Monday, December 27, 2010

Waking Up to Christ--A Reflection on the 4th Sunday of Advent

In today's readings, St. Matthew begins his gospel with a deceptively simple statement, "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about." What follows deals with an unexpected pregnancy, angels, dreams, a prophecy, and a virgin birth.

Central to Matthew's account is St. Joseph. Mary is found to be with child. Even though they are betrothed, they are not yet living together. For Mary to be pregnant in that case is bad enough, but Joseph apparently knows of her story of the visitation of the angel Gabriel and the claim that she is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit. "That can't be true, can it?" Joseph must wonder. He has decide. Can he believe her story or should he end the marriage?

Going to sleep on it, he dreams of an angel--was it Gabriel?--telling him, as angels usually do at first, "Do not be afraid!" The angel confirms that his wife, Mary, is with child by the Holy Spirit. He directs Joseph to take Mary into his home and to name the the child Jesus.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't make any of my dreams the basis of a big decision! But I think that this was the kind of dream that is more real than life itself. Another Joseph was a dreamer and his dreams ultimately saved Egypt from famine and, in doing so, saved the Jewish people, setting the stage for their Exodus. Now this Joseph, husband of Mary, dreams of the salvation of his people. He takes Mary into his home and names their son Jesus.

St. Matthew places the story of Mary and Joseph into the larger picture. He quotes from our first reading from Isaiah, "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel." As the Church reflected on they stories of Christ's birth that ultimately were written down in St. Matthew's and St. Luke's gospels, they saw this as the fulfillment of Isaiah's words. He had gone to King Ahaz to tell the king to ask for a sign that the attack against Jerusalem by the kings of Israel and Damascus would fail. King Ahaz feigns humility and refuses to tempt the Lord. So Isaiah tells him that the Lord himself has decided what the sign will be, "the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel."

There is some dispute over whether the Hebrew word here translated virgin means "virgin" or "young woman". The Greek word used in the New Testament does mean virgin. It shows us what the early Church thought this story of Mary and Joseph meant. It helps us understand why Joseph was so concerned. Mary was as virgin when she was found to be with child. She and Joseph had not had relations. That's why Joseph thought he should divorce her quietly and spare her any additional shame. That's also why it took an angelic dream to sort things out!

The Church talks much about Mary's fiat, her "yes" to the angel's message to her--and rightly so. But let's take a moment to think of Joseph's "yes" to the angel's message to him, for it is just as important. In the midst of a difficult, embarrassing and confusing situation, Joseph listened to what God was saying to him. St. Matthew tells us that when he awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded. We need to wake-up!

As a result of this obedience, Jesus was born into a family with a father and a mother. Think of it! God entrusted his only-begotten Son to a human father and mother in Joseph and Mary. Joseph took the child and raised him as his own. He was the example to God of what it meant to be a man!

St. Joseph is the patron saint of the universal Church, all of us! Let us learn from him as Christ did what it means to be human. Even when it is confusing or difficult or embarrassing, let us say yes to God as Joseph did. That simple "yes" of faith is why we call him Saint Joseph. When we receive Jesus in the Eucharist today, let us, as Joseph did, wake-up and say "yes" to Jesus.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas, Candles and the Fall of Ceausescu.

On Breakpoint, Chuck Colson tells an interesting story about Christmas, candles and the fall of Ceausescu.

The story begins with Laszlo Tokes, pastor of a fast-growing reformed church in the city of Timisoara. His powerful preaching had caught the attention of communist officials, and they began a strategy of suppression. They stationed police officers around his church, machine guns cradled in their arms. They hired thugs to attack him. Finally, just before Christmas, they decided to send him into exile.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are You the One?--Reflection on the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" John the Baptist's question cuts to the heart of the Christian faith. Is Jesus the Christ who was to come? Are his teachings the truth? Is the Church the steward of his plan of salvation? Or is there another we should be following?

John had spent this life until that point preparing the way of the Lord. He had put his life on the line, proclaiming Jesus as "the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." Now John is in prison. Before he gives his life, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the Christ. Why John's apparent doubt?

Being in prison gave John much time to think. As he considered his life he naturally wanted to be sure he was on the right path. I think he doubt arose from the simple fact that Jesus was his cousin. With family, you want to be sure!

Could Jesus, this man John had know since childhood, be the Messiah? Their first encounter came when Mary, now with child, travelled to see her cousin and John's mother Elizabeth, who was herself expecting after years of sterility. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, St. Luke tells us that John lept for joy while he was still in the womb.

Years later, when Joseph and Mary were returning from Jerusalem after celebrating Passover, they realized that Jesus was not with them. People travelled with extended family then. Luke tells us that "they were looking for him among their relatives and friends." It is certainly possible that John was in that group.

In any case, John was wondering about his cousin. Jesus' answer to John was to tell them "Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the Gospel preached to them." It is what Jesus does that proves who he is.

What about us. If someone were to ask if were could prove we were who we claimed to be, could we prove it? On a good day, maybe. What works could we point to and say this is what I have done; it shows who I am. It is good to be here for Mass to worship and grow in faith. Now, what about the rest of the week? It would be a shame if we were to receive Christ in faith in the Eucharist yet fail to become what we receive. We receive the Body of Christ. Let us become the body of Christ in the world.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Repent and Receive--A Reflection on the 2nd Sunday of Advent

John the Baptist is an astonishing man. He stands astride the Old and New Testaments; the last prophet of the Old and the first of the New. He lives out in the desert wilderness by the Jordan River. He eats locusts and wild honey and wears camel skins with a leather belt. His first words in Matthew's Gospel are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” And let's not forget that his cousin is Jesus!

His preaching and presence brought many to be baptized, and the Pharisees and Sadducees didn't want to be overshadowed by this wild man. When they went to find out about his preaching for themselves, they must have been shocked. John is fearless. He calls them, the religious leaders of his day, a “brood of vipers!" and boldly asks them "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" He challenges them to "produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance." (Imagine if some people from the archdiocese and the seminary came to visit a parish and the priest said that to them!)

When St. Matthew heard John the Baptist preach, he was reminded of Isaiah's words "A voice of one crying out in the desert,/Prepare the way of the Lord,/make straight his paths. " John is preaching repentance to the people to prepare them for the coming of Christ. Today's first reading begins with a obscure reference to the Messiah. He shall come from the stump of Jesse. Perhaps you have heard of a "Jesse Tree"? Jesse was King David's father. The Messiah would come from David's royal line; he would be the son of David. In Isaiah's prophecy, the Kingdom has be reduced to a stump of a tree. Yet God promises that this stump shall produce a "branch" and that "from his roots a bud shall blossom." In other words, even though all looks hopeless, Christ will come!

What kind of Messiah will he be? John the Baptist says that "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Isaiah says that "The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD." The Church calls these the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are shared with us at Confirmation.

How do we put these two pictures together? By remembering that first we must repent as St. John the Baptist tells us. We must turn, change our minds about they way we have been living. We are sinners. We must become repentant sinners! We have been a brood of vipers doing evil. We must bring forth good fruit instead. When we have turned around to walk with Christ, then we can share in the gifts of the Holy Spirit that come from Jesus--not only at Confirmation, but throughout our lives as we continue to repent and become more deeply converted. Then we will see the reordering of creation that Isaiah speaks of "Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,/and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;/the calf and the young lion shall browse together...". These natural enemies will one day be reconciled and live in peace.

This healing of nature will be so complete that as Isaiah says, "On that day, the root of Jesse,/set up as a signal for the nations,/the Gentiles shall seek out." Or as St. Paul says "that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." Yes, even Jews and Gentiles, once implacable enemies, will be reconciled in the Kingdom of God. It begins now with Confession, the sacrament of reconciliation. We confess our sins to a priest not just because he represents Christ forgiving us, but also because we recognize that our sins hurt other people. The sacrament of Confession reconciles us not only to God, but to other people as well.

So, Repent! Turn your minds and hearts to Christ. Then he will share his Spirit will you. You will be the wheat that he harvests and gathers into his barn. You will share the Eucharistic wheat in the Church. This is the ultimate reconciliation. The greatest gift is Christ himself.