Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Epiphany of the Lord

The celebration of the Epiphany varies greatly among the many different Christian traditions and cultures.  Originating from the Easter Church in the fourth century, the celebration of the Epiphany ranks third in importance, behind Easter and Pentecost.  While the celebration was accepted by the Western Church in the fifth century, its celebration has varied over history, but still remains an important part of our Christmas season.

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Our first reading comes from the later chapters of Isaiah, referred to as Trito-Isaiah or "third" Isaiah.  As with the other post Babylonian Exile prophecies, we see a vision of Jerusalem as a shining beacon to all the nations.  These nations both near and far, will bring their riches as tribute.  The significance of the gifts of gold and frankincense as mentioned in this prophecy are not lost on Matthew when we get to his Gospel.

Our Psalm reflects similar sentiments only instead of focusing on Jerusalem, we focus on the King and his Son.  To the ancients, king and country were one in the same, but to our Christian ears, the justice and mercy shown by the Son help us to draw a line from these ancient prophecies straight to Jesus, the Christ.

While our first readings give us a vision of a new kingdom, who gets to be part of this new Kingdom?  Our second reading from Paul's letter to the Ephesians tells us.  Here Paul states clearly and unambiguously that salvation through Christ is open to everyone.  There was some question in the early Church as to whether you had to be a Jew (or become Jewish) to be accepted as a follower of Christ.  This revelation, this epiphany from Paul, who had been a Pharisee and devout follower of Jewish Law, demonstrates the profound nature of his message... that Christ's saving light isn't just for some people, but for all people.

As is fitting for this celebration of the Epiphany, our gospel is the story of the Maji.  In a story that is unique to Matthew's gospel we have the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy... that all nations will come to see Jerusalem and her king (and his son) as a beacon of light.  The Maji in our story represent these foreign nations, and in case we're not sure, Matthew takes care to note that they offered gifts of gold and frankincense as was noted in our first reading.  But while these foreigners are able to recognize Jesus as this king of prophecy, we are told that King Herod and all the Jewish people were greatly troubled, as if to ask, "what is it that they see that we can't?"  Matthew's story is meant to help us make the distinction between being guided by fear and jealousy or being guided by God and the prophets.

Final Thoughts:
The Maji in our gospel represent one of the important revelations of the Epiphany... that these foreign nations could recognize Jesus as a king, and fulfilling the prophecies that all nations would see his people as a beacon of light.  But that's only part of the story.  The second revelation of the Epiphany is what we heard from Paul in our second reading... that the salvation of Christ is available to everyone, both Jew and Gentile.  For you see, it's one thing to recognize Jesus as a King, but it's quite another to realize that we all can be part of his kingdom.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

In accordance with the new Roman Calendar, the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated as part of the Christmas Season on the first Sunday after the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas).  And it seems only fitting, because it is the addition of a child that turns a couple into a family.  And it is that family experience that serves as the basic formation of that child.  Just as we are, in part, a product of our own family experience, Jesus too was a product, in part, of his family experience.  Both Mary and Joseph said "yes" when they were approached by the angel of the Lord, and the three of them together, as family, give us a model of family life.

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28
Psalm 105:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
1 John 3:1-2, 21-24
Luke 2:41-52

Our first reading is from the first book of Samuel.  Samuel, as we may recall, was the last of the Judges of Israel and a pivotal figure in their transition from a tribal structure to a monarchy.  So what does a story about Samuel have to do with the Holy Family?  As our passage would suggest, Samuel's parents, Hannah and Elkanah, shared something in common with Mary and Joseph... their devotion to God and their willingness to say "yes" to God's plan for their son.  In Hannah's case, she had prayed to God to have a son.  By way of giving thanks for having her prayer answered, she willingly gave up her son to the service of God by handing him over to Eli the great priest and prophet.  Hannah, like Mary, understood her son was destined by God for great things, and willingly followed.  Hannah's story is reflected in our Psalm as we sing, "blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways."

Our second reading takes us from being parents to that of being children.  In a passage from the first letter of Saint John, we are reminded that we are all "children of God."  By following Jesus and by following his commandments, we become like him.  Further, it is the Holy Spirit that reveals this truth to us.  In his letter John calls us "beloved."  Many of the first Christians who heard John's letter were considered outcasts for their belief in Christ, but he provides comfort to them (and us) by revealing that though Christ we are part of a new family, a greater family.

In our celebration of family, our Gospel from Luke give us a unique view into the family life of Jesus.  Jesus is now twelve years old, and as is the family custom, they journey to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  As Joseph and Mary are with the caravan returning back to Nazareth, they discover that Jesus is missing., so like any concerned parent, they back-track their way to Jerusalem to find him.  They eventually find him at the temple where he has been conversing with the teachers.  Jesus, like the boy he is, doesn't understand his parent's anxiety, but neither do his parents understand him when he assumes they should know why he has stayed behind at the temple.  All ends well as they all return to Nazareth, but this story, unique to Luke's gospel, gives us a special story in which we can, as both children and parents, can relate to our own family experiences.

Final Thoughts:
Family life is not always easy.  As children we find ourselves challenged by parents, teachers, care-givers, and siblings.  As parents we find ourselves challenged by our children, our spouses, our careers.  Yet even with all its challenges, our family lives give us purpose and teach us love.  The family unit is the most basic element of humanity and is one of those aspects of our humanity that we share with Jesus.  The blessings of family life, and the challenges of family life.  This feast day is a reminder that Jesus is our brother, and through him we are all children of God.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent

This Sunday is the 4th and final Sunday of Advent.  The Nativity is quickly approaching, and like an expectant parent, the reality of what is to come is beginning to set in.  During the Sundays of Advent we’ve been hearing the prophecy of God sending us a Savior, and now with that moment nearly upon us, we see the prophecy in our readings becoming much more specific, giving flesh to what was just an idea, leaving no doubt that this is going to happen, and that we should be prepared…

Micah 5:1-4a
Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

Our first reading comes from the Book of the Prophet Micah.  While Micah is a contemporary of Isaiah, and his prophetic message is similar, Micah is not a native of Jerusalem like Isaiah, so through his voice we see the view of an outsider looking in.  Though we don’t hear from Micah very often in the Liturgy, his prophecy is the one that gives us the birthplace of our Savior… Bethlehem-Ephrathah.  While Bethlehem is only about 5 miles south of Jerusalem, we need to remember that Luke’s Gospel tells us that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, about 100 miles north of Bethlehem.  The difficulty of their journey is that much more apparent when you look at the geography.  Micah’s prophecy tells us that this new ruler will have origins of old, but will stand firm and bring the children of Israel back to the Lord.

Our Psalm complements Mica’s message by reminding us that from his thrown the Son of Man will lead is to salvation as we sing “Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.”  It’s also a prayer for the Lord to take care of is vine (Israel) so that it can be made strong.

Our second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Here we are reminded that the Lord does not want the holocausts and sin offerings of the ancient tradition, but instead wants our hearts.  The death of Jesus marks the final sacrifice.  Now to show our devotion to the Lord we are asked to simply do the Lord’s will, that is, to love him and love one another.  In the spirit of Advent we need to consecrate ourselves to his will.

We conclude our readings with Luke’s “Hail Mary” passage.  The words, coming from Elizabeth, form the basis our most common Catholic prayer as the unborn John the Baptist leaps in her womb at the sight of Mary, pregnant with Jesus.  The prophecy is being fulfilled.  The players are all in places and our stage is now set for the celebration of the joyful celebration of the Nativity.

Final Thoughts:
Preparing for the Nativity is like preparing for the coming of a child.  Just as the typical term of a pregnancy gives new parents time to prepare for the coming of their child, the season of Advent gives us time to prepare for the coming of our Lord.  To be fair… preparing for Christ’s second coming seems to be a very daunting task, something many fear.  The idea of “the coming of the Lord” is almost too much for us to grasp.  But Advent teaches us that we need to approach the Lord’s coming with joy, and to help us understand the full nature of this joy we cloth our celebration in the memory of the Nativity.  For nothing is more real than the birth of a child.  All that prophecy through the ages is now made manifest in a manger.  Something we can touch, something we can hold, something we can cherish.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

3rd Sunday of Advent

“Shout for Joy!”  The opening lines of our first reading express the feelings we should be having during this third Sunday of Advent.  Also known as Gaudete Sunday (Latin for “rejoice”), we celebrate that we have now past the half-way point of our penitent reflection… the “hump day” of Advent, if you will.  What have we to be so joyful about?  Our readings provide the answer…

Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Psalm 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
Philippians 4:4-7

Our first reading comes from the Book of the Prophet Zephaniah.  Though we don’t hear from Zephaniah very often in our Sunday Liturgies, and though the book itself isn’t that long (only 3 chapters), the importance of his message not only can be seen in his predecessors Jeremiah and Baruch, but may even have had a profound effect on the Judean monarchy itself by moving King Josiah to begin his campaign of religious reform.  Our passage this week, though similar to the passages we heard from both Jeremiah and Baruch these past two weeks, seems to come with even greater earnestness and joy.  Though he has seen the fall of Jerusalem, he sees a glorious return for the people of God.  This joy is further echoed in our Psalm as we sing “Cry out with joy and gladness:  form among you is the great and Holy One of Israel” which shows us that the Lord is our savior… an image that works for both our Hebrew and our Christian interpretations of this Psalm.

Our second reading comes from the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Also echoing the joy in our previous readings, Paul exhorts us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!”  That through our kindness, and by offering everything up to God, we will in turn find the peace of God through Christ Jesus.  Another way to look at this passage would be to see it as Paul’s version of “Don’t worry, be happy!”

After all this rejoicing then, our Gospel from Luke takes a more somber, practical tone.  Picking up shortly after where we left off last week with the introduction of John the Baptist, we now see him surrounded by a crowd asking him questions.  They want to know what they must do to avoid God’s wrath, and he provides sound advice to everyone… To share what they have.  To the tax collectors:  don’t collect more than prescribed.  To the soldiers:  don’t extort or bear false witness.  This mixed audience (Jews and non-Jews) start to think that he might be the Christ, but he quickly refutes that idea, stating that “one mightier than I is coming.”

Final Thoughts:
Christmas is coming… we can really start to feel it (especially when the weather gets cooler).  For students and children they can almost taste the joy of the coming winter break from school.  For others, the coming holiday means a satisfying break from work.  Liturgically this joy is represented by the rose colored candle of our Advent Wreath, and the rose colored vestments which may be worn by the priest at Mass.  But though we are joyful, we’re not there yet… not quite ready.  As John the Baptist reminds us, the one who is to come is preparing to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Our salvation is secured by our Baptism, but how have we been living up to our mission of living and preaching the Gospel?  Now is the time to let our joy transform us, like it did for Ebenezer Scrooge in the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.  In these final weeks of Advent, we need to seek forgiveness and reconciliation… let go of the baggage that holds us down and allow the joy of the season, and of our faith, to shine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent

A promise fulfilled.  This is the promise of Advent.  This is the promise of Christ.  As we begin our new Liturgical cycle with this season of Advent, we take a lesson from the prophets… that our hope for salvation will be fulfilled.  How do I know this?  Let’s look at our readings for this week…

Baruch 5:1-9
Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
Luke 3:4, 6

Our first reading is from the Book of Baruch, who was an assistant to the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, as we may remember from our readings last week, is one of the prophets of the Babylonian Exile.  The Book of Baruch is reflective of that same period, though unlike the Book of Jeremiah, no known Hebrew version of this book has been found, making it one of the Bible’s Deuterocanonical books (those included in the Catholic Bible, but not the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles).  In our passage for this week, Jerusalem (currently in Exile) is told to “take off your robe of mourning and misery” and to “put on the splendor of glory from God forever.”  In other words, Jerusalem shall rise again, and be a beacon to God’s glory.  God is making a promise to his people, and though it might sound like a tall order given their situation, our Psalm reminds us “the Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”

Our second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In a passage from the letter’s opening greeting, Paul encouraging the community (and us) to continue the work that has begun, and that in doing so, will be prepared for “the day of Christ.”  That while we gain salvation through Christ, we also need to stay vigilant in following the path of the Gospel in order to maintain that state of grace.

Our Gospel from Luke then sets the stage for our journey toward salvation by literally setting the stage.  The opening of this third chapter has Luke putting his narrative into a specific historical context (in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberious Caesar).  This device not only provides a historical context for the listener, but is used to reinforce the fact that Jesus was part of that history.  Not a myth.  Not made up.  An actual person placed here by God in that place at that time to fulfill the promise God made through his prophets.  And now our gospel presents us with the last of the prophets before Jesus, John the Baptist, who through the words of Isaiah, has come to tell us that salvation is at hand.

Final Thoughts:
When I was boy the Promise of Christmas was that Santa Clause would come with presents on Christmas Eve, provided of course, that we managed to stay on the “nice” list.  And if your childhood was like mine, nothing could replace the joy we felt on Christmas morning to find the stockings stuffed and the tree surrounded by presents.  As adults now, however, you may feel you’re well past that understanding of the Promise of Christmas.  But I’ve got news for you… for according to our readings the Promise of Christmas remains alive and well and waiting for us.  Santa, in this case, is Christ himself, and his gift:  Salvation!  And if we want a truly Catholic understanding of what the second coming will be like… remember what it was like when you were a child on Christmas Eve.