4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle A (2)

As the saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn, but the dawn also represents the light growing brighter and brighter. This Sunday the light of the Advent wreath is full because we are close to the dawn of our salvation: the birth of Our Lord. God will soon visibly be with us after nine months in his mother’s womb. In today’s readings we see how people welcome the news, for good or ill, and we can ask ourselves how we receive the news.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah makes a prophecy that a a virgin will conceive and bear a son named Emmanuel (“God is with us”). The Lord asked King Ahaz through Isaiah to ask for a sign, and Ahaz disobeyed: he obviously didn’t believe the Lord was speaking through Isaiah, or maybe he didn’t want to listen to the Lord at all. The Lord communicates at times whether you want him to or not: in this case, he prophesied the birth of the Messiah. Ahaz was already not listening well to the Lord, so the prophecy didn’t mean much to him, but it meant a lot to us. Eventually things did not work out well for Ahaz, but things worked out great for us: the Lord was born.

In today’s Second Reading Paul reminds us that the prophets promised the Gospel that we would receive from Our Lord, along with the mission to share that Gospel with everyone. In Advent we remember the Word of God is not just a message. He is a Person, the Son of God. We’re preparing to receive Our Lord in less than a week, but we are also called to share that news with others. The Word is coming in Person to put something into action: the work of redemption and our mission as apostles to put that Word into action for the benefit of others as well.

Matthew in today’s Gospel shows the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus, but also the source of Joseph’s confusion and dilemma: Mary’s fidelity to the marriage agreement their families had already made was called into question. Joseph knew he was not Jesus’ biological father, and that apparently meant adultery on Mary’s part, calling for action to be taken. The Law was clear on how adulteresses should be treated, but somehow Joseph knew in his heart that he should not expose Mary to the cold brutality that the Law prescribed (adulteresses were shunned and even stoned). He had a dilemma in his heart, and he felt obliged to opt for the Law, but in the most compassionate manner possible: a parting of ways with Mary through a quiet divorce.

The Lord resorted to a channel of communication that hearkened back to the age of the Patriarchs: a dream. Joseph had already intuited in his heart that the raw Law was not the answer, but he hadn’t felt he could go beyond it, just temper it with forgiveness and compassion. In the dream the angel communicated to him that the Holy Spirit was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and that Jesus would be the Messiah. Joseph obeyed and welcomed not only Mary and Jesus into his home, but into the House of David.

If it seems sometimes that God has to resort to a back channel to communicate with us, to lower our resistance in order to speak to us, we must remember that the most fundamental means of communication is love. Love doesn’t discard justice; rather, it tempers it and permits space for mercy and compassion. When we don’t understand what Our Lord is asking from us, or why he may have permitted a troubling situation, let’s strive to respond with the same fairness and compassion as St. Joseph. The Lord will make sure his message gets through to us somehow.

If Our Lord did not temper his justice with love, he would have left us forever in the darkness of our sins. It was love that made him become flesh and dwell among us to redeem us from our sins and bring joy back to hopeless lives. Sometimes we can be so “fair” that we end up being harsh. With the quiet gentleness of a newborn baby the Lord is about to teach us at Christmas that mercy shows love is greater than justice. If you to dispense any justice this week, make an extra effort to temper it with love. It’ll make you more merciful.

Readings: Isaiah 7:10–14; Psalm 24:1–6; Romans 1:1–7; Matthew 1:18–24. See also 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle ASaint Joseph, Husband of MaryAdvent, December 18th, and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C

In today’s readings we see the word of God is addressed to all, and it is a call to gather around Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, so that he can lead us, care for us, and take us to Heaven.

In today’s First Reading Paul and Barnabas try to share the word of God counting on the home field advantage: preaching to their fellow Jews. The initial results were very encouraging, but then the competition got jealous and got political. Paul is not one to be intimidated, and told them it was their loss, not his. They were rejecting the word of God. The loss of some jealous Jews became the Gentile’s gain. They had been seen as second class in comparison to God’s chosen people, but now they found that they too could hear and benefit from the word of God. The whole region benefitted from Paul and Barnabas’ ministry until political machinations made it too difficult for them to work. Our Lord had taught his disciples to shake the dust of a town that rejected him of their feet, and Paul and Barnabas did, moving on to another town. Despite these setbacks, the word was out: the word of God, the good news of salvation, was destined for all, not just the Jews.

In today’s Second Reading the apostle John describes a vision he had of the saints in Heaven gathered around Our Lord. He paints the scene using symbols. The saints are a multitude that “no one can count.” They are there because the Lamb made them able to stand before his throne, the throne of God, through his sacrifice. The washing white of their robes refers to the salvation they received from the blood of Christ, the Lamb on the throne. The white robes represent the newness of life the saints received through Baptism, and their palm branches are a sign of their ultimate victory: perseverance in the faith.

The elders, twenty-four in all, represent the Apostles and the Patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Lamb does not just reign over them. He “shepherds” them, which goes beyond leadership and includes sheltering and caring for them forever. This is the point of arrival hoped for by everyone who hears the word of God and heeds it: gathered around the Lamb who has led them there, rejoicing together forever.

The Lord, as he explains so poignantly in today’s Gospel, has always seen his mission as a pastoral one, which is why we speak today of pastors and pastoral work. He is the Good Shepherd. As the Second Reading evoked today, the Lord wants to shepherd us toward the greenest of pastures: Heaven. He leads us back to the Heavenly Father. With Our Lord as our Shepherd we have nothing to fear, either now or in eternity, if we let him shepherd us. The word of God, addressed to all in today’s First Reading, is the call to gather into the one flock, Our Lord’s, to let him shepherd us and lead us to eternal life.

We hear the written word of God in every celebration of the Eucharist. Hopefully, we all have a copy of the Bible and it is not gathering dust in some forgotten corner of our home. If we’re exposed to any Christian culture at all we can say we hear the word of God, but do we listen to it? A good Easter resolution (since Lent is over) is to start meditating on the word of God and seeing how it shapes our lives. Commentaries and homilies on the Sunday readings are plentiful. Choose a source that strikes a chord in you. Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal exhortation on the Word of God, Verbum Domini, describes a classic technique for meditating on God’s word: lectio divina (nn. 86-87). Try it.

Readings: Acts 13:14, 43–52; Psalm 100:1–3, 5; Revelation 7:9, 14b–17; John 10:27–30.

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (2)

Today’s readings remind us that truth and love go hand in hand, and that can sometimes call for a strong love. A weak love fades when things get tough and proves itself to not be love at all.

In the today’s First Reading Jeremiah receives a mission to be a bearer of a message to his own people that they don’t want to hear: an unpleasant truth regarding their immediate political future and military fortunes. Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritatem (Charity in Truth) taught “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are … exacting and indispensable forms of charity” (n.1). The Lord encouraged Jeremiah to not to be discouraged and to be firm in proclaiming the truth. Before Jeremiah was even formed in his mother’s womb the Lord had planned for him to be a prophet testifying to the truth. The Kingdom of Judah, due to its infidelities, was going to be conquered by the Babylonians, and Jeremiah was told to deliver that message and to have Judah surrender so that their punishment is more lenient due to their repentance. It wasn’t just his opinion: it was the Lord’s will. Due to his message he was imprisoned, branded a traitor, and threatened with death multiple times. In the end Babylon conquered Judah and suffered all the more for it. It was not just a political and military mistake, but also a turning away from the Lord’s will for them that resulted in their defeat and exile. He wanted them to embrace a hard truth, but they didn’t love him enough to trust him.

In the today’s Second Reading Paul describes love as something that can withstand a lot of punishment. When it doesn’t, there’s a problem. Jeremiah loved the Lord and he loved Judah: the Lord was administering tough love to an obstinate people, and Jeremiah needed to be the messenger of that tough love, despite the hatred he received from his people as a result. A prophet is a spokesperson of the Holy Spirit, an eminently charismatic mission, so it’s no wonder that Paul speaks of the most important spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit: charity. Charity is a theological virtue that the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts at Baptism and that grows throughout our life if with practice it and ask the Holy Spirit to help us with his grace. Other charismatic gifts and virtues are only revealed to be gifts from the Holy Spirit if the gift of charity underlies them all. True charity is tough enough to withstand adversity because superficial sentimentality often masquerades as charity until the going gets tough and instead of love we based our actions and attitudes on passing and voluble feelings.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord probably had Jeremiah’s mission in mind when he said a prophet was without honor in his own country. Our Lord’s childhood friends and loved ones wanted a stage show, not the truth. Like Judah in Jeremiah’s time, they expected a miracle from the Lord that they didn’t deserve. They considered themselves entitled to it. When Jesus’ love gets tough, by drawing from examples of the Lord withholding his favor toward a stubborn and unfaithful people, his former neighbors show the superficiality of their love, but Jesus’ doesn’t diminish a bit. He is telling them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. They loved the thought of what Our Lord could do for them, not him, and went from speaking highly of him to trying to toss him off a cliff.

Any truth is easier to accept if it is communicated in love. Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritatem (Charity in Truth) taught “All people feel the interior impulse to love authentically: love and truth never abandon them completely, because these are the vocation planted by God in the heart and mind of every human person” (n.1). Today’s readings speak to those on both sides of the conversation: those trying to communicate a hard truth to those they love, and those who spurn that hard truth. Let’s pray to be strong in truth and love when we’re called to share it with those we love. Let’s also accept with humility and love those messengers who help us try to see the truth more clearly as well.

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4–5, 17–19; Psalm 71:1–6, 15, 17; 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13; Luke 4:21–30.See also 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C,  14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B17th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday22nd Week in Ordinary Time, Monday, and Thursday after Epiphany.

4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle C (2)

The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s readings remind us that the pregnant pause of Advent, soon concluding, is a time to renew and rejoice in the promises of the Lord, promises we start to see fulfilled in Our Savior’s birth.

In today’s First Reading Micah reminds us that the fulfillment of the promise starts humble and small, but will grow to something great, lasting, and wonderful: peace to all of good will. Like King David, the Messiah would not be born in royal Jerusalem, but in the little town of Bethlehem, a humble beginning. Yet his origin is from “ancient times”: from eternity is about as old as you can get. The Lord’s plans for Israel and the eternity of the Son are both ancient and mysterious.

The return of his “kindred” to the children of Israel alludes to all of humanity benefitting from his rule, not just Israel. He will rule with the authority and strength of the Lord, with the goal of establishing a lasting kingdom characterized by peace for all. After Micah’s prophecy and the last prophets Israel experienced a “pregnant” pause. The prophets fell silent. There was Messianic expectation, but nothing seemed to happen for a long time. Like a child in the womb something beautiful was gestating. Advent also represents this pregnant pause. Just as a child takes ninth months to form in the womb, these weeks of Advent, now drawing to a close, let something worthy of our hope form as well.

In today’s Second Reading the Letter to the Hebrews explains why Our Lord came. We sacrifice to please the Lord but sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake is not everything. If you’re divine like the Son, assuming a human nature and living a human life is a sacrifice. Imagine giving up Heaven for an earthly life. The Father wanted someone to sacrifice himself for our redemption, and the Son did so, knowing and wanting the will of the Father. Sacrifices are often external to us, so we always run the risk of disconnecting our hearts from what we’re doing. We lose sight of why we’re sacrificing something. The Incarnation and Nativity teach us that the Son, in assuming human nature and being born of Mary, went “all in” in terms of sacrifice. He began a human life to give it all for us and for his Father.

In today’s Gospel Mary had just given her fiat (accepting her vocation to be the Mother of God) and she has hurried to help her cousin Elizabeth who is well along in her miraculous pregnancy. Like Mother, like Son, Mary sought to do the Father’s will too. After the centuries of pregnant pause announced by Micah something was starting to happen.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that life starts in the womb, not on our birthday, as any mother who feels her child growing and kicking in the womb will tell you. John starts “prophesying” (probably with his feet) knowing the Lord is near. Elizabeth is also privileged with a spiritual insight into what is happening: she knows Mary is bearing the “Lord” her womb. She also knows the source of Mary’s blessing: her faith in the Lord’s promises. As Advent concludes we are blessed to the degree that we believe the Lord’s promise will be fulfilled. We’ll end Advent with a little baby in a manger being born, but we believe he will grow one day to redeem us and shepherd us and everyone we love who welcomes him to a lasting peace.

One of the titles of Our Lord, very appropriate in the light of Micah’s prophesy today, is Prince of Peace (cf. Isaiah 9:6). The Prince of Peace is about to be born to shepherd in a lasting peace. We don’t have to wait. Advent is a season of penance and reconciliation, a time where we make peace with the Lord, and we make an extra effort to make peace with one another. If you are feuding with anyone, now is the time to offer the olive branch to welcome the Prince of Peace.

Readings: Micah 5:1–4a; Psalm 80:2–3, 15–16, 18–19; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–45. See also 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle C.

4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B

In today’s readings we see Our Lord described as the cornerstone on which the Church is built, the big brother who always watches out for us, and the Good Shepherd who not only was willing to lay his life down for us, but did. The common denominator of all these images is the charity of Our Lord and the important of building our own lives on that charity.

In today’s Gospel we see the concern Our Lord has for every soul, a concern he describes as like a shepherd toward his sheep. Throughout Church history this has been seen as “pastoral” concern for others, and in today’s First Reading we see the Good Shepherd has entrusted his sheep to Peter and the Apostles without relinquishing them so that their pastoral needs can continue to be met. Peter has made a great commotion in healing a crippled man who begged at one of the entrances to the Temple area for a long time. However, he does not take credit for it: he did it in the name of Jesus.

Just as Our Lord worked signs for the sake of the Gospel Peter has received the power and the authority to preach in the Lord’s name. Peter speaks today of Our Lord as the cornerstone: a stone essential to maintaining the stability of a structure. A sheep cannot take the place of a shepherd, which is why Our Lord remains the Good Shepherd, the key to pastorally caring for us, his sheep. The foundation of our pastoral well-being is his death and resurrection, and it continues to be so.

In today’s Second Reading we’re reminded that Our Lord laid down his life so that we could become not only his property, but his adopted brothers and sisters. In the Old Testament a treasured lamb is described as being like a daughter to her owner (cf. 2 Samuel 12:3), but John reminds us that God is not just our Father metaphorically. Our adoption as sons and daughters is thanks to the Son, our big brother. Just as he shows and ensures a pastoral concern for us, he also watches over us like a big brother should. As children of God the Father we should also respect and cherish God Our Big Brother who made it all possible.

Our Lord describes himself in today’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd cares so much for his sheep that he is willing to lay down his life for them. A person hired to do such a job would just say “this is not in my contract” and abandon them. Even the owner of the sheep might write them off as a wolf drew close, thinking to himself, “I’m insured,” or “I’ll just need to write this off as a loss on my tax returns.” The Good Shepherd shares his life with his sheep. He’s not indifferent to their trials and sufferings, so he’s not indifferent to their death. He’d rather die first. That attitude goes beyond just business or even obligation: Jesus says he willingly lays down his life for us, his sheep. He cares about each one of us.

Our Lord is not just willing to lay down his life for us. He did. Let’s try to show our gratitude today by letting him lead us in humility wherever he wants to lead us, knowing it’ll always be toward more verdant pastures.

Readings: Acts 4:8–12; Psalm 118:8–9, 21–23, 26, 28–29; 1 John 3:1–2; John 10:11–18. See also 4th Sunday of Easter.