I remember coming out of Mass during the Christmas season once when I was a child and asking a question about something that puzzled me. Things seemed out of order. It seemed odd as to why the baby Jesus was born one week, then the next He was an adult being baptized, and then He was an infant again the following week when we celebrated Epiphany. It made no sense to me. I am not sure what answer I got then, but the question bears revisiting.
In our liturgical calendar we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the next day we celebrate the first martyr of the Church, St. Stephen, followed closely by the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Two Sundays after Christmas* is the Baptism of the Lord and then we finally end the Christmas season with the Epiphany. These feasts depict what we learn in the gospels. I know now that the gospels are not history books, though they contain historical facts. The gospels were written to particular audiences of converts who would need to understand specific aspects of who Jesus was and why He came. They are faith books and the truths the gospels contain are to be joined together to get a whole. It is also important to remember the same is true of the liturgical calendar. It is about religious truths, and we are celebrating aspects of the truth of who Jesus is.
After the waiting of Advent we celebrated the Nativity of the Lord, the wondrous events that took place all those years ago at His birth. With the beginning of the Christmas season we are celebrating who He is and why He entered into human history. He came to establish the Kingdom of God and to die. His life would stir up controversy. While He would gain followers and disciples, He would have many enemies, as evil does not want good to win out. His death was to save us all from the power of sin and death by His glorious resurrection, opening the gates of Heaven for us. The attacks of enemies would lead to His final victory in overcoming the very evil which sought to win out. His death is His greatest victory.
Therefore, that we would celebrate the feasts of the first martyr and then the Holy Innocents right after His birth should not surprise us. When the magi came, which we celebrate at the Epiphany, they brought gifts which were representative of Jesus' role as priest, prophet, and king. The gift of gold is a kingly gift, reminding us that Jesus is the King of Heaven and Earth. The gift of frankincense reminds us that Jesus is priestly. In fact, He is the High Priest, who is both the one who makes the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. The gift of myrrh shows us that He is prophet, not only because He is the Word of God, but because He will die an important death for us. The gift shows that He fulfills all the prophecies made about the Redeemer.
In Matthew's Gospel the visit of the magi is cloaked in danger from the get-go. They are stopped by Herod as they arrive in the area and Herod appears to be interested in the child, as if he, too, would worship, when in truth he wants to kill the baby. Jesus is a newborn when the first attempt at his life is desired. Before the magi leave the child whom they come to adore, an angel warns them to go home another way and not to tell Herod where the child is. They obey, to the consternation of Herod. In his madness (it is madness to see a threat in an innocent child and to want to kill him!) Herod decides all the male children under two have to die in Bethlehem. Again an angel intercedes and Jesus and His family escape. But all the male children in the area are killed by Herod in his attempt to get rid of this newborn king whom he perceives as a threat to his throne. It is a terrible scene. Jesus has not said or done a thing yet, after all He is a baby, and already He is perceived as a threat.
In our liturgy the Church seems to be alerting us to the fact that being a follower of Jesus means we are a threat to evil as well. We need to be aware of what it means to truly be a follower. There are many who would try to thwart our efforts at being a Christian believer. There are temptations, seductions, lies, and cultural "norms" that go against what Jesus teaches us. From the beginning of our lives to the end, the evil one tries to get us to stop being effective followers and believers. I do not have to quote current events for us to see the obvious evils in our world today. Everything from the holy innocents in Connecticut to the recent findings that the fastest growing "religion" in the US is the "nones" (those who claim to have no religious affiliation) is distressing evidence of the forces that are trying to work against belief in Christ and keeping the faith. Culture subtly (and not so subtly) tells us that certain behaviors and activities are really okay, when our faith teaches us that they are not at all acceptable and are sinful. The culture tells us that there is no sin, and that everything is relative. Our culture tells us that it is each person for him or herself, and so “you better get out of my way.” All of these things are evils which are meant to keep us from being followers like Mary and Joseph who gave their lives to serving their Lord, or the magi who came to believe and listen.
In celebrating St. Stephen and the Feast of the Holy Innocents right after Christmas we remember all holy innocents and all those who suffered, or currently suffer, because of the faith. We remember all martyrs and all those who fight evil simply by trying to do right, by caring for others before themselves, by being compassionate, generous, and kind. We remember that even with all the evils and injustices in our world, the Lord is Emmanuel, God with us, and He ultimately conquers all sin and death. Even if we suffer in this world, (as He did), we have the ultimate victory in Heaven because of His life, death, and resurrection.
That the feast of Jesus’ Baptism comes after these should not surprise us either, because this feast tells something about what Jesus came to do. He offered us baptism: freedom from the power of original sin, connection to the Body of Christ, and salvation. But also baptism is our connection with our faith; that is, what our responsibilities are because we have accepted discipleship. Jesus' baptism was the beginning of His ministry which ended with His death and resurrection. In our baptism we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ.
The season of Christmas ends with the Epiphany. The word epiphany means to have a new insight or understanding; it also means the appearance of a deity. In Jesus we have both. The Lord of Heaven comes to earth, but we also have new insights about the meaning of our lives in Him. So we celebrate His birth, in which we are called to new birth also. We celebrate the sufferings of those gone before us, to remind us that we, too, will suffer, but never alone. And we celebrate that this suffering has meaning, because it can be redemptive for others if we offer it as prayer, and it is our road to sanctity. We celebrate the innocents knowing that God has the final victory over injustice: their deaths are not in vain and they are in Heaven praying for us. And finally we celebrate the Epiphany hoping to give Him gifts such as the wise men left, such as our desire to love, serve, and worship. We celebrate the mission of Christ which is also our mission: we reflect upon what we are being called to do in our own worlds to build the Kingdom He initiated. It makes sense then that our liturgical calendar has us celebrating the feasts in the order we do, and not chronologically, lest we miss the lessons contained.
May we be open to the newborn king, bringing our own gifts of love, service and sacrifice! May we be given the strength to bear the sufferings of our lives, to know with our faith that we are never alone, and to listen to the Lord who helps us to stand against injustice and hatred! May we have the courage to live our baptism always trusting in the graces we have been given! And may we have new realizations of the great love given to us by the Lord of the entire Universe coming into our world, weak and vulnerable, in order to lead us all to Heaven with Him forever! Let us continue to meet at the manger, with the magi, and the Holy Family. Peace!
*I omitted reference to the Feast of the Holy Family intentionally. If I had included it, the blog would have gotten too long!
The top image came from an album cover and is by an artist named Daniel Read: http://www.amazon.com/Carols-Old-Worlds-Daniel-Read/dp/B0000007DK/ref=sr_1_10?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1356884775&sr=1-10
The image halfway through the blog is called Retablito de la Sagrada Familia painted by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=283
As we get closer to the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord it is important to reflect on those to whom He is coming. Of course, we know Jesus has already come and that we are preparing for Him to come anew in our minds and hearts. We know the reality is that we are preparing for Him to come again, (the Second Coming). But it goes without saying that our world needs the Son of God to come just as much as the world into which He was actually born all those years ago in Bethlehem. The world into which Jesus was born was equally scary and wild as the world in which we live. It was dangerous and dark amidst all that was created to be beautiful.
Consider the parents of Jesus having to go to Bethlehem at the “last minute” of Mary's pregnancy. They had no choice. The law dictated that they go, and Roman law was fierce, their “justice” was swift. This little “family-to-be” had to get to Bethlehem as fast as they could. It was a very rough journey, especially for a young woman who was nine months pregnant. Consider further that when they got there, registering as the law dictated, there was nowhere they could stay. There was probably one inn, and it was full, no doubt with other travelers who got there first. Somehow they found a cave of some sort which served as a stable for farm animals. God provided for them in the midst of the uncertainty of the moment and the danger of the place. It was in this humble place that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, true God and true man, made His entry into our world.
The Gospels tell us that there were two groups of people who showed up almost immediately. One group was an entourage of magi and probably their servants. We do not know how many there were, though somehow the legend popped up that there were three magi and even gave them names! This is probably because of the three gifts they left for the newborn king. But these men, Persian astrologers and their company of travelers, were probably many. Three men traveling alone would not have survived such a trip, given highway robbers, the elements, and the Romans. They came because they believed in omens in the stars. They followed the star which we refer to as the Star of Bethlehem because to them it was such an omen. These men were not believers in the same God as the Jews, since they were Zoroastrians.
But when they got to the child, they believed. How could they be in the presence of God in this tiny child and not know it? There is no way we can be in the presence of holiness and not feel it. If you have ever been around someone who is of great faith or who is extraordinarily holy, you do feel it even if it is hard to describe. So imagine being in the physical presence of Jesus at His birth! The wise men had to be filled with the same joy that caused Elizabeth to recognize the mother of her Lord and for the baby to leap in her womb by merely being in their presence. We know the magi trusted God because they trusted the angel that came to them that night and told them to go back by another route. This was a dangerous world that Jesus was born into. Someone already was seeking to end His life!
Another group that showed up almost immediately was the shepherds who were a mostly poor, outcast group. They were considered outcasts because (the Scriptures tell us) they lived in the fields with their flocks. They could not go to the Temple when they were supposed to, the way other Jews could, because they could not leave their sheep. The well-being of their flocks depended on them being there, so they were looked down upon for failing to “keep the law.” While in the fields, they heard the message of an angel telling them that the Son of God had just been born. The message is given to them first, not because they were closest in proximity to the baby and so it was convenient to get a crowd there to witness it. It was given to them because they were the humble and they were, in fact, faithful people. They believed what they heard and saw of the Heavenly Host.
The lowly shepherds and the lofty magi saw the child and believed. The unsophisticated and the sophisticated saw the child and believed. And with both groups somehow angels were involved. Angels alerted both the magi and the shepherds, though the content of their alert was different. But to both groups they gave a message of safety, protection, and peace. Every time angels appeared in the birth narratives, be it to Joseph, Mary, Zechariah, shepherds or whoever, their message is: "Do not be afraid" or "Be at peace!" The presence of the angels is the most important insight in the entire narrative, save for the Messiah and Lord Himself! There are holy and important people, such as Mary and Joseph, whose holiness is beyond compare. But it is the action of God that makes all this possible, and the angels are messengers of God. They make sure all the people involved are aware that they are not alone. God was indeed with them in every way, and now, in the flesh.
The angels show us that no matter what happens around us that God is aware of it. God is not distant or absent no matter what people choose to do in this world. God is no happier about the evil that has taken place in the world throughout history than we are. To say unexplained that He allows it, (while it is true), almost makes it sound like God has a smug, ho-hum attitude about it, while knowing He will prevail in the end. That is not at all what God is like. The reality of our world is too much for any of us to understand even if God did try to explain it to us. It is far too complex and tangled. The angels show us that God is not only aware, but He is trying to make His presence known. He gives us protectors and guides. This does not mean to say that no one will ever get hurt or suffer. None of us are immune to that: even Jesus had to suffer and die. But the angels tell us we are not alone now and that we do not go through anything alone. Even in our suffering they are with us to guide and to comfort. For some they are guiding them to safety, for others they are guiding them to Heaven where they are safest of all. Just because they are most often unseen does not mean angels are not here.
What do we learn from all of this? First we learn that God has a plan and that no amount of evil can thwart it. Jesus came into the world and fulfilled His mission despite the efforts of Herod near the time of His birth. Next we learn that Jesus, the Savior of the world and King of Heaven, came for all of us: rich and poor, sophisticated and unsophisticated, educated and uneducated, Jew and Gentile, men and women, etc. He is savior for all who accept Him. God never forces us to accept Him, but He longs for all of us to do so! None of us are too good for Him or too far gone in sin for Him. He longs for all of us to be with Him.
We learn that God sends us angels to protect and guide us. Even though God is mostly unseen and the angels are mostly unseen, they are there. The angels deliver God's messages to us, they protect us, they pick us up when we fall, they rejoice with us, and they always try to guide us to God. Ultimately their message is the same as the message we will continually hear from Jesus: “Do not be afraid! Be at peace!” Jesus is the message of God. He is the Word of God! And His message is for us to be at peace. With Jesus at our side how could we ever be afraid?
Let us accept the message of peace which the angels sing. Let us accept Jesus, the Word, as He is born anew into our world which sorely needs Him. Let us welcome Him into our hearts in a new way. May we be as open to His coming as the magi! May we be as trusting in the message as the shepherds! And may we sing "Glory to God in the Highest" with all the angels this Christmas! Let us meet at the crib along with Mary and Joseph, worshiping the newborn King! Peace be with you!
The top picture came from the Houston Museum of Natural Science Website
The icon found halfway through the entry is by Rev. William Hart McNichols called The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It can be found at
It seems very fitting that there are two major feasts of the Virgin Mary in the season of Advent. On December 8th we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates that Mary was conceived pure and sinless in her own mother's womb. Today we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe which commemorates Mary's appearance and message given to St. Juan Diego. It is fitting because during Advent we think about Mary's role in bringing the Savior into the world. Her assent to God not only changed history, but helped God to fulfill the promises He had made so long ago. God never breaks a promise, and so when Mary said "yes" she, too, kept that promise for the rest of her life and into eternity. She not only obeyed God by saying yes to serving Him, but she imitated Him by being committed to that promise.
Mary's "yes" to God was not a "once and done" agreement, it was a "once for all" assent. She had to know that when the angel came to her and explained what God was both offering and asking, nothing in her life would ever be the same. Her “yes” is almost shocking to us because it meant that she would forever be serving the Lord in a miraculous way. She is indeed still serving by interceding for us individually and for our world, as we have seen in her appearances throughout history. She became the Mother of us all when she said “yes” to being the Mother of the Lord, Jesus.
Imagine being around 13 years of age with your entire life ahead, hopes and dreams in your mind and heart, and an angel shows up with a huge change of plans. For most of us that would be a really difficult decision because we would realize rather quickly that our life could be taking a rather drastic turn into a world of danger and ridicule. Mary was not like that at all, however. Being completely filled with grace, she was a woman totally attuned to God. Her hopes and dreams had to be of serving God in some way. She did not know previously that she was to be the mother of the Lord or she would not have asked the angel how this was possible. But she had to be prepared to serve Him because she said yes so readily. Luke's Gospel tells us that she was a woman of reflection, that she pondered things in her heart, wondering what they meant. That is a stance of prayer and openness to God. Only one fully turned toward God and used to His presence could say yes to something so incredibly improbable and seemingly impossible to pull off. But she already knew in her heart that if God said it, it would be accomplished. She knew nothing is impossible for God. And she knew God never breaks a promise.
The reality of her situation when the angel Gabriel approached her was that she was legally bound to Joseph because they were betrothed. Unlike our culture in which the engagement is not legally binding, in the Jewish culture of that time if one was betrothed one was already legally bound. This is why Joseph would have had to divorce her if he had wanted to. She knew that it would appear to him as if she had not only betrayed him, but that she had broken their legally binding agreement. In addition, Mary had to know that not only could she face death as an unwed, pregnant woman, but that when this child was born there would be many challenges. What was her role to be? How does one raise God's Son as one's own? How does one live in a world expecting a Messiah, knowing He was your son, and keep this quiet? Or was it her job to make Him known? And so on.
Mary was so radically attuned to God, however, that there was no doubt in her mind that God would accomplish His desires in the task He gave to her. She turned her questions over to God and let Him lead, just as a dancer lets her partner lead. When the angel came to her, the Gospel says she was startled by his greeting: "Hail, favored one." This tells us that she was very humble; she had no idea she was so pure and sinless. She pondered the meaning of these words the minute he spoke them. The angel explained her role and then she asked how this was to be since she had never been with a man. This was not a faithless, unbelieving question. Rather, it was an inquiry as to how she could better understand what she needed to do so she could cooperate with God's plan. Once she heard that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and that she would bear God's own Son, she said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38) Mary did not know what was to come any more than we know what is to come tomorrow in our own lives, but Mary placed her entire life, and that of the world, in God's hands. It would be so for all eternity.
Mary became the first tabernacle and the first disciple of her Son. She had Jesus within her womb for nine months; I can hardly imagine the intimacy of that. It is intimate for any mother to have a child within her womb, but imagine if your child was the Son of God! It should be no wonder, then, that she was His first disciple. Her first response to the angel's message, which included the announcement that Mary's older cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant after years of barrenness, was to leave immediately to enter into service. Mary made haste, the Scripture tells us, to go into the hill country to serve her cousin until the birth of Elizabeth's child.
What do we learn from all of this? There is so much, but I will highlight a few things. First, both women teach us to be trusting in God, who never breaks a promise. God promised Mary and Elizabeth that they would have miraculous births, and they both trusted implicitly. We need to ask for the grace of trusting God this radically, too. Things did not look bright for Mary to have this child, and yet, she trusted and God protected her (and her husband Joseph as well.) We also learn that service with humility is an important characteristic of a disciple. We do not serve to be noticed and we do not serve for reward. We serve because we love. We serve because we love God and the ones whom we are serving who are children of God. We serve out of gratitude for what we have; we share what we have with others because we acknowledge that we have abundance. We share out of compassion because we know that those in need are suffering in some way. We serve because it is the way of the disciple of Christ.
We also learn that prayer and reflection are of the greatest importance. God wants an intimacy with us. He wants to be borne within us, (pun definitely intended). He wants us to make room in our hearts for Him because He wants to love us. You see, Mary and Elizabeth let God love them. That is what being overshadowed with the Holy Spirit is all about. Mary was filled with Love, who is God, to the fullest extent possible, such that she became pregnant with Love. Elizabeth became pregnant in the natural way, but it was a miracle for one so advanced in age. Her heart was open and so she was filled with the Spirit in her heart and soul, such that she could recognize the presence of God no matter what. God wants us to have that same stance, not because He wants something of us necessarily, but because He wants to give us something of Himself! He is giving, not taking. And being filled with God, we cannot help but respond because love begets more love. It overflows.
This Advent let us ask to be like Mary and Elizabeth who were able to serve God in all the ways they were asked to do so. May we be like Mary who offered her love and service without reserve, trusting that God would provide all we need to get it done! May we allow God to take up residency in our hearts, so we might bear Him within ourselves in a new way! May we say yes to His offer of love and intimacy with Him so that we may know Him more deeply! This Advent may we prepare to give ourselves as gift to God who gives us everything we can imagine (and that which is beyond imagining) in the gift of salvation, which is born anew at Christmas, Jesus Christ the Lord! Let us continue to meet in the quiet stillness of Advent, in the depths of the heart of the Lord. Advent peace and blessings!!
The icons accompanying this post were all written by Rev. William Hart McNichols. The top icon is called Mary of the Magnificat and you can find it at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=269
The icon in the middle of the page is called
Mother of the Incarnate Word and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=125
The icon at the bottom (to the left) is called Mother of God Waiting in Adoration and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=398
These icons and all of Fr. Bill's icons can be found at his website: http://www.standreirublevicons.com. You can purchase cards, plaques, and giclee prints of any of his works if you would like. Contact information is on his website. Remember, I do not receive any financial gain from promoting the icons of Fr. Bill. He is a dear friend and a gifted artist/iconographer. I simply love his work and love sharing it.
There are so many saints who have feast days during Advent that it is almost difficult to keep up with them all, but today I would like to highlight two of them. One is the saint whose feast day is today, St. Nicholas, (seen on the left), and the other is St. Sabas, who is little known by many, and yet has become one of my favorites because of his unusual story. In Advent we most often focus on Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist and preparing the way, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and kings, etc. While all these are wonderful “teachers,” important to meditate upon, I would like to offer a different pair, St. Nicholas of Myra and St. Sabas. I think these saints are appropriate because they have a lot of insights to offer us about the true meaning of this season of preparation.
St. Nicholas, who our modern Santa Claus is modeled after, was actually bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey) and died in 352 AD. He was known for his kindness and generosity, and now he is co-patron of Russia, along with St. Andrew. His story revolves around a situation which he remedied with anonymous (at the time) acts of charity. There was a man he knew of who had a number of daughters who could not marry because they lacked the funds for a dowry. In fact, the family was so poor that the daughters were about to engage in prostitution in order to pay the bills. In the dark of night, Bishop Nicholas went to their house and left a sack of gold coins in the father's room which he dropped in through an open window, (so much for the chimney!) so that they could afford what was needed and could avoid sin. Some stories say he did this more than once, possibly three times, and no one knew he was the giver, at least not right away. St. Nicholas was also known for performing a number of miracles during his lifetime.
St. Nicholas teaches us about being generous, but also teaches us that acts of charity are even greater when we do them out of love and not for any thanks. It was not simply because of humility that he did not want it known that he was the giver, but also because he did not want to embarrass the man to whom he gave. When we give, especially large amounts such as those given by St. Nicholas, it is easy to set up a bit of a hierarchy. The receiver might feel he owes something, or that he is "beholden" to the one who gives. The recipient might feel embarrassed that he or she is in the position of neediness. Therefore what St. Nicholas did was helpful, but let the family retain their dignity. He also kept them from sinning in their desperation. He knew these were good people who would not otherwise have wanted to sin in such a humiliating way. (Note: I recommend reading the book or seeing the film Les Miserables to experience this lesson on an epic scale. A simple act of generosity by a bishop, directed to a man who was driven to steal, changed the man’s life. I have heard that Victor Hugo had the acts of St. Nicholas in mind when he fashioned the bishop in his book.)
The feast of St. Sabas is on December 5th. Like St. Nicholas, he was also from what is now Turkey. St. Sabas was born in approximately 439 and died in 532, therefore these two men were contemporaries, though there is no evidence they knew of each other. St. Sabas is one of the earliest of the desert monastics, and so his life is very different than the one lived by St. Nicholas. But the generosity of heart with which he lived was very similar indeed.
St. Sabas had an unhappy home life as a child and so he ran away, taking refuge in a monastery. He had always been drawn to a life of solitude, and so at the age of 18 he left the monastery and headed for Jerusalem to learn more about his faith as well as to become the disciple of a famous hermit. Sabas lived in a monastery there and began to desire even more solitude, having developed the habit of spending all night in prayer after working all day. Eventually he was given permission to live in a cave for prayer five days a week. After the death of his mentor, he left Jerusalem to live alone in a cave in the desert, but there were followers who apparently wanted to join him in his lifestyle.
The more he sought solitude, the harder it became for him to find it: after the followers came, a bishop came to him encouraging Sabas to become a priest to better serve his growing monastery. So while he was a reluctant abbot of a large community, he would leave every Lent for the total solitude he so desired. But when he would return he would find disarray, and so he would help the monks with supplies and whatever their needs were. He would also give generously to the monks in other monasteries. He began to travel throughout Palestine to spread the Gospel even though he preferred solitude. He did this because he knew it was needed and because he knew this is what the Lord called him to do.
For me, St. Sabas is the patron saint of those who have uninvited guests who “settle in.” He teaches a graciousness that is challenging when we have an expectation for how we want to spend our time, but someone "crashes the party." While he sought solitude his entire life, he never seemed to have it for very long. Incredibly he never got surly, he never closed the door of welcome, and he was never anything but selfless in his service to those around him. He gave up his preferences in order to be welcoming and to be obedient to the Lord. His generosity was without end when it came to the gift of hospitality as well as with his material goods.
St. Nicholas and St. Sabas were men who shared what they had in a heroic way: they were very concerned with the well-being of others to such a degree that they were able to put their own desires aside in order to share what they could with those in need. They chose to do this because they wanted to imitate the Lord Jesus, whom they served with great love. They are both men who speak to us of the giving that really matters during this season of Advent and the upcoming feast of Christmas. Giving should be from the heart and does not have to be extravagant. It should include giving to the poor anonymously if possible, such as giving to a food bank or to one’s church for distribution to the poor. It should include acts of generosity to someone we see who is in need. Giving our time is much more valuable than anything material since everything else can be bought or replaced. Time is gone once it is used: it cannot be replaced, but it is to be shared. Therefore, time is the most precious gift of all.
May we be moved to generosity this Advent: May we share the gift of our time with those whom we love, and also with someone who may be ill, alone, or lonely. May we also be moved to generosity with our material goods, sharing with those who may be struggling or without what they need. May we be moved to charity, loving all those with whom we come in contact by being kind, friendly, and patient. May we be hospitable and welcoming not only to those who come into our homes, or who alter our expectations for how our time will be spent, but with those whom we meet when we are out and about during this hectic time. Let us pray for the graces of hospitality and generosity so that Christ may find a welcome in our own hearts. Let us continue to meet in the heart of Our Lord who always welcomes us with open arms. Peace and Advent Blessings!
As we pray through the beginning of Advent there are all sorts of announcements in Scripture that can be the focus of our reflection. In the Gospel of Luke there is the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary. In the Gospel of Matthew the focus is on Joseph hearing from the same angel. In all four gospels we get the announcement of the coming of the Messiah from St. John the Baptist. All of them are announcing the Good News that the Messiah is coming soon. Each of these announcements varies in the mode in which it comes: it is loud and clear from John, who is a wild sort of man. The announcement to Joseph comes in a dream. The announcement to Mary comes with an amazing salutation and a gentle overshadowing.
God is continually announcing things to us, and I would dare say that He does it in all of the modes mentioned: sometimes He tries to make it loud and clear and other times it comes with subtlety. Nonetheless, this is the time of year when we should be very open to these messages. In reflecting on the first week of Advent, the Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, are obvious. They were telling the people who lived in their time to be ready. The Promised One of God, the Messiah, would indeed come. God never breaks a promise and so the prophets were assuring the faithful people that there would be a messiah coming soon. No one, not even the prophets, knew when "soon" was. They simply knew God would deliver on His promise.
St. John the Baptist was the last of the prophets to point to the coming Messiah, but in his case, he could say the time was upon them. In other words, the Messiah had arrived and would be revealed soon. John is often referred to as the Forerunner of Christ because he spent his life pointing to the Messiah. We can learn a lot from John. Not only did he spend his ministry announcing the Messiah, but He lived his entire life for God alone. He never married and seems to have lived much of his life in the desert. John lived in a society that believed that everyone had to marry and have children. Children were seen as a blessing from God, but were also one's legacy. You passed your material goods to them and you also passed something of yourself on to them in a spiritual manner. Therefore in that culture, not to have children was the worst thing that could happen to a person. To choose not to have them was insanity!
We know nothing of John’s life except that he was born of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. We know that he had some awareness of his calling early on, since his mother was made aware by the power of the Holy Spirit, and an angel delivered the message to an incredulous Zechariah, that their son was to be the Forerunner. He must have left their home when he was considered an adult to go to the desert to pray, discerning both his call as Forerunner and the message to be given at the appropriate time. He was indeed a man of prayer and reflection. He had to be. One does not embrace as radical a lifestyle as dressing in camel hair, eating wild locusts and honey, and living in the desert without a lot of prayer. It seems to me that he spent those hidden years getting to know God in order to know the message he was to deliver. The point is that John lived his entire life oriented toward God and this is something we are called to as disciples, no matter what lifestyle we live.
John the Baptist not only delivered the message, but he did it with flair. He was not only to tell people to be ready, but that specifically they were to be baptized with water to cleanse them of sin. John announced a baptism of repentance, but was clear that the One to come would baptize with a more powerful baptism, with the Holy Spirit and fire. John was self-aware and humble. When the crowds came, he could have kept the "spotlight," but instead made it clear that he was not the Messiah; he was not worthy of untying His sandal straps. And true to form, when Jesus did show up John said, "He must increase and I must decrease." That is, he knew his job was done and that the Time of Promise had come. The Messiah was here.
How do we let John the Baptist and his message have relevance during our first week of Advent? I think one thing we can reflect on is where we find spiritual preparation most meaningful. For me, it was in something I realized during Mass this past weekend. I recognized that we are experiencing a "little Advent" every week. When the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins, so also does the process of waiting for the Lord to become really present in the bread and wine. From the moment when the deacon begins to prepare the altar for the priest to pray over the bread and wine, we begin the process of waiting for the Lord to appear visibly before us. The priest then begins to pray over them, beginning with the blessing prayers and then the most important prayer of the consecration called the epiclesis. In the epiclesis, the priest invokes the Father to send the Holy Spirit down upon the elements of bread and wine that they may become the body and blood of the Son, Jesus Christ. Then he prays the words of institution; that is, he reminds us of what happened on the night Jesus died. Remember it is not a re-enactment: it is real. Jesus is then present with us, body and blood, soul and divinity, as the priest continues the prayer. He is indeed Immanuel: God-with-us!
As in Advent, we have to wait! We know Jesus is present in His Body and Blood and yet we do not immediately receive Him! I think this is brilliant and most fitting. From the time He is really present on the altar, to the time we finally get to receive him at Communion we have time to reflect upon His presence and to speak with Him! We have time to welcome Him and to reflect upon His life and death. We have time to ask for forgiveness and to prepare ourselves for receiving Him. This sounds an awful lot like the point of Advent and the message of St. John the Baptist: Prepare, for He comes! He will make straight what is crooked, level what is too high, and build up what is lowly. He will smooth the rough places within us. He will enter our lives in a new way. He will offer us repentance and the graces that come with that, and He will give us new life. He will be born anew within us.
Every week at Mass we have this mini-Advent. Maybe it can be the focus of your reflection as you go to Mass each day or each Sunday of Advent. Let the time of waiting for Him to be present in the Eucharist be pregnant with possibility and messages from Him. Maybe what was heard in the Scriptures and homily just moments earlier can be reflected upon. Maybe it is something else, but whatever it is, take the gift of that time of preparation and let your heart be made ready for His coming. Then when He is present after the consecration, continue to make yourself ready for His coming into your heart and soul when you receive Him at Communion. And maybe going to the sacrament of Reconciliation sometime during Advent is a good idea, too. We can take John's word that mercy and forgiveness is offered, but also that God wants to offer us grace through the Holy Spirit and the fire of His love.
Let us pray that the message of St. John the Baptist comes alive in our hearts this Advent. Let us pray for openness to the preparation we need to make a place for the Lord to be born within us at Christmas. May we reflect upon His coming each Sunday that we can enter more fully into the mysteries celebrated at Mass! May we be like John, giving the message to others that He is coming anew through our deeds and even our words! And may we be open to letting God smooth the roughness within us, and to letting Him heal what needs healing! May we receive the graces of this first week of Advent! Let us meet in the heart of the Child of Promise, Jesus our Lord. Peace!
The icon on the top is St. John the Forerunner (The Baptist) written by Rev. William Hart McNichols. http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=169
The icon to the left is The Mother of God Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit which was written by Rev. William Hart McNichols, also. It is one of my all time favorites of his work. This one is at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=192
If you are interested in purchasing a giclee print, plaque, or card of either of these you can do so at the links above, or you can see the entire website at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/
A week ago I was at the Gulf shore and I attempted to take a series of setting sun photos. I do it at least once with every trip to a shoreline always hoping to get that "just right" photo. The photo to the left was taken for fun and actually has become one of my favorites. It is totally untouched. The only thing I used was a UV filter. But the illusion that is there was created by the window through which I shot it. It was double-paned, and so the reflection was caught by the window, and subsequently my camera.
A friend who saw the photo remarked that it reminded him of the four weeks of Advent. The rest clicked for me: the coming of the Son! Those who know me know I love a good pun, so why not a visual one? But more than just something that might elicit a groan, or even the thought that it is somewhat corny, I think the Advent meditation that has since come from this "fun photo" is worth sharing.
In our liturgical celebrations Advent comes in softly, and with each week the intensity heightens until the Son indeed comes. I want to make an important distinction, however. In the commercial, consumerist world, the weeks before Christmas do not come in softly at all. They come in with a flash and a roar, usually well before December. In fact, the secular world does not acknowledge Advent at all. What I am reflecting on here is not the commercial holiday shtick we get on TV and in our "rush, rush" shopping days until Christmas. This is about the true, and incredibly rich, season of Advent. It is about the season of quiet expectation, a season that is pregnant with possibilities for our spiritual growth as we prepare ourselves for a deepening in our relationship with the Son of God and for our return to Him at the end of our days.
In Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, which generally means the Second Coming of Christ. There was a time when Advent was considered a penitential season and so fasting was in order. The idea was that it was a way to participate in the longing for His coming that the people of the time before Christ experienced and also to heighten the longing for His Second Coming. Today we do not fast during this season, but it is a time when we should carve out a few extra minutes every day to reflect on what it is we are preparing ourselves for: it is not Santa Claus or big feasts and parties, all of which have their place, but are not the reason for the season, as the saying goes. It can be a frenetic, hectic time if we let it be so. But if we take a little time every day to reflect on the readings from Mass, or a bit of the prophecies in the Old Testament referring to the coming Messiah, we can hand over the weariness and stress of the weeks of practical preparation and immerse ourselves in the quiet world of inner preparation.
If we meditate using the photo's "four suns", we can see each of the weeks of Advent slowly building to the coming of the glory of the Lord. The image of the sun on the right in the photo, nearest the water, is barely visible and so we begin Advent with words of expectation. In the prophecy of Jeremiah we read: "The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. I will raise up for David a just shoot...." (Jeremiah 33:14). In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 Paul says: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all....” And in the Gospel Jesus is warning us to be ready for His coming. (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) Week one is saying: "Be ready, be ready, be ready." Christ is coming. It is inevitable. But we do not want to be unprepared.
Just as we see the second image of the sun appearing to be more obvious in the photo, in week two of Advent we begin to feel the joy a bit more. We hear from Baruch who reminds us that our robe of mourning is to be taken off and that we are to put on the splendor of glory from God forever. Stand up, he says, look to the east. (Baruch 5:1-9) St. Paul tells us he prays with joy for his people. He reminds us of the things that matter: "This is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ...." (Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11) The Gospel presents us with John the Baptizer who is crying out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. (Luke 3:1-6) Salvation is near! There is much joy in these messages, but again we must continue to prepare.
Week three begins with Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, and is the week when joy takes center stage. "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O Daughter Jerusalem! ...The Lord your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals." (Zephaniah 3:14-18) St. Paul continues in the Letter to the Philippians (4:4-7): "Rejoice in the Lord always!" And the Gospel, (Luke 3:10-18), is about baptism. John says: "I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming.... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!" So, too, in the photo we see the third sun emerging from behind a cloud, blazing with fire.
We are only days away from the Nativity when week four begins. The prophet Micah tells us that the Messiah will be peace (Micah 5:1-4). And at last, the story of Mary becomes the focus. (Luke 1:39-43) Mary sets out and travels to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, where the baby in Elizabeth's womb "recognizes" the baby in Mary's womb! He leaps for joy and Elizabeth cries out: "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" The Magnificat is sung! The sun is blazing at its brightest, but is still a little obscured. It is about to be fully revealed.
I have outlined the four weeks very briefly, but I encourage everyone to read the Scriptures from the liturgies of each day of Advent and let them speak to you from the very first day through Dec. 24. You will find many possibilities which are presented in these mysteries. I suggest that we focus on preparing our hearts a little more intentionally for Christ to dwell there. He is a personal God, and He desires a personal relationship with each one of us. Let us meet Him in the quiet of our hearts to deepen that relationship, which is the most important relationship in our life. As Advent progresses, maybe we can let Jesus make what is rough within us smooth. He can help us grow in self-awareness and recognition of our weakness and sinful tendencies so that we can let Him heal and strengthen us to be good disciples. We can also spend time remembering our own baptismal graces, allowing ourselves to experience the joy of such great gifts. We can let ourselves truly feel the joy of His love. And finally we can ask Him to help us to recognize Him better. Who knows? Maybe something within you will leap for joy, too!
There is so much in Advent which can bring us to a deeper sense of the real reason for the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. Maybe a little "fasting" is not a bad idea; not necessarily a fasting from food, but rather a fasting of time. In carving out about 10 minutes every day as suggested above, and letting our prayer invite Christ to speak deep within us, we can prepare for the Christmas season. I remember as a child how much I enjoyed an Advent calendar, always wanting to know what the next day held, but having to wait and learn to savor the message for the current day's calendar window. I suggest that we use the Scriptures like our own Advent calendar, seeking the message for today and savoring it, hoping ahead to tomorrow just a tiny bit.
May Advent be a time of blessing and wonder for us all. May we be like the prophets, alive with the joy of what is to come, filled with hope of newness and salvation. May we be filled with gratitude for what we have, and be moved to share some of it with others. Let us continue to meet in the heart of the Lord for whom we wait.
Heart Speaks to Heart