Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Thursday of the First Week in Advent

“The House Upon the Rock and 
The House Upon the Sand” 
by William James Webb, c. 1860
Reading 1: Isaiah 26:1-6
Commentary on Is 26:1-6
This selection from the book of Isaiah is part of a longer psalm of thanksgiving (Isaiah 25:1-27:1). It celebrates the ultimate victory of God as if it had already taken place. The vision of a secure and indomitable fortress, protected by faith in God is portrayed. That foundation of faith is like a rock which will endure forever. The passage also contains a warning, as the prophet sees cities not founded on that same rock being destroyed, trampled by the poor for whom God has special care.
R. (26a) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
R. Alleluia.
Psalm 118 is a song of thanksgiving.  In these strophes, praise is given to God who is our refuge and protection.  The heavenly city is envisioned with “gates of justice” into which the faithful enter to receive mercy and salvation from God. It was used as a processional psalm by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem, anticipating the great temple of their faith.
CCC: Ps 118:26 559
Commentary on Mt 7:21, 24-27
This is the final section of the first of five great discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. In it, Jesus continues his attack on “false prophets” that began in verse 15. Here the Lord makes a distinction between saying and doing. The familiar metaphor of the “house built upon rock” refers to those who hear the word of the Lord from an authentic source and act upon it. The house built on sand is a metaphor for those who either are not taught authentically (by false prophets), or who do not act upon what they have been given.
CCC: Mt 7:21-27 1970; Mt 7:21 443, 1821, 2611, 2826
We consider for a moment the analogy of the house built upon sand and the house built upon rock.  When Jesus was teaching the disciples, his intent was to warn them that there were others around at the time who claimed to be teaching God’s word.  They led people down false paths, like the Jews who taught that there was no resurrection.  Think of it, what if they had followed one of those who stole the hope of the life Christ promised?  Only when it was too late and they were on their death bed would they realize how bleak and empty those teachings had been.  Truly, the foundations of those false teachings were built upon sand.
The same thing is going on today.  How often do we hear the New Age philosophers proposing old arguments that they have tried to make new with different words.  They spout the same rhetoric that has been proposed by atheists and hedonists from the earliest of the Greek Philosophers.  In the end, all of that talk comes from arrogance and greed, misguided enthusiasm that, when challenged by the real world, crumbles like sand in water, washed away, unable to support even the weight of itself.
The unfortunate part of this situation is that these “false teachings” are so much easier to follow than Christianity.  The words used to describe them seem so warm and inviting, and the way they attack orthodox teaching makes the path of Christ out to be cruel and ignorant.  They use words like “celebrating diversity” to describe their cause, and describe those whose moral compass points differently as “haters.”  At the base of these attacks is the desire to follow only their baser instincts, ignoring the discipline of faith.
For us, we place our faith in Jesus, who gives us strength to endure all that life might throw at us.  While the storms of life might not shake our foundation of faith, those storms are relentless.  Like any structure, the only way to keep the faith, which is our foundation, strong is through constant maintenance.  Even the great pyramids may erode in the face of constant wind and sand.
In that regard, we may think of this Advent season as “Winter Maintenance” (spring maintenance for our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere).  Let us take this season of anticipation to renew our foundation through prayer, strengthen it with sacramental grace, and redecorate it with acts of charity.  When the Lord comes, may he find that foundation strong, without cracks, ready to bear up through an eternal life which he promised.

[1] The picture is “The House Upon the Rock and The House Upon the Sand” by William James Webb, c. 1860

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Feast of Saint Andrew, Apostle

“St. Andrew” 
taken from an antique French Holy Card, 
Artist and Date UNKNOWN.
Reading 1: Romans 10:9-18
Commentary on Rom 10:9-18
As part of his dialogue regarding why the Jews had failed in their mission, St. Paul calls upon the Roman Christians to profess their belief that Jesus is the Son of God, divine in his own person.  The Jewish converts could not say the name of God but referred instead to Yahweh as “Lord.”  By asking the Christians to “…confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord“, they professed their belief in his divinity and what flowed from that profession was justification (to be made just as if one had not sinned).  In justification is salvation since the physical act of confessing with the lips must come from an interior faith from the heart.
The Evangelist continues his call to faith explaining that this path to salvation is open to all peoples (“There is no distinction between Jew and Greek”).  This invitation does not have any prerequisites (i.e. one does not have to have come to belief through Judaism) to be unified in Christ, paraphrasing Isaiah 28:16.
In the next section (v. 14-21) St. Paul poses questions as to why the Jewish people forfeited their status as favorites in the eyes of God.  Perhaps there were reasons which he rhetorically proposes and then rejects: did they not hear; did they not understand?  To the question, have they not heard?  St. Paul responds quoting Psalm 19:5, which concludes this passage.
CCC: Rom 10:9 343, 186, 449; Rom 10:12-13 2739; Rom 10:13 2666; Rom 10:14-15 875; Rom 10:17 875
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11
R. (10) The judgments of the Lord are true, and all of them are just.
R. (John 6:63) Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
Commentary on Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11
Psalm 19 is a hymn of praise. In this passage, we give praise to God’s gift of the Law which guides us in our daily lives. The hymn also extols the virtue of obedience and steadfastness to the Law and its precepts. The passage also reflects the idea that following God’s statutes leads to peace and prosperity.
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-22
Commentary on Mt 4:18-22
This passage is the account in St. Matthew’s Gospel of the call of the first disciples.  The important principle provided in this episode is the fact that the four disciples called by Jesus, the first four, followed the Lord immediately.  It is recorded that they left their entire livelihood and all their possessions behind and followed Jesus. (A similar abruptness is found also in the call of Levi, Matthew 9:9.)
Ironically the notes on this section point out that three of the four called, Peter, James, and John, are distinguished by a particular closeness to Jesus.  The reason that Matthew’s account indicates the disciples left work and family immediately, without any explanation, may be due in part to Andrew’s earlier encounter with Jesus as a disciple of John the Baptist (John 1:40).
CCC: Mt 4:19 878; Mt 4:21 878
What would the world be like if St. Andrew had not become a disciple of St. John the Baptist?  We don’t know what called him to follow the Voice, to become a member of that close circle of devout followers.  But we do know that if the Apostle had not, he would never have been sent, as tradition holds, with his companion to ask Jesus if he was the one to come or if they should expect someone else.
And what if he had not gone to the Lord and heard those words: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Luke 7:22)?  Those words had meaning beyond the obvious.  While indeed the blind, the lame, and deaf were healed, those events were a direct reference to the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1).
And what did St. Andrew do?  He returned to the Baptist and then, perhaps taking St. John’s own mission to the next level went immediately to his brother (John 1:37-40).  The words he spoke to him echo through the thousands of years that have passed.  They are graven in the heart of every Christian who has ever come to faith, "We have found the Messiah."
From that point forward the profession of faith made by and to the brother of the one who would be given the Keys to the Kingdom would shape the whole world.  From St. Peter and those first four disciples would be added eight more, including the one who betrayed him.  From them, the Gospel of the Lord would travel to every part of the world.  It began with a simple statement of faith - "We have found the Messiah."
Today as we celebrate the feast day of St. Andrew, we thank God for the gift of faith, the faith he gave St. Andrew and all the Apostles and the faith he gives us.  We ask on this day that St. Andrew will intercede for us and the one he found will bless us with an abundance of faith so that we in our turn may announce it to the world - "We have found the Messiah."

[1] The picture is “St. Andrew” taken from an antique French Holy Card, Artist and Date UNKNOWN.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

“Tree of Jesse” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1500
Reading 1: Isaiah 11:1-10
Commentary on Is 11:1-10
Isaiah predicts that the line of David will produce the Messiah with the first verse: “stump of Jesse,” King David’s father. The stump refers to the line of David being cut back during the Babylonian Exile. For the first time in scripture, the prophet then presents the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.[4] (Note also the reference to fullness. In Hebrew numerology the number “7” is the perfect number.) In the Septuagint and the Vulgate, the word "piety" is coupled with “fear of the Lord.
The description of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is followed with a list of the just and compassionate characteristics of the messianic rule. This is followed by a picture of universal peace under the messiah’s rule. Isaiah sees the return of the messianic King as predicting that the messiah will come from King David’s line and will ultimately bring great peace. The term used, “…on all my holy mountain” indicates this peace is for all the faithful, not just those in Jerusalem.
CCC: Is 11:1-9 672; Is 11:1-2 712, 1831; Is 11:2 436, 536, 1286
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
R. (see 7) Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.
This Royal Psalm extols the virtuous characteristics of justice and compassion. In this selection we hear an echo of the justice and peace of the King’s rule that is reiterated in Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 11:1-10).
Gospel: Luke 10:21-24
Commentary on Lk 10:21-24
Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit because his disciples have understood his role of Messiah in the kingdom. He restates his relationship as Son of God: “No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." The inference here is that we must approach our faith with “childlike” belief and trust in order to achieve true understanding.
Earlier in this chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sent out the seventy (two). Just prior to this selection (Luke 10:17-20), they returned and reported great success in doing what the Lord asked of them. These verses are his prayer of thanks to the Father. The Lord gives thanks that God has seen fit to reveal his identity and pass on his power to these disciples of his. It is reiterated that the Kingdom of God shall be revealed to the childlike (see also Luke 8:10).  Turning to his disciples, he tells them that the victory they are witnessing is the Good News, hoped for by prophets and kings throughout history.
CCC: Lk 10:21-23 2603; Lk 10:21 1083
As we hear the words of St. Luke today, how Jesus is caught up in the Holy Spirit and begins to pray, thanking God for his aid in the Lord’s mission, we can’t help but remember Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  This great science fiction epic was written by in 1870. At one point in the story, the infamous Captain Nemo was asked if he intended to share his great scientific discoveries with the rest of the world. He informed his prisoner/narrator, Professor Aronnax, that he would never do that because the world was not ready for so great a power. This story is recalled because Jesus rejoices for the opposite reason.
While the great knowledge and power of the mythical antagonist in the novel needs to be kept secret, the great knowledge and power of the Lord must be spread, so that all might have access to it and find hope as a result. This Advent season, as we look forward with hope to the Lord’s coming, we are reminded that this anticipation and hope are not shared by all of those we meet. Incredible as it seems to us, many of our colleagues, friends, and acquaintances think of this season only for the presents they must buy, and the orgy of commercialism that infuses the economy of the country with great strength because of all the money that is spent. They do not realize that our Advent is first devoted to preparing for the Lord’s return, when he will come again in glory!
In the Gospel, the Lord rejoices because God’s word has reached so many others. He thanks his Father that their ears have been opened by the words and works of his followers. This is the legacy we have been handed. As we prepare ourselves to join the Lord when he comes again, and to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, we recall that we too are asked to joyfully make known the reason for the season (cliché but appropriate). Children understand this very easily, but they must hear it first. Adults need to overcome their cynicism and adopt a childlike attitude that recalls the Christmas proclamation: “Joy to the World!
We hear St. Luke relay the story once more of how the Lord was ecstatic over the success of the seventy-two in proclaiming the Good News. Now it is our turn. We must not, through our actions, seem to be like Captain Nemo, keeping the great promise to ourselves. We are called to share that glorious message, and in sharing the joy of that announcement, it will be returned to us, and we move closer to the promised peace of Christ.

[2] The picture used today is “Tree of Jesse” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1500
[4] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1831 “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations. “Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.(Psalm 143:10) For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God . . . If children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”( Romans 8:14,17.)