Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Octave Day of Christmas - Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary - The Mother of God

Catechism Links[1]
CCC 464-469: Jesus Christ, true God and true Man
CCC 495, 2677: Mary is the Mother of God
CCC 1, 52, 270, 294, 422, 654, 1709, 2009: our adoption as sons
CCC 527, 577-582: Jesus submits to the Law, and perfects it
CCC 580, 1972: the New Law frees from restrictions of the Old Law
CCC 683, 689, 1695, 2766, 2777-2778: in the Holy Spirit we can call God “Abba”
CCC 430-435, 2666-2668, 2812: the name of Jesus

“The Granduca Madonna”
 by Raffaello Sanzio,1504
Reading 1: Numbers 6:22-27
Commentary on Nm 6:22-27
This passage contains the “Priestly Blessing,” or the “Blessing of Aaron.” It was to be used by priests to bless the people of God. “…let his face shine upon you,” would indicate an act of divine pleasure. As Christians, the final strophe of the blessing: “The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace” is seen as being fulfilled at the birth of the Messiah, Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
R. (2a) May God bless us in his mercy.
Commentary on Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Psalm 67 is a blessing and has elements of the ancient blessing of Aaron from Numbers 6:22ff. This blessing has more of a plaintive tone (a group lament), or petition asking for a bountiful harvest. It points to the universal salvation promised by God to all the peoples.
Reading II: Galatians 4:4-7
Commentary on Gal 4:4-7
God sent his Son, born of a woman.” This passage, taken as part of the Gospel proclaimed by St. Paul, provides the Galatians with the important fact that Mary gave birth to Jesus. He did not mystically appear to us. Jesus is (was) true man: meaning he went through the biological birth process. It also means that Mary, the Mother of God, went through the difficult physical process of giving birth.
St. Paul goes on to remind us that, through this action, we are all adopted by God and are entitled to call God our Father, “Abba,” a familial term of endearment (translated into American usage as “daddy”).
CCC: Gal 4:1-7 1972; Gal 4:4-5 422; Gal 4:4 484, 488, 527, 531, 580, 702; Gal 4:5-7 1265; Gal 4:6 683, 689, 693, 742, 1695, 2766
Gospel: Luke 2:16-21
Commentary on Lk 2:16-21
The message, given to the shepherds by choirs of angels,that they in turn brought to Mary, that she kept and reflected about in her heart was: “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." (Luke 2 11-12)
This encounter with the shepherds further reinforces Mary’s faith, the acceptance of her child’s role explained to her by the Archangel Gabriel when this wonderful and tragic journey began.
CCC: Lk 2:19 2599; Lk 2:21 527
Homily for the Octave Day of Christmas – The Solemnity of Mary
First, let me wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year. This is a time when we generally take stock of what we want to accomplish in the upcoming year and resolve to take positive action to accomplish those new goals. We may vow to lose weight, save money, or to work harder at school or at our jobs.  Our New Year’s resolutions are made so that the year ahead will see us happier and more fulfilled going forward.  Ironically, we also celebrate on this day the Solemnity of Mary, the high feast day of the Blessed Virgin, in whose son’s birth we rejoiced just eight days ago.  I say “ironically” because she, more than any other saint we venerate, more than any other person in the history of humankind, points to that which can give us all the happiness and fulfillment we can imagine – the peace of her Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
On this holy Octave day of Christmas, St. Luke’s story of the nativity continues with the announcement by the shepherds of the news they had heard from the heavenly hosts (Luke 2:8-14).  In the context of the times, this would have been a singularly amazing event: shepherds abandoning their flocks (they never left their flocks), coming to the little town of Bethlehem in awe and wonder seeking a manger and a newborn child.
The Magi had not yet arrived and Joseph and his bride were in humble surroundings with their newborn child.  Here come a group of shepherds praising God, astounded to find this new King as they had been told, wrapped in swaddling clothes in the stable.  It was true, God’s messengers had announced this momentous birth, not to kings and princes, but to lowly shepherds.  It was they who gave the Prince of Peace the first praise upon his entry into the world as man.
Within this incredible scene is the new mother, Mary, Blessed Virgin, Mother of God’s great gift.  What must she have thought, seeing these reclusive herdsmen mysteriously drawn there by angelic choirs?  We recall that God’s touch-points with her had been early in her pregnancy.  She was told what to expect (as was St. Joseph) but that had been some time ago.  Even the greeting of St. Elizabeth (“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”) had been several months earlier.  The little mother must have been somewhat puzzled by the events as they had unfolded.  To our best knowledge, she was never told that she would not have this child in the traditional setting, in her home with kinswomen around her.  When she came due and delivered this baby in a manger of all places, she must have wondered if Gabriel’s message and St. Elizabeth’s greeting had been a dream. 
But here come shepherds, praising God and giving thanks for her Son, God’s Son, now nestled in her arms.  They spoke of heavenly hosts and glad tidings of great joy, and she knew, she knew it was all true.  This child she had carried and nurtured was destined to be the salvation of the world, and she had brought this new life into the world.  And this gift and responsibility she silently pondered, perhaps again saying in her heart: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  My spirit rejoices in God my savior!
In that opening offering from the Magnificat, we see the attitude of one truly “full of grace.” In her humility she shows us the grace of her then unborn Son, already giving the gift of God’s peace.  What more can we hope for from our New Year’s resolutions than to find an interior peace that gives us the ability to overcome all obstacles, to endure any trial?
As we consider what we hope to accomplish in this New Year, let us make a pledge to emulate Mother Mary, and put it at the very top of that list.  If we, like the Blessed Virgin, focus all our efforts for the greater Glory of God through Christ Jesus, our Mother’s prayers will be with us and our success will be that much more assured.
On this, the solemn feast of Mary, we remember how she began her wondrous and tragic journey.  We see her sacrifice, faith, and grace as examples of what we strive to become in the service of the Son she gave us, the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Today we pray fervently for her intercession, for she has become Queen of Heaven, and as such, has the special favor of her Son.  May we faithfully continue our journey to Jesus this year and conform ourselves to Him and his mother.

[1] Catechism links are taken from the Homiletic Directory, Published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 29 June 2014
[3] The picture is “The Granduca Madonna” by Raffaello Sanzio,1504

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

(Optional Memorial of Saint Sylvester I, Pope)

“Nativity” by Francesco Di Giorgio Martini, 1488-94
Reading 1: 1 John 2:18-21
Commentary on 1 Jn 2:18-21
After telling his community that they were armed against evil by their knowledge of Christ, the Apostle now tells them that the hour is near. Christ has died and is risen, and the second coming must be approaching. He warns them to be alert and watch out for the antichrist. (This designation occurs only in the writings of St. John. In Matthew and Mark they are called false messiahs, in St. Paul’s letters the same person(s) is designated “lawless one.”) This group of “antichrists” mentioned by the biblical authors seems to indicate a group of persons who were teaching falsely about Jesus.
St. John identifies these antichrists as individuals who schismatically leave the faith community, holding false premises. He then tells those who are faithful to be steadfast because they are anointed in the truth.
CCC: 1 Jn 2:18 670, 672, 675; 1 Jn 2:20 91, 695
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 96:1-2, 11-12, 13
R. (11a) Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
Commentary on Ps 96:1-2, 11-12, 13
This song of praise exhorts the people to praise the Lord for his wondrous works of creation. The reason for this exhortation is that God will come to rule the earth with his justice. In this passage we see the forerunner of the understanding of the New Jerusalem – the Heavenly Kingdom.
CCC: Ps 96:2 2143
Gospel: John 1:1-18
Commentary on Jn 1:1-18
The introduction of St. John’s Gospel first provides the description of the relationship of God and Jesus who is the Logos – or word of God. The Word is light to the world and all things are subordinate to the Word because they were created by and through the Word.
St. John then introduces John the Baptist as one who came to testify to the light (now homologous above with the Word). His message, like that of Jesus was not accepted by the very people created by the Lord. He goes on to say that those who accept Christ are adopted by God.
Concluding this selection, the Evangelist makes his own profession as he speaks of the incarnation of the eternal as “the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” His divinity is once more established as he says “…we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son.” This was the message St. John tells us he was sent to bring. He then reestablishes himself as messenger and servant of the one who sent him, Jesus. He says that while Moses brought the Law, Christ came and revealed God himself.
CCC: Jn 1:1-3 291; Jn 1:1 241, 454, 2780; Jn 1:3 268; Jn 1:4 612; Jn 1:6 717; Jn 1:7 719; Jn 1:9 1216; Jn 1:11 530; Jn 1:12-18 1996; Jn 1:12-13 706; Jn 1:12 526, 1692; Jn 1:13 496, 505, 526; Jn 1:14 423, 445, 454, 461, 594, 705, 2466; Jn 1:16 423, 504; Jn 1:17 2787; Jn 1:18 151, 454, 473
We are once more awed by the opening phrases of St. John’s Gospel as he tells us: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Even as we reflect on the profound implications of these words we are struck by the contrast in tone of the Evangelist’s First Letter that was our first reading.
There is something important in that first reading, something that is central to our belief in the Word.  If we truly believe in the truth, that “In the Beginning” (before time, before creation) Christ existed in the Father and with the Father, “…the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” if we believe this there is a transformation within us.  That transformation is accomplished in us by God at our Baptism and sealed in us at our Confirmation.  If some later event occurs that drives us away from God, if some antichrist or false teacher places a wedge between us and God, that change of character is still there.
In the Detroit, Michigan area a few years ago a 15 year old boy was in jail for shooting and killing a police officer.  They treated him as an adult.  As the image of this young man was shown on the TV screen sitting in the court room, we could not help but wonder where had he been twisted?  At what point had those entrusted with the light of faith failed to protect him from those who had taught him to disrespect civil authority, that violence was an acceptable path?
St. John is speaking to his congregation about a different sort of situation. He speaks of those converted but not baptized, who were, in a sense, shopping for something to believe in.  When they fall away from the Christian Community and began persecuting the Christians, some of the faithful wondered if God’s saving hand had left them. 
In our day and age we see the same kind of thing from time to time as aspirants, desperate to find something to believe in, “explore” the faith.  We know that those that leave, who reject the faith, often find it too difficult.  It requires them to change their lifestyles, attitudes, or secular views more than they are willing or able to do. In the analogy of the light of faith, they blaze instantly, like flash powder, but then go completely dark – essentially burning out.
Belief in the Logos, the Word made flesh and all that is implied by that belief, is hard.  Belief, true belief, requires us to act in certain ways, and often respond with counterintuitive actions, not in our best interests but out of love.  In this upcoming year, let us pledge to become more in tune with the Word, who was and is.  Let us work diligently to help the world become a better place where young people (and old) will not be left to the false teachers and antichrists of our day.

[2] The picture used today is “Nativity” by Francesco Di Giorgio Martini, 1488-94

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

“Presentation of Jesus at the Temple” by Andrea Celesti, c.
Reading 1: 1 John 2:12-17
Commentary on 1 Jn 2:12-17
St. John addresses his audience individually on sin and forgiveness using an interesting metaphor for the trinity: children, fathers, young men. The believing community he addresses is armed through faith against the evil one. He focuses in his last paragraph on avoiding the secular world. He exhorts them to separate themselves from “things” of the world, saying that they are of the world and therefore unworthy of special care, leading the faithful away from God (see also John 17:9-26 and John 15:18-27).
CCC: 1 Jn 2:16 377, 2514, 2534
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 96:7-8a, 8b-9, 10
R. (11a) Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
Commentary on Ps 96:7-8a, 8b-9, 10
While Psalm 96 is a song of praise, the psalmist reminds us that even in praise we need to offer what we have in gratitude. The structure is familiar: first we are given the audience ("you families of nations"), then the response ("bring gifts, and enter his courts"), and finally praise as a response from God ("he governs the peoples with equity").
Gospel: Luke 2:36-40
Commentary on Lk 2:36-40
Continuing the story surrounding the presentation of Jesus, in this passage St. Luke describes the prophetess Anna. This role, for widows to prophesy in the temple, was not uncommon. The symbolism depicting Anna has clear linkage back to Old Testament events. It begins with the number seven. Rabbinical literature recognizes seven as the number of prophetesses: Sarah and Miriam in Exodus 15:20, Deborah in  Judges 4:4, Hannah mother of Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:1, Abigail wife of David in 1 Samuel 25:32, Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14, and Esther. These women gave witness to God’s will, at least in their holiness, and spoke in his name. Anna, in this prophetic role (Phanuel translates as “face of God” and Asher as “good luck”), echoes the words of Simeon saying that this young baby (Jesus) is the redemption of Jerusalem. The city, in this instance, represents all of the elect.
The final verses provide a glimpse of Jesus’ necessary hidden life in Nazareth. He grows in faith and stature in preparation for the mission assigned to him.
CCC: Lk 2:38 711
The timing of the first reading from 1 John is very good.  It is almost a week since the great secular glut of commercial Christmas and its aftermath, the post-Christmas feeding frenzy.  Just as we see the children tiring of their new toys and games and the adults thinking about returning to the routines of making their way in the world, the evangelist addresses himself to us.  He reminds us first about the meaning of the Nativity whose octave we are still in: “…your sins have been forgiven for his name’s sake.”  He then goes on to restate the great Christian paradox found in his own Gospel, to be part of the world but separate from it. 
The Evangelist warns us about what we just went through, “…sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life,” all part of the commercial Christmas.  It is so pervasive that in the U.S., even religious people of non-Christian denominations gather and buy gifts with no attachment whatsoever to the birth of the Savior.
These are not the things of God but, as St. John says, things of the world.  The Christian must be in the world but stand apart from it.  What is truly important is not how well we did “under the tree,” but how well we did by the standards of him who loves us. The Lord came as not just a symbol of love, but love itself into the world.  Even as we think about taking extra good care of the new golf clubs or the new appliance, we should ask ourselves what we are doing to take care of what is really important in ourselves.
Today we are reminded of our Christian duty and the role we are called to play in God’s plan.  He casts us into the world like seeds so that we might transform it (not be transformed by it).  Today our voices join with the Prophetess Anna in thanking God for the gift of the Christ Child, and pledging to rededicate ourselves to the cause which brought him into the world.

[2] The picture is “Presentation of Jesus at the Temple” by Andrea Celesti, c. 1710

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

(Optional Memorial for Saint Thomas Becket, Bishop, Martyr)

“Presentation of Jesus in the Temple 
by Vittore Carpaccio, 1510
Reading 1: 1 John 2:3-11
Commentary on 1 Jn 2:3-11
This selection provides two consistent teachings of St. John. First is the injunction to keep Jesus' commandments. He uses the same formula we have heard before in this letter. If you say you belong to Christ but do not follow his commandments, you are a liar.
The second teaching is his favorite, perhaps because it is part of the great commandment and fundamental to everything taught by the Lord: “Love one another.” Here St. John again uses the darkness and light theme to demonstrate that the one who walks with Christ is in the light and the one who does not walks in darkness and is lost: “…he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 5b-6
R. (11a)  Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
Commentary on Ps 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 5b-6
Psalm 96 is a song of praise acknowledging God as King of all the earth. It has roots in 1 Chronicles 16:8-36 as part of a chant of thanksgiving during the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant to the temple in Jerusalem, but most importantly it celebrates God’s omnipotence and enduring salvation.
CCC: Ps 96:2 2143
Gospel: Luke 2:22-35
Commentary on Lk 2:22-35
St. Luke’s account of Jesus being presented at the Temple provides a unique insight into the Holy Family. They are faithful observes of the Law of Moses.
At the time Jesus is presented at the temple as required by strict Jewish Law, we find Simeon, probably an old man in the last years of his life, (“…looking forward to the restoration of God's rule in Israel”). Simeon does two important things here: he affirms the nativity story with his profession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the one who came for all, so that all might be renewed in Christ and in God the Father, (“…my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel”).
The second of Simeon’s actions is to predict to Mary the difficulty her Son will encounter in his ministry (“…to be a sign that will be contradicted”), and the pain it will cause Mary herself: “and you yourself a sword will pierce.
CCC: Lk 2:22-39 529, 583; Lk 2:25 711; Lk 2:26-27 695; Lk 2:32 713; Lk 2:34 575, 587; Lk 2:35 149, 618
Sacred scripture paints another aspect of the picture surrounding the events of the Nativity of the Lord with the story of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  The Church celebrates a separate feast to honor this occasion later in the year (February 2nd).  As we consider what takes place in this setting, the Presentation takes its place with other things going on in the life of the Holy Family.  We know that they must flee to Egypt and that Herod is (or has) committed infanticide to stop the infant Jesus from fulfilling his task.  We are not precisely sure of the exact timing (according to Hebrew Law, this event should have occurred forty days following Jesus’ birth), but like all things in the remarkable life of Jesus, this one too has a purpose.
The event itself shows that Mary and Joseph are scrupulous in following Hebrew regulations.  This is important because the Jews at the time, who would have been the first Christians, must have been taught that accepting Christ was not something that went against their faith, but was a completion of it.  The Holy Family did not flout Jewish Law and tradition as some of the contemporary religious leaders were trying to say; they were faithful to a fault.
In the temple they encounter another important person in Simeon.  Simeon, we are told, was a holy man whom God had already blessed with a long and faithful life.  His final desire, the prayer request he had made of God, was that he be allowed to see the Hebrew Prophecy of the coming Messiah fulfilled. Through the eyes of faith, his prayer was answered and he called out (in the words of our Night Prayer Canticle):
“Lord, now let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you prepared in the sight of every people,
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.”
Mary and Joseph must have been surprised by this in spite of their previous angelic counseling and the events of the Lord’s birth.  (This event necessarily followed the arrival of the Magi and their return from Bethlehem so they would accept this kind of reaction from individuals who were filled with God’s spirit.)  It may not even have surprised them that they were singled out among all the other parents bringing in children for this kind of attention, even though there were almost certainly many others following the same prescription of the law.
For us, now hearing this story once more, these amazing circumstances do not cause us to be surprised or awe stricken as those first Jewish converts must have been.  What it should do, however, is remind us that this event represents another step in our continuous encounter with God the Most High Father, an encounter that has been taking place since the beginning of human existence.  Today, still basking in the glow of the festival lights of Christmas, we are reminded that this event is a beginning, and that what must now unfold is to fulfill the Father’s plan.  We remember also that that great plan continues and that we are a part of it.

[2] The picture is “Presentation of Jesus in the Temple” by Vittore Carpaccio, 1510