Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas: The God Who Comes Close

I presided and preached at my Jesuit community’s Christmas celebration today. The readings were from the Mass During the Day: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Hebrews 1: 1-6; John 1: 1-18.

“How beautiful are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news.”  So says Isaiah. He goes on: “They shout for joy for they see directly, before their eyes, the Lord….”  We are filled with joy because we don’t see before our eyes “prophets” through whom “God spoke in partial and various ways,” as the second reading says. We see “directly, before our eyes,” because God has been made manifest, “the Word became flesh.”

In his Midnight Mass Homily of 2008, Pope Benedict spoke about our first experience of God being one of distance. God is so far above and beyond us. But then, referring to a medieval theologian by the name of William of St. Thierry, he said: “God became a child. He made himself dependent and weak, in need of our love. Now—this God who has become a child says to us—you can no longer fear me, you can only love me.” 

This is the good news, the Gospel of Joy!

God became lowly in order to raise us up.  God became human in order to make us divine, as our opening prayer said: “O God, … grant we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

This is the miracle of the Incarnation: God, “the Word became flesh.”  This is the miracle of Baptism that John writes about in the Gospel.  Through Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we have been given the “power to become children of God,” to be “born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.”  This is the miracle of the Eucharist. The Son of God became flesh in order to give his flesh for the life of the world. He makes that offering present in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and he unites his flesh to ours in a “Holy Communion.” 

This is “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Gospel of Joy.  As you know, that’s the title of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation in which I’m told the word “joy” appears in one form or another 110 times.

What is the reason, the source of this joy?

In section #164, speaking about catechesis, Pope Francis writes that on our lips “the first proclamation must ring out over and over.”  What is that proclamation? “Jesus Christ loves you. He gave his life to save you. And now he is living at your side every day to enlighten and free you.” 

In other words, God is close, very close to each of us. This knowledge is “first,” according to Pope Francis, because it is “principal.” It is most important. It is the foundation of our lives. He goes on to say that this proclamation is principal because it is “the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another….”

All are called to hold fast to this proclamation and to announce it.  But, quoting from Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation about priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope Francis writes: “For this reason too, ‘the priest—like every other member of the Church—ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized.’”  We priests need the Gospel of Joy, a deeper awareness that Jesus Christ loves us, gave his life for us, and is now living at our side every day.

As Jesuits we’ve been given a gift that helps us go deeper in this awareness. Through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, we don’t just think about how God has come close to us. We, as it were, “see directly.” Through the imagination and bringing the senses into our prayer, we experience the birth of Jesus. In this way the familiar stories and the high theology of the first chapter of John, do not remain here, in our heads, but enter our hearts where they can transform us. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Bridegroom of Souls

As far as I can determine, December 21 is the only day of the year when there is a Mass reading from Song of Songs, a title which basically means “The Best Song.” It’s also known as Canticle of Canticles and The Song of Solomon who is thought to have been its author.  This Old Testament book consists of a series of love poems and it’s the only book in the Bible that never mentions God. 

The Mass readings for December 21 offer an option to be used instead of the passage from Song of Songs 2: 8-14 which begins “Hark! My lover—here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills.”  This passage accompanies Luke 1: 39-45, the story of the Visitation when Mary, bearing the newly conceived Son of God in her womb, went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth.

Jesus is the “lover” who travels across mountains and hills.  Jesus is God-in-the-flesh who, like any lover, wants to be with his beloved. He wants to be with humanity.  He wants to unite himself to each one of us.

I suspect that a second option is offered for the first Mass reading for December 21 because some people are squeamish when it comes to the love poetry of Song of Songs.  Various Biblical scholars have even described it as a celebration of erotic love which some might judge has no place in sacred writings. Yet erotic love or eros is not by its nature sinful.  It is only sinful when it becomes infected with lust which turns another person into an object to be used for pleasure.  In fact, God, who St. John declares is Love, is the origin of eros. God loves each person with a passionate love that is eros.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) which was issued on Christmas Day, 2005.  Writing about Song of Songs, he said: “According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love.”  He then wrote about eros and another form of love, agape, or self-sacrificing love: “
God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.  The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images.”

In his 2007 Message for Lent, Pope Benedict explained this interplay of eros and agape in God. He wrote: “These biblical texts indicate that eros is part of God's very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride. … Dear brothers and sisters, let us look at Christ pierced on the Cross! He is the unsurpassing revelation of God's love, a love in which eros and agape, far from being opposed, enlighten each other. On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us.”

This is the meaning of Christmas. God loves humanity and each individual so much that he sacrifices himself, empties himself, so that we could be one with him forever. Love desires union with the beloved and God sacrificed all in order to be one with us. 

It should be no surprise that the erotic poetry of Song of Songs is in the Bible. While expressing the passion of human romantic love, it also reveals the passionate love of God who has traditionally been called “The Bridegroom of the Soul.”


Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Hope

We're in the final days of Advent, days of expectation and hope.  Many people, especially children, are hoping to find certain things under the Christmas tree. Such hopes are not very big.  God's hope for us is much bigger and as we prepare for Christmas we want to share that hope.

The world today and life in general offer plenty of opportunities to lose hope.  Pope Francis, following Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has emphasized the need for hope. Hope is more than "wishful thinking."  We can say, "I hope it won't snow so that our Christmas travel plans won't be affected," but there is nothing we can do to stop the snow. However, if we are a student and say, "I hope I pass the test,"--that's a hope that we can do something about. We can study to make sure our hope is realized!

Hope is active.  It involves effort so that what we are hoping for is attained. 

So, what is God's hope for us and how do we share that hope? God's hope is for loving union with us. God created us to be one with him forever in the kingdom of heaven. This is why God became human, uniting in one person two natures--human and divine. That's the mystery we will be celebrating in a few days.  Because God is Love, he cannot force his hope upon us.  We are free to reject God's hope for us.  Advent and in fact our entire life is a preparation to accept God's hope for us once and for all when God comes to us at the end of our earthly lives. 

In his General Audience of November 27, 2013, Pope Francis said: "If my life has been a journey with the Lord, a journey of trust in his immense mercy, I will be prepared to accept the final moment of my earthly life as the definitive, confident abandonment into his welcoming hands, awaiting the face to face contemplation of his Face. This is the most beautiful thing that can happen to us: to contemplate face to face the marvelous countenance of the Lord, to see Him as he is, beautiful, full of light, full of love, full of tenderness. This is our point of arrival: to see the Lord."

On that first Christmas, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2: 15).  May we be as eager as they were to see the Lord face to face.  May we have the same hope that God has for us and live in a way that leads to the realization of that deep hope. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Heart of Jesus in the Womb

I like to imagine the moment when Mary told the Archangel Gabriel, “let it be done to me according to your word.” At that moment the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and a new life, the likes of which the world had never seen, was conceived in her womb. Cell by cell the child developed. Within three weeks the first organ appeared. His Heart—human and divine—started beating right under the Immaculate Heart of His Mother. 

At Christmas we imagine the Christ Child, just born and lying in a manger. But what about Advent? Can we imagine the Christ Child in the womb of His Mother Mary?  Can we have a devotion to the Child Jesus at this stage of His life? And couldn’t such a devotion help us reverence human life at all its stages?

George A. Peate thinks so. His book, Unborn Jesus Our Hope, reflects on the first nine months of Jesus’ life
as He lived and grew in Mary’s womb. It’s filled with references by Christians of all times and places and denominations. It includes prayers: a Litany of the Unborn Christ Child and a Litany in Honor of Mary, the First Christian. And it makes a strong connection between Sacred Heart devotion and the Pro-Life Movement. Here’s an excerpt:

“And so we picture the unborn baby Jesus within His mother’s womb, skin almost transparent in these early weeks of human life, and His Heart, not yet hidden by a thicker, more developed skin, but visible, actually throbbing, pulsing with divine love for us! This is the miniature reservoir of that one commodity that could purchase the salvation of the entire human race, the blood of God Himself! This Precious Blood is separate and different from His mother’s. A small delicate vial of heavenly medicine. It is a tiny Heart, but proportionately—compared to the rest of its body, during the first and second months—it measures up to nine times the size of the adult heart. Appropriately, the Heart of Unborn Jesus (and His head) dominated His Body: for the incarnation is about God’s Love for us.”

Unborn Jesus Our Hope was published by Life Cycle Books in 2006 and is available at the Unborn WordAlliance. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Community that Attracts

The word "advent" comes from the Latin word for "coming." During this season we prepare to remember and to celebrate Christ's first coming in Bethlehem. But Advent is also a time to prepare for Christ's second coming. We believe Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. I suspect that most if not all of us won't be living on earth when that happens. So our Advent preparation for the second coming of Christ can also be seen in light of his coming for us at the end of our earthly lives.  Advent is a time to focus on our readiness to meet the Lord and to give ourselves to him.

This is counter-cultural. Most people want to focus on the here and now.  They don't want to think about meeting the Lord at the end of their lives or at the end of the world. They view Jesus in the same striking way that he seems to refer to himself in the Gospel today (Matthew 24: 37-44) where he speaks of a thief who comes when least expected.  Perhaps we are all tempted to think of him that way. We're tempted to be possessive, to think of our lives as our own, as belonging to us. But the reality is that we are not our own. We belong to God. Advent is a good time to remember that and to practice surrendering our lives to the Lord so that we'll be ready when he comes for us.

Our first reading (Isaiah 2: 1-5) presents a vision of peace and harmony. We will see similar readings throughout Advent. They capture a universal desire, a longing on the part of every person for a better world, a place where people live at peace with one another. 

The Church is meant to embody that vision right now. Our communities are to incarnate the vision of peace that Isaiah saw. In that way they will attract and draw people to Christ.

This is a major theme in Pope Francis' recently issued Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium"--"The Joy of the Gospel." 

Pope Francis writes: "The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded" (#23).  Deep down, all people desire to dwell, in Isaiah's words, on "the mountain of the Lord's house." And "Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to the horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but 'by attraction'" (#14). 

As both individuals and as a community, Christians are "to share their joy," "point to the horizon of beauty" that Isaiah described, and "invite others to a delicious banquet"--the wedding feast of heaven. Our actions, the witness of our lives, speak louder than our words. Our example will attract people who long for the harmony that God promises.

In section #92, Pope Francis writes about the community of the Church as "a mystical fraternity, a contemplative fraternity."  This is because harmony is not something that can achieved on our own. It only comes from union with God. He writes: "It is a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does."  Only a deeper relationship with the Lord will help us to see as God sees: to see "the sacred grandeur of our neighbor" and to "find God in every human being." Such seeing will help us negotiate the inevitable "nuisances of life in common." Such prayer--by which we cling "to the love of God" and open our hearts "to divine love" which empowers us to love as God loves--will help us to embody the harmony of "the mountain of the Lord's house."

Christians' individual acts of love which seek "the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does" are powerful, but even more powerful is the witness of a loving community. The Church and our parishes are called to that. Pope Francis continues: "Here and now ... the Lord's disciples are called to live as a community which is the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5: 13-16). We are called to bear witness to a constantly new way of living together in fidelity to the Gospel. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of community!"

In St. Paul's words from the second reading (Romans 13: 11-14), we are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ."  Or, as the Sisters of the Visitation say in their motto, "Live Jesus."  We are to live in union with him, to have his mind and heart, his way of thinking. We are to see as he sees and act as he would act.  St. John the Baptist once said "He must increase. I must decrease" (John 3: 30). We must die to ourselves in order to live for Christ. And not only for him, but with him and in union with him. More and more, each day of Advent and each day of our lives, may we be able to say, as St. Paul said "I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2: 20).

Practically speaking, this is what our daily offering prayer is designed to do. We offer each day and ourselves to God. We surrender our egos and our bodies. We give to God every thought, word, and deed; every prayer, work, joy, and suffering; every breath and every heart beat. Praying and living this, we will "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" and community will form. The Kingdom of God will break into our world and take root. People will be drawn to Christ through his Church. And each of us will be ready for the final surrender when we will meet the Lord. As the peace prayer attributed to St. Francis goes, "it is in giving that we receive."  Giving all, we will be ready to receive all.