Saturday of the Third Week of Advent
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
“What then will this child be?” the people wondered, “For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” They were amazed: after nine months of silence, Zechariah speaks after writing “God is gracious”, which is the meaning of his son’s name. This silent word loosens the bound tongue; in six months’ time the Silent Word will be born to loosen the chains of sin that bind the whole world. Emmanuel will arrive, the hope of the nations and their Savior: an infant comes to wage war on the armies of Hell. John is born to an old, childless couple; God is born to ancient humanity doomed to die.
In the days of Moses, when God was gracious to the slaves of Egypt, He sent His Word carved in stone: Ten Commandments to teach us how to live. The cries of John as he is circumcised, as the Law is written in his flesh, herald the coming of the Word fashioned in the same human flesh, the Word of God walking among us, teaching us how to live by living our life Himself.
John is the forerunner of Jesus; Jesus is the forerunner of a new world, a new humanity, the dawn of a new day after which night shall follow no more. Zechariah does not name his son after a deceased ancestor, but in obedience to the angel of God gives his son a name his family has never known. Jesus came that all who believe in His Name might be saved, that all might be given a name humanity has never known: that the children of Adam might be named after the One who is unfathomably ancient, yet makes all things new (Revelation 21:5), who dies and comes to life again.
Tomorrow, in the middle of the night, we go to celebrate a new dawn: a new Adam arises on the Earth, born in the wilderness of sin to lead us to the new Eden. Could we receive a greater gift this Christmas than the Son of God? God is with us! Emmanuel is with you! Prepare Him room; empty your hearts of sin and all pride. Sweep away any dust of apathy or neglect, any dung of earthly loves. Chase out the ox of ignorance and the ass of stubbornness. God is coming to you, there, in the Bread and Wine; how shall we receive Him? He who was born of the Virgin desires to reside within you! “Come and adore Him!” the angels cry, yet He desires to come and adore you! Prepare, prepare; the Lord that is to come is already here!
Friday of the Third Week of Advent
O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
Today Mary sings her song of praise to God, the God of surprises and paradoxes. The Lord of the universe—through, with and in Whom the universe is created—resides in the womb of one of His creatures. Her soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, her spirit rejoices in God her Savior, yet He has humbled Himself to be a microscopic presence within her, and has deigned to depend totally upon her for all that He needs.
“O King of the nations,” though mighty you have cast yourself down from your heavenly throne, that by your lowly handmaid you might lift up the lowly. You, though rich, “emptied yourself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7) so that one day you might take the form of Bread and Wine, filling the hungry with the finest of food and drink. You showed the strength of your arm by having it nailed helplessly to the Cross, scattering the proud in their conceit through your ultimate humility. You have done great things for your mother, redeeming her at her first moment of life, that she might become the Mother of God, and you have gone on to do great things for us. All generations have called her blessed because through Mary, your mother, mankind has received its greatest blessing: you, our deepest desire, became one of us. You became the cornerstone of a new Kingdom God has built in which Heaven and Earth may meet, where God and Man may once again live as one, and to the confounding of Hell and the awe of humanity you chose as your tent in the early days of your exile one of our own: the lowly Virgin of Nazareth. You fashioned us from clay, Lord, and in Adam’s sin the very earth from which He was made became cursed (Genesis 3:17). Yet in her you have taken on flesh that you might one day lie in the Tomb and cleanse the Earth with your Blood, that all humanity might have life through your death. You have come to the help of your servant Israel by becoming the slave of all. You promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; miracle of miracles! The very Sun shining in the midst of those stars, brightest of all, is a descendant of Abraham—Abraham’s Savior is his descendant!—and from the sands of death comes the Rock of Ages!
Thursday of the Third Week of Advent
O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
As Elizabeth looked out over the hilly landscape, her hands resting on her growing belly, she saw what at first seemed simply a sweet coincidence: her kinswoman, Mary, many years her junior, coming over the hill to visit. Yet “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting” this sweet coincidence became like a rising dawn, the “splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness.”
The infant within her leapt and so, too, did her heart as she realized the significance of little John’s sudden movement: he was announcing to her the advent of the Lord for Whom he came into the world. The angel had told her husband that John would “be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,” and the same Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary and conceived within her the Son of God bound these two infants in a way even the nascent Forerunner could sense, his whole being rejoicing in it. Elizabeth—meaning “My God is an oath”—is enlightened to the reality that all that God has promised in the past has come to fulfillment: He has kept His word by sending His Word. In the “darkness and the shadow of death” the Morning Star shines. Indeed, St. Elizabeth, whose God is an oath, “Blessed also are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled!”
In four days we rejoice at the birth of Our Lord, when the Eternal Word is uttered into the world of Man and the echo of God’s promise thunders over the whole of the earth. In four days we recall the moment when the night of death and sin first began to burn away at the rising of the Son of God. Trust in God and His promises! Trust, and live faithfully according to His promises and you, too, will be blessed for your belief. Your heart, too, will leap for joy at the Virgin’s greeting when, at life’s end, she says to you, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you, for you remained with Him.”
Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent
O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The Roman Empire had conquered the people of God, and the people longed for freedom. But there was a deeper longing, a more stifling imprisonment from which they all yearned to be free: sin, and the death it brought. No rebellion, no treaty could free the people of God from this bond. No key fashioned by man could unlock its doors, for man had fashioned them, shutting himself out of Eden forever by striving to be what he could not be: his own god. In the greatest and most tragic of ironies our first parents sought to rule themselves, sought what seemed to be a greater freedom, and as a result lost it all, realizing only too late that true freedom lies in obedience to the created order, to the will of God. It was not God that locked Eden’s gates, but we who locked ourselves out.
An angel appears to a virgin in Nazareth, betrothed to a descendant of David, to tell her something astounding: “The Lord is with you.” Here in the midst of ultimate defeat, in the serpentine coils of an empire that was crushing the life out of His people, the Lord was with her. What’s more is the angel promises that in the face of this empire and its Caesar the Most High will send His Son, who shall be given “the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
And she would bear Him. She would be the queen-mother of the Kingdom of God.
This child would open the gates of Heaven and loose the chains of sin. He would descend even to the depths of Hades to lead to freedom the souls that have waited there since Adam and Eve. He would be a light to those in darkness, and new life to those in the jaws of death. What’s more is the gates of Heaven could never be shut again; it was as if the Son of David, the Son of God would break the key off in the lock such that it could never be used again.
But first that Key would be molded in the womb of Mary, who would in turn be as a lantern bearing the light of hope for the entire world. By Eve’s disobedience the lock was made; it would thus be by “the handmaid of the Lord” that the lock would be opened, smashed, and discarded. Once the sword of sin and death held sway; now “the scepter of the House of Israel” has shattered its blade for the rest of time.
Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Today a priest named Zechariah (a name meaning “God remembers”), who himself is a descendant of Abijah, a descendant of Eleazar, the brother of Aaron, the great priest of the Exodus alongside Moses, goes into the sanctuary of the Temple. There, in that empty space, he likely brought to mind the grand history of the place, how the Ark of the Covenant that his ancestors bore through the desert once rested there, and how glorious the original Temple must have been. History and ancestry were deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of the people in Jesus’ day, as both served to connect to the past ages when God made great promises and performed great feats for His people.
“God remembers,” and so did Zechariah; we are told he and his wife “were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” Because of this fidelity, of always bearing the Lord in mind and remembering His commandments, this humble priest became the first witness in what would become the great fulfillment of the promise God made to His people long ago: that He would send a Savior. He would be “the Root of Jesse,” a descendant of the father of David, the King of old. When Gabriel appears and tells Zechariah that God has not forgotten him or his wife and their desire for a child, he says that the child will “drink neither wine nor strong drink,” calling to mind the memory of Samson, the mighty judge, and Samuel, the child born to the barren Hannah, and it was he that discovered, anointed, and revealed King David to the world. The child is to go before the Messiah “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” stirring up not only the memory of this great prophet but also the promise of Malachi that in the days of the coming of the Messiah Elijah would return (Malachi 3:23).
But so astounded by this is Zechariah that he is rendered speechless by the angel, to ponder in silence all that God has promised to do until John—meaning “God is gracious”—is born: “before you kings will shut their mouths.” This princely man is silent before the coming of the Lord; the king, Herod, who would seek to devour the infant Messiah, would fail to stifle the Word-Made-Flesh. In spite of his great power he would be out-shouted by the silent Word, by the cries of a babe, and fade to nothing as the Root of Jesse blossomed to fill the world with the sweet fragrance of salvation: “…to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.”
Monday of the Third Week of Advent
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
In one week’s time we will recall the moment when the same God who met Moses in the burning bush came among mankind as one of our own, as inconspicuous and plain as an infant. No one kicked off their shoes in His presence, there was no booming voice; indeed we sing “Silent Night!” No Laws were given, no divine words carved in stone; rather, the very Word of God was wrought in flesh and blood. Our Adonai—our Lord—has come to redeem us. In ancient times He came in fire and cloud, doing great and terrible deeds to free His people from slavery; now He is born so He may one day die to save all who might accept His offer of salvation. He would not consume the wood and leaf of the bush in the desert with fire, yet the angel tells Joseph, “…it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” The Fire of God’s Spirit has consumed human nature, doing what fire does: transforming what it consumes into itself, and thus “…the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius)
“Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm” the Church prays. Today Gabriel tells Joseph, “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The outstretched arm of God will be a human arm, at Christmas outstretched to grasp anything its little fingers can wrap around; perhaps Joseph’s own thick, calloused finger. Yet one day those arms will be outstretched upon the Cross, those hands pierced, those fingers curled in agony. He came to save us from our sins; truly He is Emmanuel—He is “God with us,” God on the side of sinners as we face off daily against our Enemy, who cringes and cowardly shies away from this little Child lying in the manger.
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him… What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” (Romans 8: 31b-32, 35, 37) All these things came after the Child—the sword and peril, anguish and persecution of Herod, the nakedness of being born in a stable, the famine of long travel, the anguish of having to make do in a foreign, pagan land—yet none of it kept Jesus from being with us. Neither, then, should any of these things keep us from Him.
May St. Joseph, the protector of and provider for the Child Jesus pray for us and care for us, helping us to do all that God commands of us.
Third Sunday of Advent
Today begins the ancient “O Antiphons” which once were sung and chanted in anticipation of Christmas from December 17th through the 23rd. This week we’ll consider each of the Gospels through the lens of these rich prayers.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Prudence is a cardinal virtue; some might say it is the mother of virtues, as without prudence, it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to live virtuously at all. Prudence is the ability to govern and discipline oneself, to judge what is the virtuous course of action in a given circumstance. We could see prudence as the lamp of virtuous living, the light by which we see the path of righteousness. Today we pray that Incarnate Wisdom Himself, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who orders all things as they were created to be, come and teach us the way of prudence, to show us the light of Truth that we may walk the path of righteous living and so meet Him at its end.
And so, our Gospel says, “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light…” It was plain to see that he was a virtuous man, that he knew the path, and his preaching called others to begin walking it; he merely pointed the way. There was something about John that made people see themselves and the world around them in a different light.
No one could quite put their finger on what this special “something” was, and so they began to suspect that he was either Elijah or Moses returned from heaven, as the Prophet Malachi said in his writings (Malachi 3:22-23). Some even suspected he might be the Messiah, but he denied it. Yet he was doing and saying things that the people believed only the Messiah, Elijah, or Moses would or could do. And so John tells them something astounding: the one you await is coming after him.
“…there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
Imagine the shock of the people: they are expecting, as foretold by ancient prophecy, Elijah and Moses, and John is reminiscent of both, yet he denies being either. Yet he testifies that the Messiah is coming after himself: he is not Elijah, he is not Moses, but he is the one fulfilling their roles in the prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. Now they had a choice: would they heed the light of prudence then shining upon them, repent, and be baptized in preparation for the Messiah who is already among them? And what of us as we look ahead to Christmas or, even more imminent, Christ in the Eucharist at Mass: will we heed the call of John the Baptist and repent, making “straight the way of the Lord?”
Jesus has taught us that there is to be a unity between our interior life and our exterior actions; He teaches us today that this unity participates in the very relationship between heaven and earth itself. When we live our faith in such a way as to present Christ authentically to others, Jesus presents us to the angels, who are the messengers of God the Father and the attendants to His throne (Isaiah 6:1-3); it is safe to assume that once the angels hear about us, God Himself will soon hear of it! A great honor indeed, and yet it seems strange that Jesus would say such a thing to His disciples and to us: wouldn’t it be an even greater thing for Him to acknowledge us before God? Clearly there is something else He is trying to tell us.
The word “angel” itself denotes the chief task of these spiritual beings. It comes from the Greek word for “messenger” and it is related to another important word: “evangelize”, meaning “to bring a good message.” When we acknowledge Christ before others, we are doing the work of the angels, to announce God to the world; thus the angels count us among their number, and they claim us as one of their own, rather than identifying us with the angels who denounce God before others: the demons. The key task of the Christian is to evangelize, to preach the Good News in whatever way possible, according to gift and circumstance, to let the inner Light of God shine outward.
Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit Himself will aid us in doing this; we need not worry if we will be smart enough, eloquent enough, and so on. Look at the Apostles: could Jesus have selected a more poorly-qualified bunch of hooligans to be His greatest messengers? Look at the saints! Joan of Arc, the illiterate peasant girl; Ignatius of Loyola, the fiery soldier; Francis of Assisi, poor beggar of stones; Josephine Bakhita, former slave; and these are merely four out of thousands we could consider. You and I are called to be among them, if we have the humility to allow the Spirit to teach us, to help us live our Christian lives to the full.
The Holy Spirit is so key to the Christian life that to reject Him is to lose everything; why is this? It is by the Holy Spirit that you were received as a child of God at Baptism; it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we receive the Eucharist; recall your experience of God’s mercy in the confessional, when the priest says, “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins…” The Holy Spirit, the very Love of God, makes our lives as Christians possible, showing us a way forward when we think there is none, giving us courage when we are afraid, and helping us to live our faith with wholeness and integrity.
Do not be afraid to live out your faith to the full: the love of God is with you!
Jesus has been criticizing the Pharisees and others for living a disintegrated—divided—faith. They focus so much on the exterior appearance of holiness that they neglect the interior reality of which it ought to be an expression. He tells His disciples today to “beware the leaven—that is, the hypocrisy—of the Pharisees.” He tells us the same.
He goes on further, saying, “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.” Jesus tells His followers to live in the light, to preach what they have learned loudly, to live outwardly the Truth they have embraced inwardly and to do so with boldness, knowing that they are precious to God. This, too, is how we must live as disciples of the Lord: we cannot hide anything from God beneath a veneer of exterior actions.
Our world, particularly in the West, often demands that we keep our religion separate from our “secular” lives. But Jesus makes no separation; indeed, there was no separation in His time. Even coins had religious significance. Often we keep religion relegated to Sundays, dinner tables, and perhaps bedsides, but Jesus reminds us that we worship not some god of a particular day, of dinner tables or beds, but rather the God of all, who sees and knows all of what we do and why we do it. The pressure of the world to keep our faith to ourselves is immense, but if we are to live an integrated faith, we must find ways of being the light of the world, of being leaven among the flour.
St. John Vianney gives this advice: “Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the Angels, and the Saints – they are your public.” So you cannot stand on your desk at work and proclaim the Gospel, but can you work in such a way that it is obvious the Gospel is central to your life? Or relate to your coworkers in such a way? The Gospel—the Good News—is not a secret to be kept to ourselves, but a joyful song to be sung in word and danced in deed. If we live in such a way as to please the world, what benefit is it to us? We will one day pass from this world. If we live in such a way that we seek to mind our own holiness before God and shun the world around us, how can we be leaven, how can we be light; how do we at all honor the Son of God who became a man and dwelt among us sinners? Our lives are to be torches for the Light of God’s love, consumed by the Flame of the Spirit, setting the world on fire around us. Do not be afraid to burn brightly!
On the outside, the people against whom Jesus is speaking appear devout and pious: they build memorials to the great prophets, putting the capstone, so to speak, on their legacy. But they are putting the capstone of a house of blood; it is a dramatic image to be sure, but Jesus is deadly serious. How better, after all, to forever silence a prophet, than to build a memorial? For a memorial oftentimes does our remembering for us: we build a statue of an influential person, and it is as though we leave them there. How easy it is for us to slip into a false sense of security when we have our religious artwork on our walls, our holy medals around our necks, and then we forget what it all means, what they point to. The danger is always there: it is so simple to let memorials do the remembering for us.
This is not to condemn devotional items, artwork, and statuary: quite the contrary. Rather, Jesus is reminding the people that the memorials have tremendous power, both to bless and condemn. For if the people erecting memorials really wished to honor the prophets they claim to revere, they would not spend their time building monuments, but rather listening to the word they spoke and would believe in the Messiah of whom they preached. Yet because the people reject Jesus—and would come, as He mentions, to reject His Apostles—they are consenting to the murder of the prophets, and thus the memorials they build do the prophets no honor, but insult them instead.
Jesus says they will “be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah,” all the prophets from A to Z, because they have begun to kill Jesus in their own hearts, the very One for whom the ancients were prophets in the first place. In their hostility they will silence the prophets forever.
This is an incredibly hard Gospel, but again Jesus is underscoring the importance of integrity. Had these people been building memorials to the prophets from a place of true faith and a desire to see their prophecies fulfilled, their hearts would have been open to the teaching of Jesus; He cries woe also to the scholars of the law, those intimately familiar with Scripture and the way one was to live in accordance with it. Yet even they would not receive Jesus into their hearts; worse, they would use their knowledge of the law to convince others to reject Jesus as well. What good is it to love the prophets—or the saints—but not love Jesus? What good is it to read Scripture, to know Scripture, but not love Jesus? All of Scripture, and every true prophet and saint points to a single truth: Jesus.
This “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is upheld by the Church to lead us to Him; the greatest memorial we can build for the saints—from Agnes to Zita—is to love Our Lord and allow Him to transform us into saints ourselves. We are to be the memorials of the prophets.