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.

St. Francis Xavier, Pray for Us

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Francis Xavier.

Francis Xavier was a friend and companion to Ignatius of Loyola and and co-founder of the Society of Jesus.  He was one of the first Jesuits to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises had an enormous influence on Francis, and his life reflects an embrace of the recognition that loving God means being men and women for others, being “contemplatives in action”.  Francis knew that loving God means uniting oneself with God by joining God’s active labor to heal and save the world.

Francis Xavier has been called the greatest missionary in history, second only to St. Paul.  Putting God first for him meant going where he was called, without regard to what his plans had been.

In 1539, the King of Portugal requested that Ignatius send two missionaries to the Portuguese colony of Goa.  One of the two named fell ill and there was no one to take his place except Francis.  At the time, Francis himself was recuperating from having overworked himself in Venice; he is described as having been at the time “so pale and wasted that he seemed no longer to be a living man but a walking corpse.”

Yet when Ignatius broke the news to him that he must go to India, Francis didn’t say, “Aw c’mon, why me.”  He didn’t say “it wasn’t exactly my plan to be a missionary in India.”  He didn’t say, “Look, I’m beat and I just can’t handle a tough posting right now.  Can’t I get one of those cushy spots in the wine country of France or Spain?”

Rather, he responded, reportedly with these words: “Good enough! I am ready!”  The next day he left Rome, never again to return.  He left knowing he would have no possibility of contact or comfort from those he knew and loved save for letters that could take weeks or, more likely, months to arrive.

Francis had unlimited confidence in God, a confidence that allowed him to face obstacles and reversals.  He had a level of trust that allowed him to travel wherever he was sent with a sense of joy and enthusiasm.  One of his companions said that he never met anyone more filled with faith and hope than Francis Xavier.

St. Francis Xavier, pray for us!


Advent: A Season of Hope

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  As we move into the Advent season, let me share  this Advent Credo.  I’ve shared it before but it is worth another look, especially in the troubled times in which we live.

Read it.  Pray It.  Sing It.  But most of all: Believe It, and live it.

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

Believe It.  Live It.

Note: The Advent Credo is generally attributed to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Testimony: The Word Made Fresh.  But I am told that it is actually adapted from a prayer by Allan Boesak was originally published in “Gathered for Life:  Official Report, VI Assembly, World Council of Churches.”

He Called, They Followed

Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s account of the call of the first disciples by Jesus.  Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw Simon (called Peter) and his brother Andrew, he told them to come follow him and he would make them fishers of men.  “At once they left their nets and followed him.”  Then Jesus saw James and John and called them, “and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

“At once” they left their nets and followed Jesus.  “Immediately” they left their boat and father and followed Jesus.

What made those men drop everything and follow Jesus?  There is a poem written by the late Roland Flint, who taught at Georgetown when I was a student there in the late 1970s, that asks the same question.  It is titled Follow.

Now here is this man mending his nets
after a long day, his fingers
nicked, here and there, by ropes and hooks,
pain like tomorrow in the small of his back,
his feet blue with his name, stinking of baits,
his mind on a pint and supper – nothing else –
a man who describes the settled shape
of his life every time his hands
make and snug a perfect knot.

I want to understand, if only for the story,
how a man like this,
a man like my father in harvest,
like Bunk MacVane in the stench of lobstering,
or a teamster, a steelworker,
how an ordinary working stiff,
even a high tempered one,
could just be called away.

It’s only in one account
he first brings in a netful –
in all the others, he just calls,
they return the look or stare and then
they “straightaway” leave their nets to follow.
That’s all there is.  You have to figure
what was in that call, that look.

(And I wouldn’t try it on a tired working man
unless I was God’s son –
he’d kick your ass right off the pier.)

If they had been vagrants,
poets or minstrels, I’d understand that,
men who would follow a different dog.
But how does a man whose movement,
day after day after day,
absolutely trusts the shape it fills
put everything down and walk away?

I’d pass up all the fancy stunting
with Lazarus and the lepers
to see that one.

For me this poem captures a question that can only be satisfactorily answered by experiencing Christ.  What made those men drop everything is not something that can be explained intellectually, in a manner satisfactory to someone who has not had a personal encounter. What moved them was Jesus.  They responded to Jesus and what kept them with him was the relationship they had with him.

That says something about the importance of our own personal encounter with Jesus.

Thanksgiving, Today and Every Day

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  Many people will be gathering with family and friends over tables laden with delicious food.

It is good that we have a day on our annual calendar devoted to giving thanks. However, if we live our lives with the awareness that everything is gift from God, then every day is Thanksgiving Day.

An important step in the Ignatian Examen, something that has been part of my daily prayer for many years, is to review our day in gratitude. Dennis Hamm, S.J., suggests that we “walk through the past 24 hours, from hour to hour, from place to place, task to task, person to person, thanking the Lord for every gift you encounter.” The idea is to notice, as we look back over our day, all of the many gifts we were given over the course of the day. We recall quite specifically all of our gifts and we give thanks.

As we celebrate this Thanksgiving Day, let us also say a prayer for those whose tables will not be as laden with food as yours, who will go to bed as hungry tonight as they do every night.

I wish all of you a blessed day of giving thanks, today and every day.