Herod and the Allure of The Power of the World

We are again today reminded of the inextricable link between the Incarnation and the suffering and death of Jesus: in today’s Gospel we hear about the massacre of the Holy Innocents. We remember today those killed by King Herod in his effort to find and destroy the Christ child. How many were killed in Herod’s determination to kill all who resembled Jesus in gender and age is unknown; the estimate ranges from 10,000 to a few dozen.

Herod’s act reminds us of the allure and temptation of the power of this world.

King Herod reigned for 33 years. He was a Jew, so he knew that God promised to send a Messiah. Perhaps there had been a time in his life when that was something he looked forward to, when he waited in joyful hope for the coming of the Messiah.. But by the time the Magi visit him, Herod had gotten pretty comfortable. He was Herod the Great, king of the Jews. He was the most powerful man in his part of the world. People bowed in his presence. He was in complete control. And he grew to like that.

And so Herod took whatever steps he thought were necessary to keep it that way, including killing his brothers and half-brothers – anyone who could have challenged his reign. He would do anything to maintain his position as King of the Jews.

As a result, when Herod hears tell of the birth of a baby who was born King of the Jews, he doesn’t rejoice at the coming of the Messiah, but is threatened. Herod had no intention of giving up his kingship for anyone else. Fearing for his loss of position, he engineers the massacre of the innocents.

Our temptations don’t tend to lead us to actions as depraved as Herod’s. But we are no less susceptible to the temptations of the world than he was. And so the reminder of where that temptation can lead is a good one as we move toward the beginning of a new year.

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Proclaiming the Whole Story

When I first looked at today’s Gospel reading, I was momentarily confused, since the reading is John’s account of Peter and John (“the other disciple whom Jesus loved”) finding the empty tomb after Mary Magdalene ran to tell them that someone had taken Jesus from the tomb.  “Wait a minute,” I thought – “Christmas Day was two days ago and we are still celebrating Jesus’ birth.  What are we doing we are at the resurrection!”

It is true that today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, so both Mass readings come from John: a beautiful passage from the First Letter of John as the first reading, and this Gospel reading from the penultimate chapter of John’s Gospel.

More than that, however, it is actually fitting that we hear the story of the empty tomb two days after Christmas. Today’s Gospel is an important reminder that the Christian story is a unitary one: A story that begins with Incarnation and ends with death and resurrection. Our beautiful Nativity scenes are merely Act I of a play that cannot be fully appreciated unless we apprehend it in its entirety. God’s taking human form in the world inevitably leads to the cross. From the moment of his birth, Jesus is destined to die. But then, when all hope seems lost, the tomb is empty.  Jesus rises from the dead, making resurrection a reality for us.

The story whose beginning we celebrate in this Christmas season ends with victory over death. That is the Christian story.  And we who know the entirety of the story are tasked with sharing it with others – with bringing the hope of resurrection to a wounded and suffering world.

[Cross-posted from University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality Advent/Christmas Reflections.]

O Holy Night; O Blessed Morning

Today we celebrate the audacious claim that through the love of God, the Word became flesh. That God’s longing for us is so great God became human to bring us to wholeness. God becomes human and shares our lives in the deepest, most intimate possible way.


 

The Incarnation invites – nay, demands  – a response from us. So as we kneel before the creche this morning, we might want to reflect on what that response is.

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A Dynamic Participation in the Manifestation of God’s Love

Thomas Merton once wrote

The Church’s belief in Christ is not a mere static assent to His historical existence, but a dynamic participation in the great cycle of actions which manifest in the world the love of the Father for the ones He has called to union with Himself, in his beloved Son.

It is a great thought to keep in mind in these remaining days before our celebration of Christmas.

Our minds fill with images of a young couple who cannot find room in an inn as the woman approaches pregnancy. We focus on a star and shepherds and wise men. We listen to the prophesies of the coming of the Messiah.

And it is right that we celebrate the birth of Jesus into the world. But, even as we do, we need to keep in mind that our faith is about more than the historical existence of a man named Jesus.

Ultimately, it is about the love of God – a God who longs for nothing less than our total union with Him. A God who chooses to become human out of love – to show us what it means to be fully human – and fully divine.

And, as the Merton quote suggests, our realization of this reality demands a response. Not mere a passive enjoyment of that love, but our commitment to “manifest in the world” that love.

 

The Beginning and the Sequence

Today we begin the Octave before Christmas Eve.   For some of us, Christmas can’t get here quickly enough. For others of us, the shock that Advent is almost over is palpable.  The pastor in my parish observed yesterday that if you haven’t yet gotten serious about your Advent resolutions, you are running out of time.

Today’s first Mass reading, as it is every year on December 17, is the opening of the Gospel of Matthew: “The book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

Matthew begins what he calls “the story of the origin of Jesus Christ,” neither in the manger nor or even with Gabriel’s visit to Mary or with John. Rather, Matthew’s “story of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” begins with the “book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,” which begins “Abraham was the father of Isaac.”

This is a passage I have grown to love, and I’ve spoken about it on several occasions, most recently at a weekend Advent retreat I gave at Christ the King Retreat House the weekend before this past one.   The passage has a lot to say about the people God worked through in the past to effectuate the plan of the Incarnation, and in so doing, says a lot about the people through whom God continues to work in the world. Raymond Brown had this to say about the forward looking significance of the genealogy:

If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. This means not simply a Peter who denied Jesus or a Paul who persecuted him, but sinners and saints among those who would bear his name throughout the ages. If we realize that human beings have been empowered to preserve, proclaim, and convey the salvation brought by Jesus Christ throughout ongoing history, the genealogy of the sequence of Jesus contains as peculiar an assortment of people as did the genealogy of the beginnings. The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned – this God continue to work through the same mélange. If it was a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew’s genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence. A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus Christ in the world is belied by the genealogy.

The reading we hear today at Mass – this beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel – not only reminds us of God’s fidelity, but strengthens our hope about our destiny and our importance to God’s plan. It is an invitation offered to all of us. As Brown suggests, if the story of the origin of Jesus Christ is that “Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, who was the father of Judah and his brothers,” then the continuation sequence is that Jesus called Peter and Paul, Paul called Timothy, and that somewhere along the way someone called you and me and that we all must call others.

We are all part of the ongoing genealogy of Jesus Christ.

In the Beginning the Word Was

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of one of its great mystics, St. John of the Cross.  Like his friend Teresa of Avila and so many other mystics, John often expressed his experience of God in poetry.

One of John’s poems is a beautiful one for us as in this latter part of Advent. It is titled Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

This love of which John speaks is the love into which we are invited by our God. What an invitation!

Pointing to What We Can Not Yet See

Isaiah is one of the great prophets and a wonderful one for Advent.  During Advent, we typically hear from the Book of Isaiah for our first Mass reading.  Today’s is one of my favorite: Isaiah’s vision that:

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.

Huh? A wolf the guest of a lamb? A calf browsing with a lion? A baby playing in a cobra’s den? Crazy stuff! That can’t happen, our rational mind says.

But if I can’t imagine it, it can’t happen. The first step toward a better future is imagining that it can exist. To believe that that the unthinkable is possible. If our starting point is that it is impossible, it will be impossible. Who knows what would be possible if we were able to imagine a future where Isaiah’s prophesy was true!

Perhaps we should be more willing to sit with Isaiah’s vision without dismissing it as impossible. Or to frame it as Pope Francis once did, “Our faith is challenged to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds.” (Neither of which seems a whole lot less outlandish than a lion hanging out with a lamb.) As the Pope said, “that we are more realistic must not mean that we are any less trusting in the Spirit…Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents.”

Seeing what is not yet here is precisely what our Christian hope is about.

In secular language, the theme for Senator Robert F. Kennedy’a  1968 campaign for the U.S. presidential nomination was: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”  We are called to do the same.