Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Come and See

“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15).

 

In many churches, one of the most important experience for families at Christmas is when parents take their children to visit the crèche depicting the birth of Jesus. There is an endearing familiarity to the scene of simple shepherds, sheep, oxen and donkey huddled in around Joseph and Mary by the manger holding the child. But we must look beyond sentimentality or tradition to see its disturbing truth.

These evocative displays were a medieval form of catechesis inspired and loved by St. Francis of Assisi because they brought Jesus to the poor, which Francis believed was the point of the Gospel. God came into the world for the poor. Children’s questions about how such cold deprivation could happen to God on his birthday are crucial.  

The enduring appeal of the Christmas story has always had less to do with its historical veracity than its powerful message that God loves the poor. The infancy narratives found only in Matthew and Luke are richly layered pastiches composed to show that Jesus fulfilled the promises and figures found in the Scriptures. The authors knew this, and told the story this way to urge their audiences to grasp the more demanding claim of the Incarnation -- that God is in the world on the side of the poor.

If any more explicit commentary were needed, the child’s mother, in her Magnificat, rejoiced that his birth signaled a turning point in God’s favor toward the outcast and the hungry, the weak and the oppressed. Unfortunately, her manifesto seldom appears in any Christmas card.

By contrasting the stark beauty of Christmas morning to the indifference of the world that had no room for a desperate couple at the inn, or the plotting and brutal response of Herod when he learned of the child, the evangelists were also sending a warning to the rich and powerful that they would be judged by how they treated the poor.

Those who sentimentalize or commercialize Christmas as a story for children must also take heed of its real message. Leaders and policies that terrorize and abandon millions of refugees and immigrants in a world destabilized by war and economic injustice are now put on notice by Christmas.

We are invited to know the joy of Christmas in a different way, as a call to redemption, the turning of history in a different direction, a summons to justice as the only way forward for the world. We are invited to come and see with eyes opened to the reality of God’s presence among the poor.

If we take our children to visit the crèche, they may see and ask questions about the obvious. We all should feel what St. Francis felt when he knelt there. It is the key to the Good News and the path to understanding the depth of God’s urgent and compelling love in coming to dwell among us.

Time's Up

"The proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the mystery kept secret for long ages" (Rom 16:25). 

"Time," it has been said, "is what keeps everything from happening at once." We experience time as a narrative that flows from past to present and future. This continuum is a blessing in that it lets us examine past mistakes, correct them in the present and project a fresh course into the future.  Without time, the story would be complete from the beginning, a single moment with no do-overs. 

Dickens' "Christmas Carol" shows Ebenezer Scrooge reliving his entire life in a series of visions in a single night. The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present visit him in a nightmare of self-recrimination because of his selfishness. He is destined for the graveyard. But he is allowed to choose a different future, and he awakens on Christmas filled with gratitude and determined to change. He has experienced what the Greeks called a moment of kairos-- opportunity -- and he seizes that moment and emerges choosing life over death. 

This year the calendar has compressed Advent and Christmas into what seems a single moment. We celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning, then assemble again in the evening to hold Christmas Eve services. Expectation overflows into fulfillment. We pray, "Come, Lord Jesus,” and in the next breath, acknowledge his presence. 

The liturgy proclaims a mystery that is always present and therefore timeless. God's continuous NOW is celebrated in an annual cycle of scripture readings that tell the story of salvation again and again. The re-enactment of the death of Christ on the altar and the sharing of his risen life in Communion make a past event present.

We are formed in the faith by participating in the liturgy.  Year by year, we enter a mystery that spirals around us, forming us in our baptismal identity, the promise of eternity as the timeless backdrop of our lives. We gradually access what is already complete, God's loving claim on us in Christ. What St. Paul calls "the mystery kept secret for long ages" is the life of Christ in us. 

When Mary accepted God’s invitation to conceive Jesus, the entire history of salvation was fulfilled in her. This is the goal our own Christian formation. The moment is now, and the answer is yes.  

Promises Kept

"He remembered his promise of mercy" (Luke 1:56).

As Christmas approaches, one driving force that will have parents out shopping until they drop is their desire not to disappoint their children. Small children who are told to believe in Santa must have that faith upheld at all costs. It is as though their innocence and ability to trust in adults will be shattered if this fabled figure cannot deliver as promised. 

This self-imposed challenge identifies a deeper need in us. We want to believe that promises will be kept. Adults keep track of those who keep their promises and those who don't. It becomes a measure of character we place on ourselves that we do the same. 

Salvation history is along narrative of promises. The canticles of Hannah, Zechariah and Mary are celebrations of God's promises kept. Despite enormous adversity and seeming postponement, hope is affirmed and the story moves forward because God is the ultimate keeper of promises. 

Mary's Magnificat is a communal song that expresses the longing of all those who have struggled under the weight of a history that always seems to favor the rich and powerful. It is a manifesto for the poor that God is on their side. God's promise is that injustice will not prevail. The proud will be scattered in their conceits, the mighty will be cast down from their thrones, the rich will be sent away empty. 

Though the Magnificat is sung every day as part of Vespers, it is no surprise that its revolutionary call has never found its way into a popular Christmas carol. Mary's song challenges every assumption underlying our consumption-driven holidays.

Yet it is a revolution that must first happen in the heart. Today's Gospel asks us give one final push to the central theme of Advent: What must we do, as individuals and as cultures, to prepare the way of the Lord? God is coming. How can we make our lives a place of welcome for the One who has promised to bring justice and compassion to the poor? 

Promises Kept

"He remembered his promise of mercy" (Luke 1:56).

As Christmas approaches, one driving force that will have parents out shopping until they drop is their desire not to disappoint their children. Small children who are told to believe in Santa must have that faith upheld at all costs. It is as though their innocence and ability to trust in adults will be shattered if this fabled figure cannot deliver as promised. 

This self-imposed challenge identifies a deeper need in us. We want to believe that promises will be kept. Adults keep track of those who keep their promises and those who don't. It becomes a measure of character we place on ourselves that we do the same. 

Salvation history is along narrative of promises. The canticles of Hannah, Zechariah and Mary are celebrations of God's promises kept. Despite enormous adversity and seeming postponement, hope is affirmed and the story moves forward because God is the ultimate keeper of promises. 

Mary's Magnificat is a communal song that expresses the longing of all those who have struggled under the weight of a history that always seems to favor the rich and powerful. It is a manifesto for the poor that God is on their side. God's promise is that injustice will not prevail. The proud will be scattered in their conceits, the mighty will be cast down from their thrones, the rich will be sent away empty. 

Though the Magnificat is sung every day as part of Vespers, it is no surprise that its revolutionary call has never found its way into a popular Christmas carol. Mary's song challenges every assumption underlying our consumption-driven holidays.

Yet it is a revolution that must first happen in the heart. Today's Gospel asks us give one final push to the central theme of Advent: What must we do, as individuals and as cultures, to prepare the way of the Lord? God is coming. How can we make our lives a place of welcome for the One who has promised to bring justice and compassion to the poor? 

Let the Dance Begin

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

We find in Luke’s account of the Visitation another story recorded in 2 Samuel 6. At Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb quickens, leaping up. This joyous welcome of Mary and the unborn Jesus by the unborn John the Baptist recounts David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. Mary is now that Ark, which holds the promise of God’s presence among his people. The figure of David, representing the messianic promise, rejoices to welcome the fulfillment of that promise.

In a world defined by men grasping for power -- the Roman occupation in control and Herod the Great suspicious of any rival -- two anonymous women meet to conspire in God’s plan to overthrow earthly pride and arrogance. Mary’s Magnificat declares history’s victims the ultimate victors. God’s preferential love for the poor is announced by two pregnant women who bear the future. The world is turned upside down. The first shall be last, and the last first.

The Incarnation has made us all arks of the new covenant, temples of the Holy Spirit, dwelling places of the Trinity. Hope dances within the human heart. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Word and Womb

"Be it done unto me according to your Word" (Luke 1:38).

Artists have depicted the Annunciation in many ways. Fra Angelico added a detail that made his fresco scene a profound theological work. Mary is seated with a small book on her lap when the angel visits her. What was she reading? The context implies that she was reading the scriptures, and more specifically the very passage from Isaiah that is today's first reading: "A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel" (Isa 7:14).

In his account, Luke connects Isaiah to the angel's words to Mary; "You shall conceive and bear a son." The Word that Mary was reading becomes flesh in her. Mary's faith is so receptive to the scriptures and God's will that the words come true in her hearing. What was promised through the Prophet Isaiah is fulfilled in her. She is the virgin who conceives and bears a son who is Emmanuel, "God with us."  The Word enters her womb. The miracle of the Incarnation occurs, changing human history, changing us, changing everything. 

The church has called Mary the perfect disciple because she models what all disciples are invited to do. When we read the scriptures with faith, the words are more than a text on the page. The Word of God comes to us and indwells us. If we are receptive, the Word becomes flesh in our lives and we give birth to the Word in the world.

The Christmas story remains a text upon the page until we read it with faith, for it is about us.  Then we can say with Mary, "Be it done unto us according to your Word." 

Fulfillment

"They had no children, because Elizabeth was barren and they both were advanced in years" (Luke 1:8).

The miracle of the virgin birth of Jesus was preceded by a series of impossible births going back to Abraham and Sarah. The scriptures are fulfilled in ways that make it clear that our salvation was not a human achievement, but a pure gift from God. 

The pairing of the story of the birth of Samson with the story of the birth of John the Baptist shows how intent Luke was to emphasize God's power in the whole or salvation history. In Judges, an angel appears to a barren woman, who conceives and gives birth to a son. In Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah in the temple, and his wife, Elizabeth, conceives and gives birth to a son, though she is barren and they are well past child-bearing age. 

This sets the stage for the final miraculous conception and birth. An angel appears to Mary, not yet living with Joseph, and she conceives and gives birth to a son without a human father. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit and is therefore the Son of God. The genealogy from Abraham to Mary is fulfilled in an ascending manifestation of miracles, ending with the appearance of God in history, Emmanuel, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.  

The Incarnation is the central mystery and miracle of the Christian faith. Without it, Jesus is only human and therefore incapable of bridging the gulf between humanity and divinity. His heroic life and death can inspire us but have no cosmic significance or power to save the world from sin and death. Christmas is a theological story, about God in relationship with us, the Creator drawing his creation into the realm of grace. God comes to us as a pure gift. We are drawn into the divine life as our ultimate destiny.  

Because of the Incarnation and our incorporation into Jesus at baptism, our real identity is revealed as children of God. The Christ in each of us and all of us together is the goal of creation. The genealogy that began with Abraham and Sarah was bound for glory from the start, and we now are bound for glory because of Jesus. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Son of David

“I will raise up a righteous shoot to David” (Jer 23:5).

The Prophet Jeremiah chronicles the deportation of Judah to Babylon. He also delivered a message of hope and consolation to inspire the people in exile that God would not abandon them.

Part of this message of hope was Jeremiah’s assurance that a leader would emerge from the House of David. David was remembered as the the greatest of the kings of Israel, a model for the promised messiah. Despite his many flaws, David was a sign to the people that even great sin did not disqualify him from God’s loving covenant.

The Gospel writers place Jesus in the line of David through his stepfather Joseph, who was of the house of David. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David. Thus he completes the genealogy that began with Abraham and even Adam. The Incarnation is not a sudden, divine insertion into history, but rises up out the promise made to Abraham. Jesus shares in the identity of the Chosen People as a member, not an intruder. He is one of us, a divine Person who is also our human brother.

In his account of the birth of Jesus, Matthew invokes another ancient Joseph, son of Israel, who was both a dreamer and a savior of his people in Egypt. This theme returns when Joseph saves the Holy Family by going down to Egypt when they are threatened by Herod. As we approach Christmas, all the old prophecies are woven thickly around the identity and role of Jesus.

This is about us. We are part of the story because we are all in the human family that Jesus entered and transformed. The liturgy and the many readings from Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms, Gospels and Paul are proclaimed in the Lectionary to remind us that we are in the story of salvation no less than the first witnesses and the early generations of believers. 

We are the heirs to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, prophets and kings. We are of the royal priesthood of Jesus, rooted in the lineage of kings going back to David, because grace upon grace has been poured out on our lives by virtue of our baptisms and in the communion of the body of Christ shared at every Eucharist.  We are the dreamers, the guardians of the life of Christ. We are guided by angels to remain faithful even in times of confusion and doubt.. 

For it is through us, as human and vulnerable as we are, that God keeps coming into the world, the life of Christ alive in us in every time and place.  As Christmas approaches, we take center stage in the story about God’s decision to come among us  as one of us.

Surprise!

“A man named John was sent from God. He came to testify to the light so that all might believe through him” (John 1:6).

The Christmas story is so familiar to us that we rarely stop to note how much misdirection and confusion it holds. John the Baptist sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, but gets it all wrong. He is like a stage manager who shines a spotlight on the curtain where the actor is supposed to appear, while the star of the show slips onto the stage from the audience unrecognized.

John’s role is critical to the Gospel writers because he represents continuity with the prophecies and promises contained in the Law and the Prophets. His fierce preaching and dire warnings that God was coming into the world to pass judgment set the stage for a particular kind of Messiah, one wielding an ax to the root of the tree,  one striding onto the threshing floor with the winnowing fan to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Jesus was neither of these. Even after baptizing Jesus at the Jordan, John will end his career wondering if he had pointed to the right man. Sitting in Herod’s dungeon, John has to send messengers to ask Jesus if he was the one, or should they be looking for another.

The four evangelists had to straighten out the confusion to connect Jesus to the Baptist. Matthew does it by asserting that Jesus was God’s “messianic secret,” a surprise candidate who would reverse the Baptist’s image of a stern judge to introduce Jesus instead as the Suffering Servant who came preaching mercy and forgiveness. 

The fourth Gospel has John baptize Jesus, then point him out to his own disciples as “the Lamb of God,” a sacrificial offering for the sins of the world. Or as a bridegroom, not a judge.

Some of the Church Fathers, reflecting on the mystery a century later, affirm that the way Jesus slips into the world unknown was in order to remain hidden from Satan until he reached maturity and began his public ministry. The temptation stories suggest that Satan needed to probe Jesus in the desert to discover God’s sleight of hand in sending the divine Son in the form a Galilean carpenter. 

The Christmas story turns out to be a mystery story, marked by twists and turns, tension and drama. Think of Herod’s soldiers arriving to slaughter babies on the heels of Joseph’s flight to the border with Jesus and Mary, their long exile in Egypt, the anonymity of Jesus in Nazareth for the next 30 years. The evangelists must discover that other narrative of fulfillment hidden in the scriptures, the one in which the Christ does not judge the world, but suffers and dies to save the world.  

Pope Francis has set out to shake the familiar story that puts so many Christians to sleep in their faith, believing they already know how God operates, what to expect, how to always be ready. The pope has set aside the theology books, the continuity of tradition, the standard moral measure for every situation, and has invited us to meet the God of surprises.  He has preached often: Experience is better than concepts, encounter is more risky but more fruitful than formulas and patterns we control. Something new is happening.

There are other evangelists among us. Children teach us to anticipate the unknown, to wonder what will happen, to imagine until it stretches our hearts and minds to the limits. They tell us to be open to the possibility that Christmas is about to come to us for the first time, brand new, full of mystery, shockingly so, an encounter with God we could not have planned, but one that will change us and everything we thought we knew for certain.

Isn't this the Christmas we really want, the Christmas we should pray for and prepare for?

Indecision

"To what shall I compare this generation?" (Matt 11:16).

The adage, "Not to decide is to decide," hits home in many areas of life. Less than half of American voters actually vote in national elections, thus letting others decide the fate of the country. One generational marker for many millennials is to postpone basic decisions to protect their options, even as opportunities pass them by. Indecision or a cultivated skepticism about any path forward or commitment to a creed or philosophy may seem like freedom, but it also prevents a person from passionate conviction, character-defining purpose. 

Jesus chides the crowds for refusing to decide to accept or reject his message. They are like children arguing in the marketplace over which game to play, a sad one or a happy one, The day goes by and nothing happens. Just so, the people reject John because he is too demanding, but also reject Jesus because he is too easy. They choose a status quo of doing nothing except to excuse themselves from making a commitment. 

Making a life is a process of making choices, following one course instead of another, saying yes or no to this offer or that. In the end, time runs out and people never get beyond square one. They let indecision decide their life's direction. They do not shape the circumstances that surround them, but are instead shaped by whatever comes along, reacting instead of responding to life. 

Advent sharpens our focus and invites us to come out of the daze of endless choices and options to find our true life's purpose, which begins when we respond to God's love. To know ourselves as loved is to want to use all our energy and talents to respond to that love. What greater love is there besides the love that is the very source and essence of our existence. 

If we imagine that for the Magi to arrive at the manger after Christmas, they must have started our many weeks or months before, watching the star move above the horizon to lead them. Isn't this our focus as well in these final weeks of Advent?  Christmas comes to those who keep their "eyes on the prize." 

 

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