Annunciation Narratives

Last night was the first of a three-segment Advent program Bill Nolan (pastoral associate at St. Thomas Apostle parish) and I are offering at St. Thomas Apostle for parishioners of STA and Christ the King parishes.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each offer a genealogy of Jesus, an annunciation narrative and a birth narrative.

During the session last night I gave a talk on the annunciation narratives in the two Gospels: Luke’a account of the annunciation to Mary and Matthew’s account of the annunciation to Joseph. The narratives are, at one level, very different, and ont he other, quite similar. While Mary’s is the one we tend to focus on, Joseph is no less a model of faith and trusting obedience than is Mary.

Each of the narratives challenges us to reflect on our own responses to God’s invitation to us to participate in his plan of salvation.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave last evening here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 30:47. (There are two places where I had someone read Gospel excerpts; the second may be a bit soft given the distance of the reader from the recorder.) You can find the handout with questions for reflecion here. The handout also includes one of my favorite poems on the Annunciation.

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Preaching the Good News

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been using the letter to the Romans for my morning prayer. This morning’s passage contained the line, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”

The context of Paul’s statement is that others can not believe in Jesus unless they hear the good news, meaning it is incumbent on all of us who have heard the good news to tell others about it.

The commentary to the passage in Romans and Galatians: A Devotional Commentary, edited by Leo Zanchettin, reminds us that our calling to preach the good news need not be viewed as a difficult task.

For some, that call might entail large, public proclamations. But for most of us, it lies in simple sharing among friends. We don’t have to convince, harangue, or scare people into believing the gospel. We have only to believe the message ourselves and tell it as we have experienced it. It needs no embellishment or exaggeration. Sometimes it doesn’t even need any words, only the witness of our changed lives.

Surely we are all capable of preaching the good news in some way.

The Only Gospel Someone May Hear

Yesterday was the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of my heroes and someone about whom I’ve written on several occasions.

The visiting priest at our Mass at Church of Christ the King was a missionary in Papua New Guinea, so most of his homily was directed to giving us a sense of life where he works. He did however begin his homily with some brief remarks on the readings and the day.

After suggesting that we are all called to do exactly what John the Baptist did, that is, herald the presence of Jesus in our midst, he observed, “your witness may be the only Gospel someone hears.”

That is a good line to remember. I think it is easy to think that what we do can’t matter a whole lot. That I am one person…how much good can I do…how many people will be affected by what I do, etc. Such thoughts can be discouraging.

It is good to remember that what I say, what I do, who I am, “may be the only Gospel someone hears.” It is an encouraging message.

Ashes and the Words that Accompany Them

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance and the beginning of Lent. On this day, Catholics will “get their ashes” – we will all go to Mass or another service at which our foreheads will be marked with a cross made with ashes. As the cross is being made, we will hear the priest or other minister distributing ashes say to us either: “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Why do we get marked with ashes and why do we hear the words we hear?

The Old Testament makes frequent reference to the use of ashes to express sorrow for ones sins and faults. Job says to God, Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The prophet Jeremiah, calling his people to repentance instructs, “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.” The prophet Daniel says “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” And so, as we begin this 40-day period of Lent, we express our repentance for our sins.

The words “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” come from the book of Genesis; they are part of the words uttered by God to Adam and Eve after the fall. In the words of Pope John Paul II during his 1996 Ash Wednesday homily, “Original sin and original sentence. By the act of the first Adam, death entered the world and every descendant of Adam bears the sign of death within him. All generations of humanity share in this inheritance.”

So we hear these words to remind us of death. But it is the alternative words that accompany our receipt of ashes that remind us of what overcomes death. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” These are the works in the Gospel of Mark with which Jesus begins his public ministry: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Although we hear only one of these two formulations when we get our ashes, it is only together that they provide a complete message. It is true that we are sinners and that – left to our own devices we share in the inheritance of death. But we are loved sinners. And because of God’s love for us, God offers a path out of death – a path to new life, life everlasting. And Christ is that path.

May you have a blessed Lent.

P.S. I’ve collected a number of links to sites with on-line Lenten resources here.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld

Today is the optional memorial of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, “Little Brother Charles of Jesus.” Born a Christian, Charles abandoned his faith for many years, and his time included some riotious, reckless years in Paris. His experience with Jews and Muslims he met during his time living in Algeria and Morocco paved the way for his return to Catholicism. Having returned myself to Christianity after many years as a Buddhist, I understand well his feelings about his conversion, about which he said, “The moment I realized that God existed, I knew I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.” After his return to Catholicism, he spent time as a Trappist monk and then as a gardener and sacristan for the Poor Clare nuns before being ordained a priest.

Charles de Foucauld’s theology was simple: “The love of God, the love of one’s neighbor…All religion is found there.” Like one of my favorite saints, Vincent de Paul, de Foucauld understood that loving one’s neighbor included taking serious our responsbility for those in need. He wrote,

There is, I believe, [no] word from the Gospel that has a more profound impression on me nor has transformed my life more than this: ‘Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.’ If we reflect that these words are those from the uncreated Truth, those from the mouth of He who said, ‘This is my body…this is my blood,’ what force drives us to seek and to love Jesus in these ‘least ones, these sinners, these poor ones.’

Charles de Foucauld centered his life on God and understood that love of God and love for one another – for all others – cannot be separated. He is a worthy model for us, during this time of Advent and always.

Viewing Everything Through the Lens of the Cross

I’m still thinking about some of the lines of a sermon I heard on Friday by my friend and colleague Reggie Whitt, a Dominican priest who says the Friday weekday masses at UST Law School. The Gospel Friday was the parable of the wise and foolish virgins who were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The five wise ones, anticipating that the bridegroom might be delayed, brought extra oil with them. The five foolish ones did not. By the time the bridegroom arrived, the lamps of the five foolish women were dying down. When they asked the wise women to borrow some of theirs, they were told there was not enough to share and so they needed to go buy their own, something that would have been impossible in the middle of the night.

I confess that I always thought the five designated as wise acted a bit selfishly, thinking they could have shared some of their oil with the others. Surely they could have spared a bit so that the five others didn’t have to go running around in the middle of the night on an errand that was doomed to failure. But that, of course, misses the point of the Gospel – that what the five foolish women of the story was lacking was not something that could be borrowed from another.

The line in the homily that brought that home to me was this: “You can’t borrow someone else’s fidelity to the Cross; and you can’t expect the world’s ways to supply it for you, if you run out.”

The parable is really, implied Reggie, about the lens through which we view the world. The power and wisdom of God at work in the Crucified Christ, he suggested, turns every other way of understanding the world upside down. And that set up the other line in the sermon that I have been sitting with. The heart of our reality as Christians, what sets the terms of our destiny, is the Crucified Christ and the Cross “is the lens through which all human experiences must be projected, and seen afresh.”

It seems to me it would make an enormous difference in our lives if we are intentional about viewing everything through the lens of the Cross. And that is a way of being, not something we can borrow.

Fraternal vs. Agapic Love

I mentioned the other day that I was reading an essay titled The Open Circle: The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, written by Pope Benedict XVI while he was still Fr. Ratzinger. The essay, as its title suggests, seeks to elucidate the concept of Christian brotherhood.

As the essay discusses, Jesus uses the term “brother” in the Gospels in two different ways. First, he uses it to refer to those “who are united with him in the will of the common acceptance of the will of God.” In Matthew, for example, when Jesus is told his mother and brothers are outside, he responds, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Second, however, Jesus uses the term brother in a broader sense in the judgment parable in Matthew 25. There Jesus refers to all of the needy of the world as being “my brothers,” expressing a universality not found in passages like the earlier Matthew one. Similarly in Luke the term neighbor refers to anyone in need.

Fr. Ratzinger suggests that one finds in the Gospels and in Paul’s writings the idea of two zones. “The attitude of agape (love) is appropriate toward every man, but philadelphia (brotherly love) only toward one’s fellow Christian. The use of this idea for those other than blood relations seems to be specifically Christian. But it shows very clearly that the Christians together form an inner ring in their ethos, that they are (or should be) held together by a spirit of brotherly love which is even greater than that of the general agape.”

I think it is important to keep both senses of the term brother in mind. While I am uncomfortable with some of the possible implications Fr. Ratzinger draws from the distinction, particularly his citing sources that suggests that Christians “must strive for the greatest possible independence from non-Christians and not choose them for their habitual companions” (which he admittedly says presents difficult questions when such statements are transferred from their original setting into the present), there is something to being part of a community of fellow believers that is strengthening to one’s faith.

On the other hand, we need constant reminder that our call to agapic love is a call to love all, regardless of who they are and what they believe. No one is outside the ken of our universal brotherhood of caring and agapic love. As Fr. Ratzinger puts it, while it is true that the Chruch “must unify itself to form a strong inner brotherhood in order to be truly one brother,” it does so not “finally to shut itself off from the other; rather it seeks to be one brother because only in this way can it fulfill its task toward the other, living for whom is the deepest meaning of its existence, which itself is grounded wholly in the vicarious existence of Jesus Christ.”

Encountering the Gospels

The retreats I give almost always involve inviting people pray with scripture. Inevitably, there are some people who have difficulty with their prayer because they become obsessed with certain factual details of the story. What month was Mary in her pregnancy when she left Elizabeth? How could Jacob really wrestle all night long with God? Was Joseph still alive during the wedding feast at Cana? And so on. The problem is that if the retreatants are spending time worrying about factual details, it is hard for them to engage the material in a deep way, it is difficult for them to hear God speaking to them through their encounter with the passage they are praying with.

I read in a book review in a recent issue of Commonweal what I thought was a good description of what I hope retreatants and others can do when they are praying with scripture to avoid this obsessive tendency. Paul Lakeland writes that one way to approach the Gospels is

simply to let the text wash over us, to encounter the plain text in a kind of second naivete that has left behind both childishness and the professional suspicion of the exegete. What we need is what the historian David Emmons has called “a hermeneutics of affection,” a willing surrender to the charms of the story.

The approach recongizes that there is insight to be gained from our encounter with the Gospels (or any other biblical passage for that matter) that is not dependent on factual accuracy or our getting all of the details. If we can let go of deep analysis of detail and simply “let the text wash over us,” we can open ourselves more easily to what God wants to reveal to us in our prayer.

The Flame that Lights the Fire

Yesterday I gave a Day of Reflection for the Twin Cities Ignatian Associates. The theme for the day was The Flame the Lights the Fire, a phrase taken from the second decree of the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, hels in 2008, labeled A Fire that Kindles Other Fires. The thrust of the decree is the Jesuits’s mission is

to keep the fire of its original inspiration alive in a way that offers warmth and light to our contemporaries. It does so by telling a story that has stood the test of time, despite the imperfections of its members and even of the whole body, because of the continued goodness of God, who has never allowed the fire to die.

I think that articulation is a very helpful one for all Catholics today, not only Jesuits and those who follow an Ignatian Spirituality. It is easy to get disgruntled at “the imperfections of [the Church’s] members,” to be disappointed and even angry at so much of what we read today.

It is important that we not let the disgruntlement, the sadness, the disappointment and related emotions to blind us to our fundamental mission as Christians: To proclaim the Gospel. To tell our story To share with the world the story of God loving us so much that God becomes human, dies and then rises. That is the story we need to share in many and different ways. We need to make sure that nothing sidetracks us from that mission.

Remembering Romero

Today is the 30th anniversary of the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. On March 24, 1980, Romeo presided at a special evening mass. That evening he proclaimed from the Gospel of John that “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As he concluded his sermon, which preached the need to give one’s life for others as Christ did, he was shot in the heart and died almost immediately.

Romero was tireless in his call for solidarity with the poor and oppressed, a voice for those who had no voice. He was strident in his denunciation of violence and called for a culture of peace and an end to the killings that were destroying his country.

He was criticized by many for being too political in his sermons. But that was a criticism he would not hear, believing that it was the mission of the Church to “save the world in its totality and to save it in history, here and now.” He exhorted that “We cannot segregate God’s word from the historical reality in which it is proclaimed. That would not be God’s word… It is God’s word because it enlightens, contrasts with, repudiates, or praises what is going on today in this society.” His duty, he believed, was to help people to apply the Gospel to their own lives and to the reality of the world in which he lived. “We turn the gospel’s light onto the political scene, but the main thing for us is to light the lamp of the gospel in our communities.”

Today we remember Oscar Romero, martyr, friend to the poor and prophet of justice. May we remember him by heeding his call.