Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Miraculously Ordinary Family

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Have you ever wondered why Matthew and Luke chose to include information in their gospels about Jesus' birth?  Probably not.  I imagine most take it for granted that we would have this information.  But the gospel writers need not have included it.  Mark and John say nothing about Jesus' birth.  Mark introduces Jesus at the start of His public ministry with His baptism by John.  And John's gospel focuses on Jesus' divine origins: "In the beginning was the Word..." (Jn 1:1).

But Matthew and Luke tell us of Jesus' human origins, and we are fortunate that they do.  They show us that Jesus did not simply appear out of nowhere.  He was born at certain time and in a certain place.  He was born to a mother.  He was born into a family.

We celebrate the birth of our Savior with much fanfare during the Christmas season.  He is Emmanuel, God-with-us.  He is Jesus, God-saves.  He is born of a virgin.  The very stars announce His arrival onto the human scene.  Angels rejoice.  To say His birth is extraordinary would be an understatement.

Yet in very important ways, His birth and childhood are quiet and ordinary.  Jesus had a mother, Mary, and a father, Joseph.  He depended on His parents, just as all children do, for food, warmth, comfort, love and care.  He grew strong nursing at His mother's breast.  As He grew older, He learned a trade.  We are told in our gospel reading that Jesus "advanced in wisdom" (Lk 2:52).  He did all of this within a family.

The human family is an image of the Holy Trinity.  We are made in the image of God, which means we are made to be in relationship.  God has within His being the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God is love, and love requires both a lover and a beloved.  God, in His perfection, has this within Himself.  But we must look outside of ourselves for relationship.  The first relationships that all of us have -- and often the most impactful --  are with our families.  We are literally born into relationship with others.  Family life is an image of the inner life of God.

This may sound rather esoteric and mystical, but the most amazing thing about it is just how marvelously ordinary it is.  The family is where we learn ordinary lessons of love.  It is where we learn to respect and obey our parents.  It is where we learn to think of others before ourselves.  It is where we learn patience.  It is where we learn to make sacrifices.  The family is where we learn to love -- which is to say the family is where we learn to be like God.  The relationship between parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife, each mimic in some way the relationship between us and God.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the scriptures have quite a bit to say about family relations.  Immediately after the first three commandments instructing us on how we are to relate to God, the fourth commandment tells us how to live in right relationship with our parents. "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land" (Ex 20:12).

The book of Sirach tells us that how we relate to our families impacts our relationship with God:
God sets a father in honor over his children;a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.  Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother.  Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and, when he prays, is heard.  Whoever reveres his father will live a long life; he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother (Sir 3:2-6).
We learn to relate to God well by relating well with others, and the first ones we are called to be in relation with are our parents.  They reflect, in a special way, God's divine Fatherhood.  And so even the Incarnate God obeys the fourth commandment and honors His human mother and father, as our gospel reading tells us (Lk 2:51).

We don't know much about Jesus' early years, but we know He spent them in the company of His family.  It is suggested that the gospel writers did not remark upon these years because they were unremarkable.  Yet His time living "ordinary family life" must have been extraordinary because He lived it perfectly.

From antiquity, the family has been called "the domestic church."  It is the primary place in which we are called to grow in holiness.  It is where we first learn how to love.  Of course Jesus did not need to grow in holiness or learn how to love -- He is Love Incarnate.  We celebrate this day that Jesus was born into a family not to learn but to teach.  He teaches us love through His family.  Allow Jesus to be born anew into your heart today, and into your family, that it, too, may become a domestic church, a school of divine love.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Mary the God-bearer.

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The final days of Advent are upon us  Our readings and prayers focus less on the final coming of Jesus in glory; our attention is instead drawn to His coming in humility in a Bethlehem manger.

Our Old Testament reading from the prophet Micah speaks of "the time when she who is to give birth has borne" (Mi 5:1-4a).  Our second reading from Hebrews speaks of "when Christ came into the world" (Heb 10:5-10).  Finally, in our gospel, we encounter a Mary who is pregnant -- as indeed the whole world is pregnant with the expectation of the coming Messiah. (Lk 1:39-45).

We meet Mary through the eyes of her cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.  Last week we reflected on how John the Baptist points out the Messiah.  The first person he gives that message to is his own mother, by leaping in her womb as Jesus draws near.

Elizabeth understands the significance of the message.  Her greeting to Mary from this gospel passage gives us the familiar words of the second half of the Hail Mary prayer.
"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Lk 1:42-45).
Elizabeth's words to Mary tell us volumes about the important and unique role that Mary plays in our faith, and in our lives as Catholics.  Non-Catholic Christians may sometimes accuse us of honoring Mary "too much," but the Church honors Mary in the same way (and for the same reason) that Elizabeth honors her.  Look again at her words to Mary.

Blessed are you among women.  Why?  She gives us two reasons.  The second reason Elizabeth gives is because Mary believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.  Mary had faith in God even when what God promised seemed impossible by human standards.  Mary stands as a model for all Christians to trust in God and have faith in His promise.

But the first and most important reason Mary is called "blessed" is because blessed is the fruit of her womb.  Mary is most blessed among women -- indeed, all generations will call her blessed (Lk 1:48) -- because she is the mother of my Lord.  In other words, Elizabeth's words of praise are only partly directed toward Mary and her faith.  They are mainly directed at the One being borne in her womb.

This is the key to unlocking all the Church's teachings about Mary.  Everything the Church teaches about Mary is really about Christ.  Elizabeth's addressing Mary as "Mother of my Lord," is a prime example.  In the Eastern Church, the Blessed Mother is addressed by the Greek title Theotokos, which is literally translated "God bearer."  In English we say "Mother of God."  The appropriateness of this title was once a matter of debate in the Catholic Church (as it continues to be debated today between Protestants and Catholics).

As early as the second century we find writings of the Church Fathers referring to Mary as the Theotokos.  But in the early fifth century a monk named Nestor (for whom the Nestorian heresy is named) denied that Mary could be called the Mother of God.  He argued that she could only be called the "Mother of Jesus" or the "Mother of Christ."  His argument was that God preexisted Mary and so Mary could not be God's mother.

Nestor could make this argument only by drawing a sharp distinction between the humanity of Jesus and His divinity.  He espoused a theology wherein Jesus existed as two persons, one human and one divine.  Mary gave birth to the human person Jesus, he argued, not the divine Second Person of the Trinity.

The Catholic Church responded definitively to the Nestorian heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, by asserting that the two natures of Christ, human and divine, are united in one Person.  Mary should rightly be called the Mother of God because the Person to whom she gave birth was God.  In other words, this teaching about Mary is actually about Jesus and His divinity.

From the Council of Ephesus:
"We confess, then, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his Godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the Virgin according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in Godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy Virgin to be the Mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her" (Formula of Union [A.D. 431]).
The fruit of Mary's womb is Emmanuel, God-with-us.  Elizabeth is right in calling Mary the mother of her Lord.  She is the mother of the Lord of all of us, the one who has come to do the will of God (Heb 10:9), to reconcile sinners to the Father and thereby save a fallen world.

Jesus Christ still comes to us this day for the same purpose through His Body, the Church, which continues to carry out the Father's will by offering reconciliation.  Remembering that Advent is a penitential season, let us resolve to make a good confession (if you have not done so already), and accept that gift that our Savior wishes to bestow upon us -- the gift of forgiveness.  Christmas is a time of gift-giving, so let us not neglect this most important gift of all.  Let us be like John the Baptist, and leap for joy at His coming.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

One Mightier than I

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"One mightier than I is coming," St. John the Baptist tells us in our gospel reading for this Sunday.  "I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of His sandals" (Lk 3:16).

The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, named for the first word from the entrance antiphon for the Mass: "Gaudete in Domino semper; Rejoice in the Lord always!"  This is taken from the second reading, Philippians 4:4-7, where St. Paul goes on to say, "The Lord is near.  Have no anxiety at all," and speaks of the "peace of God that surpasses all understanding."  Peace and freedom from anxiety sound like cause for rejoicing.  But what has this to do with St. John telling of someone mightier than himself?

It can be a little off-putting when we encounter someone better than we are.  We are taught to excel.  We want to be the best person on the team.  We like to think of ourselves as the nicest friend in our group.  We want to be the favorite son or daughter.  So when we meet someone who is smarter, more athletic, kinder or more favored than we are, it bothers us.  We find ourselves deposed from our thrones, knocked down a rung or two on our ladders.

I remember in elementary school taking pride in being the smartest in my class. I was a big fish in a small pond.  In middle and high school the pond got bigger.  There were lots of other smart kids, many smarter than I was.  In college that pond became an ocean.  Every day I would meet someone with more knowledge than I had on any given subject.  It was a humbling experience.

Not only did I meet people with more knowledge than myself, I met people with more wisdom.  They saw things more clearly than I did, and had a better understanding of how the world works.  Even more importantly, I met -- and continue to meet -- people who are holier than I am.  Being around holy people can make you profoundly uncomfortable.  Your own faults stand out in sharp relief.  It is no wonder that the saints were often persecuted, even by their fellow Christians.

Though it may at first be unsettling to encounter someone smarter, faster, stronger, wiser, or holier than we are, it can turn into a liberating experience.  If it were not for those greater than ourselves, from whom would we learn?  Who would inspire us?  Who could teach us to better ourselves?  Who could show us how to become something greater than we thought ourselves capable?  This is the role that the saints play for us in our faith.  They show us what the heights of holiness can look like, and demonstrate the path to get there.  Above all else, they point the way to Christ.

For John, recognizing someone greater than he is a cause for rejoicing.  This is because John understands clearly his place in the world, which is the key to true wisdom.  By this time in his career he had gained a large number of followers and a reputation as a great prophet and a holy man.  He even caught the attention and admiration of King Herod.  Many believed John to be the Messiah foretold in the scriptures.  But John knew he was not.  That honor belongs to the one John would later point to and say, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (Jn 1:28).

I saw a bumper sticker once that read, "There is only one God and the position is filled, so stop applying."  That's a humorous rendering of the old maxim, there is one God and He is not me.  This may seem obvious, but how many live today as if they are their own god?  We admire the "self made man."  There is a running theme in our culture of forging your own destiny and living by your own rules.  When it comes to morality, we reserve the right to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.  But there is a danger in being too autonomous.  None of us live in a world of our own making.  None of us is self-created.  As much as we may pretend otherwise, none of us sits as judge over creation.  Living as if we are our own god is living out of step with reality.  That is the opposite of wisdom.

One cannot be truly free if one is trapped in a fantasy.  To see the world clearly and understand one's place in it is a liberating experience.  The imprisoned man cannot escape his cell if he doesn't realize he is imprisoned.  The fallen cannot be saved if he doesn't realize he needs a savior.  And this is John's cause for rejoicing.  He knows the sinfulness of the world, but he also knows that the Savior of the World is about to step onto the scene.  "One mightier than I is coming," he says.  And He is near.

This past week we celebrated two very important Marian feast days, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.  More so than any other saint, Mary consistently points the way to her Son.  A wise man once said that Mary shines brightly like the moon -- not with her own light, but by reflecting the light of the Son.  Mary's role in our lives is expressed profoundly and simply in her words spoken at the wedding feast at Cana.  Pointing to her Son, she says, "Do whatever He tells you to do" (Jn 2:5).  This is Mary's constant message to us.

John the Baptist is great like Mary is great.  He is great in his humility, in his willingness to decrease, so that Christ may increase (Jn 3:30).  Like Mary, he points the way to Jesus, the "one mightier than I."  He points to Jesus and tells us, You did not create yourself.  He made you.  You cannot judge yourself.  Only He can judge you.  You cannot save yourself.  Only He can save you.  Repent -- and rejoice!

Rejoice.  The Lord is near.  Just as He was born in a humble manger at Bethlehem, He desires to be born into the humble heart still today.  Mary points the way to Him.  John shows us the path.  Welcome Christ into your life, and welcome in the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.  Rejoice.  The Lord is near!

Do Jews Need Jesus?

Jesus teaching in the Synagogue
The above question may read as offensive to some, but to any sincere Christian the answer has to be an unqualified "yes," and for one very simple reason -- we all need Jesus, no exceptions.  The Catholic Church very clearly teaches that "all salvation comes from Christ" (CCC 846).  For this reason the Church also teaches that all of the baptized have a mission to evangelize (CCC 905).

Why then, did we wake up to headlines this morning such as the following?

We could cite many others.  What is this?  Why would the Catholic Church issue a new "landmark document" forbidding Catholics from even attempting to evangelize to the Jewish people?  It makes no sense on the face of it.  It would mean either one of two things.  It would mean that the Jewish people do not need Christ for salvation; that the Mosiac covenant is, on its own, salvific for them.  In that case, one would have to ask, "Why Jesus?"  Why would the Messiah, the Savior of the world, have come first to the Jewish people?  Why would He have had to come at all if the old Law was sufficiently redemptive?  Theologically, this position makes no sense.  

The alternative explanation is that the Catholic Church is no longer concerned with the salvation of the Jewish people.  While we strive to evangelize the rest of the world, the Jewish people are on their own.  They "missed the boat," so to speak.  This, also, is an untenable position.  One cannot imagine the Catholic Church advocating either of these things.  So what is going on here?

I've said it before, but it bears repeating.  We need to learn to take any news about the Catholic Church reported in the secular media with a grain of salt.  This is not always due to anti-Catholic bias in the media (though that sometimes can be the case).  Very often it is due to the fact that secular reporters are simply unfamiliar with the organization, methods, and teachings of the Catholic Church.  Whenever we read a headline reporting, "The Vatican Says..." we need to ask the following questions:
  • Who is saying it?
  • How are they saying it?
  • What, exactly, are they saying?
The "who" is rather important.  Most people read "the Vatican" as synonymous with "the Catholic Church."  Anything "the Vatican" says is taken to be official teaching (or at least an official position) of the Catholic Church.  This is simply not true.  The Vatican is a city-state with all kinds of offices, committees and congregations.  Some of these have quite a bit of teaching authority.  Others function more as advisory committees.  So it is very important to know just who is doing the talking when "the Vatican says."

In this case, the document in question comes from the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which is part of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  The Commission was created in 1974 with the mission to promote and foster relations between Jews and Catholics.  In terms of magisterial weight, it has no teaching authority on its own.  It simply does not have the power to issue a teaching that would be binding on all Catholics, as today's headlines seem to suggest.

But is this even what they are attempting to do?  No, of course not.  The question, "how are they saying it?" is important because there are various types of documents that represent different levels of teaching that even someone with obvious authority, such as the Pope, may use.  At the highest end of that spectrum would be a papal encyclical.  Much lower down on the spectrum would be an apostolic exhortation.  (Much lower still would be an interview given to reporters on a plane).  In other words, Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si carries a higher weight of authority than his apostolic exhortation Evangelium Gaudii, though both were documents issued by the pope.  His 2013 interview published in America magazine carries no authority at all.  In other words, the pope has different vehicles he can use when he makes a statement, depending on how much of his authority he wishes to put behind that statement.

When it comes to a Vatican body such as the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, they don't have the option of issuing different types of statements carrying differing levels of authority, because they have no binding authority at all.  So it matters less in this case "how" they are saying it.  Nevertheless it is still good to know exactly what sort of statement is being reported on.  In this case, it is a document called "The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable," issued in a press statement on December 10.  It is a reflection on the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) that was promulgated on Oct. 28, 1965.  

The Second Vatican Council was held from 1962-1965.  During that time the Council issued 16 formal documents addressing (among other things) the Church and her mission in the world.  We are at the tail end of a series of events going on throughout the Catholic Church marking the 50th anniversary of the Council.  This recent statement should be understood in that context.  Rather than being a "landmark document," as the Jerusalem Post reported, it is actually a reflection on a document that was issued fifty years ago.

And now we come to the final question: what, exactly, is this document saying?  Does it in fact say that Catholics should not evangelize Jewish people?  The answer is no.  In fact, it says the exact opposite.

In "The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable," the commission notes that the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is unique.  The Jewish people are the ancestors in faith of all Christians, and worship the same God as Christians, the God of Abraham and Isaac.  Under the heading, "The Church's mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism," the commission echoes the sentiment of Nostra Aetate that in light of this unique relationship the Church views "evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.  In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed toward Jews."  

In other words, there is no official and specific organized mission to the Jews conducted by the Catholic Church.  However, in the very next sentence, the commission reminds us that "Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner..."  Far from saying Catholics should not attempt to convert Jews, this document encourages individual Christians to bear witness to their faith to Jewish people; but while doing so to be mindful of the unique relationship we have with them.  Our efforts to evangelize Jewish people, who worship the same God as we do, who share the same Hebrew scriptures, and who possess much revealed truth (though not the fullness of Revelation found in Christ), and who already await a Messiah will look very different from our efforts to evangelize Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists, with whom we have substantially different relationships.

This recent document also reminds us that Jesus was sent first to the Jews, that He is the universal savior of mankind, and that His Church consists of both Jews and Gentiles.  Far from being a declaration that "Jews don't need Jesus," it is a reminder of the fact that all of us stand in need of a savior, not the least of which are our elder siblings in the faith.  The Jewish people were the first to receive the light of Revelation.  The first Christians were all Jewish converts.  Jesus still calls to them, through His Church, to recognize and rejoice in their Messiah.  Let us keep this in mind as we continue to prepare to enter the Christmas season, celebrating the birth of our universal Savior into a Jewish family in Bethlehem.  

Friday, December 4, 2015

Discerning What is of Value

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St. John the Baptist
Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ.   We prepare to celebrate the great feast of Christmas, commemorating His coming in history in Bethlehem.  But we also prepare for Christ's second coming at the end of time in all His glory.  Because of this, the readings during Advent, especially during the start of the season, tend to be rather apocalyptic.  Consider last week's gospel reading when Jesus warned of chaotic signs, people dying of fright, and "the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Lk 21:25-27).

So we might read the words of John the Baptist in this Sunday's gospel as also being apocalyptic.  He quotes from Isaiah when he says, "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be made low" (Lk 3:5, cf Is 40:3-4).  We may imagine mountains crumbing to the ground and valleys being filled with their rubble as the earth shakes at the second coming of Christ.  But that is not what John the Baptist, nor the prophet Isaiah, means to tell us.  John is not foretelling the end of the world.  He is telling of the salvation of the world.  He is not telling of an event that will happen millions of years from now.  He is speaking of something imminent; something happening now that people need to be aware of.  And he is not warning them of their doom and destruction, but giving them a cause to celebrate.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Lk 3:4-6).
In our second reading this Sunday, St. Paul offers his prayer that our "love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value" (Phil 1:9-10).  St. Paul prays for us to love properly.  Love for what is evil is a disordered love.  If we learn to love that which is wrong, that which is harmful, we do damage to ourselves.  This is why St. Thomas Aquinas said that we offend God when we act against our own good (SCG III, 122).  We need to learn to love that which is good, true and beautiful.  We need the knowledge and perception that St. Paul speaks of so that we can discern what is of true value, and there direct our love.

In the past -- and for so many still today -- the path to discern what is good, true, and beautiful has been a rough and winding path.  Life could be like that old Johnny Lee song, "Looking for love in all the wrong places..."  Discerning the good and true could be like finding one's way through a maze of  different philosophies, different perspectives, different goals, and different desires.  How do we know where to find the ultimate answers to our questions?  How do we know what to love?

John the Baptist announces for us today what he announced to the Jewish people 2000 years ago.  Those winding roads will be made straight for us.  The rough roads will be made smooth.  The mountains will be made low and the valleys filled in not by way of destruction but in order to make a straight and level path between us and the object of our highest love.   Our difficult quest to discern what is of ultimate value, so that we may love it, is about to be made much easier for us.

It is said of John the Baptist that no one is greater who was born of women (Mt 11:11).  Yet in next Sunday's gospel, on the third Sunday of Advent, we will hear him say, "one mightier than I is coming."  John is very good, but he is so because he recognizes and loves the greatest good.  John's role is simple.  He points to Jesus.  He points to Christ and says, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29) -- the same words the priest says after he consecrates the Eucharist and Christ comes to us once again in the sacrament.

Like those who lived before John the Baptist, we still need to discern what is of value and thereby grow in love.  But unlike them, we need not wander in the wilderness.  We need not "look for love in all the wrong places."  The path has been made straight for us.  John points us to what (Who) is of ultimate value, and therefore worthy of ultimate love.  Here He is, John tells us.  Here is your God.  Here is your Creator, your Redeemer, your Sanctifier.  Love Him, for He is Love.

St. Augustine said, "love God, then do as you will."  He said this not as an excuse for immorality (it doesn't matter what you do, if you love God), but as a sure guide for morality (if you love God, you will want to do only what is pleasing to Him).  Our lives become ordered when our loves are ordered.  Love is ordered only when we love what is good, and we should love the highest good above all else.  Where do we find the highest good?  Where do we place our highest love?

Since that first Christmas 2000 years ago, we have lived in the Age of Incarnation.  The highest good, the object of our highest love, was made man and born to a Virgin.  John the Baptist points Him out -- Behold, the Lamb of God.  He is still with us today in the Church, in Her sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist.  He is with us in our neighbors and our families.  Do we recognize Him?  Do we love Him?  We need no longer search vainly in the wilderness for the proper object of our love.  Jesus makes straight our path.  John points it out.  It is up to us to choose to follow it.