Birthing Christ into the World

The day after Christmas we get the martyrdom of Stephen and today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Today’s feast reminds us of the world into which Jesus was born – a world of suffering and sin – a world desperately in need of the peace Jesus offers. Jesus’ world is our world. A world in which innocent young children shot to death in their school. A world in which civilians are killed in drone attacks. A world in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The examples of suffering are endless. In the words of Henri Nouwen:

We live in a world groaning under its losses: the merciless wars destroying people and their countries, the hunger and starvation decimating whole populations, crime and violence holding millions of men, women and children in fear. Cancer and AIDS, cholera, malaria, and many other diseases devastating the bodies of countless people;…it’s the story of everyday life filing the newspapers and television screens. It is a world of endless losses.

We live in a world that desperately needs Christ. And today the Christ child comes, not wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, but through us. Meister Eckhart wrote

What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son is I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

Even now – so many years after the birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – the question remains for each of us: Will you help give birth to Christ in your time and culture? Will you infuse the world with Christ’s presence? We don’t answer those questions merely by singing beautiful carols around the creche. The feast we celebrate today reminds us that the world needs more from us.


Power From the Sun (Son)

Amazing what you learn in Mass!  In the homily at today’s Mass I learned that Superman’s powers come from the sun.  I always thought Superman was just, well, super – that as an alien being he had all these powers in himself. But it turns out that (apparently since his home world orbited a red sun) when the young Kal-El reached Earth, the Earth’s sun gave him the powers he possesses.  So all that ability to fly, to leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc, all come from the Sun; without the Sun, Superman can’t do any of those super things.

A simple but effective analogy, and perfect for a Mass in which we celebrated the Baptism of a baby into the faith.  The priest observed that Baptism knit the new member of the community to the source of all of our strength – Christ.

And it is a source we need to go back to over and over again – in our prayer, in our Eucharistic celebrations, always.  The things we are asked to do as Christians – to love not only our friends, but our enemies; to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, not just to our small circle of parishioners; to die to self and rise to Christ – are not things we can do on our own.  They are things that require that we be connected deeply to our source – the Son.

When we are so connected, in the words of Philippians: we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us.


One of the advantages of moving to St. Paul is the ability to get to the Law School via the shuttle between the University of St. Thomas’ two campuses rather than driving to school. And the advantage of that is that I get to read during my commute.

The extra reading time this week allowed me to finish Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book, which reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, has generated a lot of heat in many quarters and, after hearing and reading about it so often, I was interested in reading it.

I am not a Biblical scholar and so I do not have the expertise to independently assess the quality of Aslan’s scholarship. My reading of those who do have expertise suggests that the book does not make any claims that have not been made before and many question the quality of the author’s research and claims. According to one professor of New Testament, “Aslan seems to have bought into an outdated model of Christian development.” According to another, the book presents “a historically reconstructed Jesus, not the Jesus that appears on the pages of Scripture.” Another suggests Alsan offer a “superficial caricature” of Jesus. (Many other things have been written by people who do not seem to have read the book; I ignore those for obvious reasons.)

All of that may be true, but I found the book an interesting and provocative read. It offers some alternative readings of familiar Gospel passages (such as Jesus’ instruction to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s) that are worth sitting with. And, while much of what is there may not be new, the book is written in an accessible manner that anyone can read. Many people accept uncritically things they learned as a child about their faith. Everyone, in my view, benefits from thinking critically about their faith and if reading this book encourages Christians to do so, that is a good, not a bad thing.

I also agree with an early New York Times review of the book that one of the book’s strengths is its picture of first-century Palestine. Many Christians have very little knowledge of the religious, economic and political environment into which Jesus was born and preached. Understanding the relationship between Rome and the Jewish upper class, as well as the role of the Temple and the power of those who controlled it, is a helpful aid in reading the Gospels.

Among criticisms of the book that I find disturbing is the feeling among some conservatives that it is somehow offensive for a Muslim scholar to write a book about Jesus. Why that is more controversial than a Christian scholar’s writing a book about Islam or Muhammad is baffling to me.

While it would be a mistake to read this book uncritically, accepting the truth of all Aslan suggests, I do think it is a worthwhile read – both in its discussion of Jesus’ life and in its treatment of the early Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Faith and Relationship With Christ

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am.” And then he asks them what my friend Fr. Dan Griffith suggested in his homily this morning is the most important question we can ask ourselves: “Who do you say I am.”

Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

Here is what Pope Francis said in his Angeles address today about Peter’s reply and Jesus’ reaction thereto:

This Sunday’s Gospel (Mt. 16, 13-20) is the famous passage, which is central in St. Matthew’s account. Simon, in the name of the Twelve, professes his faith in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus calls Simon “blessed” for this faith, recognizing in him a special gift from the Father, and he says to him: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Let us pause for a moment on this point, on the fact that Jesus attributes this new name to Simon: “Peter”, who in Jesus’ language is pronounced “Kefa”, a word that means “rock”. In the Bible, this name, this word “rock” is referred to God. Jesus attributes it to Simon not for his quality or for his human merits, but for his genuine and firm faith, which comes from above.

Jesus feels a great joy in His heart, because He recognizes in Simon the hand of the Father, the action of the Holy Spirit. He recognizes that God the Father has given to Simon a “trustworthy” faith, in which He, Jesus, can build his Church, that is, His community. That is, all of us, all of us. Jesus has in mind to give life to “His” Church, a people no longer founded on ancestry but rather on faith, namely a relationship with Himself, a relationship of love and of trust. Our relationship with Jesus builds the Church. And so to start his Church, Jesus needs to find in the disciples a solid faith, “trustworthy.” It is this that He must verify at this point of His journey. And that is why He asks the question.

The Lord has in mind the image of constructing, the image of the community as an edifice. That is why, when he hears Simon’s sincere profession of faith, he calls him “rock”, the intention of building his Church upon this faith is manifested.

Brothers and sisters, that which has occurred in a unique way to Saint Peter, also takes place in every Christian that develops a sincere faith in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Today’s Gospel challenges each and every one of us. How is your faith? Each one must answer in their heart. How is your faith? What does the Lord find in our hearts? A steadfast heart like a rock or a sand-like heart, that is, doubtful, wary, incredulous? It would do us well today to think about this.

If the Lord finds in our hearts a faith, I do not say perfect, but sincere, genuine, then He also sees in us the living stones with which he can build his community. Of this community, the fundamental rock is Christ, the only cornerstone. On his part, Peter is a rock, as a visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but each baptized person is called to offer to Jesus their own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build his Church, today, in every part of the world.

Even today, “the people” believe Jesus to be a great prophet, a master of wisdom, a model of justice…And today Jesus asks his disciples, that is us, all of us: “But you, who do you say that I am?” What will we respond? Let us think about this. But above all let us pray to God the Father, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary; let us pray that He may give us the grace to respond, with a sincere heart: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

This is a confession of faith, this is the Creed. Let us all repeat this three times together: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The Celebration Continues

We Christians are very good at Lent and Easter. We go through Lent giving things up, doing Stations of the Cross, having soup suppers. We participate in our beautiful Triduum liturgies. Then we have a big family supper on Easter Sunday and then we’re done (except for cleaning up all of the dishes from our meal). Although it is true that the Church gives us a 50-day Easter season, we don’t approach it with the attention we do Lent. And that is unfortunate.

It is so important that we spend time geting in touch with a Resurrection spirit. Joseph Tetlow explains it this way:

In his humanness, Jesus triumphed over death. He had embraced everything human without ever acting unfraithful to his Father, to Himself, or to his friends. He had lived his life in uprightness and in joy. Now, He is confirmed eternally in His own joy – to be with the children of humankind….

This is the Jesus Christ who lives now. If you do not come to know Him both full of joy and exuberantly sharing his happiness, then you will not really know Him at all. You have asked in past days to know Jesus and to love Him and to follow where he goes. It is into fullness of life and complete human joy that he goes! If you do not follow him into his joy, you will ultimately find it hard to believe that you are following him at all.

So let’s remember that it is still Easter and take time during these 40 days until Pentecost to be with Jesus in the joy of the resurrection. You might take some time in these coming days praying with the appearances of the resurrected Christ to his disciples.

You might also keep in mind some of the advice Ignatius gives for people in Week 4 of the Spiritual Exercises, which focuses on the resurrected Christ. First, he suggests that as soon as we awake, we recall the atmosphere of joy that pervades these days. Then, throughout the day, he suggests that we try to keep ourselves in a mood which is marked by happiness and spiritual joy. As a result, he suggests, anything in our environment – sun or snow, all of the different beauties of nature – everything we experience – reinforces the atmosphere of joy and consolation. Part of what we are trying to do here is to become increasingly sensitive to those areas of my life and relationships where I experience new life – especially where I experience new life after a time of struggle and loss. That is: resurrection.

However you mark it, remember: It is still Easter!

Note: Last spring, Bill Nolan and I presented a four-week series on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus. If you go to the podcast page and scroll down you will find the links to the podcasts of our talks and the prayer material we gave to participants. You might find those a helpful aid for your Resurrection prayer.

Celebrating Resurrection

Today is Easter Sunday, a day of great celebration for all Christians. Today we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

It is important for us to remember that today is not merely a celebration of the anniversary of something that happened to one person a long time ago. What is central about this day is not merely the historical fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also what His resurrection means about our own death and resurrection.

God had no reason to incarnate, die and rise for God’s own sake. God was already eternal, already not subject to death, already alive forever – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It adds nothing new to or about God’s nature for God to die and rise.

In one sense, the whole point of God becoming human was to make resurrection a reality for us – to carry us along so to speak – such that the resurrection of Christ inherently implies our resurrection. Thus Paul says “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised…if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised.”

Today we celebrate the death of death. We celebrate the promise of our own resurrection.

Now, for each of us, the question is: What difference does that make in our lives?

Jesus or Christ

Many people speak almost interchangeably of “Jesus” and “Christ.” It is easy to do, and I sometimes find myself doing it. But there is a danger of confusion when we fail to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Christ.

I think Richard Rohr, in talking about the “Cosmic Christ,” is someone who does a very good job of explaining that distinction. I was watching a video of his the other day in which he pointed out that Jesus has existed for 2000 years, but Christ has existed for all eternity. (For those concerned he was making that up, he cites the Prologue of John, the hymns at the beginning of Colossians and Ephesians and 1 John 1.) Rohr observed that the Christ was born the moment God decided to show himself in the material world – what some refer to as the big bang. The Cosmic Christ was then revealed in a human person we could see and feel and fall in love with (and from whom we could learn who we are meant to be) – the historical Jesus.

Rohr talks about Jesus as the microcosm and Christ as the macrocosm, and reminds us that the movement from Jesus to Christ is one we need to imitate. In a passage I read adapted from one of Rohr’s lectures, he says:

A lot of us have so fallen in love with the historical Jesus that we worship him as such and stop right there. We never really follow the same full journey that he made, which is the death and resurrection journey—Jesus died and Christ rose.

Unless we make the same movement that Jesus did—from his one single life to his risen and transformed state (John 12:24)—we probably don’t really understand, experientially, what we mean by the Christ—and how we are part of that deal! This is why he said, “Follow me.” The Jesus that you and I participate in and are graced by and redeemed by is the risen Jesus who has become the Christ (Acts 2:36), which is an inclusive statement about all of us and all of creation too. Stay with this startling truth in the days ahead, and it will rearrange your mind and heart, and change the way you read the entire New Testament. Paul understood this to an amazing degree, which is why he almost always talks about “Christ” and hardly ever directly quotes “Jesus.” It is rather shocking once you realize it.

We devote a lot of concern to Jesus, and it is fitting that we do. But I think Rohr is right that we often miss the “Cosmic Christ,” the macrocosm. And it is the macrocosm that is The Way for all of us, whether or not we call ourselves Christians.

We Cannot Profess Christ Without the Cross

Yesterday, Pope Francis I gave his first papal homily.

The Gospel on which he preached was the passage in Matthew when Jesus asks his disciples first, who people say he is and next, who they say he is. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Interestingly, what the Pope focused on in his homily was not Peter’s proclamation, but the dialogue that follows (that actually was not part of yesterday’s Gospel. When Jesus tells his disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…and be killed,” Peter rebukes him, saying no such thing shall ever happen. Peter, in turn, is rebuked by Jesus, who tells his disciples that if they would follow him, they must take up his cross.

And it is that the our new pope focused on. After briefly speaking about the first two readings, he said:

We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.

Walking, building-constructing, professing: the thing, however, is not so easy, because in walking, in building, in professing, there are sometimes shake-ups – there are movements that are not part of the path: there are movements that pull us back.

This Gospel continues with a special situation. The same Peter who confessed Jesus Christ, says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the Cross. This has nothing to do with it.” He says, “I’ll follow you on other ways, that do not include the Cross.” When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.

I think this is a message we need to hear over and over again: To be disciples, we must profess Christ. And, we cannot profess Christ without the cross.

You can read the entirety of the Pope’s homily here.

Bread and Wine as the Tip of the Iceberg

Yesterday morning I had a conversation with someone about the Eucharist. We had been talking about the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel and the person confessed to some difficulty with the idea of bread and wine becoming the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

As we talked, I remembered a passage in Michael Himes’ The Mystery of Faith talking about what it means that the Catholic “eucharistic celebration centers on bread and wine that we believe becomes the blood of Christ.

Speaking about the bread, Himes observes that “there is no intrinsic difference” between the bread and wine that become the Eucharist and the bread we eat for sandwiches and the wine we offer friends at dinner. Thus, he asks, “If this bread can become the body of Christ, why not all that other bread? If this wine can become the blood of Christ, why not all wine?” And, he pushes further, if the bread and the wine, why not the grain, the vine, the soil and the rain that produce the bread and wine?

In fact, Himes says, “if this tiny fragment of the material world can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe? And that is, of course, precisely the point.”

Reminding us that in the liturgy of the feast of Corpus Christi the Eucharist is termed “the down payment, the first installment of future glory, Himes says:

Precisely right: the eucharistic bread and wine are, as it were, the tip of the iceberg, the point at which we see what the whole universe is destined to become. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of Christ, the fullness of God in the flesh. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of God in Christ.

It may be hard to grasp completely, but it sounds awfully exciting to me.

Having the Ears and Eyes of Christ

I have always loved the the Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila, Christ Has No Body. And it is a prayer that has been set to music in a number of adaptations by different artists.

The one we want at Mass this past Sunday was by Steven Warner, and I was struck by the line in one of the verses, “No eyes but yours to see as Christ would see.” My mind immediately added, “And no ears but mine to hear as Christ would hear.”

Two images immediately came to my mind, the images of Christ’s encounters with Zacchaeus and with Bartimaeus.

We hear of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke’s Gospel. Zacchaeus doesn’t thrust himself in Jesus’ path. Instead, Zacchaeus is up in a sycamore tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus from afar. Jesus has to look into the Sycamore tree to see Zacchaeus, so that he can invite him down so they can lunch together.

Blind Bartimaeus, who we learn about in Mark’s Gospel, is on the side of the road, crying out Jesus’ name – something he continually does even as the crowds are trying to quiet him. Jesus hears him from afar; he has to tell his disciples to bring Bartimaeus to him so see what he wants.

To see as Christ would see. To hear as Christ would hear. The invitation there is to do more than gaze with compassion on those who are right in front of our face. To do more than hear those standing beside us. Rather it is to see, as Christ did, those who may be hanging back. To hear, as Christ did, those who call out to us from afar.

We need to have the eyes an ears of Christ.