December 23rd Bible Readings

Friday, Fourth Week of Advent:

Malachi 3: 1-4, 23-24, Psalm 25: 4-5, 8-10, 14, Luke 1: 57-66

Can’t you just feel the anticipation? Here we are so close, one more day and it’s Christmas. A time of wonderful excitement. That’s what is in our readings this morning. It is best expressed in the Psalm response for the day, “Lift up your heads and see; your redemption is near at hand.No more negative thoughts, no more feelings that we can’t or shouldn’t, now is the time for everything that is new and hopeful.

That is certainly what the Gospel presents. Elizabeth gives birth to their long awaited son. As if to emphasize how new and amazing this is, he is not named for anyone in the family but a new name, John, which describes exactly what has happened, Yahweh has shown favor. This is why the villagers are amazed because there is no precedent for naming a child other than an existing family name. John is the living example of doing something “out of the box.” Zechariah, of course, knows exactly what’s going on and his first reaction is to use his renewed voice to praise God for such a wonderful gift.

Here we are one day from Christmas with all our expectations still jumping. This annual celebration of Christ bringing light into the darkness. Here in the middle of winter, cold, bleak and dark, we’re about to receive the Light of the world. Whatever has made you hang your head, the psalm speaks to you, “Lift up your head and see…” We have been in the dark long enough. Now’s the time for new life and joy because old things are passing away. They are being transformed. That’s what the first reading is saying to Israel, the refiner’s fire will purify the gold and silver. We may have had trouble finding God, we may have wondered if God was ever going to be there for us but now we will be transformed into giddy little children with a new toy, a new joy, seeing the gifts of God for ourselves.

I think Malachi points us to the kind of transformation we should expect. This is a transformation that turns the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. These are changes of heart, changes of outlook, changes inside ourselves that make all the difference in who we are. Then maybe we’ll find our own voices of praise and be like Zechariah who learned that anything is possible with God, including a new born son. Christmas may only come once each year, however its joy is available anytime. We have to be alert for the person or situation that is God’s messenger and be willing to accept something new.

December 22nd Bible Readings

Thursday, Fourth Week of Advent:

1 Samuel 1:24-28, 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-8, Luke 1:46-56

Both of today’s readings fit in the context of the last several days. Each day we have had women who have become pregnant only after God has intervened on their behalf. It’s important to know that at this point in history, and for the writer, a woman’s value was largely measured by her ability to produce children. To be barren was socially embarrassing because it was seen as a punishment from God. So telling a story about God enabling a woman to give birth is to validate and vindicate her in very real terms.

1 Samuel tells of Hannah giving her son Samuel to the Lord. Samuel was born only after she had prayed in the same Temple for God to give her a child. If she had a child, she promised to give him to God’s service. The idea of giving away your child even if he was understood to be a gift from God seems terrible. It raises the question of what it might mean to be dedicated to the Lord. I think the answer is found with Mary who also, even more explicitly, was given a child by God only to have her son be totally dedicated to God. That however, is to get ahead of our narrative. Today we have what Mary says about her experience of God having “done great things for” her.

What Mary says about God is modelled after what Hannah said after giving up Samuel at the Temple. In fact, much of today’s Responsorial Psalm comes from what Hannah says in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. This heightens the parallel between the two women. It helps me see more clearly the “lowly servant” aspect of Mary’s statement. I have tended to think of this phrase as merely a statement of humility. But the link to Hannah makes me realize Luke is talking about the humiliation of women and all people who are discriminated against and seen as second class. Mary is speaking as one who has no status, no power. Such a woman does not understand herself as one who could act on her own behalf. Which makes the praises Mary and Hannah sing even the more amazing. Hannah says because of God: “I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory.” Mary says, “From this day all generations will call me blessed.”

I believe both these women are describing what happens when someone experiences God’s immediate loving presence. In narrative terms, Mary has become pregnant with God’s son and Hannah has given over her son, her only claim to personhood, to the service of God. These actions have empowered them and therefore changed their entire world view. I think it makes them not just visionaries of some vague future but participants in the reign of God here and now.

They see, understand and operate in the world in a new way: the proud are scattered, the mighty are cast down and, on the opposite side, the hungry are filled and the lowly lifted up. Mary says all this is the fulfillment of God’s promises. The world is changed, the reign of God spreads, now, in this life, one person at a time.

I don’t think this suggests a mystical experience of God’s presence is required for us to change the way we live. I do think that the more we reflect on what happens in our lives, searching for and recognizing how God is present in it, the more we will be able to act with love, concern and courage. In other words, the more we try to come closer to God, the more God transforms who we are and the lives we live, until in the end it makes sense to give ourselves away.

December 21st Bible Readings

Wednesday, Fourth Week of Advent:

Song of Songs 2:8-14, Psalm 33:2-3, 11-12, 20-21, Luke 1:39-45

As I have said in other reflections I believe we too often spiritualize God’s relationship with us. We keep God at a distance by making contact with God something elusive, ethereal and just not substantive. Today’s readings see the God/human relationship as amazingly up close and personal.

In Song of Songs the connection is openly sexual. The woman in the Song of Songs starts out by repeatedly calling the man her lover. She describes him in wonderfully admiring, masculine terms of strength and prowess. He in turn uses pet names and admiration for her beauty to ask her to reveal herself and come to him. As part of Wisdom literature there aren’t any of the references to The Lord or God that you would find in other parts of Hebrew Scripture. However, the accepted understanding is these poems are in the Bible because they are descriptions of the relationship between God and his chosen people. The description here is of two people who not only love each other they are chasing each other.

The same theme can be seen in part of today’s Psalm response. God’s plan is described as “the design of his heart.” There is an inheritance that goes to “the people he has chosen.” And the response of the people is, “our soul waits,” “our hearts rejoice,” and “we trust.” My point is simply that these words are talking about an intimate relationship with real life consequences.

In Luke’s Gospel we have not one but two examples of God’s intimate relationship with God’s people. Elizabeth was too old to have children but conceives a child anyway. Mary, a virgin, will give birth to the Savior because she has trusted in God. The story of these two women and their sons illustrates that God’s presence is here as part of human life. Perhaps just as importantly it is a story of joy. What could be more exciting and joyful than having a child? Circumstances would seem to have prevented both these pregnancies but here they are “with child” and excited to share the news.

Mary has rushed to see Elizabeth and Elizabeth with nothing more than a greeting from Mary is filled with the Spirit of the moment. She knows Mary is pregnant and that the child is the long awaited Savior. They have come together to share their joy of new life, the children they will bear. They have a special reason to be thankful. They recognize their children, these new lives, as gifts from God. The challenge for us is to be able to recognize the moments that leap for joy within us, as gifts from God.

Like the young lovers in the Sons of Songs, so excited to embrace each other, so excited to yearn and need each other, we too should gaze through windows, peer through lattices to find the God who seeks us. The story of these two women tells us the Spirit of God is within each of us. There are fresh new lives ready to be born. Will we, like Elizabeth, recognize them? Will we trust enough, like Mary, to embrace what is offered? Human birth happens every day all over this planet. Could it be that God’s gifts are just as plentiful, just as common? Perhaps the more we come together, as Mary and Elizabeth did, the easier it is to see them.

December 19th Bible Readings

Monday, Fourth Week of Advent:

Judges 13: 2-7, 24-25a, Psalm 71:3-6, 16-17, Luke 1:5-25

The only way to begin looking at today’s readings is to point out the distinct parallel of two women, barren and derided because of it, hearing from an angel of God that they will bear a son. Sons who will “begin the deliverance of Israel.” Luke is using this pattern to connect his story of salvation with Israel’s historical and religious story of liberation. For us, set in this Advent season before Christmas it emphasizes a sense of preparation. God doesn’t just drop in out of nowhere. God arrives as part of the history that people already know. God is woven into the patterns of life we understand.

On an individual basis it’s interesting that these men who are going prepare the way for God’s saving of Israel are being chosen before they were born. God isn’t asking them to change lives that are well underway like Moses or Abraham or any of the apostles. These guys will “be consecrated to God from the womb.” This condition is also claimed for Isaac, Samuel, Jesus, of course, and Catholics believe it was also true for Mary in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Each of these people have a special role to play in salvation history. They are models of being committed to God literally from womb to tomb.

Personally I think these stories are a way to tell us how God operates all the time. We are all chosen before birth as God’s children and empowered by the Spirit to make good things happen. To free our people from fear and hatred through love and mercy. The part we need to remember is that from the beginning, our very beginning, we have not been alone. God put this all in motion. The issue for us is to recognize that we have been “filled with the Holy Spirit” from our mother’s womb and “the Spirit of the Lord stirred” us so we would have the strength to make the world a better place. Our Psalm today says exactly the same thing. “On you I depend from birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength.”

This is the last week of Advent, shortly the Christmas story will go even further saying that God’s very self comes into our world. For now these readings suggest God has been acting in human history, acting in our lives, for a long time. Maybe it says that before we can rejoice in a God fully present, see ourselves as supported by a God of love, we should look for markers throughout our lives. Maybe we need to consider everything from the beginning to get a true sense of what is valuable for us. A good look back may help us recognize what brought us to this time when everything is about to change. When even if we have felt barren and empty a new child is about to be born.

Memorial, St. John of the Cross

Today’s Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25, Psalm 85:9-14, Luke 7:18b-23

All our readings during Advent have had elements of what the Reign of God, the time of the Messiah’s coming, would look like. However, today’s readings step it up to the next level. Salvation and the Messiah are central to what we hear.

As a result I felt a bit overwhelmed with the myriad of images in Isaiah, the Psalm and Luke. However, let me start with Jesus’ response to John’s Messiah question of whether he is “the one who is to come?” I have often wondered why Jesus’ response wasn’t, “Yes, it’s me, you don’t have to look anywhere else.” I mean why not be plain and open about it. Of course, it’s a way for Luke to say something important about how people come to believe in Jesus. Faith isn’t a set of facts about Jesus or God for that matter. Faith is a relationship of trust and it must begin for John in the same way. Jesus message for John is to look at what he can see: the healings, the good that is being done. Those actions are out in the open, can John see what they mean? That’s the point of the last line about not taking offense. John might take them the wrong way. He could come to the conclusion that this guy isn’t bringing the fire and brimstone judgment that John expected. He might dismiss him as not the one.

All of us do the same thing each day. Not necessarily about faith questions. We see something, or someone, and come to a conclusion about its significance, its value, good or bad. We make judgments all the time about whether or not to invest ourselves in projects, ideas, people and relationships. That’s what Jesus is asking of John. Does he see something here that’s worth believing in? The point of religious faith is to ask us the same question. Not just once at a Baptism or Confirmation or at Mass when we say the Nicene Creed, but at every moment in our lives when we have to decide what something is worth.

That is where some of the other images in today’s reading come into play. Isaiah says the earth was made by God not to be wasted but to be lived in. He uses wonderful nature images of a relationship between heaven and earth. Justice falls like rain from heaven and as a result the earth sprouts with its own salvation and justice. Today’s world is, in fact, filled with terrible horrific events. It is also filled with wonderfully generous, productive and life changing events. So do we see the earth, our world, as a good place that God created for us to live in? The text says, “Turn to me and be safe.” Will we turn to God and see that “there is no other” approach that brings about salvation and justice? Or do we take offense at the idea that this world has a good factor that underwrites its very existence? Does what we see lead us to decide that the world is too dangerous and simply not safe? Are we operating out of a fearful outlook that in all likelihood and under normal conditions something will go wrong? That’s a challenge to hope. It’s a challenge we all have to face. Which world is our world?

It’s why we need to hear the Psalm, perhaps today’s strongest message of what salvation, the Christmas we’re waiting for, is all about.

“The LORD … proclaims peace to his people.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.”

“Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth”

Is this something we’re willing to take to heart? Can we invest our lives in this? Can we trust that if we live as part of God’s plan God will be with us? Is Jesus the one who is to come or should we look for another?

Memorial, St. Lucy

Today’s Scripture Readings:

Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13, Psalm 34:2-3,6-7,17-18,19,23, Matthew 21:28-32

The readings today are very reassuring for all of us who take a while to catch on. I would suggest even those of us who were downright belligerent and destructive should rejoice in what is revealed about God’s attitude today. Jesus tells the story very clearly in Matthew. Two sons are asked to work in the vineyard. One says no but then actually does it. The other says yes, to satisfy his father, but doesn’t actually do the work. Even Jesus’ opponents the chief priests and the elders get this right. The one who actually does the work is the obedient son.

Jesus is using the obvious answer to indict the people in power. He’s demonstrating that the way to God is not through position, education or social status but rather by simply responding to God’s offer of forgiveness and love. In this case, the confrontation with John the Baptist is the offered opportunity for these officials. As I see it, the problem was, these people would have had to admit they had taken the wrong path or misjudged John at first. Jesus points out that even in the face of conversions from the destitute and outcasts of society these “smart” people wouldn’t reconsider their opinion of John based on what they saw happening and change their minds.

The key is they wouldn’t change their minds even in the face of good things. The good news for us is, there is room to change our minds, to take a different path. We don’t have to be first “to get” what’s going on in our lives or understand right away the things that have gone wrong. Our lives can develop, mature, take shape and then at some point we can make a change, we can choose what’s really best for us. Maybe that’s what the waiting of Advent is really meant to tell us. It’s OK to be uncertain for now, something better is coming. We need to pay close attention to what is going on in our lives. Then when that marvelous new thing happens, it gives us a chance to choose. That is something we can do, choose.

What is particularly wonderful about this is that God seems to absolutely expect that people and communities will have done the wrong thing. Then against what might be considered normal expectations, God turns around to help make the change happen and promptly forgets everything that’s gone before. That’s what I’m hearing in Zephaniah. Consider this:

“I will change and purify the lips of the peoples … On that day

You need not be ashamed of all your deeds, your rebellious actions against me”

This is a new start. A time when that remnant of humility within us can have a chance to come forward so we can live as one who “speaks no lies” and enjoy the pleasure of having “none to disturb them.”

I don’t think this should actually surprise us given what the Psalms say repeatedly about God saving his people. In this instance the message is strong and to the point:

When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.

 The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.

 Please notice that what the voice of God points to in Zephaniah, is exactly the same problem for which Jesus is criticizing the chief priests and elders. Jerusalem is not willing to see what’s going on and refuses to change her mind as a result. Here is how Zephaniah talks about Jerusalem’s offense:

She hears no voice,
accepts no correction;
In the LORD she has not trusted,
to her God she has not drawn near.

 The right course of action is to draw near to God by asking for help, not worrying about what’s gone before, taking the first step, and choosing for ourselves. After all Christmas is coming.

Immaculate Conception: Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s Scripture Readings:

Genesis 3:9-15, 20, Psalm 98:1-4, Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12, Luke 1: 26-38

Today the readings from Genesis and Luke are foundational stories of faith: the sin of Adam and the announcement of Jesus’ virginal conception. The stories are here as a way to celebrate an article of faith about Mary, her Immaculate Conception. It is an example of how the body of belief develops over time. One thing we hold as central, Jesus is the son of God born because of God’s action not human initiative, leads to the realization that something else makes sense as well, Mary was conceived without original sin because she would be the mother of Jesus.

Faced with these long accepted items of faith, it is important for me to remember that these stories are how we convey meaning. We tell stories to hold ideas that are the most elemental and far reaching for our existence. These are often ideas we can’t fully grasp, we’re trying to capture what may be elemental instincts about who we are and what we’re about and a narrative illustrates rather than analyzes. A narrative can hold contradictory elements better than logical arguments and so the normative measure of our faith is a book of stories and poetry.

So to honor Mary’s Immaculate Conception is, for me, to talk about how God reaches out to all human beings from the very beginning of our lives to offer us the grace, support or presence that enables us to live happy, productive, holy lives. In simpler terms, Mary represents the perfect example of what is possible for all of us.

So that said, what do I see in today’s readings? It occurs to me that perhaps we don’t take the story of Mary seriously enough. What I mean is that it’s too easy to make Mary perfect. We assume her relationship with God was so special that it’s an unattainable single instance of graced existence. I suspect the story is meant to inspire the opposite. We should take the life of Mary as an example of what is named in both Genesis and Luke, “nothing will be impossible for God.” We all have a blessed existence.

There is strong support for this line of thinking in the Hebrews reading for today. It says God, “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens … to be holy and without blemish before him.” That’s pretty strong, to be holy and without blemish. It sounds like a description of Mary or, for that matter, Jesus. The point being that we too are beloved of God, each of us. Too often we don’t accept our own goodness. Life experiences and other people run us down, raising questions about our abilities or intentions. Too often our confidence and positive self-image are fragile. We need the support of others, we need to recognize that from the beginning we have been good and at our deepest core it is goodness that supports who we want to become. That’s what we should take away from the stories about Mary and Jesus in the Bible. God made us, from the beginning, to be holy and good and happy. Believe it.

Memorial: St. Ambrose

Today’s Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 40:25-31, Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, Matthew 11:28-30

Today’s readings are an effort to raise our personal spirits, perfect for those down in the dumps, I’d rather just stay in bed days. Isaiah is very clear that God gives strength to those who faint and energy to those who are weak. Even though the young “stagger and fall … those that trust in the Lord … will run and not grow weary.” Written originally to encourage Israel to hold on to its faith while exiled in Babylon these words are just as important today in helping us remember we are not alone when our own sense of well-being collapses. It seems to me that is the key thing religious faith does: reassures us that we are not on our own, especially in our deepest selves. When feelings and attitudes seem to turn against us, when outside support doesn’t seem to help, then we need to hear that the God, who created the entire world, is on our side and will provide the support no one else can give.

It seems we repeatedly get the message wrong. Historically, Christianity has often doubled down on human sinfulness and guilt instead of emphasizing God’s mercy and forgiveness. We are subject to the broad general attitudes that see religion as a course for moral guidance and proper behavior. That makes it easy to see God as judge and score keeper. Matthew’s gospel for today is a good antidote for that approach, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” It is a theme reinforced in the Psalm, “Merciful and gracious is the LORD … He pardons all your iniquities, he heals all your ills.” That is what I think is meant by redemption, by salvation. God saves us from all we do wrong, from the ideas and attitudes that keep us from being open and loving to others as well as being frightened of a world intended for our happiness. We too often let people, situations and our own experiences drive us to defensive, negative attitudes and actions. Only honesty, perseverance and trust can dig us out. God’s loving presence supports that kind of behavior, that kind of thinking and the sense of well-being that underlies it.

The lesson is exactly what Jesus says in Matthew, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Jesus is meek and humble not strident and proud, not fighting for advantage in each situation but willing to take what comes as one who trusts that the world itself is good and if anything, tilted in our favor. Can we believe it is possible to be ourselves, work for what we value and actually enjoy a fulfilling life? Will we let the Word of God comfort us and support our hopes, desires and the real challenges we undertake? If we can, then the Gospel will surely be Good News for us.