Saturday, December 31, 2016

Honoring Mary; Celebrating Christ

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

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On the octave of Christmas, eight days after the birth of Christ, the day when Mary and Joseph, following the Judaic law, would have presented their newborn Son to be circumcised, the Church celebrates a great feast of Mary, the Mother of God.

Do Catholics make too much of Mary? I heard a Presbyterian minister on the radio once complain of this. (I used to like to listen to broadcasts of his sermons because of his Scottish accent). He said the problem with Catholicism is that we have a "very small Jesus" and a "very big Mary." Is this true?

The mistake he made, of course, is in thinking our love to be a quantifiable thing; something that we have to take away from one pile in order to put in another. Of course any parent of multiple children can tell you this is false. You don't love one child any less because you also love another. Likewise we don't love Christ less because we also love Mary, Joseph, or any of the saints. In fact, we love these people -- as we love one another -- primarily because Christ loved them first. This is what it means to love God and love your neighbor. To love God means loving what God loves. In fact, the love we give to Mary and the saints pales in comparison to the love Christ pours out upon them. If you ever fear that you are loving Mary too much, just remember that you will never love her as much as Jesus does. 

All that being said, it is easy to see how those on the outside may get the impression that Catholics "go overboard" in their devotion to Mary. We do love our Mother and are not afraid to show it! But the key thing to understand is that our devotion to Mary is all because of Christ. We don't honor Mary for her own light, but because she reflects perfectly the light of her Son. Mary's consistent role in our faith is to point at her Son and say, as she did at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5).

The feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a perfect example of this. From the very earliest days of the Church, Greek-speaking Christians in the East had the habit of referring to Mary as the Theotokos, which means "Mother of God," or literally, "God-bearer."

Some thought this title attributed too much to Mary. How could Mary, a mortal woman, born in time, be the mother of the eternal God? How can a creature be mother of her Creator? This is impossible, they would argue. We can call Mary the Mother of Jesus or the Mother of Christ, but not the Mother of God. But devotion to Mary the Theotokos was strong and people were not willing to reject this ancient and revered title of our Lady.

Debate ensued, but the point of the debate was not about Mary, but about her Son. It all revolved around the question, "Who is Jesus?" Jesus is like no one else. His birth changed the world forever. He was born in a humble manger, yet that birth was heralded by angels. He was raised by a carpenter, yet foreign sages worshiped Him as a king. He is a man who could suffer and die. Yet He is also divine and will live and reign forever. Jesus Christ is like no one else and is at the very heart of our religion. How are we to understand this Jesus?

Some thought He was a man much blessed by God. Others thought He was God who took on the appearance of a man for our sake. Still others thought He must be half-man and half-God. All these theories about Jesus are flawed. All of them fall short of the full truth.

The truth about Jesus, as taught by the Church, is that He "is inseparably true God and true man. He is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and Lord, became a man and our brother" (CCC 469). The theological term for this is hypostatic union, from the Greek word hypostasis, meaning "person." We believe and profess that Jesus possess both a full human nature and a full divine nature, united perfectly in one Divine Person.

What does this have to do with Mary? Simply put, Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore Mary is the mother of God. When we call Mary the Theotokos, the Mother of God, we profess our belief in the divinity of Christ. We affirm that the Person Mary bore in her womb is a Divine Person.

To suggest that Mary is not the mother of God implies that Jesus is something less than God. In order to defend and uphold the Catholic faith in Christ's divinity, the Church declared at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, "If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the Theotokos (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema."

For the past week we have been in the "octave of Christmas." An octave is a celebration so great that it cannot fit into a single day, and so the Church celebrates that "day" for eight full days, as if it were one great feast. So the celebration of Christmas and the feast of Mary, Mother of God, are intimately linked. We began the octave of Christmas with the celebration of Jesus being born of Mary. We conclude it by honoring Mary and proclaiming that her Son is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Let us never be afraid to honor the mother of our God, as Jesus honors her. And let us pray always for a heart to love Christ as Mary loved her Son.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Hymn for the Child

The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

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St. Romanos the Melodist was a sixth century deacon who was renowned for his superb singing voice and for the elegant hymns and poems he composed. One of his most famous a kontakion (a poetic sermon) on the Nativity of the Lord. The entire poem is 24 stanzas long. Here is but an excerpt.

On the Nativity of Christ

Prelude
Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

1
Bethlehem has opened Eden, come, let us see;
we have found delight in secret, come, let us receive
the joys of Paradise within the cave.
There the unwatered root whose blossom is forgiveness has appeared.
There has been found the undug well
from which David once longed to drink.
There a virgin has borne a babe
and has quenched at once Adam’s and David’s thirst.
For this, let us hasten to this place where there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

2
The mother’s Father has willingly become her Son,
the infants’ saviour is laid as an infant in a manger.
As she who bore him contemplates him, she says,
“Tell me, my Child, how were you sown, or how were you planted in me?
I see you, my flesh and blood, and I am amazed,
because I give suck and yet I am not married.
And though I see you in swaddling clothes,
I know that the flower of my virginity is sealed,
for you preserved it when, in your good pleasure, you were born
a little Child, God before the ages.

...

23
"For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Saviour;
it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,
but for the sake of all I implore you.
You have made me the mouth and the boast of all my race,
and your world has me
as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.
They look to me, those who were cast out
of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.
May all things understand that, though me, you have been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Dream of St. Joseph

Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

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During Advent we look for the coming of Christ in two directions. We look ahead, toward His coming in the future, at the end of time. This coming is emphasized more at the beginning of Advent. But we also look back, remembering His coming in the past, at the Incarnation. Here at the end of Advent, as we approach the great Christmas feast, it is this coming of Christ in history that receives the greater focus.

It is easy for us to take the great mystery of the Incarnation for granted. We forget how radical a thing it truly is, the Creator entering into creation, because it happened in such a humble way. Our God did not burst forth into the world in a great flaming chariot. He came as a baby, born of a woman, born in a manger; an event heralded by angels but noticed only by a few shepherds.

Our God chose a mother, Mary, who bore Him in her womb and nursed Him at her breast. She assented to be the Mother of God after being visited by the angel Gabriel at the annunciation. She, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, gave her fiat, her "yes," to do God's will and bear His Son. "Let it be done unto me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).

But what of Joseph? What must this have seemed like to him? He was a just man, as described in our gospel reading, concerned with doing what is right. He is betrothed to Mary, but has not yet taken her into his home. He finds Mary pregnant. He must have assumed that she had been with another. He must also have known this was not at all something Mary would do. He must have struggled deeply with this seeming contradiction. He must have brought the matter to prayer.

The gospel tells us that whatever else, Joseph did not desire to bring shame to Mary, and so resolved to divorce her quietly, without bringing her before the court. But before this can happen, Joseph has a dream. An angel appears to him and says:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
What on earth must Joseph have thought about this message? Imagine yourself in his position. Would you have dismissed it as merely a dream, or recognized it as a message from God? Would you have had the courage to follow the angel's command? Pope Benedict XVI meditates upon this encounter in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  The Holy Father writes:
Whereas the angel "came" to Mary (Lk 1:28), he merely appears to Joseph in a dream -- admittedly a dream that is real and reveals what is real. Once again this shows us an essential quality of the figure of St. Joseph: his capacity to perceive the divine and his ability to discern. Only a man who is inwardly watchful for the divine, only someone with a real sensitivity for God and His ways, can receive God's message in this way... The message conveyed to Joseph is overwhelming, and it demands extraordinarily courageous faith. Can it be that God has really spoken, that what Joseph was told in the dream was the truth--a truth so far surpassing anything he could have foreseen? Can it be that God has acted in this way toward a human creature? Can it be that God has now launched a new history with men?  
Our position now is not that different from Joseph's in this gospel reading. We, too, hear a message that is beyond anything we might dare to hope. We, too, must choose whether and how to respond to this message.

Joseph received God's word through a messenger, and so we receive His word through messengers--ministers in the Church, the bishops, priests, deacons and lay faithful who have passed this word down to us. We, like Joseph, must discern how we will receive this message, and what response it demands of us.

Joseph was given a task; to take Mary into his home and be a faithful husband to her and a father to her child. But Joseph was also given an invitation to participate in the great mystery of God. Pope Benedict XVI notes that the words spoken to Joseph by the angel -- "Do not be afraid" -- are the same words spoken by the angel to Mary at the annunciation. "By means of this same exhortation from the angel," the Holy Father writes, "Joseph is now drawn into the mystery of God's incarnation.'

We also have a task. We also have an invitation. We also are being drawn into this great mystery. May we, like Joseph, be inwardly watchful, and learn to be sensitive to the ways of God. May we, like Joseph, be open to God's message. And may we, like Joseph, possess the courage to receive Mary and her Son into our homes and into our hearts.

St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, pray for us that we may have faith such as yours, to discern Gods will for us and to accept Christ into our hearts without fear. Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Rejoice!

3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

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John the Baptist is kind of odd. In last week's readings he was described as wearing clothing made of camel's hair and eating locusts and honey in the desert. It conjures up wild-man images. In the Eastern Churches he has some of the strangest iconography. He is often portrayed with wings like an angel, and holding his own severed head.

The wings indicate his role as a messenger of God. The word angel literally means "messenger" and John shares in the angelic mission of being heralds of God's Word. His severed head testifies to the death he was willing to endure for Christ.

John is the last and greatest of the prophets. In fact, Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel that "among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11). High praise indeed from the Son of God!

What makes John so great? John is great for the same reason that Mary, and all of the other saints are great. He recognizes in Christ the supreme good, and he points others toward that good. Just as Mary told the waiters at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5), John is humble enough to say, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). Both saints are great because they recognize that they are not the greatest. Both saints are great because they recognize the greatness of Christ. 

John sees in Christ the highest good, the fulfillment of all God's promises. This is why Jesus sends the disciples back to John to tell him that the blind have regained their sight, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Each of these things is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah as being signs that the time of salvation is at hand. John knows the scriptures. He knows what these signs mean. The one he has been waiting for is here.

That's why this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is called Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the entrance antiphon for the Mass, which in Latin begins Gaudete in Domino semper or "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious over anything; but in all manner of prayer, let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:4-5). We mark this day by wearing rose colored vestments in the liturgy and lighting a pink candle in our Advent wreath. It is a lessening of the penitential nature of the season, as we anticipate with excitement the approach of our Lord at Christmas.

There is a natural excitement we all feel when something good that we have been preparing for is about to happen. Students get excited the week before graduation. Engaged couples get excited the day before their wedding. We've been looking forward to these things with anticipation, and now they are so close we can almost taste them. Farmers feel this way as they watch their crops grow and can see that it is almost time for the harvest. St. James writes about this in the second reading. "See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand" (Jas 5:7-8). 

John felt that same excitement at the coming of Christ. He had been patiently waiting. Christ had already come in the Incarnation, being born to Mary. But now He was beginning to go out and proclaim the Kingdom. This is what John had been waiting for. This is why, as great as he is, he is happy to get out of the way once Jesus arrives on the scene. Because something greater than he had come.

In order to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, we should follow John's example. We need to wait patiently for the Lord. I don't just mean at Christmas when we celebrate the feast of His Nativity. And I don't just mean His second coming at the end of time. I mean His coming here and now into our hearts. He comes to us in our baptism. He comes to us when we receive the Eucharist. He comes to us in all the sacraments, and whenever we read the scriptures or spend time in prayer. But it takes time for Christ's work to come to fruition in our lives. While we wait, we must be patient. (And be patient with others as James advises in our second reading (Jas 5:9)).

We must also follow John's example and get out of the way. By that I mean we have a tendency to get in our own way when it comes to our spiritual lives. We may want to grow closer to Christ. We may want to grow in holiness. But we have other competing wants and desires. We have things that we cling to that separate us from Christ.  We want Christ, but we want these other things, too. We get in our own way. John teaches us that to allow Christ to reign in our hearts we need to suppress our own ego, our own selfish tendencies, and allow Him to increase in us. The saints in heaven have done this perfectly. This is why Jesus says "the least in the kingdom of heaven" is greater even than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11). 

We rejoice today for many reasons. We rejoice because Advent is drawing to an end and the joy of Christmas is within sight. We rejoice at the coming of Christ in history. But most of all, we rejoice because Christ still comes to us today, here and now, in our hearts. The one John the Baptist so eagerly awaited, and so excitedly pointed toward, is here. He has come. You and I need wait no longer to open our hearts to Christ and accept His gift of salvation. And so we rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice!

Friday, December 2, 2016

More than Chaff

2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

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St. John the Baptist
Cherubic angels. Shepherds. A babe lying in a manger. Eggnog and candy canes. These are the images we typically associate with the time of year leading up to the Christmas season. But what images do we find in our gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent? A brood of vipers. A coming wrath. An unquenchable fire. What happened to the cherubic angels?

Well, if you've ever looked up what a Cherub actually is (from the Latin cherubim), you know they are far from cute and cuddly. These angels are described in Ezekiel as having four faces (one each of a man, an eagle, a lion and an ox), four wings, and four arms. I imagine they would be terrifying to any who saw them, especially if they were not prepared for the encounter.

If that is true of God's angels, it is certainly true of God Himself. That is precisely why John the Baptist is trying to prepare us for our coming encounter with the Divine.

He describes Jesus, the Son of God, in rather frightening terms, with a winnowing fan is in his hand. Winnowing is a technique used in agriculture to separate grain from chaff. A farmer come harvest time wants to collect and save the grain, which is useful to make bread. But there is also a lot of other plant material; things like husks and straw. There may also be insects and other pests mixed in. All of this is useless; about all it is good for was burning. This chaff is separated out by winnowing.

St. John the Baptist describes Jesus as ready to winnow. He's going to "gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff" (the useless stuff) "he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus means business. This is scary stuff, for those who are not ready.

This is why John preaches of the need for repentance. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! ... Prepare the way of the Lord!" The word "repent" comes from the Latin poenitire, which means "to make sorry." But it is a translation of the Greek word metanoia which means "to change one's mind." So our English word "repent" means both to change your mind and to become sorry for something. That begs the question: What should we be sorry for? What do we need to change our minds about?

We want to be wheat and not chaff. We would rather be stored in Jesus' barn than be burned in an unquenchable fire. St. Johns call us to repentance implies that we are chaff and not wheat. But this is obviously a metaphor. What does it mean in real life? What makes us chaff and how can we stop being that?

Chaff is defined by what it is not. There is no part of the plant called "chaff." The farmer wants the grain of the wheat. Chaff is everything else. It's the useless bits. So let's be blunt about it. You are chaff when you are useless to God.

Why would you be useless to God? God made you, after all. Why would He make something useless? The answer is that He didn't! God made you for a reason. He made you with a purpose in mind. Your primary purpose is to know and love God, and your secondary purpose is to love your neighbor. How each of us is specifically called to fulfill this purpose in our life is called our vocation

God didn't make us to be useless, but we become so though sin. My students hear me often describe sin as "a failure to love." Each sin we commit is a failure to love God and/or neighbor (usually both). Each sin we commit is a decision to act against God's design for us. Each sin we commit is a decision to be something less than what God made us to be. Sin is useless, and it makes us useless. It makes us chaff.

St. John's call to repentance is a wake up call to stop being useless! Search your soul! Seek out and identify whatever sins lie in your heart and change your mind about them! Learn to regret these failures of love in your life. Ignore all these fell-good motivational memes telling you to live without regrets. They offer false comfort. We all have sins in our past. Own up to them so that you can repent from them. Turn away from sin and turn toward love. 

A gospel about "unquenchable fire" may not seem like good news to us. But here's the good news. Before the Master of the Harvest comes in Justice at the end of time, He comes in Mercy at the "fullness of time" (Gal 4:4). Before He comes to winnow the wheat from the chaff, He comes to lay His head in a bed of hay. I'm speaking, of course, of the first advent of Christ in the Incarnation.

St. Athanasius spoke of the Incarnation in these terms: "The Son of God became man so that we might become God." This is what is referred to as divinization. We don't literally become God, but we become like Him.We do this by cooperating with His grace.

It is interesting that John the Baptist uses the metaphor of chaff and wheat, because Jesus describes Himself as wheat. Referring to His own death and resurrection, He said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). Wheat is used to make bread, and Jesus referred to Himself as "the bread of life" (Jn 6:35). For us to become wheat, means we must become like Jesus. 

We cannot do this on our own. It requires cooperation. We must do our part and heed the call of John the Baptist. Repent from your sins! Make straight the path for Jesus into your heart! Welcome Him in! And then trust God do His work in your life. Cooperate with His will. Practice virtue. Grow in holiness. Learn to love. He did not make you to be useless. He did not make you to be chaff. He made you to be wheat, as He is wheat -- something that needs to die and be broken up so that it may bear good fruit.

A medieval depiction of winnowing.