Homily: The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus - YouTube

5th Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Ezekiel 37:12-14
Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

The readings today all revolve around the theme of death and resurrection, quite fitting given that next Sunday we have Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord. Additionally, there’s been a trajectory of our readings over this Lenten season.

The first Sunday of Lent we had the temptations in the desert, as Jesus purified his humanity to rely on God alone for his mission. He would accomplish what he came to, by the will and power of the Father, despite all temptations. Likewise, he gave us the model for resisting temptations: to apply the wisdom of the holy scriptures, and disciplining ourselves against the three-fold concupiscence of lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and pride.

The second Sunday of Lent we had the Transfiguration, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity and his fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets, and assuring his followers that despite appearances, we are to listen to him and trust that everything is happening according to God’s plan, including the betrayal and passion.

The third Sunday of Lent we had the Samaritan woman at the well, and the desire of Jesus to unite himself intimately with his people, both Jews and gentiles, into a new covenant of living water and spirit and life.

Then last week, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we had the healing of the man born blind, the reading that began with the question of whose sin caused the man to be born blind, and Jesus’ answer that it was not any personal sin that caused it, but that through it, God may be glorified, and Jesus may reveal his glory.

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, our gospel reading is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The raising of Lazarus leads directly to the pharisees plotting to kill Jesus, then the anointing of Jesus by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, and then the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, which is our reading for next Sunday.

The first reading for today is from of the Old Testament story of the valley of dry bones. Israel is in their Babylonian exile, and God shows the prophet Ezekiel this valley of lifeless bones, and God instructs Ezekiel: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!” so the bones start rattling and coming together, and forming skeletons, then sinews and flesh form on the bones, yet without life. So then God tells Ezekiel, “Say to the breath: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet; [then] He said to me: ‘…these bones are the whole house of Israel! They are saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” Then our first reading is God’s response: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them and bring you back to the land of Israel… O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live… thus you shall know that I am the LORD.” If that sounds a bit familiar, we use it in the thirteenth station of the cross. Israel is dead in their sin, convicted of their corruption, and sentenced with exile from their land and separation from God’s presence in his holy temple. In this prophecy, God is promising that Israel will be brought to life again, and more gloriously than before, and when it happens, they will respond in joyful faith. While they were joyful when they were freed from Babylon to return to and rebuild Jerusalem, the prophecy is fulfilled in Christ, who gives the people of God the Holy Spirit, the wellspring of living water within them.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus gives the last of his signs before his passion: he performs the divine action of raising the dead to life. Of course, this event isn’t the fullness of the resurrection in Christ. Whatever might be different in the new life Lazarus has received, he again will still die another mortal death. But the point is that only God can raise from the dead. This sign that Jesus is God will bring many to believe in him, and follow him to Jerusalem, to witness his death, and believe in his resurrection, which is foreshadowed by his raising of Lazarus.

There’s something relevant to today’s situation at the beginning of our gospel. Jesus knows Lazarus is about to die, and he chooses to delay his return, as it says, out of love for Lazarus. That’s super interesting. Why does Jesus do that? Well, it’s one thing for Jesus to heal a sick person. But it’s a much greater thing for Jesus to raise a dead person. He’s going to give Lazarus the honor of being the beneficiary of his greatest sign, which is going to lead to a great increase of faith. I know many of us are getting a bit weary of being separated from Jesus in the sacraments and the church. But perhaps this is a parallel—that Jesus is delaying our reunion with him as an instrument of a great increase of faith, and he will bring the dead back to life! So we trust in Jesus, and we wait for him with hearts expanded in faith.

Jesus wept - WikipediaThe second thing to point out in this delay, is that he knew Lazarus was very ill and going to die. He knew it would cause great anguish and suffering to Mary and Martha. They both lamented that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. But Jesus chose to allow all that to happen. Jesus didn’t kill Lazarus, nor was Mary and Martha’s suffering assigned to them as punishment for something they did. In fact, Jesus shared in their suffering. In English, it’s the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept.” There’s a lot going on in those two words. He is close to the brokenhearted. He is God who is compassion, love, and mercy. He is God who grieves our separation from him more than we do.

But what if Martha and Mary found out at that moment that Jesus deliberately delayed returning until after Lazarus’ death? I think they might be a bit confused, a bit angry maybe. But at that moment, they didn’t know the plan. We struggle when we’re stuck part-way through the plan, and we don’t know where God is leading. But if we persevere in faith, the road of suffering leads to resurrection. The promised land is worth the wilderness.

Martha, ever the more active of the two sisters, rushed out to meet Jesus, and in their dialogue, she makes a confession of faith rivaling the greatness of Peter and Thomas. “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’” Then we have one of the “I AM” statements of Jesus, where he uses that divine name, I AM, and reveals part of the mystery of his identity, his mission, and his power. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” As Saint John wrote his gospel to his community suffering persecution and martyrdom, no doubt this was a message of great consolation and confidence, allowing them to bravely profess their faith during their suffering.  

Ending with this, this assurance of death leading to eternal life is the message of our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Brothers and sisters: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” There’s that fulfillment of the prophecy from first reading. The Spirit of God dwells in us. We put our old selves to death in the sacrament of baptism, and rise to the life of the Spirit dwelling within us. So we do not live to serve our fallen desires, we are redeemed from our slavery to mammon, and now belong to Jesus, our redeemer. We are not of the flesh, we are of the spirit. “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” And this is the point of all our readings: that Lazarus is our assurance, our sign, we have the promise that if we deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him, we will share in the resurrection of Christ, and live forever in the pure light of his divine glory.

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Homily: The Man Born Blind

Image result for man born blind

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) Laetare Sunday

1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7,10-13a
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4,5,6
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Continuing the pattern of having long gospel readings for Lent, we have a long gospel reading today. I know there’s an option for a shorter reading. But I prefer the longer option. It’s more important for you to hear the word of God, rather than just my commentary about it. It’s the Word himself, Jesus, who is the way, the truth, the life. I just try to help us to match it up with our own lives and experience. With such an extended reading, we’ll just take a look at the general themes that we’re being given by the church, in this choice of readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent.

This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so it is Laetare Sunday! Laetare is the Latin for Rejoice! from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon in Latin…

Latin: Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestræ.

English: Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.

Image result for laetare jerusalemWhy are we called to rejoice? Because the season of Lent points us to the celebration of the Lord’s redemptive passion and glorious resurrection! And today, we’re half way there! Also, it is to remind us that even in Lenten sacrifices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—and even in the suffering from our current quarantine situation—we are called to give thanks to God in every circumstance (1 Thess 5:18), and that it is right to lift up our hearts to the Lord, to give him thanks and praise, always and everywhere.

The first theme we’ll look at together is the opening question of our gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples saw a blind man, and they asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” This is important and comes back later in the reading, because the pharisees say the same thing: he was blind because he was born in sin. The faithful are always faced with an apparent paradox: if God is all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil and suffering? The Church in her wisdom, has something of an answer to this question. God doesn’t will evil and suffering. And he most often doesn’t overpower the laws of nature with a supernatural act that removes evil and healing. But because, in his perfection, he knows that particular evil and suffering will happen, his plan accommodates the evil and suffering, if they are responded to in a holy, faithful way, to lead to greater holiness and faith (conversely, if someone reacts with weak faith, he may reject the opportunity to grow, and reject faith; so perhaps this is an example of Jesus words, “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away“). God knows that suffering can be good, in that it often has the effect of stripping away our distractions, and focusing us on what is truly important, what truly matters and endures. So this man in the gospel isn’t blind because it’s punishment for sins. He’s blind because that’s what happened naturally, but God is going to use it for an increase of holiness and faith.

The second theme follows right after that: the contrast between light and dark. This is a contrast that appears all over the gospel of John, right from the first words: “Through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5). Jesus says in our gospel reading, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This ties into our second reading from St. Paul: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light… Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness,” and then Paul quotes what is probably a hymn at the time, based on Isaiah, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” As we talked about a few weeks ago, after Jesus identifies himself as the Light of the World, he will also tells his followers that we are the light of the world, and we are to let his light shine out through us, for others to see him, that they might give glory to God and be healed and saved by him.

The third theme is the healing miracle itself. This is a strange thing Jesus does to heal this man. He doesn’t just say, “be healed.” Jesus “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, ‘Go wash in the Pool of Siloam’… So, he went and washed, and came back able to see.” There was a tradition in Israel (especially in the Essene community, which seemed to have had a strong influence on John the Baptist and Jesus) that in the Creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, when God formed Adam from the dust, God used his own spit (in some mysterious way), to make the clay from which he formed Adam. And that’s key, because that’s what Jesus is doing: he’s repeating the act of creation, creating anew this blind man’s eyes, anointing and healing his vision. So we have Jesus being clearly presented as performing a divine action. And it hearkens to Jesus’ mission: to recreate, to restore the world, to make all things new in Himself. Jesus told the man then to wash in the “Pool of Siloam,” which was fed from the Gihon River, which was named after one of the four rivers in the garden of Eden.

And throughout the gospel reading, we have this progression of faith from the man born blind. First he calls Jesus a man, then he calls Jesus a prophet. In his exchange with the Pharisees, he defends Jesus as a man sent from God. Then in his exchange at the end, he says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe,” and worships him. Of course, worship belongs to the Lord God alone.

And finally, the fourth theme I want to bring out, the exchange at the end of the reading between Jesus and the pharisees. Jesus declares, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not also blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.’

This is ironic response is similar to another response from Jesus to the pharisees, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners.” Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are just as much sinners, just as spiritually sick, just as blind, as the people they think of as worse off than themselves. The pharisees think they are not sick, without sin, not blind. But because they fail to see their own sinfulness, they are not open to the forgiveness they need, and so they remain spiritually sick, blind, and sinful. Jesus says he came for judgment, to reveal judgment: The judgment is that those who know they are spiritually sick and blind and ask for healing will receive it. But those who are too prideful to be aware that they are being spiritually sick and blind will not ask for healing, and so they will remain spiritually sick and blind.

And that ties to our first reading, about the anointing of David by Samuel. Samuel had anointed Saul as king, and that had gone badly. So Samuel had it in his mind what the new king should be like. But he was looking with the eyes of fallen humanity, not with the eyes of God. It took God to reveal to Samuel, David as the true king, the one who would be a shepherd after his own heart. And of course, our Psalm was that beautiful and beloved Psalm 23, written by David, the shepherd boy who became the shepherd king: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul

So why these readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent? I mean, they’re great, but why now, in Lent? Because they are chosen to encourage the catechumens of the Church who are preparing for baptism, preparing to be made new, to be re-created by Christ. In the Ancient Church baptism was sometimes called the sacrament of illumination, of receiving the Light of Christ (symbolized by receiving their baptismal candle), and illuminating our lives to be his light in the world, and to see the world by his light, having our vision healed by grace. Like the blind man said, and quoted in the hymn, Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see.”

According to commentary from Dr. John Bergsma, there is a particular appropriateness, then, of having Psalm 23 in our readings today. In the catechesis of the Church Fathers, Psalm 23 was one of the favorite texts for sacramental instruction, taken as a typology of the sacraments:

(1) “Beside restful waters he leads me, he refreshes my soul” — these are the waters of Baptism, that give us rest from our sins, and “refresh” (better: “restore”) our souls by infusing us with divine life.

(2) “You spread a table before me in the sight of my foes”—this is the altar, the banquet of the Eucharist, which gives us courage and strength in the midst of the persecutions we experience in this life at the hands of our foes—Satan, his demons, and our persecutors.

(3) “You anoint my head with oil”—this is the oil of Confirmation, that strengthens us to give witness (in Greek, “mártyras”, the root of our word, “martyr,” one who witnesses with the full measure of life and death) despite the opposition we encounter from others.

(4) “My cup overflows”—this is the Eucharistic cup, which always overflows with the Holy Spirit, giving us new life.

Lastly, I want to revisit the theme I’ve been trying to get across this whole time we’ve been suffering through the temporary closing of the churches. That with fallen, human eyes focused on the world, we might take pleasure in the lifting of the obligation for Mass, as a relief and a welcome break. But for those with eyes (and heart) healed by grace, we can see this truly as a time to grow in longing for God, longing for the sacraments of the church. Perhaps this is the healing and renewal of love for the sacraments that the church needs right now, that God is providing by bringing good out of suffering. I posted online a quote from the catechism that during the season of Lent, the church unites herself to the mystery of Jesus in the desert, in the arid wilderness, hungry, thirsty, and longing for comfort, as he is prepared during this time to be strengthened, to be focused on his mission, to reaffirm his reliance on God alone. And so we can ask Jesus to unite ourselves to him, and to the man born blind, that we might see by the light of faith; we can ask Jesus that when our exile, our period in the wilderness, is over, that our purification will be profound and enduring, that ever after, we would take no part in the fruitless works of darkness, but to live as children of light in the Lord.

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Homily: The Meeting at the Well


Our newly acquired retired permanent deacon (he retired and moved to the area, and helps out generously!) Deacon Jim had approached me a few weeks ago, and asked if he could preach on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, because he had a homily on the Woman at the Well he wanted to give. I was all to happy to give him the opportunity. He doesn’t preach much anymore, and the people of the parish should hear more from him, and are probably happy to hear less from me once in a while! So this is my homily from the last time these readings came up in the lectionary cycle. God bless, and may it be fruitful!

3rd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17:3-7
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

John Smith was the first non-Catholic to move into a very Catholic neighborhood.  On the Fridays of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak, while all of his neighbors were eating fish for supper. The men of the neighborhood decided that he was tempting them with his steak each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore, and so they decided to convert John, which they successfully did. As he was baptizing John, the priest said: “You were born a heathen, you were raised a heathen, but now you are a Catholic.” The next year’s Lenten season came around, and on the first Friday of Lent, when the neighborhood was sitting down to their tuna fish dinner, came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill. The neighborhood men decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent. They arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but now you are a fish.”

The gospel reading for this Sunday is thick and savory, like the smell of a good steak on a grill. There are many layers in this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. As usual, as much as I try to lay out before you the rich feast available in the divine word, much of it has to be left out, because there’s just so much that God has prepared for us. 

If you’re a first century Jew encountering this gospel story, you’re going to be struck by some things that we in our modern day aren’t attuned to. For example, the well. In Jewish scripture, when a man is waiting at a well and a woman approaches, there is going to be a nuptial aspect to the event. Many figures in Jewish history—Isaac, Jacob, Moses, all had this theme of the man meeting a woman at a well. But in this case, it’s no ordinary man and no ordinary woman, and so no ordinary nuptial theme.

Second, we have to understand who the Samaritans were. When the Assyrians dispersed the ten northern tribes, they settled the land themselves, and there was a lot of intermarriage between the Israelite Samaritans and the pagan Assyrians. So Samaria became the image of this half-breed, half-Jewish abomination. Their pagan religions eventually gave way to the worship of God, but with their own scriptures, their own priesthood, and their own place of worship (in Gerezim, not in Jerusalem). They worshiped God, but on their own terms, not on God’s terms. So there was this rejection of Samaritans, and when Jesus, a Jew, asks this Samaritan woman for a drink from the well, she’s shocked.

Image result for springs of living waterThird, we have to understand the term, “living water.” The common meaning of “living water” was moving water, like a stream or a spring, water that seemed to have a life of its own, in contrast to the stagnant water of  a pond, or even a well. Jesus offers the woman “living water.” Not just natural water for natural life, but eternal life. She doesn’t quite get it—she wants it so she doesn’t have to come to the well to draw more water. But she asks, so Jesus has the opportunity take her to the next level.

All of a sudden, Jesus moves the topic away from the well, and onto her and her sin. He knows her heart. And she totally changes the subject. We have a hard time grasping what a scandal it would have been for her to be five-time divorced and living presently with a man she’s not married to. She would have been a pariah, shunned. Some have suggested that’s why she’s drawing water at the well alone at noon, and not with the other women.

In the midst of this discussion, she brings up the Messiah. And he identifies himself. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one speaking with you.’” In the Hebrew, it says, “He who is speaking to you, I AM,” explicitly using the divine name.

Just then the disciples return, and are surprised. Why would the disciples be startled that Jesus is talking to this woman? He talks to women all the time. But Jesus is talking to a woman alone by a well. As we said, that (in the minds of the first century Jews) had nuptial connotations. They get it. It looks like he’s courting a future spouse. Why is he doing that? We’ll come back to that.

The whole thing about food, and sowing and reaping might sound like a tangent, but it’s not. Jesus ties it all together himself, saying, “I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.” It’s a Eucharistic image! He’s referring to the Samaritans. The Jews saw half-Jewish unwashed mongrels, but Jesus sees a field of souls ripe and ready for the harvest, like wheat. The seeds were planted by Moses, Isaac, Jacob, and are now ready to be gathered by the apostles.

So what’s it all about? The image of Jesus as not just the Messiah, the Savior, but Jesus as the Divine Bridegroom who has come in person to wed humanity through the new covenant in his blood. So the woman at the well (for all her sin, yet her thirst for forgiveness, and faith in Christ) is a bride, and Jesus the bridegroom. The Samaritan woman is an image of the Church. She’s both Israelite and pagan, Jews and Gentiles, waiting for a savior to come and save them from their sin, from their adultery and idolatry. Jesus the Bridegroom meets this woman, at a well, offering her living water. Another meaning of “living water” was the ritual cleansing water of the bridal bath. She would wash in “living water,” like a baptism. So when Jesus promises this living water, he is proposing to His Bride, symbolized by the Samaritan woman, washed clean of her sin, without spot or blemish.

Image result for blood and water from jesus sideSo what does that mean for us? When Jesus is pierced on the cross, it’s the living water and blood of the covenant, the life of His Bride, the Church, that flow from his side (which just might be related to Adam having his bride taken from his side; and may also be related to the psalm of life-giving water flowing from the right side of the temple, from the sanctuary…). And when do we individually receive the living waters that wash us clean from our sins? In our baptism. When you get baptized, all the sin and the effects of sin are washed away at that moment of baptism. This reading is preparing catechumens to receive the living water at the celebration of their baptism (and the other sacraments of initiation) at the Easter Vigil.

CCC 1617 beautifully ties this together: baptism, Eucharist, and matrimony: “The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already, Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.

Our catechumens are entering into this mystery. At the Easter Vigil, they are going to receive the baptism, the anointing, to enter into the Eucharistic wedding feast as new members of the bride (and of the body of Christ, for in marriage, the two become one).

If you take our first reading and the Psalm, about God providing life-giving water in the desert, and not hardening our heart, and combine it with the Gospel of the woman at the well, it’s about repentance. We want to be like the Samaritan woman, who doesn’t harden her heart. God has the power to make the living water spring from the Rock to wash you of your sin. That’s what he did Good Friday. The Rock is Jesus, the life-giving water springing from the Rock is the covenant, the water and blood that flowed from his side. Now the living water flows to us in baptism, washing us, to be members of His bride, the Church.

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Homily: Jesus’ Triple Temptation

Image result for jesus tempted in the wilderness matthew

1st Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The Lectionary is set up on a 3-year cycle of readings. Each of the three years, we work through a different “Synoptic” Gospel book (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and each year the first Sunday of Lent features the temptations of Jesus in the desert, from that year’s gospel. Our reading can raise certain questions: Why does Jesus go out into the desert? Why is He there for 40 days? And what is the significance of these three temptations? Are they really temptations for Jesus?

The first two of these we can take care of in quick order. When the scriptures use the number forty, it refers to a period of testing, purification, and preparation. In a similar way, the desert, too, was the place for testing, purification, and preparation. It was a reminder of the years of the Exodus, when Israel was being purified of their wounds of Egyptian slavery and paganism, tested in their obedience and faith in God, His Law, and the Covenant, and prepared to be God’s people and enter into the Promised Land. So Jesus, after his Baptism, was driven by the Spirit into the desert (wilderness), fasting for forty days and forty nights, preparing him for the challenges of his earthly ministry, purifying his will, that he would fully embrace the mission from the Father: to be the Lamb of God, who by his cross and resurrection, would take away the sins of the world.

So why these particular temptations? “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Jesus was human, and had been fasting for forty days. I’m hungry after forty minutes. Yes, it was a real temptation for Jesus! His natural desire would have been to satisfy his hunger with food. But he responds instead by quoting Isaiah: “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.

Then the devil…made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you…” Interestingly the devil quotes from the Scriptures. Also interesting, this is from Psalm 91, which in Jewish tradition, was a deliverance prayer, a psalm of exorcism. So the devil knows the power of this verse. But of course he misuses it, and pulls it out context. So be careful of people who do that, too (the next line in the psalm is about trampling the serpent under foot!).  Jesus is being tempted with pride: show everyone your power, and they will follow you. But Jesus again quotes Isaiah, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” His mission wasn’t to overwhelm the people with his divine power, but to convince them by winning their free choice to follow him, by his miracles, by his parables, by his love for them.

Then the devil…showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” The devil is showing Jesus all the kingdoms—all the souls—of the world. He says, “I will give them to you; all you have to do is worship me.” It’s the temptation to save humanity without the cross. Jesus responds: “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve,” again quoting Isaiah. St. Peter will a bit later repeat Satan’s temptation to bypass the cross, and Jesus will rebuke him with a similar response: “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus will do the Father’s will, in the way the Father wills: he will lay down his life, and show us the depths of divine love.

These three temptations of Jesus are called the “triple concupiscence,” the three primal weaknesses in human nature. The 1st letter of Saint John describes this three-fold disorder: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” And they go back even to Adam and Eve before the Fall, which is our first reading. We can see how the devil tempts Eve toward the forbidden fruit. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.

So first, the “lust of the flesh.” This is the desire for pleasure of the bodily senses, the desire for disordered pleasure, or to pursue pleasure in a disordered way, or to a disordered extent. Eve saw that the fruit was good for food. She wanted to taste it. And Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread.

Second, the “lust of the eyes.” This is the desire for possession, to want something bad, or to want something in a disordered way, or to a disordered extent . Eve saw that the fruit was “pleasing to the eyes,” and she wanted to have it, even though it was forbidden. Jesus was tempted by the presentation of all the kingdoms of the earth. It could be his, if he would just worship the devil instead of God.

And third, “pride of life.” Eve saw that the fruit was desirable for gaining wisdom (for becoming like God, but apart from God), and Jesus was tempted to exercise power in human terms, overpowering our human freedom to choose to have faith.

Any temptation we endure, or sin we commit, is one of these three areas of temptation: pleasure, possession, or pride. The triple concupiscence. I’ve used this image before, connecting the triple concupiscence with the seven capital vices:

Triple Concupiscence and Vices


The Catechism (540) tells us, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” How do we do that during Lent? Well, on Ash Wednesday, the gospel reading was Jesus’ teaching on Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.

Jesus calls us to fast — to strengthen our will’s power over our bodily appetites — in order to overcome our disordered desire for pleasure.

He calls us give alms, to the poor, to the church — to free ourselves from affection for our possessions, or marks of social status, and their tendency to rule over us — in order to overcome our disordered desire of possession.

And he calls us to pray — humility is the antidote to pride. When we pray, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not; we are dust and to dust we will return.

So we can unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert… and on the cross! It’s ultimately on the cross that Jesus completely defeats these three temptations (1) his lack of pleasure, in the physical pain, thirst, and agony of the crucifixion (2) his lack of possessions, crucified naked, and even giving away his mother to the blessed disciple; (3) and his definitive defeat of pride, in the humiliations of crucifixion, exacerbated by the mocking of his persecutors. Exercising our penitential practices of Lent, we will be able to resist these three primal temptations of the devil, and of the world.

The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love) also relate to the triple concupiscence. Hope requires that we trust in the Lord’s Promises if we conform ourselves to His Truth (overcoming the lust of the flesh, our pleasures). Charity requires that we selflessly give in love of our neighbor, especially the poor (overcoming the lust of the eyes, our possessions). Faith requires that we put God, and our relationship with Him, first above all (overcoming our pride).

Also, now that I think of it, we are called to deny ourselves (pleasure), pick up our cross (possession), and follow Him (pride). I’m sure many other sets of three like these could be part of the divine teaching for overcoming the triple concupiscence, the three-fold weakness of human nature.  

As Jesus went into the desert to recapitulate (and redeem) Israel’s 40 years in the desert, we can participate in it, through Jesus, as well. We, too, are being purified of our wounds of slavery and false beliefs, tested in our obedience and faith in God, His Law, and the Covenant, and prepared to be God’s people and enter into the Promised Land of Heaven.

In Greek mythology, creatures called the Sirens lived on an island and, with the irresistible spell of their song, they lured sailors to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island. When Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, was sailing past that place, he put wax in the ears of his sailors, so that they might not hear the sirens’ singing. But King Tharsius, who also made the journey, chose a better way. He took along with him the great musician Orpheus. Orpheus sang a song so beautiful that it drowned out the sound of the lovely, fatal voices of the sirens. The best way to break the charm of this world’s alluring voices is not trying to shut out the world, but to have our hearts and lives filled with the sweeter music of faith, hope, and love: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When we are enthralled by our love and desire for heaven, then the alluring voices of the lesser things of this world —pleasure, possession, and pride—will be powerless over us.

The Prayer after Communion

Renewed now with heavenly bread,
by which faith is nourished, hope increased,
and charity strengthened, (a reference to the theological virtues)
we pray, O Lord,
that we may learn to hunger for Christ,
the true and living Bread,
and strive to live by every word
which proceeds from your mouth. (a reference to the first temptation, and Jesus’ response)
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Homily: Salt, Light, City on a Hill

Image result for city set on a hill

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Isaiah 58:7-10
Psalm 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9,
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

Our beautiful Masses last weekend celebrated Candlemas, the mystery of the Presentation of the infant Jesus into the covenant people of Israel, and Jesus being recognized by Simeon as the light of the world, and the glory of God’s people. In our gospel reading today, Jesus tells his disciples, “YOU are the light of the world.” So, let’s reflect a bit on that.

Jesus uses these three images today: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are a city set on a mountain (or hill, depending on your translation). These are really three temple images.

Jesus says you are the salt of the earth. When God establishes the right and holy worship for Israel in the giving of the Law in the Old Testament books the law and the prophets, there are many mentions of salt in the context of offering sacrifice and celebrating the liturgy. Salt was an ancient symbol of purity, of preservation, and of flavoring, even before and outside ancient Israel. Salt was not only required for the worthy offering of the temple sacrifice, but the law calls the salted sacrifices a “covenant of salt to last forever before the LORD, for you and for your descendants with you” (Num 18:19). The commentary on that verse says, “The reference may perhaps be to the preservative power of salt, but more likely the phrase refers to the custom of [partaking of] salt together to render a contract unbreakable… as an ancient symbol of friendship and alliance.” So, we’ll leave that for a moment, and go to the next image.

Jesus says you are the light of the world. Again, to connect it to the temple, the Jews believed that in the end times the Temple would be the source of eternal light for the people of Israel. The Jewish festival of tabernacles gave a taste of that promise in its celebration as the temple courts were brightly lit 24-hours a day by huge menorahs that had to be lit by men on ladders. This sight is described by Jewish historians, probably a little exaggerated, as “no shadow being in Jerusalem” during these ancient celebrations. Also it is interesting that it was at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus says to his disciples about himself, “I am the light of the world.”

And thirdly, a city set on a hill. The most famous city on a hill in Israel was of course Jerusalem. And the highest point of Jerusalem was Mount Zion, and the highest point of Mount Zion was the monumental structure of the Temple. The scriptures are full of images of all the nations, all the kings and people would someday be in a steady stream up toward Jerusalem with their gifts and offerings to joyfully worship the one true God, whose temple was in Jerusalem, and all the world would be part of God’s covenant, and follow the wisdom and truth of the Torah, the law and “instruction,” for the flourishing of humanity and all of creation. 

So, scripturally, these are some of the connections that Jesus made in this short reading, and the connections that his first-century Jewish listeners would have made as they listened to him speaking. So, what does this have to do with us?

Our other readings connect to our gospel with the same image that follows from last week’s gospel and our celebration of Candlemas: that Jesus is the light of the world. But flipping that around, Jesus calls us the light of the world. It’s not that we are the source of our own light, but we shine with his light, in our own individual way of making his light shine out through us.

Perfect example, our first reading from Isaiah. Israel had returned from the Babylonian exile, and were rebuilding their society, but things were not going as well as they had envisioned. Their society was not flourishing. And Isaiah points out that their society is suffering because the poor and vulnerable are suffering. He admonishes them: “Thus says the LORD: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed… Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! … If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness…”  Isaiah is not just pointing out the way of personal flourishing, but communal, societal flourishing: how to be citizens of the City of God.

Our psalm develops the same message: “The just man is a light in darkness to the upright. Well for the man who is gracious and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.  An evil report he shall not fear; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steadfast…” This isn’t about boasting of our uprightness, doing it for show and praise. Jesus warns against that just a little bit later, and that’s our reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s to be gracious. Humble. As the Amish say, “We believe in letting our light shine, but not shining it in the eyes of other people.” Be a solid, noble, joyful example of the well-ordered life of grace. That’s the example of Jesus, his light that he gave his disciples. And it’s the life he gives to us… his life in us that we receive in the sacrament of Baptism, and his life that we receive in his example, as he lived out his divine nature as the word of God in the flesh. Everything Jesus did was both for God and for others, at the same time. That by his words and actions, God would be glorified. “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

Remembering these are Temple images, salt, light, and the city on a hill, we might be tempted to ask, if each one of us is a temple, each having within us the presence of God, why do we need to go to church? Yes, it’s true that St. Paul says each of us is a temple of God’s presence. But we are at the same time living stones of the temple, in a different, more magnificent way. When I taught marching band at Lebanon Catholic, especially over the pre-season summer rehearsals, I sometimes had to chastise the kids for wasting rehearsal time because they hadn’t learned their music. And then we would have to go through their individual part, as we worked through it while everyone else was waiting. I told them, you practice at home, you rehearse here. At home you practice: you do the hard work of learning your part, so each of us can play our individual parts. Then we come together at rehearsal, and learn how to play our parts together, as one ensemble, one multi-voice musical unity. The same is true here. We are temples of God’s presence individually, in our personal prayer and devotions, in our personal life of faith. But then we’re also called by God to assemble as living stones of a still greater temple, where God receives the right and holy worship and sacrifice from his holy people, the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice of the temple. 

Using the word “new” in the sense of “the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament image/type (i.e., scriptural typology),” we can rephrase the above by saying the “new” Israel (the Church) gathers in the “new” temple (the mystical body of Christ) to offer the “new” sacrifice (the paschal mystery of Christ) in the “new” temple sacrificial liturgy (the Mass). 

A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. It’s up there, obviously visible, for everyone to see what it is. It isn’t nestled down in a valley where it might go unnoticed and hidden from those who might want to attack it. So it needs to rely on good defenses, because sooner or later it certainly will be attacked (as Jerusalem was, repeatedly, and often successfully defended). As Christians, we need to simply be what we are, up there on full display, for the world to see. We’re not meant to be hidden. And from time to time we’ll certainly be attacked. But our defense does not come from ourselves, but from the truth within us. As our first reading says, your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.” Our good character, our holiness from God, will guide us. And the LORD will be near to defend us and uphold us, in our encounters with the world. He will defend us (as our rear guard) against unknown attacks. 

To be the salt of the earth, as Jesus tells us we are, we are to continue his earthly mission of purifying the world, preserving the world from rotting and being ruined. In the words of Blessed Titus Brandsma, a Carmelite priest who died in a Nazi concentration camp, “Those who desire to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come into conflict with it.” Or as G. K. Chesterton put it: “Salt seasons and preserves beef, not because it is like beef; but because it is very unlike it. Christ did not tell his apostles that they were…the excellent people, but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous and incompatible people… It is because they are the exceptional people, that they must not lose their exceptional quality. ‘If salt lose its flavor, with what shall it be salted?’

We’ll end with this little reflection. Sodium is an extremely active element found naturally only in combined form; it always links itself to another element. Chlorine, on the other hand, is the poisonous gas that gives bleach its strong offensive odor. When sodium and chlorine are combined, the result is sodium chloride–salt–the substance we use to preserve meat and bring out its flavor. Love and truth can be like sodium and chlorine. Love without truth is flighty, sometimes blind, willing to combine with various doctrines. On the other hand, truth by itself can be offensive, sometimes even poisonous. Spoken without love, it can turn people away from the Gospel. When truth and love are united together in an individual or a parish family, however, then we have what Jesus called “the salt of the earth.” We witness to God’s truth, always in love, and to God’s love, always in truth, individually, and as the church. And by that, we are His light in the world, that they may see our good deeds, and glorify our heavenly Father.

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Homily: Baptism of the Lord


The Baptism of the Lord (Year A)
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

Today the Church celebrates the great feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In our liturgical life of the Church, it’s kind of a bridge between Christmas time, which ends with this feast, and Ordinary Time, which begins tomorrow with the Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time. Today we begin our year-long journey meditating on the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In the life of Jesus, the Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The most important question we probably have after listening to our gospel readings is, “If baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus want to get baptized?”

Image result for baptism of the lordThe answer is, “Jesus being baptized is why our baptism forgives our sins.” We see in today’s gospel reading that all three persons of the Holy Trinity are present: the glory cloud of the Holy Spirit, the voice of the Father from the cloud, and the Father acknowledging Jesus as his beloved divine Son. The baptism of Jesus is the total will of God to provide the forgiveness of our sins.

The baptism of Jesus is the beginning of what he came to accomplish: to super-abundantly pay for the debt we owe because of our sins, so that we can be reconciled to God.

St. Matthew, the tax collector, repeatedly uses economic images in his Gospel, and here is one of them: Jesus tells John to baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.” Everyone who sins, which is all of humanity, owes an infinite debt that we cannot pay. We want to be reconciled with God, to be free of the effects of sin in this life, and have eternal life in heaven. But we fall infinitely short of the entrance fee, which is a heavenly treasure of righteousness. Not only do we not have a heavenly treasure of righteousness, we have an infinite debt of unrighteousness. The earthly mission of Jesus is to pay that debt off for every member of humanity. So he becomes part of humanity, including him into our mess of owing the debt. So as human, he takes on himself the entire debt of all humanity for all time. And as divine, he pays it all, and replaces the infinite debt of unrighteousness with an infinite surplus of righteousness. He has redeemed us from our debt of sin by the price of his crucified body and precious blood, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The debt has been paid, and we are free.

So God gives everyone an offer: show up to the gates of heaven owing an infinite debt, and lacking any heavenly treasure… or… accept Jesus’ payment of your debt, and claim his abundance of heavenly treasure. That’s the greatest offer ever. That’s the one thing that truly matters. So how do we do that?

As he entered into our debt by his baptism, we enter his abundance by our baptism. He takes on our death, and we take on his life. This is the initial mystery of Christian life and the Christian faith. St. Paul proclaims, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” That’s the only ticket that gets anyone into heaven. That’s the power of baptism, and why it’s so urgent to be baptized, and have our children baptized, and invite others to be baptized.

But we have to bear the fruit of the power of baptism—we cannot live in a way that denies the truth and fails in the obligations of our baptism. Our life must bear the marks of the life of Christ: to do his works, love with his love, and live out his truth. We receive the grace of baptism, and cooperate with grace to live it out. That’s the mystery of the Baptism of the Lord, and that’s the mystery of our baptism.

That’s the homily I gave last night, because I had to get over to the Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School Gala that provides all the school’s resources for providing financial assistance to school families. So I needed to be… efficient. But I just want to add some more to that. This is all from Dr. Brant Pitre’s weekly reflection on the Sunday readings. Dr. Pitre is a big fan of typology, which is connecting Old Testament images with their New Testament fulfillment, and I’m a big fan of that too, and a lot of you have said that you really enjoy that, too. So I want to point out an interesting set of connections that I learned about.

First –we have a parallel between Jesus and Solomon, the royal son of King David. In the book of Kings, when Solomon was being prepared to replace his father, it says they bathed him the spring of Gihon, which was the only fresh-water spring for Jerusalem. It was named Gihon after one of the four rivers in the Garden of Eden, symbolizing Jerusalem as a New Eden, where God was present with his people, in the Temple. So the Gihon spring was rich in symbolism, recalling the life-giving waters of the Garden of Eden, before the Fall. Like Solomon, Jesus is taken to a source of sacred water (the Jordan, rich in symbolism) and washed and anointed by priest and prophet. John the Baptist stands in for both roles, since he was clearly the prophet of his day, and was of priestly blood through his father Zechariah.

Second – the Geography. Jesus left the northern region of Galilee and went down to the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The Jordan River was the border that the Israelites had crossed at the end of the Exodus to enter into the Promised Land. Image result for israelites cross the jordanWe know very well that God miraculously parted the Red Sea and led the people on dry land at the beginning of the Exodus. But most of don’t know that the priests carrying the Ark led the crossing of the Jordan River, which then stopped flowing, and God led the people on dry land across the Jordan at the end of the Exodus. So one of the important expectations of the Messiah was to be a sort of New Moses, who would inaugurate a new exodus, from this earthly promised land to the true heavenly Promised Land, and that this new exodus would launch from the same point the original exodus ended: at the Jordan River. By the way, Moses didn’t finish the exodus and lead the people across the Jordan…he died just before that. It was Joshua who led the people into the Promised Land, and in Hebrew, Joshua and Jesus are the same name. So, Jesus, as the New Moses and New Joshua, is going to lead his people all the way from the beginning threshold of the New Exodus (the Jordan) to the threshold of its fulfillment (the gates of heaven). 

Third, when Jesus is baptized, he is anointed by the Holy Spirit descending upon him. Three kinds of people in ancient Israel were anointed for their vocation: priests, prophets, and kings. Jesus will fulfill all three of these roles in his mission as the Messiah: he will offer sacrifice and prayer, as priest, he will bring God’s message of both correction and compassion, as prophet, and he will give God’s law and judge the people and lead them in wisdom and righteousness, as king. Jesus isn’t anointed with oil— Jesus is anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Third, the heavens were opened. We might breeze over that saying well that’s just how the Holy Spirit as a dove came from heaven. But there’s more. The Old Testament (great prophet) Elijah, at the end of his earthly mission, with his successor (and eventually greater prophet) Elisha, divided the Jordan River, walked across, and then the heavens open to take Elijah to heaven. Remember that the Jordan River was split open so that Israel could enter the Promised Land. Now instead of the Jordan opening, the heavens are opening, revealing the nature and destination of the New Exodus, an exodus from this earthly realm to the heavenly realm. And as a bonus, John the Baptist has come in the spirit of Elijah, as Jesus said. And Elijah’s successor was the great Elisha. Jesus is also like a new Elisha. They both begin their ministry at the Jordan River, taking over from their predecessor, both heal the sight of the blind, both heal lepers, both raise the dead.

Fourth, why did the holy spirit descend as a dove? Where did the image of a dove come from? The Old Testament image of a dove comes from Noah and the flood. Image result for noah dove oliveGod flooded the world because it had turned from God, and become proud and corrupt, except for the family of Noah. God washed the infection of sin away by the waters of the flood and recreated the world anew. When the rain stopped, Noah sent a dove out, and it came back with an olive branch, and the olive branch is a symbol of the new creation—that creation has been restored, that new life has sprung up out of the waters of death that were the flood. In the Church’s blessing of the water for the sacrament of baptism, it makes reference to the importance of water in salvation history. It says, “The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.” Then, at the end of the blessing, it says, “May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.” So the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove is the image that connects these two events: the Lord’s baptism; and the end of sin and the beginning of new life. And of course, our baptism into that new life in Christ. The last two lines we heard in our responsorial psalm said, “The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever.

And fifth, our last connection, is all the way back to Abraham’s son Isaac. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the last line of the account of the Baptism here, God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God had said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there.” Isaac, who is a strong young man, not a child, carries the wood for the offering, and allows himself to be offered according to God’s will. But as we know, God stops Abraham, and provides a ram to be offered instead. So, when Jesus comes up out of the water of his Baptism, and God says: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” this reveals to us that Jesus is also the new Isaac, the new beloved Son, who actually will lay down His life on the wood of the cross at Calvary. Mount Calvary, by the way is also Mount Moriah. So Isaac, and the new Isaac, are offered in the same place. This time, the son isn’t spared by a lamb… this time the son IS ALSO the lamb, who gives his life as a ransom.

So all that is going on, scripturally, behind the scenes, being fulfilled in this mystery of the Baptism of the Lord. So, to go back to the first ending, it’s our mission, then, as the followers of Jesus here in our time and place; to live out the mystery of our own baptism, and the forgiveness and new life given to us; to live the truth of our faith in the way we live, the way we speak, the way we act. Not just for the sake of our own salvation, but for others… for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

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Homily: Epiphany


The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6
Matthew 2:1–12

As many of my friends know, I love watching movies. I especially love when movies have a surprise twist, like The Sixth Sense, or The Usual Suspects, where you’re watching it, and near the end you realize… it dawns on you… that the whole story as you know it just got turned sideways, and you have to sort through all the pieces again and reinterpret everything, because you got a new piece of information that changes the meaning of everything, and it’s all going in a direction you never saw coming. There’s some happy brain chemical that gets dispensed to you when you have a sudden realization like that, and everything gets shifted, and you pick up on the shift, and all the pieces fall into place in a whole new and intriguing way. That realization is an example of an epiphany, when you experience an unveiling or manifesting of the truth. And the more pieces that were involved and came together in a new way, and the more important the discovery, the greater the thrill of the epiphany.

One of the things I love about Catholic theology is that everything means a whole bunch of things at the same time, and they’re all related in a whole bunch of ways, and when you’re reading or hearing something and it makes a new connection that you hadn’t thought of, you have that thrill of an epiphany. And we should be thrilled by our faith! Since these kinds of things make me excited about our faith, I try to share them in homilies, because I hope there’s a chance that they make you excited too. I want to do more than just give you the same old explanations. I want them to come alive for you with excitement, and life, and new understanding and insight. And then, because everyone’s lives are different, I leave it up to you to contemplate how the truth in the readings best applies to your own life, and your struggles, and your journey. 

The reason our celebration today is called the “Epiphany” is because it celebrates the unveiling, or the manifestation, of God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ. In the Christian tradition, the Epiphany is the celebration of three events. First, it celebrates the arrival of the magi, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory (as the Divine King) to the gentiles and the calling of all the nations to faith in Him. Second, it celebrates the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory in his mission as Messiah and as God’s beloved Son. And third, it celebrates the Wedding Feast of Cana, which is the revelation of Christ’s glory to his disciples, a story that ends by saying, “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” So the Feast day of Epiphany celebrates the unveiling or revelation of Christ in glory to the world. We celebrate the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday, and now Epiphany focuses specifically on the visit by the magi, which is what we heard in the gospel reading.

Who are the magi? They were wise men who studied the world to have universal understanding, and give good counsel based on their knowledge and their understanding of how the world works. They were people who paid attention to the details of the world, and the connections between them. They were scientist-philosopher-theologians (and maybe, but probably not kings). We get the idea that they were kings from prophecies in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah chapter 60, and Psalm 72. And not by coincidence, those are our First Reading and Responsorial Psalm for today!

Isaiah in our first reading gives joy to Jerusalem: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you… Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance… Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow… dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.” So there we have a mention of kings, walking in the radiance of Jerusalem’s splendor, as well as caravans bringing gifts of gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”

Our Psalm sings, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” So here we see kings bringing gifts and paying homage to the King, the Son of David. Myrrh was a resin used in making medicines, ointments, and perfumes. Myrrh is mentioned in the Song of Songs as the Bride and Bridegroom prepare for their wedding. And it was part of the mixture of spices used in the rites of preparing a body for burial.

Related imageSo that, of course takes us to another point of our reading: the gifts. Matthew doesn’t say what the gifts mean, but scholars generally agree that gold represented Jesus as the great King. Frankincense, an incense used in the sanctuary, represented Jesus as High Priest, and the myrrh could mean that Jesus was anointed as the True Prophet, or it could also point to the anointing of Jesus for his death for the forgiveness of sins. Also, Matthew doesn’t say how many magi there were, or if it was just men. It could have been any number, and possibly men or women. We might remember the Queen of Sheba being a great admirer of King Solomon, and she brought him gifts in honor of his wisdom, and there is something much greater than Solomon here. So following the precedent set by the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, the magi could very well have been wise kings (but again, probably not, as Matthew probably would have said they were kings, rather than magi). 

One of the traditions surrounding the feast day of Epiphany is the annual house blessing. If you haven’t had a priest come and bless your house, you should do that. But if it’s already been blessed by a priest, you can share in this Epiphany house blessing tradition. Using a piece of chalk, write on the top of the frame (the lintel) of your door, the letters C M B, with crosses on either side and in between the letters, and then surround that by the year. In this case 20 before and 20 after, because it’s 2020. So it would be 20+C+M+B+20 (some traditions replace the first cross with a star, representing the Star of Bethlehem). The CMB stands for the Latin phrase, Christus Mansionem Benedicat, which means “May Christ bless this house.” But it’s associated with Epiphany because tradition has it that the names of the magi were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, CMB. These come from non-bibilical sources that were much later. By about the 4th century, different regions had different names given to them. But in the 6th century, the emperor Justinian added beautiful mosaics to many churches in the city of Ravenna, and in the church of Saint Apollonare, the mosaics of the wise men have their names above them as the names we now use. 


detail from the image at top, from the church of Saint Apollonare in Ravenna

In honor of this tradition, instead of handing out chalk, we have cards with the Epiphany house blessing on them, available on the table in the vestibule. You can just tape it above your front door, or the door you use the most.

Another tradition surrounding the feast day of Epiphany is Twelfth Night. Although we now celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday after January 1st, so the date of Epiphany changes from year to year, traditionally it was always celebrated on January 6. In the year 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the Christmas celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, and the night before Epiphany, or the night of Epiphany, the Twelfth Night, was a great celebration.

In England, a hot mulled apple cider called “wassail” is enjoyed throughout the Christmas season, but especially on Twelfth Night, and door-to-door wassailing (singing Christmas carols) was common (“Here we come a-wassailing…”). William Shakespeare’s play, “Twelfth Night” (though far from reflecting the religious aspect of the occasion) was written to be part of the general celebration of Twelfth Night. 

On Twelfth Night in German speaking countries, the Sternsinger (“star singers”) go around to houses carrying a paper or wooden star on a pole (the Star of Bethlehem). They sing a carol, then write in chalk over the door the blessing we just talked about.

In our present time and place, we have our own Twelfth Night tradition, where the choirs of several Catholic parishes gather in a different church each year and present a beautiful assortment of musical performances. This year, our parish choir, combining with children from the school choir, will be performing in the Twelfth Night concert this afternoon [Sunday, January 6] at 2:00 at Historic St. Mary’s in Lancaster. It would be wonderful to go support them, and to enjoy this wonderful Twelfth Night sacred music tradition.

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the unveiling—the manifestation—of the glory of our king and lord Jesus, the Christ child rightly worshiped by the magi. Matthew ends our reading by saying that rather than going back to Herod, they departed a different way. That is our Epiphany task as well: to encounter and behold the mystery of Christ. And having prostrated ourselves before his hidden glory, having received the blessing of God, we then depart different, overjoyed, changed by our encounter with him, to go out and be the manifestation of Christ to others.

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Homily: The Holy Family


The Holy Family (Sunday within the Octave of Christmas) (Year A)
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

I had Brussels sprouts this year for the first time (and last time). I always avoided them, but I was recently at Bully’s, and they just came as the vegetable for that entree. So I thought, ok, given how delicious and savory the food is at Bully’s, this is giving Brussels Sprouts the best possible chance of success. If I don’t like them here and now, they blew their chance, and that’s that. A fair, even favorable, trial was held, and the verdict was rendered: Never again. Right down there at the bottom of my list with oatmeal raisin cookies. 

How did I escape my childhood without ever having had Brussels sprouts? That is one of our great family traditions. The story, as I remember it, is that when my parents were newlyweds, they figured out that neither of them liked when they were forced to eat Brussels sprouts as kids. And so, embracing their autonomy as a new family, they declared that they never had to eat Brussels Sprouts again. And so, my sister and I reaped the blessings, as we in our childhood innocence were preserved from the abomination of Brussels sprouts.

That was good. It’s a family’s prerogative to set up their home in the way that brings happiness, peace, and order. When I moved out on my own, I did the same thing, dropping some things I had grown up with, adopting some new things. But with that comes the responsibility to persevere in things that you don’t like, but you need to do. When I moved out I stopped going to church. I was much more interested in worldly pleasures. Life was not that good during that time. A lot of it was fun. But it wasn’t good. And some very bad habits were picked up along the way.

I’ve had a lot of parents lament to me that they’re worried that their children don’t go to church, and maybe their grandchildren aren’t even baptized. Young adults are declaring their independence. But as often happens, not always in a good way (especially in the long term). Parents, having gained wisdom, can more clearly see the dangers their children with blissful ignorance are heading toward. As one of my favorite sayings goes, “Good judgment comes from a lot of experience. And a lot of experience comes from bad judgment.” Young adults don’t always recognize the long term effects of their choices… bad habits they pick up, good habits they drop, like dropping their religious faith. Parents struggle with, “How much do I give my advice? How far do I let my kid go off the rails? How hard do I press that they need to practice their faith? How much do I give to help them?”

Among the many tensions in our society is the generation gap. As a card-carrying member of Generation X (well… we never got around to making the cards), I do get some enjoyment at sitting back with a bucket of popcorn and watching the liberal millennials and the conservative boomers fight it out over social media. It might be tempting to interpret this tension as just another facet of the rancorous left-right divide. But then there’s the old quote, “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a conservative when you’re middle-aged, you have no head.” The generational crisis, like the immigration crisis, like the church crisis, are important issues that need to be attended to. But these are also persistent tensions that flare up from time to time in human history. As Mark Twain quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I take some comfort in our readings today on the feast of the Holy Family, because they tell us that generational tension has always been a thing. Parents aren’t necessarily going to feel respected by their children, and children aren’t necessarily going to feel respected by their parents, but both are called to love, respect, and forgive one another. That’s what makes a family a holy family.

God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her children. Whoever honors his father atones for sins… When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother he who obeys his father brings comfort to his motherMy son, take care of your father when he is old… revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten…” Being respectful of one’s parents is an act of righteousness, which mitigates against sin; an act that invests treasure in heaven. The Old Testament books of Wisdom aren’t necessarily bound by culture, time, and place. Wisdom is universal and eternal. There’s something essential about the good of human nature that is tied together with family bonds, even if the humans involved aren’t that good. God gave us the blueprint for a family: a holy marriage of man and woman faithfully living out their vocation to self-giving nuptial commitment, together as the parents to their children. Now there’s lots of variations of that. Some of that is good, like adopted children and foster families. Some of that is tragic, like infertility, disease, or death in the family. Some of that is sinful, like cohabitation or other romantic partnerships that aren’t healthy. We forsake God’s blueprint at our own peril. And when we oppose God’s plan, we don’t just damage ourselves, but others as well. Love isn’t enough. It takes everyone involved to love with divine grace: selfless, forgiving, patient love. Sure, a good, loving, stable family doesn’t necessarily require Christian faith. But the graces of the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of marriage and living out those graces: That’s what makes a holy family as an icon of divine love.

Our lesson continues in our second reading from St. Paul. Let’s get the last little part out of the way first. “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.” It sounds kind of denigrating to women, especially strong-willed, intelligent, type-A personality women. But if we combine this with Ephesians 5, yes, women are to love their husbands as the Church does Christ. But husbands are also to sacrifice themselves in loving service to their brides as Christ does for the sake of the Church. So it’s a submission to each other that is mutual but different, not in dignity, but in design. A husband is to submit himself to his wife in a masculine way that serves her and the family in self-giving love. A wife is to submit herself to her husband in a feminine way that serves him and the family in self-giving love. Neither one is slave or master. Both lovingly serve God by lovingly serving one another with devotion, faithfulness, and humility.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Parents, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” Again, we have the admonition to respect and obey one’s parents. Again, the generational gap has always been and will always be a source of tension: parents wanting to keep their children safe and on the right track, and children looking to spread their wings and venture out into the big open world. How each family virtuously and lovingly navigates that tension will be unique to that family. But it must be done virtuously and lovingly, with trust, patience, and compromise on both sides.

The larger first part of the second reading is Paul’s guide for living in holy relationship with others. This reading is sometimes used in the blessing of family homes. It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt (and children), and nowhere is the holiness and goodness of relationships tested more than in the trenches of everyday family life. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. If one has a grievance against another, as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love… in all wisdom teach and admonish one another… And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…” If you could read this instruction every day as a family, and strive to live it out, and constructively help each other live it out, that would be key. Our Lord Jesus is of course the key to the holy family.

The Holy Family of Nazareth gives us a great model of the virtues we need as a holy family, especially in a crisis situation. Jesus is the incarnation of God. Mary is the Immaculate Conception. And then there’s poor, normal Joseph, in charge of them. Joseph was chosen because of his character: he is just, he is faithful, he is virtuous. Joseph is not only entrusted with the holy family of Mary and Jesus, but he is also patron saint of fathers, and families, and patron and protector of the Church, God’s entire family of the brothers and sisters of his only begotten Son. Joseph pours himself out in loving service to his family. Mary, seeing how good Joseph is, how beautifully he gives himself, willingly serves him, not in any way detracting from her own dignity. Jesus selflessly loves, humbly respects, and is obedient to, his parents, even though his dignity is infinitely beyond theirs.

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Lastly, in our gospel reading, we continue with the beginning of the book of Matthew. The Holy family is still in Bethlehem. The magi have just left, not returning to Herod because they picked up on his malicious intent. Joseph again receives his instruction from God through an angel in his dreams: Flee to Egypt, King Herod wants to destroy Jesus, whom he sees as a threat. “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.” Our reading skips a few verses, in which we have the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” Herod’s order to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem two years old and under.

A lot of people use the plight of the Holy Family in relation to the contemporary political problem of immigration. Certainly, the fairly common journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem or Jerusalem is not a good analogy. But the flight to Egypt is a stronger parallel. Without getting into the political quagmire, the Church’s steadfast teaching is that we have a preferential option for the poor, suffering, and vulnerable. As such, we not only need to advocate and work toward a functional and compassionate immigration and asylum policy (and practice), but also we need to tend to the human needs and dignity of all people at all times. Those who venture to leave their dangerous or impoverished familiar homes with the hope of something better somewhere else, especially those who do so with young families, do so with courage and trust against great risks. It is also the host country’s right to reasonably vet those seeking immigration to promote the health and safety and flourishing of its citizens and guests. It’s a complex situation which requires a great deal of resources. Again, our role is to promote and assist in an adequate and just handling of immigration which respects the dignity and safety of all persons involved, especially the most vulnerable.

An unknown amount of time later, Joseph again receives an angelic visit in his dreams. “‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there… he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’

Herod Tetrarchy3Herod the Great, in power at Jesus’ birth, was well known for his cruelty and insecurity, a dangerous, corrupt combination. After his death, his son Archelaus became king, but only of Judah (Judea), not all of Israel. He was just as brutal. So Joseph understood that the angel hadn’t meant to return to “Israel” in the general sense, but the northern territory of Israel specifically (under Herod Antipas), avoiding the southern territory of Judah, where Bethlehem and Jerusalem were. So Joseph went back up to Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had been before the census sent them down to Bethlehem.

Here, as Matthew tells us, Jesus grew up as a Nazorean, as the prophets foretold. Except Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament at all. Most likely Matthew is referring to the text we read about the shoot, or branch, growing out of the stump of Jesse, the father of King David. The Hebrew word for shoot or branch is almost the same word as Nazareth. So Matthew is connecting Jesus with the prophecy of one who is a new shoot or branch, a netzer, from Nazareth, a child who is one of the “Branch.”

Image result for domestic churchIn today’s society, there are many sinister attacks on God’s plan for the family, both the holy family in the home, and the holy family of the Church (in other words, the hierarchical church, and the domestic church). Those sinister attacks come in the same form as the Enemy has always used: abuse, broken trust, lust, greed, and pride. If we are going to resist these attacks on the family, we need to increase our devotion to the Holy Family, especially to Saint Joseph, and ask for his intercession.

Holy Child Jesus, have mercy on us.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.

St. Joseph, patron saint of fatherhood, and patron and protector of the family, and of the Church: pray for us.

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Midnight Mass
Isaiah 9:1–6
Psalm 96:1–2, 2–3, 11–12, 13
Titus 2:11–14
Luke 2:1–14
Mass at Dawn
Isaiah 62:11-12
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:15-20

As we are gathered in this most solemn celebration, we’re like the shepherds. They were just doing their thing, when the world changed in a dramatic way. It wasn’t a change that could be seen or heard, or even felt. It was a spiritual shift in the very nature of creation. And a huge shift, a monumental change. It wasn’t a change that could be sensed, but it was a change so immense, that a heavenly multitude of angels were sent to proclaim the good news, especially to those who were poor, vulnerable, humble, and who would be the most receptive to believing the message, acting on the message, and spreading the message. What was the message? That God, the Creator, has humbled himself to enter into his own creation to free humanity from our sinfulness, to show us and lead us on the way to the gates of paradise, and to plant his kingdom among the nations of humanity. The newborn king has been born to us! Christ the King!

So then, are we like the shepherds? Have we allowed God to interrupt our status quo, our daily plans and activities, to stop and be amazed at his glorious light? Well, we are all here right now, we took time out of our preparations and gift wrapping and cookie baking and everything else, which itself is an exception to the ordinary routine of the rest of the year. So we’re here. And that is good.

When God interrupted their life with a choir of angelic multitudes, I very much doubt that the shepherds were the same after that. An encounter with the heavenly reality would be life-changing. One would be absolutely compelled to live life differently after such an encounter, after having all the hubbub of religious tradition taken flesh and visible and verifiable. The angel gave them a sort of sacramental message: an outward visible sign that makes present the invisible spiritual reality it communicates.

The invisible spiritual reality is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises of the long-awaited messiah, who is God himself: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord!

And the outward visible sign of that is what they were instructed to go see: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Now personally, I’m not sure I would need to go see the baby for proof. I think the fear-inspiring sight of an angel appearing with the glory of the Lord shining all around, and a heavenly multitude praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest…” That would be enough for me to be able to say, “Ok, I believe you!” And no doubt the shepherds did believe at that magnificent visitation of the angel choirs. Still, the shepherds went to behold for themselves the sign, the newborn king.

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So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed.” That’s the power of sacramental reality: outwardly, in the visible reality, it’s a baby wrapped in cloths lying in an animal feeding trough. In the true, spiritual reality, invisible to us, it’s God come as the long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David, the savior who is Christ and Lord.

And of course, how could the shepherds be the same after that? “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

So then, are we like the shepherds? At every celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we have that same invitation as the shepherds! I am so inspired each year as our 2nd graders are close to receiving their first communion! They’re so excited, so full of anticipation and joy! If only we would approach the Eucharist each and every time with that same awesome desire, that same reverent appreciation and humble awareness that we don’t fully understand, but we know, that this is God… the Eucharist is Him.

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So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we anxiously seek with such joy and humility God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus, God who saves his people from their sins? Do we have the eyes to see through the bread and wine, as they saw through the flesh and swaddling clothes, to truly see the concealed reality of the true flesh and blood of him who is Christ and Lord? Do we make a beautiful throne for him with our hands or our tongue, reflecting the royal throne we have prepared for him in our hearts, in the center of our lives, from where he reigns supreme over us as his loyal and loving holy people?

So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we drop what we’re doing, and go to seek him about whom the prophets have spoken, and angels sing? And upon beholding him for ourselves, and experiencing the fulfillment of the promise of our forgiveness, our healing, and our redemption, do we return to the world glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen?

Of course we know this miraculous coming of the Lord at Christmas points us toward that even greater appearance of Our Lord on the day of his resurrection… which itself points forward to his resurrected and transfigured flesh and blood, soul and divinity, appearing through the power of the Holy Spirit every time the Holy Liturgy of the Mass is celebrated. So that for all ages, not just in spirit, but in the fullness of his humanity, spirit and flesh, he is Emmanuel, God with his people, that his people themselves (we) may be sacramental signs of his (presence in, and) love for the world.

How could we not go to behold him? How could we put other things before the supernatural importance of Sunday Mass? The weekly celebration when God comes to us anew, concealed in the swaddling clothes of the sacrament of the altar. He was underwhelming to the senses as a newborn infant. He’s underwhelming to the senses, appearing as bread and wine. Yet he is fully present as Christ and Lord. (Lord we believe, help our unbelief!)

Bethlehem in Hebrew means “house of bread,” and in Arabic it means “house of meat” (so I’m told). The Eucharist, the bread of heaven, the sacrificial oblation for the forgiveness of sins and thanksgiving to God, is also the meat, the flesh, of the incarnation of God most high. His supernatural flesh is true food, our holy communion with him, and with the whole mystical body of Christ, the Church. And then we go out rejoicing, spreading the good news of how we ourselves have been forgiven and healed.

So then, are we like the shepherds? Let us resolve that we are. Let us be sent from our heavenly encounter fully engaged, the thrill of hope, rejoicing, glorifying and praising God. That’s the shepherds. That’s the Good news. That’s the substance of the Christian life. That’s the meaning of Christmas. God bless you.

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Homily: Fourth Sunday of Advent

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4th Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 7:10–14
Psalm 24:1–2, 3–4, 5–6
Romans 1:1–7
Matthew 1:18–24

There’s a popular image that floats around social media, often shared by pro-life advocates, that says, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” The message of course is that if Mary had reacted to her unplanned, crisis pregnancy the way many women are advised to do so today by those who mistakenly believe that abortion is a legitimate option that simply makes the problem go away, then the Christ child would have been killed in the womb, and sinful humanity would have remained in the darkness of sin, having aborted its hope for redemption.

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But let’s go back to that saying, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” A friend of mine, and former parishioner in Hanover, Paul Oakes, had a very insightful response, that really ties our readings together beautifully (he gave me permission to quote him). He said:

“I have noticed several posts floating around lately that call Jesus’ birth an ‘unplanned pregnancy.’ However, I offer up to you that it was very much planned. Please hear me out!

If it were unplanned, God would have simply impregnated Mary without her consent and, then, 9 months later, she would have been like “Oh my gosh, I’m having God’s child!” Could you imagine the devastation that would’ve had on the Holy Family? How hurt and betrayed Joseph would have felt? How ashamed and used Mary would’ve felt? IF it had gone down that way?

But it didn’t. God planned it. The angel Gabriel told Mary about God’s plan. She said yes (her fiat). And when Joseph learned the truth, he accepted it too. At every point in history, God gives each of us free will. Mary and Joseph could have just as easily said “no” to God’s plan for their lives. He wasn’t going to force either of them to choose His way. But because they understood that Christ’s birth was bigger than their own plans, they accepted. Even if they didn’t have all the answers at first, they trusted God in faith and hope. They loved God above everything else and willingly submitted themselves to His plan. This Advent season, imagine what the Lord could do in our lives if we just said “Yes” to His will.”

That message “One unplanned pregnancy saved the world” is a pretty interesting insight, but that response just blew me away.

Most of the time when we hear the story of the birth of Jesus, we hear readings from St. Luke, who is sometimes called “St. Luke the Physician,” because certain details of his gospel reveal not only a very intelligent use of Greek, but also suggest evidence of medical training. One theologian pointed out the surprising connection that it is St. Luke the Physician who gives the most detail about the miraculous virginal conception of the Lord in the womb of the Blessed Mother. But in our new liturgical year that started with the first Sunday of Advent, we’re now in the year of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and from St. Matthew, we hear Joseph’s side of the story.

So we have some things to unpack that Matthew’s first century Jewish readers would have known right away, but are culturally unfamiliar to us. First, Mary was betrothed to Joseph. That does not mean they were engaged. They were married. Betrothal was the initial stage into the marriage, while the bride remained in her family’s home and the bridegroom established a home for her. Then they would have the wedding feast, and he would take her home and they would consummate their marriage. So for Joseph to find Joseph and Mary talkingMary returning from her visit to Elizabeth, Mary now at least three or four months pregnant, and Joseph knew it was not by him, he’s got a dilemma. Jewish law required that a woman who committed adultery would be publicly stoned. But Joseph, being a just and righteous man, struggled with the tension of being just and being merciful. So to preserve his righteousness, and her life, rather than denounce her publicly, he decided to divorce her privately, and she could go off and live somewhere else. Such was his intention.

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David.’” Joseph was a descendant of David, but Joseph would have been called, Joseph, son of Jacob, his father’s name. So whatever the angel is about to tell Joseph, it has to do with his lineage all the way back to King David. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” To confirm what we said earlier, the angel calls Mary his wife. And he is to continue and fulfill their betrothal, and the wedding celebration, and take her to their new home.

For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Now that’s gotta be a tough pill to swallow. Perhaps Joseph struggled with that. I mean, this is a dream, and as people have been pointing out for 2000 years, it’s much more likely that the child has a human father than a divine father.

And the angel continues, and perhaps this is enough to sway Joseph from his doubt. This is a pretty well-developed dream, and maybe it really has angelic inspiration to it. “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” In the bible people’s names are often given or changed by God, or they get titles, that in Hebrew have a particular meaning, and then usually that meaning is explained as their role in the divine plan. For example, the patriarch Abram, which means “exalted father.” God says, “No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” Abraham means, “father of a multitude.” The best example is probably the first chapter of the prophet Hosea, in which God tells Hosea what to name his children, as a series of messages to the people of Israel. And of course we know of Simon the fisherman, whom Jesus renamed Peter, based on the Greek word for “rock,” saying, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

In our gospel reading we have this twice. First, the Hebrew name “Jesus,” (actually “Yeshua”) means “God saves”. The angel tells Joseph to name the son, Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Then immediately St. Matthew cites this angelic instruction as the fulfillment of a key prophecy from Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” And we’ll get to that in a moment. So Jesus, who will save us from our sins, is connected to the promise that God is with us.

Also, it’s significant that the angel tells Joseph to name the child. Mary had also been told by the angel to name the child Jesus (in some translations it says, “and you shall call the child Jesus,” with the added significance that the child had been divinely named Jesus, and they were to call him by the name he already had). In Israelite culture, the father would take the child upon his knee, and give the child his or her name, as an expression of claiming the child as his under the law. I’ve never been a fan of the modern habit of calling Joseph the “foster father of Jesus,” because foster father means one thing, and legal father means something much more permanent and important. Jesus is conceived by Mary while she is Joseph’s wife. Joseph claims Jesus as his son, with the legal and hereditary rights as the first-born son. As Fr. Cornelius Lapide (whose rich 16th century commentary I rediscovered last week) says:

Joseph was the true and lawful father of Christ, after the manner which I shall explain presently. Christ was the heir of David’s throne and scepter, not through Mary, but through Joseph, according to God’s promise to David. The scepter, therefore, of Judah devolved upon Jesus Christ, not only by the promise and gift of God, but by the right of hereditary succession. For if, by common right, sons succeed to their fathers’ inheritance, when they are only accounted their sons by common repute, how much more was Christ Joseph’s, His father’s, heir, since He was the Son of his wife, by the power and the gift of the Holy Ghost? Wherefore as Joseph had a parent’s right over Christ, indeed, all rights which parents have over sons, so on the other hand, Christ had, with reference to Joseph, all the rights which sons have in respect to their parents. He had therefore a right to the kingdom of Israel after Joseph’s death. Hence the question of the Magi, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”

(I hadn’t really considered that at the time of Jesus, Joseph was really the true heir to the throne of David; I just thought Joseph was one of many valid descendants of David, who was chosen by God to be Mary’s husband. But if Joseph really is the one with the true claim, then Jesus really is—by both his divine father and his human father—the King of the Jews!)

Joseph then awakes from his dream, fully confident in Mary’s innocence and the miraculous importance of her unborn child, and does as the angel instructed him, taking Mary his wife into his home.


The prophecy that St. Matthew quotes is, conveniently, our first reading from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. But inconveniently, our reading doesn’t really give us much context to understand it. After King David’s son Solomon, Israel broke into the small southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and the king was of the Davidic dynasty, and then the larger, more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel. Then they had their neighbor, Syria, which was an on-again/off-again relationship, and the great and powerful empire of Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh, which was a brutal tyranny that extorted huge tributes from their conquered nations, which included Syria and Israel (hence Jonah’s hostility toward his mission to preach to and save the people of Nineveh, and his anger when they actually listened and God forgave them). So Syria and Israel had decided not to pay the tributes to Assyria anymore, and wanted Judah’s help to battle Assyria. The king of Judah, King Ahaz, saw this as a stupid idea, and said no. So Syria and Israel turned around to attack Judah. Now Ahaz is being told by his court advisers to ask Assyria for help (which was also a stupid idea), which is like making a deal with the devil. And then the prophet Isaiah confronts Ahaz, who is not particularly courageous, virtuous, or faithful, and Isaiah tells Ahaz that God is with them, will defend and uphold them, as long as they remain independent and not solicit the help of Assyria.

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God says to Ahaz through Isaiah, “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!” So God gives Ahaz a blank check. Ask for anything to prove to you that I will protect you, and I will give you that proof. But Ahaz had already made up his mind to go to Assyria. So faking to take the pious route, Ahaz answered, “I will not ask!  I will not tempt the LORD!” Now, Isaiah knows what kind of person Ahaz is. It’s like a politician with a track record of consistently promoting legislation antithetical to church teaching suddenly announcing what a faithful Catholic he (or she) is. Neither Isaiah nor the LORD are impressed by Ahaz’s hypocrisy. Isaiah responds, “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?” Oh, you descendant of the great King David, on his throne, how far you have fallen. It’s not enough for you to patronize me. But to mock faith in God as well. The sign to be given is no longer to persuade Ahaz, but will now be to confirm the truth of what the prophet has spoken. It’s no longer to fortify Ahaz’ faith, but now to shame Ahaz’s failure to be faithful. And indeed, Judah is almost completely wiped out, with Jerusalem itself being besieged.

Last thing: The prophecy itself. The word being translated as “virgin” is the Hebrew word alma. Critics of Christianity love to point out that alma doesn’t exactly mean virgin, as in a woman who has not had relations with a man (our modern use of the word). But alma is better translated into English as “maiden,” which is a young woman, unmarried, and presumably chaste, and so by extension, a virgin. It could apparently also refer to a young woman who was married but who had not yet had her first born. That wasn’t as common, but it’s this usage that is key to this issue. Christianity originally used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the translation of alma into the Greek was parthenos, which literally means virgin (as in the Parthenon, the Greek temple of the virgin goddess Athena). The prophecy of Isaiah, in context, is that Ahaz should not panic but rather trust in God, because by the time a young woman gives birth and “before the child learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.” Which in the general sense, means in less than a few years. But specifically, in Israel’s conscience, Isaiah was prophesying the birth of King Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz and his young wife Abia (like Mary, the young wife of Joseph), and Hezekiah was a great and holy king. And so it is Hezekiah that Isaiah is calling the sign of God’s fidelity to Israel, Hezekiah is the living sign of Emmanuel, God is with us (historically, this is anachronistic. Ahaz ruled for 16 years, and Hezekiah was 23 when he succeeded his father. So Hezekiah had been born before Ahaz had ascended to the throne. But centuries later, that detail was overlooked, and Hezekiah was held to be the one spoken of in Isaiah’s prophecy)

Isaiah most likely didn’t know that his prophetic words meant more than that, something infinitely more important, 800 years after him. Yet when the Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to use those words, the Spirit already knew that he would also inspire Matthew to grab hold of those words, and that while they were fulfilled directly by the birth of the royal son of David, Hezekiah, they were ultimately intended to be perfectly fulfilled by the royal and divine son of David, Jesus.

Isaiah was faithful in speaking the words the Holy Spirit inspired in him. Mary and Joseph were faithful in accepting their role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan he had known since the foundation of the world. Ahaz had not been faithful, he had already made up his mind despite God’s plan, and it did not go well for him or for those around him. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re asked the same question again: Will we be faithful in accepting God’s plan, or have we made our plans without God? Are we willing to throw our plans away to accept God’s will for our life, that might be completely different than our plan? That’s the effect Jesus has, to the extent that we allow him in our hearts, and give him our permission to rule in our hearts. We know God is with us. The question is, are we with God?

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