Back in 1974, as I contemplated a year at Oxford, I had planned to study under the watchful eye of the preeminent scholar of religious mysticism of the day, R.C. Zaehner, who died suddenly on his way to mass just before I arrived. His final book (of many), Our Savage God, published earlier that year, might aptly describe the image of God in today’s first reading. Zaehner took as his starting point the savagery of Charles Manson, who arguably typified how twisted zealotry poisons the waters of religion. Had he lived longer, Zaehner would have grasped the meaning of the Jonestown Massacre four years later, and a decade after that the “massacre” at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. And the atrocities following the rise of ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State.”
By any stretch of the imagination, anyone who sanctions the sacrificial murder of an innocent child (or anyone else) is savage. Slaughtering the entire Egyptian army and thousands of Hebrews as they made their way across the deserts of the Middle East does not soften the image, and we have only to look back at the story of the Great Flood to glimpse a strangely and remorselessly punitive deity. The sacrifice of his daughter by Jephthah to fulfil a vow (Judges 11:30-39) and the killing of Uzzah for steadying the Ark of the Covenant as it wobbled on the cart carrying it to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:7) round out but hardly exhaust the ancient dread of what or who was perceived as a savage divinity.
Bronze Age religious sensibility, reflected in these accounts, differs vastly like its morality from the gospel of Jesus, although we still hear echoes of it in the ravings of fanatics to this day. You have only to read Matthew 5:38-44 to see the gulf that separates the visions of the two ages. But it is not only the sacrifice of Isaac that concerns us on this second Sunday of Lent. The mention of Moriah, or Mount Moriah as it came to be known ,the Temple Mount, links the story with today’s gospel, which narrates the vision of Jesus seen by his disciples on yet another mountain, traditionally Tabor. Both accounts deal with a sacrificial death, the second, like the first, becomes the favored explanation of the death of Jesus, as we see in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
On this second Sunday of Lent, Catholics the world over stop to consider this mystery in the light of one of the most
astounding manifestations of God’s gracious presence in all of scripture, an event which has acquired the title of Transfiguration. The link between the two readings is that fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, which celebrates God’s unquenchable love for humankind, a love that did not spare his own Son, an ominous phrase that may still disturb us.
Like Isaac, Jesus is about to be sacrificed to ratify an unbreakable covenant with God. Unlike Isaac, Jesus will not be spared by his Father. For this beloved child is himself the Lamb of God whose death will take away the sins of the world. He will bear our sins and suffer death in our stead.
In his gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus leads his three chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. He is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, who (some scholars tell us) represent the Law and the Prophets. But here, something else is at work. They are talking to Jesus. Mark does not say what they were discussing, but Luke tells us they were talking about his departure, his Passover, “which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31]. They were talking about his coming death. A sacrificial death.
A cloud covers the scene, and the disciples hear a voice telling them to listen to Jesus, who is the beloved Son. But listen to what? In each case, the account is preceded and followed by Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death, and here, in Mark, his resurrection.
The whole mysterious scene is set in the context of the great covenant promises of God, a covenant which was announced on the tops of mountains amid clouds, and glory, and heavenly voices that terrified their hearers. Those great figures of the past who were most identified with the mountain visions of God Almighty were Moses, who encountered the all-holy God on Horeb and Sinai, and Elijah, who seeks refuge on Mount Carmel, where God appears to him in a mysterious, whispering voice. Moses and Elijah are the great eschatological figures of the Ancient Covenant, whose own deaths are not only clouded in mystery, but according to the ancient promises were to reappear before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus appears between them has less to do with Law and Prophets than it does with Revelation: here is the final prophet, the one whose appearance inaugurates the Reign of God. Listen to him!
Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and there he must die. And in that death will be accomplished the inauguration of God’s reign, the salvation of the world. There is no way to glory around the mystery of suffering and death, but only through it, including the death of the innocent, even the death of children. In the death of this divine Child, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed. And we are to listen to him. What he tells us may be disturbing. But in each version of the Transfiguration, Jesus has just told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” [Mark 8:34].
Abraham listened to the voice of God and proved his faith. The disciples listened to the voice of God and learned to believe. And we, in our turn, are challenged to listen to the voice of God and transform our lives.
It seems that no matter how many hills we climb, or how dark the night, there’s another one to deal with. We live in challenging times. But this morning my grand-niece just gave birth to a baby boy, and like a rainbow, it is a sign of hope for the world. But now, Lent. Officially.
Ash Wednesday and the three days afterwards were added some time after Lent was first observed to make up forty full days when people worried about whether Sundays really counted as days of fast and abstinence. There is nothing particularly religious in the name, by the way, at least as far as English is concerned. It comes from an old word, Lenten, which simply means “Spring,” probably because the days are now visibly lengthening.
The “forty days” are taken from the gospels of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus fasts and prays and through a series of tests shapes his ministry,
essentially by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross. Mark simply says that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out in the desert where he was tested. John’s gospel doesn’t say anything about it at all.
If we do not sing Alleluias during Lent, it’s because they are an Easter chant, but we are urged nevertheless to “lift up our hearts” despite the somber color of the vestments. Halfway through Lent, lest we forget, there comes Laetare Sunday, a “rejoice Sunday” like that in Advent which with its lighter, rose-colored vestments, points ahead to the wonderful mysteries about to unfold. Lent is really about Easter. So in the midst of our conversion from sin, we are to rejoice. But why? About what? Today’s readings give us a pretty good clue.
The first two readings take as their starting point the unlikely figure of Noah. Not as an emblem of penitence, or even as the good and just man who escaped destruction because of his trust in God’s promise that the Epistle of Peter recalls. The reading from Genesis itself looks a little to the side. Interestingly enough, the number forty, which appears so prominently in the ancient account, is not mentioned in today’s readings except in relation to Jesus’ trek in the wilderness.
The focus in the first reading is clearly on what happens after the flood, when God enacts the second great covenant with the human race following that little problem in the garden with Adam and Eve. It’s an even more inclusive covenant this time, one which embraces the whole earth with all its animals and plants. We will do well to recall that. God will renew it time after time, each time, in fact, that human beings break it. And it always gets bigger – more generous, more inclusive.
Here the sign of God’s enduring love for creation is the rainbow, that beautiful remnant of a storm that appears when the sun comes out again. I don’t know of any tradition in which the rainbow is anything other than a symbol of goodness and mercy. To this day, devout Jews say a special prayer of blessing whenever they see a rainbow.
The second reading looks to Noah as a figure of those who are saved by God’s mercy, just as the followers of Jesus are saved by the mystery of baptism into his death and resurrection. The sacraments of initiation, preparation for which begins officially today for those wanting to be baptized, extend the new and gracious covenant that God made with all human beings, in fact with all creation, through the blood of Jesus. That is sure reason to rejoice.
The biblical theme of covenant with Creation has become urgently important in our time, as we see the devastation modern technological and industrial civilization has wrecked upon the world. Animal and plant species are disappearing at the fastest rate in 300 million years, the “sixth great extinction.” It is a perilous time for life on this planet. It has been estimated that about 30,000 animal species become extinct every year — about 3 every hour. Rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the seas are being poisoned with plastic and chemicals. For years, environmentalists and earth scientists have been clamoring for a new kind of Ark — responsible care for all the earth’s living systems. Like it or not, the fate and welfare of human beings is unbreakably connected with the health of the natural world. Like it or not, the future of life on earth is at stake, just as it was in the story of Noah. Saving Creation is now up to us.
Pope John Paul II was the first pope in recent history to make ecological stewardship an urgent moral imperative. The American bishops beat him to it by a decade, but few people really listened to them and in recent years they have gone strangely quiet. Pope Benedict renewed the call for ecological responsibility. But it was Pope Francis who made planetary stewardship a major priority with his great encyclical, Laudato sí.
In the midst of trying times — the pandemic, the economic chaos that ensued, political havoc, the downtown in weather as a consequence of global climate change–, Lent presents a special opportunity to join Jesus in his wilderness journey among the animals and angels, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. Today, the new and eternal rainbow covenant calls us to the work of justice, peace, and charity, which is more than self-denial. It turns our heads around. That’s what “repent” means.
Lent provides an opportunity, a gracious gift, for us to accompany Jesus into the desert, to be tested, to see whether in this round of the journey of our lives we may spiral closer to that burning heart of love around which all things move, and in which they live and have their being, including the earth itself with all its animals and plants. So during the next forty days (Sundays included) may the Holy Spirit cast us out into that wilderness to accompany Jesus with an open and willing and especially a joyful heart.
Buccaneers versus Chiefs might sound like an episode from Peter Pan – if you were born on a different planet or asleep for as many years as Rip Van Winkel (and should you not know what or who those are, more’s the pity…)
In the absence of a wise Super Bowl prediction from the uncanny Sr. Jean Kenny, I have sought refuge in the pre-game show of Puppy Bowl XVII, where there might dwell a clue. In the meaning, many millions of fans are prepped for the Big Game and the parties before and after, not to mention millions more betting on the outcome of the game. As a premonitory caution, today’s first reading from the Book of Job might come as a foretaste of the aftermath for many millions. (But not likely to spoil the parties, despite tears in the beers…)
Being old, sick, and desolate is no laughing matter, of course, but the sad plight of far too many people here and abroad as we linger in the
grim shadow of the Covid pandemic and the flu’ and other ailments. It is not without reason that Job has inspired some of the great literature of the world. We understand Job. And like Job we cling to the possibility that a ray of light might pierce the darkness, something more than the glow from wide-screen TVs.
In Christian ages past today was known as Sexagesima Sunday, and still is by many Christians. It’s the season before Easter, which is now just eight weeks (56 days) ahead, and only a week and a half before Ash Wednesday. Carnival time by the old reckoning, although the revelry will be curtailed this year for fear of another surge in viral spread. Even though the name has changed in the Catholic calendar, there is still a shift in the tone of the readings selected for today. Carnival time is coming to an end. In the Book of Job, the central figure appeals to us as a man of faith and heroic patience, true to God despite all that the Adversary could do to weaken his trust. If Job was also a complainer, he had cause to be.
If we didn’t know the background, today’s first reading might be called the Prayer of a Chronic Depressive. Day drags into night, night drags on sleeplessly into day. And yet, it all passes so quickly. We wake up one bleak morning and find ourselves poor, lonely, old, stiff, sore, and probably not feeling well at all. It just ain’t fair. Job is even the butt of criticism and disparagement by his wife, friends, and neighbors. And yet, he remains true, a model of fidelity in the face of poverty, illness, age, neglect, and misjudgment. You might say that old Job is the patron saint not so much of whiners and malcontents, but of the elderly poor in most of the world.
The contrast with Paul’s self-description could hardly be more complete. Like Job, Paul suffered a lot for his trust in God, and even he complains a bit. Elsewhere, he details his sufferings, miseries, woes, and hardships. They were considerable, too. In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he itemizes his griefs (2 Cor 11:24-28) – but not here. He says simply, “my only recompense … is that I offer the good news free of charge.” But I did this to myself, he adds. “I made myself the slave of all so as to win over as many as possible.” Paul’s slavery is a labor of love — patient, kind, persistent. God’s slave, he offers his drudgery as a ransom for others.
Next we come to the image of Jesus himself, the servant of the servants of God. We tend to read these accounts of Jesus’ early ministry with an eye to the content — Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, curing the sick and expelling demons… all of which seems to have been admitted even by those who did not believe in him. But here we are also invited as with Job and Paul to read between the lines. It’s not about the what, or even the how, but the why.
Like Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Jesus was one of those people who couldn’t say no. The portrait Mark paints is of a man tired from his exertions, but unable to refuse help to those who came to him. He didn’t seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel so much as they sought him out. The whole town gathered outside the door, and he cured them, probably well into the night. And he arose early, stealing off into the desert for some alone time to pray and gather his strength. And the disciples came scrambling after him, tracking him down with the townsfolk practically at their heels. Jesus’ response is to go on to the next village and the next and the next, announcing the kingdom of God and driving back the darkness.
One of the adages of the modern world, perhaps not without reason at times, is that we should learn to say no. “Yes” comes to the fore too easily. And yet, it is exactly his “yes” that drove Paul to uncommon lengths to preach the gospel, fretting over his little churches like a mother hen in a raging storm. It was his “yes” that wore Jesus to the bone curing, healing the possessed, and preaching.
In that Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us, “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” [2 Cor 1:18 – 20].
Jesus is God’s “yes” to us, and he is our “yes” to God. In him God heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds, and sustains the lonely. And if that is to happen today, if the Kingdom is to be preached, the darkness driven back inch by inch, God and Jesus will be making some stiff demands on all of us. Let us pray that our response, like Job’s, like Paul’s, like Jesus, will always be “Yes, Amen,” to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
[This Sunday I am still in the grip of the unfortunate aftereffects of inhaling Volatile Organic Compounds released from renovations in the building last week, so I am falling back on an older homily, slightly tweaked for the New Year at hand… but only slightly! Some things don’t change much.]
Today we find ourselves in the thick of Ordinary Time, somewhere between Christmas and Lent. We are likely to find a lot things much more interesting than scripture and church services, at least if the media is an accurate index. We can get excited or appalled, depending, at various political crises, The Pandemic, the economy, Global Climate Change, the Snowstorm, or even that Big Football Game coming up next week.
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit,YouTube, and our iPhones, we can fret round the clock if we choose to. But what has any of this to do with today’s liturgy? Quite a lot.
To begin in the middle, St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that he wanted them to be free of
all worries. His advice seems to be: don’t get married. I suspect that today people would ask him what planet he came from. But having been a marriage counselor for 25 years, I can agree with him at least this far: anyone who marries and tries to raise a family in today’s world is going to worry. But if Paul thought that unmarried people didn’t worry, he was very much mistaken. They worry about most of the things married people worry about, in addition to worrying about getting married. Apparently Paul never watched The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. I wonder what he would think of Christian on-line dating services?
In fact, what Paul was trying to get across is that often the real cause of worry, of mental suffering, is trying to have things both ways — trusting in God and also trying to please everyone else. Or at least not irritating them excessively. And his ultimate message is still sound advice: start with God, and the rest should fall into place. And if it doesn’t, our trust in God, our reliance on God, will steady us and provide the strength to get back into the struggle. No one is really free from all anxiety. Paul himself spoke of the anxiety he felt for all the churches [2 Cor. 11:28]. Having peace of heart does not mean a life without suffering, anxiety, and worry. It means having a way to cope with them.
The other readings point us toward Jesus. For the ancient Hebrews, the passage from Deuteronomy gave rise to the expectation of the coming of the Prophet of the Final Days, a new Elijah who would usher in the Kingdom of God. It was taken by early Christians to refer to Jesus, who was remembered like a new Moses, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus mainly resisted such identifications during his life on earth. In this passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus orders the demonic spirit to be silent when it recognizes him as the “Holy One” of God, a title not used elsewhere of Jesus in Mark. One way or another, Jesus was recognized even by non-human agents as more than just a prophet, more than just a healer. He was the Holy One, the Son of God, the Savior, much as the angel had foretold in Luke’s gospel: “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” [Luke 1:35].
The people are amazed. They point out that Jesus’s teaching is new, and authoritative — not a repetition of well-known passages of scripture, not just commentary. Something different was happening. Eventually, they will demand to know by what authority he teaches and does the surprising things they hear and see, and he will refuse to tell them. For now, they murmur in awe and perhaps fear.
And what is this teaching that seems so new and authoritative? So far, all Mark reports Jesus to have said is “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” God’s realm, Jesus is saying, has broken in on this world of ours. It is already changing everything. Now is the time to change our way of thinking, to change our way of living. God is inaugurating a new day, a whole new world.
Jesus calls us to live in the light of that day, living justly and with compassion, forgiving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us, caring for the oppressed and unfortunate. Matthew puts all of this in Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount. Luke spells it out with the prophecy of Isaiah, the text of Jesus’ first teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” [Luke 4:18-19].
Freedom, health, and liberty — not only from captivity, disease, and political or religious oppression, but also from anxiety and worry even about God. And about other things as well. You have found acceptance, Jesus says, God’s forgiveness is always accessible. Live as though you truly believed that, and your anxiety will disappear.
Let us pray that, as Christians, we will put God first, and the demands of party, country, favorite football team, work, and even of family, not merely second, but rethink them and re-order them in light of our loyalty to the Holy One of God.
This morning I noted that Church documents still call this the “Third Sunday of Ordinary Time,” as opposed to “Third Sunday of the Year,” which is correct as things go, not least because this is the fourth Sunday of the year 2021. But I have some reservations about “Ordinary,” which from a liturgical point of view makes sense but that’s about it. We are living through an unusually extraordinary period of time, globally and locally. People long for “normalcy,” although what that was varies considerably, much of it depending on the socio-economic bracket and perhaps the ethnic and age group one belongs to.
In any case, the extraordinary events of our time are not likely to diminish for months, if ever. I suppose it was always the case and today’s readings suggest that – and a way to muster through sometimes seismic shifts in our political, economic, and personal situation.
The extended parable of the Book of Jonah provides a good example. The shortest work in the Hebrew Scriptures, it has little to do with the real Nineveh. I know because I visited the site several years ago. It borders the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. In fact, however, Nineveh was one of the largest cities of the ancient world, the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy. But rather than a three day’s walk, it takes about thirty minutes to walk from wall to wall. And the big fish that delivers Jonah by air from the Mediterranean Sea to the shores of Nineveh (located on the banks of the Tigris, it is nowhere near the sea), is a machina ex Deo that provides some comic relief. Actually, the whole book is a comedy with a relatively happy ending. In actual fact, Nineveh came to an inglorious end when it was conquered and destroyed by an invading Babylonian army in the late seventh century BCE.
But that is not the point, even though Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is still the most popular motif in northern Iraqi art and has influenced Christian and Muslim scripture from the beginning. In a nutshell, Jonah is about the saving graces of repentance, forgiveness, and compassion. Even the animals put on sackcloth and the Book of Jonah ends with a declaration of divine solicitude for the “cattle.”
The segment we hear today from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems to have little to do with all that until you realize that what the Apostle to the Gentiles is preaching is ultimately about heeding the word of God, as Jonah and the people of Nineveh finally did. But it is no less and more urgently about repentance, forgiveness, and compassion. Paul urges his readers to unglue themselves from this-worldly reoccupations and pay attention to what really counts.
It’s a timely message. Today, it is impressive and gratifying to witness the massive effort of some of those hardest hit by the current pandemic and economic downturn to care for those even more desperate. Even children are collecting and helping distribute food and clothing. The heroic efforts of the medical community to treat and hopefully save those attacked by the virus, even at the cost of their own health and lives, is a testament to love and compassion. The metanoia of the people of Nineveh from lowest to highest led to their salvation (at least in the story), and it points the way for us.
Our third reading, Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples, follows on the version we heard last week from the Gospel of John — as if reminding us that Jesus knew well whom he was now calling to follow him. He asked, simply enough, that they abandon the way of life they had followed so long and worked so hard at and become fishers of men and women, harvesters of souls, salt of the earth, and light to the world. This is what Jonah and John the Baptist and Jesus all preached and what Paul wrote about. They are simply telling us not to identify ourselves with the moments of passing experience, not to build monuments to our sense of self — or lack of it. Like Nineveh, these will fade away into the ruins of time.
No, as Paul insists, in all that we do, whether we eat or drink, whether we marry or remain single, or anything else, we are to fix our minds and hearts first on God’s presence and glory [1 Cor 10: 31]. The rest, as Jesus promises, will sort itself out. But neither he nor Paul encourage us to disregard the world, whether social or natural, for one remains the sole arena of our salvation and the other points sacramentally to the merciful presence of God. And so we work for peace and justice, we strive to save the world, not, like old Jonah, to rejoice in its destruction.
We could learn a few things from Jonah. Like him, and so unlike Jesus, we find it very difficult to forgive, even when our enemies repent and do penance. We prefer revenge, as witness the sudden upsurge in executions in the federal prison system after a 60-year respite. For some reason Americans seem to find forgiveness difficult — especially when matters of race, color, and class are involved. And when the subject of rehabilitation arises, most people simply shrug and change the subject.
Like Peter, James, and John, our task is not to reject the world, nor even to leave it, but to transform it, to claim it for God by our peace-making, our love, our compassion, and our prayers. The true sign of Jonah is the everlasting love and saving compassion of God.
Yes, we can learn something from the Book of Jonah.
Early this past week I happened to tune into “Morning Joe,” an early-morning news-and-commentary broadcast. Something Joe Scarborough said startled both me and his co-hosts when he branded the insurgents who lay siege to the US Capitol on Jan. 6 as “a Christian mob.” A professed Baptist, Scarborough explained that he saw a cross and some other Christian symbols displayed by the rioters. If that were enough to make a mob or a movement Christian, then the Ku Klux Klan would fit in nicely, as well as dozens of other repressive governments at home and abroad who appropriate symbols both hallowed and desecrated over the centuries.
There was nothing Christian about the violent and deadly attack except a few scattered symbols and the apparent presence of a large number of white evangelicals bent on “taking back their country.”
As I watched the unfolding riot, having turned on the tv looking for a weather report shortly after noon, there was no sign of ministers, priests, rabbis, sisters, and other church leaders walking arm in arm peacefully over bridges of hate and racism in the name of love, justice, and freedom. For that we have to go back to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and especially the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, or the March on Washington this August to protest that Black Lives Matter.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister and preacher, was prominent alongside the late John Lewis at Selma and in several “freedom marches,” and it is to King, whose memory will be celebrated tomorrow throughout this country, that Scarborough should turn to discover what a Christian demonstration looks like. King offered his life in exchange for justice, peace, and non-violence. He was not the first to do so, nor will he be the last. But he needed no flags, tee-shirts, or crosses to prove his faith and that of his followers.
The commemoration of King’s life and legacy hardly come at a more opportune moment in our nation’s history, as hate, racism, injustice, violence, and deceit still find occasion to foul the air waves and streets. Like the prophet Samuel, whose call we learn about in today’s first reading, not only King but all those who profess the Christian faith are called to listen and respond. King’s response was outstanding and epoch-making. Ours may not be, but it is nevertheless incumbent on us and at least a candle that lights up a little of the darkness in the world.
Like Samuel, King actually heard God calling in the night. The passage we have just heard from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian
Christians, reminds us that as temples of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God lives within us. We are not limited to external hints and clues and directions. God is right here, inside, whispering, listening, guiding, and raising us up. The problem is that we seldom pay attention.
The simple truth is that like Samuel, and the disciples we first meet in the gospel reading today, all of us are called to prophecy. In fact, every moment of our life presents an opportunity to hear the Word of God and follow it. Like Samuel and King, we are not merely passive recipients of instructions that come to us in a burning bush or a still small voice in the night. We also need to act. Some of us may act heroically.
In the story from the gospel of John, the first disciples are given an invitation, a call — “come and see.” But going to see Jesus means looking for the Word of God — paying attention, even in the still small hours of the night. But as Martin Luther King learned, no less than Samuel and those first disciples did, we have to do something. That is how we follow Christ. So let us pray that both awake and asleep we continue to keep open the eyes and ears of our hearts, ever attentive to the signals of divine intent that ring around us like voices calling in the night. And let us pray that we will put into practice what we have heard whispered in that dark stillness.
Later this week Catholics in the United States will observe a day of prayer for the protection of unborn children, one of several such observances now inserted into the liturgical calendar. It should be a time for prayerful reflection on the gift of life, for all life is holy, all life “matters.”
“The poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.” (Measure for Measure, Act III, Sc. 1)
Early yesterday, the current administration carried out its 13th federal execution since July. The killing of Dustin Higgs ended “an unprecedented series that concluded five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden — an opponent of the federal death penalty.” The execution was scheduled for Friday, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. After a protest by Martin Luther King III, King’s eldest son, noting that Higgs, a Black man, was scheduled to die on his father’s birthday and following other last-minute appeals, the execution was delayed one day.
As noted by the Associated Press, “the number of federal death sentences carried out under Trump since 2020 is more than in the previous 56 years combined…” The only woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, who was suffering from brain damage and mental illness, was executed Wednesday, the first woman executed in 67 years dispute appeals for clemency from around the world, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the ACLU, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Sr. Helen Prejean, and a thousand others — many of them religious leaders.
There was chatter among the mob that ransacked the Capitol building on Jan. 6 about staging executions of members of Congress, and a noose was prominently displayed, which to the best of my knowledge is not a Christian symbol, Mr. Scarborough. Our call to peace, justice, and non-violence led by Martin Luther King, Jr., is a summons unfulfilled. Let us continue the task set before us so long ago by the Prince of Peace, himself unjustly executed by governmental authority.
Some things, once seen, remain etched in memory. Even though very few of us were present and personally witnessed them, some things cannot be unseen – the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy; 9-11; the killing of George Floyd; the anguish of a parent, child, spouse, or friend witnessing the death of a loved one; and now, the deliberate attack on the U.S. Capitol building. We remember happy times, joyful events, and occasions of rare heroism, devotion, and care. But tragedies and catastrophes overshadow them, no doubt because of the overwhelming power of negative emotions — horror, fear, anger — felt repeatedly as the social media broadcast such dismaying images over and over.
We come away from witnessing such events, even so mediated, burdened with sorrow and possibly hopelessness, fearful of our countrymen and for the future. We now hear commentators and pundits claiming that “democracy is fragile.” I submit that democracy is not fragile, it is strong and robust, and survives assaults on its very foundations, wounded perhaps, but resolute. Democracy is not fragile, but it is vulnerable.
On this day, the last Sunday of the Christmas cycle, when Christians around the world commemorate the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public
ministry, it is well to remember that goodness and nobility of purpose are not only possible, but at work in the world. The grace of God is always available. We do not have to succumb to the forces of hatred, bigotry, and self aggrandizement at the expense of the common good. [See Is 42:1-4,6-7, Acts 10:34-38, Mk 1:7-11.]
The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River made so indelible an impression that it is described in all four gospels, something of a rarity. It is also alluded to in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles appointed for today and finds mention elsewhere in that work . Mark’s description, the oldest of all, skips the dialogue between Jesus and John and cuts to the point, the divine testimony of Jesus’ identity. It is not evident whether Mark is referring to a vision John had or if only Jesus saw the sky opened and the Holy Spirit descending “like a dove” on (or over) Jesus. John’s gospel makes it clear: “John [the Baptizer] bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him” [John 1:32]. But Mark tells us that the Voice, also heard in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is to Jesus himself: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” [Mark 1:11]. You are my son…
Here, the stirring words of Isaiah find their application and fulfilment: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”:
“I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness” [Is 42:1, 6-7].
The gospels testify that it is at his baptism that Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the ‘Christ’ — words which mean in both Hebrew and Greek “the anointed one.” In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed to identify him as the one through whom God would save the Chosen People. And that is also why every new Christian is anointed with holy oil when baptized. A Voice may not come from heaven, but each is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child.
At first glance today’s second reading doesn’t seem to have much to do with all this – it is part of the story of the first non-Jewish converts to Christ, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and household. But it is very relevant at this moment, especially that wonderful saying, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35. See 1 Cor 12:12-14 and Gal 3:27-29]. Peter has just realized that no one is to be refused baptism — everyone is called to Christ. And so the great door of salvation was thrown open to all peoples everywhere and forever.
Peter also recalls that it was after Jesus’ baptism that he began his saving work – “…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; … he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” [Acts 10:38]. And so it is with those called to be one in Christ Jesus: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” [Rom 6:3-4].
The Baptism of Jesus coveys a message of resolute hope in the midst of whatever catastrophes life may throw in our path. Democracy may be shaken to its foundations, but so long as people of faith and good will hold fast, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Today’s celebration is one of the oldest in the Christian tradition. In Ireland it is traditionally called Nollaig na mBan, “the Women’s Christmas,” sometimes “Little Christmas,” or even the Feast of the Three Kings, and in an English tradition “The Twelfth Day of Christmas,” complete with twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, and all the rest. It marks the end of the Christmas festival. It is a celebration of light and glory. Whatever we call it, in these dark times, the Epiphany shines like a bright light still burning in the night. I am reminded of Jerry Hermon’s wonderful song from Auntie Mame,
…we need a little Christmas, right this very minute
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet
And we need a little Christmas, right this very minute
We need a little Christmas now…
Of course, Mame was singing about Christmas itself, but it still fits well. In this year of so much confusion, sickness, suffering and death,
…I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
I need a little Christmas now…
‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “sudden appearance.” We still use it to describe an unexpected inspiration. But THE Epiphany is a feast of the Lord that summarizes just about everything. From ancient times, Christians celebrated in one grand festival the manifestation of God’s saving grace to the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each progressively and surprisingly revealed God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
The first reading from the Book of Isaiah sets the tone with its rhapsodic celebration of light and glory and adds a touch of royalty that will later get
attached to the Magi, abetted by Psalm 72, our responsorial song. It’s all about the salvation of the Gentiles, the non-Jews who had seemed barred from God’s favor. It’s about inclusiveness in today’s terms. [See Is 60:1-6, Eph 3:2-3a,5-6, and Matt 2:1-12]
The letter to the Christians of Ephesus, from which we take our second reading, spells it out explicitly: “the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the Good News” [Eph 3:6]. Matthew’s version takes the form of a wonderful story of revelation, desperation, and salvation.
The gospel reading focuses our attention on the sudden appearance of the magoi, mysterious strangers, star-gazing Gentiles most likely from Persia, who come to Jerusalem seeking the new-born King of the Jews. Christians have always wondered who they were. Or even if they really existed at all, despite some relics in the Cathedral of Cologne and those wonderful names, Caspar (or Gizbar), Melchior , and Balthazar. (Or in the Ethiopian Church, Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Take your pick.) Perhaps they are only characters in a story Matthew uses to make a point. Perhaps he was thinking of the passage from Isaiah we just heard. He doesn’t say.
One thing is clear: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The crowns, number, and names come much later, when kings no longer persecuted Christians and Christianity itself had become an imperial religion. They could have been Zoroastrian priests from Persia, these Maghdim as they were called, and God only knows how many of them came looking for the King of the Jews. The three gifts they brought, borrowed by Matthew from the ancient scriptural sources, could have accompanied as many as a dozen visitors, as related in some traditions. In makes sense, for belief in a universal redeemer was part of Zoroastrian religion at that time, which held that after the appearance on earth of a virgin-born savior, God would triumph over evil. Not perhaps by chance the birthday of Mithras, a semi-divine figure of this eastern religion greatly favored by the Roman military, was celebrated on December 25th. He was, incidentally, said to have been born in a cave.
And so, after worshipping the child and leaving their gifts, these mysterious strangers pass out of sight, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was planning on murdering the child and most likely them as well. Their gifts, like their quest for the King of the Jews, point us ahead, however, to other anointings, other searches for the King of the Jews, and a final dream in Matthew’s gospel, that of a Roman wife who warns her husband, sitting in judgment, not to have anything to do with the man called Jesus then on trial for his life [Mat 27:19] .
Now, however, we are left with the Magoi and their gifts. What do they tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us all?
In light of the kind of gifts usually exchanged on Christmas today, what the Magoi didn’t bring was as important as what they did bring. No toys, clothing, food, liquor, tools, or even weapons — after all, Herod was fully capable of slaughtering children as well as adults. What they brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold (chrysos), it was held, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense (Libanon), which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering. And myrrh (Smyrna) is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are not so much costly as priceless gifts — appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
The Magoi eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house. But the Holy Family who lived there were about to become homeless refugees and the Magoi vanish into the mists of time.
So who are these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life, the strangers and outsiders brought into the realm of God’s saving love? We are, of course. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or will we find him among the poor, the outcast, the homeless, refugees, and the oppressed? And what gifts do we bring him today?
In ages past, separated families had only letters and word of mouth for keeping in touch with their loved ones when separated by oceans and continents, or even the distance of a few miles. “Keeping in touch” took days and sometimes weeks and months. Then the technological and industrial revolution begun in the nineteenth century ushered in an era of ever-increasing facility of communication. Today, contact is virtually instantaneous. Zoom and its rivals have allowed us to conduct meetings, classes, and family gatherings in cyberspace. Personally, I never envisaged using a laptop computer to conduct a class, but as the Covid-19 virus ravaged the country, it proved to be a blessing, not least in helping families stay in touch – if “touch” is still the right word for it.
Even so, our desperation to join our families during the holiday season led many of us to expose ourselves, and our families, to infection by the new virus. Hundreds of thousands of family members have died as a result of the contagion that followed. Such is the strength of our love, even if it would be better served by distancing ourselves from close physical contact until the pandemic has passed. It is helpful to remember that the heart-break of enforced physical separation of spouses from each other, of children from their parents and grandparents, of cousins, uncles, aunts from all of us during the dark night of their final moments is also a testament of love – love bruised and wounded, but no less revealed in its power and nobility in the face of overwhelming sorrow. We could all use a hug.
At this somber moment in our history, today’s observance of the holy family reminds us of the importance and value of family life, perhaps all-too easily taken for granted in a country blessed by so much wealth and power, however unequally it is distributed. As a consequence, we have become prone to overlook the fragility of this most fundamental of human associations, the cradle of civilization itself. This was nowhere more vividly impressed on me than when I visited Iraq several times during its bleakest hours, when family life, so endangered by rockets and bombs, was virtually the only lasting and trustworthy bond most people had to rely on.
Nor should we pass too-quickly over the momentary shadow in the prophecy of Simeon related in today’s gospel reading as his gaze turned to
the blessed child’s mother: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Known throughout the centuries as “the sorrowful mother,” Mary’s vigil at the cross and the retrieval of her only son’s body, so frequently painted and carved in stone, presaged the agony of countless numbers of mothers and fathers called upon to witness their children’s death, not only by falling prey to a strange viral inflection and other illnesses, but as victims of hunger, senseless gunfire, and, increasingly, hit-and-ran drivers. This is their day of remembrance also.
In our celebration of Jesus’ birth, we should also recall that soon after, when the mad jealousy of King Herod descended lethally on the little town of Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary had to flee as refugees seeking safety in a foreign country in order to protect Jesus’ life. That should give us cause for reflection as we witness refused entry and the forced separation of thousands of families of refugees seeking safety in the United States from oppression and violence, even murder, in their native villages and towns. The massacre of innocents did not cease when Herod’s militia left Bethlehem. It is present reality.
There would also be moments of parental anguish as when the boy Jesus seemed to have become lost after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph retraced their way back in a panic. All this will be the matter of liturgical memory in the days to come. Here and now we have respite, a time for rejoicing and celebrating the redemptive gift of love. And Luke tells us in his gospel that Jesus returned with Mary and Joseph to their home in Nazareth where for the next twenty years they lived in peace. Artists have loved to dwell on imagined scenes of their home life. We actually know nothing about it, except that after those three days of agonized searching and eventual reunion, Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:51-52).
In his letter to the Christians in Colossae, St. Paul seems to have had something like this mind, and it is still excellent advice when he urges mutual love, obedience, and forbearance, including a wry and always pertinent bit of counsel: “fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart” (Col 3:21). The beautiful passage from the Book of Sirach used as our first reading presents us with whole litany of good counsel. It is worth noting that it is mainly about children’s respect for their parents, especially when they are aged and in need of support.
So as we look forward hopefully to a New Year in which peace and compassion can once again flourish with good will toward all, especially refugee children and their parents, we would do well also to recall the words of Sirach: “Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.”
May you have a healthy and joyful New Year. Mask up, wash your hands frequently, observe appropriate social distance. The vaccines are only very slowly reaching the majority of potential victims of the coronavirus. It won’t be easy, but it will make life once again safer and more peaceful for all.
For those in the Northern hemisphere lucky enough to have an unimpeded view of the western horizon just after sunset on December 21, there will appear in the heavens if not a great sign at least a beacon of hope. For the first time in almost 400 years the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn will appear to coincide, or nearly so, producing a near alignment as Jupiter, the Great Benefic of the Ancients, the “Bringer of Jollity,” eclipses for a time the Greater Malefic, Saturn, the Bringer of Misfortune.
The Great Conjunction coincides with the Winter Solstice, also on December 21, when the increasing darkness of our days halts and begins to retreat. Appearing just days before Christmas, the alignment will resemble a new and brilliant star, bringing to mind the story of the Star of Bethlehem in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-10). This relatively rare celestial configuration was probably not the Star of Bethlehem, although in 1604 Johannes Kepler calculated that there had been such a conjunction in 7 BCE. But it was not a particularly noticeable one. At least no one did, except perhaps the Magi. Still, this week’s conjunction and solstice appear as a welcome ray of hope in very dark times.
Today’s readings turn our reflections from John the Baptist to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whose faith and trust in God were of such great importance and significance in the saga of redemption. But first, we are given the account of David’s plan to build a Temple for God in his newly captured stronghold of Jerusalem. Rebuffed by the prophet Nathan, who first had approved the idea, David is told that a successor would build the great house of God. And it was in fact Solomon, David son, who built the great temple that for centuries was one of the wonders of the ancient world. But, as St. Bernard related in his homily “In Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the true temple would be this young girl of Nazareth, who for nine months bore within her the Savior of the World, the very Son of God.
The second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides a link between the two temples, “the mystery hidden for many ages but now manifested through the writings of the prophets, and at the command of the eternal God, made known to all the Gentiles that they may believe and obey…” (Rom 16:25-26). Those barred from so much as entering the temple were now to be welcomed. While temple imagery is found throughout Christian scripture, the allusion that inspired St. Bernard is perhaps the most beautiful of all.
The gospel reading is taken from St. Luke’s Gospel, our sole source for the story of the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the young Mary, engaged to Joseph but not yet married. The nearly rabbinical dialogue between them sets the stage for the great mystery of Christmas, the Virgin Birth – scripture’s way of affirming that Jesus is the true Son of God, although he will somewhat ironically refer to himself as “the Son of Man,” an allusion to the “eschatological figure” in whom rests the destiny of the world.
The great feast of Christmas lies just ahead, a moment of brightness in what has been far too dark a year in a world still longing for redemption. We were reminded by Isaiah that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone” (Isaiah (9:2).
We live in hope for a better future, one ultimately in the New Heavens and New Earth, where “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-5) There will be no temple in the New Jerusalem, or need for one, for “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).
Christmas is a season of hope, more, possibly, than one of joy. “The Crib of Jesus lies always in the shadow of the Cross. The silence and poverty of the birth in Bethlehem are one with the darkness and pain of the death on Calvary. The Crib and the Cross are the same mystery of redemptive love; the body which Mary laid in the manger is the same body offered up on the Cross (Homily of Pope John Paul II, Manger Square, Bethlehem, 22 March 2000. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/travels/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000322_bethlehem.html ). But the darkness shall not prevail. We live in hope.
In his lovely long poem, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Charles Peguy, the great French poet and playwright, described the virtue of hope that we so desperately need this year as a small child,
…it is my little hope
who lies down every evening
and gets up every morning
and really has very good nights.
I am, God says, the Lord of that virtue.
It is my little hope
who goes to sleep every evening,
in her child’s bed,
after having said a good prayer,
and who wakes every morning and gets up
and says her prayers with new attention.
Hope is a little girl, nothing at all….
And yet it is this little girl who will endure worlds.
This little girl, nothing at all.
She alone, carrying the others, who will cross worlds past.
As the star guided the three kings from the deepest Orient.
Toward the cradle of my Son.
Like a trembling flame.
She alone will guide the Virtues and Worlds.
May the child hope and the child Jesus comfort you in these difficult times and bring you a hope-filled and joyful Christmas.