Jacob's Ladder

“How do you know me?” (John 1:46),

The encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel is one example of how the evangelists layered in the identity of Jesus with scriptural texts that went all the way back to the patriarchs and to the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Even in those ancient texts, the promise of the Incarnation was first hinted at in imagery and stories Jesus would in effect fulfill centuries later. 

When Jesus met Nathaniel, he called him a “true Israelite in whom there is no duplicity.” The reference is to Jacob, a man of great duplicity who was transformed after a night of wrestling with God and renamed “Israel.” This same Jacob had fallen asleep and had a vision of heaven connecting to earth by a ladder of ascending and descending angels, famously known in the Bible as “Jacob’s Ladder."  When Jacob awoke, he was in awe and cried out, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:19).

Nathaniel asked Jesus how he knew him, and Jesus revealed that he had seen him under the fig tree.  Nathaniel realizes that Jesus has “seen” him in a powerful moment of prayer when the same vision Jacob had of heaven and earth being united was revealed to him. That Jesus knew of this experience stunned Nathaniel, and he knew he was in the presence of that very union of divine and human. Jesus was the promised Messiah, reconciling heaven and earth in himself. 

Today’s gospel invites us to consider our own call to accompany Jesus as disciples.  We are in the presence of someone who sees us and knows us intimately. He knows the secrets of our hearts, the deceptions and denials that have kept us from our true destiny, the struggles and searching that have brought us to this moment of truth in the loving gaze of God. Jesus knows our deep name, the name that describes who we will become by following him and sharing in the mystery of this death and resurrection. 

If we allow this encounter to take place, if we let ourselves be found and brought to Jesus, if we open our hearts to him today, we will be standing in the house of God and at the gate of heaven. 

Come and See

“What are you looking for?” (John 1:37).

The First Letter of John establishes the necessary link between love of God and love for one another. If we want to know God, then we must look for and respond to God in our brothers and sisters. John insists on this to point of asking, “How can you say that you love God whom you do not see if you do not love your brother or sister whom you can see?” (1 John 4:20).

This is the mystery of the Incarnation, the belief that our encounter with God occurs in our human relationships, for God is with us. This is clear from the beginning of John’s Gospel as Jesus immediately gathers a community around himself. His redemptive mission is not to just demonstrate holiness in himself but to create a network of healed and reconciled relationships that will model the new humanity. By choosing and calling each disciple, he gathers fragmented and alienated individuals into the process of becoming the collective wholeness of the restored beloved community.

The call of the first disciples, directed to Jesus by John the Baptist, whose role as precursor is complete, shows the intimacy of this process of gathering.  Andrew and another former disciple of John follow Jesus from the Jordan. Jesus turns and asks them what they are looking for. They say, “Where are you staying?” This can also mean, “Who are you?” to explore someone’s views and purpose.  

Jesus says to them, “Come and see,” a simple and beautiful invitation to begin their relationship with him, for they will “stay with him.”  From these first followers, the circle will expand to include others, and ultimately even you and me. 

In the call of Peter, we see the transformative power of Jesus, who sees Peter with a look that goes to heart of who he is and who he is to become. Simon, "a reed" blowing in the wind, will become Peter, "a rock" on which the faith of the church will be grounded.

Jesus knows each one of us in this same way, and the look of love he shines into the recesses of our being as we seek him contains the full story of our discipleship. He wants us to “come and see,” and to “stay with him.” For in saying yes to his call, we will become our real selves and complete our life’s purpose within the beloved community that is his body, both crucified and risen and destined for life in God. 

Behold, the Lamb of God

"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

John the Baptist is baptizing at the Jordan, but we understand from this account in the fourth Gospel that he is also there to identify the Messiah when he comes.  As Jesus approaches him, John cries out, “There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” 

John, whose preaching in the other gospels emphasizes the threat of power and judgment, an ax laid to the root of the tree, a winnowing fan on the threshing floor, sees that Jesus is from the outset a different kind of Messiah, one who will be sacrificed to save the world, God’s suffering servant who will bear on his own shoulders the burden of sin for our sake. 

John also sees another sign laden with prophetic significance. God’s Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and remains on him. Here is the sign given to Noah after the great flood that the time of punishment has passed and a new birth in hope is now initiating the renewal of the earth and a time of grace for the world, coming up out of the waters of death. 

What savior is this, who comes among us not to judge, or to sort sinner from righteous, who brings peace and renewal to all? What is this different kind of powerful messiah who takes on himself  the penalty for the faults of others, whose message is healing and mercy, Good News? 

Onto the battlefields, into the ruined cities and refugee camps, among the victims and those huddled in fear and want, into the shadow of death and the long night of war walks the Lamb of God, Emmanuel, God with us.  There is no other place of safety except to be with him, the Suffering Servant, who alone knows the way forward. 

Begin Grounded, Stay Strong

“What do you have to say for yourself?” John 1:23).

Today’s readings from the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John, assigned for the feast of two fourth-century saints, Basil and Gregory, offer us a rich convergence of themes.  In the gospel, John the Baptist is being interrogated by religious authorities from Jerusalem about his authority and identity. Is he from God, with the Christ or a precursor to the coming of the Christ (Elijah or the Prophet)? John declares that he is not the Christ, but a messenger foretold by Isaiah — “A voice crying in the wilderness.” 

The controversy surrounding John extends to Jesus, who will be examined all during his ministry for his claim to be one with God, a blasphemy that leads to his condemnation by the Sanhedrin and then to his execution by Rome. John’s gospel and the letters of John, written late in the first century, already reflect the fierce Christological debates over the relationship between Jesus and God: Is he a specially chosen human being, or one elevated to divine status, or the eternal Son of God? And what does this language mean? 

By the fourth century, when Saints Basil and Gregory were bishops in Asia Minor (Turkey), these key questions were moving toward doctrinal formulation at the Council of Nicea, which we recite together at Sunday liturgy as the Nicene Creed. Jesus is affirmed to be “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.”

Yesterday’s Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God is important to this debate since her title <em>Theotokos</em> (God-bearer), declared by the Council of Ephesus, reflects Jesus’ identity as truly human and truly divine. 

We begin the New Year, still in the Christmas season, with this deep theological grounding in the mystery of Jesus because this is the organizing principle of our faith.  If Jesus is not the Word Incarnate, God among us, then everything we believe about ourselves and our destiny as invited to share the divine life collapses into wishful thinking. The meaning of our baptism, our life in Communion, our spiritual development as members of the body of Christ, our mission to share in his mission to redeem the world, all become just ideas. 

Whatever we build and what we become in the year ahead will depend on this foundation, focused on Christ, growing in Christ, following Christ as faithful disciples.  This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Mary, Mother of God

“Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:18).

We begin the New Year by celebrating the event that marked the beginning of the new Creation in Christ. “Born of woman and under the Law” (Gal 4:4), Jesus, son of Mary, Son of God, entered the world to renew history and set it on course toward its intended fulfillment. 

At the first Creation, divine conception flowed from the breath of God hovering over the trackless void. The world came to be, reflecting the image and likeness of the Creator, whose word and loving gaze were its sustaining light and guide as creation awaited the fullness of time. 

Mary became mother of the Word made flesh, and this made her the pre-eminent evangelist and mentor for all of us in our call to conceive, carry and give birth to Christ in our flesh. By baptism we already share in the New Creation, its grace is already at work transforming us, the Spirit guiding us with every breath we take to be light in everything we say and do.  

The New Year is our time to celebrate the power of God in us to begin again, even when past performance has fallen short. We renew the possibilities of the New Creation and the graces it pours freely on every good intention and instinct we discover in our better selves.  We try again even when our efforts have seemed ineffective and unfruitful, when our failures have discouraged us and others, and when the world seems to default to fear over courage, indifference over compassion. 

Mary models for us the faith we will need to embrace the coming year, its possibilities, its lessons, its challenges and hidden blessings.  She shows us how to weigh in our hearts every experience, to find the treasures in them and, even in times of suffering, to trust that God is in all things.  

Celebrating the Holy Family

“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you” (Matt 2:13). The Feast of the Holy Family, normally celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas, is moved to the Friday before New Year’s Day, which falls on a Sunday this year and is devoted to Mary, Mother of God.

Over the past two years, Pope Francis has focused the church on the importance of the family with two synods and a key papal letter on love. The message has been clear: As the family goes, so goes society. The Holy Family therefore becomes a key point of entry into the question of how the image and likeness of God is the ultimate imprint of the life of the Trinity on all of creation, and in a critical way, on human families.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus hardly seem like the kind of family we can imitate, so extraordinary are the circumstance of their lives. The theology of the Christmas story makes us hesitate to apply their example to our ordinary experience. Yet their story also depicts a whole range of challenges that place them in the thick of the common human struggle. It is as though we read about them every day in the news: couples in poverty, homeless and on the move, under government scrutiny, exposed to the elements, lacking basic healthcare, dogged by uncertainty and threat of violence, forced to flee and to live as refugees in exile from their homeland.

Joseph supports his family with physical labor, Mary is widowed, Jesus departs to take up his life’s calling as a preacher, facing suspicion and resistance, eventually suffering betrayal and abandonment by his closest companions, ejection from his religious faith and public execution by the state as a subversive.

It is as though solidarity with the human condition required that this family bear the full burden of suffering so that no other family might say, “They could not possibly understand our loss or our challenges." Dramatic in scope and intensity, the issues confronting the Holy Family make them mentors for us all. Joseph stands with every father and husband who must negotiate the demands of marriage and parenting. Mary stands with every mother who has lost a child. Jesus, though divine, models human development more completely than any person who has ever lived, at a depth we can only imagine because his human identity emerged from engaging the same temptations and struggles we all face. Whatever our own situations, we celebrate the Holy Family by opening our hearts to be dwelling places for the Trinitarian God, where diversity is united in love, where all brokenness is healed, where community is nurtured and relationships are affirmed by compassion, reconciliation and mercy.

Life is a journey and, as pilgrims on our way to God, we can have no better companions than the Holy Family.

Simeon's Prayer, Our Resolve

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (Luke 2:35).

The end of the year 2016 will occasion the annual ritual of review and resolution. We look back over the past year, express either gratitude or regret, but also know at this point that we cannot change anything. But 2017 is not yet, and so it challenges us to affirm or change the trajectories of the past that could shape our future. Chance is beyond our control but the varied circumstance out of which many unforeseen events will emerge can still be influenced. What we want, we must work for; what we do not want, we must oppose. 

Today’s Gospel story of the encounter between Simeon and the Holy Family offers us a glimpse of God’s view of history. An elderly prophet holds a child in his arms and sees the future. God’s promise to save his people will not come about by sweeping aside evil and breaking open history to the divine will, but by sending new life. 

The baby Simeon holds and the humble couple before him reveal to his failing eyes a light no human hope or effort alone can kindle. Jesus will grow to maturity, formed by his parents in a village in the hill country of Galilee, a simple carpenter who, after a short ministry of preaching and confrontation with the status quo, will change the course not just of history but of human destiny itself. 

It has been said that the precise weight of human hope is the weight of a sleeping child. His mother already knows the vulnerability of this life, and Simeon does not spare her the prediction of the heartbreak that will join her to the suffering of her son for the sins of the world. But the promise made is unstoppable and God’s purposes will be fulfilled. Simeon and Anna, who also waits to hold the child, are filled with joy.  

We all carry across the threshold of the New Year the weight of the world’s children. The future we help create by our faith and courage is the world they will inherit, as blessing or burden. Let it be resolved that 2017 will be a year of grace. 

The Challenge of Christmas

“Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him” (Matt 2:14). For a third time, the typical mood of the Christmas holiday is interrupted with another reminder of the cost of the Incarnation as a sign of contradiction. The coming of God in Jesus revealed what a human being is meant to be, and this has rightly and repeatedly been taken as a rebuke by those who find other people a threat or an obstacle to their agendas. Herod exercised standard practice by ordering the murder of many children to snare a single child who might grow up to be his rival. The genocides of the 20th century have logically included children in order to obliterate memory and the possibility of future retribution. From Armenia to Auschwitz to Cambodia, el Mozote, Sebrenica and Rwanda, the slaughter revealed a total breakdown of humanity. The infant Jesus was spared by a quick-thinking Joseph tipped off by an angel, while other families became the first martyrs of the Christian era, prefiguring the beheading of John, the crucifixion of Jesus, the stoning of Stephen, and waves of martyrs after that. What is it about the Gospel of love that so threatens power? If only love were as contagious as the fear that spirals out of control once violence is used to take power or get even. So many conflicts, once started, take generations to halt the cycles of revenge. To proclaim Christmas is to expose the futility of force to move history forward instead of in circles. The greatest power humanity holds is the power to give life. Only the work of reconciliation and the hard labor of forgiveness can revive humanity. The full power of the Gospel is inseparable from the tears of Rachel and the blood of martyrs, for they, too, are part of the Christmas story.

Our Touchable God

"... what we have seen with our eyes ... and touched with our hands ... concerns the Word of life ...(1 John 1:2). If St, Paul is the great theologian of the Paschal Mystery -- how we Christians are incorporated into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, St. John the Evangelist is the great mystic of the Incarnation -- the very foundation of our faith. Our hope for life beyond the grave and for the glory promised to us as part of creation rests upon the assertion that the human Jesus is God, Creator and Source of all reality. If not, every other belief we hold collapses into wishful thinking and the desperate projection religion makes for survival. John, the author of a series of letters to the churches around the end of the first century, sometimes associated with the author of the fourth Gospel and identified in it as the “disciple Jesus loved,” offers moving testimony that what “we have heard, seen with our own eyes and touched with our hands” is the very “Word of life.” This “beloved disciple of Jesus” overflows with joy as he invites others to the same discipleship, a way of life that changes everything. He can only make this astonishing assertion because Jesus was and is among us as a human being, a body accessible to our bodies, knowable as human beings know, through our five senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching. Christian faith, distinct from other religions built on concepts and beliefs alone, is sacramental, claiming that in all our human encounters and activities we encounter the mysterious, personal presence of God. Because of the Incarnation of Jesus, we can find God in all things. Nothing is silent or lacking the light of Life, but is a point of contact with the living God. All creation lays open to faith the beauty, truth, unity and goodness of the Creator. Faith empowers our senses to penetrate the surface of reality to know the mystery of its being, the reality beneath the sign. In our simplest perceptions we learn to find the face of God looking back at us and loving us. This is why today’s gospel selection about Mary Magdalene, Peter and the Beloved Disciple exploring the empty tomb of Jesus is totally appropriate on this second day after Christmas. It proclaims the ultimate sign and purpose of the Incarnation. Jesus is alive because he is the Word of life. For us, to know Jesus intimately, to see, hear and touch his body sacramentally, in the Scriptures and in our communities of faith, is to share the hope of immortality he communicates to his disciples. Christmas joy contains Easter joy. Because the Word became flesh in Bethlehem, Life triumphs over death in Jerusalem, all the way to Rome, to the ends of the Earth and the fullness of the created Universe.

Human and Divine

“Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:54).

The message of Christmas is brought home to us in today’s story of the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The Incarnation transforms us into other Christs. Our union with the humanity of Jesus is also our union with him in his divinity. By baptism, we become adopted children of God, filled with the Holy Spirit and members of the body of Christ.

The trial of Stephen parallels Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin. Stephen says he beholds the heavens opening to reveal Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Jesus said he saw the heavens open and the Son of Man coming on the clouds in glory. As he dies by stoning, Stephen says the same thing Jesus says from the cross: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Stephen is one with Christ.

To add a third layer to this parallel, as Stephen dies, standing nearby is a young man named Saul, who witnesses his execution. Not long after, Saul will see the same vision of Jesus standing at the throne of God on the road to Damascus. He is transformed by this encounter and becomes Paul, whose entire life will be devoted to preaching the mystery of the “Christ in us,’ the Paschal mystery of our transformation into Christ.

Christmas is not over on December 26, but only beginning. God is with us, among us, sharing our humanity so that we might share his divinity. Jesus is the model for our gradual transformation by embracing the pattern of dying to ourselves in order to live more and more completely in Christ. For some, the cost of this transformation may well be martyrdom. For most of us, daily life will provide repeated opportunities to live the life of Christ. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to be ready to face opposition and resistance for practicing their faith. This is the cost of being faithful.

May the Word become flesh in us. This is the meaning of our lives and the fulfillment of Christmas.

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