Friday, December 28, 2012

The Holy Innocents

Today the Church remembers with a feast the massacre of children in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus.  According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who lived shortly after the time of Jesus, King Herod was a “man of great barbarity.” King Herod was the puppet king of Israel when Jesus was born. Afraid of losing his power when he heard from three mysterious visitors from the East that a new king had been born, he “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under” (Matthew 2: 16). Jesus escaped when His parents fled with Him to Egypt. Thus the Son of God began His earthly life under the threat of murder and as a refugee.

These innocent boys are honored today as martyrs; the vestments at Mass are red in their memory. The word "martyr" means "witness" and so the question naturally arises, how can the victims of King Herod's fear and jealousy be venerated as martyrs? How can they be considered witnesses to Christ? They had not reached the age of reason. Moreover, they died at the beginning of the earthly life of Jesus; how could they have given witness to and died for the faith?

St. Quodvultus answers those questions in the second reading in the Office of Readings today:

"The children die for Christ, though they do not know it.  The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The [Christ] child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation. ... To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory." 
The children died for Christ.  They died in place of Christ.  Surely the One whose life was saved as their lives were taken blesses their short lives with the gift of eternal life which He won for all through His death and resurrection.  Here's how the British author Frank Sheed put it in his book To Know Christ Jesus:

"There is anguish for us, twenty centuries later, in thinking of the slain babies and their parents. For the babies the agony was soon over; in the next world they would come to know the one they had died to save and for all eternity they would have that glory. For the parents, the pain would have lasted longer; but at death they too must have found that there was a special sense in which God was in their debt, as he had never been indebted to any. They and their children were the only ones who ever agonized in order to save God’s life."

The violent deaths of innocent children have not ended in what many think is a more civilized time.  Families are grieving in Connecticut because a man shot their children.  People speculate on the reasons, but the ultimate reason can be found in our culture. Blessed John Paul II called the culture of the contemporary world a "culture of death."  People are treated as objects and the "virtual reality" of our media and games encourages us to see them as such.  Fear still drives people, as it drove King Herod, to kill children who are seen as threats to our freedom, our life style, our happiness.  Growing and developing outside or inside the womb, children are viewed as property that can be discarded for convenience or in anger.  I am praying for the families of the Innocents of Connecticut today and offering Mass for an end to abortion. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

St. Stephen and Forgiveness

I've been praying the Divine Office of the Church or Breviary since I was a Jesuit scholastic in formation.  My parents bought me a copy of it as a graduation present when I finished my Masters in English at St. Louis University.  I've never grown tired of it, nor have I found it repetitious.  In fact, there are certain readings to which I look forward every year.  Today's Second Reading in the Office of Readings is one of these.  It comes from St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, a North African bishop who died around the year 530.  His sermon on this feast of St. Stephen speaks of love and forgiveness.

St. Stephen's martyrdom is described in Acts of the Apostles chapter 6.  As he was being stoned to death, people "were piling their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul."  The account goes on: "As Stephen was being stoned he could be heard praying, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' He fell to his knees and cried in a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' And with that he died. Saul, for his part concurred in the act of killing."

In his death Stephen clearly imitates his Master, Jesus.  He surrenders his soul into the hands of Jesus and prays for those who are killing him.  One answer to his prayers is Saul to whom Jesus appeared and who, as a result, experienced a complete change.  We can imagine Stephen, from heaven, continuing to pray for Saul throughout his life.  Prayer, united to love that desires the good of one's enemy and to forgiveness that opens a way for God's mercy to enter into the heart of one's persecutor, is the greatest force the world has ever known. 

Here are excerpts from St. Fulgentius' sermon that have moved me over the years:

"The love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven. Love was Stephen's weapon by which he gained every battle.... His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbor made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment.  Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven.  In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.

"Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen's death, and Stephen delights in Paul's companionship, for love fills them both with joy."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"God Became Poor"

The symbol for the evangelist John is an eagle.  The theology of his gospel is soaringly high.  He begins his gospel writing about the Word or "Logos" which in the Greek world stood for Wisdom.  The early Fathers of the Church said that John found the wisdom about which he wrote at the breast of Jesus during the Last Supper.  When he drew near to the Heart of Jesus he drank from the source of wisdom and was able to soar into the heights that his gospel takes us. 

Every year, during the Mass of Christmas Day, we hear the beginning of John's gospel.  We hear: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word as with God, and the Word was God."  As the Word, Jesus is the perfect communication of God the Father.  According to the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews, before Jesus came, "God spoke in partial and various ways...."  In Jesus, the Word, God did not speak partially but in the fullest way possible.  Jesus is the complete revelation of who God is. 

As the saying goes, "actions speak louder than words."  So "the Word became flesh."  God took flesh so that humanity would not only hear about or hear from God, but would see and touch and experience God in the flesh. 

St. Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, invites people to not only read about Jesus, nor to simply think about the scenes in the gospels, but to use the imagination to experience them.  Jesus is the Living Word whom we encounter in the gospels. 

I don't think St. Ignatius' insight is original.  It was this same motivation--to not only read about the birth of Jesus but to experience it as though one were actually present--that led St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 to create what many have called the first Nativity scene.  In Greccio, Italy he brought together an ox and an ass, a manger and hay, so that people would experience for themselves what it must have been like for Jesus to be born.  He wanted them to not only hear the gospel but to see the baby Jesus with the eyes of their hearts. 

At Midnight Mass in 2011 Pope Benedict said the following about this: 

"Francis discovered Jesus' humanity in an entirely new depth. ... This human existence of God became most visible to him at the moment when God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. ... For God’s Son to take the form of a child, a truly human child, made a profound impression on the heart of the Saint of Assisi, transforming faith into love. ... In the child born in the stable at Bethlehem, we can as it were touch and caress God.

"This has nothing to do with sentimentality. It is right here, in this new experience of the reality of Jesus’ humanity that the great mystery of faith is revealed. Francis loved the child Jesus, because for him it was in this childish estate that God’s humility shone forth. God became poor. His Son was born in the poverty of the stable. In the child Jesus, God made himself dependent, in need of human love, he put himself in the position of asking for human love – our love."

God came to save the world not with a purifying and destroying flood, not with legions of soldiers nor armies of angels, not with thunderbolts.  God did not come with violence to impose His will on humanity nor to force people to be good.  God came as a poor, weak baby to attract our attention and our love. 

This is completely contrary to human or worldly wisdom.  Yet, whose birthday is remembered annually throughout the world?  Is it Nebuchadnezzar's?  Is it Alexander the Great's?  Is it the birthday of Caesar, Julius or Tiberius or one of the others?  Is it Napolean's?  Or Adolph Hitler's?  Or Stalin, who once asked, "The Pope? How many divisions does he have?" 

It is the birthday of Jesus that the world remembers every year.  It is His example that inspired St. Francis that great lover of the humanity of Jesus, of the Christ Child.  It is their example--Jesus and His close follower Francis--that continues to inspire people today.

Love is the only power capable of changing hearts and changing the world.  In his First Letter, John wrote "God is love."  Jesus is love in word, in action, in the flesh.  Now we, as members of His Body, make Him present today.  Let us draw near with our imaginations to the Baby Jesus and show Him our love by promising to love those for whom He became a baby and suffered and died.  Let us commit ourselves to be peace-makers as we read these words from Pope Benedict's 2011 homily at Midnight Mass:

"God has appeared – as a child. It is in this guise that he pits himself against all violence and
brings a message that is peace. At this hour, when the world is continually threatened by violence in so many places and in so many different ways, when over and over again there are oppressors’ rods and bloodstained cloaks, we cry out to the Lord: O mighty God, you have appeared as a child and you have revealed yourself to us as the One who loves us, the One through whom love will triumph. And you have shown us that we must be peacemakers with you. We love your childish estate, your powerlessness, but we suffer from the continuing presence of violence in the world, and so we also ask you: manifest your power, O God. In this time of ours, in this world of ours, cause the oppressors’ rods, the cloaks rolled in blood and the footgear of battle to be burned, so that your peace may triumph in this world of ours."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The First Tabernacle

Today and last Friday the Gospel at Mass was the story of the Visitation, how, after Mary heard that her kinswoman Elizabeth was pregnant, she raced off from Galilee to Judea to help her.  As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leaped and she, filled with the Holy Spirit, made an act of faith in the fruit of Mary's womb.  She recognized that Mary was "the mother of my Lord," that she carried within her the Son of God. 

As the celebration of the birth of Jesus draws closer, I often think about a book that George Peate wrote called Unborn Jesus Our Hope.  It is a beautiful meditation on the first nine months of Jesus' life when Mary carried Him in her womb.  Recently the Unborn Word Alliance published on their blog, Unborn Word of the Day, a series of pictures of shrines and art that show the Christ Child in Mary's womb. 

As we believe that Jesus was truly present, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, within the womb of Mary s
o we believe that He is present in the tabernacles of our churches.  This is the "Hidden Jesus," an expression that the Fatima seer Francisco Marto used when he spent hours adoring Jesus in the tabernacle of his parish church. 

In his encyclical on the Eucharist #55, Blessed John Paul II made thisame connection between Mary's womb and the tabernacle:  "When, at the Visitation, she bore in her womb the Word made flesh, she became in some way a “tabernacle” – the first “tabernacle” in history – in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating his light as it were through the eyes and the voice of Mary."

The Annunciation, the Visitation, and Christmas are Eucharistic mysteries, for Jesus was only able to give His Body and Blood to us because He first took flesh in Mary's womb, was carried there for nine months, and was born.  May the coming celebration of Christmas during this Year of Faith increase our faith in the Christ Child's hidden presence in Mary's womb and in the Holy Eucharist.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Spiritual Road Building

I began a parish mission at St. Mary's in East Dubuque, IL today.  Here's part of what I said in my homily for Sunday Mass.

From 1989 to 1995 I lived in western South Dakota at a place that was 13 miles off a paved road where mail delivery came 3 days a week to a mailbox that was a mile and a half from the house.  The paved road was Highway 34 which runs between Pierre and Sturgis, site of an annual bike rally that swells the town's population from less than 7,000 to 250,000. It was a dangerous road because of its hills and valleys and curves.  It was common to come over a hill and almost run into cattle that had gotten out of their pasture. The state decided to upgrade the road by leveling the hills and valleys and softening and straightening the curves. 

Our first reading from the prophet Baruch contains a road building promise.  God promised not to forget the people who had been taken into exile when Israel fell to an invading army.  God promised to bring them home and even make the return easier: "God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground." 

The gospel also speaks of road building.  St. John the Baptist fulfills Isaiah's promise: "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight...." This was done to prepare a way for the Messiah to come to his people. 

Advent is our time for spiritual road building.  We are to prepare a way for Christ to come at the end of time or at the end of our lives. 

The hills and mountains that we level are our ego and pride.  We often build ourselves up, trying to look good in front of others.  How is this pride brought low?  By humility.  That doesn't mean putting ourselves down or beating ourselves up over our failures.  Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.  It means not being so concerned about "ME" but turning our attention toward God and our brothers and sisters.  Humility also involves gratitude by which we realize that all we are and have accomplished is a gift.  We can take no credit for our success because our life and health and talents by which we have accomplished all we've done are all gifts from God.  We could do nothing without those prior gifts, so all praise goes to God.

What are the valleys to be filled in?  Discouragement.  Discouragement never comes from God.  God never uses it to motivate us.  It always comes from the devil who would have us wallow in the depths of discouragement and give up.  How do we fill in this valley?  By living with gratitude in the present.  When we look at the past and our weaknesses and failures, we get discouraged.  When we look to the future and wonder how we will ever be able to stay on the good path we are on or do what we are called to do, we get discouraged.  The past is over and there is no guarantee we will be here tomorrow, so it's best to live one day at a time.  When we see the blessings of the present we can better overcome discouragement.

What are the curves in our life?  Blessed John Paul II, in a reflection on Psalm 51, said that one of the Hebrew words for "sin" in that prayer has the connotation of "twisting" and turning and getting off track.  How do we get back on track?  We begin by celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation.  In doing so we leave the way that points us in a different direction than the one God has laid out for us and we return to the path that leads straight to God.  Reconciliation gets us back on track. 

This year's Advent is special because we are celebrating it in the Year of Faith which, Pope Benedict said, "is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord."  Through conversion we turn away from pride, discouragement, temptation, and sin.  We turn to God. We do so with confidence because, as St. Paul wrote in our second reading: "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus."  God will complete the road building that will lead to our heavenly home, if we but let Him.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

St. John of Damascus

Every day the newspaper has stories about the conflict in Syria.  Today the Church honors a native of Syria, St. John of Damascus also known as St. John Damascene.  He was born around the year 645 and worked as a treasury official for the Muslim caliph of Damascus.  In time he quit his job and migrated to Jerusalem where he became a monk in St. Sabbas Monastery.  He's important to us today because he defended the use of holy images at a time when many, known as iconoclasts, declared that it was blasphemous to make an image of Christ or the saints.  The following quote of his defending the use of images for prayer can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1159:

"Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image.  But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God ... and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled."

When we pray with holy images we don't worship or venerate the material from which they were made but the reality they portray.  They are like windows that open our hearts and minds to the reality beyond them. 

Each of us, in turn, is called to be an image of Christ.  As members of the Body of Christ, we are to reveal him to the world.  With this in mind let's pray that Advent may help us get rid of anything that distorts the image of Christ in us.  And, on this feast of a native Syrian saint, let's pray for all the Syrian people but especially our Christian brothers and sisters who find themselves in an increasingly hostile environment.