Fifth Day, Octave of Christmas

Scripture Readings for December 29, 2017

1 John 2:3-11, Psalm 96:1-3, 5b-6, Luke 2:22-35

The last few words of today’s Gospel touched me immediately. Simeon’s last words to Mary are, “so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” He has just told this child’s mother that her son will be a source of conflict for his people and that she herself will be cut to the quick. What’s more we know what’s coming. Jesus will do an amazing amount of good during his life. People will be cured of sickness, demons will be vanquished and disciples will be inspired both by what he does and what he says. However, it ends badly. The Romans will torture and crucify him publicly to be sure anyone thinking like him is properly discouraged. All this and Simeon says it’s all so the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed?

The significance of this little phrase for me is hinted at in the first reading from 1 John when he says,

This is the way we may know that we are in union with him:
whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.

 John’s letter is trying to get across to early Christians that just saying, “I’m a believer” isn’t what counts. We have the same problem if we think that going to Mass and knowing the responses is what makes us Catholic. I could also say that volunteering for causes and giving money to worthwhile charities doesn’t necessarily make us Christian either. There is this little thing usually referred to as integrity. It’s the connection that needs to be there between what we are inside with what we do outside. Jesus criticizes people in power all the time for being hypocrites. When what they say and do doesn’t match what they say they believe. In today’s reading John explains it this way: “Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness.”

The challenge for us, for everyone since time began, is recognizing when our inside and our outside don’t match. We’re all really good at not seeing the little maneuvers we make to avoid facing our own duplicitous behavior. We say one thing but when faced with making the tough call to do what is needed, too often, we take the easy way out. Some examples might be, “it’s not the right time,” “it would be better for everyone if I didn’t push this,” “who knows I might be wrong,” “I’m afraid,” and the best of all time, “no one else will know.” The problem is we know. We may not admit it to ourselves but deep down something isn’t right. We feel unsettled. John’s letter puts it this way, “Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; … and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” If we try to fool ourselves too often we end up really messed up and not knowing why.

All of this brings us back to Simeon and his insight into the importance of this little child Mary has brought to him. To reveal the thoughts of one’s heart is perhaps the most important thing we ever do. We must know the yearnings, the fears, and the needs of our hearts. That alone allows us to be authentic, a real person who can pick and choose what we really want because we have been honest about what we need. To walk as Jesus walked, requires that we need to know ourselves, our own hearts. Jesus saved the world by living his life faithfully. Faithful to what he understood his God wanted. He persisted even when doing so cost him everything. Jesus was only able to do that because he knew his own heart. In contemporary language he was comfortable in his own skin.

For us, we have to know what is in our hearts. Otherwise, there is only darkness.

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Scripture Readings for December 28, 2017

1 John 1:5-2:2, Psalm 124:2-5, 7cd-8, Matthew 2:13-18

First of all, Merry Christmas. This is the fourth day of the Christmas season. Officially Christmas lasts until Epiphany. It’s mean to be a joyous season to celebrate the birth of Jesus. So frankly I don’t like the Gospel for today about children dying. I understand for Matthew the flight to Egypt and Herod’s rage against Jesus birth was a way of drawing a parallel between the saving of Israel and the life of Jesus. He makes being God’s son a quality of both the people of Israel and the person of Jesus. I just don’t like the story at Christmas time.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this. My own advice about reading Scripture is to pay attention to our own reactions to it. So in thinking about my reaction to this reading perhaps it’s simply that times of joy don’t exclude tragedy from our lives. The reverse may be more revealing, that when bad things happen it doesn’t mean that something joyful is being excluded. I’m not suggesting cause and effect. Rather it seems both good and bad events go on all the time irrespective of each other.

Perhaps it’s important to think of this another way. We can believe God loves us, supports us in very real ways, and our life can still include really tragic, evil events. In the common parlance, bad things often happen to good people. I certainly don’t have any real answer to that challenge to our trust in God. It does occur to me that Jesus, God’s own son, was brutally tortured and killed. So clearly, no matter how good you are bad stuff can happen anyway. I don’t believe that bad things are any kind of test or purification that God instigates to make us better. Bad stuff is bad. Evil is evil. It’s separate from what God would want. This is the view in today’s first reading when John says, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”

So let’s deal with the issue of Jesus’s death since some theologies and too many people think he died to compensate for Adam’s sin as if God needed to be paid back in a divine balancing of the scales of justice. My concern here is that we not treat Jesus’ death as something God arranged and therefore not be able to see the reality of somebody working for good having a truly horrendous death. My understanding of Jesus and his death is based on Karl Rahner’s theology. Jesus redeems humanity by living human life as God intended and in so doing he changed the reality of life for all the rest of us. It changes life for us because somebody actually lived the life God asked. In other words, God’s intentions were fulfilled by a human person. That life, lived openly and honestly, so threatened the status quo of his society that people killed him.

In today’s Gospel Joseph avoids a tragic fate for his son by following what he hears in a dream. At minimum it tells us God is looking out for us. I believe the value in trying to live based on what we’ve learned about God’s love is in the life itself and not what may or may not happen to us over the course of our lifetime. I suspect the reality is more about what we hear in our first reading.

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.

Can we be honest with ourselves about who we are and what we are trying to do? Only then will we recognize God’s forgiveness and have a sense of peace so we can actually hear how God is trying to guide and protect us.

Feast, St. John the Apostle

Scripture Readings for December 27, 2017

1 John 1: 1-4, Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12, John 20: 1A, 2-8

Merry Christmas!

I hope you were able to celebrate a wonderful Christmas Day and you can help make it a season and not just a one day event. As you know, the Church celebrates Christmas beginning on Christmas day through the Epiphany on Sunday January 7. Our everyday life seems to create Christmas from about Halloween through Christmas day and then puts it all aside and moves on. An interesting indicator of that is the way radio stations play Christmas music. The one I listen to started before Thanksgiving and played Christmas music right through Christmas day and then stopped.

I think this is another example of being in a hurry. We are easily excited about what is coming but once something is here there is a tendency to look immediately for what is coming next. If you have young children or grandchildren you know how they can be ready for the next present almost before the current one is open. The issue is to learn that paying attention to the moment, is what yields the greatest rewards. That, of course, is what a two week celebration of Christmas is all about. The birth of Jesus is more momentous than any one day, it needs to be celebrated and elaborated on for days and weeks.

How does that fit with today’s Gospel? I didn’t think we could consider today’s Gospel and our first reading without recognizing the season we are celebrating. Frankly, I was somewhat disappointed to find a reading about Jesus and the tomb as today’s Gospel, even if it is the feast of St. John the apostle. However, it does fit our celebration, because it is the empty tomb that is the beginning of our faith that Jesus is God’s Son, just as it was for Mary Magdalene, Peter, John and the apostles. We are the beneficiaries of what the letter of John says, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us.” What the women and men discovered in the days and weeks after Jesus’ death has been passed on to us and is the reason we celebrate Christmas as the birth of God’s Son and not just another well intentioned prophet or wise man who lived an exemplary life.

It is important for us to recognize that when Mary first finds the tomb empty she assumes somebody has taken the body. Peter and John run because they think someone has defiled the grave. Based on the Gospel stories we know that it wasn’t until Jesus appeared to the Apostles later that they came to understand and believe who he is. It’s important because we can think that faith in Jesus was easily apparent for the apostles, since they had lived with him, and should somehow be easy for us who are active in the Church. I would argue that it didn’t come easily for the Apostles. The Gospels say over and over how they didn’t understand. Even after Jesus appears to them, Thomas for example, won’t believe the Apostles reports of his appearance to them. Faith is built over time and is doubted at times and needs strengthening by all the different things that happen in our lives. So when the time comes to celebrate what we have come to believe over a lifetime of struggle and joy, we should take more than one day to celebrate the birth of our Savior, the renewed demonstration, for everyone, that God lives with us. Let’s make Christmas two weeks of celebration.

Friday, Third Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 22, 2017

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.

Thursday, Third Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 21, 2017

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.

Tuesday, Third Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 19, 2017

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 to 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.

Friday, Second Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 15, 2017

Isaiah 48:17-19, Psalm 1:1-4, 6, Matthew 11:16-19

How hard is it for us to take advice? Sometimes nearly impossible. Husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents and our children can often seem naturally resistant to the advice given by those closest to us. So it’s not really a surprise that we find today’s readings complaining about the same thing. In Isaiah, God points out that if we paid attention to God’s message our lives would be as easy as water flowing downhill and that our prosperity would last for generations. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, is frustrated with people who dismiss God’s message no matter how it is presented.

My suspicion is that we don’t always respond to God’s call because it comes in ways that are too familiar, too much a part of everyday life. We want what people in the Gospels said they wanted, signs. Big signs that would startle our sense of the ordinary. Then surely we would recognize God’s presence and adjust our way of living. The issue is, it didn’t work even when John the Baptist and Jesus were alive and confronting the populace. John, was fire and brimstone and Jesus, was gentle and accepting, and yet according to Matthew in today’s reading Jesus is upset that people aren’t accepting the message either way.

The problem, as I see it, is how we think of God and what we expect God would do if God were, in fact, acting in our lives. Too often our God is a distant reality and all powerful in an overt sense. It’s harder to see God as intimately a part of life, so familiar that God’s power is expressed in the very reality we see around us every day. Instead of looking for God in outsized events and dramatic actions we would be better served to look for God in the deepest part of ourselves. In the same way that we resist the advice of those closest to us because we don’t want to admit they know us that well, we might consider that situations and thoughts that resonate with us are a sign of loving presence.

That sense of resonance is the basis of praying with Holy Scripture. We read a passage and something catches our attention. Sometimes we like what we read and other times it doesn’t make sense or it upsets us. If we take the time to listen to our reaction and the passage we may discover something that is meant for us. Prayer, of this type, is about listening to what resonates with our own deepest selves. More importantly, it is an indicator of something larger, a connection to God’s presence, which can operate, not just when reading Scripture, but all the time in relation to daily life situations. What happens in every moment of life can be a contact point with God’s love because all of creation is an expression of God.

The challenge we have is to be open to it. There are many books about mindfulness which is another non-religious description of what I’m talking about. Today’s readings suggest to me that the challenge to recognizing God’s presence in our lives is we often don’t pay enough honest attention to exactly what going on for us. Just as we are resistant to the advice from those closest to us, we don’t listen to our own life as a source of divine revelation. We shouldn’t be looking for signs and wonders to step in and guide us or fix this or that. We should be learning to see and hear the reality of our lives, what we respond to, what excites or worries us and then discover the message contained in that response and circumstance. The Gospel today suggests God’s message can come in very different forms. But it won’t make any difference to us unless we’re willing to see and listen.