Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Powerful Witness of Worship

"The Christmas Star"
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage" (Matthew 2:1-2).

The identities and origins of the mysterious visiting magi in Matthew's Gospel have always been subjects of much speculation and debate. Many have reasoned, because their gifts given to the child Jesus are three in number, namely, "gold, frankincense and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11), that it is likely there were three magi. They are also commonly referred to as "wise men," with historical writings asserting the possibility that these men were representative of a pagan priestly caste of the Medes or of an ancient Iranian people, who, in studying the natural order of creation, were of the belief that there was great meaning to be found in the "reading" of the stars and in the interpretation of dreams. Certain traditions further maintain that they were actually kings, and that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar. But the Gospel account itself is silent on all these matters.

In presenting these foreign travelers who have come to worship the Messiah of Israel anonymously and undefined in number, it is widely accepted among exegetes that perhaps Scripture is foreshadowing and representing here the future preaching of the Gospel to the gentile nations. But Scripture also does not tell us who these men were because the narrative is not about them. For the sacred writer, such information would contribute nothing important to his focus and sole purpose: which was, in the case of Matthew's Gospel, to present Jesus to the Jewish people as the Messiah—that is, as the foretold “ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6; Numbers 24:17).

As the Catholic Church teaches, one telling characteristic of all Scripture, as sacred and divinely-inspired writing, is that there is no extraneous information, and at the same time, what does appear in the text is certainly significant. What is written is only written in obedience to God as inspired by the Holy Spirit, and in service to His intended purposes, which He accomplishes through each chosen author: 

In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted (Dei Verbum III.11).

But what is found in the text, and therefore what is of importance to the writer's purpose in Matthew's Gospel account, that is, as evidence that Jesus is the One whose coming was foretold, is the obvious manner in which the magi regard Jesus. As shown through their words and actions, they publicly proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, "the newborn king of the Jews," and also state just as publicly that they specifically "have come to do Him homage;" that is, to worship Him.

 James Tissot, "The Magi in the House of Herod." 1886-1894
The magi's public profession of faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and even further, as King of kings, as He was also deemed worthy of their worship, caused quite a stir in Jerusalem, or, more precisely, in the hearts of King Herod and all the people as well (cf. Matthew 2:3). How was it that these pagan foreigners knew the Messiah had come, but yet the very people who awaited and longed for Him-- and in the case of Herod, feared Him-- knew nothing of His birth?

How was this possible? What convinced the Magi that the Child was "the King of the Jews" and the King of the peoples? There is no doubt that they were persuaded by the sign of the star that they had seen "in its rising" and which had come to rest precisely over the place where the Child was found (cf. Mt 2:9). But even the star would not have sufficed had the Magi not been people inwardly open to the truth. 
--Pope Benedict XVI, "Homily for the Solemnity of Epiphany," 6 January 2007.

The star, symbolic of the light of truth provided by God, and which calls out to everyone through His creation, guided the magi at all times. Their knowledge of the star's significance brought them from the east as far as Jerusalem, but yet as we see, they were still unable to locate the Child Jesus. With all of their learning, as pagans from the east, they are not well-versed in the Jewish Scriptures. Following his own agenda, Herod meets with the magi in secret, telling them to go to Bethlehem, from where the Scriptures foretold the Messiah would come (2:4-6), and urges them to "go and search diligently for the child (2:8)." But as we read, once they know what God Himself had revealed about His Messiah, once they have been fully enlightened by Scripture, in setting out towards Bethlehem, it seems that perhaps their guiding light shines even more brightly for them; they now become "overjoyed at seeing the star," and their search becomes easy and swift, with the star preceding them and coming to rest over the place where the Child Jesus dwelt (cf. 2:9-10). 

Velázquez, "Adoration of the Magi." 1619
The magi's witness to the true identity of Jesus had such a profound effect upon, one might even say, held power over, King Herod and the people, because these men had literally changed the course of their lives, having left everything behind, just as Jesus' disciples would do, in exchange for the mere opportunity to follow and to worship Him. This tells us that they had already humbled themselves before the Lord in their hearts long before they would physically fall to their knees in His presence.  And when they "entered the house" and "opened their treasures" to offer the Child their costly gifts, we sense that the "treasures" being opened also represent those same hearts, which were ready to both give of themselves and to receive Him even from the outset, when they had first decided to seek Him. In this joy-filled journey to find the King of kings, which culminates when the magi finally behold Him face to face, through them, we also come to understand that the reward for worshiping God is nothing less than union with God Himself.

Among the truths that we should take to heart from the Gospel's account of the magi is that, like theirs, our worship, our seeking of God and our relationship with Him, should be the focus of our journey in life, not just for our own sakes, but for the benefit of "all the people" as well. How we pray, how we participate in the Mass, how we partake of the Blessed Sacrament, are clear and true indications of what place we give God in our hearts and in our lives. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, is an axiom of ancient Christianity, meaning, "the rule of worship is the rule of belief is the rule of life." And like the magi, the power of our worship as a witness to the Lord as the one true God, to the truth in all of Scripture and to the Gospel particularly, also should not be underestimated.

Let us continually be deliberate and devout whenever we gather to pray, and especially in our public worship at Mass.  Does our presence there say to all, "We have come to do Him homage?" We never know who will walk through the doors of our churches at any time during our assembly.  When they come in, what will they see? Will they find us as a people at prayer, in obvious worship of the Lord, who obviously believe that He has come, that He is truly present in the Eucharist?  Or will they merely see a gathering of groups of friends, engaged in idle chatter and distracted thoughts, and leave unmoved-- perhaps never to return, never to encounter the Lord, because we failed to witness to the faith we profess? 

It is not just our words, but also our worship that tells the world who Jesus is. Let us not just sing these words of worship during this Christmas season, but let us live them, so we might testify year-round to His coming, and to Our King's continued, living and transforming presence among us: Venite adoremus Dominum! Let us also never go to worship the Lord empty-handed, as, no matter who we are, we each possess the only gift He truly desires and treasures:

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, 
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, 
I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him--
give my heart.

From the Christmas Carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter"
Words by poet Christina Rossetti (1872)
Music composed by Gustav Holst (1906)
Recorded performance of the entire Carol below,
by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Michael George and the Choirs of Coventry and Lichfield Cathedrals

Friday, December 24, 2010

On Recognizing and Receiving the Gift of God

He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. (John 1:10-11)

The Gospel account of Luke tells us that Mary had to give birth to Jesus, the Son of the Most High, in, of all places, a shelter intended for animals, "because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7). Bethlehem was apparently filled to capacity with people who, by decree of the Roman government, had returned to their hometown, in order to be registered as taxpayers. But yet, among all those people, there was not a single incidental witness to His miraculous birth there in their midst. Everyone was too busy responding to the voice of the world, to the "decree that went out from Caesar Augustus." Meanwhile, the Messiah had been humbly and silently "brought forth" by Mary, with the very people that had been longing for their King and His kingdom passing the night oblivious and unaffected.

No Room in the Inn
It was only to some shepherds tending their sheep in the area that the angel of the Lord appeared and announced that their promised Messiah had finally come. Like Mary (Luke 1:45), these simple people believed and rejoiced in what the Lord had told them through His heavenly messenger. The shepherds also made haste, "to see this thing" that had taken place, which the Lord had made known to them (Luke 2:15), as did Mary nine months prior, upon hearing the joyful news that her older childless relative Elizabeth had conceived a son (Luke 1:36-39), "for with God nothing will be impossible" (Luke 1:37).

It was clearly because of their faith in the Lord, in their openness and readiness of heart to the accepting of His Word, that the shepherds were blessed with the gifts of both receiving the news of the long-expected Messiah's birth, and of beholding Him with their own eyes. In their great joy, the shepherds then told everyone what they had heard and seen, and "all who heard it were amazed" (Luke 2:18). Like all the men and women in the entire Gospel of Luke who would approach and encounter Jesus with faith in their hearts, the shepherds were forever changed that night in a very dramatic way. They were still poor shepherds, returning to their flocks and their way of life, but now the joy-filled act of "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them" (Luke 2:20) had also become a part of their day-to-day living.

But what about us? What is the focus of our attention at Christmas? Is it the tree and the gifts, or is it the Manger and the Eucharist? Are we indifferent to and unaffected by the birth of the Lord, or do we continue to be amazed by the mysteries of the Incarnation and God's infinite love for us?

A.R. Mengs, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1770
Like the people in the Gospel who spent the night in the Inn, have we also perhaps returned to our own hometown to celebrate Christmas, finding ourselves resting comfortably in the company of family and friends, only to forget that there is One we have excluded from our company; that there is One we have left outside in the cold? Or are we like the humble shepherds, open to the voice and the grace of God, and eager to welcome our Savior Christ the Lord into our hearts, and at Mass, into our bodies as well? If it is His birth, His coming, that we are truly celebrating, then we, too, can be forever changed by our encounter anew with Jesus at the coming of Christmas, and after the celebration of this day and season has passed, can then return to our everyday lives, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, just as it had been told to us!

But to those who did accept him 
he gave power to become children of God,  
to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice 
nor by a man's decision but of God.  
And the Word became flesh 
and made his dwelling among us, 
and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, 
full of grace and truth (John 1:12-14).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The True Meaning of Christmas

Antonio da Correggio, Nativity c. 1529-1530

What Child is This?
Original version of the Christmas Carol, lyrics by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), published by Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley (1833-1917) and Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) in Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871), Carol #14

What Child is this, Who laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthem sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Antonio da Correggio, The Pietà c.1522-1523

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

"The baby born in Bethlehem comes to bring us light and peace. But to do that, he comes to die for us and rise again. He comes to deliver us from the evil in ourselves and in the world that slew...even the Son of God Himself." 
--Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
from "Him Who is the Last: An Advent Reflection"

Monday, December 20, 2010

On the Necessity of Prayer in the New Evangelization

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Jubilee of Catechists, 12 December 2000

 A few years ago, I was reading the biography of a very good priest of our century, Don Didimo, the parish priest of Bassano del Grappa. In his notes, golden words can be found, the fruit of a life of prayer and of meditation. About us, Don Didimo says, for example: "Jesus preached by day, by night he prayed."

With these few words, he wished to say: Jesus had to acquire the disciples from God. The same is always true. We ourselves cannot gather men. We must acquire them by God for God. All methods are empty without the foundation of prayer. The word of the announcement must always be drenched in an intense life of prayer.

God cannot be made known with words alone. One does not really know a person if one knows about this person secondhandedly. To proclaim God is to introduce to the relation with God: to teach how to pray. Prayer is faith in action. And only by experiencing life with God does the evidence of his existence appear.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

To Evangelize Means to Teach the Art of Living

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the New Evangelization
from his "Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers"
Jubilee of Catechists, 12 December 2000
Night in Bethlehem
Human life cannot be realized by itself. Our life is an open question, an incomplete project, still to be brought to fruition and realized. Each man's fundamental question is: How will this be realized—becoming man? How does one learn the art of living? Which is the path toward happiness?

evangelize means: to show this path—to teach the art of living. At the beginning of his public life Jesus says: I have come to evangelize the poor (Luke 4:18); this means: I have the response to your fundamental question; I will show you the path of life, the path toward happiness—rather: I am that path.

The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world.

This is why we are in need of a new evangelization—if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. But this art is not the object of a science—this art can only be communicated by [one] who has life—he who is the Gospel personified.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Great Joy Which Will Come to All People

In just one week, the Catholic Church and all Christians everywhere will celebrate the great feast of Christmas.  While the world has been telling us for a month to "get out there and go shopping" in preparation for Christmas Day, in our month of preparation called Advent, the Church has been calling us to "look inside and do inventory." As Christians, we don't need to go out and buy what we hope will bring happiness. We already have the One who brings not only true happiness, but everlasting joy, which no one else can give us!  So while the world puts its focus on the giving and receiving of store-bought gifts, the Church, in its proclaiming the Nativity once again, calls us to first rediscover afresh in the Gospel the One who is God's greatest gift to us, and then to go out into the world and share Christ Our Joy with others, so that He may be theirs as well!

This is what is at the heart of the New Evangelization, a joy made new, not only each year with our preparation for and in the welcoming of Christmas, but each day, as we wake knowing that He is ours and we are His.  This is the great joy which we are called to bring, to carry in our hearts wherever we go, so that it may indeed, by the grace of God, come to all people.

But the world will not come to know Him just in what we say.

“To be true disciples of the Lord, believers must
bear witness to their faith, and ‘witnesses testify not only with words,
but also with their lives.’”
Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in America (26)—
Jesus is a person, not an idea. We are not only called to be His messengers, but to be nothing less than the living face and the presence of Christ.  For the sake of the Gospel and for the salvation of souls, in thanksgiving for the saving gift of Jesus, we are called to be Saints! Through our striving to live a holy life in and through His sacraments, at every moment relying upon and cooperating with His infinite mercy and sanctifying grace, the world which is so desperately searching for the Lord will have finally found Him-- in us! This is what it means to become His living witnesses, outwardly radiating His joy, because it is the Lord Himself who truly lives and breathes within us.

Adoration of the Child, Gerrit van Honthorst, c. 1620
We only need to look at Jesus Himself and at His Saints to know what holiness of life is, and how powerfully attractive and convincing a force it is.  How many times we have heard or read the Gospels' accounts of the obvious power of John the Baptist's preaching "of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3); that "all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem" went to him to be baptized and to confess their sins (Mark 1:5). Did the people go out to the Jordan in droves because John was a charismatic leader or a great speechwriter? He certainly wasn't preaching a message the people wanted to hear.  He was telling them unreservedly that they were sinners who needed to change!  But by God's grace, and because John lived what he preached, the truth in his words was irresistible. God used that unmistakable single-mindedness and single-heartedness of John to draw His people once again to Himself, inviting their hearts to become truly ready for the coming of the Messiah.

If we are then to work for the conversion of others, to help convince them that we speak the truth in proclaiming Christ, we must first of all live that message. We must be converted, continually and daily, with the measure of our conversion being the degree to which we can say to God, in joyful obedience, "Yes, Lord, have your way with me and with my life.  I am completely yours." Only then will Christ be truly born into our hearts, and then through us, into our world.

This Christmas, and for the rest of our lives, let "Joy to the World" be not only a hymn we sing in our hearts and in our churches-- and yes, also in the streets as carolers-- but let it also be our prayer for the world in the midst of its darkness and hopelessness, as it continues its search for true joy and lasting peace. Especially at this time of the year, we recall that salt not only adds flavor to our meals, it also melts ice. Let us be the salt that the Lord calls us to be; salt that will add the taste of hope and joy to the world's blandness, and in doing so, melt those hearts that still remain so cold to His.

...the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity." — Pope John Paul II, WYD Message to Youth, August 2004

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Advent Reflection on the Sabbath Rest

As the Book of Genesis tells us, the Sabbath is what the Creator apportioned to Himself (Gen 2:1-3) after He had called all things into being; after the Lord had created man and then lastly proclaimed to him and to all creatures His provision of food for each of them (Gen 1:29). One might say that the Sabbath is what the Lord “created” after He created; and what He “provided” after providing.

In giving us the Sabbath to observe, the Lord in effect invites us to “taste” or share in what He had first reserved for Himself alone. In this light, the Sabbath rest then becomes something we must do not simply because the Lord commands it, but because it is His greatest gift to us, even greater than the gift of life, as in it we might come to know Him on that day, not as our Creator and Provider, but as He Who Is and Who calls us to Himself.

Observing the Sabbath with the Lord is then an affirmation of our sacred nature, as beings created in the image and likeness of the Creator, as well as of the sacred nature of our work; it is our "Amen" to what the Lord saw when He beheld everything that He had made: that it was all "very good" (Gen 1:31). At the same time, in imitation of the Creator, we must work to ensure that everything we do might also be seen by the Lord as "very good;" that all our days might lead up to, prepare for, and culminate in the great and final Holy Sabbath rest with Him.

Then the King will say to those on His right, "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt 25:34).