clothed with the sun.

So in a spiritual sense we are her children. She did not literally give birth to us as she did to Jesus, but she has been given the role and responsibility of a mother in our regard. So that is how we relate to her. Jesus’ Mother is our mother. Referring again to the epistle, that is why he is not ashamed to call us his brethren. Hebrews goes on to quote from Isaiah, and this can also be understood as words the Mother of God could speak: “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” The text continues: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood [the Son of God] himself likewise partook of the same nature…” His human nature came solely through Mary, so it is through her that He can call us his brothers and sisters.

(It’s also solely through her that He got his good looks! St Joseph probably had to endure a lot of comments about how the boy looked just like his mother but not at all like Joseph. But what could he say? “That’s because He is the image of the invisible God”? No, he just kept his customary silence, perhaps nodding and smiling.)

So, if Scripture and Tradition give us sufficient evidence that Mary is our Mother as well as Jesus’ Mother, and that we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters because of the humanity He received from her, why do so many people ignore her or even manifest animosity toward her and toward those who love and honor her? They seem to tolerate her presence around Christmas time, for they would have no way to explain a baby in a manger who simply appeared there out of thin air. She has to fill in the picture, but then they put her away with all the Christmas decorations and keep her hidden until next Christmas rolls around. But there’s a real contradiction here, and they senselessly treat her much worse than they treat any other woman or mother they might know.

Let’s look at this phenomenon in purely human terms. How would someone regard or treat the mother of his best friend, especially if this friend had done some incalculable good to him, saved his life, provided for his future, or something like that—knowing also that his friend truly loved his own mother? And this woman also in her own right happens to be a thoughtful, loving, and gentle person. At the very least he would talk to her, be friendly with her. He would honor her on her birthday or other special occasions. He certainly wouldn’t ignore her, push her out of the way, saying that his friend is the only one he wants to have a personal relationship with, and that having his mother around somehow detracts from or even confuses his relationship with his friend. And he wouldn’t get angry with others who did appreciate, love and honor the mother. That is all quite absurd, and incontestably so.

So why do people treat the Mother of Jesus in precisely the same way? Jesus, our Best Friend, who has done infinite good to us, who is our Savior who has prepared an eternal future of happiness for us, loves his mother and is quite indebted to her for saying “yes” to the Father’s will so that He could become man and thus save us from our sins. Why not treat his Mother with respect and love, at least for his sake? Why not talk to her, honor her, become her friend too? No one says that she is the Savior, but she is the human origin of the Savior, so we have much to thank her for. There’s no need to be afraid to ask her to pray for us, to talk to her Son on our behalf. Sure, we can talk to Jesus directly, and we do, but why not enjoy a large family? Hey, talk to St Joseph too, and anyone else who is dear to the heart of Jesus. We’re all his brethren. He took on our human nature from Mary so that we could all be one in Him. Our heavenly Mother wants to look around at all of us with her superabundance of motherly love and say, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” If we don’t want to be children of Mary, how is the incarnate Christ going to call us his brothers and sisters?

So let us, who celebrate this synaxis, this gathering around the Mother who has given birth to our Lord and Savior, feel free to love and honor her, to talk to her and to seek her assistance. God can do everything Himself, if He wants to, miraculously, without any human intervention. But the whole of salvation history shows that that’s not his usual way of doing things. He works through persons: patriarchs, prophets, angels, and saints. If St John, and all beloved disciples of all ages, didn’t need a mother, Jesus wouldn’t have said, “Behold, your mother.” But I guess we do, because He did. Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior, save us!

The Star of Hope Appears: Christ is Born!


As our celebration of the mystery of Emmanuel, God-with-us, progresses, we find more to reflect upon as we contemplate the Child-who-is-God in Bethlehem. In yesterday’s Christmas Vigil we heard the Gospel of angels christ-is-born.jpgand shepherds, and I preached on wisdom and wonder, but for this Gospel account (Mt. 2:1-12), I would like to reflect upon hope and joy.

Christmas is the liturgical feast par excellence of hope. It presents to us the Light shining in darkness, the Savior coming to retrieve the lost, the promise of the opening of the gates of Paradise, which had been locked and securely guarded for millennia. The Church offers us the image of the magi as the icons of hope for the salvation of the world.

But first of all, let us hear a foundational statement about hope from the Pope. In his latest encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), he writes: “Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”

The magi had set out on a long and arduous journey in the hope of discovering a newborn King. But it is more than just a king they were hoping to find. Why should these wealthy Persian scholars and mystics think it important to seek out the heir to the throne of a country that was no longer even a kingdom, but was a mere province of foreign powers, and which was smaller and poorer than their own country? The answer can only be that they were seeking something more than a mere king, for they said, “We have come to worship Him.” So Jesus was for them a god, perhaps understood only against a polytheistic background, yet they were certainly on the right track and open to more profound revelations.

Whatever they did believe in, it was insufficient. Pope Benedict several times in his encyclical refers to St Paul’s statement in Ephesians that the pagans were “without hope and without God in the world.” If the magi were satisfied with their astrological charts and their mystical speculations, they never would have set out on the journey to worship the King of Israel and Savior of the world. It is true that they followed a star to Bethlehem, but this was an extraordinary divine intervention, not a mere calculation based on pagan sky-charting. We sing repeatedly that those who used to worship stars now worship Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, and henceforth give Him alone the glory. The Gospel of Jesus effectively puts an end to any supposed value in astrology. We find the strange phenomenon today, however, that some people wish to return to paganism, taking a step backward into the darkness, even though the true Light has already come. They place misguided faith in astrology, reincarnation, nature worship, and whatever else appeals to their spiritual feelings, even though God has spoken definitively through Jesus Christ. Everything that came before Him—that wasn’t downright evil—was fragmentary and provisional. The revelation of Jesus Christ is the final and ultimate revelation of the mystery of God.

So the Star of Bethlehem was, figuratively speaking, a shooting star. It appeared briefly to lead the magi to the true Light, and then, its purpose accomplished, it disappeared and gave way to Christ, the Light of the World. This star was a sign of hope, something that led them to the fulfillment of what they could have only dreamed of. All of this happened not according to cosmic calculations, but rather according to the words of the Hebrew prophets, who uttered veiled sayings inspired by the Most High, which only the appearance of Emmanuel could fulfill and make manifest.

Hope is the foundation of joy. One who has no hope has no joy. One who is full of hope is also full of joy. What happened when that extraordinary star of hope rested over Bethlehem, the place where the divine Child lay? The Gospel says: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Quite a superlative description! They soon found the Child with Mary his Mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him, offering precious gifts. We are left with a tantalizing silence about what was discussed at that time, about how the mystery had been revealed to them, how they were further enlightened, and what they did when they returned to their own country.

What about us? Are we sure of our goal? Do we recognize its greatness sufficiently as to justify the arduous efforts of the journey? Is our hope unshakable? From God’s side, the promise stands firm forever. We are the only ones who can sabotage our own pilgrimage, for we have that wonderful, terrible gift of freedom by which we can choose to give up hope and thus give up Paradise and forever miss out on the worship of the King and Savior. As we heard recently in the Gospel of the banquet, God has prepared everything; it is all ready. St Paul assures us that hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. So, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in the Star of Bethlehem, but in ourselves.

But the grace of this feast is a renewed invitation to revive our hope, to choose to embrace the promises of God. To do this we must embrace Jesus, and Him alone. For, as Paul again insists, “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2Cor. 1:20).

In the epistle (Gal. 4:4-7), Paul outlines some of these promises directly related to the incarnation of the Son of God. God sent his Son, born of woman, to redeem us. What does this redemption accomplish? Nothing less than adoption as children of God, heirs with Christ to the eternal joy of Heaven! And how do we know this? It is the same reason why hope does not disappoint: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’” The eternal Word made flesh is the only Son of the Father by nature, but we can all be children of God by grace. This is the deeper meaning of the angelic proclamation of good tidings. We might wonder precisely what it means that a Savior is born in Bethlehem, but the Apostle spells it out. We are saved from the fate of those without hope and without God in this world; we are adopted into a family and given an incredible inheritance; the love of God is poured into our hearts so that hope will not disappoint.

This hope should be the foundation of our joy in this feast. There are lesser things to rejoice over—the fellowship, the food, the songs, the decorations, the general spirit of goodwill and festivity—and it is good to do so, as long as we remember that this is just the parsley garnishing the main dish. The real food, the profound source and wellspring of our joy at Christmas is that we have been given hope, a trustworthy hope. We have been given the key to the gate of Paradise. The young are usually spontaneously optimistic, so perhaps to them a promise of hope seems not the most important thing. But the longer you live in this world, the more you know how the foundations of hope can be eroded: the sufferings and sorrows and disappointments that burden our souls, the specter of the unprecedented wickedness in the world—the violence and promiscuity, the lies and the greed, the corrupting or the destroying of the innocent, the in-your-face atheism of a new and arrogant breed of unbelievers, etc.

Therefore those whose eyes are open know what a precious gift hope is, and how important it is to hear those biblical words: “hope does not disappoint, for the love of God has been poured into our hearts.” There is still a guiding star rising on the blackest of nights, there is still the shoot of a fresh spring flower pushing up through the ashes of burned-out lives, there is still a pure, clear voice that can be heard over the din of the secular city: “Today is born unto you a Savior; He is Christ the Lord!” That voice will never be silenced. Great efforts, at the price of millions of human lives, have been made to silence that voice, but they have failed. Heaven and Earth will pass, but the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and his holy Gospel will not pass!

As long as there are souls upon this Earth, the divine invitation will always be extended. The Father wants to adopt more children; his house is not yet full! The poor and the humble, like the shepherds, will hear the angelic summons. The wise, like the Magi, will be led to the Lord. And finally God will plead with sinners, like the Father in the parable inviting the proud and indignant son into the feast. The door will not be closed until every possible effort is made to gather in the scattered children of God.

So let us, as St Peter exhorts us, set our hope fully upon the grace that is coming to us in the revelation of Jesus Christ, not being conformed to the passions of our former ignorance but rather becoming holy, as the one who calls us is holy (see 1Peter 1:13-16). And let us rejoice with exceeding joy, precisely because the incarnation of Christ has given us hope, has given us a place in the family of God—which carries with it the promise of Paradise. Christ is born!

Wisdom and Wonder: The Holy Night

During this past Advent, God spoke to us in many and various ways through the prophets, who announced the coming of the Messiah. But at last, as we are now on the threshold of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ, God speaks to us through his Son (Heb.1:1-3). In the beginning was the Word, so in a sense God has always been speaking to us through his Son, but now the Word becomes flesh and can speak to us with a human voice. star-of-bethlehem.jpgThe divine Word of power upholds the universe, yet He has become very small, very accessible—for our sake, for our salvation.

How are we to understand, how are we to enter into this mystery of God-with-us, of Word-made-flesh, of the Son of God becoming the Son of Mary? We need two things for this: the wisdom of a saint and the wonder of a child.

In First Corinthians, St Paul says: “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification” (2:7). This wisdom concerns “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.” That is why it is secret and hidden. But the Apostle tells us that God has in fact revealed this secret mystery to us through the Holy Spirit. This mystery is “for our glorification,” so it is something that is not meant to be totally hidden. It is hidden, as Paul later says, from the eyes of the natural or unspiritual person, who cannot recognize the working of God’s Spirit or his gifts. But we who have been given the Spirit of God and not the spirit of the world are supposed to be able to understand something of God’s hidden mysteries, and thus to cherish what He does “behind the veils” for our salvation.

The birth of Christ is a hidden mystery, in at least two senses. It happened in a hidden manner, in an obscure cave in a tiny village in an insignificant country. Only Mary and Joseph actually witnessed it, but the shepherds were soon led to the cave, and some time later the Magi also were allowed to share in the mystery. But it is also hidden in the sense that the divinity of the Son was hidden in the humanity of the newborn Child. And yet, those who were granted the secret wisdom of God somehow recognized this, even if only obscurely at first. They were given signs that confirmed the mystery, and they glorified God on account of what had been revealed to them.

The sign for the Magi was the star that led them to Bethlehem, and the sign for the shepherds was the unusual circumstances of the birth. No one looks for the Savior of the world in a feeding trough for animals, but the angels told the shepherds that this indeed would be the sign that this newborn baby is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. After seeing the glory of God shining around them and witnessing a multitude of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest,” the shepherds were not about to question the wisdom of placing the Savior in a manger. They just said, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” This is a very practical wisdom: the messengers of God said, “Go and see,” and the shepherds said, “Let us go and see.” And they ended up glorifying God for all they had seen and heard.

Along with the obedience to the words of the heavenly apparition, the shepherds manifested the childlike wonder and awe that enabled them to go further into the mystery than mere reflection on the message would take them. Wonder is something that goes deeper than thought, that reaches beyond reflection and meditation, that seizes the spirit and catapults one into the heart of the mystery. When the angel first appeared to the shepherds, the first reaction was fear, which then gave way to joy. Any dramatic irruption of the Divine into human affairs is going to startle, to shake one out of the humdrum of daily life. But the angel assured the shepherds that this was not a fearful but a joyful event, a joy that would come to all people. And so the shepherds marveled at the glory of God and the hosts of singing angels.

I received an image recently of the expression of childlike, wonder, awe, and delight. My sister had sent me some pictures of the birthday party of my five-year-old nephew. In one of them he was opening one of his presents, and the expression on his face was priceless: eyes wide with wonder, his whole face bright with delight at whatever astonishing gift he had just unveiled. Little kids don’t feign happiness just to save from embarrassment someone who gives them a gift they don’t like. If they are disappointed, they won’t be able to hide it. Likewise, if they are elated, they will not be able to restrain it. Kids cannot fake an ecstasy of joy over some unexpected surprise. The whole story is in their faces.

This unfeigned, childlike wonder and delight is what opens the heart and soul to receive the secret, hidden wisdom of God—which is manifested to the pure of heart, those who are still capable of wonder and awe, of marveling at the marvelous. Such people can recognize God in a baby, the Savior in a manger, the Word made flesh for our salvation.

We need to view this most profound mystery with the eyes of a child. St Paul says we have to become fools—as far as worldly “wisdom” goes—if we want to become truly wise. There are some Christmas carols meant for children, but which carry wisdom that the wise should recognize. I’m thinking here of the Little Drummer Boy. The boy heard the same message that the shepherds heard, though not from angels. “Come, they told me; a newborn King to see; our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King.” But the boy was poor and had nothing to offer that would be worthy of Him. He just had his little drum and a desire to please the King. So he played for Him, he played his best for Him. “Then,” the poor drummer noticed, “He smiled at me.” The one with no gift was accepted because he gave himself, the best of himself, as an offering to the newborn King.

That is how we approach this great and awesome event with the childlike wonder and humility that opens us to the wisdom of God who became a child so that we would not fear to come to Him. As the song teaches us, we must first recognize that Christ is the King, and that only the finest gifts can even begin to be worthy of Him. Then we recognize our own poverty; we have nothing of value to give to Him. All we have is our poor and unworthy selves, our hearts, our lives, ruined by lost innocence and countless failures. So this is what we give, perhaps with a bit of fear and trembling. Yet by trusting Him with all this we give our best to Him; we place our hearts before Him as they are, unworthy—yet holding nothing back. Then He smiles at us, and we know that in our poverty of spirit we have been accepted. When we lay down our defenses He will receive us; when we swallow our pride, acknowledge our unworthiness, and then do our utmost to please the Lord, He will smile upon us. And all manner of things shall be well.

The angels offered a strange sign to the shepherds: the Lord would be found in the form of a baby in a manger. A little baby doesn’t look like the Most High God. But they said to the shepherds: “Let it be a sign to you.” The angels are offering mysterious signs to us as well. The Lord will be found in the form of bread and wine on an altar. Bread and wine don’t look like the crucified and risen Savior. But the angels counsel us: “Let it be a sign to you.”

Even with this angelic instruction, it may seem difficult to perceive the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. This is the secret and hidden wisdom of God, and it is communicated to those who are capable of wonder, who can still see things with the eyes of a child. Children spontaneously believe stories of marvelous and fantastic things. They haven’t yet learned to be cynical, they haven’t yet been broken by life’s myriad disappointments; their dreams are still intact. The Lord does not ask us to abandon our rationality or intellectual maturity, but neither does He want us to abandon the freshness and openness of young and unspoiled hearts. There’s a certain kind of innocence that can be recovered; there’s certain kind of vision that can remain clear even in old age.

So let us read the signs being sent from Heaven. “Come,” they tell us, “there’s a newborn King to see.” Let us give our best to Him. He will smile upon us—from the manger, from the Cross, from the empty tomb, from the altar, from his heavenly throne. And let us, with Mary his Mother, treasure all these things, pondering them in our hearts…

Great Expectations

What are you expecting for Christmas this year? When we were children we had our lists of things that we hoped to receive. Having outgrown the mentality of associating Christmas only with receiving all kinds of presents, must we also lose our sense of expectation? On the contrary, it should be increased, yet transformed. But first we need to examine our hearts to make sure that our expectations are aimed in the right direction.

At the basis of an expectant attitude is the hope for something new, something that will revive us in our weariness, that will bring us joy and peace in the midst of the sorrows and troubles that are the common lot of the children of Adam and Eve. Perhaps at times we feel like we just can’t summon enough energy to meet the demands of the Christmas season. For many, especially those without family, friends, a special someone to love them—or those who have the wrong kinds of expectation—this is a time of darkness and depression. Yet Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Is the common approach to Christmas lacking something vital?

For a number of political, economic, and religious reasons, there is a mournful shroud of darkness over much of the world today. Many people hardly dare to hope that something new could break forth, that a Sun of Righteousness could rise over the bleak horizon with healing in his wings (Malachi 3:20). But lo, something marvelously, incredibly new has ilight-in-darkness-2.jpgndeed appeared and has radically changed the meaning of life for all time to come. And, like the air we breathe, it is always there but rarely noticed, rarely acknowledged as something without which we cannot live.

The Light from Light, the Incarnate Son, has scattered the gloom of a chilly Judean cave, has given unspeakable joy to a loving Mother, an awestruck foster-father, newly enlightened shepherds, and God-seeking wise men. “The light shines on in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Here, then, is where to direct our expectation, here is the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise to make all things new. It happened, and nothing can change that. It is happening now—not again, but still—in the Liturgy, in our hearts, in our deepest longing for happiness, for holiness. In the barrenness of wasted years and shattered dreams, behold, a Child is born, a Son is given to us (Isaiah 9:5).

Now is the time for prayer and fasting, for longing to find within ourselves that secret place where the mystery of Christ unfolds. We must begin anew to fulfill our God-given and deeply human need to worship—I mean falling down before the Lord as if we were shepherds who have just seen a vision of angels and the glory of God! If we do not seek the Lord we will not find Him, and we will fall prey to every specious claim to the superiority of human wisdom (or of do-it-yourself spirituality) over authentic divine revelation.

We need to desire a genuine encounter with God this Christmas. If we think our desire for God has dried up, then let us desire to desire Him! Only never lose heart, never give up the search. Let us contemplate the Virgin Mary contemplating her Son, and come to know the secret of her joy, of the peace that passes understanding. Let us dare to hope for new beginnings, lighting a candle in the night and waiting with eager longing for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. “My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak. Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord” (Psalm 129/130:6-7).

Spe Salvi

You are surely aware by now of the Pope’s latest encyclical, “Saved by Hope.” I won’t offer a detailed popebenedictpraying.jpgcommentary here, or even a general overview; I’d just like to look at a point or two that I found helpful, though of course the whole thing is well worth reading and reflecting upon.

One of the points repeated in the encyclical is this: “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing.” The hope that we are called to is the hope that the Gospel holds out to us: eternal life is offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ, and this hope for eternal life is what sustains us through all the hardships and trials of this present life. But if we are without God we are essentially without hope; this is another point to which Pope Benedict repeatedly returns.

Hope in God, in order to be life-changing, must be real and open to personal experience in the here and now. Hope for eternal life that is founded on faith in Christ is not merely something projected into the distant or obscure future, and hence something that we can persuade ourselves to postpone until we are old and have nothing else to do. It is a present and dynamic reality in our daily lives—and must be so if we are to live in such a way as to ultimately realize our hope for everlasting happiness.

The Pope does a little biblical exegesis on a point that I remember from my Greek studies in the seminary nearly 20 years ago. It is a key phrase on faith in the Letter to the Hebrews: chapter 11, verse 1. It is often (but inaccurately) translated: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That sounds pretty good, and it is not false in itself, but it is not what the Scripture actually says. This translation places faith in subjective terms (assurance, conviction), an interior attitude, while the original text places it in objective terms, an actual reality, so that it should read: “Faith is the substance [hypostasis] of things hoped for, the proof [elenchos] of things not seen.”

You might wonder what the point is. I’ll let the Pope, relying somewhat on St Thomas Aquinas, explain: “Faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us, and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of ‘substance’ is therefore modified in the sense that through faith… there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty… because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence… Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’ The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality…”

So even though what we hope for is not manifestly or fully realized, faith gives us a real, objective “connection” to or communion with it. This is why it is something real and dynamic, and why hope is not the same thing as a mere wish (and why faith is not merely “blind”). St Paul says that we are given the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee” (Eph. 1:13-14), and it is through the Spirit that the objective reality of what is not seen is secretly (though not yet fully) communicated to those who believe. Perhaps the most tangible connection by faith and hope to the life of the world to come is the Holy Eucharist, the most “objective” kind of communion we can enjoy with the Lord in this life, though this point is not developed in the encyclical.

The Pope describes various ways or “settings” in which we can nurture hope in our daily lives. He also gives considerable space to contrasting true Christian hope with various false or inadequate hopes—those based on science or political ideologies or social agendas. All of these make promises but none of them delivers—and their very inadequacy sometimes turns them into something quite alien to their original optimistic projections. As a kind of summary paragraph, I quote the following:

“We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain… God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life…”

I haven’t even scratched the surface in this post. Read it all for yourself here. It’s worth it. Let us wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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