Friday, February 12, 2016

The Devil's Trick

FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (C)
click here for readings


We begin our Lenten journey with Christ in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days in preparation for His public ministry.  Unlike our modern discipline of fasting, which allows us to take "one full meal and up to two smaller meals which together don't equal one full meal," the gospel tells us that Jesus "ate nothing during those days, and when they were over He was hungry" (Lk 4:2).  No kidding.

It was in this state of extreme hunger that Jesus is tempted by the devil.  But Christ is not tempted with what you or I might consider "temptations of the devil."  The devil tempts Christ with bread.

"If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread," the devil suggests.  It is easy to imagine how someone who has not eaten anything for 40 days might be tempted at the prospect of a fresh baked loaf of bread -- and if Jesus were to transform a stone into bread, there is no doubt it would be the best bread you have ever tasted.  Recall that at the wedding in Cana, when Jesus transformed water into wine, the guests all remarked on how the best wine was saved till last!  But Jesus resists the temptation, telling the devil, "Man does not live on bread alone."

Jesus 1; devil 0.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why Jesus couldn't do what the devil suggests?  There is nothing sinful about bread.  Bread is a good thing -- so good, in fact, that Jesus chooses bread as the matter for the sacrament of His Body in the Eucharist.  So why couldn't Jesus turn the stones into bread and satisfy His hunger?

When we consider the other things that the devil temps Jesus with, we find that they also involve good things.  He offers to give Christ power over all the kingdoms of the earth.  Wouldn't it be good if Jesus ruled over all nations?  He suggests that Christ manifest His divinity by casting Himself over a cliff so that angels could rescue Him.  And indeed, later in His ministry, Jesus does manifest His divinity, in many ways, including overcoming death.

The devil tempts Christ primarily with good things and this is also how he tempts us.  Every sin has some good aspect about it.  If there were ever a sin which was wholly evil, we would not be tempted by it.  There would be nothing about it to attract us because we all desire to do good.  Tempting us to seek a good improperly is an old trick of the devil's. This is how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the garden.  He tricked them into eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Knowledge is a good thing, right? What could be wrong with just a little bite?

Any sin you can name has a disordered good at its heart.  Lust, for example, involves a desire for another human person.  Human persons are good!  But lust desires the good in a disordered way, treating other people like objects for our pleasure.  The commandment against coveting your neighbor's wife is not because your neighbor's wife is bad.  I'm sure she's very nice.  But, like Adam and Eve eating from the tree, it is wrong to pursue a good which you are not meant to have.

Greed involves a desire for material possessions.  Again, material possessions are not bad in themselves.  God is the author of creation and all that He makes is good.  So material possessions are good things.  But when we value these things above people, or above God Himself, our desire for possessions becomes disordered.  We pursue a good in an improper way.

This is the nature of all evil, because evil itself is not a created thing.  Evil is a perversion or misuse of a good God has given us.  As St. Augustine put it, "What is that which we call evil but the absence of good?"

We often use the good that we are pursing (albeit wrongly) to justify our sinful actions.  Christ shows us a better way.  This Lent, take a look at your life and anything you may be doing or have done in the past that you knew was wrong, but felt justified in doing.  Are there thing that you know the Church teaches are immoral, but you have told yourself that they really are not that bad?  What is the good that you are seeking in these actions?  Are you seeking that good in an improper way?  Are you seeking a lesser good at the expense of a higher good?

Lent above all is a season of repentance.  It is an invitation extended by Christ and His Church to turn away from our sins, past or present, and turn back to the love of God.  We should never be satisfied with pursuing a lesser good, but settle for nothing less than that perfect good God has in mind for each of us.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What Are You Gaining For Lent?

"What are you giving up for Lent?"  That's a question a lot of Catholics hear this time of year.  It's a good conversation starter.  But I think this question gives us the wrong outlook on the Lenten season.  Perhaps we'd be better served by asking What are you gaining for Lent?

WHAT DOES THE CHURCH REQUIRE?
What does the Church actually require us to give up during Lent?  Not much, as it turns out.  We are asked to abstain from meat on Fridays, and Ash Wednesday.  And we are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  That's it. Of course, Catholics are free to go beyond the minimum, and people generally select one or more other things -- chocolate, caffeine, Facebook -- to give up during Lent.  This is a good thing to do, but only if we keep in mind everything else Lent is about.

Lent has always been a season associated with three particular spiritual practices; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Each of these involves much more than just "giving something up."

FASTING
Our model for fasting is Jesus, who fasted for 40 days in the desert after His baptism, in preparation for His public ministry (Mt 4:1-11).  But why do we fast?  Eating is good and necessary to sustain life.  Fasting is not simply about giving up food.  It's about building up our spiritual discipline.  It's about learning to deny ourselves. Fasting reminds us that we don't need to obey our base passions. When my stomach growls, I can tell it no. Fasting helps us learn to master our desires.  Fasting also reminds us of our own mortality.  It reminds us of how dependent we are.  So you give up a little food, but you stand to gain spiritual discipline, strength of will, and the perspective needed to place God first in your life.  That's quite a trade off.

PRAYER
Whenever fasting is mentioned in the Bible, it is always in conjunction with prayer.  Prayer is what makes fasting a spiritual discipline and not a weight loss plan.  So how should you pray during Lent? My answer is a little more than you are praying now.  Spend some quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament, telling God what is on your heart, and then listen to what He may have to tell you in the silence.  Pray a rosary each day. Or why not start your day with Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours?  Or end it with Night Prayer?  You'll be praying in union with the whole Church, and how cool is that?  One of the best things you can do is to simply read the scriptures. Pick a book in the Bible that you want to know better and read a little every day during Lent. Another way to approach it is to read the daily Mass readings, which you can find on the USCCB web site.

Whatever form of prayer you decide upon, pick a time to do it each day and stick to your schedule.  If you want to improve your relationship with God, you need to talk with Him on a regular basis!  What you are giving up is a little time each day.  What you stand to gain is a more intimate relationship with God.

ALMSGIVING
Almsgiving means giving money to the poor. College students don't always have a lot of money to give, but there are still ways you can help those in need.  You can give of your time and talent.  Come with us one Tuesday to help volunteer at the Community Table.  If Tuesdays don't work for you, contact them to see about another day to volunteer -- they need help throughout the week!  You can also contact the WCU Center for Service Learning for other volunteer opportunities to benefit those in need.

People can be poor in many ways.  Is your roommate feeling homesick?  Take her out for coffee.  Is your classmate depressed?  Invite her over for a movie night.  Is your friend stressed about an upcoming test?  Offer to stay up late with him to help him study.  Almsgiving is not just about writing a check to a charity.  It's about learning to hold on to things loosely -- this includes our treasure, time and talent -- so that we may be ready to give whenever we encounter someone in need.

When you practice almsgiving, you have to give up some of your hard earned cash, or valuable time; but what you gain is a generosity of spirit, and a heart that loves as Jesus loves.

PENANCE
The whole season of Lent is a penitential season.  Penance comes from repent which means "to turn." There are two Hebrew words that are translated as repent in the Old Testament.  One means "to return" and the other means "to feel sorrow."  The Greek word that gets translated as repent in the New Testament means "to change one's mind."  Put all those meanings together and you get an idea of what penance should involve.

Repenting involves turning away from sin -- which may indeed involve sorrow, if we are truly sorry for the wrongs we have done.  But it also involves turning toward God.  And that is where our focus should be.  When you repent, you give up on sin, but you gain the friendship of God.

Everything we give up during Lent is for the purpose of gaining something even greater.  So if you haven't decided yet what you are giving up for Lent this year, maybe you should think about what you would like to gain instead.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Not I, but the grace of God

FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (C)
click here for readings


"God does not call the equipped; He equips the called."  I have no idea where that phrase originated, but it's one you hear often in ministry circles.  I've certainly found it to be true in my time as a campus minister.  Often I have felt unequipped for a situation only to find out later that I had precisely what was required.

"Equipped" can mean many things, of course.  It can refer to our talents and skills.  It can refer to personality traits, such as empathy, compassion, or being "a good listener."  Or it can refer to time -- many don't volunteer in their church or community because they don't think they have the time to devote to it.

But there is one way that everyone who feels called to serve the Church feels ill-equipped and that is holiness.  We think of priests, nuns and monks as holy people. (Maybe some of you even think of campus ministers as holy people, who knows?)  So when we take an honest look at ourselves and recognize our own sinfulness, we feel that we could never serve the Church like these people do. We're not holy enough to do God's work.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret.  No one is holy enough.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you ever meet anyone who thinks they are, you should run fast in the opposite direction.  I would further say that recognizing that you are not holy enough to serve Christ indicates that you are qualified, because one thing all good servants of Christ need to have is humility.  Humility is a necessary prerequisite to holiness.  Humility tells us that we need to rely on Christ and not ourselves.  Humility allows Jesus to do the heavy lifting for us, because we know we are not strong enough on our own.

Consider Isaiah in our first reading.  When Isaiah has a vision of God, he cries out, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips."  He recognizes his own sinfulness before God.  But then an angel touches Isaiah's lips with a burning ember (that must have hurt!) and says, "Your wickedness is removed; your sin purged."  Only then was Isaiah able to reply to God's call, "Here I am, send me!"  Isaiah knew he was not holy enough, but through God he became a great prophet.

Likewise in our second reading from 1 Cor 15:1-11, St. Paul refers to himself as "the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God."  St. Paul, before his conversion, was one of the most hardened persecutors of Christians, standing by as St. Stephen was martyred (Acts 8:1).  Even after his conversion, as one of the Apostles, he could write, "For I do not do the good  I want, but I do the evil I do not want" (Rom 7:19).  St. Paul was not holy enough, "But by the grace of God I am what I am."  He became one of the greatest saints of the Church.

Lastly, in our gospel reading we see Simon Peter being called by Jesus.  Simon's response to our Lord was like that of Isaiah -- he recognized his own sinfulness before God.  "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Lk 5:8).  But Jesus did not depart from him.  He saw Simon's humility as something which could be put to great service.  He told Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (Lk 5:10).  Simon Peter was not holy enough, but through the word of God became the head of the college of Apostles, our first Pope.

"Do not be afraid." Christ says the same words today to every young man considering the priesthood who does not feel holy enough; to every person considering the consecrated life who does not feel that they are as pious as they should be; to every young person considering marriage who does not feel "ready" for such commitment. Do not be afraid!

If you don't feel ready for whatever vocation God is calling you to, that's good!  You shouldn't! The world does not need husbands and wives who think they have it all together; it needs husbands and wives that are willing to rely on each other and on God for help.  The Church does not need bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, monks or friars who think that they are already saints.  The Church needs ministers who know that they are sinners.

This coming Wednesday millions of people will come to the Church to hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  It is a reminder of what we are without God -- mere dust and ashes.  This is what all of our efforts to "equip ourselves" to serve Him will amount to if we try to do it on our own.  Maybe you are doubting your vocational call because you don't feel as holy as you imagine priests need to be.  Maybe you are putting off going to confession until you can overcome that sin you've been struggling with.  Stop it. Stop doubting God's ability to heal you and draw you to Himself.  Listen to Jesus' words. "Do not be afraid."

God doesn't call people who are already saints.  God calls sinners that He can transform into saints, and thereby glorify Him.  Let us be humble enough to accept the call God has for each of us, so that we might say, like St. Paul, "Not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Cor 15:10).

Friday, January 29, 2016

Shadows on the Wall

FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (C)
click here for readings


Our gospel for this Sunday picks up right where last Sunday's gospel left off.  Jesus has just proclaimed that He will liberate captives, restore sight to the blind, and free the oppressed.  Those who hear Him respond by trying to throw Him off a cliff.

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury.  They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away (Lk 4:28-30).


What is going on here?  Why such a violent reaction to Jesus' words?  Freedom is a good thing--why try to kill the one offering it?  Is this just a case of a prophet not being accepted in his own land?  That is certainly part of it.  Jesus is too familiar to His neighbors.  The people in Galilee respond to Jesus' words with, "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" (v. 22).  In other words, "Who does he think he is? We know him. We've seen him grow up. What does he know?"  The hardest people to evangelize can often be your own friends and family.  They know you too well.

But there is more going on with Jesus' rejection than over-familiarity.  You might not listen to Jesus because, "Oh, he's just the carpenter's son."  But that doesn't make you want to toss him off a cliff. Something more is in play.

Last week we said that the truth can set us free, but the truth can also hurt.  The offer of freedom is only welcomed by those who know they are in prison.  If you don't already know you are being held captive by sin, it can be very disquieting to have it pointed out.  It feels insulting.  It makes you uncomfortable.  It can challenge your very sense of self and your place in the world.  

Think about how uncomfortable it is to be sitting in the dark only to have someone suddenly turn on a bright light.  Your first instinct is to shut your eyes and look away.  So it is with Jesus.  The light of His truth shines too brightly for some.

If you are unfamiliar with Plato's allegory of the cave, look it up.  It's the example par excellence of how the truth can be rejected by many.  Plato describes people who spend their entire lives chained inside of a dark cave.  Just beyond them is a fire.  The prisoners in the cave cannot see the fire, but they can see the flickering shadows cast by it on the wall in front of them.  These shadows on the wall are all they know of reality, so they presume that is all there is.  These shadows, for them, are the real world.

One day one of them manages to break free from his chains.  He finds his way out of the cave, past the fire, and into the sunlight beyond.  He is initially blinded by the light, but eventually he begins to see -- blue sky, white clouds, green plants.  He is amazed at the richness, depth and beauty of the world.  He runs back into the cave to tell the others about his discovery.  They don't believe him.  In fact, they think he is mad.  They reject the truth.  They prefer the shadow.

This sudden and violent reaction to Jesus reminds us of just how shocking a figure He is.  We tend to think of Jesus as a bringer of peace and comfort. He is, of course, but only for those who receive Him.  For those who reject Him -- those who prefer the shadows -- Christ is a threat to be dealt with.  His being cast out of Galilee in today's gospel reading is but a foreshadow of the crucifixion.  

It is no accident that this gospel account is paired in our readings for Mass with St. Paul's beautiful testimony to love (1 Cor 12:31-13:13).  "Love bears all things, endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things..."  To speak the truth is an act of love.  Love endures all things, even rejection and dispersion. Christ loved those who tried to throw him off the hilltop, even as He had to hide from them.  Christ loved those who nailed His hands to the cross, even as He prayed for their forgiveness.  

As those who encounter Christ today, we need to do two things:  First, we must not be afraid to accept Him, even if His light might at first seem too bright for us to bear.  Second, we must be ambassadors of the light, letting it shine in our lives.  And if the world rejects us as it rejected Christ, we must emulate His example of mercy and never cease to love those who persecute us.  I have no doubt that many in that crowd who threw Jesus out of Galilee were later baptized into the Body of Christ.  Eventually they realized that they had chosen shadow over light, sin over holiness, and came out of their cave to embrace the Sun.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Truth Shall Make You Free

THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (C)
click here for readings


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.


These are the words from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus proclaims to the assembly in the synagogue; words which He says are fulfilled in their hearing. Jesus identifies Himself as God's anointed one (Christ means "anointed"), who brings liberty by giving sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.

Like all scripture, these words contain layers of meaning.  They of course have their literal meaning.  Jesus does miraculously restore physical sight to blind men.  But this prophesy also has a deeper spiritual meaning.  Jesus frees us from the oppression of sin.  He restores our sight by shining the light of truth on the darkness of our lives.  

Many today look upon religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as being restrictive of freedom.  If I don't believe in God, the thought goes, then I am free to do as I wish.  There is no one other than myself to tell me what is right and wrong.  To such people, the idea of finding liberty in Christ may seem paradoxical.

Providentially, I have this past week been re-reading St. John Paul II's great moral masterpiece, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth).  In this encyclical, the Holy Father shows that the purpose of freedom is to allow us to pursue that which is true and good.

It is possible to misuse freedom.  The fact that a falsehood is freely chosen does not make the falsehood into a truth.  I can freely write on my math test that 2 + 2 = 5, but I will still fail the test. So it is with the moral life.  Individual autonomy is necessary for the moral life -- John Paul II asserts, "there can be no morality without freedom" (VS 34) -- but that autonomy is not itself the highest good. This is the lie behind the slogan "Pro-Choice."  It suggests that mere freedom to choose supersedes all other concerns, even if that freedom is being used to choose death and destruction. This is the trap suffered by all those who choose behavior which leads to addiction (drugs, alcohol, pornography).  They discover, to their dismay, that they have chosen slavery.

The Catholic Church reminds us that freedom has a higher purpose, which is to allow us to choose the good.  "Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known" (VS 34).

How are we to know what is good and true?  Certainly we can and should make use of our reason. Just as the purpose of our eyes is to see and the purpose of our ears is to hear, our intellect has a purpose.  We have rational minds so that we can seek out the truth.  But our reason is imperfect.  Our intellect is limited.  Our freedom to choose the good is hampered by our own fallen nature.

This is precisely why Jesus is the great liberator.  Jesus not only possess a perfect human nature, untainted by sin, but He is also fully divine, one in essence with God the Father, "who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of His very love proposes this good to man in the commandments" (VS 35).  God made us and knows perfectly what is good for us.  His laws therefore are not put in place to satisfy some arbitrary whim of the Divine, but to lead us toward our own ultimate good.

Our psalm for this Sunday's Mass acclaims, "The law of the Lord is perfect... The decree of the Lord is trustworthy... The precepts of the Lord are right... The command of the Lord is clear... The ordinances of the Lord are true..." (Ps 19).  St. John Paul II likewise affirms, "God's law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather it protects and promotes that freedom" (VS 35).

There is no better guide to help us use our freedom in pursuit of truth than Jesus Himself.  The psalmist says, "The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye" (Ps 19:8).  The light of Christ brings sight to the blind, just as He promised, by allowing us to see more clearly the good, the true, and the beautiful.

"By submitting to the law," John Paul II writes, "freedom submits to the truth of creation.  Consequently one must acknowledge in the freedom of the human person the image and the nearness of God, who is present in all" (VS 41).  When we freely follow the good, we become like God; we allow ourselves to be formed more perfectly to His image.

To follow Jesus is to be led out of captivity and into freedom -- true freedom to become what you were meant to be.

"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32).

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Extravagance of God

SECOND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
click here for readings

The wedding feast at Cana is well known as the occasion of Jesus' first public miracle.  The name of the couple who were married has been lost to history, but people are still talking about their party two thousand years later!

The fact that Jesus chose such a celebratory moment to manifest His glory tells us something of the character of God.  This is worth considering when one encounters the phenomenon of the "dour Christian."

I don't mean a Christian who just has a sombre personality.  I mean those who are theologically opposed to having a good time.  There are plenty of examples both in history and today.  The old Calvinist Presbyterians in Scotland for a time banned Christmas (no wonder they were called "the Frozen Chosen").  Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate birthdays.  In some counties here in the south it is impossible to buy alcohol due to the political influence of certain Baptists.

When asked what they think of Jesus and His disciples drinking wine, they maintain that it was really unfermented grape juice.  But can anyone imagine the psalmist singing of "grape juice to gladden the heart of man" (Ps 104:15)?  I've had good grape juice in my day, but it's nothing to write poetry about.

We Catholics know how to enjoy ourselves, because we understand that sin lies not in the enjoyment of God's creation, but in the abuse of it.  Drinking is not a sin, but drunkenness is.  Eating is not a sin, but gluttony is.  Sexual union is not a sin, but abuses of it, such as fornication and adultery are.  (As an aside, this helps answer the question: why did God create evil?  God did not create evil.  Everything God creates is good; it is only the abuse or perversion of good which is evil.  St. Augustine once defined evil as "the privation of good.")

Catholic weddings celebrate the great good of a man and woman coming together to become one flesh in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and thus become a living symbol in the world of God's love for the Church.  If you've ever been to a Catholic wedding, you know what a joyous occasion it is.  Most of my family is Protestant, and so when my wife and I were married, they were a bit overwhelmed.  Our nuptial Mass took an hour and a half, and the reception following went on past midnight.  There was feasting, dancing, singing and toasts.  I recall some family members having to excuse themselves half way through dinner, saying, "We told our babysitter we'd be home an hour ago... we didn't expect all of this."

I imagine that a lot of us will say the same thing in heaven -- "I didn't expect all of this!"  God's extravagance knows no limits, and we see this in Jesus' first public miracle.  The hosts of the wedding feast run out of wine to serve their guests.  All they have left to drink is water.

Water is a good thing.  It's refreshing, cleansing, and good for you.  Water is necessary for life.  That's why it is fitting that we use water to baptize.  Baptism is the sacrament through which we are brought to new life in Christ. The waters of baptism wash away our sins.  We all need water.

But God is not content to give us only what we need.  His love goes beyond.  When Jesus transforms the water into wine, it is a sign of the superabundance of His grace.  No one needs wine.  Wine is a luxury.  We toast with wine to celebrate joyful events.  We share it with friends and family over meals.  The wine that Jesus offers is choice -- as the headwaiter says in the gospel, "You have kept the good wine until now" (Jn 2:10).

God gives us what we need in the waters of baptism to cleanse us of our sins, fill us with His grace, and become adopted children of God.  But God is not content to give us only what we need.  He pours a superabundance of grace upon us through the choicest wine -- the wine over which He spoke the sacred words, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many..." (Mt 26:28).

God gives us more than we need, because God is Love.  The gift of love is the gift of self, and this is what God offers us under the species of bread and wine at every Mass -- nothing less than Himself.  The gospel acclamation for this Sunday's Mass says that God has called us "to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (cf. 2 Thes 2:14).  God's glory is in the extravagant superabundance of His gifts.  You have been invited to the wedding feast.  Come, drink deeply of this wine that the heavenly Bridegroom offers.
Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him (Jn 2:11).

Friday, January 8, 2016

With You I Am Well Pleased

THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
click here for readings


The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season. But before we draw the season to a close, I'd like to look back to the beginning of the season, to midnight Mass on Christmas.  At this Mass we heard the gospel of the angel announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds.  "I proclaim to you good news of great joy... for today in the City of David a savior has been born for you..."  And then a multitude of heavenly host sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests" (Lk 2:1-14).

That last line is familiar to us as the opening words of the Gloria, one of the oldest Christian hymns, sung at Masses around the world on Sundays and solemnities.  You could say that the Church has not stopped singing this song of praise ever since it was proclaimed by the angels on that first Christmas night.  Astute readers may notice a shift in translation from past days.  The former English translation is "peace to men of good will."  Why the change?

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI talks about the meaning of this line.  "The literal translation of the original Greek," he writes, can be rendered either "peace to men of good pleasure," or, "to men with whom He is pleased."  The Pope Emeritus poses the question, "Who enjoys God's 'good pleasure'?  And why?"

There are other times the scriptures speak about those with whom God is pleased.  In the prophet Isaiah we read, "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased" (Is 42:1).  The verses following speak of this one bringing about justice, "the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor" (CCC 1807).

We hear the same words in this Sunday's gospel.  After Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river, "heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased" (Lk 3:21-22).

Jesus is the one with whom God is "well pleased."  Why?  Because He is the perfect Image of the Father.  This means He is completely oriented toward the Father.  He is completely focused on Him.  He is in complete union of will with the Father.  Everything Jesus thinks and does is in right relation with God and neighbor.  By definition, everything He does is an act of justice.

Jesus pleases the Father as no one else does.  He is the only begotten Son.  He alone is the Holy One (as we sing in the Gloria).  Christ's pure and perfect life can please God in a way that our fallen and sinful lives never can -- on their own.

But now we return to the angels' words that announced His birth.  "Peace to those with whom He is pleased."  These words are not directed at Jesus, but to the shepherds and by extension all of humanity.  Jesus is the beloved Son in whom God is well pleased.  But with His arrival in our midst we, too, can be pleasing to God.  Those "with whom God is pleased," writes Pope Benedict, "are those who share the attitude of the Son -- those who are conformed to Christ."

When we are baptized we are conformed to Christ.  Through the sacramental waters we join ourselves to the mystery of Jesus; His passion, death, and resurrection.  But being conformed to Christ is a life-long task.  Throughout our lives as Christians, infused by His grace, we should be molding ourselves after the pattern of the One in whom God is well pleased.

If nothing else, Christmas is an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to enter into communion with God who has become man for us.  It is an opportunity to become one of those in whom God is well pleased.  We do so by conforming ourselves to His beloved Son.  As we enter into Ordinary Time, let us continue to allow God's Spirit to conform us to His Son each day.