The Light Shines in the Darkness

…and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).  Amen!  Today is the feast of the Holy Family as well as St. John the Apostle.    Not surprisingly, today’s readings focus on family images, starting with Sirach’s exhortation to honor fathers and Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to Yahweh, through the Psalmist’s invocation of blessing upon those doing God’s will. St. Paul calls husbands and wives to serve Christ by serving each other.  Luke’s Gospel (2:41-52) retells an intimate, but nonetheless revealing, story of Jesus’ childhood.  Accompanying Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus then stays behind to join the rabbinical discussions in the Temple.  When his parents, understandably distraught, locate him three days later, they find the rabbis astonished by the twelve-year-old’s answers.  Joseph and Mary sweep this aside and implore:  why have you done this to us?  Jesus’ response and the story’s conclusion remain a wellspring of theological and spiritual reflection:

““Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.”

This Gospel passage provides the basis for the fifth, concluding decade of the Rosary’s Joyous Mysteries.  Jesus’ answer sets the stage for the subsequent Sorrowful, Luminous, and Glorious Mysteries, wherein the Incarnation achieves our salvation, precisely by going through our very human life, even death.  So, even here in the depths of December’s darkness, an oblique reference to Golgotha appears, itself the culmination of the Temple’s own work.

Indeed, as the New Year approaches in what are some of the darkest days of the year (in terms of daylight itself), St. John’s gospel, especially its Prologue (1:1-18), speaks to us ever anew.  In the beginning the Word exists with, and is, God. Through the Word comes light and life, and that Word itself came into the world.  The world does not recognize the occasion’s momentousness, but those who do, receive grace upon grace.  The passage concludes with the astonishing claim that nobody has seen God, but the Son, the Incarnate Word, has revealed Him.  So, again, echoing St. Luke’s passage, amid the darkness of this world, St. John reassures us that great events are underway.

Family life, we know, is much more mundane. Tellingly, Luke informs us Mary kept in her heart all those stories of Jesus’ childhood.  St. John Paul II overlooked neither this detail nor the story’s broader point that this, after all, concerns a family.  In the Holy Family, St. John Paul saw a “house”—a place where we all live—and where we should always be found.  The family, precisely in its inescapable reality and rootedness, provides the everyday location for encountering God’s plan for each of us.

When considered, that is a frightful proposition:  the earthly and the heavenly united…in your family.  Perhaps it is thus no surprise that scholars usually prefer to distinguish clearly between the earthly Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke and the lofty, heavenly Gospel by John.  It is true that real differences exist between the Gospels. Further, Christians of all sorts choose favorites.  William C. Placher, whose deceptively clear writing masked profound theological reflection, insisted Mark alone came closest to revealing Jesus’ message.  Liberation-minded theologians often prefer Luke for his inclusive vision of the Gospel.  Some of Jesus’ best known parables appear only in Luke:  the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan.  John’s Gospel, as the Prologue indicates, starts not with lowly Nazareth and Bethlehem, but with the very origins of existence itself.  That is quite a difference, but the Church, cognizant of it, nonetheless left it unresolved in the Scriptural canon.

Theologically we would do well to read the Bible with the Church.   When challenged by a Scripturally-informed student, one liberation theologian at a prominent Midwestern Catholic institution once blurted out that “John is so much <<expletive>>!”  Scripture’s diversity can lead to high or low Christologies, over-emphasizing either Christ’s divinity or humanity. John’s Gospel, with its lofty language, casts Jesus as heaven-sent and thApse St Johnus not much concerned with earthly concerns like the poor.  That is a real concern, but Scripture reiterates thoroughly the preferential option for the poor.  On the other hand, St. John—his Gospel and his own story—likewise has enjoyed widespread Christian devotion.  The disciple Jesus loved, John with Mary does not abandon Jesus at the Cross.  He then accompanies Peter to the empty tomb, and in old age he received the visions recounted in the Book of Revelation.  His gospel’s Prologue is still read at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.  And in Rome, Constantine dedicated to St. John, not Facade St JohnSt. Peter, the first Church he built.  The Lateran Basilica stands on what used to be Rome’s outskirts, just inside the Aurelian walls.  In other words, where the Roman people themselves lived.  And there, among those ancient homes and families, arose the church dedicated to the saint whose writings illuminate Christ’s presence in our own families.

 

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all our readers from the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Adoración_de_los_pastores_(Murillo)

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

Luke 2: 15-20

 

The Domestic Church, Mercy, and Christmas

Today’s liturgical readings—especially the Gospel—highlight, among other themes, the importance and dynamism of the mission of the Christian family.  This is significant in light of the recent Synod on the Family, and because of our pilgrimage of faith within Advent and Christmas of this holy Jubilee Year of Mercy.

By “mission of the Christian family,” I am referring to its three-fold baptismal priestly, prophetic, and kingly calling: to be holy; to proclaim and witness to the truth about Christ and His word (John 14:23); and to be an instrument of love and mercy in our world so much in desperate need…(see Lumen gentium, or LG, 9-13, 31 and Familiaris Consortio, or FC, 50-64 for roughly equivalent explanations of the mission of the Church, shared by its laity and the domestic Church, the Christian family).

Dom church

Mary, a “type and outstanding model in faith and charity” (LG 53), also is a type of the Church (LG 63).  As such, she reflects the three-fold mission of the Church—and therefore of the domestic Church.  Her words at the Annunciation, “May it be done to me according to your word,” from today’s selection in the “Alleluia,” echo the reference to Christ in today’s reading from Hebrews 10, “Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’“   This sacrificial self-offering underscores the core meaning of the baptismal priestly calling of holiness of the Christian family—self-oblation and corporate familial self-giving through prayer and the sacraments (FC 55, 62).  In a special way, in this Holy Year of Mercy, the Christian family must seek forgiveness from God and each other and contemplate the face of mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Misericordiae Vultus, or MV, 4).  In today’s Gospel Reading (Luke 1:39-45), Elizabeth proclaims that Mary is blessed among women, and blessed also by believing that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.  Her tenacious trust in and loyalty to God’s will is the baptismal priestly model to which the domestic Church must aspire.

In the Gospel reading, the Virgin Mary also illustrates the prophetic calling of the domestic Church by bringing Jesus to others, i.e., to Elizabeth and the unborn infant John the Baptist, and then proclaiming His power and salvation in her subsequent Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 (just beyond the reach of today’s Gospel reading). The third calling of the Christian family’s three-fold mission—to advance the kingly reign of love—we see as well in our readings.  In Luke 1:39-45, Mary exercised empathy and compassion toward neighbor in her fearless and other-centered journey to Elizabeth, six months into her pregnancy.  “Showing mercy” (from rahkam and Ἔλεος), practically the equivalent of “having compassion,” is the virtue—grounded in humility—most supremely demonstrative of charity.  Pope Francis also specifically beckons us to exercise this virtue during this Year of Mercy: “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are.  In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us…” (MV 9)

What gift can the Christian family—including each of ours, and any family, to the extent possible—give this Christmas to the Christ Child?  As the magi did, so too our families can each (try to) give Him three gifts.  The first is the baptismal priestly gift of itself—of dedicating ourselves as a family, by sacramental grace and prayer, to loving Christ and keeping His word.  The second is the prophetic gift of bringing the truth about Christ and His teachings to others.  And the third is the kingly gift of loving neighbor especially for God’s sake.  In offering this, our families will exercise great compassion, first on members of our own, but also on others most in need—even enemies.

The sacrifice of our wills, our passionate effort to share Christ and His words, and our compassionate love for Him in our neighbor, at home and far away—inspired and guided by the Mother of the domestic Church—will transform our families, our culture, and our Church.  This can be our gift to the Christ Child during this Advent and Christmas season and Holy Year.

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Gift of Waiting

advent3Now, in this holy season of Advent, the time spent waiting and preparing grows shorter.  But waiting is never easy.  Ask any child or the child in any of us for that matter.  Sometimes the waiting can make us desire the object of our waiting more and even sharpen our focus on that which is the object of our interest and affection.  We all know the adage “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.  That compulsive aspect of waiting can prompt some to try to distract their attention by shifting the focus to something else.  Filling that emptiness with activity and distraction is likely something we’ve all done.  While that strategy may help pass the time, I’m not so sure that it’s the best use of our time and that gift.  In terms of our spiritual journey, my personal opinion is that the time of waiting is a gift, a grace that should be embraced as an opportunity to experience the longing for God.  The experience of that utter absence sets the stage for our ability to clear the space in our hearts and lives and know so deeply that that space was always meant for him to fill.  Realizing that this longing for God was the greatest gift that God could give me prompted me to pen these words many years ago.  I prayerfully return to them every Advent and I pass them on to you in the hope that they may resonate in your Advent prayer.

When did His favor

first come to rest upon her?

She ponders beginnings-

her memory cannot conjure the time,

the moment,

or extend her remembrance

into His knowing,

to that moment when His choosing

first nurtured her innocence.

She rests knowing

her response was always

His gift first-

that He prepared her in secret

and love her

before her remembering-

that His humility conceived

her freedom.

 

This poem first appeared in Review for Religious (Nov./Dec.1988)

 

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

He Comes in Silence

 A few years ago a friend shared a prayer with me called the St. Andrew’s Christmas Novena. The devotion, popular in the Western Church, is prayed daily from the feast of St. Andrew until Christmas. It is a beautiful prayer, and it goes like this:

“Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.”

This prayer, profound in its simplicity, tells not only the meaning of Christmas, but the meaning of our lives in Jesus Christ. Close your eyes and picture the scene: night falls after a long day’s travel. Mary, uncomfortable and tired, knows her time of delivery is imminent. Joseph, doing his duty by registering for the census, feels the weight of responsibility for the care of the wife he brought so far from home, and the child who’s on his way. Searching the crowded city, the couple finally finds a cave in which to rest and wait. It’s quiet and cold. Finally, the child is born, but not just any child: the Word of God spoken as a helpless infant. The silence of the night is interrupted by the cries of the Child, the low hum of His mother’s comforting song, and Joseph softly stroking the newborn King’s head. Once again the quiet, and only Heaven really knows the wonder, the miracle of God’s love that the Earth will puzzle over and misunderstand as the Child grows.

In our “traditional” experience of Charlie Brown Christmas specials, “Midnight Mass,” and the breaking of oplatky embossed with Nativity scenes, it’s easy to embrace the “noise” of Christmas and lose the quiet contemplation and wonder. In our cozy kitchens, by the fireside, and snuggled in our beds we may forget the magnificence in the austerity of the Nativity of Christ. God becomes a man, the Creator becomes a creature, and the Son becomes a son. God breaks into time and history, into “the piercing cold” on a night a long time ago, in a place far away, yet into the very heart of the experience of each one of us.

The one, true living God is not a concept or a distant Watcher. He is a Person: a relationship of love – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who desires to be so close to us for all eternity that He comes to meet us “on our own turf.” The Son of God enters His creation Picture1as a baby, piercing not only the cold darkness of one night in history, but the cold, dark spaces of our human experience. Christmas shopping and gift-giving, baked ham and cranberry sauce, and the reunion of family and friends are an important and vital part of our Christmas experience. Worship in the Divine Liturgy and communion with each other are essential to the celebration. But so too is the quiet meditation, deep in each of our hearts, on the Word made flesh. Jesus became a man to save us – yes – to heal our spiritual infirmity – yes – and to conquer death – YES! Yet within the magnanimity of this saving act is the simple, subtle, unassuming truth of Emmanuel: God with us. When we are vulnerable, so is He. When we are weak and sick, so is He. When we laugh and when we cry, He is there.

As we wrap gifts and buy groceries, prepare feasts and make our way to Liturgy in the cold of night or the crisp early morning, let’s remember to steal moments of quiet thought. The gifts are signs pointing to the Gift of God Himself. The feast and fellowship we share foreshadow the bountiful goodness He has prepared for us. The Liturgy is that place where we meet Him, face to face, as vulnerable in the Bread and Wine as He was in the manger, but no less physically and spiritually present. Our hearts are the place where He lives, if we prepare a place there for Him to rest with us.

“Hail and blessed be the hour and moment,” and every moment of our lives, because God is near.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. This article first appeared in Eastern Catholic Life, the official publication of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic.

Mary and Advent (Or, Why Legos Just Don’t Satisfy the Infinite Thirst for God)

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on December 7, 2014.

My kids are into Legos right now. They are perhaps not my favorite toy, to which the bottom of my foot will testify.

Legos

But Legos—excuse me, interlocking brick construction systems—are at least an interesting case-study in human desire. To wit: Kid A desperately wants Lego Set X. He thinks, speaks, and dreams of Lego Set X. He obtains Lego Set X—rejoicing! He constructs Lego Set X. It’s fun.

On the day after comes the Great Letdown. Onto desiring Lego Set Y!

We adults may not try to fill the God-hole in our hearts with Lego sets. Then again, maybe we do.

Or perhaps we go for more Grow out of legossophisticated alternatives. Like the iPhone 6. Or the right job. Or the great relationship. But we are still just overgrown kids, vainly throwing Lego bricks into an infinite hole and wondering why we still feel lousy.

All of this points to the providence of having the Feast of the Immaculate Conception right smack in Advent, on December 8. The season of Advent these days has become the time to advert to our infinite desire for God amidst and despite the relentless consumerism of December. The purity of Mary, which is the product of her Immaculate Conception, releases her to drink deeply from the only well that satisfies human thirst: the truth and love of the triune God.

Mary fully allows the Father to achieve what Fr. Robert Imbelli in his beautiful book Rekindling the Christic Imagination calls “Christification”:

Christians are called not merely to the imitation of Christ but to participation in his own life, gradually becoming transformed from their old self to the new self, recreated according to the image and likeness of their Savior, who loves them and, in the Eucharist, continues to give himself for them.

The icon is the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice, a classic Russian icon. Mary calls us to come and drink from that chalice that never runs dry, the eternicon 3al, self-giving love of her Son Jesus. Like Christ arising from the chalice, so are we, as little Christs, resurrected into the newness of Christian life by his Eucharist grace. The Christification that God has achieved in Mary, he wants to do for each of us. What Mary has allowed God to do for her, she wishes us to experience through her maternal care. And we will, if we say fiat as she did.

This, then, is the hope of Advent: the hope of transformation into Christ, the satisfaction of those infinite longings for the triune God. This is the hope we bring to others. “The New Evangelization is not about a program,” Fr. Imbelli writes, “but about a Person and about participation in the new life he enables.”

As cool as Legos are, that’s much, much better.

Angela Franks teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

Open the Doors Wide – Let God’s Mercy Flow!

This Tuesday, Pope Francis ushers in the Jubilee Year of Mercy! I have waited for this day, since the announcement occurred this past spring, via the reading of Misericordiae Vultus, the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Jubilees do not come along every day; that is why the magnitude of this event is deemed extraordinary. The graces offered this year should not be taken for granted, or worse, dismissed by the faithful.

Our world suffers from turbulent events; abortion, suicide, euthanasia, gun violence, terrorist attacks and wars. Bottom line we kill each other, and/or ourselves. We do the farthest thing from God’s will; to love one another as the Father has loved us. We desperately need God’s Mercy. As a human race, we have truly spiraled downward. We need His loving touch of Mercy to lift us from our self-made abyss of sin and suffering.

Through God’s mercy we heal. Through God’s mercy “we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives” (MV 3). When we receive God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God replaces our guilt and shame with joy. That joy emanates outward for others to see. He fills us with true Christian serenity; Christ’s Peace. That sense of Peace also emanates outward in our Christian witness.

What can we expect during this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy?

  • On December 8, 2015 Pope Francis will open the Holy Door of Mercy, “through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope” (MV 3).
  • On December 13, 2015 the Holy Door of Mercy opens at all cathedrals throughout the world.
  • During Lent 2016, Pope Francis will send out Missionaries of Mercy; designated priests, enabled to “pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See” (MV18).
  • On March 4-5, 2016, we can participate in a worldwide initiative called “24 Hours for the Lord” where the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be offered in every Diocese (MV 17).
  • On November 20, 2016 the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy will come to an end, but with the knowledge that Christ’s Mercy is endless and always readily available to everyone.

What can we do to make the most of this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy?

  • Allow God to surprise you (MV 25).
  • Embrace the call to mercy (MV 18).
  • Listen to the Word of God (MV 13).
  • Make an effort to reconcile yourself to God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
  • Refrain from judging others.
  • Be merciful toward others.
  • Recognize the suffering of others and express compassion.
  • Partake in the Corporal Works of Mercy (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead) (MV 15).
  • Partake in the Spiritual Works of Mercy (counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently, and pray for the living and dead) (MV 15).

I’m psyched! I’m ready to receive an outpouring of God’s Mercy. I’m ready to do my part in participating in the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. How about you? Open the doors wide! Let God’s Mercy flow!

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. Her new children’s book Finding Patience was recently published. She blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

I am not able to be selfish anymore

“For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it…” (Ephesians 5:29)

I was recently in a conversation with someone who is a new father. He was commenting to me about the challenges of being a parent. Then in bold honesty he said: “I’m not able to be selfish anymore…” as if he was lamenting the lost opportunity to focus almost exclusively on himself (he is married, hence the “almost”). I have to admit the honesty was refreshing in a way. It also contributed a point to an ongoing reflection I have been having on the Sacrament of Matrimony and its relationship with the Eucharist (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis 27).

The following might seem out of left field, but bear with me. Blessed Pope Paul VI’s Paul VIreasserted in his encyclical Humanae Vitae that there is an “inseparable connection, established by God” between the unitive significance and procreative significance “which are both inherent to the marriage act” (Humanae Vitae 12, emphasis added; cf. Gaudium et Spes 51). In other words each act of sexual intercourse is unitive for the spouses and must be open to life. However, couples who exhibit a “contraceptive mentality” (cf. Evangelium Vitae 13) seek to avoid new life in some cases because it is truthfully difficult to raise children. Especially for the mother who has to give of her body so that another human being can grow inside her. It is evident that sacrifice is required. In theory parents are not able to be selfish anymore.

I find it amazing to reflect on the Scripture passage which says that women will be saved through childbearing, “provided [they] persevere in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Timothy 2:15). I don’t think St. Paul was attempting to say that all women are saved only through childbearing, especially since he encourages virginity at another point (1 Corinthians 7:34). However, there is a Eucharistic dimension in the great mystery of the generation of human life that may easily get overlooked.

St. Paul urges the disciples in Rome to offer their bodies as a “spiritual sacrifice” that is pleasing to the Lord (cf. Romans 12:1). Women, and men, can give glory to God with their bodies (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20). One of the beautiful realities of the Eucharistic sacrifice is that Jesus’ disciples can be united with His one-time sacrifice which is made present at Mass. The Catechism explains this profound mystery in the following:

“In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering” (CCC 1368).

The lives of the faithful can be “brought to the altar,” as gifts to the Lord, to be united with the sacrifice of Christ. Spouses can offer the gift of themselves, offering all that they are, including their fertility, in response to God’s plan of salvation and the generation of new life. Each spouse can reflect on the words of our Lord in the institution narrative: “This is my body which will be given up for you, do this in remembrance of me.” These words can simply inspire a spouse to give of himself or herself completely for the life of another in the conjugal act of love. This is particularly the case when a mother conceives in her womb and a new life grows inside her.

There is the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative significance when spouses unite as one flesh. The unitive significance is aimed at communion and the procreative involves sacrifice which is open to new life. And this brings us to my reflection on the Eucharist. The Eucharist is of course a communion meal in which the members of the Body of Christ are united with Jesus. Concurrently the Eucharist is a sacrifice in which Jesus offers Himself as a gift of self and we have the opportunity to respond with the gift of our self. And the gift of our self can lead to “new life” as we’re transformed to be more like Christ. Also there can be new life in the Spirit for those who encounter Christ through us. In other words when we receive the Eucharist we must respect the unitive (communion) and procreative (sacrifice) significances of this great mystery when our flesh unites with the flesh of our Lord.

Yet, when we go to receive the Eucharist we may approach simply because we want the “communal” or unitive significance. We want to be united with God and with each other and this is praiseworthy. However, there is also the inseparable significance of sacrifice through the gift of ourselves in response to Christ which is open to the Father’s will and new life in the Spirit. We have to be ready to give our lives as a spiritual sacrifice which gives glory to God. Let’s avoid an analogical “contraceptive mentality” when we receive the Eucharist in which we don’t give ourselves completely to Christ. So as we approach Jesus in the Eucharist we should say to ourselves: “I’m not able to be selfish anymore…”

Edward Trendowski teaches marriage and family ministry for Saint Joseph’s College Online.