Embracing the Darkness of Night
In the second half of Advent there is a heightened sense of longing which is evident in the readings as well as in the prayers of the Church. On December 17 we begin hearing what are referred to as the “O Antiphons” at Evening Prayer and during the Gospel Acclamation at Mass, a series of verses that are descriptions of the Messiah such as “O Key of David” or “O King of all nations and keystone of the Church.” The second major sign of the intensified longing is found in the Preface prayer said by the priest at Mass just before the “Holy, Holy” prayer: “…the Virgin Mother longed for Him with love beyond all telling….” Reflection upon this part of the prayer gives us some sense of what it must have been like for Mary in her nine months of waiting for this holy Child to be born. She must have longed to finally see Him, as all mothers have a similar longing during their pregnancies. But it was also a dark time historically, arguably not unlike our times in some ways. The longing of the people was for a savior who would finally come and set them free. Just when it seemed darkest, Mary received an angel into her room and in the ensuing encounter she spoke a resounding, though humble, “Yes!” Later, a man named Joseph also experienced a healing presence in the darkness of night; in a dream the same angel came to him with the message that Mary was truthful and that he would be the earthly (foster) father of the one who was to be the Light in the Darkness: God would bend so low that He would become close in a whole new way: He would become one of us.
With the emphasis on longing in all the Scripture readings and prayers, it is not until the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year that we even have a mention of Joseph and Mary. On that day the gospel focuses on the Annunciation event in which Mary is greeted by the angel and humbly speaks the most important reply in salvation history: “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) And in the first reading we get the connection to Joseph. (2 Sam 7: 1-16) The passage we hear is the one in which God makes the promise to David that from his lineage would come the Messiah: “The Lord reveals to you that He will establish a house for you…” David is the ancestor of Joseph, and thus in Joseph the messianic promise is fulfilled as soon as he takes Mary as his wife and gives Jesus the “house” (family) to be born into. And if we somehow miss the connection of David to Joseph in that reading, there is always the gospel of the Christmas (Eve) Vigil Mass to make it clear. Some people yawn and ‘roll their spiritual eyes’ when they hear this gospel because it is the genealogy of Jesus, a seemingly nondescript list of names. But we hear it for a reason: it is an essential piece of Christmas Scripture because it ties Joseph to his ancestor David, and in its structure shows that all along God had a plan, delineating how God fulfilled the promise made to David that the messiah would come from his line. It also reminds us of the importance of Joseph in salvation history. Simply put, in the way God chose to act: no Joseph, no Jesus.
Jesus needed a family into which He could be born. Having only an unwed mother would have been simply impossible in that culture. Mary would have appeared to be having a child outside of wedlock, something which was punishable by death according to Mosaic Law. But Joseph was not simply utilitarian, as some sort of ‘convenience’ for God to make things legitimate for Mary. If that was the case, God could have chosen any good man for the job. Rather, God chose this man of all those who came from that Davidic line for good reason. That Joseph was already a holy man is undisputed: he was described by Matthew as righteous, which means he was a man who understood his Jewish faith, possessing a sense of mercy and justice. Joseph was a man of discernment and had knowledge of the Scriptures, but it was the result of his prayer life which gave him the proper disposition for the difficult task of being the father-figure for Jesus: He already knew God and therefore understood fatherhood. Because he was already endowed with spiritual gifts, Joseph was the man God needed to assist Mary in her role and to assist Jesus in His. Joseph knew that the true spouse of Mary was the Holy Spirit, but it was his humility and love which enabled him to assent to this role. He loved Mary very dearly and he loved God with his entire heart and soul.
Joseph teaches us to trust in God. He was given scant details about what he was to do when the angel came to him in that first dream. But he trusted God so completely that he was able to do exactly what was needed, and to do it with the greatest of all humility. There is less about Joseph in the New Testament than just about any other figure – (in fact, he does not utter even one word in any of the gospels) – and yet his role was of the utmost importance in enabling the mission of Jesus. When reflecting upon what sort of man Joseph may have been it seems evident that he was a man of peace and at peace. Surely he was a man of peace, since he knew the Law and the Scripture well and was described as righteous. But despite the dark times, he must have also been at peace because he trusted God to help him in his role as earthly father of Jesus. Therefore he must have been at peace with himself and with the resulting hiddenness his role would take on. Even if he had been aware it would be so, it probably did not matter to him that he would become the most unknown and mysterious saint in Christian history. What mattered to him was that he did the will of God and to do that, he had to be a man of quiet depth and of trusting prayer. He simply gave everything he had to God and to the role to which he was called.
As quiet as Joseph is, we are wise to seek him in these last days of Advent. We are wise if we let Joseph be a calming influence by asking him to assist us in putting all our cares into the hands of God so that we are not burdened by them. We are wise if we let Joseph teach us how to discern, to ‘hear the voice of God’ as we sleep and to be alert to His presence in our work. We are wise if we ask St. Joseph’s intercession to help us find the way to reach out to those in need, but also to ask him how to find comfort in the midst of our own suffering. It seems to me that Joseph did not ask God to alleviate his fears so much as he may have asked for the courage and forbearance to work through them. I am sure he quaked with fear when the Roman soldiers questioned him at the census in Bethlehem, and I am sure he was quite anxious when inn after inn had no room for him and his pregnant wife in that first Advent. After all, Joseph, like all other holy people, was not perfect. But that he was able to carry out everything according to God’s plan is evidence enough that he had the fortitude, born of trust, to forge ahead.
As Advent draws to a close and Christmas morning is on the horizon let us strive to be more like Joseph by embracing the darkness of the night so that we might find a place for Jesus, the true Light of the World. Like Joseph we can find the peace of Christ for our own doubtful and restless hearts as we enter the stable, and therefore we can show those who are suffering, lost, cold, and lonely the way to Jesus, too. From Joseph we can learn humility such that we understand more deeply that the world does not depend upon us, but that God does. He shows us that it is not about self, it is not about what the world urges us to do, it is not even about doing anything at all; rather, it is about opening our hearts, letting go of our fears and also our plans, trusting that God will labor with us for the good of all. If we are willing to work without attention, but rather with great love and mercy to bring Jesus to those who are in need, we can do as he did. It is in quiet, humble, loving acts that we emulate St. Joseph and it is in this that he will lead us closer to Jesus, in whom we find our peace.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Joseph that we would grow in humility, wisdom, and love! May we seek the light of Jesus in the darkness without anxiety or fearfulness! May we learn to hear the voice of God in the angels who walk among us, and may we have the discernment of heart to recognize them! May we have the mercy and love to reach out to those who are suffering, lost, or are searching for the way to Jesus! And may we learn to trust in God completely, that we let go of our cares and simply rest in the comfort of the stable with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus! Maranatha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be on January 1, 2018. Meanwhile, may you have a grace-filled remainder of Advent and a Joyous Christmas!
1. This is a photograph I took while in Baveno, a town on Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. These are the lights in the houses in the town which is on the hillside. I selected it for the beginning of the blog because it shows the darkness of night, but with the comfort of light from above as well as in the homes.
2. This painting is called David and Nathan by Matthias Scheits (1630-1700). I chose it because David received word of the Messianic Promise through the prophet Nathan who delivered the message from God that the messiah would be a descendant of David.
3. This painting is from the series called 11 Scenes in the Life of the Virgin, #5 - Marriage of the Virgin, by Giotto di Bondone. (Painted between 1304-1306) I chose it because I loved the humble postures of Joseph and Mary, but I especially loved Giotto's hint at Mary's pregnancy: her hand is on her slightly swollen womb, indicating a loving gesture to the Child growing within. You can find the painting at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_di_Bondone_-_No._11_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_the_Virgin_-_5._Marriage_of_the_Virgin_-_WGA09183.jpg
4. This is my photo of a statue I have called Sleeping Saint Joseph, a favorite statue of Pope Francis. It has become quite popular as a result of a homily he once gave. I chose to put the photo of the statue here because St. Joseph looks like he is sleeping peacefully, trusting so deeply in the Lord that he can rest despite the hardships he and his Holy Family faced.
5. This is an icon called St. Joseph Shadow of the Father by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I love that the child Jesus seems to resemble Joseph even though the only genes He would have received were those of Mary. I love the resemblance because it shows that Jesus truly
was in a father-son relationship with Joseph; that Jesus treated Joseph as such shows the greatest humility and respect. It also reveals how holy Joseph was and how much Jesus loved him. You can find this icon for purchase in one of many mediums (or for a closer look) at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-joseph-shadow-of-the-father-039-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. This is a Christmas scene from a card I received many years ago. I just loved the jubilation seen in one of the shepherds.
7. I chose to use the Advent wreath with all four candles lit for two reasons. First, this post is for late Advent, so even though it will be posted just after the Third Sunday of Advent it is appropriate to hint at it being late in the season. And second, the fourth week of Advent is so short this year that I wanted to give a bit more emphasis to it.
Mountain and Desert
The new liturgical year has begun, Advent has finally arrived. And yet in all the Sunday readings of the inaugural week of this season of hope and expectation there is no mention of an angel coming with a message, or of Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, or John the Baptist. For that matter, the word ‘messiah’ is not even mentioned in any of these readings! We do have the usual presence of the prophecy of Isaiah, but not from the passages we expect. We do not hear anything but a longing for God who seems to have “hidden His face.” Rather than being perplexed, perhaps this is an invitation to enter into Advent from a different viewpoint this year. Instead of looking to the narrative of events concerning the participants in the infancy stories, (which is not to say they should be omitted from our reflection), let us look at how the first Advent was facilitated. In other words, rather than focusing on the Father who sends the Son to Mary and Joseph, and hence to the world, let’s reflect upon the role of the Holy Spirit so that we might come to some new insights. It is the Spirit who is present upon the holy mountain spoken of by Isaiah and it is He who leads us to the desert to hear the message of John the Baptist. If we approach Advent in this way, perhaps we might find the presence of the Spirit of God just as they did, and therefore be led by a new path to the One for whom we long: Jesus the Christ.
Many of the prophets of the Old Testament used the image of God’s holy mountain in their writing, especially in the messianic prophecies. Isaiah wrote of it the most, but we also hear of it from other prophets such as Zechariah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and even Obadiah. The term comes from the fact that God made His presence known on mountains throughout the Old Testament and therefore it is a symbol of the place of safety where God dwells. The most obvious example is when God revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush and then led His newly freed people by fire and cloud to Mt. Sinai, the Holy Mountain, to deliver the Law to them. Upon that mountain the presence of God was revealed in the bright cloud, and it was into this cloud that Moses went to intimately converse with Him. This cloud is known as the Shekinah, God’s protective presence, and it is the essence of God’s glory. Because it had not yet been revealed that God is one God in three Persons, the people did not know to associate the Shekinah with the third Person of the Trinity.
Over time the people forgot how to see and hear, to recognize how God was present to them. Blinded by sin and temptation, they ended up losing everything they had. Throughout this time the prophets tried to warn them with messages of God’s judgment, but also shared consoling messages of God’s mercy for the faithful remnant. In the latter messages, there were many references to God’s holy mountain (Zion) as the place of refuge to which they would eventually be brought. The presence of God’s glory there, His Shekinah presence, (aka the Holy Spirit), was implicit in this message. Later, it was the same Spirit of God who would also speak to them from the desert when it was time for John the Baptist to alert the faithful about the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, the message we hear in these first weeks of Advent describes the mountain which is longed for and the desert where His voice is heard. It will be John the Baptist who carries on the message of Isaiah, although with seemingly more urgency, to learn to spiritually hear and see again, things we can only do under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Though we will not hear a lot about anyone except John the Baptist on the Sundays of Advent this year, the gospels read at daily Mass will highlight the way the Holy Spirit works through all those with whom we are familiar in the gospel narratives.* In Luke, after Zechariah learned to recognize the true inspiration of the Spirit spoken through the angel, his tongue was loosed and he glorified God in prophecy about the mission of his son John. Mary, a virgin, said yes to the angel’s message from God and became pregnant through the ‘overshadowing’ of the Holy Spirit; hence, He is her true Spouse. Joseph heard a message in a dream that he could trust what Mary had told him. It is the Holy Spirit who helped him to recognize the message as true. Again, it was the Spirit who enabled the pregnant Elizabeth to recognize that Mary, who had come to serve her, was pregnant with the Son of God. She reported that the moment Mary’s greeting met her ears, the baby leapt for joy in her womb. Finally, we hear that the Holy Spirit brought all of them joy and peace, but also the courage to accomplish the mission to which each one was called. (Luke 1&2)
It is the Holy Spirit who brings the Son and it is He who enabled each of the holy people in the Advent narratives to recognize the presence of God. Instead of emptiness they recognized fullness, instead of darkness they found light, and instead of silence they heard the voice of God. To learn the art of recognition, (or discernment), as they did, we can ask the Spirit to teach us during this Advent so that we can begin to tell the difference between an empty void and a silence which is brimming with life. Just as when one awakens on a winter morning and without seeing, recognizes the silence caused by fallen snow, so too can we learn to tell the difference spiritually between the silence which comes from a vacuum and that which is a pregnant silence. A vacuous silence is one in which all the air has been sucked out and there is no life: it is simply empty and devoid of invitation. A pregnant silence is one which is active, alive, and filled with possibilities. A vacuous silence is one in which boredom reigns and it is utterly uninspiring; a pregnant silence is one which is ripe for an insight, an “aha!” moment, in which we are fertile for revelation from God. With a disposition of openness we can receive God’s message, having prepared a place through our stance of active listening. Discernment is like that: we learn to let the Holy Spirit teach us to recognize, to see and to hear that which makes our hearts leap with joy, burn with love, and be inspired to action in mercy and care for another.
Our call this Advent is to learn to discern the message of love from God which will guide us on the road from the desert, to the stable, and then to the holy mountain. We can learn to recognize the Spirit in joy like Elizabeth, to welcome and proclaim like Zechariah, to be courageous in living the message like John, to trust God’s promptings like Joseph, and to join our hearts humbly to His like Mary. It is the Holy Spirit who enables all of this just as He did in that first Advent as they waited for the Messiah to be born. ‘From the holy mountain’ the Father sent His Son, and it was the love of the Holy Spirit which enabled His coming by preparing the hearts of the faithful ones. If we want to have a meaningful Advent, then, our prayer should be to beg the Holy Spirit to help us see and hear, that is, to recognize His presence. With His help, we can enter into the pregnant Advent silence and learn to recognize the inspiration which urges us to act: with courage to bring His message in word and deed to the downtrodden, with joy to those who are in darkness, loneliness and despair, with trust when we do not understand why things happen as they do, and with humility when we reach out to those who are most difficult to love.
If we do not recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who leads us to Jesus, if we do not recognize Him in the silence, then we risk having a heart unprepared for Jesus’ coming. It is the Spirit who guides our way through the message of the Old Testament prophets and that of John the Baptist. He assists us in our reflection upon the readings which are unique to this Advent and can reveal deeper riches than might be obvious at first. If we let Him help prepare our hearts, this time of preparation for the coming of Jesus can be something that is truly new and alive. The Spirit can help us to discern the way not only for ourselves, but He can show us how to reach out to our brothers and sisters too, as Spirit led, we find our way back to God’s holy mountain together.
May we find the Holy Spirit in both mountain and desert during this Advent season so that He might guide our hearts to Jesus! May we learn how to discern God’s presence in the silence of prayer! May we be renewed in our sense of purpose and in our mission in service of Jesus! May we not be afraid to share our faith with others or to assist them in finding God through our words and deeds! May we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus through works of mercy and compassion! And may our awareness of the depth of God’s love and mercy be ever deepened during this Advent journey! Maranatha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* We just began Year B in the three year cycle of Sunday readings. You might be more familiar with the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke which do not appear in this cycle. Suggestion: As an Advent preparation, I highly recommend reflection upon the Mass readings from each day of the season so that you can let the Spirit guide you to deeper understanding. It is in the daily Mass readings that you will find more of the rich prophecy of Isaiah and also the infancy narrative readings which can help the Sunday readings to have more of a context.
Note: Next post will be on December 18.
1. This is one of my photos. This is the Judean desert not far from the Dead Sea. You can see a mountain in the distance amid the barrenness of the desert. This photo seemed to exemplify the mountain and desert theme, thus inclusion at the beginning of the post. If you gaze at it long enough, the Spirit might enable you to hear the voice of "one crying out in the desert:" John.
2. This is another of my photos, taken in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It seems to be a burning bush, or at least the explosion of gold makes me think of it as such. If one looks closely enough, every common bush is afire. ~ Apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning; a reference to Aurora Leigh, #86, verses 61-64. See http://www.bartleby.com/236/86.html
3. This is an icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. John The Forerunner Also The Baptist. I chose it here because it shows both mountain and desert. John is preaching in the desert, but as I am applying it, the mountain is the source of his inspiration insofar as it is a reference to God's holy mountain. You can find this icon for purchase in multiple formats at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-john-the-forerunner-also-the-baptist-082-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
4. This icon is also the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Mother of God Overshadowed By The Holy Spirit. It is one of my favorite icons written by Fr. Bill, (though I admit to saying that about almost all of his Marian icons), and that is partly why I chose it for this spot in the entry. The Spirit overshadows the praying Virgin Mary. It is too exquisite to make further comment. It can be found, also for purchase, in one of many mediums at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-mother-of-god-overshadowed-by-the-holy-spirit-118-william-hart-mcnichols.html. (What a terrific Advent greeting card it makes!)
5. This gorgeous snow scene is the work of Claude Monet called Environs de Honfleur, Neige, (Neighborhood of Honfleur, Snow) (1866-67). It seems to embody the example I used about the silence of a fallen snow. For those who do not live in a northern area and are unfamiliar with snow, a blanket of fresh overnight snow creates a hush over everything and one can indeed tell that it has snowed before even arising from bed. It is the most wondrous 'sound' because there is no sound, but yet it is full of possibility. Also note the bird flying overhead. The Holy Spirit perhaps?
6. This is a photo I took while in Palo Duro Canyon Park, north Texas. It fit well here because it shows what appear to be two diverging path choices in the desert as well as a mountain in the background.
7. I took this photo at Copper Mountain, Colorado, at sunset. I love the colors that are reflected on the clouds from a setting sun which is out of sight. I chose it because it reminded me of the process of discernment in which the Holy Spirit can be reflected in our prayer. We do not see God, but we see His action reflected in the response of our heart and then in the subsequent inspiration to offer acts of love and mercy.
8. This drawing of an Advent wreath is obviously for the first week of Advent. I thought it was appropriate to end with this image to remind us that we have now begun the journey to Christmas, and so we seek Jesus, the One who has already come into the world long ago, but Who we continually strive to bring anew to those who seek...such as ourselves.
Heart Speaks to Heart