On Christmas Day many of us gathered around the table to a delicious meal shared with family and friends. I would hope that at some tables there was a mixture of friends, family, and strangers, too, some of whom came unannounced. If that sounds a bit shocking, it is important to realize that the group who gathered in the stable at the Nativity of Jesus consisted of folks such as those: Mary and Joseph kneeling before the bounty given by God, the Bread of Life as a tiny baby, along with some ‘ragtag’ shepherds whom they had never met before the moment when they arrived unannounced. Among these were no doubt people who had never met one another, and who definitely had not met Joseph and Mary prior to the night with the star and a host of angels singing with the joy of Heaven, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” It must have been quite a night with all these people simply showing up to adore a tiny infant born in a stable surrounded by animals. This is indeed a scene filled with joyful mystery!
Indeed many of us sat down to a meal at our tables with people who we truly love, folks whose presence we relish. I would hope that we sat down to the other kind of meal, too, the one with the friends and strangers alike. That latter meal was the meal with our faith communities in our churches. At our Christmas worship services we were indeed gathered with strangers, some of whom may have arrived unannounced. You know the ones I mean: those who come at Christmas, but may not come all that often to the table of the Lord. These unannounced ones are our present-day shepherds who followed some sort of inner light which led them to the church though they may not be used to entering into a religious house of worship. It does not matter why they came, but that they followed an inspirational ‘star’ to come and adore with those who go to church every Sunday and Holy Day. They came and worshiped with us. What a doubly joyful event!
I hope we realized that we partook of two meals at Christmas. And I hope we acknowledged that we sat down together both to worship and to eat, and that when we did it, we were with those whom we did not know, but that somehow deep inside we knew we were all the family of God. It does not matter where the strangers came from, but that they were welcomed in the same way as our friends and family. What is most important is that we never stop greeting them as if they are part of our family, because they are.
If we look to the Holy Family on the Feast of the Nativity, we see that Mary and Joseph were poor. When it was time to go for the Presentation in the Temple, the next joyful mystery after the birth of Jesus Christ, they could not bring the usual offering, so they brought the offering of the poor. They had just welcomed a bevy of strangers into their stable 'home' having nothing within but that which they carried upon their donkey for their trek. Yet they had the Wealth of the Nations under their roof, the very Son of the Living God. Who could ask for more and expect it? But after sharing the joy of that holy night, they eventually made their way into Jerusalem so that they could carry out that which was expected by religious custom. They were obedient to the requirements, but they were also filled with so much joy that they needed to share it with others in the house of God, the Temple in Jerusalem. Once again, they shared their bounty with strangers, and they did it with great joy.
That Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to fulfill what was expected should not surprise us since they loved God deeply. They also knew that Jesus, the Son of God, needed to be shared with the world. Indeed, they shared Jesus in the Temple by allowing the approach of people like Simeon, the old man with strange things to say. Simeon both praised God and spoke a prophecy about this child which was not very pleasant, actually. And when the old widow Anna approached they did not shrink back in horror either, but rather they accepted her words, no doubt pondering them in their hearts for many years. They welcomed Simeon and Anna to share in the joy of their Son and they did not ‘shoo’ them away for fear of contagion or because they were strangers. This is the welcome of the joyful mysteries. We, too, are invited in. And we, too, are encouraged to do likewise in welcoming the stranger.
The gospel for this Sunday was about Jesus as a boy. (Luke 2:41-52) Once again Mary and Joseph were following the requirements of the Law because it was Passover, and so they traveled at a distance to get to Jerusalem. However, Jesus chose to stay behind while His parents began the trip home, unknowingly without Him. Though later He said, “I must be in my Father’s house,” we do not know why He did this. Perhaps it was because He was sharing the welcoming attitude He had learned from them. Whatever it was, after three days His parents found Jesus sitting in the Temple teaching the teachers; that means for three days Jesus had welcomed those learned men into what really was His house. The Gospel says His parents were astonished to find Him there and were equally astonished at His reason for remaining behind. But He did return with them, obediently trusting their wisdom: His time for teaching had not yet come.
Just as we should be joyful for those who found their way to the altar table at Christmas, Mary and Joseph were clearly joyful to be reunited with their Son. But the joy is not contained only in that fact. There is joyful mystery in what Jesus said and did during those three days. The rabbis obviously liked him, enjoyed His insights, and were even a bit stupefied by Him. But who else might Jesus have encountered and welcomed during those three days? Surely He was not sitting in that spot day and night for three days; He must have gone somewhere to eat and sleep. And in going back to the place of academic conversation, Jesus had to have worshiped elbow to elbow with other Jews. He had to stand in the corridors and pass through the courtyards welcoming many unknown people into His presence, perhaps engaging them in conversation or giving a greeting. If only they knew who this young stranger was!
Certainly what we learn from these joyful mysteries is that the stranger is important to Jesus. He never turned anyone away. From the moment He entered into the world His life was filled with meeting strangers, welcoming them in, and desiring with His whole heart that they would accept the invitation to friendship with Him. Jesus was also the stranger to everyone around Him. None of us has divinity in our nature, so Jesus as God (though still fully human) is the ultimate stranger in the sense of being different from us in that way. Yet His welcome to us never grows cold and His ability to persevere in places with little welcome for Him is without limit. If Jesus is the ultimate stranger in our world, maybe it is time for us to look in a new way at those whom we designate with the label of ‘stranger.’ Perhaps the joyful mysteries are wide enough for us to enter into so that we can welcome the stranger as Jesus has welcomed us. Perhaps meditating upon the mysteries with Mary and Joseph is the way to opening our hearts to the ‘ragtag’ among us, the poor materially, spiritually, and emotionally. And perhaps these mysteries will help us to be less distrustful of those unlike ourselves or toward those who have customs that we do not understand.
It is important to remember that events surrounding Jesus’ birth are joyful mysteries for a reason: there is joy contained in entering into mystery and finding Love residing there. Just as the shepherds found this strange couple from Galilee where the customs, dress, and speech were slightly different; just as Mary and Joseph found the shepherds from Judea who may have smelled like their sheep; just as Jesus found this broken, yet beautiful world which is very different from the perfection of Heaven: it is joyous to enter into the mystery of one another especially when we are doing it together with Jesus as the focal point. So as we continue to enter into the joyful mysteries of the Christmas season, let us welcome the stranger as our brother or sister. We will find it a joy to meet Christ in them!
May we continue to welcome the newborn Child by opening our hearts to one another and by accepting the welcome which is extended to us! May we receive with gladness those who come to the table of the Lord and those at the table in our homes! May we recognize Jesus in those who are strangers, and may they recognize Jesus in us! May we be shepherds to those who are searching for the Child in the manger! And may we find joy in the mysteries of the coming of Christ! Let us continue to meet in Jesus, the friend of strangers! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first icon is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is called The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-nativity-of-our-lord-jesus-christ-034-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next is a photo of Fr. Bill McNichols praying over the gifts at Mass. All are welcomed at this table.
Following this are three of my photos of churches, representing the various places where people worship. The first is St. Peter's in Rome. The second is in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the third is in Coppell, Texas.
Next is a painting by the great medieval artist Giotto. It is The Boy Jesus in the Temple. (1305-1306) It is found in Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. You can view it at: http://www.christianiconography.info/boyTemple.html
Finally is another of Fr. William Hart McNichols Holy Family icons. This one is called The Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem. It can be found at
(If you think that star looks familiar, it was the star that was at the beginning of my post for last week.)
Of all the weeks of Advent, the fourth is always the shortest. Perhaps there is some symbolism in this since meteorologically the days of this week are those with the least amount of light during the year. That the time is short makes the fourth week the most intense in our longing for the Messiah. We begin to shift from the journey to the destination; we move from the day-by-day traveling to the site of the manger. What is obvious, though, is the movement, however so slight it seems to be. We are following the star to Bethlehem, and we are in heightened awareness that the Holy One is about to be born in a stable with the angels and Mary’s dear husband, St. Joseph, in attendance. Every fiber of our spiritual being should be on alert for the awe and wonder of the moment which is nearly nigh. Our spiritual ears strain over the ‘baaing’ of the sheep on a starlit night to be ready for the songs of angels and the joy of Heaven. But we are not quite there yet, so we wait, working to make an empty space in our own hearts so that Jesus can fill it anew. We long for the moment when, as the Psalmist says, “Out of Zion’s perfect beauty He shines. Our God comes, He keeps silence no longer.” (Psalm 50:2-3)
The readings for the liturgies surrounding the fourth week of Advent point to one resounding truth: the impossible becomes possible. The first reading for Sunday (Micah 5:1-4a) begins with the prophet Micah pronouncing that Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to even be considered viable among the clans of Judah, is the locale from whence the Messiah will hail. Though He is a king, He will be born in humility to poor parents in this unlikely place. With sin and repentance in seemingly endless cycles, with the unfathomable love and mercy of God continuing to keep the people able to hope with gratitude, that for which humanity had longed was closer than ever. The greatness of Heaven would reside in Him, and the ‘totality’ of the incomprehensible God would reside in a fully human baby. As if that is not enough, Micah tells us: “He shall be peace.” In a world sorely in need of peace, this is truly the impossible becoming possible. If God can come into the world in the way Micah described, (and indeed He did), then we see that nothing is impossible, absolutely nothing, is impossible with God. He is peace and He is endless hope and mercy.
The second reading for Sunday from the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 10:5-10) tells us that the blood of animals given in holocausts really did not cleanse sin. Instead, these holocausts were prophetic in that they told of what was to come: the Messiah would come to do the will of the Father, offering His life as the once-for-all sacrifice of mercy and forgiveness. In other words, that which the blood of bulls could not cleanse because it was not possible to do, was made possible in the sacrifice of Jesus: the impossible becomes possible in Jesus the Lord. This tiny baby born in the manger would do what no one before Him was able to do because He alone is God. His death and resurrection defeated the power of sin once for all and the sacraments which He left bring us into this process. For this we long: when Jesus returns all will be brought to completion so that the impossible is made possible in God.
Finally, in the Gospel (Luke 1:39-45) we have the encounter of Mary and Elizabeth. To put it in context, Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, was given a message which he really did not understand. He protested the angel’s meaning, given that as a priest it was outside that which he had been taught: there was no such thing as a messiah in his mind, so his son-to-come could not be a forerunner of said messiah. Zechariah was a good man, but he did not know that the impossible was possible. He had to be stretched a bit, but he believed enough to cooperate, and his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. Elizabeth did believe that the impossible was possible and therefore received the child (John) into her womb and began the difficult process of being pregnant while ‘in her old age.’ Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, her young cousin Mary was being told of her own ‘impossible’ pregnancy: she who would know no man was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and now was pregnant with God’s own Son.
Mary’s response to the impossible being done in her, having freely given herself into God’s complete care, was to enter fully into His mercy so much so that it propelled her outward to serve her older cousin. When Elizabeth heard Mary enter her home, she was so moved to be in the presence of God, though cognitively unknowing, she burst out in joy: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, she not only knew that Mary was pregnant, but she knew that it was with the Son of God. Furthermore, she knew that God had spoken to Mary and that Mary had believed and acted upon it. Elizabeth acknowledged that the impossible was made possible in Mary and rejoiced that Mary had responded with a ‘yes.’
Elizabeth’s question is what needs to be highlighted. Indeed she was filled with much joy because she was filled with knowledge that was so intimate that it could have only come from the Holy Spirit; even the baby in her womb responded. Yet, humbly she is filled with gratitude-laden awe asking how the mother of her Lord should come to her. It is a reflective question. The only answer is that God has chosen her for something special, which is as much about bearing John as it is about being chosen for an intimate encounter with the living God. As we approach the Feast of the Nativity we should be asking the same question, one which should bring us to our knees in amazement that the impossible is made possible for us, too.
The Mother of our Lord comes to us because her role is always to bring Jesus into our world. And truly, she did not choose us: God did. But we are not to sit back and watch this event unfold; rather, we are meant to participate in it. We must actively welcome Mary who comes with the One she bears in her womb with love beyond all telling. It is she who we join - (with Joseph, too) - as we travel those last grueling days to Bethlehem and follow her into the stable for the time when she will give birth. We are not to sit slack-jawed in bewilderment, but to move through that which is difficult so that we can arrive with open hearts for the little Child. She wants us to come into the stable, not desperate, but filled with hope, echoing the Psalmist with the cry of delight: “Out of Zion’s perfect beauty, He shines. Our God comes, He keeps silence no longer.”
Only if we are like Elizabeth, our hearts leaping with joy, but yet allowing Mary to help with that which needs to come to birth within us, can we continue on to Bethlehem. We need to let Mary lead us with joyful expectation into the most difficult and perilous part of the journey of our own lives during these last days of Advent. Just as the angel Gabriel said to Zechariah (and to Mary and Joseph at different times), he says to us: “Be not afraid.” We need to move out unafraid to the poor, the homeless, the traveler, the exile, the foreigner or stranger (in any way), the lonely, the ill, the angry, the betrayed, the suffering and those who are trying to alleviate the suffering of loved ones, and we need to attend to any areas in ourselves that are as such. Compassion and mercy are not just for the other; they are also for us to give to ourselves. We need to bring the impossible into the realm of possibility through our prayer, and ultimately through our trust in God. If we let them, Mary and Elizabeth will help us to prepare our hearts for the quiet of the stable on a starlit winter night. They will prepare us to sing with the Psalmist: “Out of Zion’s perfect beauty He shines. Our God comes, He keeps silence no longer.” Let us embrace the reality that with God nothing is impossible.
May we be able to pray: ‘How does this happen to me, that the Lord of the Universe should come to me? Blessed are we who believe that the promise of the Lord would be fulfilled!’ May we continue the journey of these last few days of Advent, difficult as they may be, trusting in the promise of God! May we open our hearts to all those who are in need of God’s healing touch! May we be filled with gratitude that we have been invited into this journey and into the stable! And may we know God’s presence, shining in perfect beauty, as the Word is spoken on that night for which we long! Let us meet in the stable! Come quickly Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first image is an enlargement of one part of an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is the Star of Bethlehem which is above the Holy Family in his icon The Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem. It can be found with three different 'frames' at his webpage. I used this one, though the frame is not visible: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next are the Advent candles, all lit, for this last week of Advent.
Third, is the work of Bl. Fra Angelico. It is another version of The Visitation, different than the one I used last week. This one is from the predella of the Annunciation Altarpiece (c.1430-32). http://www.repro-tableaux.com/a/fra-angelico/visitation-from-the-prede.html
The next two are icons of Mary by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is Mother of God Waiting in Adoration, found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-waiting-in-adoration-248-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The second is called Mary of the Magnificat Mother of the Poor. It is found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mary-of-the-magnificat-mother-of-the-poor-091-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally is one of my photos: a single rose, which I chose because I had the lyrics to the wonderful Advent hymn, Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming, in mind. Here are the lyrics:
For a wonderful rendition of this hymn, listen to the Moreau Seminary Schola (Priests and Brothers of Holy Cross) singing it at worship at Moreau Seminary in Indiana. Just stunning! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLEoTyGB9XM
“What should we do?” This is the question the crowds asked John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospel for Sunday of the Third Week in Advent. When we look at the world around us and see all that needs to be done, when we look at the tumult that seems to have infiltrated our own lives, we repeat that question: “What should we do?” In this second half of the short season of Advent we may feel like time is flying and yet we still have much to do in preparation for holiday meals, family visits, travel, or getting our homes to look like Christmas is coming. We can easily get so caught up in all of these things that the question becomes “What should I do first?” or “How will I get everything done?” If we look to all the readings for this Sunday, the rather shocking answer is there: Rejoice! We might think: “We are to rejoice in response to all that needs to be done? That’s it?” As a matter of fact, the answer not only makes sense, but it puts the season and its demands into complete perspective.
If we step back for a moment leaving the swirl of stressful chaos behind, we have to look at what these four weeks are about to begin with. It is not about doing so much as it is about preparing a state of heart so that we may be before God. As the saying goes, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Advent and all of our preparations are about the coming of the Son of God into our broken world. Liturgically, we are getting closer to radiant angels singing, awe-struck shepherds praising, and regal Magi adoring the tiny King of Kings and Lord of Lords lying in a manger. Therefore we have to keep the point of all of our preparations in mind. The reality is that we are awaiting Jesus to return someday. The Christmas meals and the gifts to be bought and wrapped are wonderful, but they are only reminders of something greater, of shared love. We must remember who it is that is the center of our preparations or we will lose our perspective and be overwhelmed. Something joyous is afoot.
The first reading of this Sunday, from the prophet Zephaniah, was written after the exile when the Jewish people were still reeling from everything that had happened to them. They were in recovery, but they had little. The prophet tells them to rejoice and sing with joy, however, because the messiah is coming. He reminds them that they have been forgiven for their massive transgressions, and therefore they needed to rejoice at the incredible mercy of God. He writes: “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! 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.” (Zeph. 3:14-18) Amazing as it is to hear, God rejoiced over them. He rejoiced because they had returned to Him and He could lavish His love on them once again. This is what God wants to offer us also: He wants us to share in His own joy, inviting us into something which is very intimate and healing.
St. Paul continues with this message in the second reading. He writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all….” (Philippians 4:4-7) St. Paul wrote this in a time of turmoil to remind the people to keep everything in perspective: Emmanuel is among us and will never leave us. He also emphasizes a connection between joy and kindness. That which we have received from God we share in gratitude. This brings us “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” (Phil 4:7) We hear the message that the coming of Jesus brings a peace which is not of human origin, but rather one which can only come from God. With Jesus in our midst, we need not be anxious about the future or filled with fear over the state of our world.
It is not that we should live unconcerned about our world. In fact, it is in the chaos of the world where mercy and love are most needed: Jesus came for this reason. As the Christmas carol says, He comes “with healing in His wings.” * Therefore, He needs us to cooperate with Him so that these gifts can continue to touch others who need them as we do, especially those who do not know Him at all. If we open our hearts, preparing a place for Him to be born, then He will bring us the mercy and kindness, patience and forbearance that are needed. Jesus will give us the insight to know how to proceed, giving us the wisdom to prioritize that which really is important over that which is unnecessary. But we have to take time for prayerful reflection and have the desire to make room for Him to take up residence in our hearts. Then our efforts can make a difference in the suffering of the world.
It is the Gospel which puts all of these thoughts together. (Luke 3:10-18) The crowds were coming to St. John the Baptist, longing for direction. They said: “What should we do?” They wanted to be prepared, but had no idea what to do with their lives, so filled with chaos, powerlessness, and longing. John’s response was for them to be generous and kind. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none.” To the tax collectors, notorious sinners known for their corruption, he said to be fair. To the soldiers, known for their rigid adherence to the civil authorities, he said to stop falsely accusing others. Basically, John was telling them to do what the Scriptures have always taught: do everything with love and justice. Living with hearts attuned to the Word of God brings joy.
John knew that he was not the messiah and that his job was to point the people toward Jesus. I think that ought to be our perspective as well. We cannot do it all, nor are we expected to be someone that we are not. We can only do that to which we are called using the gifts we have been given. John models how to point others to Jesus by love and humility, and occasionally boldness in standing fast in our faith. He made it clear that Jesus would separate the good from the bad when the time came. Ours is not to judge, therefore; our job is to serve with love and act in the way we have been taught. We should be witnesses to Jesus according to our gifts, personality, and circumstances. We do not have to ‘do it all.’
So what should we do? The Scriptures for the week say this: rejoice; listen with openness; give and share what you can; love; forgive; act with justice, care, mercy, kindness, humility, and patience. We have been given an amazing gift in the coming of Jesus who comes as Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, and Prince of Peace. It is He for whom we wait and it is He who puts all things into perspective. The flurry of activity in putting a meal together, giving hospitality to our guests, getting gifts organized, making houses festive, visiting friends and relatives, and getting work done only makes sense when it is oriented toward Jesus’ coming. This is because in doing so we are welcoming the most important Guest of all. In getting our chores accomplished we should remember that all those things we 'have to do' are a gift, not a burden. Many do not have the luxury of having things to do because they are poor, homeless, ill, or in prison. They cannot even think of gifts to give or meals to cook because they have nothing. The poor must long to have the very ‘burdens’ about which we complain! Therefore, the very things which weigh us down are cause for rejoicing, not bemoaning. Therefore, rejoice in gratitude that you have a to-do list. And then share that gratitude with those who are suffering in some way or who do not have anything, those who are as poor as Jesus was when He entered the world. The gift of our sharing and our mercy is a gift of gratitude to the One who comes as a helpless, poor Baby on a cold night in winter.
What should we do? Rejoice in the many gifts of love, mercy, and goodness that we have because of the gift of our God. Rejoice in those whom we love and in those who love us. Rejoice in God who loves us so much that He bent low to become one of us. Rejoice because Jesus is very near. And rejoice because He rejoices in you.
May we have joy and peace as we proceed through the remainder of Advent! May we have hospitality of heart, sharing the joy and mercy of Jesus with those who do not know Him as we do! May we have the gift of perspective, keeping our eyes on the stable so we are not overpowered by the secularization of the season! May we share what we have, remembering that the poor are like the parents of Jesus who were homeless, searching for a place to come out of the cold so Jesus could be born! And may we rejoice in the great gift of love, the Son of Righteousness and Justice, whom we await! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Rejoicing Savior! Marana tha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*Hark The Herald Angels Sing, verse 3. This reference comes from Malachi 3:20.
The top photo is one of mine, taken in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
After the Advent 3 candles is a photo I took of my Nativity set at home. While it may look a little odd for Mary and Joseph to be looking at an empty manger, the symbolism of waiting and longing is what this is about. He is coming soon!
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. John the Forerunner Also the Baptist. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-john-the-forerunner-also-the-baptist-082-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The last two paintings are the work of Bl. Fra Angelico, who is one of my favorite artists of all time.
- The first of the two is The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. I chose this because it embodies everything about reaching out in humble service to one in need who in this case happens to be a distant relative. Mary had just heard that she would bear the Son of God and had become pregnant with Him and yet her first thoughts are not of herself, but of the cousin the angel said was with child. Mary has things in right perspective and therefore they both rejoice! http://www.wikiart.org/en/fra-angelico/visitation-1434
- The second painting is an inset of The Annunciation. It is a 'close-up' of the Archangel Gabriel as he announces to Mary that she will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and become the Mother of God. Gabriel's face radiates with joy; if you look closely you can see the hint of a smile and the joy in his eyes. http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3754342
Finally a note to all my Facebook friends, those who follow my blog using that medium: Facebook is very random about who sees what and for how long. I truly do not understand the way it 'decides.' Therefore, if you do not see my post announcement, simply go to either my Heart Speaks to Heart Facebook page to find it or go straight to my website: www.catanesesd.com and click on the "Michele's Blog" tab. If you follow me or my Heart Speaks to Heart page on Facebook you ought to receive it; or if you share the posts, it is supposed to make note of this and figure out that you are a regular reader. No matter what you do, I tend to post sometime on a Monday every week so if all else fails, check with me on Mondays. I am so grateful for your support and rejoice at your kindness! :)
This week Pope Francis will officially open the Holy Doors of the basilicas in Rome to begin the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. The purpose of the ritual is to invite us to begin the journey to and with mercy during this dedicated time. As pilgrims cross the threshold into the basilicas they are symbolically entering into God’s mercy. For those of us who are not able to be in Rome, we cross the threshold spiritually; all are called to renew our efforts at living the mercy we have been given. As one author put it, “Crossing the threshold means leaving behind doubt and fear and allowing God’s love to embrace us.”* In a sense, this marks a ‘double Advent.’ It is the advent of a year in which our hearts and minds are turned toward praying with expectant hope for ourselves and for the world to be filled with a greater attitude of mercy; and it is the second week of Advent in which we are attentive to the mysteries of the coming of Jesus. Reflection upon God’s gift of Himself and of His mercy should be the filter through which our prayer and actions flow.
This is a time pregnant with hope, not stifled by darkness; no matter what is happening which is contrary to goodness, we need to allow God’s love to embrace us, and we pray to take that same love and share it with the world which is in such need. If ever evil is going to be conquered it is through mercy and forgiveness, through peace-making, kindness, and compassion. If that seems weak or improbable, it is not. It is the clear message of God during Advent: what seems weak is actually where strength resides. God comes as a baby. The parents are lowly and poor, from a “backwater” town in Galilee. They are virtually powerless as they are forced to travel to Jerusalem for a census. It does not get more improbable or weak-looking than that. And yet, from all these events, comes victory.
In this light, let us reflect upon the Virgin Mary as one who modeled this paradoxical strength. During her life she was obedient to God, humbly dedicating herself to doing His will. Therefore it is fitting that since her Assumption she has been sent from Heaven at various times to remind us of the message of the gospel. The appearance of Mary that is an excellent example is the one at Fatima in 1917. Even though this seems to have nothing to do with Advent, it actually has everything to do with it. Her appearance came during one of the darkest times in history. Communism and Fascism were rising and World War I was ravaging Europe. Into this time came Mary, speaking of unknown things to three illiterate, but pious, children in a place far from the war, a place where they had no way of knowing what was going on across the world. The messages consisted of dire warnings. They were to tell the world of the great need to repent. They were told to pray, especially the Rosary, for the reparation of the damage done by such oppressive sin. Mary divulged secrets to the children as well as messages for them to share with the world. The bottom line was that unless we prayed for reparation of sin and changed our sinful ways, destruction would happen that would be unlike anything seen before. But lest the point be missed, the message was definitely one of hope. If there was no hope, Mary would never have come in the first place. There is only a need to warn if there is hope of a different outcome than the one which looks immanent. And indeed the outcome was good: Russia was consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and while sin and war are still present in the world due to our brokenness, it seems that the ultimate destruction that could have taken place was averted.**
When Mary came in 1917 the times were bleaker than anyone realized, least of all the three children who had no idea what was going on beyond their little hamlet in Portugal. Many people took up the offer of mercy presented by Mary on behalf of God. And that offer of God’s mercy and hope to the world is just as relevant for us today. Our times are filled with many dangers, and the world is still filled with those who oppose Christian beliefs. We must never cease to hope in the power of God’s love, however: in this Year of Mercy we “leave behind doubt and fear, allowing God’s love to embrace us.”
It is important to note that the message of Fatima is also the Advent message of Sunday’s gospel: John the Baptist came onto the scene crying out for repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In quoting Isaiah, he said: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:4-6) For all intents and purposes, that is actually the same message as delivered by Mary at Fatima. She was saying that unless we prepared our hearts for the Lord, unless we made straight His paths by our prayer for repentance, evil would continue to run rampant and all could be lost. Like Isaiah and John, she was affirming that God is in control, but that we have to be prepared. Therefore there is nothing to fear in any of these messages. They are pregnant with hope in the mercy of God. They contain an opportunity to be ready so that we may be open to new life and a new way of living, “that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.” (Baruch 5:7).
Fatima was a place of hope, not of dread. We should not focus on the seemingly dire messages or the images the children recounted from what Mary showed them. Instead we need to focus on the point behind them which is the message of hope which God wants for us to hear. As John proclaimed, God will make crooked ways straight. Times may seem murky now, but it is no less a time of hope than at any other time. Advent is a time in which we wait patiently for Jesus to come and make all things new. Emmanuel is always here, in the present: Jesus is God-with-us. The message of Fatima, (echoing the message of John), reminds us of the continued presence of Jesus, but it also teaches us that we must do our part, too. We must live with the courage and hope with which disciples have always had to live. No matter what happens in our world, Jesus is always present to the suffering, and quite often His presence comes through us; we may be the instruments through whom that mercy is offered. We need to remember that His mercy is offered not just to the faithful ones, but to everyone, including the intentional evildoers, terrorists, hoarders of the world’s goods, those who bring violence into their families or into the lives of strangers; it includes those who live in any manner of dishonesty and greed, those who kill the spirit, gossip, neglect the poor, neglect the weak among us such as children or the elderly. God’s mercy is for all of these people: that is, it is for all of us. But He needs us to be His instruments.
The mysteries of the second week of Advent and the messages sent by Mary remind us that all is pregnant with possibility if only we accept the offer. Mary accepted pregnancy with the Child whose life was threatened from the moment of His conception. She did not ask God to reconsider the timing or to do something to help her be less vulnerable as an unwed mother. She did not ask God to do things her way or to at least wait to overshadow her until she was married so that things would be a bit easier. Instead she said “Let it be done to me according to your will.” That is the stance of one who sees all things as pregnant with possibility and life. This is one who depends upon the mercy of God to make all things new and to accomplish His mission. This is why Mary could say yes to everything God asked of her. And this is why her pregnancy with mercy and hope is what we need to accept for ourselves. During this beginning of the Year of Mercy let us take upon ourselves the message of God throughout history, whether it comes through Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, or Mary: this time is pregnant with the opportunity for mercy, hope, and new life. Let us “leave behind doubt and fear, allowing God’s love to embrace us.”
May we be filled with hopeful expectation, seeing everything as filled with possibility for new life! May we ask for the grace of having our hearts filled with mercy in a new way! May we accept the gift of mercy extended from God to us! May we have great gratitude for the mercy God offers us in forgiveness of our sins and in protection from that which would harm our souls in our daily lives! May we have the courage to embrace hope and to reject fear! And may we find blessing and joy in the gifts offered to us in this Jubilee Year of Mercy! Let us continue to meet in the merciful Heart of Jesus! Come swiftly, Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*From the Introduction (page 1) of Crossing the Threshold of Mercy, edited by Mark-David Janus, CSP, PhD. This is an excellent resource for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
**Some good books on the apparition of Mary at Fatima:
- A Woman Clothed With the Sun, edited by John Delaney
- Fatima for Today: The Urgent Marian Message of Hope by Andrew Apostoli
- A film and accompanying resources: The 13th Day. Here is a link to the website for the film: http://www.the13thday.com/
The top photo is mine. It is the Holy Door at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, Italy.
The icon is Mother of God Light in All Darkness by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is one of my favorite Marian icons by Fr. Bill. It speaks to me of of hope and mercy. If you are interested in a copy you can find it at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-light-in-all-darkness-016-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next is another of my photos, taken in New Mexico.
Following the mountain photo is another of the icons of Fr. William Hart McNichols, The Mother of God Overshadowed By the Holy Spirit. You can find it at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-mother-of-god-overshadowed-by-the-holy-spirit-118-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Heart Speaks to Heart