Our Mass schedule for Ash Wednesday, February 26 will consist of three Masses: 7:00 a.m. 9:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m.
Jesus is recentering all the ways in which the Israelites got away from the commandments of the Lord. It’s a recentering whose purpose is return us to what God created in our first parents in the Garden. From that point in Eden, human beings have had what I would refer to as a Tasmanian Devil side to our humanity. If you need proof, just drive by the Worcester Courthouse in lovely downtown Worcester Monday-Friday and see how busy it is each day.
When our first parents ran amok in the garden, reaching their hand toward a piece of fruit on a tree they were instructed to avoid, we’ve been reaching our hands toward the same fruit tree. Another proof is the continuous war consuming parts of the earth. And in our nation, the widespread violence found in cities and towns, not to mention the continuous horror of aborting the lives of children in their mother’s wombs, having the gall to call it a legal act.
With the countless acts of love that pervade the world each day, where millions of people commit actions of love in the name of our Lord and Savior, or those from other faiths, or even no professed faith, we still have the human hand reaching for the forbidden fruit. The human hand reaching for the wrong tree and the wayward piece of fruit that smells and tastes wonderful, but sits like a dirt pit in our stomachs. This will not cease until Jesus returns and fully sets up the kingdom. A Kingdom where every hand that reaches for anything will be a reach for the purest love and peace. What our first parents were supposed to do.
We hear a Gospel proclaimed this Sunday, and it’s easy to think, “I can’t do all that.” We understand the not killing another person part of God’s teaching. That should be easy for us to accept and do. But it’s so much harder to not get angry at my brothers and sisters, causing us to be liable to judgment. The same goes for adultery and lusting, with marriage and divorce, and with a false oath and not swearing by heaven, instead allowing our yes to mean yes, and no mean no. Which simply means, telling the truth.
In our first reading from Sirach, we heard the words, “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses will be given him.” That’s an Old Testament verse that clearly tells us that God respects our freedom. Our freedom to create war or bring forth peace, to stay in anger, or offer mercy and forgiveness. To reach for the good fruit or the bad fruit.
And what Jesus teaches in this Gospel is a recentering. It’s only in Christ that we’re now given the power and grace of the Spirit to cut the forbidden tree from our lives. To tear up its roots and toss it into the everlasting flames, rather than our bodies and souls into the everlasting flames. The recentering that Christ teaches to his disciples is to reach for the heart of God rather than a tree that destroys our humanity. Many Catholics accept bad trees into our lives, overpowered by the culture we live in, when Jesus gives the Spirit to accept the good trees that reflect life and true love.
Christ addresses all the human excuses we come up with for anger, adultery, divorce, and lying since the time of our first parents. Excuses like, “The serpent tricked me,” in the words of Eve. That’s an excuse, not a reason. “Of course he tricked you Eve. That’s who he is and what he does. He’s a magician, for the dark side. He turns a beautiful soul into a dark night of the soul by way of tempting you into one ungodly reach.”
Or how about this one; even in the Church we have what is called a just-war theory. That war is just under certain conditions. The obvious example is the Second World War, being forced to defend against the evils existing in other governments. But do you know how Jesus would phrase the idea of a just war theory in this Gospel? He would recenter it to say, “Whoever puts forth the just-war theory, I tell you, turn your swords into plowshares, and your spears into pruning hooks.” Seek peace without violence. Both personally and internationally. Violence is a reach for the bad fruit. Peace is the human reach for God’s fruit.
Since the first bad reach by our first parents in the first Garden created for ultimate joy, we’ve made excuses to turn the solid truth of God’s love for us into something less than what he created us for. Christ recenters that love, making it whole and pure again.
Ironically, Jesus carries this Divine love for us, the love we’ve watered down from the start of time, and recenters it through the violence of a Cross. A tree he reached for that overcomes the first bad reach of Adam & Eve, and all the bad reaches we make to this day.
In a very personal way, the teachings of our Lord in this Gospel call us to that higher place of Christian living. His teachings teach us that Christians are not to reach for what the world reaches, with all sorts of excuses for this sin and that sin, even saying that this sin is no longer a sin.
These teachings of Christ teach us that we’re offered the grace and power to not settle for a spiritual condition that the world settles for. That’s where the virtue of courage enters. Instead, we have the capacity to reach for the tree that pleases our Creator. Jesus recenters us to our full capacity in God, giving us the tools needed to reach for the tree of life. Because that’s the tree for which we are created.
For anyone who enjoys watching movies, and have done so for years, you could likely name a list of character actors and actresses. Some you know by face, many by name. But knowing they seem to pop up in lots of movies in a secondary role. Roles that enhance the main actor or actress, allowing the lead role to shine in ways they are meant to shine.
John the Baptist would be the number one “character actor” in the story of Christianity. His appearance is somewhat brief, but most important. Without John being in this movie about Jesus’ life, we would be absent such lines as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And, my favorite, “I must decrease, he must increase.” Any priest, religious or lay person who is worth their salt, and whose ministry is truly centered in Christ, will keep those words of John at the heart of our ministry. For we can accomplish nothing good without Him increasing.
Today, in the celebration of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, this annual Feast Day every February 2, 40 days after Christmas, we’re blessed with two more character actors who enhance the role of the lead actor, Jesus Christ. They are Simeon and Anna. One is a Prophet, the other a Prophetess. One goes home every day. The other is homebound in the Temple, the place she never leaves.
Simeon, the character actor, chosen by God to continue the revelation of the newborn child that began with the announcement of the angels informing the shepherds of his birth, speaks these unforgettable words for us who seek to live a Christian life in a world that’s losing its religion. Simeon’s faith, his courage, and his trust in the Lord stand tall in his words, “My eyes have seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Therefore, “you may let your servant go in peace.” “I have seen and held the Messiah; now I can die from this world of violence and sin. And do so in peace.”
Simeon’s words reveal that our lives are in the process of being saved for something beyond our imagining. In seeing the Christ child at his presentation in the holiest structure in Israel, Simeon repeats, in essence, the words of John the Baptist; “I must decrease, he must increase.” “I’m decreasing from my inability to save myself, and toss that foolish thought out the Temple window, and let this child increase so that my God can save me from my many weaknesses.”
That’s a lifelong message for us. The way to die in peace, in the peace that brings us to salvation, is to let the Lord increase in us. And I’ve seen many beautiful examples of this from people in this Parish. In saying he can now die in peace, for his eyes have seen salvation in Person, Simeon the Prophet repeats the words of John the Baptist on decreasing and increasing. Simeon decreases to his grave. Jesus increases to his Cross and empty grave.
And in a world where faith and religion are under assault by so many secular forces led by the Devil himself, the time has arrived that we be proud as a peacock to stand up and proclaim that our eyes have seen his salvation. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we see his salvation. When we receive the Eucharist, we’re looking into the eyes of God, literally. Simeon’s eyes feasted on the First Eucharist; he knew what he saw and he loved what he saw. May we have the faith to do likewise. Jesus’ presentation in the Temple is the presentation of the First Eucharist in the Temple.
And then there’s Anna, the character actress who’s the homebound Prophetess. Never leaving the Temple. Praying and fasting all the time. Every day. Never closing on Sunday’s like Chick-Fil-A.
Anna’s role in the prolonged Christmas setting from the manger to the Temple, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, is, like Simeon, unique. They all have their unique roles with God, just like we do. Anna teaches us, among other things, that the Temple is where we make direct contact with our Savior. Like a person homebound, or in a nursing home, praying the Rosary, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, praying the Mass on television, praying for their families, friends, and neighbors, praying for peace in this violent world, praying for the demise of cable news (sorry, that’s me!).
And like these homebound folks waiting for Meals on Wheels to stop by with some nourishment, eating in the most irregular ways, consuming half a meal, feeding the rest to the dog, fasting because of their difficult physical condition at this stage in life. This is Anna. Praying and fasting nonstop.
Her praying and fasting are central to her secondary role in this late Christmas movie. It’s like she’s Home Alone. But, what’s most central, and what she has in common with Simeon, is this patient, intense desire to feast her eyes on her salvation. In the Temple. In the Church. (Pause)
In a world where religion is just another thing, I pray with the intensity of Anna that you don’t lose or minimize this desire to feast our eyes on our salvation. And that we don’t water down the true presence in the Eucharist. When Anna looked on Christ, her eyes feasted on what we are so blessed to receive. She was not casual with what her eyes feasted on.
Character actors they are. They see the Christ child and are ready to die. That’s the faith of Abraham, which, I pray, is our faith too.
At this early point, John the Baptist begins to fade into the background of the Gospel story. He performed his duty to perfection; he decreased while Jesus increased; he ended up in Herod’s prison for telling the truth about Herod’s marriage; and not long after, John was martyred for not succumbing to human authority and their ways of wrath, but won the victory for himself where light overcame the darkness he knew. John’s mission was made complete in the love and goodness of the God he served so faithfully. John the Baptist was a true soldier who died a soldier’s death for Christ. In the beginning, John leapt in the womb. At the end, John leapt from Herod’s dungeon to heaven.
Now, the one who increases is at center stage. Forever. He will remain there, performing this opera called The Gospel for the next three years in public, drawing sellout crowds through his words and miraculous healings.
At the center of this opera – still running by the way, a 2000-year stint – is the word “Repent.” Repent is not a word to be feared or run away from. We can and will make all sorts of comments as to why “Repent” can be an ugly four-letter word. But it’s a word and reality that brings internal peace, a new beginning, a centering of one’s path in life, a direction that follows John the Baptist to heaven and life eternal.
As the Lord increases and John decreases, as Christ enters center stage, staying there until he returns in glory, we carry on a twofold personal responsibility before the Increaser; first, to continually seek his repentance when needed so that his light may overcome our darkness. And second, that Christ remain at the center of our daily living. Especially when darkness is creeping up on us, or performs a nosedive into the light of our souls. Be it disease or illness, addiction, or one of the thousand ways the human body will suffer.
First, ‘Repent.” Or in the words of Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That’s Jesus’ way of saying, “You are now looking at God in Person.” Repentance on its own is a frightful word. What the Lord does so mercifully is that he offers us the best reasons why we seek repentance. That repentance has positive reasons why it should be a continuous mindset for us.
I love it when people reveal how they say an Act of Contrition each night before they fall asleep. Is it a perfect Act of Contrition? It may be; it may not be. Only God knows that answer. But the person who prays an Act of Contrition each night, not knowing if they will still be in this world when the sun rises, that person’s heart is in a very good place with our Redeemer. Perfect or imperfect, the intention and humility are present.
But we don’t miss the reason why we seek repentance; “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In other words, the light of Christ has – and continues to – overcome the darkness. His light is at hand. We don’t live like his light is not at hand. You have the light of Christ in your little Christian kingdom. And when that light begins to fade because of our choices, then “Repent.” Repentance returns light into our souls. And it doesn’t cost anything. It re-centers us for God’s work. And, it overcomes the darkness of the evil one who seeks to destroy us.
The second part of our twofold responsibility before the Increaser is the gate that John the Baptist leapt through after Herod ordered him to be dispatched. That he, the Increaser, remains at the center of our lives. That’s a solid gate for entering heaven one day.
We all have faith in Christ. If not, we wouldn’t be here. Even if there are present struggles, we still have faith in him. For some of us, our faith in him grows deeper because of our struggles. Still, we may be a little angry, a little mad, uncertain, or even feel ourselves losing the good grip of faith. But you’re not going to lose it. Are you going to become an atheist by dinner time? Allow yourself a most beautiful truth; that we have been blessed with the gift of faith.
Our faith in Christ will be tested in a thousand different ways along the way. Even the Apostles were unsure at times, but they stayed with the Increaser. Except for one of them; the purse-stealer who went his own way.
But we come to understand how the journey of faith increases over time, beginning with the call of Peter & Andrew, James & John. They leave their boats immediately, because they trust the power of the word who called them. The same One who has called us. Over time, there will be mishaps, some dumb statements by Peter and others, some running away, some questioning his authority, some telling him he will not carry a cross. They get in the way of God’s will for us.
But they last. They keep him at the center through their own repentance. And in the end, they have the faith of a Saint, which they become. And I suspect that more than a few of you good people have the faith of a Saint after many mishaps.
John the Baptist is removed from the scene, replaced by the Increaser. John lived his calling to perfection. But now Jesus is on stage. In our personal lives, our communities, our nation, and our world. Through your faith, allow his light to overcome the darkness through you. You are the land of Zebulon, the land of Naphtali, the way to the sea. You are the way to the Light that has arisen.
We constantly throughout our lives need the reminder that we do not live in the darkness. That we live in the light of Christ. With the threat of war constant in the Middle East, the land of The Prince of Peace, being an incredible irony; with the constant barrage of out of control politics streaming from the nation’s capital – whatever side you happen to be on; with 24-hour Cable News shoving their many crude, hate-filled, slanted opinions down your throat, trying to invade your Christian heart, whatever side you happen to be on; and, the continuous natural disasters that absorb the earth since the time of The Flood in Genesis, when Noah was the only righteous person…
We are in constant need of allowing ourselves to be reminded that we are not to live in the darkness, but that we live in the light of Christ. And whatever Tom Brady decides, we’ll get over it.
The Baptism of the Lord is a day in the history of our world where light has destroyed, again, the darkness brought on by the disobedience in the Garden of Paradise. And to think the light of this day almost didn’t happen because John the Baptist first said no.
Jesus knew what he wanted. Just like parents bringing their infant children to the Church to be baptized. They know what they want. Whether parents fully understand the theology of Baptism or not, they know this much; they want their child to live, not in the darkness of the world they grow up in , but in the light of Christ that has the power and grace to overcome the darkness their children will certainly encounter. Parents know how much they love their children, and to what degree they will protect them from the zaniness and darkness of Cable News and the like.
Jesus got it. He got the picture. He knew he wanted John to baptize him to fulfill all righteousness. The righteousness of the light of heaven conquering the darkness of H-E- Double Hockey Sticks. Hades. Way Down Below. Whatever you want to call it. There are many names for the bad stuff. But there’s one word for the today’s light: Baptism.
John the Baptist, the guy who refused no one who came to him at the River Jordan, the guy who turned away no one who approached him in good conscience, was ready to refuse Jesus the Baptism he sought. But Jesus overpowered – very gently – the uncertainty of John. It’s likely the only time in his life John the Baptist was confused. He must have been watching too much Cable News that day, whatever side he was on. We know for certain that John was on the side of doing God’s will.
As with all things with Christ, the Baptism of the Lord benefits not himself, but all of us with faith. And potentially those too without faith, to come to faith in the Son of God. Faith that the light overcomes the darkness we experience, all the way to the darkness of death. And the benefit from Jesus’ baptism is nothing less than our joy being made complete in the everlasting Paradise, not the one Adam & Eve foiled. God’s Paradise is Paradise. With all the banquets and feasts. With all that is good and beautiful. Where no Cable News is allowed.
Christ is a light for the nations for those who live in darkness. He is a light for the individual, for the community of believers, conquering the darkness we encounter, notably the darkness of sin and death. Our Lord’s Baptism happens not to defeat evil worldly forces alone. As much as we want for the goodness of God to intervene loudly and wipe it all away, our Lord’s Baptism overpowers the spiritual forces that drag us down.
Jesus fulfilling all righteousness from his Baptism is an invitation to take him by the hand and allow ourselves to be led to the better side of our humanity. Or as Lincoln said in his first Inaugural, to “the better angels of our nature.”
Parents bring their children to be baptized so their beautiful children may live and know the better angels of their nature. We love that light. We love such innocence. That they live in the fulfillment of the Lord’s righteousness. We’ve been baptized into this heavenly nature. May our lives reflect that great truth of how the Spirit once touched us in a way that has left an indelible mark on our souls.
And to think that John the Baptist tried to prevent the Lord’s Baptism because of his awareness of being unworthy to perform the act Jesus wanted. But the Lord carried John to the place where he wanted him, right there in the River. And he will also carry us to where we belong, in his light that overcomes the darkness.
John the Baptist knew an awful lot about Jesus for having met him just once. Well, actually twice. The first meeting was Mary visiting Elizabeth when pregnant, and John somehow knowing at this pre-born age that the Lamb of God was in his presence in the belly of Mary his mother. The first meeting between John and Jesus caused John to leap for joy, do a high-five, spike the football, and hit a grand slam all in one play.
How could John know of Jesus’ presence so early, while he hid in the safety net of his own mother’s womb? Only through the power and great mystery of the Holy Spirit that filled both children and mothers could a pre-born child acknowledge the presence of the Messiah before him. That’s a world of holiness we don’t quite understand, but a joy that awaits us.
The second meeting came about 30 years after the leaping incident. By this time, the souls of John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, went off to the holding cell; the place where the souls of the just waited for the resurrection of Jesus to officially open the doors of heaven forever and ever. And St. Joseph too, we believe had entered eternal life. Much will change in 30 years’ time.
The second meeting was celebrated last week when John, again, recognized the Holy One of God walking toward him at the Jordan River. The proof of John’s recognition of Jesus was John’s initial refusal to baptize Jesus. It was a most humble act by John, accompanied by the words, “You’re the one who should be baptizing me, the Baptizer.” We all know how that went down. Jesus went down in the water, baptized by John to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus won again, as usual. Even when he dies, he wins. And in that truth lies our hope.
But here we are at the third meeting of John and Jesus not long after the Lord’s Baptism. And John gives us words, again, that place the entirety of our relationship with Christ into perspective; “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.”
John was not fooled by anyone he met. And he didn’t subscribe to anyone’s political party because they don’t want someone who is filled with the Holy Spirit and truth. Yet, here’s John folding up like a lawn chair, and melting like a grilled cheese on a hot stove, in the presence of his own relative, Jesus of Nazareth. When’s the last time we spoke about a relative the way John spoke about Jesus? That they ranked ahead of us, because they existed before us? Have you ever said such words about an elder sibling or cousin? I have plenty of them, and I never said that! And I never will!
But John the Baptist did. He folded up like a glove; “I must decrease, he must increase.” John melted all his holiness, in fact, his entire life, right into the hand of Jesus. After just three meetings, one of them in the womb, he knew all this information about Christ.
“The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” Not only sins, personal sins, which he does blot out. But, “the sin of the world.” The singular sin, of disobedience in the Garden. Conquered by the Divine and human perfection of obedience in Jesus of Nazareth.
How did John know such things, such truths about Jesus from two meetings in person, and one meeting in the womb 30 years before? Such knowledge is possible only in the mystery of God’s wonder and the Spirit’s power to infuse into John such wisdom in such limited time. It takes spouses years to know the deepest part of each other. The same with relatives and friends. But John knew things about Jesus that only Jesus’ mother knew. And she raised him and lived with him for 30 years. It’s no wonder Jesus says, “There is no one born of woman greater than John the Baptist.”
John introduces us to our Savior in ways that no one else does in the Scriptures. John didn’t know half of what Mary knew about her Son. Gabriel came to her. Gabriel, who stands before God, didn’t come to John. Gabriel did come to John’s father Zechariah, and then shut him up for 9 months for wrongly questioning heaven’s personal message.
But only John gives to the world a unique perspective on the Person of Jesus: “The Lamb of God;” “He ranks ahead of me;” “He existed before me.” Not in the womb, but from all eternity he existed. That’s what John knows about Jesus.
Our faith lives, our Catholic faith lives, rightly have holy devotion to the Mother of God. If she is not an integral part of our personal relationship with Jesus, then we are placing aside the aorta valve that leads to the heart of Christ her Son. She’s the number one artery that pumps our blood into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
With that said, John the Baptist has an artery that also leads to the heart of Jesus. It’s not the aorta, the most important artery. But it’s an artery nonetheless. One that our Catholic lives of faith and prayer do well to include. It’s the Lamb of God artery; the Ranking Ahead of Me artery; the One Who Existed Before Me artery.
Incorporating these images of Jesus into our spiritual lives of faith and prayer will only deepen our knowledge and understanding of Christ our Lord. And the Source of such knowledge is the Spirit touching the holiness of John in mysterious ways, speaking truths about Jesus that draw us into a deeper communion with our Savior.
They traveled a great distance to help seal the deal. The “deal” began in the mind of God, if you will, reaching its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. The “deal” was necessary after the calamity in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and his wife Eve messed up the previous deal called Paradise. A New Deal was needed after the garden fracas, and it didn’t come from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This new deal came down from above in the birth of a child in Bethlehem from the Virgin’s womb.
After this event was completed in a manger full of animals as the first worshippers, eventually being joined by some area shepherds told by an angel to go worship the child and tell what they saw, the next part of the story came from faraway visitors. The unexpected visitors.
The shepherds were local Jewish shepherds. They watched their sheep all year, their one break from their labor being a short walk from their Bethlehem flocks to the Passover feast in Jerusalem. The shepherds were of Israelite stock. Of the Chosen People. And they were nearby to all these happenings.
But the three who we cue in on today travel a great distance. They huff and puff it across the desert to seal the deal for the rest of humanity. Their trip across the highs and lows of barren land, sandstorms, as well as the heat of day and cool of night, finds at the end, not a refusal, but a welcome. Jesus came for the house of Israel, as he clearly says in the Gospel. “I have come for lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But there were a handful of non-Israelites along the way who caused the Lord to marvel at their faith in him. And the first Gentiles to show such faith, the first non-Israelites to marvel at this birthday present come down from heaven, were the Magi.
The Three Wise Guys, filled with untold amounts of wisdom, sealed the deal for the rest of us non-Israelites. Their efforts and determination to make it to their goal in Bethlehem, despite the deception of Herod – that was Herod being Herod – to prostrate themselves before this child, and their subsequent welcome by the child’s parents, these were efforts that went way beyond normal expectations under the circumstances.
By sealing the deal of completing the mission they set out to perform, knowing ahead there would be obstacles they couldn’t predict, similar to our present journey, we rejoice in their successful mission. We rejoice in their Apollo 11. They were the first Gentiles to land on the moon of salvation. And we all benefit from their heroic flight.
The Feast of the Epiphany is a humble reminder each year that at one time we were outside the gates that lead to life beyond the grave. There was a large sign on the gate that said, “Gentiles need not apply.”
As Jesus himself knocked down some walls in his public ministry, such as curing on the Sabbath, talking to a Samaritan woman at a famous well, appearing on Easter Sunday first to Mary Magdalene and not his own Apostles, which would come later. As the Lord formed and shaped the world to God’s liking by way of mercy, moving the bad elements out of the way to make room for all that is good, so too have the Magi barreled through the storms of the desert and through the halls of Herod to seal the deal that has made us coheirs with Jesus, members of the same body, copartners in the promise of Christ through the gospel.
We now own the Gospel. The Good News. As Catholics who were once Gentiles; us Catholics who were once on the outside of this great story looking in; us Catholics who used to worship pagan idols of bronze, silver, and gold; us Catholics who used to worship our own bodies in sinful ways that this present culture sadly returns to, we are now inside the gates.
Please don’t take it for granted that we have entered through the gate of salvation. Rather, bring our Christian faith to every phase of our lives. Allow it to address every part of your life. Because those Three Wise Men went through heck and high water – or high sand dunes – to seal the deal that makes us coheirs with the Savior of the World. Their sealing of the deal, this trip across the plains, has ensured we will share life eternal with our loved ones. Their trip results in nothing less.
For the birth of our Lord in 2019, may we offer to him our own gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is love, frankincense is peace, myrrh is mercy. In the spirit of the Magi coming to worship the newborn King, we bring these virtues to others, because we are now inside the gates of Jesus Christ.
Our Parish will hold 2 Christmas Masses: Christmas Eve, December 24 at 4:00 p.m., and Christmas Day at 9:00 a.m. We wish all parishioners and those visiting from other places a Merry Christmas. May God’s abundant blessings be upon you and your families during this holy season and throughout the New Year.
We all embrace a pleasant greeting, unless we’re Ebenezer Scrooge. “Good morning, Ma’am. Good morning, sir. Thank you for holding the door for me, even if it’s an automatic door. The intention was good. Have a great day (that’s a popular one!). May your day be blessed.” There’s much to be said for pleasant greetings, in contrast to greetings grounded in Bah Humbug.
On the cusp of Christmas just a few days hence, our readings on the 4th and final Sunday of Advent lead us to greetings. Both human greetings, which can go either way, and divine greetings, which go one way, always in our favor, with Jesus having been raised from the dead.
“The Lord spoke to Ahaz;” a divine greeting. “Ask for a sign, Ahaz. Make it deep as the netherworld. The large underground world where souls waited for the Risen Jesus to come and rescue them. Ahaz, make your sign as high as the sky. Don’t hold back.” That’s quite a greeting from the Lord to the mere mortal Ahaz. If the Lord greeted us personally, “Ask for a sign as big as you can imagine, a sign that will remove all doubt in our hearts and minds that God is not only close, but that your life is everlasting, could you request a sign big enough?”
Ahaz doesn’t accept the Lord’s greeting. “I’m too insignificant to ask for a sign. Why does he want one from me?” is the human response to this Divine greeting. This greeting had much potential, until Ahaz said, “Oh no, I can’t do that. I cannot tempt my God. I will not!” So, the Lord’s greeting bypasses Ahaz, landing on the lap of the Prophet Isaiah, who will answer, “The Lord himself will give you a sign; the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” The divine greeting that began with Ahaz ended with Isaiah. And it was all good, despite the fear of Ahaz. Don’t push away your divine greetings.
And then we have Paul’s human greeting to the Christian community in Rome, beginning with, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.” How’s that for a greeting! When’s the last time we greeted someone with the words, “I’m Fr. Riley, slave of Christ Jesus. Nice to meet you.” Wouldn’t we like to extend such a greeting to some relatives or friends who have lost their way with Christ Jesus? I believe that would capture their attention. Or, the deeply personal question to ourselves, “Are you, Fr. Riley, a slave for Christ Jesus?” Translated, “Are you living in the freedom he offers your life by being his slave, his disciple, and not a slave of the world?”
Paul’s human greeting is strong, attention-getting, in those few words to the Roman community of early Christians. Paul’s greeting is the penultimate greeting that we can extend to another person or community. A slave of Christ Jesus is the deepest sign, the netherworld-type of greeting that we can extend. It removes all doubt as to who we are close, and to who or what we worship. It’s the perfect set-up greeting a few days before his impending birth.
And, speak of removing all doubt, poor Joseph, like John the Baptist last week in prison wanting to know if Jesus was the one to come, Joseph is filled with doubt concerning his relationship with Mary. His love for Mary never lessens. Joseph loves Mary with all his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength. He sees her perfect beauty both inside and out. She is God’s perfect creature. The only creature created to perfection. But Joseph in his heart believes he spies an imperfection in Mary. Hmm, does he know something God doesn’t about Mary? Many people think they do. Joseph doesn’t know how it happened. His eyes do not deceive him. She’s pregnant, and he’s not the father. “You got that right bother!” Time to divorce her quietly. Why quietly? Why divorce Mary in the silence of the night? Because, he loves her unconditionally, and Joseph does not want the community of judges to judge her harshly by stoning her. “Time for another greeting,” says the Lord.
“Gabriel, go down and speak with Joseph. Please tell him this is all my doing. This is my plan from the beginning of time. My plan to bring my people from the netherworld, from depths unknown to the human mind. My plan that will raise them up so that they may be together forever in my presence and each other’s loving presence. Hurry Gabriel. Go forth and tell Joseph he needs to stay the Divine Plan of Redemption. Greet Joseph in his dream and tell the righteous man to hold fast and hold Mary by the hand. Tell him to be her husband for life and enjoy the beauty of her presence and companionship. Go Gabriel!”
The 3rd greeting on this 4th Sunday of Advent initiated by God personally, is the greeting that saves the day. It saves Christmas Day. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. Do not separate from her. Do not distance yourself from her. It’s through the Spirit – the Holy Spirit – that this child has been conceived in her. She is pregnant through the power of the Author of all Life. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
This Divine greeting saves the day, the world, and all creation. It’s probably a good thing Joseph didn’t know all this was somehow dependent upon his decision to take Mary his wife into his home, rather than divorce her, quietly or otherwise. It’s a good thing he lacked certain knowledge about these events.
But we don’t lack such knowledge in hindsight. Like Joseph, we embrace the 3rd greeting on the 4th Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for the greatest greeting of all time in an obscure manger in Bethlehem.
Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
We’re all here because we know in our hearts that he is the One to come, and if we look for another, we’re looking in some place of darkness.
Jesus is explicit in his words that were proclaimed in a Gospel this past week when he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Even those who raise families; those of us who work all sorts of overtime like a UPS driver at this time of year; all you run around throughout the day trying to accomplish this, that, and everything else; and those who sit back in later years without thinking about our final destination quickly arriving. Rest in Jesus through your faith and good works. Because, he is the one to come, and don’t dare go looking for another.
Poor John the Baptist finds himself in Herod’s dungeon in this Gospel. All for telling Herod the truth about his ungodly marriage. We see where the truth might get us against worldly forces who don’t like hearing God’s teaching. Anyway, there the Baptist sits below the earth, being cared for and waited on by his disciples. And this image of John in prison is useful for us, less than a couple weeks away from the birth of Christ. How so, you may ask?
We are to never grow tired of preparing for our Savior’s birth. Because prior to his birth, we too were in prison. We were locked up, underground, in the Netherworld, in the prison of our souls, with no hope of freeing ourselves from the wages of sin and death.
Except unlike John, who remains in prison, and dies in prison, we anticipate in the birth of our Lord to be set free. We have been set free. We didn’t sneak out of prison; we didn’t escape; we didn’t have to dig any tunnels, climb barbed wire fences, run past any guards, or hide in any forest. We sat there in prison, right about this time, waiting for the answer to the question, “Are you the one to come? Are you the one who is to open this dirty dungeon door where we are imprisoned in all our spiritual misery, and set us free into your Divine mercy and love? Or, should we look for another? Should we choose another? Should we hope that Herod will have a change of heart and decide to let us go?”
From those two options, one option is pure love and truth. The other option is pure hatred, evil, and lies. The first option blows up the entire dungeon without doing us harm. The first option of love and truth, of breaking free from the dungeon built by Beelzebul with some help from Adam and Eve; the first option is standing at the gate. And he’s judging we don’t belong in there. He loves us too much to stand there and watch us melting away like a POW. He must open that chained gate. And not just open it, but shatter it to pieces. And what breaks that prison door to smithereens, is his birth. The Word becoming flesh. Making his dwelling among us. Not in a prison, but in the freedom of his love and mercy.
We, my friends, have no business walking back into that prison. Yet, many do. Making decisions in their lives like his birth never happened. So tied up in the world of bad relationships, the world of greed, the world of politics being their false god, the world of materialism and individualism. They walk right back into the prison, sit next to John the Baptist, awaiting their spiritual execution. The people who look for another.
That’s not us. We’re about to be set free, again, for the 2019th time since his original birth in a stable. We prepare, again and again, for the birth of our Savior for the proper and correct reasons. The kids receiving toys are nice. A white Christmas is nice; Bing Crosby thinks so. Company profits for this season are nice; the one and only reason for the profits being the birth of Jesus Christ. But these, and much more, are mere distractions from the proper meaning of why it’s essential to prepare for his birth.
His birth is a celebration of our being released from the prison of sin and death, knowing we had no power to release ourselves from such torment. But there we are, sitting in prison, conversing with John, asking the same question as John, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” In other words, “Are you going to accept his free Christmas gift of being set free, or, are we going to stay with John and be executed by the forces of evil?”
The Judge is standing at the gate. He can see right into your cell, your dungeon. He’s going to open that wretched door for you. That ugly gate. But, it’s our decision as to whether we walk out into his merciful life, or stay in there with death and its misery. Staying in there means we live like he was never born. Walking out is to celebrate his upcoming birth, again.