Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Call to Arms

Godfried Guffins & Jan Swerts, The Temptation of Christ (c. 1870), Sint-Joriskerk, Antwerp

There has been a little tension in our church office over the last few weeks. Adam, one of our campus ministers, and Fr. Jason, our associate pastor, are both signed up to race in the Hogeye Marathon on April 14th. A bit of a friendly rivalry has developed in their preparations. Adam is training in a traditional way: running different mileages and slowly building up over time. Fr. Jason is taking a different approach: he’s working on sheer muscle strength and training with different martial arts techniques. It is almost as if he is training more for a fight than a race! I have even seen a pair of brass knuckles on his desk – he tells me it is just a paperweight, but now I am a little afraid to make him angry!

In the Gospel today, Jesus begins his public ministry with a fight. Following his baptism in the Jordan, he is driven by the Spirit out into the desert to encounter the devil. At its heart, it is a spiritual struggle. We know from the other Gospels that the devil is trying to tempt Jesus to betray his mission, to interiorly falter in his willingness to dedicate himself completely to the will of the Father who has sent him. There also, however, material aspects to this contest. It takes place in the wilderness of Judea, where Jesus is alone, fasting, submitting himself to the elements, surrounded by wild beasts. Mark’s account draws our attention to how there is truly a battle being fought: between Jesus, the Son of God, filled with the Holy Spirit and all of the forces of darkness, earthly and otherwise, everything that represents chaos and disorder and violence. These spiritual powers converge upon Christ, and he bests them all.

Each year, as we begin Lent, we hear about this testing of Jesus – this period of struggle that he undergoes in the desert and from which he emerges victorious. But only in the Gospel of Mark do we hear what happens next: that having defeated the devil and resisted his temptations, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins proclaiming the Good News. It is as if Mark is suggesting that Jesus’s proclamation of the Gospel is a continuation of what he began in the desert – an extension of the battle against the forces of sin and darkness.

The Church Fathers saw this very clearly. All of Jesus’s public ministry – his preaching, his miracles, the encounters with particular people – all of it is a battle to win back creation, especially humanity, from the darkness that has enslaved us through sin and dysfunction. At each turn, Jesus encounters the devil and at each turn he beats him back, healing this person, forgiving that one, casting out a demon from that one, and strengthening the faith of another. Jesus is on a mission of liberation, one ultimately that is headed for Jerusalem, where the last great battle must be fought and won on the hill of Calvary.

If we look at all of Jesus’s ministry in that way, then his words today “Repent and believe in the Gospel” also take on a new meaning. They are not mere moralizing; Jesus is not just admonishing us to be a little better, a little holier. Rather, he is issuing a call to arms – he is inviting us to come and join him in the battle and share with him in the victory over darkness. Unfortunately, our world still affords us many reminders, too many, that evil is real; we know from our newscasts, and Facebook feeds, and our gossip around the water cooler and dinner table that sin and dysfunction did not disappear with Jesus. Evil still must be confronted and defeated, and the first place to engage with it is in our own hearts. Repentance therefore is part of the rhythm of our Christian life – while we have a claim on the final victory to come, the battle still continues.

With what then do we fight? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These weapons may not sound as fearsome as sword or steel, but the Christian tradition has long seen these penitential practices as the most effective ways of combating the forces of evil. They help sharpen our spiritual attention and heighten our moral awareness, and each of them contribute to making us more free. Prayer reminds us that it is our relationship with God that most truly defines who we are, not the circumstances or even the relationships of our day to day. Fasting reminds us that we are not slaves to our physical impulses and corporeal desires; we have a free will. Almsgiving and works of charity free us from being possessed by the things we own.

Often we tend to see Lent as something serious, and maybe a little gloomy, but really it should be a time that invigorates us and reawakens us our faith. Some five hundred years ago, Ignatius of Loyola encouraged the young men who wanted to join his new group, the Jesuits, to imagine themselves in the middle of a great plain. Assembled there are two great armies. Under the banner of Satan, are the proud, the self-serving, the self-reliant. Under the banner of Christ are the humble, the modest, those reliant upon God, the penitential.

It is a powerful meditation because it is so counter-intuitive. The side of Satan seems much stronger, and for that reason more inviting; the side of Christ seems weak and maybe even a bit pathetic. And yet we know that it is those under the banner of Christ that ultimately are victorious What Ignatius wants to show us is that often what attracts us, what seems to us most appealing, is precisely what can lead to our ultimate ruin. Eternal life comes rather through self-denial, through penance – through a recognition that we must constantly be purifying ourselves from the desire for the things of this world so that we can be more attuned to the deeper longing for what is eternal.

Friends, as we begin Lent again, our Lord reminds us that we have a fight on our hands, one for which brass knuckles will not be effective. God still desires to cleans our world of its sin and dysfunction, but rather than act on a grand scale through a purifying flood as in the days of Noah, he now acts at the individual level through the transformative power of his Holy Spirit. Lent affords us a chance not just to tweak one or two things in our moral life, but above all to remind ourselves on which side we are fighting. Jesus offers nothing less than emancipation from all that holds us back, so heed his call! Invite the Holy Spirit to do battle in your heart. Arm him with the weapons of penance and spiritual discipline. Take up your stand anew under the banner of your Savior, and begin to share again in the victory only he can give.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lent: A Love Story

What one word best sums up today? If you were to ask that question on campus today, you’d probably get a straightforward answer: love. It’s February 14, after all, Valentine’s Day. We know that behind all of the flowers and chocolate and jewelry and other commercializations, there is the simple idea of telling someone you care about that you love them. 

Believe it or not, that same single word – love – is also at the heart of our celebration of Ash Wednesday. Yes, it is the start of Lent, that season of penance and purification. We will mark our foreheads with ashes and ask for God’s forgiveness. We think about what penitential practice we might want to take on – giving something up that we enjoy, doing something charitable or sacrificial for another, or both. But beneath it all is the theme of love: God’s love for us and our love for God. 

It is precisely because God loves us that he calls us to repentance. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words are from the Book of Genesis, spoken by God to Adam, reminding him that this life is finite, and that we must use this time well to prepare for our judgment. God wants nothing less than for us as his creatures to flourish, to thrive in every way, especially at the level of soul. Our sinful habits and attitudes hold us back from being the temples of the Holy Spirit he has created us to be, and so he calls us to repentance so that we might leave behind our old ways apart from him and embrace the new life that comes from Christ. 

Of course, as the old saying goes, the best intentions oft go astray. How often do we begin Lent with a firm intention to improve our relationship with God only to find that halfway through we have lost that determination altogether? Or worse, we simply never had it in the first place? In the Gospel today, Jesus knows that it can be hard to truly change, hard even at times to truly want to change. What we need is motivation – a reason to carry on with these things that are difficult. When the going gets tough, what will keep us going? 

David O'Connell, Stations of the Cross: Fifth Station: Simon Helps Jesus (c. 1960), St. Richard Church, Chichester, UK

The only answer is love. Only out of love for God do we endure that which is hard, that which needs perseverance. We may be tempted – when the going gets tough – to put on a good show for others, to appear pious and penitential on the outside without truly giving it our all on the inside. But as Jesus says, God sees through such a false pretense. The Lord judges the heart, not the exterior appearance. Ashes on our foreheads are not enough to claim repentance; they must be accompanied by a true recognition of how far we have fallen astray. Our deepest motivation must always be the love of God – remembering constantly his love for us and renewing at each moment our love for him. If we seek his mercy, if we desire to do penance not to impress others or to better ourselves in a self-serving way but merely out of love for him, then Jesus assures us our heavenly Father sees our contrition and forgives us.

Thus, it is out of love that we take up again the penitential practices of Lent, not because they are fun but because they help us to love well. Prayer helps orient us toward God, remembering our love for him. Fasting helps us to love ourselves properly, training us to look away from worldly delights and to yearn for what nourishes our souls. Giving alms, or works of charity in general, help us to love those around us, helping us to remember the duty we have to care for those in need.

Friends, the season of Lent reminds us again that the greatest love story ever told is not a story of romance, told with valentines, but rather the story of God’s love for us – told most fully in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of God’s Son for us. It is the celebration of that wondrous event, the Easter story, that Lent prepares us for. As we receive ashes on our heads, remembering the mortality of this body, may we also yearn to be enlivened by the power of Jesus’s love to hope one day for eternal life. May the Lord who loves us so deeply inspire in us a love to turn back to him, to be renewed by his grace in these forty days, to echo his love in all that we do.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Christ on Campus: the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas

Time sure seems to be passing quickly lately. Can you believe we have already finished two weeks of the university’s spring semester? One more week, and we will already be about 20% to its conclusion. Not that I'm keeping track! No doubt our students and our teachers are now getting down to the important work of the semester, especially as that first exam is scheduled and that first paper looms on the horizon.

Studying is hard work. The great Southern writer and historian Shelby Foote once said, “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” As much as we might like to think about life at the U of A as defined by what happens in the sports arenas, or in the dorms or the dining halls, or on Dickson Street, it is what happens in the library that is most important for our time here. After all, the purpose of a university after all is to learn. Sure, you can look at it as just a place to go and get a degree, a piece of paper that allows you to move on into the working world. But as an entity, as a community, a university is a place where you come to gain that which you do not have: to be instructed in what is real and useful and good, so that when you leave here you are able to better yourself and the world around you. To do that, you have to put in the work, the hours of study to master what you seek to know. The great English cardinal and academic John Henry Newman once wrote that the goal of every university course should be to train good members of society, to help them to understand what is true and what is not true so that they can use that to better the world.

Of course, there is also a kind of knowledge that comes not from studying but from direct, personal experience. In the Gospel today, Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum and begins to teach. There were no universities in Jesus’s day; but there were schools, associations of masters and students, of those who had studied and learned and those who wanted to be taught. What amazes the people in Capernaum is that the force of Jesus’s teaching is unlike any they had ever known. He was, as far as they were aware, the unschooled son of a carpenter, and yet he taught with power and authority. Of course, as we know, Jesus was unschooled; he spoke with a knowledge that had not come from study or from reflection, but from the intimate personal knowledge that came from being the Son of his heavenly Father.

As we heard, what the people hear astonishes them. They are more than impressed; the Greek word used could be translated something like “dumbfounded”. Is Jesus just showing off? Certainly not. Rather, he is demonstrating that the kingdom of God is at hand; he is the “the Holy One of God,” the one who can speak with knowledge about God because he is himself God, the one who can interpret the meaning of the Scriptures because he is their true author. As if to confirm who he is and what he speaks of, Jesus casts out the unclean spirit present in their midst, befuddling the people all the more.

Francisco de Zurbarán, The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas (1631) [detail]

There is a great truth about our Christian life, one that we have to remind ourselves about again and again: it is possible to know much about Jesus without truly knowing him. The people in the synagogue at Capernaum knew much about Jesus – where he came from, what line of work he was in, who his relatives were – but when they were confronted with who he was in himself, they were astounded. For us today, this is perhaps even more of a danger. One can study all of the works of theology and understand their meaning, one can associate with Christians and come to church, one can live a life that seems on the outside completely directed toward God – but yet still lack interiorly that relationship with Christ that should enliven and animate us each day.

Today we celebrate the feast of our parish’s patron saint, St. Thomas Aquinas. In the mind of the Church, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate our faith community, and to be grateful for how God has acted and is still acting in our midst, among us and in us. It is also a chance to ask for the intercession of our patron, and to understand something of his life that perhaps might be influential for our own. Admittedly, a Dominican friar of the 13th century might seem a little difficult to relate to. Thomas Aquinas was a man of great intellect, a man of great learning, a man who wrote deep works of theology and explanation for the Christian faith. He was without a doubt one of the greatest thinkers in the history of our faith, and it is thus appropriate that the works of Thomas Aquinas are recommended by the Church to those who wish to understand better the mysteries of our faith.

But Thomas was not just a brainiac. He was also a man of deep faith, a man who knew Jesus personally and who loved and worshipped him as his Lord, especially in the Holy Eucharist. Those who have passed down to us details of his life all agree that he began and ended his studies each day by praying before a crucifix, asking for wisdom and insight and to glorify God in his work. His study aided his prayer, and his prayer aided his study. In that way, he came to understand the person of Jesus, the Holy One of God, not in an abstract, theoretical sense, but as a friend and a Master.

Like the students and faculty here at the U of A, St. Thomas spent much of his time in and around universities; he studied first at the University of Naples and later was on the faculty at the University of Paris. There is no doubt that those medieval places of learning were in many ways vastly different from the university setting of today. Yet, at their heart, they share the same purpose: to be a place of study, to be a community of learning, to probe the depths of reality to learn what is real and useful and good, to better ourselves and the world around us. St. Thomas ceaselessly asked the “What” of the realities of the universe in order to better understand the “Who” is their source of them all.

Friends, St. Thomas once wrote: “If you are looking for a goal, hold fast to Christ, because he himself is the truth… If you are looking for a resting place, hold fast to Christ, because he himself is the life…” Perhaps the best way we can honor our patron today is for each of us to remember what he knew above all: that knowledge is useless without understanding, that learning is nothing without love. We do well to study hard, to labor vigorously at our various endeavors, whether here on campus or whatever we do once we leave here; but we must also always keep before our eyes the one who is Truth himself. All of the books of Mullins Library cannot lead you to a personal relationship with Jesus. They can teach you about Jesus, but to truly know him, you have to encounter him for yourself. May our patron St. Thomas Aquinas help us to meet Jesus anew, the Holy One of God, the One “to whom and for whom and through whom all things are,” so that by his gifts and for his glory we may achieve what he wills.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Whose Kingdom?

A few months ago, a study was released that compared the general views of Americans on a range of social and political issues. It concluded that Americans today are more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. Even if you think that is a bit too sweeping of a conclusion, it is hard to argue that recently it seems our social and cultural discussions have risen to a fever pitch. Just this past week, we’ve seen a government shutdown, a debate about immigration and the future of DACA, three different marches in Washington, and continued disappointing and even discouraging words and actions from our elected leaders. We have seen new movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp sweeping the country. We still hear about the usual contentious issues, like abortion and gun rights and climate change, and we hear about growing concerns like the opioid crisis and renewed fears over nuclear conflict. In short, it seems as if there is no shortage of things about which to be alarmed, be afraid, or be angry.

Maybe these issues are ones that speak to you, or maybe not. But all of us see things in the world that we think are wrong or broken or harmful, and for the sake of ourselves, the sake of our children, the sake of society, we want to make them right. As Christians, this takes on a special significance: seeking to make our world more a reflection of the kingdom of God. We’re not just altruistic we see striving for peace and justice as what Jesus commanded us to do.

Edward Armitage, Christ Calling the Apostles James and John (1869) 

In light of all of this, what we hear St. Paul say in our second reading likely strikes us as very strange: “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out… The world in its present form is passing away.” Paul’s words are in response to a letter the Christian community in Corinth had sent to him. Living in a major cosmopolitan city, surrounded no doubt by all kinds of immorality and social injustices, they wrote to Paul to ask him how they should live as disciples of Jesus. Paul answers many of their questions: how to remain united as a community, how to resolve internal disputes, whether to marry or to remain single, etc. But he also reveals for them this amazing, startling conclusion: that this reality is passing away.

Nowadays, if you start talking as Paul did – about a world to come, a life beyond this one, a reality that is not yet fully present – people tend to have one of two reactions: either their eyes glaze over and they tune you out, or they think immediately about heaven. Paul, however, wasn’t talking about heaven, at least not as we typically think of it. For a person steeped in the Jewish tradition, as Paul was, the kingdom of God was not something that was going to happen someday, in another dimension; rather it would be ushered in here, on this earth, when God would reveal to the whole world his saving power and remake it in his image. For Paul, everything that he understands about God and the world flows from his experience of encountering the Risen Christ, of seeing the man Jesus, who had been tortured and crucified as a criminal, visibly alive again, risen in power and glory.

For two thousand years, our Christian tradition has always held in tension two ideas that seem contradictory: we must work urgently for justice and peace, and yet we await a kingdom not of this world. You can gain a lot of traction by being a Christian these days who talks about the need for more justice, a better peace, a deeper regard for human dignity, and a more meaningful, purpose-filled life for all. Those words will get you somewhere because anyone can appreciate them; they have a built-in rationale that doe not challenge us beyond the here and now. The problem is that we can sometimes lose sight of the second idea, which is really the more important one: that the Risen Jesus will return to establish his reign over all things, vanquishing every foe and judging each of us by what we have done in his name.

What Paul encouraged the Christians in Corinth to understand – and what I think we are called to understand in this moment as well – is that our efforts for peace and justice, as critically important as they are, must be rooted in a more foundational reality: that our hope lies not ultimately in our own efforts but in what the Lord is doing and will do at his return. This is especially important to remember when our efforts seem to be futile, when progress seems to stall, when we are tempted to become discouraged or anxious or afraid. It is precisely then that we should remember that this world is passing away, and while we struggle to do good here and now, our efforts will remain incomplete. Some might call this romanticism or idealism: that by placing our hopes in a reality beyond this one, we are not as committed to working hard to make this world better. But the Christian understanding of the world has always been that what we labor for is not a perfect world as we would make it but the kingdom of God.

So what does that mean, in the here and now? First, we as Christians must always be asking ourselves, “By what lens am I viewing the world? Whose kingdom am I striving for?” We naturally feel attraction to certain causes and commitment to certain issues, but we need to always see if these are in accord with our Christian faith. There are a lot of voices out there that are seeking to shape our worldview but whose social and cultural and political platforms are not always consistent with our Christian identity. We have to look to what our Church teaches and to our own conscience to examine whom we are allowing to truly influence our worldview.

Second, we can’t grow complacent, by thinking that either the world is too broken to struggle for, or that we are too helpless to make a difference. We are called to work for peace and justice, but always bearing in mind what is most important. Recently, I read an article that analyzed the connections between an individual’s social consciousness and happiness. What it found was that, in general, the more committed and invested an individual was in a particular social cause, the more likely they were to identify with feelings of isolation, alienation, frustration, anxiety, even despair. Honestly, I can’t help but think that those feelings are the result of us rooting our hopes in the wrong thing: the idea that justice comes from our own efforts. When our efforts then are unsuccessful, the bottom falls out, and we lose all hope. Such should never be the case for a Christian. As daunted as we might feel at times, we never lose hope, because the Resurrection is our fundamental reality that undergirds everything we strive for. Jesus has already won the definitive battle over evil, and thus we await with joy and hope the full manifestation of his victory. In the meantime, no discouragement or defeat will change the end result. 

In the Gospel today, Jesus calls his first disciples and announces the kingdom of God is at hand. There’s no doubt that we are in "a moment," as some have phrased it, in our country. But whether it’s in Hollywood, or Wall Street, or Washington, we are not going to solve all of our problems by slogans and marches, as important as those might be. We will not be able to create a better world because we strive hard enough; this world is passing away. Instead, as St. Paul encourages us, we must look at every moment, every occasion, every relationship as one defined by our discipleship. The disciples could have said, “Let me go fix this problem first, Jesus, and then I will be your disciple.” But ultimately, Jesus calls them to give it all up, as he does us – to leave behind what is familiar and comfortable, and even to let go of things that are important and part of our identity, in order to discover a new and truer identity in him. God does not ask us to right every wrong. He doesn’t measure us by our accomplishments, but rather by our faithfulness, our hope, our conversion.

As we prepare to celebrate to share in the Eucharistic sacrifice, let us remember that the work of praise we render to God in this Mass is more powerful and effective than anything else we do in the name of what is good. Strengthened by the One whom we receive, the Risen Christ, the One who has vanquished darkness and death, may we be renewed in faith and hope, to keep following him faithfully each day and to await with hope and joy his return.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Epiphany: God's Breakthrough

One of the great things about being a priest associated with a university is learning about, even in cursory ways, some of the great research being done here. Whenever I talk with our students or professors, I always find it fascinating to hear about what new studies, experiments, and projects they are undertaking. I like to imagine that each of them is perhaps on the brink of making a great discovery, some breakthrough that would greatly advance our knowledge of the world around us. Not every researcher, of course, is blessed to experience a true breakthrough; they are pretty rare. But when they do happen, their impact can be profound. 

Recently, I was reading about some of the advancements in physics that happened over the past 100 years. You might recall many of them, as I did: Einstein’s theory of relativity; the discovery of atomic fission; the discovery of dark matter. One breakthrough that I was less familiar with was the advancements made by Edwin Hubble, who in the early 1920s settled a debate among astronomers and physicist about the size of the universe. The details perhaps aren’t worth getting into. Suffice to say though that, using a telescope to gaze at the stars of the sky, Hubble was able to determine that our galaxy is not the only one visible in the night sky and that our universe is vastly greater than anyone before had previously known. Thanks to Edwin Hubble, we are able to peer into the depths of time and space to a much greater degree than before.

Messier 66 galaxy, Leo triplet (image from the Hubble Telescope)

In the Gospel today, we hear about another discovery by men who study the stars, and one with an even more profound impact. The story of the Magi is something of a strange episode in the Bethlehem story. We don’t know who precisely the Magi were; only that they were wise men – scientists or philosophers – who come from the East, likely from Persia. We don’t know how long they have been journeying or how exactly they knew were to come; only that they have tracked a star. But they state clearly the purpose of their visit: they have come to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews.

After the miraculous prophecy of the angel Gabriel, and the visit from an angel to Joseph in a dream, and the heavenly announcement of the birth by the angels to the shepherds in the fields – if after all of that, there were still any lingering doubt as to the identity of this newborn child in Bethlehem, this visit from the Magi is intended to settle the issue. When we might be tempted to see Jesus as merely a moralist, a prophet of social change, a man wiser than his day about how to live peaceably and altruistically, we can recall this scene – wise men visiting him in the manger, bearing gifts for a king. The Magi know the one to whom they have journeyed far to see: the heir of David, the true king of the Jews, and the one in whom all nations will see God’s favor for his people.

The irony of the story is that it is the Magi, the non-Jews, who are clued into what is happening rather than Jesus’s own people. The chief priests and the scribes know about the prophecy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, but they don’t seem to realize that it is being fulfilled at that very moment. Herod, who claimed to be the king of the Jews and even made overtures about being the Messiah himself, doesn’t even know the prophecy. And all of them are disturbed by the Magi’s arrival – they are “greatly troubled,” the Gospel says. What should bring joy, praise, awe – the fulfillment of God’s promise to his people by the birth of their rightful king – instead causes dismay.

The Star of Bethlehem (1891), Edward Burne-Jones

As the Christmas season draws to a close this week, we have a chance to reflect upon some aspects of this story that have relevance for us today. First, we are reminded that our God is a God of surprises. Rarely does God act in just the way that we expect; even less often perhaps in the way we might want. But that doesn’t mean that he is against us; rather he is for us to such a degree we could not have imagined. The Magi came to worship the king of the Jews, and Herod feared the same, but surely neither of them anticipated that this child would be God himself, in the flesh. It can be disorienting when God upends what we had expected, but it is always for the better.

Second, when God does surprise us, when our worldviews are challenged in some way, we must remember the right way to respond. Herod and his counselors are filled with fear, and the rest of Jerusalem with them. Likely, they recognize that they are not ready for what God is doing; that they have been caught off guard. But the Magi respond correctly; they go humbly to give praise and worship to the Christ child. In the same way, we can be frustrated and even threatened if we find ourselves caught off guard for what God is doing. But if we are surprised, rather than respond with dismay, we should be reminded about who really is in charge, and respond with gratitude, with adoration, and with humility.

Finally, the Epiphany story reminds us of how God has shown his love for us in a definitive way. Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem is quiet and humble, but it is anything other than passive. Rather it is God’s definitive breakthrough into our world, the revelation of his true purpose and the manifestation of his power. In Christ, God has shown that the Lord of heaven and earth has made his home with us. With his coming, God has pronounced his desire to gather together all of the peoples of the world in praise and adoration of his Son. What he did for the Magi, and the people of their era, he can do for us, inviting us, leading us, drawing us to a new encounter with Jesus, the One for whom our hearts have been searching.

Friends, human beings have been gazing at the stars in the sky for eons. We have learned a lot about time and space thanks to men like Edwin Hubble, and no doubt we still have much to learn. But as Christians, we celebrate on this Epiphany Day that the greatest breakthrough in our understanding of the world is not the result of our searching, but one given by God himself. We don't have to peer into the depths of time and space to find God; he has come to us. In the Christ Child born in the manger, God has revealed himself, made himself manifest and visible, pronouncing his love and redemption for all peoples. Our God is a God of surprises and this is the best one of all. Jesus was born long ago in Bethlehem, but even today the Lord of heaven and earth wishes to come to us anew, to draw us to his Son in ways that we may not expect or even understand, but which are always for our good. May his coming never cause us dismay or fear but inspire us, like the Magi, to offer gifts of praise, trust, and humble service. May we look for the rising of his star, not in the heavens, but within our hearts, and journey anew to worship him.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Babe of Bethlehem

Close your eyes for a moment. No sleeping! Keep your ears open, but close your eyes and clear your mind.

Imagine for a moment that we are not gathered here in this church. Rather we are outside in the cold night air, not in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the 21st century, but in the hills of the Italian countryside in the 13th century. We are following a religious man, a preacher who wants us to see something special, and we are hiking behind him on a mountain trail, heading up into the hills. Our way is lit with torches and candles, and we are bundled up to stay warm as we walk. Finally, we arrive at our destination: a niche in the side of the cliff that forms a cave of sorts. There we see that our preacher has prepared straw, where a few farm animals lie and graze. A crib made out of rough wood sits in the middle. As we approach the spot, this preacher begins to sing a song, reciting a story, one that is set in a manger like the one we see before us. It is the story of a child’s birth, and as he speaks, we can see that he is overcome with emotion, almost at the point of tears, full of joy and peace. So tenderly does he describe the child that we notice how he does not even dare to say his name, but calls him only “il Bambino di Betlemme” – “the Babe of Bethlehem.” As he preaches about the birth of this child, some of us even think perhaps that we can see him, a heavenly figure, weak and small and yet radiating a heavenly light.

You can open your eyes. That, more or less, is the account of how Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in the mountain town of Greccio in December of 1223. What we are used to seeing, usually as figurines on our mantles or lawns, was originally a live action reenactment. Having journeyed to the Holy Land a few years before, St. Francis had visited the spot where Christ had been born. To give the people of Greccio a deeper understanding of the birth in Bethlehem, Francis re-created it, staging the manger scene, chanting the story of the birth from the Book of the Gospels, with such power and reverence and love that some saw the Christ Child there in their midst.

Stories and events have a way of coming alive when we enact them, when we experience them as they might have happened. St. Francis knew that to reenact the birth of Jesus for his flock in Greccio would be much more powerful than an exercise in mere imagination. But what, ultimately, was Francis wanting to demonstrate? Surely, the people that trekked up to the mountain cave knew what they were going to see; they knew what event they were going to commemorate. In much the same way, we have come here this evening aware of what this holiday celebrates. Why, then, have we come? Surely not to find out a what. We know that already – the birth of a child. Rather, we have come for the same reason that the people of Greccio followed Francis up into the hills on a cold winter night – to understand a why, to comprehend the meaning of the Christmas story in a new way. We know the details of the birth in Bethlehem. What we sometimes need is a reminder of its significance.

Nativity with the Torch (c. 1635), the Le Nain brothers

Each year, the Church approaches the story of Jesus’s nativity in four different ways, one for each of the four Masses that can be celebrated at Christmas. In the vigil Mass, we hear the Gospel story of the angel reassuring Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary into his home, for it is by the power of God that she will be the mother of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In the Mass During the Night, commonly celebrated at midnight, the Gospel speaks of the angels appearing to the shepherds in the fields, bearing the news of Jesus’s birth to them and proclaiming the glory of God. In the Mass at Dawn, the Gospel says that the shepherds, having received these tidings of great joy, resolve to make their way to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child for themselves. Finally, in the Mass during Christmas Day, we hear from the Gospel of John, a reading perhaps at once the strangest and also the most fitting for Christmas, the one that explains the true meaning of all of the others: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.”

What Francis of Assisi tried to show in the hills above Greccio, what our readings seek to describe, what we have come to celebrate in the church this evening is that this birth in Bethlehem was of no ordinary child – rather, it was the breaking forth of the divine into the human, the dawning of the promised Son of God to his people. This humble birth – poor really, by any measure – is nothing less than the remaking of the world, the union of heaven and earth in this little child. In Jesus, God has taken to himself our reality and, in doing so, forever changed it. God has, in effect, married us – with all of our warts, in all of our sinfulness – to redeem our humanity and let it share in his divinity. He has done this, glory be to Him, through this little child. This Babe of Bethlehem is "God with us," God in the flesh, and the one through whom God will at last accomplish his purpose – none other than to go to the Cross, to put to death our sin and dysfunction once and for all, and forever reclaim us, raising us from “Forsaken” to “My Delight,” from “Desolate” to “Espoused”.

This birth in Bethlehem is not merely a spectacle to behold or a theological reality to ponder. It’s also an invitation – to ponder whether we believe this reality, and if so, whether we have shaped our life around it. God wants us to adore his Son’s birth, not just with lip service, with a brief prayer or remembrance, or with our backsides in a pew for an hour on Christmas. He wants us to open our hearts in love and welcome – to let Christ be born within us in as true of a way as he was born in the manger. God almighty, who enters our human reality to shatter the darkness of death and sin and lift us into eternity, cannot by himself enter into our hearts; he can do that only if we permit him. The humble child born in the stable is an invitation to love, and to be loved, by the God made Man.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are two births of Christ, one unto the world in Bethlehem, the other in the soul when it is spiritually reborn.” It is this inward coming that Jesus most fully desires. Indeed, it is the reason for his coming altogether. If all Christmas is for us is another event on the calendar, a holiday to be marked and then to move past, then we have missed entirely the meaning of this birth, this “Bambino di Betlemme”. He awaits us, even now, at the door of our hearts, asking if there is room enough for him to be born anew.

My friends, some time tonight or tomorrow, when you are with family and friends, pause for a few moments from the feasting and the gift-giving and the merrymaking. Close your eyes, and imagine once again. This time, journey not to Greccio, but to the real manger scene in Bethlehem. See there in a humble stable the Holy Family, and in the crib itself, the Christ Child himself. You have come to see him, but he has come for you – to die for you, willingly, joyfully, to raise your humanity to share in his divinity. As you approach, stoop down to him; drop to your knees. He looks at you, the Lord of heaven and earth made a humble Babe. Feel his peace; encounter the joy that only he can give, that he desires to give you all year round. It is a joy like a flame – one which cannot be snuffed out, but which shines brightly in the dark, radiating its warmth and light. The Babe of Bethlehem is born for you. All he desires from you is everything. And he gives Everything in return.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Learning to Receive

As you know, we are now just a short time from the start of Christmas. If you are anything like me, there’s still a few precious hours to think through what gifts you still need to find a way to shop for, buy, wrap, and deliver before the hour for unwrapping arrives. I like to give presents, but sometimes I don’t think I’m very good at it. Perhaps it is because I wait until the last minute! People say that, with gifts, “It’s the thought that counts!”, and I for one hope they are right.

In the first reading today, King David finds himself in a giving mood. Having conquered his enemies and established his throne in Jerusalem, he is moved by gratitude to do something for God. Since the time of Moses, the Jewish people had understood God’s presence to dwell with them through the Ark of the Covenant, housed within a special tent that was moveable. David desires to build for the Lord a fitting house, a temple, something that would stand permanently as a visible reminder of God’s place at the center of his kingdom.

As we hear, God has other plans. He appreciates David’s intention – “It’s the thought that counts!” – but God is more interested in giving gifts than in receiving them. While David wants to build him a house of wood and stone, God desires to give him a lasting gift, not a literal house, but a lineage and a kingship that will rule for all times. There are few things as important to a king as the stability of his succession, and God promises to secure David’s for all time.

This reading demonstrates for us an important lesson about our relationship with God. The Lord desires an intimate relationship with us, a true friendship, like he had with David. But we should not confuse our places; we are not equals – God remains God. Sometimes, we might think, “Well, if I do this good thing, then he will bless me” or “I will suffer this hardship, and then God will owe me.” But God is not interested in bargaining or cutting deals; all of his action toward us is one of blessing and benevolence. We don’t have to curry his favor, or earn his loyalty; God already desires to give us every good gift and blessing.

The Annunciation (c. 1452), attributed to Petrus Christus

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we will always perfectly understand his will. In the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to a Son, and that he will receive the throne of his ancestor David and his kingdom will have no end. Mary doesn’t understand the full meaning of these words; if she understands them even partially, she is even more unsure how she, as a virgin, could be the one chosen by God to bring forth a Savior. And yet underneath her questions, Mary has a deep and implicit faith in the Lord’s goodness, in his faithfulness, in their intimate relationship as God and human being, and so she responds affirmatively, trustingly, with a “Yes” that makes up in love what it lacks in understanding.

Mary’s “Fiat” is the greatest act of her life, the fundamental reason why we as Catholics accord her such honor and veneration. We understand that without her “Yes”, Christ would not have been born for us, and the promise of God to David would not have been fulfilled. David’s royal line crumbles after a few centuries, due to the sinfulness of his descendants and the people of Israel as a whole. And yet God does not abandon his people, and he does not forget his promise; instead, he fulfills it in a way more wonderful than David or anyone else could ever imagine. David had desired the presence of God to dwell among his people, and as we see in the Annunciation, that has also been God’s desire all along – not in some perishable building of wood or stone, but in a person, in the permanent union of God and man in Christ. As St. Paul remarks to the Romans, this is the “mystery kept secret for long ages,” but now manifested and made known to all nations – that God has fulfilled his promise to David, and fulfilled indeed every desire and yearning of the human heart, in the Incarnation of his Word, the sending of his Son Jesus, through whom God’s love and favor rests upon his people. Through him, we have been made a royal people, not by blood but by baptism. Every believer shares in the kingship of Christ, and through him, the royal lineage of the Church extends through every age and to every place.

Very close now to the start of Christmas, our final Advent preparation should be a reflection upon this reality: that the coming of Christ is a greater gift than any mankind could have asked for or dreamed of. We need not doubt God’s benevolence, his providence, his desire to reach through time and history to change us and our reality – his Son’s presence among us is proof of that. We don’t have to curry favor with the Lord or seek to give him gifts in order to earn his love; he has already given it and gives it anew through the grace of Christ. That is the true blessing of Christmas.

What God does ask is that we be faithful and joyful in receiving what he does desire to give us. It’s doubtful that we will always understand his every design; at times, we may even struggle to comprehend why his will permits some challenge. But we need never doubt God’s goodness and his fidelity, because in Christ he has revealed the fullness of every blessing. Remember Mary – and respond with similar trust and generosity. Whatever the Lord wishes to do in your life, don’t seek to dictate terms, but open yourself to what God wishes to give.

My friends, even if you have waited until the last minute, make these last few hours of Advent count in your preparation for the coming feasts. Christmas is the remembrance above all else that the Lord is the best Gift-giver of all, for he has given us the gift of himself in his Son. He desires each of us to receive him anew with generosity of spirit and firmness of faith. With this gift, it’s not just the thought that counts, but also the response – a “Yes” that he wishes to hear from our lips, as he heard from Mary’s. Like her, may we remember that God has proven his faithfulness and love from all generations, and with grateful hearts, may we receive all that the Lord wishes to give.