Feast of the Holy Innocents

Three days after we rejoice in the birth of the Savior, we are given both a reminder of the world into which Jesus was born and a foreshadowing of the suffering He will undergo. In our remembrances of the massacre of the Holy Innocents – the young male children put to death by King Herod in his effort to destory the Christ child – we are confonted head-on with the reality that the Incarnation of God as human is inextricably linked with the rejection, suffering and, ultimately, death the Savior will undergo.

Christmas fills us with beautiful images of a child in a manger, surrounded by adoring shephards and Maji and gloroius angels singing of God’s glory. But, in the words of Francios Mauriac, “the gentle Child shivers with cold on the edge of a criminal world while angels promise peace to men of good will – a peace that can be discovered only after a full measure of suffering; but in the shadows of his birthplace Herod’s soldiers sharpen their knives for a slaughter of innocents.” The world into which Christ was born is populated by many who will reject Him and, like Herod, try to destroy Him.

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 birth Christ into the world – help infuse the world with His presence? Or will you – by action of inaction – reject Him and fail to give Him life in the world?

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.


And the Word Became Flesh

We can argue about whether the signs should read Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. We can engage in billboard wars. We can bemoan the loss of this tradition or that. We can occupy ourselves with all sorts of things.

But ultimately what matters is this: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling upon us.”

God becomes human, revealing a love so deep that God is willing to share everything with us. Giving us a blueprint of what it means to be a human being fully alive. Showing us the way.

As John testified to the light that was to come into the world, we continue to testify to that light by who we are in the world. As we pray in the opening prayer for the Christmas Mass at Dawn, “We are filled with the new light by the coming of your Word among us. May the light of faith sine in our words and actions.”

Wishing everyone a blessed Christmas and a wonderful time of celebration with family and friends.

What Difference Does Religion Make?

I’m in New Orleans attending an annual conference for law professors. One of the panels on which I spoke yesterday was on the subject of Faith and Corporate Law. One of the other participants on that panel raised a question that goes beyond the question of corporate law and that deserves serious consideration by all of us who call ourselves religious or spiritual persons: Do religious people behave differently than other people? Do people of passionate faith make different decisions than do others?

One of the criticisms of religion made by a good friend of mine is precisely the claim that religion does not seem to make a difference in the lives of people. He argues that people who claim to be religious, those who claim allegience to some organized religion, are no different (and, he would claim, are often worse in their behavior) than people who are not religious.

If my friend is right – if the answer to the question posed by my co-panelist is “No” – then I think religion has failed. Our faith cannot be simply about what we say we believe or think, but must make a difference in who we are in the world, in how we behave in the world, in how we live our lives. I think that is particularly true of those of us who call ourselves Christians, who believe in a God who became man in the person of Jesus Christ, who made some very direct statements about how we are to live in this world.

If religion means something, it has to make a difference in what we do and not just in what we say and think. It has to affect how we deal with others and how we make actual decisions in our day-to-day lives. It is not enough to recite the Creed with fervor during Mass and then forget about it for the rest of the week. Not enough to say, “I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior, so I’ll be saved at the end of the day.” It has to make a difference in everything.

Maybe a starting point is for each of us to spend time seriously and concretely reflecting on: what difference does my religion make to who I am in the world?

God Becomes Human

The Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Igantius begins with a beautiful contemplation of the Incarnation. St. Ignatius invites us imagine the Holy Trinity looking out over the world. The Holy Trinity knows the whole world of humankind and sees all of the various ways human beings are suffering and bringing suffering on each other. Ignatius says “they look down upon the whole surface of the earth and behold all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into hell.”

Ignatius invites us to enter into the heart of God as God looks at the world. What goes on in the heart of the Trinity as they look at the darkness of the world? Ignatius invites us to feel the Trinity’s love for humanity and their pain at out suffering. And he invites us to see and hear the Trinity’s response to that pain: how out of that incredible love for humanity, out of God’s infinite and eternal love, God thinks, “Let us save all these people.” And Jesus says, “I’ll go.” And so the Father decides to send the Son down to enter into the world, to become human for the sake of our salvation.

A wonderful little book called Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuit, includes a reflection coming out of this prayer exercise by Michael Moynahan, S.J. The reflection, written as a message by the Trinity to us, starts by talking about how little we understood the ways in which God sought to convey God’s love to us, how notwithstanding all God tried to do, we grew distant, deaf and blind to God. It then expresses God’s next move in a simple, homey way:

And so we did
what families do
when confronted with calamity.
We drew straws.
Shorty lost.
He came to share
your plight,
your fight,
your night,
and point you
toward tomorrow.

Christ comes to share everything with us…and to point us toward tomorrow.

The Spirit of God Dwells in Us

In today’s second Mass reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

When we use the term dwelling, we mean something more than a casual residing. When we go on a business trip and stay in a hotel, we don’t speak of the hotel as our dwelling. When we visit our relatives and friends and stay at their home, even for a long visit, we don’t speak of dwelling with them. “Dwelling” carries with it a sense of continuing and remaining, as in how we live in our own homes.

So to say God dwells in us speaks of much more than casual contact, but of something far more permanent and intimate. And that permanence and intimacy is something accomplished through the Incarnation of God.

I don’t mean by that statement to suggest that we do not hear of God dwelling among his people in the Old Testament. On the contrary, the references are numerous. In Exodus God says: “I will dwell in the midst of the Israelites and will be their God. They shall know that I, the Lord, am their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I, the Lord, their God, might dwell among them.” In the Book of Kings God promises: “I will fulfill toward you the promise I made to your father David. I will dwell in the midst of the Israelites and will not forsake my people Israel.” Similarly, in Leviticus, God reassures his people, “I will set my dwelling among you, and will not disdain you. Ever present in your midst, I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

But for all their beauty, these Old Testament statements speak of nearness or closeness, dwelling with, dwelling near, dwelling among. And although God dwelt with, near among, there is still separation. Even those closest to the God of the Old Testament, like Moses, could only look at his shadow and not on the face of God.

With the Incarnation, however, God comes to dwell in humans. God opens himself to a deeper, more intimate relationship with us by becoming one of us. God first dwells in the man Jesus. But with the death, resurrection and ascension Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God now dwells in the disciples of Jesus, in the body of Christ that are his people.

One important way to express the good news of Christianity is this: God the Son became human so that through His death and resurrection He can secure the gift of the Spirit for His people, so that God might be, not just with us, near us, among us, but in us.

The Incarnation: God Becomes Human

Merry Christmas! Today we celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord. “For unto us, a child is born.”

In the midst of the gift opening, the big Christmas morning breakfast, and the celebration of the day, take time to marvel at what exactly is is that we celebrate today. In the words of the theologian Michael Himes:

The great mystery hidden from all generations and revealed in the Incarnation is God’s secret ambition. From all eternity God has wanted to be exactly like you and me. This is the ultimate statement of the goodness of being human, the rightness of humanity. The immense dignity of the human person is at the heart of the Christian tradition because it flows directly from the doctrine of the Incarnation itself. Indeed, the Incarnation is the highest compliment ever paid to being human.

God becomes human. What an amazing reality!

Merry Christmas

Mary: “Central Component” of our Faith in a Living God

Underscoring the importance of Mary’s role in the Incarnation, Luke’s account of the Annunciation is the Gospel reading for both today and tomorrow. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI) wrote this abut Mary’s role:

Without Mary, God’s entrance into history would not achieve its intended purpose. That is, the very thing that matters most in the Creed would be left unrealized – God’s being a God with us, and not only a God in and for himself. Thus, the woman who called herself lowly, that is, nameless (Lk 1:48), stands at the core of the profession of faith in the living God, and it is impossible to imagine it without her. She is an indispensible, central component of our faith in the living, acting God. The Word becomes flesh – the eternal Meaning grounding the universe [Sinngrund der Welt] enters into her. He does not merely regard her from the outside; he becomes himself an actor in her. It needed the Virgin for this to be possible, the Virgin who made available her whole person, that is, her embodied existence [Lieb], her very self as the place of God’s dwelling in the world. The Incarnation required consenting acceptance. Only in this way do Logos and flesh really become one.

As we reflect on Mary’s role in the Incarnation, it is good to remind ourselves that the Incarnation continues to require consenting acceptance…our consenting acceptance. In the words Meister Eckhart quoted in the sidebar, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, if I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”

John 3:16 and the Mystery of Humanity

Today’s Gospel is well-known to all of us: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him migth not perish but might have eternal life.” It is the subject of much commentary and I blogged about it once before, focusing on the depth of God’s love (here).

What does it mean that God sent his only Son? That God became human? One expression of the meaning appears in Gaudium et spes, in a line I was reminded of last week when the celebrant of our Baccalaureate Mass quoted it in his homily: Only in the mystery of Jesus Christ the Word Made Flesh does the mystery of humanity truly become clear. Christ reveals us to ourselves. “He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning.”

Through the Incarnation and life and death of Jesus, we learn what it means to be fully human. We learn who we are and who we are meant to be.