Quiet Anna

30 December

Readings

Anna is easy to just pass over. Simeon immediately precedes her and gives us the Nunc Dimittis which we recite every evening during Compline. But Anna, as far as we are concerned, is mute.

In today’s Gospel, we learn a bit about her lineage. She is of the tribe of Asher and her father was Phanuel, which means “face of God.”  She was widowed when still a young woman, being married only 7 years before her husband died. She spent the rest of her life in the temple, about 60 years by the time we meet her.

Joseph and Mary come to the temple to present their offering and while they are there, Anna comes forward at that very time and gives thanks to God.

That may be Anna’s lesson for us. If we zoom out and consider the temple, we see a busy place with people coming to offer sacrifices and pray. It was a gathering place, so those seeking disciples for their cause would be present to teach or debate. We know that merchants took the opportunity to sell their wares in the courts as well: animals for offerings and money exchange so the temple tax could be paid in the proper currency.

In the midst of this hustle and bustle of another day in the temple, a family comes with their firstborn for the offering. But this one is different. The very presence of God has just been carried into the temple by this Galilean couple. The actual body and blood of the Lord, the one who was to be the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, is in the midst of the temple. And no one notices except Simeon and Anna.

How does Anna know?

Sixty years of prayer and fasting didn’t hurt anything.

We don’t know a word that Anna said, but we know that she acknowledged Christ. Her reward, at least in part, is a cameo in sacred scripture.

Simeon is pretty straightforward; he says words and we can try to understand them. Anna is a bit of a mystery; she just is. We have to observe and that takes time. We do not have any sound bites to quickly decide if we like her or not.

For me at least, the lesson of Anna today is to remind me to be humble and come to Scripture to learn. We cannot always learn in a hurry. Sometimes we must be willing to sit, listen, and ponder.

The hustle and bustle of the holidays is assumed, and most of us live with a certain amount of frenzy every day. We do well to run into a quiet Anna who doesn’t play our fast paced games. The way to learn from her is imitation. Fast and pray. Sit and ponder. Maybe for sixty years. When reading scripture, ask God, “What are you trying to tell me?” instead of asking myself, “What can I say about this?”

Anna, be patient with us, that we may learn your patience.

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According to the Law

29 December

Readings

We see Mary and Joseph expressing their love of God, according to our first reading, by keeping his commandments. In Leviticus 12, we find instructions for women after childbirth. Since most people don’t read Leviticus often enough, I’ll quote the entire passage here:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

Leviticus 12:1-8

What does this tell us? It reveals that Jesus had already been circumcised on the eighth day and that the events in today’s Gospel reading happened 40 days after Jesus was born. There was no explicit requirement for this purification to take place at the temple. However, since Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, why not?

We can also surmise that the Magi had not yet visited. How do we arrive at that? By the offering they make; no lamb is sacrificed. Joseph and Mary make the offering for those who cannot afford a lamb. Presumably, if they had already received gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they would have sprung for the lamb.

We also see obedience and humility, two virtues that cannot exist in isolation from each other. Joseph and Mary are obedient to the Law. And they are humble in their obedience. They don’t claim any privilege or do anything showy because they happen to have the Messiah in their arms. Simeon calls attention to them and their son, but they do not.

Our lesson from all this? Loving God is most often demonstrated in the mundane, routine acts of our days and years, even for Joseph and Mary. They attended when they were to attend and they gave what they were to give. Humility and obedience.

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.

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.

Well Done

If you haven’t seen Mandy Harvey’s audition on America’s Got Talent (or even if you have), take a moment to watch this video. I’ve watched it about a dozen times in the last month and I get teary eyed every single time.

Let’s clear up a few things. First, she’s been working at singing while deaf for 10 years. She has 3 albums already, singing mostly jazz standards. She tours. She has also performed for various Christian and charity events and causes. She didn’t just decide, “Well, I’m deaf. I guess I’ll go try to sing on AGT today.” To get where she is, she worked hard before she lost her hearing, and she works hard now. She’s not “just” deaf (as if…); her connective tissue disorder affects her every day.

And yet, it’s a beautiful story and a great song. It’s not a story unrelated to what she’s doing on stage. Her being on stage is completely related to, and in defiance of, her deafness.

I really like how unassuming she is. I’m touched by how she gets choked up when everyone stands on their feet halfway through her song and she starts singing with her eyes closed so she can finish.

In a small way, I identify with her story. I was up to my neck in music in high school and had thoughts of studying music in college. Like her, it was a music theory class that crushed that dream. I didn’t sing; I played various woodwind instruments. But to really do music, to do music theory, you need to be able to sing, at least a bit.

I remember standing next to the upright piano in the music room while Dr. Montgomery played intervals. I was supposed to sing them back to him as part of a test. Thankfully, no one else was in the room. I couldn’t do it. Apparently I don’t hear music like most people hear music. I’m tone deaf.

There in about 10 minutes, my ideas about what I might do with music pretty well ended. My life took a different path, and with the perspective of almost 30 years, I can see how it was a good thing for my character. If I had been musically gifted, I could easily have become a prideful, insufferable jerk.

I still enjoy music. I still sing in the car when I’m by myself. But it’s just for me. I sometimes wonder what music sounds like to other people.

I also like Mandy’s video because it touches something else. We get to witness her being totally affirmed for a few brief moments. All of her years of hard work are recognized in a few glimmering moments. Those moments are rare in our lives. Even rarer is one so public as this.

I suppose I’ve had a few I can look back on. Two sermons come to mind (out of hundreds I’ve given). One blog post. Nowhere near a golden buzzer, but some genuine affirmation. It felt good. It was encouraging, but it was fleeting. No high lasts for very long.

I think we enjoy these kinds of moments, even vicariously, because they touch something even deeper within us. We are made to be part of something big. We are made to be God’s people and to have him be our God. As awesome as the golden confetti must be for those rare few on America’s Got Talent, how much more so if we hear our Lord say, “Well done.” That is worth striving for above any accolades we can earn from each other.

I’m Stuffed

No more for me, thanks!

Independence Day affords us a long weekend. A chance to relax, enjoy family, and eat. I try to watch what I eat, to not over-eat, and to not eat too much of certain things that I know I’ll regret the next day. But food isn’t all that important. Jesus instructed the crowds, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles man.” (Matthew 15:11)

Psalm 123 is a short “song of ascents.” Praying the last two verses today clarified a thought that had been slowly forming in my mind concerning them.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease,
the contempt of the proud.

Psalm 123:3-4 (RSV)

For years I read these verses along the lines of, “Have mercy on us because of all those nasty, proud people out there.” I still think this is a reasonable reading of the passage. But I think one more applicable to my life (and maybe yours) is also present.

I have had more than enough contempt in my soul. Contempt for those different than me. Contempt for those whom I deem less able than me. Contempt for those who injure my pride.

Too long has my soul been satisfied being at ease. Too long have I been willing to kick my feet up and coast. Too long have I not given my Lord the attention and obedience he deserves. (See verses one and two of the Psalm for what that should look like.)

Too long have I harbored the contempt of the proud. Too long have I launched scorn either silently or aloud at others.

Have mercy upon me Lord, have mercy.

May I not be filled with scorn, contempt, ease, and pride. When I am, I know that I will regret being so stuffed, either in this life or in the judgment to come.

I offer thee, O my God, all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions of this day. Grant that they may be thoughts of humility, words of humility, and actions of humility — all to Thy glory.

Fr. Cajetan, Humility of Heart

Longing for Singularity

As someone who makes a living as a “provider of religious services” in a “pluralistic environment,” I am tired. The cost of admission to work in this context seems too high. I am tired of freedom, though this has little to do with current social issues regarding homosexuality and transgenderism.

The problem starts with what seems like a good idea. We gather a bunch of pastors / priests / rabbis / imams / etc. to provide religious support to a diverse population made up of all sorts of different religious adherents. In order to serve them all, we provide for their religious preferences. That is where this starts to unravel. Religion is reduced to a preference. Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, manual or automatic, Seahawks or Packers. Those are preferences. Choosing any one of those has no lasting impact.

If the claims of any one religion are true, however, then logically, at least some of the others must be false. Furthermore, if the claims of a religion are true, then to choose any other religion has dire eternal consequences. This is error of the most serious sort. I could have wrongly learned, “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” and miss a point on a history exam or in Trivial Pursuit, but to get God wrong is a very grave error.

In our pluralistic environment where we are to “cooperate without compromise,” I find that we are forced to act as if religion is merely a preference. We can promote the overall program and general benefits of religious practice, but we cannot talk about truth and error. This applies not only in chaplaincy settings, but increasingly in our overall western culture. We are committing an error when we allow that which is most dear to us to be reduced to a preference, even though the Church teaches and we believe that it is worth dedicating our lives to and even giving our lives for.

I am not advocating that we cannot or should not be civil to those of different faiths. The sword has historically been a poor evangelistic tool. But we must have the conviction to stand on and for the truth. We must be willing to seek the truth. We must, if we are intent on living in the truth, be willing to step away from error, expose it, and move toward the truth.

This is not a popular stance, especially not in the area of religion. It is seen as elitist, bigoted, and even racist in some cases. However, to seek the truth is not to claim that I am right, but to seek to know and do what is right. It is not to lord it over others, but to live in humble subjection to the truth and encourage others to do the same.