Saturday, December 17, 2011

Jesus is Fully Human

"Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Christ, fourteen generations." (Mt 1 16-17)

Genealogies are always intriguing and revealing.  The genealogy of Jesus is no exception. Matthew is intent on helping his readers understand that Jesus came from the tree of David and is the Messiah whose coming was promised long before his birth. 

Furthermore, a careful reading of Matthew's genealogy counts four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Women were rarely mentioned in Jewish genealogies, and the one's mentioned don't fit the mold one would expect in the genealogy of Jesus. Tamar was abused and only conceived when she disguised herself as a prostitute in order to bear a child with Judah who rejected her.  Rahab is a prostitute and a non Israelite who should not have married an Israelite. Neither is Ruth an Israelite but Boaz who is the grandfather of David marries her. Finally, David spies Bathsheba bathing and is so overcome with desire for her, he has her husband Uriah killed in order to satisfy his own lust.  

All this is pretty messy stuff. Jesus has lots of "black sheep" in his family tree and the point of the scripture is that it doesn't really matter. Every honest look at the human family, and Jesus was really human, is full of failure, ambiguity and sin. That Jesus would be born of Mary, a virgin, is consistent with his genealogy.  There is no cause of scandal here, only rejoicing.  Jesus is like us in all things but sin. That Jesus wept over Lazarus's death, ached for the widow whose only son had died, and was drawn to the sick and the suffering reminds us everyday of his full humanity and fills us with hope for ourselves and our world.

Today, ask God for the humility to accept yourself and your family as you are.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Our inclusive God

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Is 56:7) 

The good news of Jesus Christ is a message of hope for all peoples. Though we sometimes worry and fret about the state of the church, especially in a culture that more and more resists organized religion for a more generic spirituality, we should never let ourselves forget that the new covenant in Jesus Christ is the gift of a God who includes all people in his love. While understandable, since these are quintessential Christian celebrations, we sometimes forget, in the run up to Christmas, that the scriptures are forever reminding us that the child whose birth we celebrate does not belong exclusively to Christians, but is given in love for all people.

Again and again in the New Testament we hear this. John tells us that Jesus Christ will "draw all people" to himself, (Jn. 12:32) and Paul reminds us that, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28) Remarkably, Isaiah echoes what we think are inclusive terms found only in the New Testament. "For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." (Is 56:7) Still, as Christmas nears, it is tempting to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus as if he was ours alone.  Such has never been true and we will never really appreciate the wonder of Christmas until we find ways to celebrate that he is a gift for all nations and all people. A simple way to express this conviction is to let the joy we feel during Advent and Christmas shine like a soft light in our personal and family lives, and spread through acts of compassionate justice into the lives of those who are empty of hope.

Today, take some time to pray that the Good News of Jesus will seep, like water enlivening the roots of the tallest trees, into the hearts and lives of all people as a promise of salvation and hope for everyone.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"For he who has become your husband is your Maker...The LORD calls you back, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit." Is 54 5-6

Because it is impossible to adequately articulate who God is or how much God loves us,  the bible often uses images and metaphors to invite readers (and pray-ers) to use their imaginations in trying to understand and enter the mystery of God's presence and love. Today Isaiah suggests God is like our husband or wife, a remarkable attempt to draw us closer to the God who promises never to abandon us. Images like this can unnerve us, but that is not their intent. Rather, Isaiah wants to gently break down our easy, familiar categories of belief which can unwittingly lead us to take God and God's care for us for granted. When Isaiah speaks of God as our husband or wife he assures us that God is linked to us forever in a loving relationship of total commitment, even when we are in exile.  Although we might be separated for a while, God, like our wife or husband, will faithfully search for and find us no matter where we wander.

Because Christmas is the commemoration of God's remarkable and almost unthinkable decision to enter human history in a personal way, Advent is a time to search for new images of God that will help us be transformed by what we will soon celebrate. Think about all the rituals associated with Advent and Christmas.  The Advent wreath is traditionally made of evergreens which remind us that God's love is always green, always new, always fresh. Forming an unbroken circle the wreath also reminds us that God's love is never ending.  Lights on our Christmas trees further help us to remember that God is our light in every darkness and a beacon of hope for those who are lost or have been discarded by society.

All of this image changing takes time, however.  Unless we reflect deeply upon the mysteries of faith we uncover through rituals, images and metaphors, Advent and Christmas will pass us by like a flash of lightning, but will leave us unchanged.

Today, ask God to slow you down in order to make Advent a time of conversion and new life.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

St John of the Cross

"It comes to the same thing whether a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; since, even if it be slender, the bird will be as well held as though it were stout. . . . And thus the soul that has attachment to anything, however much virtue it possess, will not attain to the liberty of divine union" The Ascent of Mt. Carmel

The importance of the life and writings of St John of Cross is increasing in recent years.  A man totally dedicated to the Cross, John understood how difficult it was for his contemporaries to let go of the things that comforted them, and he was clear that we will never attain authentic freedom unless we hand ourselves over completely to God. In a paradoxical way, his own journey, especially the imprisonment he suffered at the hands of his fellow Carmelites, make it possible for him to detach from everything.  For months he sat in a tiny cell in a Carmelite monastery, but rather than despair and pine for his lost freedom, he wrote poetry about God's unconditional love, some of which is considered today to be among the finest writing in the Spanish language.

For those of us living the the 21st century, so cluttered with information and technology, the question of letting go of everything is even more pressing.  Can we live without our computers, cell phones, and Ipads? Can we give the keys to our cars away? Can we learn to eat to live rather than live to eat? The questions just keep coming and they are like the legion of evil spirits that took possession of the Gerasene in Luke's gospel.  (Lk 8 26-38) While we might not have to be tied with chains to keep us from hurting ourselves or others, most of us, as St John of the Cross suggests, are like the bird "held by slender cord," and unable to fly.  We are so bound by obligations, work, and even family, trying to save the world all by ourselves, that we are not free to give ourselves to God in total trust and ask for God's direction. God wants to set us free from obsession and self absorption. We have only to give God permission.

Today, pray to be free of one chain that binds you so tightly you cannot fly.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

St Lucy

"When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him." Mt 21 31-32

Today's scripture and feast is a difficult one for me.  Perhaps like some of you, when I get involved in a heated argument, it often becomes more important for me to be right than in relationship.  I have struggled with this my entire life and it is not difficult for me to see myself among the Pharisees trying to convince everyone, without regard for the truth or what is happening right in front of me,  that Jesus is a charlatan.  That thousands are listening to John the Baptist announce that he is not the Christ and convincing even prostitutes and tax collectors that his message is from God,  the Pharisees suggest that prostitutes and tax collectors are poor witnesses and will do anything to feather their own nests. Failing to even consider the humility and honesty of John, especially when he points to Christ as "the one who is to come," (Lk 7:18-19) they risk their salvation for the sake of their fragile power within the Jewish community of Jesus' day.

The feast of St. Lucy only increases my discomfort.  After she rejects a proposal of marriage, the fellow she spurns "accuses" her of believing in the Christ, and even though she realizes the danger, Lucy acknowledges that indeed she is a Christian. When she refuses to recant her belief, she is martyred.  We know little else about her life, but the early church held her up, even including her name in the first Eucharistic prayer, because of her simple, direct an unwavering faith.  What a challenge she is to us.  Lucy knows who she is, will not equivocate about her faith and suffers death as a result.  Faith, Lucy's witness reminds us, is simple.  God gifts us with belief and the treasure is so real and so powerful that it is strong enough to sustain us in the face of death.  Simplicity, honesty and integrity are the fruits of a faith deeply valued and lived.  It is only when we complicate faith unnecessarily for the sake of our own comfort that we risking losing the most precious gift we will ever receive.

Today, pray to join St. John the Evangelist when he reminds us: "He must increase; I must decrease." Jn 3:30

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Lady of Guadalupe

"A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." Rev 19a

One of the great lessons of Advent and in the lives of the saints is that God comes to the humble.  St. Juan Diego, who has his own feast now after being canonized by Bl John Paul II, described himself to Our Lady of Guadalupe as, " a nobody, .. small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf."  How he wondered would a bishop believe that Mary sent him to request that a church be built in her honor?  After all, by his own account, he was a subsistence farmer and a nobody. 

Hearing his anxiety and fear, Mary assured him that if he took the flowers she gave him which were growing on the top of hill in frozen soil, the bishop would listen to her through him.  Indeed, when he brought the flowers to the bishop as proof of his own integrity and Mary's promise, the cloak with which he was carrying the flowers had an image of the woman who appeared to him.  The bishop was startled, his skepticism melted away, and he ordered that a church be built in Mary's honor and gave Juan Diego permission to receive the Eucharist three times a week, a singular privilege at that time.

St Juan Diego's story always warms us in our fear and anxiety. So too does Juan Diego's reluctance to meet Mary a second time. Because the beautiful lady requested that he go to the bishop and ask that a church be built in her honor, Juan Diego was hesitant about returning to the hill where Mary appeared to him. Learning that his uncle had fallen sick would cause Juan Diego to take a different road the next day and miss his meeting with Mary.  Mary, however, had other plans.  "The Lady" met him on the road to his uncle's home and Juan Diego knew that he could not escape the task set out for him.

Two things help us in this story.  While Juan Diego was given the privilege of more frequent reception of the Eucharist, he had to walk 15 miles to the nearest church. A faith filled life, though privileged, is never easy.   We need to work at it, and even when we try to escape from God, God will find us wherever we are.  God's love and confidence in us is always greater than our own. 

Today, ask God for the faith to see yourself as God sees you.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

3rd Sunday of Advent

"Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing...Test everything; retain what is good." 1Thess 5: 16,18

A few years ago one of my grand nieces called and announced with great joy, "Uncle John, we're pregnant." Taken aback since the old fashioned me always thought of the woman as pregnant, not the couple, I hesitated just a moment before I said, "What wonderful news, Denise. You are such a great mother already. I know this child will be very fortunate to have you as a mom." 

Of course, Denise was right.  She was not pregnant alone, but it has taken me a while to get used to the language of the present generation.  No doubt saying "we are pregnant" includes the husband much more completely in parenting and calls him to a journey and responsibility that he shares from the moment of conception, and if the words take hold, this can only be good.

The same is true for us as a church.  Today, at the midpoint of Advent, we pause in joy and say: We are pregnant.  Though it might startle some, the Cistercian monk, Blessed Isaac of Stella, was very clear about this is the 11th century. Listen:
In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God's word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, as once virginal and fruitful.These words are used in a universal sense of the Church, in a special sense of Mary, in a particular sense of the individual Christian. (1)
Thinking of ourselves as mothers of Christ may be unusual and counter intuitive, but when we let the words settle in, it is wonderful.  The whole church is pregnant with Christ, yearning to give birth to him each day through our good works, service and worship.  Teresa of Avila reminds us,
Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.(2)
Though the challenge is daunting, when we reside in the joy of being pregnant with Christ, the mystery surrounds us and fills us with delight and hope.

Today, be joyful as a "mother of Christ."