Baptism of the Lord, Cycle B

Today is the end of the Christmas season. God himself is celebrating what is taking place in the Gospel: the Baptism of his Son in the river Jordan at the hands of St. John the Baptist.

In the First Reading, God speaks of Jesus as his servant who is about to begin something wonderful: his public life. He’s going to bring justice to the world, be a light for the nations, open the eyes of the blind, and free prisoners. God is keeping his promise through Jesus’ mission on earth: God is sending out the Savior today to get to work. During Christmas we celebrated the birth of the Savior. On today’s feast, the Baptism of the Lord, we’re celebrating him finishing his silent years in Nazareth and going out to preach salvation to the world.

In the Second Reading St. Peter rejoices that salvation is not just for the people of Israel, but for everyone who respects God and acts uprightly. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, he institutes a new kind of baptism. John talks about that baptism in the Gospel today as different from his: it is a baptism of the Holy Spirit. St. Peter in the Second Reading is speaking to Cornelius, who was the first non-Jew to be baptized in the history of the Church. The Jews thought originally that the Savior would only come for the Jews. But then the Holy Spirit revealed to Peter and the Church through Cornelius’ situation that the Savior was coming for everyone who feared God (respected God) and acted uprightly (acted in a good way).

The Holy Spirit always works little by little. Cornelius had heard about Jesus and his promise of salvation, and had been praying for a sign. Peter was praying too, and they didn’t know each other at all. Then an angel came to Cornelius and told him to send men to find and bring Peter. Cornelius was a Roman centurion, and since he wasn’t a Jew, Peter wouldn’t have visited him unless the Holy Spirit had said it was okay in a dream, since the Jews didn’t enter the houses of non-Jews. As Peter rejoices that the Savior has come for everyone, he recalls Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan as the beginning of doing good and healing all those who were oppressed by the devil.

So we celebrate today with God, with Peter, with Cornelius, and with everyone who has become Christian since. We celebrate that Jesus began to go out and do good, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and free those who are imprisoned by sin.

So as we begin a new year, and the Christmas season draws to an end, Jesus’ private and public life show us it is time for us to get to work as well. In the Christmas season we’ve spent more time at home, resting, being with family and friends, receiving so many gifts, and getting ready to live the New Year better. It’s not a time for gloom and doom as we return to work, to school, to the daily grind: it’s time to show Our Lord we appreciate all He’s given us over the last year, and all He’s given us during the Christmas season. It’s time for us to get to work and get the word out about salvation. Cornelius heard about salvation from someone, long before he met St. Peter, and there are lots of Cornelius’ out there who are looking for what our faith has to offer. They are hungry for God.

Let’s thank Our Lord for the Christmas Season and the New Year that has just begun. Let’s keep moving forward on those New Year’s resolutions as a way to show gratitude to Our Lord for all the blessings He has poured out on us. Let’s pray for those who are suffering from hunger and war, so that they too can be blessed. Let’s pray for all those Cornelius’ out there to find and love God, to do good, and to find salvation.

Readings: Isaiah 42:1–4, 6–7; Acts 10:34-38; Mark 1:7–11.

1st Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

Today we reset the narrative that we follow throughout the liturgical year and begin the first liturgical season of a new liturgical year: Advent. Today’s readings help us to set the right tone for this season.

In today’s First Reading Isaiah articulates the feeling of abandonment to sin on the part of Israel, unfaithful and fallen, and a desire that the Lord return to them and set things aright, no matter what the consequences. Israel, through Isaiah’s lips, is tired of the long, lonely night of sin. They’ve turned from the Lord’s path and not heeded him as they should. The Lord has rescued them many times, and, even now, they call upon him as their “redeemer” hoping he will work similar wonders for them as he did for their forefathers.

They also acknowledge that the Lord will redeem them if he comes and finds them striving to change; the redeemer responds to our efforts at righteousness. Those who are indifferent to the Lord and his ways will never find them, but Israel today shows regret for what it has done or failed to do.

Advent is a time for us to regret one of the big reasons for Our Lord’s First Coming at Christmas: our sins and his desire to redeem us from them. It commemorates the time of penance before the coming of Christ when man was lost and fallen, so that when our Redeemer comes we welcome him with even more joyous expectation.

In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that with the coming of Christ the lament of Isaiah in the First Reading has been heard. Christ has come and redeemed us, and now, this Advent, we await him to come again at Bethlehem. Paul reminds us of all the spiritual gifts Our Lord has showered upon us thanks to his First Coming.

We live Advent already redeemed. We know how the story ends, even though with the Advent season we return to the first part of the narrative when Fallen man was lost in sin and without hope. Paul today may be speaking of the Second Coming, but his words remind us that every Advent season is an opportunity for Our Lord to come into our hearts and reveal himself in a special way, building on the spiritual gifts we’ve already received.

Advent, in expectation for Christmas, should not be lived in a spirit of “what have you given me lately?”, but, rather, recalling all that Our Lord has given us, along with the hope that he will continue to lavish his spiritual gifts on us.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord establishes the tone for Advent, even though he is speaking of the Second Coming: vigilant expectation. The Lord first came in a way that nobody expected. Isaiah today was hoping the Lord would come and make mountains quake, but Our Lord was born a little baby in a cave instead, hidden to most of the world. A lot of knowledgeable people in the Lord’s time were clueless about the time and way in which he was coming. It reminds us that many times God is not someone we figure out, but Someone who reveals himself to us.

We know how the story ends, so there is no spoiler alert needed, but every liturgical season presents us with an opportunity to keep our eyes open so that we recognize when the Lord sends some special insight or grace our way. In a conversation where we get distracted we sometimes miss something the other person was saying. Advent is a moment for giving the Lord our undivided attention so he can guide us to a better life. He wants to have a conversation with us this season.

Don’t skip Advent. Everyone faces the temptation of fast forwarding their attention and concern to Christmas, and many times that takes them off track, focusing on shopping and family logistics instead of the Reason for the Season. Advent is an opportunity for each of us to meditate on the Reason for the Season and help others to do so as well (hint: the Reason is not presents, despite what your children tell you). It is a time for reflecting on our sins and asking Our Lord to continue to redeem us from them.

If there’s some point of spiritual growth with which we are really struggling, Advent is a time not only to work on it, but to pray unceasingly for the Lord’s help in overcoming it. If we’ve become estranged from someone we love (or loved) we can ask Our Lord to help us to become reconciled. Shopping and family logistics are a reality of this season, but they also provide a spiritual opportunity to go out of our way for others. All the organizing, planning, budgeting, wrapping, etc. is to express your love for someone, and in loving others you love Christ. Don’t forget to include something for someone who may have no one to love them.

Readings: Isaiah 63:16b–17, 19b, 64:2–7; Psalm 80:2–3, 15–16, 18–19;1 Corinthians 1:3–9; Mark 13:33–37.

1st Sunday of Lent, Cycle A

Today’s readings remind us that one of the greatest blessings we’ve received from God is the power to decide, and also the responsibility of being able to decide. We’re free to choose, but that also means we’re free to choose something bad. Lent is a time when we remember and repent for the horrible choices we’ve made personally and as God’s people, and today’s readings show us how we go into these messes and how we can get out of them.

Today’s First Reading reminds us how temptation works, and that we have to take responsibility for our actions, because “the Devil made me do it” and “I didn’t know any better” are so often old, tired, and specious arguments. Adam and Eve had life breathed into them by God himself. We came from dust, which is why every Ash Wednesday one of the formulas for administering the ashes is “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” God created paradise for Adam and Eve, and he also created limits. These limits were for their own good. They could eat the fruit (freedom), but they didn’t think of whether they should eat the fruit (consequences). All the serpent had to do was sow doubt about whether God really had their best interest in mind. Eve considered her options and ate; Adam just seems to follow her lead, and the deed is done.

In today’s Second Reading Paul reminds us that Adam’s decision, as the head of humanity, had consequences, and so does the New Adam’s (Our Lord). Adam, as the head of humanity, was entrusted with its wellbeing throughout the generations. He sinned and lost it all, just like a gambler squandering his family’s livelihood and going bust. One of his sons murders the other out of envy, and death enters into the world, showing the effects of sin. That Original Sin of Adam ushered in death for us all. That is the power and consequence of making decisions. Eve soon led Adam to sin: sin never stays at home, it spreads, just like the consequences of Original Sin spread throughout history, and death reminds us of sin and its consequences.

Yet this power of decision has an even greater potential for good than for evil. Christ, the New Adam, ushers life back into humanity through his good decision. Christ, by becoming man, became the new head of humanity, since he was its greatest example (and still is). He decided to lay down his life out of love for the Father and for us, and through his decision he conquered sin and death for us all.

In today’s Gospel the garden of temptation has been replaced, ages later, as a desert of temptation. Our Lord fasts and prays before beginning his public ministry, and, like all of us, he too has to face temptation in making the right decisions. He does so to teach us how we can face and overcome temptations in order to decide well. The devil tempts him to turn stones to bread in order to satisfy his hunger. Eve saw the forbidden fruit as good for food. Jesus could turn that stone to bread in a snap. But he replies: “One does not live on bread alone.” There are more important things to life than just filling your stomach. These stones being stones, and Jesus being hungry are all part of God’s plan, all part of God’s will. God’s will for us and for others should always shape our decisions.

Since the devil saw that Jesus was a scriptural man, he tried to use some scripture of his own. He took him to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem. The devil insisted that Jesus demand proof of God’s protection, and he had the gall to back it up with Bible verses.We need to have faith in God to make good decisions. Scripture helps us to know his will, not just justify our actions. We can try to make a Biblical case, but it is God who justifies or condemns our actions, not us.

Eve saw that the fruit was good for wisdom, for a knowledge that would make her like God. The devil showed Jesus in an instant all the kingdoms of the world, and all Jesus had to do was grovel at his feet. He offered Jesus everything except the one thing the devil wouldn’t give up: being number one. Jesus stayed focused on who was really number one: his Heavenly Father and the mission he had received —“The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Serving God should always shape our decisions. If he is not in first place, our decisions will take a bad turn.

As we head into the desert with Our Lord this Lent, let’s ask him to help us to identify and resist the temptation in our lives right now.

Readings: Genesis 2:7–9, 3:1–7; Psalm 51:3–6, 12–13, 17; Romans 5:12–19; Matthew 4:1–11.

1st Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday, Year I

In today’s First Reading the Letter to the Hebrews describes the word of God as being like a two-edged sword, a sword that has the edges and finesse to get to the vital spots of its opponent. Yet this “sword” goes even deeper: it can pierce even the spirit and the soul, leaving its adversary (an obstinate soul) defenseless and exposed. Depending on your state of soul the word of God may feel like jabbing an already raw wound or exposed nerve, but, as Our Lord describes in today’s Gospel, he is trying to perform surgery, which requires pain, a pain with the goal of healing a greater wound.

In today’s Gospel the word of the Our Lord strikes to the heart of Levi (St. Matthew) as he sits at his post, collecting customs, and simply says, “follow me.” Levi does it without question; following Our Lord is the answer to what he has been seeking in life, and what he thinks his friends and acquaintances have been seeking as well, which is why he invites them to dine with the man who has given newfound meaning to his life. The scribes who criticize Our Lord for associating with tax collectors and sinners are also disarmed by the words of Our Lord in a master stroke: do not the sick, even the spiritually sick, need a physician? In a few words he changes our attitude regarding sinners: from condemned to wounded in need of our compassion and care.

The word of God has something to say every time we listen to it. Let’s allow the physician to perform his surgery on our souls today. If he has to cut deep we know it is with greater healing in mind.

Readings: Hebrews 4:12–16; Psalm 19:8–10, 15; Mark 2:13–17. See also Saturday after Ash Wednesday and St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist.

1st Week in Ordinary Time, Friday, Year I

In today’s First Reading the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us something not evident in moments of difficulty and trial: faith leads to rest and relief. Continuing yesterday‘s discussion of why the Israelites were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years after squandering an opportunity to enter the Promised Land, the Letter explains that it was their lack of faith that doomed the first generation of unbelieving Israelites. Many people draw solace from their faith, but others see faith as only making their life harder and riskier.

The paralytic in today’s Gospel had friends who thought outside the box due to their faith. They saw an opportunity for their friend’s healing in Our Lord, and they didn’t let conventional means get in their way. The paralytic had to have faith in his friends to be lowered from the roof, and Our Lord acknowledged his faith. Through his faith he received relief from his condition. We may not always see miracles, but our faith can make our life take unexpected directions and grant us the solace and relief we need when facing life’s challenges.

Ask Our Lord today to help you believe “out of the box” and see where life takes you.

Readings: Hebrews 4:1–5, 11; Psalm 78:3, 4bc, 6c–8; Mark 2:1–12. See also 2nd Week of Advent, Monday and 13th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday.