SUNDAY 5 FEBRUARY 2023: THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: “LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE”.

LIGHT

The Light of the World Banishes Fog, Nancy Kay Grace, 

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[Jesus said] “…your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”    Matthew 516.

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There is a very creepy character in Dickens’ David Copperfield called Uriah Heep. He was always quick to belittle himself in public and proclaim himself to be everyone’s humble servant, but at heart he was a self-seeking, self-serving, and self-aggrandizing hypocrite! The Lord’s instruction to us all today, quoted above, should be taken very carefully so as not to become a Uriah Heep redivivus. The key line is that our good deeds must glorify our Father in heaven – that is to say, not ourselves! We all like to receive compliments but many of us do not know how to respond appropriately and truthfully. The Lord gives us a little advice here though, instructing us to acknowledge that all our skill comes from God. Figuring out a way to do this well and without seeming to be a sort of pious Uriah Heep is a challenge. Our job on this earth is to be exactly the sort of Christian person God wants us to be. We are to go through life using the gifts our God has given to each of us, and sometimes the way we have used these gifts prompts a compliment or a thank you. Our challenge is to appreciate the compliment appropriately, but we know that ultimately it is God who should to be thanked. Saying that prompted a memory from years ago. I was shaking hands after celebrating a Mass. I grew up in the UK and have a London accent which my grand-niece once told me was “posh”. Well, a lady came up to me after Mass and said “Oh father, I love the way you speak; I could listen to you all day long”. Now I know that many Americans are partial to a British accent, why I don’t know, but there it is. So I responded, “Oh thank you so much. Did you like what I said?” Pause. Then “Oh father I don’t know what you said, but it sounded beautiful…” Well on that occasion even father was at a loss for words. Any suggestions? Sometimes the best response is simply a radiant smile and a profound “Thank you”. Seriously though, how do you steer a compliment you have received to the author of all good without seeming unctuous? Jesus’ instruction is crystal clear, but how do you do it in practice? 

I imagine that most, if not all of us shrink a little when praise is bestowed on us for something we have done which can be considered good in the eyes of the Lord. We have done it because we thought it was needed, would help someone, would witness to the presence of God and so on. In other words we have done what any good Christian is supposed to do. It is certainly nice to receive  a compliment, but we are all careful in such a situation knowing it is really God working through us; it isn’t us who should be praised, it is God. Somehow it would be good if we could divert that praise to the Lord, who deserves it and enabled us to do it, yet not put down the one praising us. They might end up feeling bad by thinking they had somehow messed up what they thought was a compliment. In fact, it could be a teachable moment if we had our wits about us. For example, I gave a sermon on the Hebrew idea of God’s Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. The words Spirit and Wisdom are both feminine in Hebrew, unlike in English and the Latin from which we get much of our church expression. I pointed out that Jesus, hearing “he” or “him” used in the synagogue for God’s Holy Spirit would be as astonished as much as we would be if we used what, in my opinion, should be, “she” and “her” when talking about the Holy Spirit. For example, Proverbs 9:1, “Wisdom has built her house She has set up her seven pillars…” Well after that sermon, one gentleman came up to me and announced that the sermon had changed his life and thanked me profusely! I simply responded with a florid “thank you”, but in retrospect I could have done much better. The teachable moment could have been: “Yes, thanks; isn’t it wonderful what we can still learn from Scripture, and that there must still be great treasures to unearth from it.” That might have sent him back to the good book to find out more. The trouble is, I have found out from my experience, the great responses come well after the actual moment, what I should have said but didn’t. How can we be prepared for an immediate decent response in any and every such situation? Perhaps by trying to be simply sensitive to potential compliments after some special situation where we may say something useful or interesting or both. The satisfaction should come from the knowledge that we at least tried to give a good Christian reflection in that situation that did not come out as churchy or saccharine, and certainly not be angry or upset that we did not get congratulated! The knowledge that we did our best should be sufficient; the Lord certainly knows that. And take heart from this:

You Are the Light of the World…

…which has the wonderful line “If that salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor” should not be taken literally. Salt can’t lose its flavor, just as we can’t lose our identity as a child of God. But it does mean that if we fail God in some way, we can always say sorry and know we are forgiven, that it will not happen again, and start over. But as good children of God, we should always and everywhere seek to give honor where honor is due, namely, to God. 

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The Virgin of Humility, Fra Angelico c.1435, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain.

I don’t often comment on the artwork on this webpage, but an exception is made here. Fran Angelico was one of the greatest artistic masters of the Middle Ages. He was a Dominican friar who lived in Tuscany in Italy. His work became very well known for its quality and its radiance. As a monk he was renowned for his humility and holiness. Indeed, the Angelic Brother was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982. His work, then, pointed not to him but to the eternal truth and beauty of God and the saints. Our Lady of Humility represents a summation of his genius, holiness and total dedication to the Lord.

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29 JANUARY 2023: THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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Beatitudes Tree Scripture Art, Monica Welch, Dovetail Ink.

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When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”     Matthew 5:1-3.

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When do you ever hear the word “beatitude” in normal conversation? Be honest… Well I don’t recall it ever being said outside conversations dedicated to Jesus’ message and mission. And yet this teaching is considered to be critically important to understanding what Jesus was all about. Consider here, and click on each one to find its source:

In a few short sentences the Beatitudes are perhaps the most important, subversive and revolutionary text in the Bible.

The Beatitudes describe the destiny of humanity, the inheritance, the glory that is won by our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ through that victory.

Words like these will shock the world out of its despair and turn its heart once again to dreams of hope.

These Beatitudes are taught by Jesus as the foundations for a life of authentic Christian discipleship and the attainment of ultimate happiness. 

In the original Greek in which Matthew is written, the word blessed is a translation of the word μακάριος, makarios. The etymology of that word is given as: μακάριος, makarios, (from Pindar, Plato down), blessed, happy (Blue Letter Bible). The Latin translation of it is beatus and its original meaning is: beatus, Latin, Adjective beātus, happy, fortunate, prosperous, wealthyChurch Latin, blessed (Definify). Clearly the ancients equated happiness with the holy or the blessed. All of which is just to suggest that we substitute the word happy for blessed in today’s gospel reading and consider the reaction each of us has in the sound of it:

Happy are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Happy are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.… and so on.

That seems to give an entirely new sense to those famous words, not to say a contradictory meaning! Holiness and happiness are united! To be holy, or blessed, is to be happy! True happiness is to be close to God. Jesus’ whole life, his whole ministry, was dedicated to making us happy, and telling each of us how to achieve it. He is telling us that true blessedness is to be found even in the bleakest of situations. Even when all is pain, and apparent hopelessness, there is always to be found the ultimate source of hope and happiness, God. I think of Thomas More’s last words in the play Man for All Seasons, to the man with the axe who was to execute him: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God” (Robert Bolt, Knopf, 1960, p.94), followed by his famous statement, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first”. There is a deep, convincing aura of peace in that terrible scene; there was no bitterness or hatred, no condemnation or curses. I’m also reminded of a lady I took communion to many years ago. She was in her 30s, but clearly very ill with a grey pallor. She was dying of cancer, but had a serenity which was utterly radiant and palpable. There lies the strength of Jesus’ words and teaching. There lie our hopes and conviction that whatever comes our way, if we are of God, there is a profound and utterly indestructible hope that what lies ahead is ultimately happiness eternal. Even when life is normal and humming along, there also lies our happiness. And then there are our moments of pure happiness when all is right with the world because things seem to portend heaven itself, in the eternally happy presence of God. And there is no secret as to how this can be done; today’s gospel tells us loud and clear.

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Blessed Are the Pure in Heart for They Shall See God, Active Christianity.

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22 JANUARY 2023: THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME.

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A 1923 map showing the lands of Zebulun and Nap(htali) in Galilee at the time of Jesus. The Mediterranean Sea is to the west on the left and the River Jordan flows out of the south end of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is in the upper right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, while Nazareth is bottom-center, south of Cana, Matthew 4:14-15.

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[Jesus] left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.   Matthew 4:13-16.

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Perhaps you were like me, without a clue where the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali as mentioned in today’s readings were, so I found out: look at the map above. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, is in the land named for Zebulun, one of Joseph’s brothers, and Capernaum in the land of another brother, Naphtali, two of the fabled 12 Tribes of Israel, named after Joseph and his brothers. Isaiah’s prophesy, today’s first reading, concerning those lands was fulfilled with the arrival of the Messiah, as Jesus’ childhood was in the former, and his ministry began in the latter, today’s gospel. The prophesy describes Galilee (a land containing those two ancient tribal areas) as “Gentile”, non-Jewish. That was another mystery. The reason? 200 years or so before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, the Assyrians had conquered the northern state of Israel and exiled many of its inhabitants. They did not conquer Jerusalem in the kingdom of Judah to the south, and so ever after that event the northern area was heavily, but not exclusively, Gentile. Hence Isaiah’s prophesy must have sounded a little strange to those who heard it. Yet it came to be, the fulfillment of the prophecy being today’s gospel. The light did shine out of in Galilee of the Gentiles.

capereaumThe remains of the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus began his ministry. The regular black basalt stone layer immediately below the Roman-age floor is believed to have been that of the Jewish synagogue at the time of Jesus, where he would have walked. Taken 2018 visit to the Holy Land.

Jesus received his vocation and identity, Messiah and Son of God respectively, at his baptism in the nearby Jordan by John, last week’s gospel. After his meditation in the nearby desert for 40 days, he emerged confident in both revelations, and began his ministry. The arrest, mentioned in today’s gospel, and eventual murder of John the Baptist, however, must have been a very hard blow; John was his cousin and the person instrumental in allowing him to discover who and what he was; it must have been devastating. But he was still the Messiah, sent by God to deliver his message of forgiveness, repentance,  hope and love to any and all who would listen. And this right there in the midst of the Gentiles who, Jews believed, were not to be part of the prophetic Jewish dominion to come. The fact that the Jewish dominion would in fact be a Christian dominion, led by none other than their Jewish Messiah, was to be achieved later. And clearly Jesus did this with absolute conviction and charisma, using his mighty powers, as many people dropped everything to follow him, some for the rest of their lives.

And that is, I think, today’s message to us, 2000 years later. We are Jesus’ descendants, the anointed of God and baptized into our vocation as christ to the world. Do you recall when and where you decided Jesus and his message were for you? When did it dawn on you that we must all forgive, repent and love as true Christians, no matter what the tribulations we may, and certainly will, encounter? Look at the picture above: that was where the Lord, now convinced of his vocation and identity, began to implement his call from God. Today it is now up to us to set an example of Christian living amid a world of non-Christians, just as Jesus did in his day. He drew on his absolute faith in God the Father, convinced he would never be alone, and even when that seemed to be true, never to yield to despair. God is ultimately the only reality we can absolutely trust to get us through anything. Jesus believed that from the first moments of his ministry to his death as a criminal on the cross. A clear, absolute conviction, unclouded by distractions as outlined in today’s second reading. We believe in that same God. To God alone be the glory, amen.

FOLLOWCome Follow Me, Jorge Cocco.

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SUNDAY 15 JANUARY 2023: THE SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD.

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Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar, The Baptism of Christ, German c.1485-1500, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.

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John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him…. He is the Son of God’  John 1:32-34.

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The vast majority of Christians begin their Christian life by being baptized. Most of us do not remember the event as we were very young, perhaps only a few months old. Other Christian traditions, principally the Baptists, wait until adulthood. Some, especially the Quakers and the Salvation Army, who clearly label themselves Christian, do not baptize at all. But for most of us, child baptism is the norm. This varies from a small trickle of water on the forehead to total immersion. And this Sunday we remember Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by his cousin John. The event was critical for the Lord. It revealed his identity as Son of God, and it also revealed his vocation: he was the promised Messiah, come to fulfill the centuries of prophecies as written in Holy Scripture. John stated that Jesus was the Son of God as he must have heard the voice from heaven that he and the other evangelists speak of. Then the Spirit of God, “like a dove”, came upon him, thus anointing him: Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning Anointed; The Greek word is Christos, Christ, meaning the same thing, anointed. It was no wonder that he fled into the wilderness to try and make sense of that incredible event! 

baptism

Baptism of Christ, Albani c.1624, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, Italy.

But where do we take it from here? Yes, we accept Jesus as our Lord and God; yes we were baptized just as he was. Yes we too were anointed at our baptism, as well as had water run over us as an outward sign. What then? Take a look at today’s first reading. “The LORD said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory”. And today’s second reading: “…you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” Both those readings can be legitimately applied to each one of us. We were anointed, so we, each one of us, is Christ, Messiah, Anointed One to the world. And as we have been bathed, as it were, in holy water, we too are the (adopted) Children of God. So most of us start off in life as God’s child, and we are called to be Christ to the world! But we can’t work miracles, raise the dead to life, speak in words which will be echoed 2000 years from now you might say. Jesus was able to do those miraculous things as he was the Son of God, with powers beyond imagining, all of which he placed in service to us. But we do have certain divine powers too. We each of us have gifts from God with which we are born. Each one of us, without exception. Some others may have more than us, and we may have more than some others; that’s life. What is important to each of us are the powers that God has given us. It is with those powers that we will serve God in serving others, just as Jesus did. The goal of education is to identify those powers and develop them up as the means by which we will live our lives. The focus, though, must always and everywhere be, how do we serve others in using our powers?

Each year when I was still teaching, I would set the same exercise to my Juniors. They had to intervew their parents/guardians, and their parents’ friends and simply ask them if they were happy in their work. Given an answer, they were to ask why they were happy or not in the life they had chosen. Overwhelmingly the answer was they they were happy, and overwhelmingly the reason was that they helped others in some way or another. That is what gave them the greatest satisfaction in life. And that is precisely what the Lord calls us to do. Heaven can be tasted here and now because of that: happiness is to be found in the ways we help each other. It was Jesus’ command to us remember: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). And more: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). One student’s response remains with me to this day. She interviewed her uncle, the richest man in her family. He answered that he hated getting up on Monday mornings to go to his Wall Street job. He had been pressured into it by family and friends when the offer came, he took it and ended up regretting it for the rest of his life. I had told my students that if they ever did come across such a response, they had to be really careful, because the person in front of them was suffering and in pain. Ask as gently as possible why that was. In her case, he said all his life he wanted to be a chef. He could not change now as a chef’s income would be nothing like his present salary, which supported his family in a style which was grand. She concluded by remembering at every family cookout he would be there, wearing his chef’s hat, cooking for everyone, a radiant smile on his face. The point of the whole exercise was to indicate to them that money should not be the primary motivation in deciding what to do with your life. The Lord’s command should be the starting point. For Jesus his life was to be dominated by his mission to ensure that others were being served, they were to be taught to help others, and to stick to that focus no matter what. In that way he obeyed God’s will for him, and used his gifts to do his best in achieving it. So it must be for each of us.

Asian Mother with daughter of mixed Chinese and African American ethnicity at home indoors posing playfully for portraits smiling and being silly

8 Ways to Get Healthier, Volunteer Match.

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8 JANUARY 2023: THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD.

Gentile_da_Fabriano_001Adoration of the Magi, da Fabriani 1423, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

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…..on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.  They prostrated themselves and did him homage.Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.    Matthew 21:11.

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There in the picture above are all the trappings of the traditional image of the Three Kings (they have crowns, even if one resembles an early baseball cap), the precious gifts and the impression they must have inspired as seen in the awestruck crowd. Little Christmas, or Twelfth Night, is upon us! More formally, today is the feast of the Epiphany, a word which comes directly from the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια, epipháneia, meaning a manifestation or revelation. In this context, the revelation is that Jesus is more than a normal new-born baby, but the King of the Jews, as the Magi themselves said. Their expensive gifts certainly suggest their strong belief in that title. And note there is no word about how many magi there were; more than one, as Magi is in the plural, but we know no more than that. The three costly gifts suggest there were three visitors, and they might well have been three wealthy kings. We’ll never know.

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“Severa in Deo Vivas” (Severa, (May You) Live in God), Sacophagus 3rd Century, Museo delle Civilta Romana, Rome, Italy.

But what is behind all this joy and merriment? What are the wondrous messages contained in this biblical event? Why should we all be so happy? Well, firstly, everything up to the arrival of the Magi had been within a Jewish context. The Jewish prophets had declared that the Messiah would come from the Jewish city of Bethlehem; he would lead the Jewish people to peace, prosperity and happiness. Mary and Joseph were devout Jewish people, following the Law and obeying the prescriptions involved with their faith: traveling to Jerusalem, for example, to present their son to God in the Temple and for Mary to be purified as instructed in Leviticus 12:1-8. They also traveled there to participate in Passover ceremonies (Luke 2:14) (and note that the distance between Nazareth and Jerusalem is about 75 miles; on foot…). The first shepherds were Jewish; they understood as best they could, as they were probably not too well educated, that this event was truly significant. The angels had told them so! Jewish hopes placed on the expected Messiah’s shoulders also included a military expectation: they believed it would be the Messiah who would violently expel the pagan Romans from the Holy Land. But today’s event does not play into that expectation at all. Also, remember that wise men were from the east. That meant they were not Jewish, and the conclusion, or revelation, or epiphany, is that everyone, from every tradition, people, belief – everyone – was and is invited to the crib. There was to be no more exclusive Jewish-only message. We are all of us welcome, a revolutionary concept in traditional Judaism, one which would almost tear the early church to pieces. Then that word Magi. It is a transliteration of the Greek word μαγος (magos) itself a transliteration of the Persian word maguš, a term possibly applied to Persian Zoroastrian priests, reputed to be superb astrologers and more (the word magic comes from the same source).

All that in itself is fascinating. Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion still present today, stands apart from most other ancient religions in its belief in one god alone, and some scholars believe it influenced the three great modern monotheistic faiths. It originated in Persia, present day Iran. So these important men represent a radical new dynamic in the arrival of the Messiah, as he would be The One to lead everybody, from every persuasion and tradition. And so it came to be. Hence today’s feast is a very joyful, even liberating feast day. It indicates that no-one is excluded from the very Jewish hope and expectation in the arrival of a true leader who would be the source of life and light, one whose love would expand that Jewish hope into welcoming everyone openly and freely into his arms. No-one is excluded, and we are all given the hope and direction in life which will lead to eternal happiness. Likewise, we are promised even now a glimpse of heaven if we use our gifts as God wishes, serving others, to God’s greater glory. The three gifts can signify this: gold for the knowledge we are doing God’s will, frankincense for our worship of and obedience to God throughout our lives in what we say, think and do, and myrrh for those difficulties and challenges each of us endures and will endure and overcome in doing that. 

S/W Ver: 85.9B.E5P
The tradition in Spain and some Latin American countries is that the Three Kings bring gifts to children at Christmas. In recent years, this has been combined with the tradition of Santa Claus, so now they often appear in shopping malls. Children have the opportunity to be photographed sitting on their knees, and then posting a letter with their requests in the mail box in the distance.                                                      

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1 JANUARY 2023: THE OCTAVE DAY OF CHRISTMAS, THE SOLEMNITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY, THE MOTHER OF GOD.

Mother

“Laughing Madonna”, Jan Peters, Pinterest.

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And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.  Luke 2:19.

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Our Lady’s title of “Mother of God” was the result of the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, now in Turkey, in 431 AD. It took a long time, as you can see from that date, for the Christian Church to reach that definitive understanding. This was by virtue of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel came from heaven to request her submission to God’s will and become a mother through God’s Holy Spirit. She obeyed God’s will, and hence was the Mother of God. In Greek, Θεοτόκος, Theotokos, the rough translation of which is Mother of God. On icons of Mary, you might see Μήτηρ (τοῦ) Θεοῦ, Mother of God:

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Icon of the Mother of God of Konev, Hurry to Love.

There are several references to Mary and Jesus on this icon, and you will find them in most icons of the Blessed Mother holding the Christ Child. Μρ is the abbreviation for Μήτηρ, Mētēr, Mother; Θῦ for Θεοῦ, Theou, of God. Furthermore, you will also find abbreviations for Jesus on Greek icons: Ις for Ιησούς, Iēsous, Jesus, and Χς for Χριστός, ChristosChrist. On Jesus’ halo there are more Greek letters,  ὁ ὤν,  ho ōn, “the one who is”.  This comes from the third chapter of the Book of Exodus, when God revealed the Divine Name to Moses, “I am who am” ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, ego eimi ho ōn.  

So this feast day focusses on Mary, on motherhood and on the woman who defeated the devil, as foretold in the Book of Genesis, by obeying instead of defying God, even when such acquiescence could have brought social disaster. We all have a mother, and those of us fortunate enough to have had an excellent mother (hopefully all of us) know the importance of that happy fact. The critical importance of our early years, when all we do is absorb knowledge, experience the acts, words and influence of those around us, lay almost permanent foundations on which we will build our lives. And all this is before schooling or really any strong outside influence unless we have been born into enormous challenge and demoralizing poverty. Jesus, however, must have been born into an intimately human, supportive society, no doubt with grandparents (two of whom were, traditionally though not found in Scripture, Anna and Joachim) and aunts and uncles. I was fortunate to have had, as it were, three mothers, my mother and two close aunts. I credit them very much with the person I have become. Hence most of us can probably claim to have grown up in a very similar way to Jesus’ upbringing. Our moral foundations, knowing right from wrong, the way we approach others, the care we take in how we speak to others, the care we take in assessing the effect we have on others, hopefully all good, are all laid down in those first years. And, above all, the knowledge we have of the Greater Power outside us, knowing that each of us is not the be all and end all of everything and that we are all the result of God’s blessing. That we all enjoy God’s blessing, today’s first reading, and ultimately, that we are the adopted children of God (and not, as today’s reading states, only “sons” of God but rather sons and daughters of God (how long do we have to wait for readings which allow us to enjoy fully God’s intentions?). 

Scripture is very short on Jesus’ upbringing, saying simply that grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people, (Luke 2:52), this after the adventure in the Temple where he sat with the elders and doctors discussing we know not what (Luke 2:42-51). But when he encountered his cousin John and was baptized in the River Jordan, and his identity and vocation were revealed to him, traditionally at the age of 30, he immediately accepted God’s will for him, and lived it out to the bitter end. That tells us clearly what upbringing he must have had. God was the all-important center of his life. That came from those around him, and principally, as for most of us, his mother. 

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The Virgin with the Laughing Child, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

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25 DECEMBER 2022: THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD: CHRISTMAS DAY.

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Angels Garlanding the Infant Jesus, Ann Macbeth n.d., Private Collection.

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While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.     Luke 2:6-7.

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And what follows, in the majestic language of the King James, Authorized, Version is this: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord, And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards all. It is a scene so familiar to us all that we can all virtually quote that translation from heart. It occurs in countless Christmas carols and cards. It is almost in our DNA! And it springs from the greatest event in human history, when Almighty God, in the form of a helpless babe, entered our fractured, tortured, painful human history to lift us up, to give us dignity, hope, strength and direction, and to remain with us forever. That helpless child is the hope of the ages, the sign and power of God’s all-embracing love for all of us, without exception. We are all invited into that scene of both poverty and unlimited richness. Each of us is welcomed, sins, history, failures, greatness, love, all of us, for God’s love is limitless, infinite and ever welcoming. All of us, just as the angel said.

Shepherds were the first to hear this universal message. Shepherds were not considered to be the noblest members of society back then, In fact they were generally considered to be pretty well dregs of Hebrew society at that time. Yet it was to these that the news of Jesus’ birth was first given. Note that the second group to whom this news was delivered were the Wise Men, possibly three (the actual number is not given in the gospel) as told in Matthew’s gospel. They, on the other hand, would be considered to be near the top of the social ladder. So in the very first days of the Savior’s life, the top and bottom of society were summoned to the manger, one group by a chorus of angels, the other by a miraculous star. And it seems, just to make sure we understand what the situation was, this was the Savior for all people, rich, poor, educated and without, local and from far away. No exceptions, no-one given preference. Before God we are all equal, judged on what we have made of our lives with the gifts given us by the Almighty. And Jesus’ whole mission, once he came to the knowledge of who and what he was, was to show us how we might do that to the best of our ability, and how we might expect help from him throughout our lives. Then I wondered about the ox and ass, always assigned to the stable but not mentioned in any gospel. Well, look at this short passage from the prophet Isaiah:

The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.   Isaiah 1:3.

It comes from an insight made by the Christian teacher Origen in the second century, who knew, of course, how the story would end in Jesus’ rejection by the people of Israel, yet the humble animals of the farm recognized him without difficulty. But we do and the angelic Alleluia! should be, and is, our response. 

 

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The Mystical Nativity, Botticelli 1501, The National Gallery, London, UK.

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18 DECEMBER 2022: THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT.

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Joseph’s Dream, Rembrandt c.1646, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

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………the angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”     Matthew 1:20.

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All the events surrounding the conception, birth  and life of Jesus are so well known that it is difficult to think of something new, if not impossible. Brooding on this daunting reality, I thought of the angel’s instruction to Joseph “you are to name him Jesus”. Then I remembered Juliet’s reflection on “name” in Shakespeare’s tragedy. She says, essentially, that a name is simply a name; a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, she says. Yet it’s Romeo’s name, Montague, which makes him forbidden to her because of the feud between that family and hers, the Capulets. So it is a conundrum. But clearly today’s gospel angel, a word which means messenger, expressed God’s divine will: this child will be called Jesus, therefore it must be a very special name. Indeed. Jesus comes to us from the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic name Yeshua, יֵשׁוּעַ  today’s modern Joshua (remember all the Christian Scriptures were written in Greek). There is no “sh” sound in Greek; the nearest a Greek tongue could get to it was Ἰησοῦς, Hiēsous. In the Aramaic original, this means “God (Yehu) Saves”. In the person of Jesus, therefore, there is to be found humanity’s salvation. Yes, a mighty name indeed. Poor Joseph though. He must have been reeling from the revelation that Mary was “found with child” before their marriage had been consummated. Decent man that he was, he intended to divorce her as quietly as possible to avoid pain. Hence the angel’s arrival with the shattering news that God was responsible for her condition! And not only that, but that this child was therefore the Son of God and that he would save us all, hence his name. He was the Messiah!

Today’s gospel simply says Joseph took Mary into his home. He was probably incapable of any response at all, simply obeying God’s will as expressed through the angel. He might have thought of today’s first reading from the prophet Ahaz, that “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” and seen this whole event as prophetic fulfillment. God said to Ahaz that the child’s name will be Emmanuel, meaning “God with us” – which Jesus was. The second reading seems to pull all this together, with St. Paul reflecting that in Jesus, “for the sake of his name”, we are all, Jews and Gentiles together, called to belong to the Lord Jesus, all of us called to be holy. Hence the stage is set for the arrival of the Christ Child, the hopes and fears of all the years. Now the thing to ask ourselves is, are we ready to receive the Christ Child with love, hope and generous faith? There is still time….

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Angel with the Trumpet, Cathedral of the Incarnation, Granada, Spain. 

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11 DECEMBER 2022: THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: GAUDETE (“REJOICE”) SUNDAY.

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The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1566, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary.

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Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed,  the deaf hear………     Matthew 11:4-5.

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The overriding figure of the season of Advent is unquestionably that of St. John the Baptist. He heralded the coming of the Lord, was indeed his cousin, and although a celebrated figure himself, as Scripture tells us of crowds going out into the wilderness to hear what he had to say and to take part in his baptism in the River Jordan, he acknowledged that he was unworthy even to untie the shoe of the One who was about to reveal himself to them. The Hebrews of that time and place were extremely receptive of any prophet who claimed that the Messiah was about to appear in their midst. That was exactly what John was telling them; indeed, it was John’s vocation, mission, from God. And today’s gospel contains the message Jesus sent to him, echoing the prophecies of old, when the lame will walk, the blind see and the deaf hear (see Isaiah 35:5). When John was claimed by God eight days after his birth according to Jewish tradition, at his circumcision, his father Zechariah said, “As for you, little child, you shall be called the prophet of God most high; you shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare his ways before him, to make known to his people their salvation through forgiveness of all their sins…” (Luke 1:76-77). Now I believe that John’s vocation, inspired by God and spoken through the mouth of the Baptist’s father, applies to each and every Christian man and woman. In our lives, in our thoughts, in our actions and words, we should echo John’s life and be heralds of the coming of Christ. And even more, be Christ to and in the world as we are the baptized children of God! We take the Lord into us at every Mass, and from that God has every right to expect us to reflect Christ among our friends, acquaintances and in our world. In other words, to love every one of them. 

And so Gaudete Sunday, a title which comes from today’s entrance antiphon for Mass, Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice (“Gaudete in Domino semper” from the old Latin Mass), brings us more than half way to Christmas Day and a moment to reflect on our journey. The theme of rejoicing in anticipation of the Lord’s arrival is even seen in the (optional) rose color of today’s Mass vestments worn by the priest and deacon, and in the rose candle of the Advent wreath, a tradition given to us by our Lutheran brothers and sisters. So not much longer to wait, and a little more time to prepare our souls for The Day. We might reflect on healing possible wounds in our families, repairing breaches in friendships, supporting our chosen worthy causes, especially at Christmas time; there are many actions we can take in an effort to make our world more ready for the arrival of the Christ Child, There is still time to do it…

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The “Rose-Pink” Joy Candle at Faith Lutheran Church.

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