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The Scandal of Christmas

Posted on 13 December 2016 by patmarrin

“Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:23).

Today’s gospel from Luke repeats Sunday’s version from Matt 11 of the story of John the Baptist sending messengers to Jesus to ask if he is the Messiah. John was apparently troubled that Jesus’ message of mercy did not match his own preaching of the coming wrath of God on sinners. Jesus sends word to John that evidence of his divine mission was that he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah that healing and joy would come to the land and its people when the promised one arrived.

Jesus’s message ends with the words: “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” This special beatitude comes to those who are able to set aside their initial expectations and accept God’s surprising truth without being scandalized. Jesus came not with threats and judgment, but with mercy from a loving and forgiving God. This “good news” was welcomed by sinners, but the righteous rejected it as “too good to be true.” It did not fit their expectation that sinners would be punished while they would be blessed. The blessing came instead to those able to grasp the wonder of God’s unconditional and undeserved love on everyone, especially sinners and failures.

Our joy at Christmas is first in knowing that we are among the sinners and failures who need mercy. Then, when we are open to the surprise and scandal of underserved love, we will grasp that love is not something we can earn or achieve, but a pure gift. Blessed are those who accept this gift, for they in turn will be able to give it to others.


Posted on 12 December 2016 by patmarrin

“Which of the two did his father’s will?” (Matt 21:29).

An invitation requires a response. RSVP politely asks for a reply. Will you be joining us, or not? A challenge puts us on the spot. Are you with us, or not? Not to decide is to decide. A question addressed to the heart remains open until we say yes or no.

The call to discipleship is more than a general invitation, but is a word addressed to us personally. How we respond, or not, will define us. Our response is more than a matter of politeness, but of life or death.

Jesus tells a short parable about two sons who were asked by their father to help in the vineyard. One said yes and did not go. The other said no but then went. Which one did his father’s will?
Good people claimed they were doing God’s will but then judged and rejected their neighbors. Poor sinners who initially said no to God then said yes and changed their lives.
Late comers were welcome. Others, scandalized by God’s generosity, stayed outside rather than associate with sinners. They excluded themselves from the gift out of pride.

The gospels make clear that the first visitors to the newborn Jesus were the lowliest and most rejected of society, simple shepherds wandering the hillsides with the smelly, bleating sheep and goats. But they knew an invitation when they received one and responded with awe and humility. They are our guides to Christmas.


Patroness of the Americas

Posted on 11 December 2016 by patmarrin

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord" (Luke 1:37).

There is a rich parallel between the story of our Lady of Guadalupe and the vision in Revelations 11 of the woman surrounded by stars and about to give birth to a son. That vision was reassurance to the Christian community that God would deliver them from imperial persecution at the end of the first century. Rome would fall and a different future would be born in the emerging and ascendant Christendom that created Europe.

Fifteen centuries later, following the brutal conquest of the Aztec nation by Spain, the vision of a pregnant Aztec mestiza princess signaled the presence of God and the protection of Mary for the indigenous peoples of the New World as colonization brought upheaval and the merging of European and native cultures.

Both visions and subsequent histories illustrate the power of the Gospel to immerse itself in every culture as it expands. The good news of God's love for humanity is implicit in every heart and in every culture as people seek the common good, justice and tolerance as diversity enriches and unifies the whole vision befitting human dignity with its divine destiny.

We in the Americas have special reason this feast day to call upon the Patroness of both north and south to unite us in the common demands of justice and love, one people sharing the hemisphere and its resources. God hears the cry of the poor, the homeless refugee, the struggling migrant, for we are one family under a single, loving Mother.

An Open Door

Posted on 10 December 2016 by patmarrin

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:2).

Christmas this year extends the message of the Year of Mercy invoked by Pope Francis. God's gift of unconditional love is being poured out on our troubled world. Forgiveness gives us all a fresh start. God especially welcomes the poor, sinners, the outcast and the failures.

The pope's approach to discernment and accompaniment as the most effective pastoral practice when dealing with Catholics struggling with church rules has not met with universal acceptance. Some bishops and even Cardinals have accused the pope of being too lenient and of undermining the authority and tradition of the church. What people need, they say, is clear, black and white instructions on moral questions and clear penalties for those who do not measure up.

We find the same questions in today's Gospel. John the Baptist preached a God of justice and punishment for those who had not obeyed God's laws. When he was imprisoned by Herod, John sent messengers to ask Jesus if he was indeed the Christ, because his message was so different. Jesus was throwing open the gates of heaven to anyone to sought God's mercy. The prophecies of Isaiah were coming true; the lame walked, the blind saw, the deaf heard, grace was being poured out on sinners.

Pope Francis clearly sides with Jesus in his example of God's unfathomable love and openness to everyone. For the legalists and morality police, this is a scandal. The passage from John the Baptist to the New Covenant of love announced by Jesus is a radical one. John, whom Jesus calls the greatest prophet who ever lived, is still less than the simplest member of the kingdom of Grace. What cannot be earned by penance and merit is being given as a pure gift, Life in God offered by Jesus.

The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday because it is time to rejoice that God loves us as we are, works in progress, sinners on our way to holiness, lost prodigal children eager to return home. The door is open and the light is on. Everyone is welcome to the House of Mercy.


Ready or Not

Posted on 08 December 2016 by patmarrin

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

Jesus found his own generation to be fickle, unable to discern God’s call to conversion. He compares them to children in the marketplace who argue back and forth about which games to play or songs to sing. Happy or Sad? They can’t decide, so do nothing.

John the Baptist called the crowds to fasting and repentance, but they thought he was too radical. Jesus calls them to joy and feasting, but they call him a drunkard and a glutton, too lenient with sinners.

Paralysis and indecision are the enemies of holy initiative, the sudden promptings of grace that set our path in a different direction, open us to surprises and chance encounters that enrich our day.

From sunrise to sunset, be ready to play whatever game God suggests. Leap past caution and do not hesitate. Advent prepares us for God by making us childlike again.


God's Favor Comes to Us

Posted on 07 December 2016 by patmarrin

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:28).

Today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a relatively late addition to church doctrine surrounding the mystery of Jesus as Savior of the world. The logic that formed in the long tradition of theological reflection about Jesus was that his freedom from sin extended to his mother from the moment of her conception.

The narrative of Advent readings leading up to Christmas helps us imagine the simple innocence of both Mary and Jesus as God entered human history in them and as one of us. A light shines in a world cloaked in shadows, trapped in self-perpetuating distortions that from the dawn of time have limited human vision and progress toward the Beloved Community God intended. Self-deception, fear and violence are the norm in social relationships based on power and privilege for the few, oppression and suffering for the many.

Jesus is our hope of redemption. The same grace that filled Mary formed him as the child who grew up to be Jesus of Nazareth, hill country preacher, healer and radical challenge to the political, economic and religious order of first century Palestine under Roman occupation. The fact of his death by crucifixion and the mystery of his resurrection from the dead meant that his message transcended his historical moment to become the timeless call to every generation to accept God’s invitation to fulfill the original design of creation toward its divine destiny.

As sharers of the Gospel Jesus preached and lived, we celebrate the grace and favor that made Mary innocent and that through Jesus flows to us by baptism. Our incorporation into the body of Christ makes us, the church, the extension of God’s plan for redemption in our own time and place. We are Christmas people, walking expressions of the Incarnation Mary accepted when she said “Yes” to God at the Annunciation. The Joy of every Marian feast is that it is about us, all of us, now invited to imitate her faith.

The Joy of Companionship

Posted on 06 December 2016 by patmarrin

"For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt 11:30).

There is nothing we cannot accomplish in partnership with someone we trust. Jesus invites his disciples to get in the harness with him, which shares the load and lightens the heart. We are in this together, and the kind of intimate friendship Jesus offers us is totally trustworthy.

How many pilgrims at the end of their strength and self-confidence have come to this truth on the road of life? When we cannot take another step, Jesus is there -- has always been there -- ready to show us how to let go of our regrets about the past and anxieties about the future to simply live in the moment with him. Each day becomes an adventure, step by step taken with confidence that God is truly in all things.

We live in the "Age of Anxiety" where everyone is in a hurry, running toward or away from something, fearful of the unknown and competing with others. Jesus says that there is another way to live, in which trust in God makes even our difficulties and losses part of the larger mystery of God's plan for us. Don't be afraid. Step out into the light. Get up, show up, do your best, and God will provide the rest.

God Comes for the Lost

Posted on 06 December 2016 by patmarrin

"It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost” (Matt 18:14).

In the Christmas story from Matthew's Gospel, it is no small detail that the first visitors to the Christ child were shepherds. These simple hill country people who followed and protected the flocks of sheep and goats were attuned to the night skies and the presence of angels. When told of the birth of Jesus, they came without hesitation, no doubt bringing their entire flocks with them.

Jesus would later describe God as a shepherd who never gives up on a lost sheep but goes in search of it until he brings it back to safety. This image is the essence of the Good News the lowly shepherds heard that first night. God was coming into the world for them, and for all the poor and those without power and status. This is heart of Pope Francis' year of mercy and his letter "The Joy of the Gospel." The image with this short reflection is of the cross the pope wears.

Healed and Forgiven

Posted on 04 December 2016 by patmarrin

"Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?" (Luke 5:22).

As we continue through Advent, the gospel today reminds us that Jesus came not just to improve our material or physical existence, but also to transform our inner lives.

The story of the paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof to Jesus turns into a confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus over his claim to be able to forgive sins. To show that he has the power to forgive sins, Jesus links forgiveness from sin with the healing of the man's paralysis. He is completely restored from the inside out. He rises, picks up his sick mat and walks home.

Preparation for Christmas involves thinking about what we will give and what we ask for from others. As we make our list of gifts, what will we ask of God? Why not complete healing? What would it mean to our bodies to be set free from some deep regret or from a hurt that severed a relationship? What if we could be freed from the paralysis of fear or anxiety? How would it change our lives to be forgiven and healed of impatience, judgmentalism, criticism of others?

Jesus has the the power to do all of this. Now is the time to ask for what we need most of all.

Letting Go, Going Forward

Posted on 03 December 2016 by patmarrin

“I am baptizing with water … but the one who is to come will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt 3:10).

In days past, preachers who went around giving parish missions quickly learned that the most attended night was the sermon about “other people’s sins.” Good Catholics took great satisfaction in hearing in great detail about what other people were doing and what punishments they should expect. In the scholastic manuals for confessors there was even a category of sin for overdoing this interest. “Morose delectation” was taking pleasure at the thought of someone else getting what they deserved.

The God who kept score was the God preached by John the Baptist. His message on the banks of the Jordan River was that judgment was coming. An axe was ready to strike the root of every tree that had not borne fruit. A winnowing fan was about the separate the wheat from the chaff on the threshing floor. His baptism was a baptism of repentance, and people flocked to John to escape the coming wrath of God. The long-suffering virtuous were eager to see divine vengeance come at last.

How confusing then for John to realize that Jesus was not about vengeance but about mercy. The old dispensation of strict justice was being surpassed by a new dispensation of grace. Anyone who heard Jesus preach was astonished to hear him welcome sinners through the open gates of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Tax collectors and prostitutes were taking them by storm. The new baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire was not to purge the guilty but to transform them with love.

Advent challenges us to examine our own justice with one another. How many lives are paralyzed by unresolved hurts and bitter resentment over past insults, family feuds, broken trust. How many lifelines are knotted and blocked for lack of forgiveness, the refusal to be the first to seek reconciliation? Who goes free when victim and perpetrator settle? Both do. Who benefits from letting go and moving on? Everyone does.

The pilgrimage to Christmas is for those willing to shed their baggage and to travel light into the new covenant of mercy. Everyone is off the hook. All are welcome. The only people left out will be those still trying to sort of out the unworthy from the unworthy, the bad from the good, them from us.