Pentecost is called the birthday of the church because at the moment the Holy Spirit entered the followers of Jesus, they be-came the body of Christ in the world. The story in the Acts of the Apostles suggests that this birth did not happen without serious birth pangs.
Pentecost marks perhaps the most important transition the fol-lowers of Jesus had to face after he departed from them at the Ascension. He is gone, and they have been told to remain in the city and pray until the Spirit comes. In the 10-day interval between his departure and the arrival of the Spirit, the group enters into an intense time of prayer and soul-searching.
No doubt, many in the group felt deeply unworthy, even ashamed. They had failed Jesus in his hour of greatest need. When told that he had risen from the dead, the Apostles at first doubted the women. They were hiding in a room with locked doors. Even when Jesus appeared to them, some were still slow to believe. Now, in Jesus’ absence, we find a frightened, doubting group, perhaps arguing among themselves, but feeling abandoned and totally unprepared.
Luke tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was with the Apostles and about 120 other believers. This is an important detail, because, in a sense, Mary had already been through this experience three decades earlier. Then, in the town of Nazareth, the same Holy Spirit had overshadowed her as she pondered the meaning of the angel’s words that, with her consent, God’s Word would be made flesh in her womb. She would give birth to a son, Jesus, who was also the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
The same Jesus, now revealed as the crucified and risen Christ, is about to return by the power of the Holy Spirit to his followers. His earthly sojourn is complete, but they will now become his mysterious presence, the body of Christ in the world. They will receive from the Spirit every gift they need to carry out his redemptive work. All the baptized will experience God’s indwelling, empowering them to extend this mystery to all humanity through their preaching, witness and service.
Pentecost happens as a powerful wind shakes the house and a baptism of fire in the shape of tongues descends on the members of the group. Whatever fear and fragmentation they had felt is overcome. They were one in the Spirit, one in faith, hope and love. As a sign of this unity, they found they could preach to the crowds in any language, the symbolic healing of ancient divisions that occurred in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).
In John’s Gospel, Pentecost is telescoped into Jesus death on the cross and his first appearance to his disciples in the upper room, when he breathes forth the Holy Spirit into them. The church is born on Golgatha in breath, blood and water. In the upper room, they learn that the work of the Spirit is mercy. Jesus gives them his own peace. What the disciples freely receive they must now freely give. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. The love Jesus shares with the Father and the Spirit now dwells in them. This is how the world will know that they are his disciples.
Pentecost reminds us that we are now the church, the body of Christ in the world. It is our turn, and the Spirit gives us everything we need to complete the mission.
Fiddler on the Roof gives us one of the most realistic, tender moments of cinema when Tevya asks his wife, “Golde, do you love me?” The whole musical poses this question in a variety of ways. It portrays an arranged marriage of 25 years, young people with far more romance than prospects, and the question of how parents must juggle their love for children whose commitments clash with their elders’ beliefs and traditions — all in the midst of persecution. After considering her 25 years of washing, cooking, bearing children and laboring beside her husband, Golde answered Tevya, “I suppose I do.” It was a well-thought-out response. With no stars in her eyes, Golde’s graying hair and calloused hands, her constant awareness of him and their children served as the evidence that verified her answer.
One of the unique features of today’s Gospel is that Jesus speaks for the first time of the disciples’ love for him. Previously he’s told his disciples that he is the way, the bread of life, the light of the world — all descriptions of himself that speak of what he wants to offer them. Jesus often called his disciples to believe in him and to trust him, but now he gets to the deep, interpersonal level of loving him for who he is. The only other time in the Gospels that Jesus speaks of disciples’ love for him is after the resurrection when he asks Peter if he loves him (John 21:15-16).
Jesus says his disciples demonstrate their love for him by keeping his commandments. On first blush, that hardly sounds like the Jesus who talks about mercy rather than sacrifice, who worried far less about the letter of the law than the spirit. But, we need to remember the context: This conversation began with matters of the heart not the law.
When Jesus talks to his disciples, to us, about loving him, he’s talking about something more than ordinary friendship, even more than familial commitment or love between spouses. When we pay attention to the broader context we realize that he’s talking about our loving him the same way he loves the Father. The love between Jesus and the Father is a mutual devotion born of their identification with one another. In Jesus’ relationship with the Father, obedience has nothing to do with rules. It’s about loving one another and sharing the same desire.
An intense feeling of grace is usually as fleeting as it is real but as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s song explains, “Love changes everything.” That’s what Jesus is talking about in this reading. He’s not telling the disciples to obey rules, he’s inviting them to share his heart. The opening line of today’s Gospel is, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” That’s a request for love. All that Jesus did in his life was aimed at that one thing: to entice humanity into falling in love with God, and the way to do that is through loving him.
Today we might picture Jesus singing Tevya’s words and asking us, “Do you love me?” For Jesus, love is the only thing that matters. Loving him includes accepting him for who he is and what he offers. As he says in this reading, loving him brings us into the realm of his Spirit and allows us to share his own perspective and desire. In the opening line of this reading Jesus could just as well have said, “If you love me you will love what I love and want what I want.” Keeping his commandments is a matter of the heart, a heart willingly invaded by God.
Amen I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these. (John 14:12)
I was reading recently about how a group of Christian university students some 40 years ago decided to find every verse of scripture that spoke of the “works” that God called us to do. It turned out to their great surprise that they all related directly to issues of justice: care for the poor, the abandoned and the neglected. To their further astonishment they found over 2,000 texts about this call, which they then cut out of an old Bible. Their discovery came to be called the “Bible full of holes.” This “holy” Bible is still in existence.
The “works that I do” that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel are precisely the very ones he did: healing the sick, washing the feet of others, feeding the multitudes, throwing arms of forgiveness around prodigal sons and daughters, challenging the powers that be.
Robert F. Kennedy wrote about these kinds of “works,” and the ones that represent the “greater ones than these” that you and I can actually do, in this way: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. Crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples will build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
You and I all by ourselves are probably not going to heal sick people in the same way Jesus did, but we can certainly attend to them. You and I all by ourselves are probably not going to raise anyone from the dead as Jesus did, but we can grieve with those who have lost a loved one. You and I all by ourselves are probably not going to stop the horrific spread of human trafficking that is a blight on humanity; we’re probably not going to end the terrible rise in heroin addiction, or put an end to the income inequity so many people are struggling with, or end the curse of pornography that is corrupting so many lives, or end abortion.
But what we can do is “diverse acts of courage” that will enable us to stand up, to speak out, to demand an accounting. What we can do is become a “tiny ripple of hope” that, joined with others, can become a “current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
How can we do this? We can begin by listening to how today’s second reading reminds us of who we are. We’re not just anybody, it tells us. We’re “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own … who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
“A people of his own” is the way scripture describes us. We’re different from everyone else. We belong to God. We are his presence in this world. We are his face, his voice, his hands, his feet, his heart.
And how will people know this? By doing the “works” that mimic the very ones Jesus does.
Perhaps if each one of us asked ourselves this one question, it would help us know what the “works” are that we can do:
What in the world today most breaks your heart, most offends your sense of justice, most inspires passion within you?
The famous comedian George Carlin used to do a routine called “stuff” — referring to all the possessions we accumulate and cling to so dearly. Here are some things he said about “stuff”:
“The whole meaning of life is trying to find a place for our stuff. That’s what your house is — a place to put all your stuff. Your house is really just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. It’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. You then have to buy a bigger house because you’ve run out of room for all your stuff, and you have to have more space for more stuff.”
He pointed out how addicted we can become to our possessions, leading to the simple yet profound question: “Do you own your stuff or does your stuff own you?”
In contrast to all this fascination with “stuff,” today’s Gospel of John ends with these striking, hope-filled words: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” But what does Jesus mean by the word “abundantly”? Is he referring to the acquisition of more stuff, more possessions, more things, more gadgets?
Quite the contrary. What Jesus is really talking about is our openness to receiving a gift, a grace. It is the grace we find when we believe that only God can fill the hole in our soul. And, it comes precisely when we abandon the incessant acquisition of more and more stuff.
Jesus is talking today about that down-deep emptiness in our lives — an emptiness that all the “stuff” in the world just doesn’t seem to fill up. He’s talking about our most fundamental need to feel that our lives are ultimately about something far richer and deeper than the stuff we so crave.
Ultimately, Jesus is talking about developing an “abundance mentality,” a way of thinking and acting that says: “There is enough for everyone, more than enough food, love … everything!” When we live with this mind-set, we begin to see the miracle of what we give away multiplying to the point of having plenty left over.
“Abundance mentality” is the opposite of a “scarcity mentality” that wants to hold back, refuse to share, and keep only for ourselves.
Almost one in six people in the United States live in poverty. Experts say that social service agencies, such as food banks and organizations that assist with housing, utilities and transportation costs, report an increasing need for assistance from people who made donations in the past but now come seeking aid for themselves!
Globally, the numbers are even more alarming: Nearly half of all children live in poverty and far too many die of easily preventable diseases. It’s estimated that 80 percent of all people on the planet live on less than ten dollars a day; even worse, many work in abysmal conditions for almost no pay. Abundance is a word most people throughout the world wouldn’t even understand or comprehend. Yet, we do — because material abundance is all around us.
The problem for many of us, is that too often we think it refers only to the garnering of more stuff. Jesus is trying to help us understand in today’s Gospel, and throughout his whole ministry, that true abundance comes not from what we possess, but from how deeply we love, and how generously we share.
Jesus sends each of us an invitation: Spend less time acquiring more stuff and more time developing a mind-set of abundance, an abundance mentality.
“I came so that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Have you ever had an experience so traumatic it challenged your world view and everything you’d ever believed in? That’s what happened to Cleopas and the other disciple whom we meet in today’s Gospel. We encounter them walking towards Emmaus and away from Jerusalem, away from the place of suffering and lost hopes. In their confusion, they tried to make sense of what happened there three days earlier. A stranger quietly joins them and asks, “What are you discussing as you walk along the road?”
They’re incredulous and think “Doesn’t everyone know what happened?” So, they tell him the awful story, how the one in whom they had placed all their hopes was crucified like a common criminal! They tell him about the women who’d gone to the tomb only to find it empty, and how they’d told the ridiculous story that angels had appeared to them and said Jesus was alive. “Then some of us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
Seeing is believing. The disciples were not about to buy into this obvious hoax. They weren’t going to open their hearts and risk being hurt all over again. That’s when Jesus, the stranger they still don’t recognize, steps in. He explains all the Scriptures that point to him, and emphasizes that suffering is part of the plan. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
Later they recognize him during the meal, but then he vanishes! “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” As they encountered the risen Christ, their despondence turned into elation. They could hope again, believe again, trust and love again.
Encounters with the risen Christ still happen to ordinary people like us. Think about it. Have you ever struggled with an issue when all of a sudden you meet a stranger who teaches you something important or simply consoles you? Has Jesus ever turned up in your life, perhaps in a “distressing disguise,” as St. Teresa of Calcutta puts it?
Once ministering as a chaplain in a hospital, while walking through the lobby on my way to visit patients on my referral list, I noticed a young, very thin, African-American man who appeared to be homeless. He was dozing on a bench with his bag of belongings at his feet.
“Hello,” I said, startling him. I introduced myself and asked how he was doing. I soon learned that he was homeless, that he’d moved to Maryland from California because he’d fallen on hard times and wanted to make a new start. He pointed to the bandage on his lower leg. He’d just been treated for a dog bite in the emergency department, and now was trying to decide where to go and what to do next. I listened to his story and was amazed that he was so articulate, so wise and mature.
Soon my heart began to burn within me. I asked if I could pray with him, and he eagerly took my hand. My “Amen” did not end our exchange. He turned things upside down and began praying and ministering to me, calling me by name. He became my chaplain. I was a little shaken when I opened my eyes and met his unflinching loving gaze.
This was no stranger. Jesus can hide in anyone when he wants to teach, enlighten, explain, comfort, console, heal and love.
So when your heart begins to burn within you, pay attention, listen and give thanks.
John’s Gospel gives us two accounts in which Jesus becomes present in the midst of a group of his disciples, appearances neither Mark nor Matthew even mention, and which Luke presents as a single incident. In reading the resurrection accounts we need to remember that the evangelists’ purpose was not to write newspaper reports but to lead the readers to reflect on their own faith in the risen Lord.
Today’s Gospel includes both of John’s accounts of Jesus’ appearance to the gathered disciples. All we know about the first group that Jesus breaks in on is that it included some but not all of the disciples and they were afraid enough to have locked themselves in, leaving the distinct impression that they were in hiding.
The risen Lord never appeared with flashy ostentation. Instead, he appeared to his beloved friends with a simplicity comparable to that of his birth in the stable. When he appeared on the inside of the locked doors, he showed the disciples his hands and feet, signs of all that had happened and also the definitive sign that evil and death had no power over him — not on the cross, not ever.
Jesus who had spoken at such length at the Last Supper makes only a few short statements when he appears among the disciples. The one word he repeats is “Peace.” When they hear that they surely recall his promise to give them peace unlike any in the world. After that greeting Jesus showed them the maimed hands and feet that identified him as exactly who he was: the crucified and risen one.
After speaking a second blessing of peace Jesus imparted on them the graced power to become who they were called to be. Breathing over them as the Creator had blown life into the first humans he incorporated them into his own relationship of being loved and commissioned to carry on the Father’s work. Jesus gave the disciples the one ministry that symbolized and included everything he had done and was handing on to them: “Forgive. You have the power. You have the necessary grace. Forgive.”
Thomas is Jesus’ key dialogue partner in the second appearance story which begins just like the first: with peace. Except for his need to touch the risen Jesus, we don’t know the details of Thomas’ struggle to believe. Did he find the testimony of the first witnesses unconvincing? Was it doubt that death could really be overcome? Perhaps he couldn’t believe that they could all really be forgiven for their betrayals. Whatever blocked him, it was symbolized in what Jesus’ had suffered; Thomas had to see for himself that one so wounded could be living and loving. So Jesus acted out exactly what he had told the disciples to do: demonstrating how to be forgiving and hold fast to one who could be lost, Jesus invited Thomas to touch him and to take his place in the believing community. Thomas needed no further evidence.
In this second week of Easter the early community and especially Thomas stand as witnesses to us. Their stories encourage us to allow Christ’s word of peace and reconciliation to touch us and move us into mission. They remind us that locked doors are ineffective against the appearance of grace and that Christ approaches closed minds with love and often even a touch of friendly humor.
The Gospel for Easter Day is really the culmination of the rich scriptural narrative from the Vigil service. Salvation history comes full circle from the Garden of Eden, where sin brought death into the world, to the garden tomb of Jesus, the new Adam. Mary is the first tentative witness to the resurrection as she arrives at first light of dawn to discover the tomb is empty. She runs to find Peter and the Beloved Disciple, whose heart will be the first to see what has happened. They depart, leaving Mary in tearful bewilderment. Her baptism of tears will end in the Gospel proclamation that love is truly stronger than death. Jesus is alive, the source of life for us all.
Our own Easter faith must make the same journey to faith through love, which first knows only the grief of empty hope and loss. Death appears to triumph, but first light reveals that something mysterious has happened here. These burial cloths and the face-covering rolled up nearby tell a different story. Death could not contain Jesus; no winding shroud or heavy stone could keep him entombed. Liberation has occurred, a new and final Exodus that confirms for all of us that death is not the end. Our pioneer and older brother Jesus has made passage through death to eternal life and opened up the way for all of us who follow him.
How appropriate that we hear this proclamation at our communal Eucharist. Jesus is among us. His Real Presence is in the word, in the bread and wine, and in one another, our holy communion as the body of Christ. He is in the world through us and wherever his Spirit moves and inspires. We will hear further accounts of the appearance of the risen Jesus — to Mary and the other women, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the apostles in the upper room and on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We will be challenged to find him in the world, especially in the poor. The stranger on the road, welcomed to our table, will be revealed as Jesus. The wounded neighbor, crucified for the sins of the world, will be revealed as Jesus.
The liturgy gives us 50 days to find Jesus in the word, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, in our prayers and in our going forth to serve the needy. We are formed and prepared for Pentecost by participating in the sacred rites and in the world. Everything reveals God and everywhere is holy ground, all our thoughts and words and actions illuminated by grace, overflowing with new life.
The Holy Week we began in sorrow ends in joy. The altar table of Jesus’ self -sacrificing love is strong enough to hold our sufferings and despair, our unanswered questions and anguished losses. In retelling the story, our minds are opened and our hearts burn within us. What we bring to God through Jesus is consecrated and transformed. The lives we place on the altar we take up again suffused with light and power.
Easter sets our lives in motion. The first disciples ran to and from the tomb. Two disciples ran all the way from Emmaus to Jerusalem to tell the others they had seen the Lord. The first faith community, broken by failure and sorrow, regrouped on Easter Sunday to begin their mission to the world. A new day has dawned. “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad” (Psalm 118).
“Who is God? What is it that he wants?”
These questions seem particularly appropriate as we begin Holy Week.
Passion (Palm) Sunday presents us with a very unusual version of a deity. In the words of St. Paul in our second reading, he’s a God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” — the form of the lowest element of society.
Palm Sunday attempts to answer this question of who our God is by establishing from the beginning that the God of Jesus is like no other. He is unique in all human history.
Notice, for example, that as Jesus enters Jerusalem there are no trumpets blaring, no resplendent carriages proudly acclaiming royalty, no horses bedecked with finery of any kind — nothing that demonstrates power or majesty.
Then remember what Paul told us in today’s second reading: He is a God who emptied himself.
God sits on a donkey. This same God who marches into Jerusalem will encounter a “coronation” ceremony of whips and lashes. His royal “throne” will be a cross. His “glory” will be death.
Why does Jesus do this? Because that is the kind of God Jesus preaches and imitates.
The reason Jesus willingly embraces all of this is for one purpose: to demonstrate visibly that God is the one who identifies with and enters the experience of the people with whom he is madly in love.
Our God is sending a message through Jesus in this Palm Sunday celebration that he wants everyone to hear with utter clarity: “Nothing human is abhorrent to me.” All of life — even the most horrible kind of suffering, even death — is something so precious that God wants to be in solidarity with it. God wants to embrace it and transform it.
That’s who our God is.
So, what is it that this same God wants from us? Jesus wants us to die with him. Only the death he’s talking about is not the one when our earthly time is over. The death in which our God is interested is the death of our egos. He wants us to die to that part of us that wishes to enthrone our own selves, that part of us that dreams of being adored, worshiped, acclaimed, glorified.
God wants us to “die before we die,” as theologian Richard Rohr so aptly puts it in many of his writings.
So, again: Who is our God? What is it that he wants? These two questions sometimes haunt us and are the same ones that have confused modern-day and ancient philosophers alike. In the end, the lessons of Palm Sunday give us the answers to both questions.
Perhaps the apostle Paul sums it up as well as anyone could: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
Our God wants us to embody the humble actions of Jesus: the God who “emptied himself” — the God who sat on a donkey.
Nobody would be surprised to hear that the account of the Samaritan woman at the well is called a conversion story. Some will compare her to the woman caught in adultery or other famous women in Scripture. In reality there are many similarities among them all, but they don’t necessarily lead to traditional themes of repentance and penance.
If we start by looking at the Samaritan woman as an apostle in her hometown, we might ask about the message she took to her people. After all, she had engaged in quite a theological discussion with Jesus, going from questions about whether he had something better than Jacob’s well (tradition) to where people should really worship (liturgy) and ending with hearing Jesus identify himself as the Christ (theology). So, what was her message? “He told me everything I have done.” That is all that we hear from her. In discussion with Jesus she had said that the coming Messiah would “tell us everything,” but there was no hint that “everything” would be primarily personal information.
What we have in this story is a rather complex encounter in which Jesus first approaches this woman on the level of human need. He asks her for water. But oh, how the simplest things can be complicated! The Samaritans now owned Jacob’s well, a symbol of the common roots and tradition they shared with the Jews. But how could a Jew ask a Samari-tan for anything? The Jews had destroyed the Samaritans’ temple on Mount Gerizim, they disdained the Samaritans for being backwoods idolaters whose intermarriage with non-chosen people had contaminated the bloodlines.
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In short, they were antagonistic peoples inextricably related to one another at the deepest level of their religious history. Jesus was taking on all of that with his simple request for a drink.
As the exchange progressed there was great theological discussion about living water, Jacob’s importance, correct worship, prophets and the coming Messiah. But what really counted was that Jesus revealed himself to the woman and revealed her to herself. We don’t know the extent of their dialogue, we only know that she came to believe he had come from God and proclaimed, “He told me everything I have done.”
What’s interesting about this in the context of Lent is that we have a conversion story that doesn’t focus at all on sinfulness or even traditional repentance but rather on being known and accepted. When the conversation about husbands began, the woman said she had none, and Jesus replied that she had known at least five. But there is no follow-up on the topic. No talk about straightening out her life, no discussion about laws concerning divorce and remarriage, nor about whether she could commune with him in her current state.
She told her people, “He told me everything I have done.” One gets the sense that Jesus explained her to herself. The symbolism of five husbands speaks to a person seeking something on a human level. Her discussion about where to worship, about prophets and the coming Messiah showed that she was well versed in the tradition and had real theological questions and religious hopes. But the message she took home spoke of none of that. She had been accepted for everything she was, just as she was. That fulfilled a need that no affair of the flesh or the mind could ever satisfy.
This story is about thirst, about God seeking and finding beloved humanity. Whatever her social status, whether she was the town reject or a popular figure, the Samaritan became an apostle, an evangelizer. In Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis writes, “Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that she or he has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus.” That is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. Theology, liturgical correctness and the question of who has the better tradition are no more than distractions in the face of an encounter with Christ. Her interaction with Jesus filled her with the living water (the Spirit) that made her an apostle, one who enticed others into a similar encounter.
The church offers us this story in this third week of Lent and invites us to meditate on the woman and her transformation. It reminds us that our faith is based on a personal encounter with Christ, the one whose effect on us is like cascading water. Water filling us and bubbling over into joyful expressions of being so loved just as we are, that we are impelled to continue the relationship and share it. The conversion revealed here is about focusing on Jesus and God’s love, nothing more and nothing less.
After all is said and done, the reading does leave us with a blaringly unanswered question: Did she ever give Jesus that drink of water?
“Behold!” That’s a key word in today’s story of the Transfiguration. It means more than “Look!” or “OMG!” It’s more like “Take a very good look, and then look again, because there is more here than you can grasp.” Interestingly, that word wasn’t used for the description of the change in Jesus’ appearance, as if an intensely bright face and dazzling clothes were not so unusual for the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. Instead, the word was used for the arrival of Moses and Elijah, for the cloud that overshadowed them and the voice that spoke.
“Behold! Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.” What an interesting description. The disciples receive a vision of the ancient prophets conversing with Jesus. It’s as if to tell the disciples, “Behold, this Jesus whom you know is rooted in the best, the deepest of your tradition.”
Moses and Elijah “were conversing with him,” making it seem as if they were consulting, as if he were the revelation they had been awaiting. Their presence is all the more mysterious because they are two whose fame includes the fact that nobody saw them die — and they were conversing with the one who would overcome death.
“Behold! A bright cloud cast a shadow over them.” The “bright cloud” might seem like a wonderful oxymoron, but it’s not such an unusual biblical image. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s glory frequently became visible as a cloud, and in Exodus 13 we hear that God led the people with a cloud by day and fire by night, symbolically confusing their certainty and lighting their darkness.
“Behold the bright cloud,” seems to be the ultimate invitation to risk stepping into mystery.
“Behold! From the cloud came a voice.” This final call heralded some clarity. From that moment on, the disciples were empowered to speak like prophets, with all the certainty of Jeremiah, they could say, “The word of God came to me and declared that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. We must listen to him.”
What the disciples beheld on the mountaintop was what psychologists of religion call a “peak experience.” It was a moment when they understood the truth of who Jesus was for them in a way that was deeper than words could express. No miracle, no preaching, no philosophical argument can produce the interior conviction that such an encounter brings. A bit like falling in love, it’s a life-changing experience that can’t be pinned down any more than Jesus, Moses and Elijah could be housed in tents on the hill. In the truest sense of the phrase, you had to be there.
Most people have at least a few mountaintop moments in their life, times when they know that God is near, that love is the ultimate value, that faith is worth the risk, and in fact, that faith is a promise that demands that we risk all.
Abraham had a mountaintop moment when God called him from his homeland to go off into a most improbable future, a future in which he and his elderly childless wife would become the parents of a people of God too numerous to count. Paul had such a moment when he was stopped short in his persecution of the body of Christ.
We know their stories because those moments changed their lives and although the intensity of the experience was fleeting, it changed them and they remembered it forever.
Behold! That’s the vital word. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her poem, Aurora Leigh,
Earth is crammed with heaven,
And every bush is aflame with God,
But only those who see take off their shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.
We can only see what we are open to seeing. There’s more of God around us than we can take in, but we can also miss it all. Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain after they had been with him, after they had been enthralled with the force of his goodness and repelled by his prediction that he would suffer rejection and a shameful death. They loved him and that was enough to open them to more. They were ready to begin to behold who he was in the sight of God. All that was left was to learn to listen to him.
This second week of Lent invites us to behold the Christ of our tradition, to remember our peak moments of faith, and most of all, to listen to him.
On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot to death while participating in a Bible study in the basement of their church. The shooter, a 21 year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist, had wandered into the room that evening. Can you picture it? Nine black church-goers in the midst of prayer and study, look up to see a young white man in jeans and a sweatshirt. Did they politely ask him to leave? Did they threaten to call the police if he did not leave? No. They invited him to join them. For a time, he did just that, he participated in their Bible study. And just as they were ending their session, heads bowed in prayer, he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack and one by one he shot them. Can you imagine the anguish the families of those nine people experienced? I cannot. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a loved one so suddenly and so violently. And that is what makes the next part of this story so stunning. Only three days later, when invited to share a statement at the shooter’s bond hearing, several of the family members turned to the shooter and said, “I forgive you”.
In today’s first reading, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to be holy as the Lord their God is holy, to bear no hatred in their hearts, to take no revenge, to cherish no grudge and to love their neighbor as themselves. And who is their neighbor? Jesus responds to this question in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel with the parable of the good Samaritan: your neighbor is the one who is not like you. In today’s Gospel as Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he seems to save the most challenging part for last: Love not only those who are like you or even those who are not like you. Go one step further. Love your enemy. In this way, you will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Few of us will be called to love in such horrific circumstances as those who lost loved ones in Charleston that night. But all of us have people around us who are difficult to love. It might be that co-worker who loudly snaps her gum in the next cubicle, or perhaps the committee chair who never listens to our ideas. It might be the protesters blocking traffic, or a family member with whom we haven’t spoken in many months. The wisdom of the world might call us to be righteous in our particular situation, but as Paul tells us in the second reading, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. God calls us to holiness.
The man who shot those nine people was certainly not a friend. He was indeed their enemy. Yet, even in the midst of unimaginable pain, their family members knew that this man was still their neighbor. From somewhere deep inside themselves they knew that they were called to love that neighbor, to love their enemy. Did their forgiveness mean they no longer hurt? No. I am quite sure the family members of those victims continued to ache deeply. Yet their decision to love and forgive not only stopped a potential cycle of violence and vengeance, it made it possible for good to follow.
These family members reflect the spirit of today’s readings. They show us how to be holy and perfect as the Lord our God is holy and perfect. It cannot have been easy for them. But they show us that with God’s grace, it can indeed be done.
In today’s first reading, Sirach speaks to the challenge of following the law: all we must do is choose to follow. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple? I am reminded of someone whose solution to any problem is to say, “all you have to do is” with no regard for the big picture. There is never an offer of a solution for the problem. Most of us know life is not that simple. There are difficulties that arise due to the very nature of our humanity. When I hear the comment “all you have to do is ... ” I respond with a blank stare, not out of disrespect, but because there is nothing I could say that would make a difference. Instead, I have already moved to a problem-solving mode. Often I wonder if that is how Jesus felt on occasion.
Jesus knew that there is more to following the law in one’s life. In the Gospel of Matthew, he recognizes that understanding the law needs to be developed more fully. His followers are restless and questioning. He wants them to have the wisdom to appreciate the law on a deeper level. Where does the desire to kill come from? Where does it start? It starts with lust, anger, name-calling, bullying, acting without love or mercy. Right relationship is derailed when there is no clear understanding of these things. Like a pebble dropped in a pond the concentric circles radiate from the center. Everything around the center (the law) is affected by the wave of each circle as it radiates outward. The law is not simple but instead is layered with life, humanity and the culture of the times. Choices are not made in a vacuum but instead are made in relationship.
Jesus came to fulfill the law — a law that must be perpetually deepened with growing wisdom of the time. The work of fulfilling the law is in unceasing evolution. How different that looks today in a culture that is driven by media and technology. The task of applying new wisdom gained over time in a culture that is becoming more and more diverse with new temptations, disguised as normal, requires resourcefulness. Nothing is static and must always be open to new interpretation and relevance.
Did Jesus really mean “pluck out your eye” or did he mean divert your eyes when you know your gaze is not respectful? Did he really mean “cut off your hand” or did he mean think about what that hand is capable of? Jesus asks that we not let the laws become stumbling blocks but instead be a foundation for growth. Don’t go to the altar without taking responsibility for your actions. Bring to fruition the steps that bring forth wholeness from brokenness.
The struggle with keeping the law should be taken seriously because it is the foundation of right relationship. Using that struggle helps to integrate morality and ethics into our daily lives and to build up the kingdom of God. Keeping the law is the work of mercy and love that heals. As the psalmist cries out: “Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law.” The law which manifests the basic values in an ever-changing world invites us to enter into the mystery. Consider the chaos without the continual fulfillment of the laws.
“Let there be light.” The first words God ever spoke.
To this day, every major religion speaks a language of light. Jewish people use the menorah to celebrate the Hanukah miracle of faith triumphing over evil. The Quakers have a famous expression: “I’ll hold you in the light,” instead of our common promise: “I’ll pray for you.”
Light illuminates. It warms. It destroys darkness. It lifts spirits.
The prophet Isaiah makes crystal clear that we are to become a people of light. As he challenges us so powerfully with his inspirational words found in today’s first reading, our actions of “clothing the naked” are to be so far-reaching, our deeds of “bestowing bread on the hungry” are to be so radical, our cries of anguish over the need for “sheltering the oppressed and the homeless” so loud, that they will break forth through the darkness of greed and the idolization of fame and power that engulf us like a shroud of gloom and despair.
Many people speak these days of our culture of depression and anxiety. In the midst of possessing so much, in the midst of untold comfort the likes of which most of the world could never imagine, somehow we are sad and afraid. So much so, we have come to embrace darkness — the darkness of bullying, of pornography, of drugs, of violence, of cynicism, of cruelty, of the horror of human trafficking, of abortion.
Jesus challenges us to embrace the ultimate antidote to all of this darkness. He calls us to create lives of generosity, gratitude and selflessness. He shines a beacon of hope in the midst of this negativity that surrounds us, and tells us instead:
“Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
In our second reading today, the apostle Paul reminds us in very graphic terms that “You were once darkness, but now you are the light in the Lord. Live as children of the light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.”
Jesus goes on to challenge us even further. We are also to be salt — the “salt of the earth.” It’s difficult for us today to understand how critically essential salt was to the ancient world. The great early civilizations first developed near deserts close not only to water, but to salt resources. The ability that salt provided to preserve food was a requirement for people of that time.
But beyond this, salt gave flavor to food. And that’s what Jesus emphasizes. We are to become people who bring a whole new taste to the world we live in. We are to bring “the flavor of God” to all that we do and say. Light and salt are strongly connected. From Jesus’ point of view, the more we create a “God flavor” to life, we become light. We dispel the darkness we find around us.
That new taste, that new “God flavor” becomes contagious. It spreads. It multiplies.
When you were baptized, a candle was lit, and the priest prayed over you: “This light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly ... may you walk always as a child of the light.”
God has passed the light of the heavens on to you and to me. Let each of us hold our lives “in the light” and illumine the world we live in by flavoring it with the taste of God.
In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount why would Jesus say: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst for justice? Is it because Jesus recognized that in some of the world’s cultures, the tendency is to place too high of a value on self-reliance? We sometimes, perhaps often, imagine that we can rely only on our own personal strength to face the challenges the world throws at us. Certainly, the U.S. culture seems to promote self-interest and self-reliance, i.e. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
If we buy into this type of thinking, the tendency is to believe that we will only get as far as our own efforts will take us. We lose sight of the fact that we are beloved children of God and that God desires a personal relationship with us. We fail often enough and experience our own sinfulness, which may lead us to wonder how God could possibly love us, unworthy as we are. We might feel alone, filled with our own concerns and worries. We could end up only calling upon God when our efforts fail, when life teaches us that we are not in control of all that life presents to us.
A priest friend shared that when visiting with his spiritual director, he disclosed some of the struggles of his spiritual life. His director responded that a source of his struggles was his arrogance. The priest thought, “I’m not arrogant.” His director told him that the arrogance stemmed from his desire to not have to depend on God for help with his faults.
As my friend shared this conversation, I was struck by the awareness: “That’s me.” I desire to not have to depend on God’s help with my faults; instead, I prefer to overcome my inadequacies on my own. However, my memory bank can find multiple examples for each beatitude where I have failed. Blessed are the poor in spirit: How often am I filled with a sense of self-righteousness when I think I’ve been slighted or treated rudely, resulting in a less than Christ-like response? Blessed are the meek: How often has pride kept me from helping someone in need because I don’t want to get involved or I am in a hurry? Blessed are they who show mercy: How often am I incensed about the stories of injustice that are broadcast on a seemingly daily basis, and yet don’t take the time to do anything in response? With each example of failure on my part I can lose a sense of hope that I am loveable. It is in these times that humility will allow me to know that I need God’s love and forgiveness to be more Christ-like, to become more the person God has created me to be. Is this true for you, too?
In today’s first reading Zephaniah instructs us well: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who observed his law; seek justice, seek humility ...” It is these faithful servants who Jesus calls blessed.
This is not to deny our giftedness. Each of us has been endowed with gifts to further God’s kingdom. We are to develop and use these gifts. When we are in right relationship with God we recognize that credit for these gifts is due to God. In the second reading Paul encourages us that when recognition comes our way we should boast in the Lord, not in ourselves. The Beatitudes remind us of the attitudes we ought to have.
When I fall short in living out the Beatitudes, I turn to the words of St. Anselm. May this prayer enliven your desire to be a disciple of Jesus: “Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerlessness I attempt … although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be.”
Today’s readings are filled with contrasts: rich and poor, darkness and light, division and unity, withdrawal and leadership. Speaking to us today, Isaiah offers the image of rich nations being humbled. He foretells the coming of a savior from the poor, lowly land of Galilee. The second reading revealed the division in the early church as the newly baptized searched for their identity, aligning themselves to the one who baptized them. Paul had to remind them that the fledgling church had only one leader, Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ. Paul boldly challenged the people of Corinth, and challenges us today, to be “perfectly united in mind and thought.” In our Gospel, we hear that Jesus (who was, indeed, perfectly united in mind and thought with God) withdrew after hearing of John’s imprisonment, moved to Capernaum, and from there began calling forth those who would be his disciples. Finally, Psalm 27 proclaims “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” We can imagine David, and even Jesus, calling out to the Lord in their darkness and fear. Two millennia later, we continue to call upon God to lead us out of our darkness.
In our human experience, it is difficult to truly know the strength of the light unless we have experienced some form of physical, emotional or spiritual darkness. We can’t know the peace of unity without experiencing the pain of division. We can’t know the impact we can have on one person or on our world without seeing the emptiness caused by solitude and scarcity. Historically, division has had disastrous results. In the United States, divisive elections fractured a country that now struggles to unify. Following in the footsteps of Isaiah and Paul, luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and today, Pope Francis have shown us that we can live lives of peace and unity. Our challenge is to find methods to apply them in our country, in our communities, in our workplaces, in our homes, in our places of worship, and most importantly, within ourselves.
When we truly examine our hearts, where do we dwell? Do we dwell in the darkness that is ignorance and self-righteousness? Do we go through our days with an “us vs. them,” or “mine vs. yours” mentality? Do we withdraw and hoard our God-given gifts and treasures from those who truly need them? While we are dualistic by nature, God is not an either/or God. God is a both/and God.
In today’s readings, God meets and walks with us in the darkness, in the division and in the solitude, calling us to light, unity and action. In the busyness of our days, how often do we ignore God, who is constantly and lovingly calling us to this wholeness?
Throughout our lives, the tension between dark and light, division and unity, withdrawal and leadership is one way God draws us into a deeper relationship. As we go forth this week, let us look at our lives and contemplate how God is calling us from our own physical, mental or spiritual darkness into light, from our unthinking words and actions that divide to words of peace that have the power to heal and mend relationships. And let us to consider the gifts and talents we can share with others who are struggling.
How many of us can honestly say we are “perfectly united in mind and thought” with one another and with God? That is today’s challenge.
As a young man, I spent a lot of my time in and around the church. My grandparents helped build the local German church and took care of the nuns. My other grandmother walked to the Irish church for mass every day. I would wait with her on Fridays for my uncle, a priest, to come home for the day. Another uncle was a Christian Brother. From time to time we would travel to the schools he was involved in for shows he was involved in. So as I grew it seemed natural to gravitate to the church. I would not say I had a dramatic, “call” but it seemed to be the vocation I was led to.
The Scriptures on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time are a reminder of how frequently it is family, friends or mentors who will recognize our latent gifts and offer us a glimpse of where we will be called to serve. Our often-foggy vision gains a bit of clarity when others – through their confident words and actions – empower us to claim our gifts, to take on new responsibilities, and to accept that we, indeed, are being called by God.
In the Gospel, we hear John the Baptist boldly and confidently proclaim Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and the “Son of God.” These powerful titles lent the weight of authority and credibility to Jesus as he begins his public ministry. Not only did he establish Jesus’ solid credentials, John stated that Jesus “ranks ahead” of him. If Jesus ever struggled with discouragement in his calling because of the incessant attacks by religious leaders, or if the frustrations of not being understood by his closest friends and relatives wore him down at times, it must have been a source of strength to recall the words of the Baptist in this encounter, and the assurance that John saw the “Spirit descend and remain” on him.
As Jesus lived out his call as the “Lamb of God” and “Son of God,” he witnessed that God’s love, mercy and compassion knows no boundaries. While John the Baptist initially recognized that Jesus “might be made known to Israel,” the words of the prophet Isaiah in the first reading attest that God desires salvation for all peoples and nations. This passage underscoring the servant’s awareness that his call had a wider scope than originally anticipated may have been in Jesus’ mind and heart as he brought God’s tender love and compassionate care to the outcasts, the unclean and the Gentiles. Jesus responded to a “call within a call” – the phrase St. Teresa of Calcutta used to explain how her unique vocation unfolded – as a “light to the nations,” as Isaiah foretold, his call extending far beyond Israel.
The Scriptures this Sunday hint that our calls from God are dynamic, and that they often come through the words of others, inviting, encouraging and challenging us to claim our gifts with confidence.
The readings this Sunday invite us to reflect: What directions are within our power to give to others, encouraging their calls to be a source of nourishment? Like John the Baptist, can we endorse and lift up the gifts of others, knowing that their light may eclipse our own?
“Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem ...” The story is so familiar.
We so easily see the Epiphany story as a fairytale conclusion to the Christmas season. Magi from the east, a star, camels, special gifts for the newborn king. These are valuable reflections on the beginnings of the life of the Messiah and his different roles. However, these spectacular events may keep us from looking underneath to see the ordinary and sometimes conflicted lives that were the day- to-day reality of the Holy Family.
The magi from the east came from a distance and traveled as they willed. They needed no visas, entry cards or passports. But once they arrived in a territory or country, they were completely subject to the whims of the local ruler.
King Herod was the local ruler in Jerusalem. When the magi came onto his radar, it wasn’t their language, dress or entourage that got Herod’s attention. It was their quest. They had traveled to Jerusalem looking for a prophesied “king of the Jews.” From that point on, Herod dominated the story. His power and control were at stake. A rival king was a threat to Herod. Even if that king was a newborn.
Herod was determined to find this newborn king and do away with him. So, in telling the magi that they might find him in Bethlehem, Herod wanted a report back to help him locate and destroy the child.
The magi followed the re-emerged sign of the star and discovered the promised child. How astonished must Mary and Joseph have been to welcome these visitors from a far-off country. What delight they must have experienced as the visitors shared precious gifts with their child.
The magi were warned in a dream, and they departed by a different route to avoid giving King Herod information about the child. Not long after, a dream also informed Mary and Joseph that their child was no longer safe in Bethlehem. They must leave their homeland and strike out for a distant place. Jesus, Mary and Joseph became refugees in Egypt.
In recent years, the church has assigned this week between Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord as a time to focus on the plight of people who are migrants and refugees. The magi were migrants in their travels seeking the messiah. The Holy Family became refugees in the land of Egypt.
From earliest times, people around the world have migrated from one place to another for countless reasons: to find food, to escape threats and violence, to seek employment, to flee repressive governments, and on and on. The case is the same today. In fact, at this point in history, migrants and refugees number in the hundreds of thousands due to armed conflicts, hunger and political and economic instability.
How many times every week do we hear the stories of women, men and children fleeing from Aleppo and other Syrian towns for their very lives? Families and individuals make long and dangerous journeys because they can no longer bear the devastating conditions of their homelands.
Beginning today, we dedicate a week to migrants and refugees, under the theme: “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me.” Let us reflect on how we, our forebears, and people we know have been or are migrants or refugees. May we find ways to ease the pain and burden of migrants and refugees — those in our midst or at a distance.
In the name of Christ, what mercy can we show to those struggling with the realities of being migrants or refugees?
Dear Parishioners & Friends,
The Lord bless and keep you!
The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!
What better way to begin the new year than with this blessing? The Virgin Mother herself probably heard it pronounced over her and her people. How might she have understood her own blessedness?
The summary phrase of the blessing is “The Lord give you peace.” Of course, Mary would have heard the word “shalom” for peace, a word almost exactly replicated by our Muslim brothers and sisters with their word “salaam.” “Shalom” expresses the depth of the concept of peace. The Hebrew shalom means more than peace; it means peace, justice and integrity in relationships. It implies safety and growth in wholeness as if the entire universe was woven together and functioning as God intended. The blessing of shalom prays that humanity and the entire universe may live the communion God created us to enjoy.
Today we celebrate the “Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.” That title would have surely overwhelmed the simple woman of Nazareth. But she didn’t have to concern herself with theology, dogma, titles and solemnities. Instead, she had a new baby, a confused but faithful husband and unexpected visitors coming to witness the scene where her family was trying to make do in spite of the inhospitable circumstances in which they found themselves.
What do we know of this young woman? First, we learned that God looked upon her kindly, or in Luke’s words, she had found favor with God. Then, we witnessed her humble self-description: “Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.” In spite of the inconceivable dimensions of what she had been told, Mary’s response exhibited shalom. She trusted, gave birth to her child and simply cared for him.
When the shepherds appeared on the scene they knew far more than Mary could have expected. Delighted to discover her son in the manger, they started spreading the word as if they understood exactly what was going on. Like many of us, those shepherds were quick to make proclamations about what they thought God was up to in their midst. Like Jesus’ own disciples, these first witnesses may well have had the right vocabulary, but it’s highly unlikely that they fully comprehended what they had encountered. The shepherds talked, others were “amazed,” and we don’t hear a single word from Mary.
Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Her name would be remembered in the scriptures of Christianity and Islam. Generations to come would call her blessed, and the Fathers of the Church would defend her title as “Mother of God.” But, from the day of Jesus’ birth until his death, the little we hear from her amounts to no more than one question, a subtle request on behalf of others and a reflection of her own discipleship: “Son, why have you done this to us?” “They have no wine,” and “Do whatever he tells you.”
When Luke tells us that Mary kept things in her heart, the word he uses indicates a long process of mulling, a life of discernment, trying to put together disparate pieces of a mystery. While the process didn’t lead to quick conclusions, it doesn’t mean she gave up on it. Luke’s statement about her ongoing reflection is one of the reasons some conclude that Mary herself gave Luke the Nativity story.
Whether or not the narrative originated with Mary, Luke portrays her as the contemplative in action. Mary had more to ponder than anyone else in this story. She had to question her experience and her response. She had to make sense of all that she had encountered while balancing it with the traditions of her people. She must have accepted living with more questions than answers and far more hope than certainties. In addition to all of that, she had to change the diapers and fix dinner.
Mary, Mother of the God who came in the flesh of a needy infant, learned to remain open to God’s shalom, to allow her faith to exceed her uncertainties and her hope to give her resolve beyond her power to imagine. She sought to do God’s will as she baked their daily bread. We look to the Mother of God to teach us how to live simply as contemplatives in action.
Dear Parishioners & Friends,
Christmas day has finally dawned. There’s been so much anticipation, so much hype, that it’s hard for one day to bear the weight of all the expectations. That’s pretty obvious as we look at gifts scattered around the living room and wrap-ping paper on its way out. Great expectations have a lot to do with this feast, but they are great expectations that go through significant revisions along the way.
We know that the expectation of a Messiah had a long, long history. The downtrodden people of God yearned for the savior God would send them. Their hopes were chronicled in their history and the writings of the prophets. Like our-selves, they turned to God’s word for hope and, like us, they brought their own images to their reading of the Scriptures. They read God’s word in the light of their own mindset and created their own images of the savior God would send. They who had been bowed down would be raised up and all the world would see that they were God’s own people.
Today’s readings tell us the story of God’s greatest response to human hopes. God sent a savior who was neither king nor warrior. One of the clearest signs that a message or happening is from God is that something extraordinarily good is happening and it’s not at all how we anticipated it would be. No matter how much we learn from the Scriptures, God surprises us by working from another script.
Because the shepherds loom so large in Luke’s story, it’s worth looking to them for a perspective on the Nativity. Shepherds were among the least esteemed people of their day. Their profession demanded little more than someone who could stay awake most of the time, stop strays, and effectively aim a slingshot at dangerous creatures. Tied to a career that offered no Sabbath breaks, they couldn’t observe the letter of the law and would hardly have been among those who could have read it. By reputation they were not overly committed to honesty and would have always appeared on the scene with a liberal dose of the fragrance of their flocks. All in all, they were about as different from the religious elites as anyone could be.
We can assume that the shepherds had no sophisticated presuppositions clouding their perspective. When it came to waiting for a savior they lacked a theological checklist by which to judge any contender. We are told that angels appeared to them, but the angels only whetted the shepherds’ curiosity. Not that a sky full of angels would have been their daily fare, but that’s not what convinced them. Following the angel’s instructions, they went to Bethlehem to see for themselves.
They went looking for “a savior,” the “Messiah and Lord.” In Bethlehem they stooped down to gaze upon a newborn wrapped up like every other infant, with the singular distinction that this one was lying in a manger – just like the angel said he would be.
Our shepherds were the absolute opposite of cynics. Having heard that God was coming to them as a child born in the poorest circumstances imaginable, they thought that it was worth seeing for themselves. We don’t know exactly what they believed. They never could have answered the questions necessary to receive confirmation, but they shamelessly told others what they had seen and heard. Uneducated and inarticulate as they must have been, they were the first evangelists.
The Gospel of Christmas invites us to reexamine our expectations. Where do we seek God? For thousands of years God has been in the habit of appearing among us in the most unobtrusive ways. Supernovas and skies full of music only to point us toward something much simpler, something we must be meek enough to learn about from the humble. We will have to stoop very low to perceive it.
“Mary: The Most Powerful Woman in the World” was the stunning headline in a recent publication. To the surprise of many, these were not the words of a Catholic newspaper, or a religious publication. Instead, this headline announced the lead article featured in the December, 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine!
The article is written by journalist, Maureen Orth, who spent three years traveling throughout the world trying to understand more fully why Mary, the mother of Jesus, is so crucially important to millions of people. Here are a few of Maureen’s words:
Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. Hail Mary passes save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as Fatima, in Portugal, and Knock, in Ireland, sustaining religious tourism estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and providing thousands of jobs. She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture (Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” Notre Dame Cathedral), as well as the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten.
What was it about this young girl that attracted and enticed, not only Joseph in today’s Gospel story, but even God?
I’d like to suggest two possible answers, with the reservation that there are surely a number of others.
First, she wasn’t a preacher. She wasn’t an evangelist. She wasn’t an activist. Instead, Mary was a listener who embraced simplicity. She was one who paid attention, who reflected, who meditated. All those Advent qualities...
Present. Open. Available. Receptive. Quiet. That’s the kind of person Mary was. Perhaps it was that collection of gifts that most enticed God, and Joseph, and so many people down through the centuries.
But perhaps there is another appeal of Mary – her life experiences are being repeated continuously by millions of people even today. Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem for a census that is now being mirrored by countless numbers of people displaced from their ancestral homes. The family’s flight into Egypt to avoid the death threats of a tyrannical king, just as today millions of refugees are doing the same. Mary’s loss of her child by an unjust state execution paralleled today in the disappearance and murder of beloved children under dictatorial regimes – the Herods of today.
Women, in particular, may possibly find in Mary a sister for marginalized women in oppressive situations throughout the world – women who are without food or clean drinking water, without housing, without education or healthcare or employment, without security from rape, without human rights.
To all of them, Mary offers words of hope to the neediest – such as these words from her great prayer, the Magnificat: “... O my God ... You have shown strength with your arm ... You have put down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
When asked what Mary meant to him, Pope Francis answered with one word, “She is my mama.”
May our “mama,” the one who is “blessed ... among women,” assist each of us in birthing anew the Child that falls from heaven into our arms ... our hearts ... our souls.