Second Sunday of Lent
The Transfiguration reveals Jesus in all His glory. At this moment, Peter, James, and John can see His kinship with the Father, they can see His continuity with Moses and Elijah, and they know clearly that they are to follow Him. But why does Jesus show this to them? To prepare them for His suffering. He tells them not to reveal any of what they saw until He “had risen from the dead” (Mk. 9:9). He shows them His full glory—and connects it to His suffering—to help give them strength.
J.R.R. Tolkien famously called history a “long defeat,” but in that same quote he also spoke of how it contains “some samples or glimpses of final victory.” We cannot just be bracing ourselves against defeat after defeat—we must know that in the end, our struggles are not pointless. There are moments in history and in our own lives where we know that good has triumphed over evil, and God is at work. The more we survey the graces we have received and give thanks for them, the easier they are to see—and the more readily we can see God.
Whether we look for signs of victory or not, defeat will be there. Whether we look for God or not, pain and suffering will be there. God has not promised us a magic wand to take the suffering away. But He has transformed it. Now, we know that defeat is not the last word. God has subverted suffering by showing that it will end. Jesus has prepared us for the pain now by showing us the glory to come.
Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas
In the first reading, things are familiar, and yet different. There are children, there are fathers, there are young men, there are families. All plenty of things that we can recognize. And yet they are doing new things—having their sins forgiven, conquering the evil one, even knowing God the Father. The love of family and home is still present, the bonds of community are visible, but now that love has exceeded all expectations. We think of family as a place of support as we go through life’s trials—but John tells us that family does not just brace against evil, it conquers evil.
Something so familiar doing something so unexpected. This contrast is good to keep in mind as we hear John say today that we should “not love the world or the things of this world” (1 Jn. 2:15). In this case, John does not mean by “the world” everything we experience but simply everything that draws us from God. This week, God became part of a human family. God has come to be with us, to save us not by obliterating our human existence, but by lifting it up. This is a time of year when we are particularly aware of the warm bonds that exist between us in community, and the good that is around us. Through this warmth and this goodness, God will conquer the night.
Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas
Simeon’s prayer is a truly amazing one. He has been waiting for many years to see “the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25). God has promised Simeon that He will break through Israel’s solitude, and be with His people. This is Simeon’s hope. Nothing for himself, no exorcism, healing, or sign—simply the knowledge that God has come to be with Israel, to be with His people, in a final and definitive way. At the end of his life, seeing this come to fruition is what gives Simeon peace.
What is even more amazing is that Simeon’s prayer can be ours. Simeon’s prayer is found in the Liturgy of the Hours, and said as part of night prayer every day. Part of the official prayer of the Church, something every person can pray, is a declaration shortly before going to bed that God has come to be with His people. We hardly need reminding of the darkness in the world, but the Church wants to make sure that we also remember the light. Every day, we are able to make Simeon’s prayer our own, we are able to see ways in which God has come to console His people. And God will never leave.
Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs
Herod the King
In his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might
In his own sight
All children young to slay
Worldly power is very precarious. Intellects dim with age, and strength declines. Economies can fail, and money dry up. Political influence comes and goes. If all you seek in this life are things in this world, you cannot guard your possessions too carefully. This was certainly Herod’s thinking as he “ordered the massacre of all boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity”—as he ordered the murder of infants (Mt. 2:16). Herod saw that his power was so fragile that even children could pose a threat. As that was his overriding goal, responding to this threat with “raging” and sending “his men of might” makes sense.
Herod’s logic is sound, and yet we are horrified. His lust for power has yielded unspeakable carnage. Most of us do not live in monarchies, but there are many ways we can seek power and the things of this world. Careers, achievements, goals and ambitions for our lives and the lives of our loved ones—these are all things that can absorb us and cause us to do great harm to others. When we lie to get ahead, when we kick others to the curb, when we decide that someone else’s life—perhaps even a new child’s—is expendable in the face of our goals, we share in the logic of Herod. Herod’s logic is not foreign to us, he just takes it farther than we would prefer. And all the while, the King of Kings lays helpless and tightly swaddled, inviting us to sit with Him.
Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
In the first reading, John writes “so that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn. 1:4). The writings of John abound with descriptions of joy and love. The declaration that “God is love” comes only a few verses later in this letter (v. 8). For this reason, one of the great old customs of this feast day is to share a bottle of blessed wine at dinner, and as each glass is passed out, to declare “I drink you the love of St. John,” and respond “I thank you for the love of St. John.” The blessed wine, like John’s words, warm our hearts with the love of God.
Comforts like this are essential on life’s journey. Many times we feel that our joy is not really complete. St. Augustine spent years of his life searching for a joy that would give his heart rest. It was finally in coming to love Jesus that Augustine felt he was equipped to go through the difficulties of life. We experience this love in many ways. Through the sacraments, through the prayers of the Church, and through things like blessed wine with dinner, we may experience this love and joy. As we experience the joy that comes from the Lord, our joy may be made complete—because joy from the Lord is the one kind of joy that does not end.
Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr
The reading from Acts begins with the fruits that everyone wants from discipleship, but then ends with what most everyone tries to avoid. Acts tells us that St. Stephen, “filled with grace and power, was working great signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 6:8). This is something we would like. We want to be filled with grace (or at least feel happy) and power (or at least feel confident). But then the people “threw him out of the city, and began to stone him” (Acts 7:58). No one wants to be shunned, and certainly no one wants to be killed brutally.
Yet this is discipleship. It embraces not only happy feelings, but sad ones. It involves not only life, but death. Christianity is not about a saccharine existence. The day after we see the joyous birth of our Savior, we see the horrifying death of His servant. In placing the feast of St. Stephen on the day after Christmas, the Church declares that Christianity is not just joy and sunshine, but blood and darkness. We can experience darkness and still be real Christians, we can experience pain and still be part of Christmas. The life of discipleship is all-encompassing, and so is Christmas.
Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
The Gospel for Midnight Mass has a glorious opening: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1). This is an ambitious project, set in motion by the architect of the Pax Romana, no less. Augustus ruled one of the greatest empires in history, and he wanted it assessed. This desire is what sets our plot in motion. This is why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, why they needed to find an inn, why Jesus was born in a manger.
Caesar Augustus set things in motion, but neither he nor anyone else in the Imperial government was the first to experience the fruits of the Nativity. That honor went to the shepherds. They were ritually unclean because of their work with sheep, and were not even allowed to be witnesses in a court of law. But they were allowed to witness the greatest event in human history. The outcasts of human society shared a moment of joy with the whole of angelic society, and saw God come to be with us.
Like Caesar Augustus, God wishes to enroll the whole world. God wishes for all to be united under His Son. And, like Augustus, God wishes to bring about a new reign of universal peace. But this reign will not start in an imperial palace and then trickle down to the masses. It began in a hovel, and is shared with the lowest. Only then does it well up to wise men and kings. The first fruits, and the freshest fruits, of God’s kingdom are experienced by the least. If we want to experience these fruits of Christmas, we know where we likewise must be.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
King David is very excited about the prospect of building God a suitable dwelling place. Even the prophet Nathan hears the idea and initially gives his blessing. But then God comes to Nathan in a dream and says to wait. Wait a little while longer. Wait for the Lord to build His dwelling, and it will be greater than anything you can imagine. Your desires are good, but if you wait, the Lord will not only fulfill them, but surpass them.
In a scene from the children’s book The Little Prince, the fox and the Prince speak to one another, and the fox asks the Prince to tame him. It will take patience for the Prince to tame the fox, and the fox says that the best way is to come to the field at the same time every day. The fox tells the Prince that if he comes “at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances.” By four, the fox will be overjoyed and jumping with excitement. The waiting helps to tame the fox, helps him to form a bond with the Prince. The waiting prepares his heart for the Prince.
Today is an odd day for us, liturgically. It is the fourth Sunday of Advent, but by nightfall it will be Christmas Eve. In the morning, we hear the Gospel tell us how Mary patiently waited for God to fulfill His plan through her. In the evening, we will hear the plan come to fruition. David waited, Mary waited, God arrived. We have a few hours left of Advent, so perhaps we can keep waiting for that time. The fox tells the Prince that “one must observe the proper rites” in order to truly appreciate what one is waiting for. If we keep on waiting just a little bit more, like the fox our hearts will be on fire for the One we wait for, and like David our waiting will be rewarded more than we can even imagine.
The Gospel reading for Simon and Jude comes up on a fairly regular basis. Basically, if it is an apostle’s feast, and the apostle has no other reference in the New Testament, this is the Gospel used. It is the Gospel for the anonymous apostle. We honor them because Jesus called them and they responded, even though they may not have any particular deed to their names while on earth. So even though we have no other particular reading for them, we remember Jesus’ call and their response—which is no small thing.
Often, we see in society a concern with making a name for oneself or making history. We might be tempted to ask what we will do that will still matter in the generations to come, and lament if we cannot come up with any answer. Simon and Jude, as well as the other “anonymous apostles,” and all the other saints both canonized and not, remind us that anonymity is not a bad thing, and that there is more to life than history. Over the course of their apostolic ministry, Simon and Jude must have brought many people to Jesus, even though it never made the books. Their lives were not contentious, their deaths were not dramatic (though tradition holds that they were martyred), but for those who became Christian because of them, their existence was a God-send.
Jesus is now asking something else of the Pharisees (and us) in today’s Gospel: not just vigilance about when the Master will return, or vigilance about what we do with what the Master has given, but vigilance about the times in which we live. We are to watch the world around us, but not just as disinterested observers. We watch as people who are impacted by the world around us. The whole reason Jesus’ audience would learn to gauge the weather by the sky or predict rain based on the wind was because their lives depended on it. Farmers, sailors, and countless others needed to know if the next day’s weather would be good or bad because that was their whole world.
Our own lives likewise depend on the times in which we live—be the times good or bad. The world we live in will impact us, and impact our relationship with Jesus. We do not need to try and accept it all as good or condemn it all as bad, any more than the farmer condemns all rain as good or all sunlight as bad. The farmer knows his fields and knows his crops. He knows when to put up a tarp, and knows when to let the rain fall. That is our task as we go through the world—we must know our souls, know the times we live in, and know what the one is doing to the other. Does this trend help or hinder my growth in faith, hope, and charity? Today, Jesus tells us not to accept everything we see or condemn everything we see, but to assess everything we see.