What Matters

Monday, Second Week of Advent

Readings

Today’s Gospel is a familiar story. We’ve probably read it and heard it dozens of times. Jesus is teaching to a packed house when four men come carrying their paralyzed friend on a litter because they have heard about Jesus and his power to heal. They can’t get in because there are so many people jammed into the place, so they take to the rooftop, create an alternate entry, and lower their friend down.

All of this is unusual if we think about it. It is certainly not our ordinary experience to see religious teachers packing out a venue. We don’t often see people scampering about in search of miracles. We don’t see people going to such extraordinary lengths to gain access. But all of this pales in comparison to what happens next.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.”

Everybody in the place gasped, “What?” The four friends, the man on the mat, the collected Pharisees and teachers. Everyone was in disbelief at the words Jesus had just spoken. The man and his friends, presumably, thought that their efforts were for naught. They didn’t just cut a hole through the roof for that; they were looking for physical healing. The Pharisees and teachers weren’t even particularly interested in seeing a miracle; they were there for a good theological discussion.

“As for you, your sins are forgiven.”

This is hidden in Isaiah’s prophecy in today’s first reading. “Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” Isaiah goes on to describe the effects of this vindication. He describes it in earthly terms: healing, agricultural abundance, peace, joy.

It is easy for us to get focused on the effects. That is what most in the first century were longing for. A throwing off of Rome, a return to a Davidic kingdom with peace and security for Israel. Abundance and prosperity.

Those are all fine things, but they are secondary. Jesus alone in the Gospel scene recognizes that fact. “As for you, your sins are forgiven.”

Of course being a paralytic isn’t much fun. It’s humiliating to have to rely on others for your every need. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much, however. What does matter is that we have all sinned and been separated from God. We have become unclean and therefore cannot be admitted before one who is absolute purity. We have rebelled and therefore cannot be accepted by the one to whom we owe absolute obedience.

Jesus sees beyond our limited and often trifling desires. “As for you, your sins are forgiven.” Therefore, you are set in right relationship with God the Father. You are clean once again. You can be admitted before the Holy One.

Without that, nothing else really matters. But since they doubted the spiritual healing that had just taken place, Jesus pronounces the trivial as well. “I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”

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Move Out

Saturday First Week of Advent

Readings

Today’s passage is part of the first coming, setting the stage for the next coming, and prefiguring the final coming. These are the three senses of Advent and of our Lord’s coming: first, current, and final.

Jesus had been born and baptized, and in today’s Gospel reading, he was in the midst of ministry. He had 12 disciples and many other followers. This is the first coming. What we commonly call the second coming is pictured in the Isaiah passage; all things being set right and unimaginable abundance prevailing as a sign of God’s blessing.

Then there is the current coming. The individual realization that the Kingdom is at hand; the receiving of the Holy Spirit into individual hearts. This is what Jesus instructs the disciples to proclaim. As proof of their message, they are to heal the sick and cast out unclean spirits.

Christ looks upon the crowds with compassion because he sees their needs. Not just their illnesses and their unpaid bills. Not only strained relationships and limited opportunities. He sees their deep, eternal needs. They are lost and need a shepherd. He is that shepherd, though they don’t realize it. They understand he can heal and cleanse, but that he can set them in right relationship with the Father seems to be beyond their grasp.

He instructs his disciples, “Pray to the Lord of the harvest.” He is pointing to himself.  “Just ask me, and I’ll send you to them.” Which is exactly what he does.

This is not yet the Apostles’ great ministry. They are still in training. They have not yet received the Holy Spirit in full. They are being sent out to act under the authority of Christ. The Spirit will come later, fulfilling the words we read in Isaiah, “While from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: ‘This is the way; walk in it,’ when you would turn to the right or to the left.”

The teacher had come, they were listening, watching, and now they were given a chance to imitate. But this is not just an injunction to the Apostles. Jesus calls all of us to be his disciples. A disciple is just another word for an apprentice, a student. Someone who learns from a master and seeks to imitate their craft and skill.

Without cost we have received, without cost we are to give. The Kingdom of heaven. It is at hand, in stock, available for immediate delivery, no prime membership required.

The teacher appeared. Jesus was among the disciples leading them. Now we are instructed through the Church, through the testimony of the Apostles in the Scriptures, and through the examples of the saints who have gone before us.

The road lies before each one of us. Shall we move forward? Are we in tune to the Spirit so we’ll turn left or right when he prods us? This is our charge in order to be prepared for Christ’s final coming.

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A Tale of Two Women

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary

Readings

Comparing and contrasting Eve and Mary is interesting. In our readings today, we see the stark contrast between the two. Eve shifts blame and shirks responsibility. Mary embraces the call of God. Eve’s reaction to her unexpected visitor, the serpent, marred humanity and the world. Mary’s reaction to Gabriel enabled the most critical event of all history.

Both Eve and Mary were created without sin. Eve came into a sin-free world, whereas Mary was sinless in a sin-saturated world. Eve’s sinlessness made her like the rest of creation. Mary’s sinlessness distinguished her from everyone else. Eve’s act of sin degraded her and everyone else. Mary chose to obey.

God created Eve sinless by default, since he cannot cause sin. He created Mary without sin as an exception. While Eve was truly an act of creation, Mary was born like everyone else, except that she was without sin.

Gabriel did not spend decades appearing to various virgins, being repeatedly rejected. He went to Mary, and Mary alone. There was no reason to visit anyone else. She was the one who had been set aside and prepared.

In contrast to Eve’s, “The serpent tricked me and I ate,” Mary pronounces, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Mary embraces her appointed mission. She has no way to know how it will all play out, but she knows who she is; she is one consecrated to the Lord.

We know very little about Mary outside of Luke’s Gospel, but it makes sense that people would have noticed something different about this Galilean girl. She never did anything wrong. She wasn’t just a teacher’s pet, able to get away with questionable behavior because of her position. On the contrary, humility is Mary’s defining virtue. She would not parade around perfection.

In this season of Advent, which is to focus us on the comings of Christ — past, present, and future — we are given a model in Mary. She knew Messiah was to come; she did not question Gabriel on those points of his proclamation. But she presumably did not know she was to become the Mother of God until Gabriel appeared to her.

When he did, though, she was ready. She had always been “the handmaid of the Lord.” She had dedicated herself to the Lord’s service. This disposition is what enables her to say, “Be it done to me according to your word.” And it is that submission to the Word of the Lord that makes one a handmaid. The two are inseparable.

As we look toward Christ, our only reasonable response is humble submission. We are, after all, sons and daughters of Eve, stained by sin and given to chasing it. But we are also called to become sons and daughters of God. In other words, we are brothers and sisters of Christ, which makes us sons and daughters of Mary.

May we seek to embody and exemplify our adoptive mother’s character.

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Ambrose and Sainthood

Thursday, First Week of Advent

Memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Readings

St. Ambrose is notable in church history. His influence is felt to today. When we say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” we quote him. The context was his discussion of liturgical and devotional practices, which were quite varied in his time.

Reading without moving one’s lips was also first recorded in history, by St. Augustine in his Confessions, as something Ambrose did. At the time and for centuries following, people read out loud even when alone.

Like any good bishop, Ambrose sought to uphold and teach the faith in the face of heresy and apathy. He wrote influential works. He baptized people, including St. Augustine in Milan.

But we remember St. Ambrose primarily because he has “saint” in front of his name. A saint is someone whom the Church has recognized as having outstanding virtue and faith. Someone worthy of emulation. There have been plenty of bishops who have not been so honored. There have been other great teachers who have not been so honored. St. Ambrose is part of an elite group. Currently, there are only 36 Doctors of the Church. All of them saints.

It is unlikely any of us will ever be listed among the Doctors of the Church. We, statistically speaking, will also never be declared saints by the Church. However, we are given a clear path to sainthood by our Lord.

To be a doctor, you must be brilliant. To be a bishop, you have to fulfill certain requirements. To be a saint, all you have to do is follow Jesus’ advice in the Gospel reading.

To slightly paraphrase our Lord, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of heaven, do the will of my Father in heaven.”

We don’t act without faith. We have to believe that our Father has a will for us and that it is worth doing. Then we must act on it. Then, and only then, can we expect to be granted admittance into God’s presence.

As we look at the lives of the saints throughout history, we see that same pattern. Faith leading to action, leading to approval by God. From Abraham to Ambrose to Aquinas and beyond, there is no exception to this pattern. They all were given different challenges and different tasks. But by having the faith to act, they prevailed and were acclaimed as saints.

But how do I know the will of God? That is a good question and there are two answers, because God has a general will for all of us as well as a specific will for each of us as individuals. If we don’t obey the general, we don’t stand much chance of  figuring out the specific.

God’s general will is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we seriously pursue that, his specific will has a way of becoming evident.

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The Feast

Wednesday, First Week of Advent

Readings

The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want. He led his people beside the waters of Galilee and up onto a hill. He cured their diseases and their wounds. The people stayed with him, clung to him, like sheep to a loving shepherd.

Both times Jesus fed a large crowd, it was on a hill where he multiplied bread. Our passage from Isaiah refers to a banquet on a hill with choice wines. Isaiah then goes on to talk about a veil being lifted and a web being destroyed. Most notably he speaks of the defeat of death once and for all. He’s not talking about a picnic by the sea.

The feeding of the crowd is a foreshadowing of the Apostles’ ministry to come.

Isaiah, it seems, is referring to another banquet that happened on a hill just outside of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God for the sins of the world.

Indeed, on that day the veil was lifted, or rather torn in two, from top to bottom in the temple and the holy of holies was exposed for all to see. The Son of God hung naked upon a cross for all to see.

Blood and water flowed. His body, broken for us.

The web was removed; death defeated; tears erased; reproach lifted.

We celebrate and participate in that amazing moment in the Eucharist. The veil is lifted from the paten and chalice and his body and blood are once again exposed for all to see.

Just as the Apostles distributed that which Jesus had multiplied, through them we today still receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Jesus blesses and provides; priests are merely stewards told to distribute what has been put into their charge.

A feast far greater than fish and loaves on a hillside, this one flows through all ages. Instead of satisfying hunger to keep us from fainting, it wipes away our sin to keep us from eternal death.

“Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!
This is the LORD for whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”

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Blessed Eyes

Tuesday, The First Week of Advent

Readings

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” Jesus told his disciples in today’s Gospel. What, precisely, were they seeing?

If we look at the larger context, this exchange occurs as the seventy men Jesus sent out are returning and recounting their successes. We could say that this is a test-run of the plan to have 12 ordinary guys be the founders of the Church. They seem able to get on okay with nothing but the Holy Spirit.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Luke 10:17-20

Jesus is rejoicing that the prophecies we read in Isaiah — prophecies he read — are coming to fruition. Something is afoot. The rebellion is expanding. The powers of darkness are being driven back by this rag-tag group of disciples.

And blessed are their eyes, because they are witnessing it first hand. This is what angels, prophets, and kings longed to see. What a generation in captivity in Babylon longed for. What those around them were praying would come to pass. It was actually happening.

God was made flesh and dwelt among them.

The Holy Spirit was active, more active than anyone had seen in years.

What an awesome time to be alive.

It is easy to get historical envy. Wouldn’t it have been cool to live back then, to see Peter and the apostles with Jesus? Wouldn’t it have been awesome to be in the upper room? To hear Paul preach, to witness the church growing? To be able to seek out a Desert Father? To hear Augustine or Chrysostom preach? We could go on and on, right up to the present day.

And that is precisely my point.

Our eyes, too, are blessed, because they are also seeing what the prophets and kings of old longed to see fulfilled.

But our day? Well, our day is full of trouble and tension, distraction and apathy. It’s really not that inspiring of a time. That has always been the case.

Yet the Holy Spirit still infuses the Church. Individual believers still pray, worship, and serve to the glory of God. Saints are still being made; evil is still being fought.

The way is still stony, uphill, and lined with danger. God is still using ordinary people like you and me, just like he used Peter and Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew,
Thomas, Matthew, James, Jude, Simon, and Judas.

“But I’m no Peter!” you may exclaim. And neither are you a Judas, so take heart. Your eyes are blessed as well. Open them to see God working before, around, and in you. Your name may also be written in heaven.

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Are We There Yet?

Monday, the First Week of Advent

Readings

When we read a prophetic statement in the Scriptures, we must ask: “Did it happen yet?” “Has this been fulfilled?” “Has it been totally fulfilled or just partially fulfilled?” In other words, “Are we there yet?”

It can be hard to know. Isaiah is proclaiming what will become of Judah and Jerusalem. In so doing, he speaks of the elevation of Jerusalem and it becoming a place of pilgrimage and influence. He speaks of the word of the Lord being present in Jerusalem and He judging between the nations — in a foreshadowing of the prologue of the Gospel of John where we equate the Word of the Lord with Jesus incarnate. He speaks of lasting peace and an end to war.

Certainly it seems we are not fully there, and it would be hard to find a time in Israel’s history where this was fulfilled. We could say, though, that perhaps the Church has partially fulfilled this prophecy.

In the Gospel, we encounter an interchange between Jesus and a centurion. In Matthew’s Gospel, this account comes swift on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount. His disciples are presumably following him as he walks into Capernaum and encounters this soldier.

The disciples, if they are behaving the way we witness them acting in other passages, are at least pondering the Lord’s teaching of the previous verses, if not actively discussing it. They may even be asking, “Are we there yet?” How much farther do we have to go to attain to the teaching we just heard?

In the midst of this, a Roman soldier approaches Jesus. That’s enough to divert your attention, just like seeing a police car behind you in traffic. You get a bit self-conscious, even if you’re not doing anything wrong.

“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”

Jesus replies, “I will come and cure him.”

Already this is a remarkable interchange. The centurion merely relayed the situation, he made no explicit request. But Jesus understood the intent and the need and responded with a promise to fix it.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, only say the word and my servant will be healed….”

And we know what happened. Jesus was amazed.

He said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

With no one in Israel. That includes you, disciples. No, you are not there yet.

The centurion models for us humility, “Lord, I am not worthy….”

And he models faith, “…only say the word….”

Both in simple, yet profound statements which were delivered with sincerity and no presumption or posturing.

When we are tempted to try to gauge ourselves, asking, “Are we there yet?” may we be reminded by the witness of the centurion that the answer is, “No.”

May we look to his witness as a model to aspire to.

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