In All That Is Human, God Is with Us

“Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ The Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:14).

The Christmas story offers us many points of entry into the underlying mystery of the Incarnation. Not only does God become human in the child Jesus, God enters human history in circumstance that challenge our imaginations and hearts.

Why in so obscure a place, in a time of great oppression, under conditions of want and risk? The parents of Jesus are compelled to travel at a time greatly inconvenient and risky for any pregnant mother. There is no place for them to stay. The promised messiah is born in a hillside cave used to shelter animals. The Lord of the universe is welcomed by simple shepherds. The Holy Family is soon threatened and pursued into exile by a brutal king who will brook no rivals, even one foretold by the Sacred Scripture. God is a refugee in the world he created, despised, feared and abused by the very people he came to save.

One way to read the story is to understand God’s intent to embrace as much of human experience as possible in the life of Jesus. If grace is to touch and transform humanity, then no suffering must be left out. And in becoming human as a model for our own lives, Jesus reveals God’s special focus on those human beings who suffer the most. If God’s name is Mercy, then is it not surprising that Jesus is drawn toward anyone who is in need of love and forgiveness. The disciples Jesus chose and formed in this same attitude of mercy defined the nature and mission of the church that was to continue his mission.

In the light of this overwhelming theme, it may seem appropriate for us to feel sad and discouraged this Christmas if we consider the immense suffering we have witnessed in Aleppo, Syria, or the fate of so many refugees perishing in the Mediterranean trying to cross into Europe. The world God loves and came to redeem is contracting into fear at every act of terrorist violence and subsequent pressure to the close every door to safety for millions of innocent people fleeing instability and poverty.

To bring this sadness to Christmas this year is to fulfill its actual meaning, which is that God embraces this same struggle as part of Jesus’ journey in solidarity with the poor and oppressed of history. We will not miss Christmas if we accompany him in all our brothers and sisters around the world who know this same suffering firsthand.

Your Greatest Wish?

"Thus says the Lord GOD: Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me" (Malachi 3:1).

The idea of sending someone in advance to prepare for the arrival of an important person is used often in the Bible. Kings sent messengers ahead to announce their coming. The promise of the Messiah includes prophecies about the return of the Prophet Elijah. Jesus is preceded by John the Baptist, who is a figure like the one foretold by Isaiah, a "voice in the wilderness" who cries out, "Prepare the way of the Lord."

The miraculous birth of John to elderly parents is part of the Advent story, linked directly to the story of Mary's even more mysterious virginal conception of Jesus. She visits her cousin Elizabeth to help prepare for the birth of John. So Mary is present when Zechariah regains his speech and proclaims his canticle of praise to God for keeping the promise to send the Messiah. Everyone is filled with wonder at the birth of this child, asking what it could mean.

The four weeks of Advent are meant to stir expectation, an important element in faith. To believe deeply in something, it helps us to experience a period of longing during which we come to know our needs and to focus our hopes on what only God can provide.

In an age of instant gratification we can lose our capacity for anticipation and longing. Children who know they will get anything they want for Christmas are less likely to know how to wish or to how to react with wonder, gratitude and joy when what they have had to wait for patiently finally arrives.

Because Christmas can easily become just another civic holiday, our preparation is all the more important. Advent gradually issues the invitation in the scriptures and in the liturgy to open our lives to God's presence among us. Something wonderful is about to happen, and the more we anticipate it, the greater our encounter will be with Jesus, who is coming to give us more than we can ever ask for or imagine.

Let Us Magnify the Lord

“God remembered his promise of mercy” (Luke 1:55).

Mary’s canticle is also a manifesto. She speaks for every woman and mother when she rejoices that God will fill the hungry with good things, bring justice to the oppressed, confront the arrogant who abuse power and who look down with conceit from their thrones.

The Magnificat contains echoes of Jesus’ inaugural in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Mary’s song is like the Beattitudes, calling blessed all those who are humble, pure of heart, full of mercy, willing to grieve and suffer persecution to bring peace and justice to the world.

How much Jesus was formed by his mother to feel the suffering of others, to see their needs, to stand by the rejected and harassed, the outcasts and failures who were rendered invisible and forgotten. It is no surprise that when Jesus was himself rejected and abandoned, women stood by him, grieved over him, anointed him in life and death. Like Mary, the women were the ones chosen to hear the Good News of his resurrection, to be the first apostles to the others of the victory of God over the dark dominance of death, its hold broken by the power of love.

Mary sings the song that never ends. Christmas is our invitation to join the choir, to sing the song, then become the song that the world longs to hear. God keeps every promise. Don’t be afraid.

Where God Dwells

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

The story of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth has echoes of another story, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem. Just as John leaps in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary, so David danced before the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence on earth. What else can we do in the presence of God but leap for joy and dance?

What better way to authenticate the promise of the angel to Mary than her journey to visit her elderly cousin, also with child. The embrace of these two women is the joy of the Gospel. Mary’s Magnificat proclaims that God keeps every promise, especially to the poor and the oppressed.

It is not surprising that today’s gospel from Luke is paired with the Canticle of Canticles, the great love song of the Bible. As lovers seek one another, so God pursues our hearts for the deepest prayers and places of longing. Despite its rich theological intent, the Christmas story endures because it is like a familiar dream. We want lives touched by love. We believe that truth and goodness will triumph over adversity and arrogance. Humble shepherds and mysterious kings are the appropriate witnesses to God’s surprise entrance into our world.

Do we believe it? Christmas will not intrude without our faith. To imagine it is to open our lives to a mystery that waits only for our consent to become flesh in us. Where are the children, lovers and dreamers who welcome God? That is where God dwells.

Mary, Our Model and Mentor

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:27).

In the 15th century fresco of the Annunciation by Fr. Angelico, Mary has a small book on her lap. The painting suggests that at the time of the angel’s visitation, Mary is in prayer while reading the scriptures. Perhaps the text she is meditating on is today’s first reading, Isaiah 7:10-14. When Mary reads that a “virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel,” she realizes that this word is about her.

In that instant, Mary’s encounter with this Word is so intimate that it becomes flesh in her. She conceives in her womb what faith tells her is God’s will for her. She consents. “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”

Isn’t this what is supposed to happen when we pray? Or when a passage of scripture seems to "light up" when we read it? God is speaking to us, both in our hearts and in the reality of our lives. Make this Word come true. Speak it in the way you live. Let others see the word made flesh in you.

Christmas is meant to come true in this way for each of us. At our baptism, we became dwelling places of the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that overshadowed Mary at the Annunciation. In that first sacrament of initiation we were united to the body of Christ. At every Eucharist we grow more and more like Christ by sharing his Spirit, Body and Blood. We take up the mission of Christ, for we are his body in the world.

Christmas as a date on the calendar will come and go, but the reality of Christ in our lives is meant to grow and deepen. Let us embrace the mystery and hear the Word intimately, as Mary did. Be it done unto us according to the Word.

Lift Up Your Voice

"My mouth shall be filled with your praise, and I will sing your glory!" (Psalm 71).

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth follows the pattern of miraculous conceptions and births, including that of Samson (first reading), that reveal God's grace guiding the genealogy of Israel from Abraham to Jesus. The elderly couple are perfect in the law, but sterile when the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah while on duty in the temple and tells him that he and his wife will conceive and give birth to a son, the future John the Baptist.

Zechariah is struck dumb for not believing the angel. He remains mute until the boy is born, then his speech returns and he names the child and then proclaims the canticle known as the Benedictus, from the opening words, "Blessed be God."

Because God created by word, to be rendered mute is a profound limitation in the Bible. Zechariah remains mute for the full time of Elizabeth's pregnancy, plenty of time to ponder the mystery that is taking place. His canticle is like a dam bursting and a river of praise flowing into the desert of their lifelong deprivation as sterile and childless. Zecharariah is one of many voices in the Christmas story to exemplify the meaning of the "joy of the gospel."

Without faith, our souls remain mute and our consciousness is filled with silence. Only when we hear and accept God's word do we come alive with the voice of praise and gratitude that is the essence of life itself. God calls, we respond; Word engages word; we enter the song that is the life of God shared with us and join the choir that is the community of faith.

Blessed be God, who invites us to be part of the mystery of Emmanuel, God-with us.

Leaping into Christmas

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about” (Matt 1:18).

The dramatic story of Joseph’s struggle to pass from legal righteousness to the mystery of love is part of a larger leap from the first covenant of Law to the new covenant of Grace.

In Luke, the other gospel besides Matthew that tells the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, this leap is illustrated first in the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth. They are righteous but sterile. They conceive by miraculous intervention, mirroring the conception granted at the start of the genealogy to Abraham and Sarah, also sterile by age. Their son, John the Baptist, will have to make the same leap from law to grace when he realizes from his prison cell that righteousness alone cannot explain the free gift of mercy proclaimed by Jesus, who calls John the greatest prophet of the old covenant, but less than any disciple in the Kingdom of God.

Joseph’s anguish is resolved only by a dream. An angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary, his pregnant betrothed, to be his wife because the child she is carrying is of the Holy Spirit. Joseph must pass from the reassuring framework of legal obedience to the adventure of God’s pure gift, a mystery he does not understand but embraces as his real vocation and obedience. He is to be the guardian of the greatest miracle since Creation itself. God is revealed in the world in Mary’s child, Jesus, who fulfills Isaiah’s word about Emmanuel, “God is with us.”

We must all make the same leap from law to grace. How clear and simple religion would be if we could observe certain rules and be assured of God’s favor. Instead we are invited to struggle with the ambiguities of love and the challenges of mercy. Jesus revealed a God who offered unconditional and undeserved love to righteous and sinful alike. He pursued sinners, ate with them, invited them into the inner circle of his disciples as works in progress and friends who would fail him before they grasped just how much he loved them.

Advent concludes by repeating the message of the Year of Mercy: Enter the heart of God. The door is open and a place at the table is waiting for you. Love is an infinite and unlimited gift always there when we turn to God to receive it. The dream is true. Don’t be afraid.

The Greater Light

"The works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36).

We continue our Advent journey to Christmas with an awareness that we live on the threshold of serious decisions about the future of our globe and our country. The rhetorical fury that shaped national elections is now entering the reality of how new leadership must shape policy. Criticism and negativity must give way to actual programs and positive results.

In today's readings, we hear Jesus offer a simple measure for whether words and ideas are authentic. Look at the results. John the Baptist laid the foundation for reform by preaching repentance. Stop doing what is wrong. His fierce light exposed corruption and hypocrisy. Yet, Jesus says, a greater light is needed to reveal the way forward. Jesus' light revealed the face of God, a merciful Father who inspires works of compassion, justice and peace.

"By their fruits you will know them" was Jesus' judgment of any tree, or any system of rules and programs imposed on people and communities. What is the result? Are individual dignity and rights protected? Is the common good served? Are the poor and vulnerable served? Does community flourish with trust and fairness?

Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement in the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, looked at a collapsing American system and said that something new needed to emerge from the shell of the old. Good things needed to be better, basic ideals needed to apply to everyone. He also said that the goal of reform was "to make it easy to be good."

His wisdom, based on the gospels and the Works of Mercy, reflects the light of both John the Baptist for reform and the light of Christ for virtue built on grace. Let us fulfill the promise of Advent by preparing to welcome God once again into our hearts, homes, nation and world.

Who Is a Prophet?

"What did you go out to see? (Luke 7:24).

Jesus asks the crowd what they expected to find when they went into the desert to hear the preaching of John. In other scripture passages, John is described as a gaunt, severe man of the desert dressed in camel's hair with a leather belt. His diet was locusts and wild honey. He preached a fierce message of coming judgment. He must have been very effective, because we are told that crowds flocked to hear him and that even the religious leaders felt it wise to check him out because of the influence he had on on people.

When we think of people of great influence in our society, we would hardly think of some street corner preacher or tent revivalist shouting out warnings. Today's prophets are on television, celebrities offering elite seminars, smart people giving TED talks or authors publishing bestsellers on how to survive the coming crisis. We pick and choose our mentors and guides, and they are often people with credentials and reputations.

How often we fail to recognize the real prophets among us, except in hindsight, after the fact. We honor Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, the Berrigan Brothers for their courage and example, but when they were alive and surrounded by controversy, it was much hard to recognize them as true prophets.

What voices should we be listening to now? This is an Advent question, for we believe that God is coming into the world here and now to help us live deeply and justly, with joy and discernment. Who are the prophets who embody and voice this message right now? What are they saying and doing? Perhaps they are us? In what way is each one of us a prophet?

The Scandal of Christmas

“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.