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.
There’s a certain irony in calling today’s celebration “Gaudete [Rejoice!] Sunday,” its former title, although joy and the word “rejoice” appear frequently in the readings. The opening verse of the old “entrance antiphon,” ‘Rejoice in the Lord always!’ [Phil 4:4-5], is echoed in the second reading: “Rejoice always, never cease praying: render constant thanks” [1 Thess. 5:16]. Today, people are rejoicing, too, even in the midst of a still-calamitous year. The news that the vaccines have begun to be distributed for immunizing the nation against the pandemic coronavirus is worth celebrating for sure. But the struggle is not over, much though hope is brighter now than during the past nine months. There is still darkness clouding our lives.
Traditionally, the violet vestments of Advent are lightened today to rose, a forecast of the joyful feast that beckons just two weeks ahead.
Years back, a pastor I worked with, a great friend and colleague, surprised me the first year we were in our new church by removing the rose-colored vestments. “I hate pink,” he explained. I pleaded that they were not pink but rose – a lighter shade of violet, the color of penitence, the reform of life called for by John the Baptist and Jesus – ‘metanoia.’ (It didn’t work.)
As for rejoicing, that term we translate “penance,” from which we get the term “penitential” and also “penitentiary,” means to change our way of thinking and therefore of living. It had nothing to do with punishment, especially self-punishment. It is about moral and spiritual transformation. Originally, a penitentiary was a prison where people guilty of some crime were sent to turn their lives around, to make amends. Amendments. Something to rejoice over. After all, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance –metanoia” [Luke 15:7].
Today, tragically, a penitentiary is now a place where those guilty of very serious crimes, whether or not they have repented, and even those wrongfully convicted, are put to death, as happened again Thursday and Friday nights with the executions of Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois. Last July, the current administration reintroduced federal executions as a matter of policy, ending a seventeen-year moratorium. As a result, thirty-four more executions are scheduled over the coming two years. And if lethal injection proves cumbersome, the Department of Justice wants to reintroduce electrocution, hanging, and shooting.
The Catholic Church, to which Attorney General William Barr nevertheless professes membership, has strenuously opposed capital punishment beginning with the misgivings of Pope John Paul II, and since made a cornerstone of the moral teaching of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. In 2018, the Catechism of the Church was amended accordingly. The bishops of the United States support this position and many have directly intervened on behalf of those condemned to die at the hands of their fellow citizens.
The United States is the only western industrialized nation that still inflicts capital punishment on its citizens. Presently it has the sixth highest number of executions in the world, of which the great majority are carried out in the state of Texas. [https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/death-penalty-in-2019-facts-and-figures/]
Grim tidings on this Rejoice Sunday, but it is worth noting that both John the Baptist and Jesus himself were legally and unjustly executed by state authority. And that is a very good reason to understand why we look forward to that Advent of Justice and Mercy that Isaiah anticipated, “a year of favor from the Lord, and a day of vindication by our God…” Like Isaiah, Jesus was also called, as he announced in his first sermon in his home synagogue
“to bring glad tidings to the lowly,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
Then, putting down the scroll, he said, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [see Luke 4:18].
That didn’t go over very well,. But if we truly grasp the meaning of that message, our response can only be joyful even in dark times such as these, at least if we count ourselves among those who need spiritual transformation – metanoia. Accordingly, our task, like that of John the Baptist and Jesus, is to spread the good news especially to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the world-weary, the bereaved, and prisoners of hopelessness. That will truly prepare the way for a joyful and merry Christmas for everyone.
The liturgical year draws to a sad end this Sunday with the Solemn Feast of Christ the King of the Universe. Amid a worsening and even spreading pandemic, monumental political blundering, and economic crises, it may seem ironic as kingship seems at least irrelevant in the face of such global disasters. [See Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17, 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28, Mat 25:31-46]
Kings are, almost by definition, a sorry lot. Historically, most were rapacious, egotistical, power-hungry autocrats corrupted, even if they started out well, by that very power, as Lord Acton observed – “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The proto-prophet Samuel sternly warned the Israelites that in demanding a king to rule over them in the manner of the gentiles they were playing with a fire that would consume them [1 Sam 8:4-22]. And it largely did. Hardly any kings in Hebrew scripture come off as less than villainous. Even the best of them taken as a model, David, was capricious and bloody-minded, capable of adultery, murder, and deceit. (That is not to say that modern dictators and presidents are not equally capable and often expert at the task.)
In Christian scripture, the accusation that Jesus “made himself” king of the Jews was a false testimony that led to his execution. But by the time the epistles and gospels were written, what had been taken as a parabolic figure, if not ironic and subversive, was now accorded to Jesus as the “true king.” It is this figure of speech that animated the hopes of subject peoples down through modern history, hopes that were often dashed when the lure of absolute power succeeded in corrupting the royals.
When emergent democratic republics repudiated kings wholesale, the term became odious but managed to survive in folklore and fairy tales as the image of the “true king,” an Arthur or an Aragorn. In fact, modern monarchs are still a pretty sorry if more impotent lot. At best, the survivors are usually little more than expensive political decorations, nice folks kept in office and affection as one might a favorite Corgi.
Perhaps the title of “Christ the King” is a misnomer even apart from the diminished longing for a “true king.” The intention of Pope Pius XI when in 1925 he instituted the Feast of Christ the King for the whole Church was in some measure an effort to shore up what was inexorably becoming a lost cause, at least in Europe, following the First World War. Today there are fewer monarchies than ever – about 25, all told, including grand dukes, sovereign princes, and the like. Only about a dozen actual kings and queens hang on, many in Africa and Asia. Adding to that number several dozen emirs, sultans, an emperor or two, and the pope, the number rises just over 40.
Similarly, when in 1970 Pope Paul VI extended the royal title to the entire universe, cosmologists might well have wondered if that was a pontifical bridge too far, so to speak. The universe is a mighty big area and whether or not there are any intelligent beings out beyond the reach of present knowledge, it could well be doubted whether the claim of universal kingship of an Earthling would mean anything to them. (Only half our own world is nominally Christian today.)
Where this leaves us on this auspicious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, may be a little obscure to many. My suggestion is to once again consider the testimony of the ancient scripture and the gospel for the day. In Psalm 72, one of the “royal psalms,” we hear
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor [Ps 72:1-4].
And, a bit later,
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight [Ps 72:12-14].
The gospel reading chosen for today’s liturgy is perhaps the most telling of all, even though in his parable Jesus does not explicitly identify himself with the Son of Man or the King:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him,
and he will separate people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.’
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.’ [Matt 25:31-36,40].
It has been another desperately challenging week, especially for healthcare workers who are struggling to keep up with the toll being taken increasingly on our citizens by the new coronavirus. That we, even more than other nations, were unprepared for such an event may be a serious understatement, for there were warning signs and clarion calls as long as five years ago that a new viral pandemic was likely to occur within a few years. The signs were all there, but we were still vastly unprepared when it arrived.
There is much to learned from this dreadful experience, if our leaders are wise enough to pay attention and look ahead. To take precautions. And that is what today’s readings are about. They continue last week’s theme. They are all about readiness, which figures strongly in many of Jesus’ parables and direct teaching. Clearly, it has not ceased to be timely.
The first reading from the Book of Proverbs extols the readiness of a wise and provident wife. I love this passage because it calls to mind the work and sacrifices of the women in my own family who in preceding eras had to improvise and often work hard alongside their husbands or even by themselves to make ends meet during the hard times of the pioneer western settlement, the Great Depression of 1929, and the challenges of facing critical shortages during the Secord World War. (I still treasure the Victory Garden apron that my parents preserved from the 1940s when home gardening and careful rationing were practical necessities.)
I chose this passage from the Book of Proverbs for my mother’s funeral, because it beautifully illustrates how a good wife and mother tries to be ready for just about any eventuality. It is an attitude St Paul encourages his readers to adopt in regard to Christ’s return at the end of days. Given both the frenzy and the paralysis some early Christians were experiencing, true readiness for Paul meant living each day as if it might be our last, but providing thoughtfully for the needs of the future as well. Jesus was clear about that, as we heard last week, for “no one knows the day or hour.” Look ahead! Be ready!
Several years ago, a former student invited me to visit Quantico, VA, where he was in training as a marine. There I learned that “Always Ready” is a slogan covering just about everything Marines are expected to do, but as I mentioned last Sunday, it is the official (Latin) motto of the U.S. Coast Guard — Semper Paratus – “always prepared.” Their marching anthem ends with a refrain that begins, prayerfully enough,
We’re always ready for the call,
We place our trust in Thee.
Through howling gale and shot and shell,
To win our victory.
“Semper Paratus” is our guide,
Our pledge, our motto, too.
We’re “Always Ready,” do or die!
As this year’s memory of Veteran’s Day recedes in the wake of the accelerating pandemic, natural disasters, and political intrigue, it is a call surely worth keeping in mind, as we honor those who were prepared to give everything, even to the cost of their lives. Shakespeare, that good Christian, knew his Scripture: “The readiness is all!” [Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2]
But Jesus had even a more urgent cause in mind than Shakespeare or the U.S. Marines and Coast Guard – the shortness of all human life and the approach of judgment. As we start winding up the Church year, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to what true readiness means before God.
At first glance, his parable seems like a very serious and even unfair story. It’s actually rather comical, although our world is so far removed from first-century values we fail to see the humor that would have been obvious to his listeners in a story about high finance gone very, very wrong.
To begin with, the amounts of money Jesus describes were astronomically high. He loved to exaggerate in order to get his point across. Today just five talents of silver would be worth about 2 million dollars. So while we might be able to understand why some timid soul might hide a small nest-egg in a coffee can and bury it or hide it under the mattress, but not two million dollars! No, the fellow who put a fortune in a hole in the ground was not only lazy, but stupid. You might say he got what he deserved. Or more accurately, lost it. Lost it all. But even that’s not the point of the story.
Jesus is not saying that God is like a banker who will foreclose the mortgage if you miss a single payment. And he pointedly does not say that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. But he is saying that we are all too much like timid investors. We don’t make adequate provision for the future — the future God has in mind for us, and the results can be catastrophic both for us and the world.
So what is his point here? Make adequate provision for the return of your Lord — he has high expectations of you, much more like those of the Coast Guard than the folks from Goldman-Sachs. Still, “cashing in” on the Coming of Christ requires facing risk and inevitable hardship. There are other parables about that. Here, Jesus is encouraging us to count the cost, look ahead, be smart, and not to be afraid to gamble a bit. Basically, don’t put off until tomorrow what we really should take care of today and just hope for the best. What that amounts to he carefully itemizes in next week’s gospel passage which follows directly on today’s. The care and caution required for admittance to the Kingdom has nothing to do with interest on a wise financial investment, but what we do with our resources, financial and otherwise, specifically in view of the desperate needs of the poor, the starving, the homeless, the sick and imprisoned. Be warned.
It has been a momentous week, not only because of the ongoing saga of the presidential election in the United States, but because of the startling figures that outline the grim march of the coronavirus across this land and much of the rest of the world. Here in the Land of Opportunity, we are experiencing the greatest casualty rate in the world – surpassing even India by double digits in the number of cases reported and fatalities. It is a challenging time to lead a normal life, as “Covid fatigue” impels more and more people to abandon precautions followed by unsurprising consequences. [https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/08/health/us-coronavirus-sunday/index.html]
As the liturgical year draws to a close and Advent appears on the horizon, the themes of the readings tend to turn to expectation and preparedness. The day of the Lord is coming and, to be sure, while here we have no abiding city [Heb 13:14], the need for vigilance and resolute precaution has never been so urgently needed. Not surprisingly, vigilance is the theme of today’s readings, beginning with the beautiful and poetic late Jewish Book of Wisdom, which so influenced the thought of early Christians: “one who is vigilant on [Wisdom’s] account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought” [Wis 6:15-16].
The gospel text contains one of the most famous parables Jesus created to encourage vigilance and attentiveness among his followers. Again, he compares the Reign of God to a wedding feast, one of his favorite images. This time, however, his focus is not on the guests and their attire, but on the attendants, young girls from the village who were awaiting the arrival of the groom. That’s a bit strange, but it’s very likely that Matthew left the bride out of the picture to underscore the coming of the groom, who was most likely to have been on his way to take the bride to his home. But the focus is really on the bridesmaids who get sleepy as the delay grows longer and longer. Night has now fallen. Ten of the girls came prepared for the long wait and ten did not.
When the shout is heard that the groom has arrived, there’s a scramble for their lamps [lampadas], not “torches” as in some translations. Lamps need oil to keep burning. So the story is really about having a enough oil to keep the lamps lit. The parable might seem a little heartless and even uncharitable, since the ten sensible maidens refuse to share their lamp oil with the foolish ones. But with parables, it is important to get the main point, which in this case is not about generosity, but about alertness and common sense. In short, we are to be ready at all times to welcome Christ as Lord not only of Death, but more especially of Life. Keep awake, Jesus tells us, and be prepared.
The image of Jesus as bridegroom is very ancient, and was traditionally used for his relationship to the people of God. The messianic banquet is, after all, a wedding feast, right to the end where in the Book of Revelation it is called “the wedding feast of the Lamb” [Rev. 19:9] in case there might be some doubt about the matter. Here, too, the watchword is vigilance – ‘semper paratus,’ as in the motto and marching song of the U.S. Coast Guard. Whether looking ahead to the Great Assize, as John Wesley described it, the preservation of liberty, or protection from the ravages of disease, the peril of falling asleep on the job is always a possibility. And the remedy is still eternal vigilance.