Monday of the Third Week of Advent

"Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."

How would our children react if Santa Claus came but brought no presents. "Here I am!" he might say, with his arms wide spread, his familiar white beard and beautiful smile.
Would they squeal with delight at his coming, or look around to see where he must be hiding the sack of toys?
The Lord gives us wonderful gifts but they're not always what we had in mind, not even remotely. Where we want prosperity, comfort, luxury and security he gives us courage, generosity, willingness and fidelity.
These are the presents that come with his presence for they abide in God. Without him we cannot have them. Sometimes the saints complain about his apparent absence until they realize they are still practicing charity despite their intrusive thoughts; still waiting despite their impatience; still hopeful despite their fears.
One troubled night, as Joseph pondered what he was supposed to do about the woman he loved, who was bearing a child not his own, he discovered that fearless, confident, generous spirit in his heart. "God is with us!" he heard in the darkness; and he knew the "us" included his beautiful espoused wife.
Whatever happens, whatever threats we face; whatever misgivings we suffer, God is with us. This is the promise and the joy of Christmas.

Third Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 8

...this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, "Who are you?"

Several questions follow the Jews' first question: "Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? Who are you then?" They really don't know what to make of Saint John.
However, the Baptist is very sure of who he is, "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord."
John's identity is more than a name; it is a mission and a place in the history of God's people.
Each morning I review a list of Catholic patients in the VA hospital. After ten years I am familiar with many of them; some I can recall with my notes; some, I have never met.
A few will be practicing Catholics, most are not. Of the latter, some remember they are -- or were -- Catholic. But for many the word means nothing; it was a handle imposed on them by someone else for no particular reason. They have no sense of themselves as prophets, missionaries or disciples of the Lord. They know nothing of membership or ownership toward a parish church. Sunday is just the first day of the week; Easter is not even that.
Advent invites us to remember who we are, where we come from and where we're going. First, we recall our history as the People of God, which begins with "old testament" memories of Abraham, Moses and David; and continues with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
We are a historical people, so we cannot ignore two thousand significant years that link us to Jesus. There are Christians who, attempting to renew the Church, would simply dismiss everything that happened between the day he ascended into heaven and the day they were born. But they might more easily ignore their own evolving years of pubescence and adolescence including the really stupid thing we all do in our youth.
As a historical people we remember the fall of the Roman Empire, the development of Christendom, the Great Schism, the rise of Islam, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. We remember the saints who appeared in every age to preach the ever ancient, ever new Gospel; and the Church Councils which meet the endless series of challenges.
We might be accused of clinging to a medieval religion but at least we know the medieval world was not preoccupied with dragons, sorcerers and damsels in distress; nor will we, in the future, have to fight Thor, Superman and the Green Giant. Cervantes buried all that nonsense with his Don Quixote. Our scriptures, rituals and history are anchored in reality, not in mythology.
When the Jews asked John the Baptist, "Who are you?" he drew his answer straight from the ancient traditions they should have known:
"I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'make straight the way of the Lord,'" as Isaiah the prophet said."
In his wonderful book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explained how the devout Jew is oriented in time by observing the Sabbath. It is not enough to know where we are; we must also know when we are; and that is squarely within God's Salvation History.

Saturday of the Second Week of Advent

Lectionary: 186

You were destined, it is written, in time to come 
to put an end to wrath before the day of the LORD, 
To turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons, 
and to re-establish the tribes of Jacob. 
Blessed is he who shall have seen you 
and who falls asleep in your friendship. 3

Because Christmas falls on Monday this year, the Advent season is very short. In fact the Church begins the final rush to the feast tomorrow with the special O-antiphons. (We'll not hear Saint Matthew's majestic genealogy of Jesus this year because Sunday takes precedence.)
These first two weeks of Advent have been the prophets' time, especially for Elijah, Isaiah and John the Baptist. This has been time for the Sacrament of Penance, atonement and making amends. This was the time to prepare the way of the Lord and to put an end to wrath. Entering the last eight days of Advent, our hearts are rested and ready to greet the Christ. 
Our responsorial psalm is a heartfelt prayer, "Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved." Psalm 80:8
This is a familiar prayer in the Bible, 
  • I am just—let me see your face; when I awake, let me be filled with your presence. Psalm 17:15
  • Many say, “May we see better times! LORD, show us the light of your face!” Psalm 4: 7
  • Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your mercy. Psalm 31:17
  • May God be gracious to us and bless us; may his face shine upon us. Psalm 67:2
  • The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace! Numbers 6:25
  • Now, our God, hear the prayer and petition of your servant; and for your own sake, Lord, let your face shine upon your desolate sanctuary. Daniel 9:17
It doesn't take much imagination to see that prayer fulfilled by the cherubic face of the Infant Jesus Christ. 

I was struck recently by a passage in the Second Letter of Peter. He breaks down the process of meeting Jesus into several steps: 
"For this very reason, make every effort to 

  1. supplement your faith with virtue, 
  2. virtue with knowledge,
  3. knowledge with self-control, 
  4. self-control with endurance, 
  5. endurance with devotion, 
  6. devotion with mutual affection, 
  7. mutual affection with love.
  8. If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 1:5-8)
As the Apostle Peter explains it, the knowledge of Our Lord Jesus Christ -- i.e. seeing him face to face -- comes as we surrender to this eight-step discipline. There is much to be said for the children's crowding around the creche on Christmas Eve -- Who can miss the resemblance between their shining faces and his? -- but to know the Lord we must engage in love, mutual affection, devotion, endurance and so forth. 
In other words, we must belong to that insufferable community, the Church. 
As an introvert I must be reminded of that often. It's so much easier not to attend that meeting,  offer time, talent and treasure to help out, or waste time in fellowship with others. 
"With God, all things are possible!" the Angel Gabriel assured the Virgin Mary. Or, as other saints have repeatedly told us, "With love the impossible is easy; without love, the easy is impossible." There is still time to make amends, atone and repent before the Coming of the Lord. 

Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Lectionary: 185

If you would hearken to my commandments, 
your prosperity would be like a river, 
and your vindication like the waves of the sea; 
Your descendants would be like the sand, 
and those born of your stock like its grains, 
Their name never cut off 
or blotted out from my presence.

Preachers of the "Gospel of Prosperity" love passages like the above, from the Prophet Isaiah. Whether their promises materialize, the preachers prosper and there are always gullible people to make that happen. They are neither innocent as lambs nor as clever as serpents. 
Reading passages like this one more modestly, we can admit that sociopaths, though they seem to prosper for the moment, are soon forgotten. The question inevitably arises, "Whatever happen to...?" and no one is too certain. They moved to another state, died or went to prison. They're gone and that's good. Survivors, remembering such stories, pull together more closely in mutual support
I have seen the wicked triumphant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. I passed by again; he was gone; he was nowhere to be found. (Psalm 37
The faithful remain in the Lord, as the Jews have remained in the Lord for more than three thousand years. They have suffered greatly; their privileged status in God's sight has made them a pariah among the nations. Under the assaults of hatred, many individuals have renounced their Jewish heritage and roots; but even they are often tracked down and destroyed by God's enemies. The Lord promised Abraham "your descendants would be like the sand and those born of your stock like its grain;" and they have indeed scattered like windblown thistle to the farthest places of Earth. But their name is never cut off or blotted out
Christians share in this heritage with our Jewish ancestors. We are baptized into Christ Jesus and grafted into Abraham's people, provide we are willing to suffer with Jesus and his people. 
The prosperity Isaiah promises is that of Christ, whose tree -- the cross -- is incredibly fruitful. No one could expect such abundance from dead wood. 
"...wisdom is vindicated by her works." Jesus says in today's gospel. The Christian's sights are not set on short-term goals like upper class prosperity or middle class security. Unlike Americans we remember the past with its stories of persecution and prosperity. We remember celebrating Christmas Mass at midnight because the government did not suspect Catholics would convene in the middle of a winter's night to keep the festival. We remember Europe's largest community of priests, brothers and sisters in the Nazi deathcamp at Auschwitz. We remember Saints Peter and John felt honored to be scourged as the Lord had been scourged. 
Christian prosperity cultivates the poverty of Joseph, Mary and the Child Jesus as they found shelter in Bethlehem and refuge in Egypt and obscurity in Nazareth. 

Memorial of Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 184

That all may see and know, 
observe and understand, 
That the hand of the LORD has done this, 
the Holy One of Israel has created 

"Let me help you." "No let me do this!" 
How often does this scripted conversation occur in our interaction with others? 
Here is the opportunity to collaborate, to share a project, address a challenge, and accomplish a deed together but the ego intervenes to sabotage the moment. 
The companionship, friendship or partnership might have been thrilled by the success of collaboration but had to settle for something less. 
"I will help you!" says the Lord who often appears to our strength in his weakness. My friend Father Urban Wagner used to say, "God is so considerate; he will never interrupt you while you're speaking." Nor does he intervene when we're determined to do things our own way. 
But when our best efforts collapse and we lie facedown in the mud of catastrophe he again comes alongside, bearing that too familiar cross on his shoulder, and says, "I will help you." 
Nine times the Lord says in today's first reading "I will" and then concludes with, "That all may see and understand that the hand of the Lord has done this." 
The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys; I will turn the desert into a marshland, and the dry ground into springs of water. I will plant in the desert the cedar,acacia, myrtle, and olive; I will set in the wasteland the cypress, together with the plane tree and the pine,
Here is a familiar crisis and an unfamiliar answer. The Lord references water, rivers, bare heights, fountains, valleys, desert, marshland, dry ground, springs of water, cedar, acacia, myrtle and olive trees. The Lord is talking about ECOLOGY! 
Can I offer a hand? Would you accept some help? Have you thought about prayer, discernment or reconsidering this strange notion of "progress"? 
Given that the United States is a major source of contamination; given that we know we're the problem, and we know what must be done; and yet we do not change our ways: our only hope is divine intervention. 
It happens -- and often -- but never over our objections. However, as more Christians, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans and so forth begin to pray from our helplessness, acknowledging that we cannot change our self-destructive ways, our ways will change as God's Spirit moves in us. 
Millions of people prayed throughout the Cold War and it did not erupt in a Third World War. It could have and might have but didn't. Instead, the unexpected and unpredicted happened; the Soviet Union disbanded. Obviously that was not "the end of history" as some thought, but it was a reprieve for which we're grateful. 
Future generations will look back on this era, recalling their great-grandparents and our prayers and give a sigh of relief as they realize how narrowly we escaped massive destruction. Some will read history with the eyes of faith and declare:
By the Lord this has been done; it is wonderful in our eyes.

Memorial of Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 183

To whom can you liken me as an equal?
says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high
and see who has created these things:
He leads out their army and numbers them,
calling them all by name.

Saint Francis of Assisi was profoundly impressed with the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. He is known as the Seraphic Saint because his spirit soared with the seraphic angels who surrounded the Lord in Isaiah's vision. Toward the end of his life, he saw a vision of a seraphic angel and bore the marks of Christ's stigmata on his body from then on. 
Isaiah's vision and teaching, of course, appear often in the Gospels. As the Evangelists struggled to make sense of what they had seen and heard they found ready answers in Isaiah. For that reason we often hear Isaiah described as the "first gospel." 
Approaching Christmas and Easter the Church often turns to Isaiah; his songs and prophecies seem to blossom during these spring-like seasons. 
Today's first reading begins with an invitation to wonder, "To whom can you liken me as an equal?... Lift up you eyes on high and see who has created these things!" 
Many Christians feel overwhelmed by the revelations of astronomy. The "known universe" is so much larger than anything our ancestors imagined. Our Hebrew and Christian scriptures were written when astronomers supposed the world was a flat disk and the stars were fixed in a sphere that whirled around it. With more study they developed an increasingly complex theory of many layers of transparent spheres at greater and greater distance to the earth; the furthest were whipping around at incomprehensible speeds. In fact, they had to spin faster than the speed of light! 
Copernicus and Galileo finally relieved us of such impossible physics with a "heliocentric" model; the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. But that theory soon collapsed as the spheres were still spinning at shattering speeds around the sun. Before most people could keep up with these astronomical theories with their distances that bordered on the infinite the universe seemed to surpass the imagination of God himself. 
Was it really plausible that the Earth should house the Lord God of such dimension? 
Critics mistakenly accused the medieval church of an earth-centered imagination which was now proven illusionary. In fact the medieval imagination saw God with his minions in the heavens as the center of all creation. The troubled Earth with its wars, famines, disease and death was the hinterland of God's governance; it still waited for his kingdom to be established. 
This updated theory of the universe with its unprovable suggestion of a multiverse, like the very stars our ancestors watched, still invites wonder. Convinced as we are that the universe is not infinitely eternal but "created out of nothing," we are again stunned into silence by God's challenge, "To whom can you liken me as an equal? Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these things: He leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name."
Today's Gospel adds another dimension of wonder to Isaiah's universal vision. Jesus' words -- "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest." -- call to mind the old hymn, 
He touched me, Oh He touched me,And oh the joy that floods my soul!Something happened and now I know,He touched me and made me whole.
Ours is a personal God who knows and cares for each one of us. 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches over me. 
Or, as James Weldon Johnson wrote, 
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,        85
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.        90
Amen. Amen.

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Lectionary: 690A

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! 
See, I am coming to dwell among you, says the LORD.
Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day,
and they shall be his people,
and he will dwell among you,
and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.

The devout reader of the Prophet Zechariah would suppose rightly that "The Lord" is the "I" who speaks to daughter Zion (Jerusalem), assuring her that "I am coming to dwell among you." 
This dwelling of God with his people has been a constant theme for many centuries before Zechariah, who wrote in the sixth century before Christ. The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy record that divine assurance: the Lord will remain with his people. God was with them in the desert for forty years, in the tabernacle tent at the shrine in Shechem, and in the temple of Jerusalem. 
Catholics recognize that Abiding and Real Presence of God in the church and tabernacle to this day. We have only to find the burning vigil light in the sanctuary to be assured of His Presence. 
I am intrigued by the last clause in the 17h verse of Zechariah 2, "and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you." Who is the "me" who has been sent?
Catholics and Christians will readily agree this is a prophetic word about Jesus. Although the Messiah was not born of Mary for more than five hundred years after the Prophet Zechariah, we understand that these words constitute the promise. Jesus knew from the outset, and most certainly from the day of his baptism, that he was sent by God. 
But in the context of today's Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we know that the Lord God has also sent her to North America. We hear her voice in that ancient prophecy, " shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you."
In fact she was recognized and welcomed immediately by the Native Americans, in 1531, less than 40 years after their initial Encounter with the West. Suddenly relieved of the savage Aztec empire by equally ruthless Spanish conquistadores, the blighted poor found solace in the presence of this Mother of the Savior. If they could not relate to a Crowned Christ, they could recognize a pregnant, dark-skinned woman. Her infant will be neither native nor foreign but mestizo, a despised half-breed, a displaced refugee born in an unforgiving, hostile land. 
During the past year North Americans have been caught up in a furious debate about our history. How do we tell the truth of our past with its slaves and slaveholders, its cowards and heroes? Whom should we admire and emulate from the past. Which heroic ancestors will go with us into the future? 
Should we admire the conquistadores who brought the Gospel with them as they ravaged the land in their quest for gold? Or should we admire the poor who, despite their suffering, welcomed the story of a crucified savior and his impoverished mother? 
Should we admire the generals who led armies into a civil war or the slaves who created an Africa-inspired tradition of Gospel music? If there is only one God for slaves and slaveholders what kind of worship does He desire, that of conquerors or the conquered? We must choose carefully; it does make a difference. 
Our Lady of Guadalupe assures us she is with us in this strange, new and hostile world. She is still bearing the child in her arms that we might bow down and worship the one who conquered death by dying.