Solemnity of the Annunciation
In the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, a letter from St. Leo the Great is included for the Solemnity of Annunciation. It is a beautiful letter that expresses well the tension within the mystery of the Incarnation: that God takes on human nature and flesh in order to save humanity. One of his descriptions for the event of the annunciation stood out to me. He describes it as the “condescension of compassion.” Condescension is not a pejorative term. Literally, the word means to “come down.” God does not come to condemn but to suffer with humanity in the sin we have introduced into the world. This coming of compassion would not have come into the world if it not were for Mary. Mary’s “yes” enabled God to take on our human nature and fulfill his Mission.
With a mystery so profound in our Christian tradition, I do not think it will be of much profit to write about it. Rather, I have included and adaptation of St. Ignatius’s meditation on the Annunciation from the Spiritual Exercises. When you have a quiet moment this day, pray with imaging the scene in your mind’s eye. Ask yourself: what would possess God to save humanity? What would possess Mary to say “yes”?
Hear what the persons on the face of the earth are saying, that is, how they are talking with one another, how they sneer and blaspheme, etc.;
Hear what the Divine Persons are saying, that is: “Let Us work the redemption of the Human race,” etc.; and then what the Angel and Our Lady are saying; and reflect then so as to draw profit from their words.
What are the Angel and Our Lady doing? See the Angel doing his duty as ambassador, and Our Lady humbling herself by giving thanks to the Divine Majesty. Watch as she says “yes” to the Angel. What are the movements in her heart? Reflect in order to draw some profit from each of these things.
An unhelpful depiction of the Christian mystical life floats around in the Christian subconscious. The image runs like this: for someone to be truly holy, he or she must slowly become divorced from concern of the world. The paradigmatic example, in this depiction, is the hermit. He has removed himself from most social contact with the world, and he has time to focus on God alone. To some extent, each of us Christians have judged ourselves against what we see as a mystical “high bar.”
Our Gospel passage debunks this depiction of the mystical life. Jesus teaches us that the love of God is the greatest commandment we ought to follow. Giving our whole self in return to God is an act of gratitude to the one who has made creation for us to enjoy. The second greatest commandment is the love of neighbor. These loves are not mutually exclusive. In our Christian vocation, the two grow in us correlatively because we become like the one we love. In the activity of loving, we open ourselves to be concerned with another more than ourselves. When we love God, we become like God. We take on God’s concerns and God’s vision of the other persons in our lives. The apex of Christian mysticism is not other-worldly visions but seeing our world in another way.
The marks of our Lenten season echo the mutual growth of both love of God and neighbor. With our prayers and fasting, we recognize that God is the source of every gift we have received; everything that we are has come to us from God. Almsgiving and service to our sisters and brothers who need assistance develops in us God’s loving gaze. The poor are the most intimate concern for God. We are invited to make a similar commitment. Let us pray that this Lenten season increase in us a love that integrates both the desires of our heart—for God and for one another.
How has your love of God grown during this Lent? Your love for neighbor?
Jesus states a binary situation at the conclusion of our Gospel passage today. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” I am usually skeptical of binary thinking. With an “us” versus “them” dichotomy, we end up splitting the world into divisions that prevent mutual understanding. Do not get me wrong me, binary thinking is good in some cases, like thinking there are objective moral goods and evils. A shadow of binary thinking is that it prevents discernment and adaptation from happening for a particular person or case.
Jesus’ statement induces a conscious or unconscious worry in Christians. Spiritual directors and confessors hear it when people come to them explaining how they are worried to get on God’s bad side. The feeling is that a person is either for God by living the perfect moral life or against God through committing sins. The foretaste of the eternal punishment for sin is perpetual misery in this life.
If we all are honest with ourselves, there is some part in each one of us that is against God and some part that is for God. As human beings, we constantly fall into instances where we have a divided will—we simultaneously will what we know is good for us and not good for us. God’s grace in our hearts heals our will and unifies it. We pray for our will to be integrated with God’s dream for us, a parent’s wish for the fullness of life for her child.
The binary that Jesus offers us exhorts us to whole-heartedness. The scene reminds me of the scenes in movies when an army captain tries to rouse courage in the troops before the final battle. The battle ground for us is the places within our hearts that want to fight God and not surrender to grace. If we want to see someone who is against Jesus, we need to look no farther than a mirror at ourselves. If we want to see someone who is for Jesus, look in the mirror again. Let us make our prayer this day to ask God to help us surrender those places of our heart that want to resist God.
How have I surrendered to God’s grace this Lent? Where do I feel my will is divided.
Our Gospel passage is a conundrum to both Scripture scholars, and likewise to the ordinary Scripture reader. The confusion arises because what Jesus exhorts us to do we, as a Church, simply do not do. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary comments, “No major Christian church requires observance of all 613 precepts of the Old Testament law, ethical and ceremonial, but only the ethical commands such as the Decalogue and the commands to love God and neighbor” (p. 641). The precepts of the Mosaic Law, beyond the Ten Commandments, formed the standards for religious holiness in Ancient Israel. Under the Law, to be holy and one with God was to follow all His precepts.
Early Christians were divided over the status of the mosaic law. Jewish-Christians or Christians who Judaized, i.e. non-Jewish Christians who wanted to live like Jews, thought that the Mosaic law was not abolished with Jesus. Rather, the Mosaic law had to be followed completely by Christians.
St. Paul believed God was leading the Church in a different direction. Paul wrote painstakingly in his epistles about how faith in Jesus is the true fulfillment of the Law. For Christians, to be virtuous is to follow a person: Jesus. The evangelist John summarizes it well when he describes Jesus as the “way, the truth, and the life.” The interpretation that continued in the Church was Paul’s focus on the spirit of the Law, rather than adherence to the Mosaic Law. This is an ancient debate that has a current application in our Lenten practices.
The radicalism of Paul’s claim is that we human beings are fulfilled only when we are in a relationship with Jesus. We might follow every Church precept, law or discipline out of obedience to what we think is right, but if we do not do it with Jesus we are missing the mark of our Christian vocation. Every Lent, the Church asks to be intentional with our prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. These are avenues to remind ourselves of our need and dependence on God; also, our acts of service and charity show us the dependence of God on us to care for His people. Whatever we commit to do this Lent, let it be with the intention to follow Jesus and not a Church rule to obey. Church rules lead us to meet Christ already in ourselves, in our Church, and the poor in our world.
How do my Lenten commitments allow me to encounter Jesus?
Quotation taken from The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, & Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 641.
St. Thomas Aquinas in his work, On Evil (or, De Malo in the original Latin) describes that the sin of pride comes in four characteristic ways. The first form of pride is when a person over exaggerates her talents and gifts, claiming to better than she actually is. You hear it at any point when the person shows how little she had to work on an objectively hard task. The second form is when a person does not recognize the gifts or talents he has received as coming from God. A person continually grateful to God embodies the view of John 15:5, “for without me you can do nothing.”
The last two forms of pride seem at work in the forgiven yet unforgiving servant today. The third form is when a person has received a gift from the Lord because she deserved it. Think of a time when we have received a gift, and we have justified our reception of it because our past good actions. The last form of pride that Aquinas mentions is when a person has received a gift from the Lord but desires that no one else has it; he continues to feel special for being the only recipient.
These two latter forms of pride combine in regards to the servant’s experience of mercy. The pardoned servant felt he deserved mercy but not the servant who owed him money. We quickly fall into this trap too. When we come up with the best excuses for our actions, they are sometimes identical to the actions we become angry with another for doing. Also, the pardoned sinner is unaware about the mercy of nature. The best type of gifts are those that when we give them away they increase rather than decrease. Love grows when given away. Mercy is also the same. When we receive mercy from God, we may become an agent of the very mercy we have received. Hoarding mercy for ourselves misrepresents the gratuity in which we have received it. We can make mercy to seem unattainable for others who are desperate for a sense of God’s love for them.
Mercy is a basic human need in our fallen state. We need frequent reminders of God’s continual mercy for us. It does not come because we have done penance, as if we could deserve mercy from our acts. Instead, we receive mercy out of God’s goodness to freely give what we could never earn. Let us pray that the Lord helps us to be merciful as we have received mercy.
When was a time I felt the Lord’s mercy? Where have I felt a challenge to be merciful to another?
Here is a Catholic Trivia Question: How many times does Joseph speak in the New Testament?
For the importance Joseph had in raising Jesus, we know very little about him. We know that he was going to be discreet for Mary’s sake and divorce her quietly once she became pregnant during their engagement. He needed the help of a vision from an angel to overcome his fears in taking Mary back into his life. Also, he was just as dumbfounded as Mary when they realized Jesus was still at the temple in Jerusalem. Beyond these events, we can only guess what he is like. The evangelists seem to stress that the most important contribution Joseph gives to the Church are not his words, but his example.
He must have been a dedicated father to Jesus for him to grow in wisdom and age. He helped provide for his family’s material needs. I would not be surprised if Jesus learned how not only to be a carpenter but a fellow human being from watching Joseph at work, at home, in public interacting with others. His life shows to the Church the power of silent acts of self-giving that often do not get written down. God offers us more invitations to serve outside the light of center stage than to be the center of attention. When our service is highlighted, we have to be prayerful in reflecting if our service is highlighted because we have striven for it to be so. Our egos are buffeted through the praise of others, and service becomes more about ourselves than about others. Joseph reminds us of the goodness of quiet, humble service.
Human history, our personal histories too, are full of individuals who are not remembered in its pages but contributed to its progression. During this season of Lent, let us remember how the Lord and the people the Lord has put in our life have loved us in many small and subtle ways. Let us also pray for the gift to contribute likewise to others if it be for God’s greater glory and not our own.
How has the Lord, or people in your life, loved you quietly and in small acts? When, where, or to whom have you been called by God to live like St. Joseph?
It is hard for me to say anything substantive about the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel because her experience of life is much different than my own. Unlike herself, I am a man and have enjoyed the privileges (intentionally or not) of this identity. She is a social pariah on two levels: she is a Samaritan, a group in continual disagreement with the Jews of Jerusalem about the proper worship of God; she has remarried five times in a culture that prizes marriage fidelity. In addition, she is a woman with these two shameful identities for her time and context. The intersectionality of the marginalizing factors she experiences in life leaves her with low to no-value in her society. What I found myself praying with is what she was asking Jesus for in this passage. Her questions and responses to Jesus reveal a woman whose heart desires to know God.
The Samaritan woman wants Jesus to take who she is and her place in society seriously: “How can you, a Jew, ask me a Samaritan woman for a drink?” The biggest barriers between God and us are often the ones we have internalized from what other people might see in us.
She thirsts for something she has not been able to find: “where then can you get this living water?” Jesus is speaking in a way that is confusing to her because she is taking him literally. She thinks he is offering her water when he thinks he is offering her life.
Lastly, she asks for what she desires from God: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She is bold in her request. At the beginning from her encounter, Jesus asks for her help. Then, she asks Jesus for his.
To each of her desires, Jesus responds in the way she needs. No part of her past is hidden from his knowledge, nor is Jesus afraid of violating a social custom by speaking with her. He engages with her as someone worthy of his time and attention. She has dignity in his eyes.
She eventually leaves her water jug behind because she is given life instead. Her life is renewed from being open to God’s invincible love for each person. The love transforms her from a social pariah to a witness to the truth that Jesus is the Messiah. Others come to believe through her preaching if not through her new way of being. Let us pray for nothing less than for ourselves and the whole Church during Lent: that we may be renewed in the love of Jesus to proclaim Him by our words, actions, and way of life.
What are your desires for Lent? How has God been responding to them, like Jesus with the Samaritan woman? What desires do you want to bring before the Lord?
St. Agnes was an early Roman martyr of the Church. Scholars estimate the year of her death around 304 A.D. She was purportedly 13 years old when she died. For a 13-year old to be executed for her faith speaks to her perseverance amidst adversity. Agnes was a beautiful woman who attracted the attention of male suitors from Roman patrician families. Her commitment to her faith led her to dedicate herself to chaste celibacy. Suitors frustrated with her celibacy turned her into the local Roman prefect for being a Christian. According to legend, the Roman prefect ordered Agnes to stay in a house for prostitution, but the Lord protected her there. She was eventually executed after multiple attempts. She is the patroness of young girls, chastity, and rape victims.
If Agnes had friends, they could have regarded her as crazy as Jesus’ relatives regarded him. She had multiple occasions where she could have done what others would have wanted her to do. Marrying one of her suitors would have protected her from imperial authority, and she probably would have been allowed her to live her faith for the rest of her life. Instead, she chose the path that was unintelligible to more pragmatically-minded people, even to us of faith.
Agnes life reminds us that Jesus calls us at times to decisions that clash with the worldly values. Freedom from leaning towards what we think is the sensible decision allows us to seek God’s will first. In order to follow Jesus as he desires, we need an interior freedom to let God lead us. We profit from talking to others about what God is asking of us to give in love. Also, we seek consolation and confirmation for the important decisions that compromise our lives as disciples. Agnes offers us a model of what holiness rooted in freedom looks like. Her life ended for her faith because of her freedom to give her whole self back to God. We are asked to die to ourselves daily in ways that others might think makes no sense. It might be a sign of the growth of our faith and trust in the Lord’s care.
In what way does your life only make sense because of your faith in Jesus?
The 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, will be inaugurated into office today. His rise to the presidency comes during a divisive time where the country is at an ideological crossroads. Our deliberative democracy is devolving into vilification of people who do not share our same political viewpoint.
We as Christians and as a Church will have to discern what Jesus is calling us to do. As the Second Vatican Council stated, “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ.” This discernment will might be harder for us to enter into than we might think. Analysis of the election results demonstrated that, compared to other demographic information like race or socioeconomic status, faith identification seemed to have little notable effect for whom a voter casted her ballot. As Christians, we have much to strive for in living the vision of kindness and truth meeting, as the Psalmist describes, as embodied in Jesus’ life.
Instead of a reflection on today’s reading, I think it is important we enter into a time of prayer to ask God for guidance. A Jesuit in formation, Kyle Shinseki, wrote this examen of consciousness below in the wake of the election night. I have provided here for your private prayer this day to discern how God is calling you to act and reconcile our political climate.
First, we call upon the Holy Spirit to help us recognize God’s steadfast mercy and love for us. We recall God’s faithfulness in our lives and find concrete reasons to be grateful. Instead of focusing on our own reaction to the election results, we consider how God might encourage us at this particular moment. One might pray with the words of Saint Teresa of Ávila: “Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you; everything passes, God never changes; patience overcomes everything; whoever has God lacks nothing, God alone suffices.”
Then, we ask where we find God after the polls have closed. We can grow quite attached to “our” candidates, so it may be difficult to let go if “our” candidates lose. In contrast, if “our” candidates win, we can be blinded by our elation and may unwittingly attribute divine qualities to human political figures. So, we turn to God to give us the freedom to keep things in proper perspective. Whether “our” candidates have won or lost, we place our hope in God’s hands and pray for those elected, as Pope Francis encourages us, “that they can govern well, that they can love their people, that they can serve their people, that they can be humble.”
Next, we must humbly ask God to help us see where we ourselves have been lacking in faith, hope, and love during the campaigns. While we may have initially been motivated by faith, we may have let our worries, insecurities, or even anger take over. Were we afraid of losing our way of life or certain rights and freedoms? Have we felt threatened by another’s point of view? Is there a time where we could only see someone from an opposing party as the “enemy” and not as a person created in God’s image? Are we able to recognize how these moments distanced us from God, and then ask God to forgive and heal us?
In order to move forward, we need to recognize that God continues to work through our all-too-human nature. We ask for the grace to find God at work, even on “the other side of the aisle.” We can only do this if we define ourselves not by who or what we are against, but rather by who and what we are for. As Christians, our lives are to be oriented toward Christ and building God’s kingdom. When we define ourselves in this positive way, we open ourselves to finding common ground and are then able to move toward the future with hope.
 Second Vatican Council, “Gaudium et Spes” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, OP (Northport: Costello Publishing, 1996), .
 See the examen at http://jesuits.org/news-detail?tn=news-20161102122654_a.
“Why does God need my help if God is omnipotent?” That question came up in my last retreat. Intellectual questions like the above can often be diversions to prayer. While being consumed of trying to find an answer, one’s attention is taken away from finding God’s voice within our affect and heart. I could not shake the question though as much as I tried not to think about it. Maybe the question has come up at some point in your prayer. When we read a gospel reading like the one today, we are reminded how Jesus needed companions in his ministry.
Our gospel comes right before the calling of the apostles in the Gospel of Mark. The description of Jesus’ early ministry shows that he cannot do what he hopes alone. Mark goes as far as to describe that the crowds were capable of crushing Jesus. Their eager attraction to the miraculous healings made the people flock to Him. The people in need of healing seems to overwhelm Jesus. The gospel reading for tomorrow describes Jesus retiring to the mountain, and appointed the 12 apostles to be with him.
When we think of Jesus, we can imagine him to be a stoic figure. Jesus gives without receiving. It seems rare in the gospels to see where Jesus expresses his needs for others. We can model our life on this abstraction of Jesus. However, like any human being, Jesus felt the need for friends and companions in his mission.
His prerogative is not only to meet the demands of the people who seek him, but also to bring us closer to him. We get to find who we truly are in his sight by beholding him. As Jesus continues to labor in our world, we are invited to more than following behind at a distance. We are invited to be his close companion.
How do I companion Christ in my daily life? How has Jesus invited me to be with Him?