The Humblest Time of the Year
We have entered into the last week of Advent, the final week of our time of anticipation. Hopefully our emphasis has been on spiritual preparation rather than simply the externals which go along with the approach of Christmas. We have the longest Advent possible this year because the calendar has cycled such that we have a full fourth week. It is not too late to attempt to find some quiet time to allow ourselves a mini-retreat from all the trappings and constant demands for our attention. Perhaps instead of turning on the television we could sit in front of a Nativity scene or crèche in order to truly take in the essence of the season. Indeed the center of attention is the little Child to come, but let us not miss the humility of the others also present there. The stable is humble, the guests are humble – (even the kings knelt in humility) – and the parents are humble. Indeed that is the message of Advent: it is a humble season, calling us into greater humility.
As it is said in Franciscan spirituality, God bent low in entering into our humanity, and therefore we try to prepare our own hearts to be a fitting place for Him to reside. In reflecting upon the scene, we can imagine making our hearts like that simple cave: quiet, humble, and oh, so filled with life. If we really allow ourselves to be attentive, we can become amazed at the humility of it all; yet there is more for us to learn. We are reminded that God chose two very humble people to be the parents of Jesus, our Lord. He could have chosen royalty to be the parents of the King, or He could have chosen wealthy or socially recognizable people, or even a priestly family, such as that of John the Baptist. But instead God chose Mary of Nazareth, a very young woman from a nondescript family of which we know little except the names of her parents, Joachim and Anne; and He chose Joseph whose only ‘pedigree,’ was that he was from the line of David. That lineage is of immense importance spiritually, but it meant very little to anyone at that time. All we know of Joseph besides his family tree is that he was a lowly carpenter, that is, someone of the working class.
God surely chose Mary and Joseph for many reasons, but their humility is what stands out the most at this juncture in Advent. The world has always lacked humility, so to choose two lowly, unknown people to be the parents of the Messiah is a gesture which cries out for our reflection. The most fascinating part of their humility is not from whence they came; rather, it was that they never lost that one special quality which was so deeply ingrained within each of them. They understood the immensity of God’s gesture both in sending His Son into the world and in the fact that He chose them to be His parents. They also recognized the humility of God, in that He chose to send His Son from Heaven into the brokenness of the world and into their lowly family. Neither of them lost their humility no matter what happened after the angel’s voice of announcement faded away. In fact, it seems that both Mary and Joseph continued to grow in humility as time went on.
In Luke’s gospel Mary’s humility is seen from the moment the angel came to her with the joyful announcement and she responded, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” She did not ask for a blueprint of how to proceed or even what the next step would be. Instead her response to God was through action: immediately she journeyed to the hill country to serve her pregnant older cousin, Elizabeth, even though the Child in Mary’s womb was the greater. There are other examples in the gospels which attest to the fact that Mary was familiar with the humility of God. In Matthew’s gospel Mary’s humility can be observed in the way she approached Joseph, who at the time knew nothing of her pregnancy. (Matthew 1:18-25) She trusted in God without any hesitation, open to whatever lay ahead. Thankfully Joseph was equally humble, heeding the message of God insofar as he proceeded without any blueprint either. Both of the parents of Jesus put themselves into God’s care and did everything that He had asked of them. They were both the servants of the Lord.
However, I think Joseph deserves some attention as we reflect upon Advent. I believe that he was the most humble saint who ever lived. I know I am truly ‘splitting hairs’ here, because as noted Mary was incredibly humble, too, but Joseph had even less exposure in the Scripture than even the little Mary received. Joseph was hardly mentioned in Luke’s gospel, except that he was Mary’s husband. His name never appears after Jesus’ birth: it only states that he was in attendance in the Temple when Jesus was presented, and again years later he was in the Temple area when Jesus got left behind and was subsequently found teaching the rabbis. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph has more recognition by name, but even there it is brief. He quietly accepted the baffling message of the angel when told Mary was indeed pregnant with the Son of God, and he also accepted the role of being totally in the background. He was not the father of this Holy Child, but rather was there to give propriety to the birth. However, Joseph had a role that was more than utilitarian. He was chosen because he would be a healthy, loving father to Jesus and because he could teach Jesus the skills He would need. He protected Mary and Jesus from Herod’s soldiers by leading them out of Judea when Jesus’ life was threatened and somehow managed to provide for them in a foreign land. He had the wisdom to continue to trust in God’s messages when it was time to return to their homeland. Joseph set up a household in Nazareth, along with Mary, and he worked as a carpenter to make a living. And then he simply disappeared from the gospels. We hear nothing more of him, assuming that he died before Jesus began His public ministry.
We can learn a lot from Joseph, the humblest man, at the humblest time of the year. After Jesus and Mary, he was the least self-centered person that one can think of… and that is entirely the point: he came after Jesus and Mary in every way. Joseph was not simply over-looked, but rather, he was content to have that role. That contentment is the mark of the truest humility. He was the ‘foster father’ of Jesus and yet, he was satisfied to have no status attached to his role. He was Jesus’ link to the line of David and all the messianic prophecies, yet he claimed no importance in being connected to the fulfillment of God’s promise. His acceptance of being quite important though without the smallest hint of a spotlight is simply astounding. Yet when I look at my crèche scene this Advent, it is the figure of Joseph holding his lamp that catches my attention, inspiring me to pray to be more like him. Perhaps that lamp signifies the greatest gift which Joseph gives to us: the gift of wanting to hold a lamp to illumine the path to Jesus for others, to shine a light away from ourselves and toward the Son of God so that in all we do, we glorify God. Joseph embodies the call to be content where we are, as we are, in whatever role we have been given. He silently calls us to stand at the crib, to be awe-struck at the glory of it all, to be in prayerful contemplation while vigilant to that which might want to move us away from the Christ-child. This seems to be the call of the 4th week in Advent: to ask for the grace to be content with who we are and in whatever role has been given us, acknowledging that even if unseen, what we offer is of the utmost importance since no one else can do that for which we were (individually) created. Perhaps like Joseph, we can be moved to help the poor and forgotten to realize that they have a place of importance in God’s plan, too. And perhaps like Joseph our call is to empower others. Let us embrace the humblest season in which we prepare for the Son of God to enter into our lives anew, and let us embrace Joseph, the humblest of saints, heeding his call to glorify God through our humility.
May we pray for the grace to be content with who we are and the role we have been given! May we seek to emulate the humility of St. Joseph by shining the light of mercy and love to show others the path to Jesus! May we welcome the guests who come into our lives, whether they be shepherds or kings, just as Mary and Joseph were welcoming! May we open our hearts to the forgotten ones, especially the lonely, the poor, the marginalized, and the hardest ones for us to love! And may we create a place for Jesus to come this Christmas that we may worship with joy and gratitude! Marana tha! Come O Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next entry will be on January 2, 2017.
1. I chose to use this Advent wreath to begin since we have four full weeks of Advent this year. It seems to be a humble depiction of the candles: the darkness of the hour and the light beckoning us to joyful expectation at the lateness of the season.
2. This is a painting called Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (also known as The Adoration) by Caravaggio. Unfortunately this painting was stolen, cut out of its frame, in 1969 and has never been recovered. That is a shame because it is stunning in its beauty. I chose this painting because of the humility of the scene. The setting in a stable within the cave is obvious, and everyone in the photo, including the angel, humbly adores the Child. I also chose this because of my reference in the text to Franciscan spirituality: St. Francis is placed within this painting, possibly because he is said to have created the first crèche in history. Admittedly, I am unsure of why St. Lawrence is in the scene, except that he was a Franciscan archdeacon. In researching the painting, it seems Caravaggio painted it for a church in Sicily called San Lorenzo, so that may be why St. Lawrence is so prominent in this scene. For a bit more information go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativity_with_St._Francis_and_St._Lawrence and also
3. This is a very touching icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Mother of God Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. It is an icon which also depicts the deep humility of Mary. Her head is covered; she seems to be pulling her cloak over her head as if she is gesturing the truth of being the handmaid of the Lord. Her eyes seem to be on the Scripture which she is holding, showing her familiarity with the Word. If you are interested in a copy you can purchase this icon (in a variety of formats) at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-mother-of-god-overshadowed-by-the-holy-spirit-118-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. I took this photo of the stained glass window at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Kerem, Israel. This is the place in the hill country mentioned by Luke in his gospel where Elizabeth lived and gave birth to John the Baptist. I chose this because one can see Elizabeth greeting Mary, probably saying, "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" And yet Mary is the one with bowed head in the greatest humility. I was so impressed by the humble stance of Mary that I felt I had to take this photo.
5. This mosaic was in the Church of St. Joseph with is almost next door to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel. I have never seen an image of Joseph quite like this one. He is not only holding the child Jesus, but he is holding the scroll of the Scriptures. I chose this (beside the fact that it is beautiful) because it is consistent with the icon (image 3, above) by Fr. Bill McNichols. In each icon, Mary and Joseph are holding fast to the Scriptures. This shows their steadfast trust in the promises of God.
6. This is a photo of part of my own crèche. I chose to use it, even though it seems odd that Mary and Joseph are staring at an empty crib. I do not intend any kind of humor here. Rather, I took the photo intentionally. First, it shows our heightened awareness of waiting for the baby Jesus to arrive. Second and the more important intention is that Joseph is holding the lamp which I highlighted in the text. (Notice his right hand.) I have seen Joseph depicted that way in many Nativity scenes. He is lighting the way for the Light of the World, who at that point is a lowly little Child, totally vulnerable.
7. Finally a simple yet stunning icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols 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
I chose to end the entry with this because Christmas is coming at the end of this week, so we will have Jesus in our crèches at long last. ~ If you are like me, I do not put the Baby into the crib until Dec. 24 at sundown. That is my personal ritual so that throughout Advent I am longing to see Him there. The scene is intentionally incomplete until He arrives. ~ Also in the icon, note the candle in the hand of Joseph. Once again he is carrying the light, but here it is a thin, humble candle further symbolizing humility. The final reason I chose this is the humility of the scene: a simple cave, the parents and the Child. No one else has arrived yet, so this is their moment of intimacy with Jesus. May your Christmas be filled with the intimacy of this scene so that your heart may be enriched with joy and peace! Blessed Christmas to all!
To Walk in the Light of the Lord
I have a confession to make: I am in love with the writings of Isaiah the prophet. There are many beautiful Scriptures offered during Advent about the coming of the Messiah, don’t get me wrong. Isaiah, however, writes with a particular poetry which I find captivating. It is clear that he had been blessed with an intimate experience of God which he described as a vision of the Holy One of Israel seated on His throne. (Isaiah 6) The vision is what fueled his vivid imagery, and especially so is the ‘icon written in words’ which he provides concerning God’s holy mountain. The season of Advent began with one of his best descriptions of it: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.” From this holy mountain, often referred to as Zion, “shall go forth instruction” and we are invited to “walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:2-5) God has invited us to His holy dwelling and to insure our presence He will even light the way! Perhaps we can allow the light which comes forth from our Advent candles, adding one each week, to symbolically call us, reminding us that we find the holy mountain within our own hearts so that we might deepen our understanding of God’s love and that we might become an invitation to others to find Christ anew.
Advent is a very short season, although this year we will have four full weeks to reflect upon the daily readings which contain a predominance of the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah lived at a time in the history of Israel when things were about to unravel terribly if the people kept up their sinful ways. They had descended into paganism and a value system that was very far from the love for the "widow, orphan, and alien in our land," which had been proclaimed numerous times in the Law given by God. Isaiah knew that much of what he said was falling upon deaf ears. Yet he never gave up: while he steadfastly prophesied of the impending doom which would occur if the people did not change their ways, he also never failed to remind them of the mercy and love of the Holy One who would forgive them if they heeded His words (spoken by Isaiah) and repented. Isaiah also addressed the ‘remnant,’ the minority who remained faithful. He encouraged them to be at peace in the midst of the uncertainty of their times. He proclaimed the words of God who wanted them to know He was aware of their faithful trust in Him and that He had a place on His holy mountain for them even if everything did come to ruin in this life. Isaiah eloquently braced their faith by sharing the beauty of the coming of the Messiah so that they would know that God keeps all promises. In short, they would be safe.
Through Isaiah, God told His people that His is the highest mountain and that He will continue to instruct them in His ways. He said He would judge between the nations, which basically means that He was aware of who were the faithful ones and who were the ones who had grown far from Him. But then comes the most beautiful part of His message: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” (Is 2:4) While this refers to what Heaven will be, the highest mountain insofar as it is where God dwells in beauty and perfect love, Isaiah was telling us that the holy mountain also needs to be present within our hearts so that we might turn the sword within us into a plowshare and the spear with which we can lash out at others into a pruning hook, something which encourages the growth of peace within ourselves and that we can then spread to others. In other words, these words are not just about the world to come after Jesus Christ returns to save us. These words are about the here and now because they invite us to allow the holy mountain to be found within our own hearts. When we can find the holy mountain within, then we can guide others to it, too.
To climb the mountain of the Lord within our own hearts is to take the road to holiness, and to grow in holiness is the height of our response to Him. Another way to say this is that the effect of God’s word enables a response of peace, which is the fruit of holiness. God’s word, the ultimate Word, is Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must prepare a place of peace within our own hearts to invite the Word to come and dwell within. If we want to climb the mountain of the Lord and walk in His light, we need to allow the Word to make His home in us so that He can accompany us on the arduous journey toward holiness. Advent is the perfect time to begin this process anew by doing exactly what Isaiah has told us, and that is to repent. Unfortunately many of us hear the word ‘repent’ and it conjures up images of fasting on bread and water while wearing sackcloth and ashes, but this is not truly necessary. Repentance means being moved enough to come to terms with what needs to change; that is, acknowledging that we have some areas in which we are off target and are in need of growth, asking for the grace to make the changes, and then trying our best to act upon that grace. This is what Isaiah is inviting us to do this Advent.
If we were to put together the passages from Isaiah read on all four Sundays this Advent, the weeks unfold something like this: Isaiah 2:1-5, prepare and be ready to change; Isaiah 11:1-10, repent, make the changes; Isaiah 35:1-6a,10, open your eyes to see and your hearts in mercy in order to invite others; and Isaiah 7:10-14, welcome Him whether you think you adequately prepared a place or not and trust that Jesus comes anew. This is an incredibly consoling message because God wants us to know that whether or not we were successful in fulfilling our desire to prepare and change, Jesus will come anyhow. God knows we may fall short of our plans because He knows that we have many distractions and that all sorts of temptations surround us. He knows our energy will flag and our good intentions will falter. We will trip on the stony mountain as we attempt the ascent. But because of His mercy and love, He will come and accompany us nonetheless. What we will discover is that because we cannot ascend as we hoped, He will descend to us! The Son of God already did this: He left Heaven and descended to our ‘level’ by being born into our humanity so that we might be raised up with Him on the last day. He knows we cannot ascend to the top of God’s holy mountain without Him, so He comes to light the way for us that we might walk in His light.
God’s holy mountain is not elusive, nor is it in some distant land. Rather, God’s holy mountain is present within our hearts. Perhaps we can reflect upon the writings of Isaiah that are heard almost daily throughout this beautiful and pregnant Advent season. I suggest following the daily readings whether you can attend Mass or not. If you do not have a Missal, you can find them on the internet.* Either way the writings of Isaiah are a portal into understanding that the mountain of the Lord is not merely a metaphor, but that it is a reality in which we are invited to reside. We are reminded that if we let the Lord help, we can beat our swords into plowshares such that no matter what others do to us and no matter what the condition of the world, we can respond with peace and mercy. Our response is to accept the invitation to holiness which will then become a beacon of light to invite others into the love and mercy of God, too. The invitation is for everyone: all are welcomed. Therefore to open our hearts to Jesus means to open our hearts to everyone, just as He has. It means to discern His presence and to trust in His word. It means to allow our rough edges to be smoothed and to accept His descent into our world as a means to help us ascend the mountain together. Let us allow Him to write His word in our hearts so that we may shine with His light and therefore help others to walk in the light of the Lord, too.
May we accept the invitation of to ascend the mountain of the Lord and to walk in His light! May we allow the light of the Lord to shine brightly within that we might become beacons for others to also find the way! May we reflect upon the words of Isaiah so that we might become inspired to grow in peace, mercy, and holiness! May we persevere in our Advent journey without being discouraged when we become distracted, returning to the path if we do! And may we have the grace to prepare room in our hearts for Jesus anew! Marana tha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: The next entry will be on December 19.
* For the daily readings here is an excellent link which is found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site (USSCB) http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120416.cfm
I have posted for the Second Sunday in Advent, but the readings change daily. Here is the home page: http://www.usccb.org. You can get to the daily readings by clicking on the Bible tab.
First: I chose this Advent wreath which is lit for the Second Week of Advent because it was a rather bright image. It seemed to be in keeping with the theme of light in the passage from Isaiah that I quoted.
Second: This is one of my own photos taken in the Judean hills of southern Israel. I chose it because it seemed representative of the land of Israel and also of the people who were being alerted by Isaiah to make changes lest they lose everything. Something I noticed while traveling in Israel is that there are no terribly high mountains there. What they call mounts or mountains seem like hills in comparison to the great mountains of the world. This is why telling the people that God's holy mountain was greater than any mountain they had seen makes so much sense. If these were the 'mountains' they saw, and God's mountain was higher and greater, then His mountain must be something extra special and definitely fitting for God to reside upon.
Third: This icon is called Mother of God Stone Broke Loose From the Mountain, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. In the book Mother of God Similar to Fire, reflections by Mirabai Starr and icons by Fr. William Hart McNichols, the reflection on this icon beautifully speaks of God's protective presence (Shekhina) on the mountain. She writes: "Indwelling Spirit of the Divine, may your sacred power roll down from the mountain and transform the landscape into a place of peace. As Shekhina, the mist that guided our people in the wilderness, show us the way to freedom...." The Spirit of God is within but moves us to action so that we might spread peace in the barren landscape, so to speak. It was this reflection that inspired me to use this icon here. To purchase a copy of this icon in any medium from plaque to cards, go to http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-stone-broke-loose-from-the-mountain-160-william-hart-mcnichols.html
To see the rest of Mirabai's reflection or to obtain this very beautiful, moving book, go to https://www.amazon.com/Mother-Similar-Fire-William-McNichols/dp/1626981876/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1480781947&sr=1-6&keywords=mirabai+starr. It also makes a great gift!
Fourth: This is a photo I took while visiting the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Anuktuvuk Pass, Alaska, which is above the Arctic Circle. I chose this unusual selection because this mountain was absolutely captivating. It would be arduous to climb such a mountain, and maybe it seems impossible, but the waters of the river already flow down to us, just as Jesus will 'leave the mountain where God dwells' to descend to the earth.
Fifth: This is an inset from a painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna called Nativity Between the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. (1308-11) I chose this because I really liked the image of Isaiah with the scroll of his writing in one hand and the other pointing toward heaven, or quite possibly, toward God's holy mountain! The original painting is housed in the National Museum of Art in Washington, DC. To see the entire work you can go to http://www.ducciodibuoninsegna.org/Nativity-between-Prophets-Isaiah-and-Ezekiel-1308-11-large.html
Sixth: This is a depiction of the magi, or wise men, who have begun their journey to find the king who was to be born in Bethlehem. I loved this image because it shows the Star of Bethlehem is incredibly radiant, dominating the picture. We are invited into the light of God, just as they seem to be doing. It is indeed a journey, but God will guide us.
Heart Speaks to Heart