Are You My Brother?

Tuesday, Third Week in Ordinary Time

Readings

I’m going to resist the temptation to become entangled in the meaning of the word “brother” (αδελφοι in Greek) in today’s gospel. While it is a significant question, I want to focus on what is happening in this passage more than who, exactly, it is happening to. Mostly, I want to focus on how it applies to us today.

Let us instead start with: “arrived at the house.” What house? The same house in which Jesus rebuked the scribes for saying that he healed by the power of Satan as we read yesterday.

Jesus is in the middle of teaching when Mary and his family arrive and ask for him. His response seems to brush them off. What is really going on here?

It can be dangerous to assign motive and intent where none is given. But without it, this passage is just an awkward exchange through an intermediary between Mary and Jesus.

Saint John Chrysostom views this episode as Mary pushing her “Mom privilege” a little too far and being gently rebuked for it. That may be, but why did the Gospels feel the need to relay this scene if that is all that is happening? Saint Chrysostom keys us in, surmising that Jesus needed to convince Mary he was not only her son, but her Lord.*

Being the Mother of our Lord was a great privilege, but it also carried serious dangers. Not only the need to flee to Egypt when Christ was young, but spiritual dangers as well. The temptation to pride had to be enormous. Think of how we gush over our own children (or grandchildren). But Mary’s boy really was perfect, actually did walk on water.

This is where we come into the story. Jesus replied, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother.”

Being a brother of Christ, that is, a son of God, is not about bloodlines and family trees. It is about our actions. John the Baptist taught this, saying, “Do not presume to say we have Abraham as our father.” (Matthew 3:9) Jesus also challenged the idea of relational holiness: “They answered him and said to him, ‘Our Father is Abraham.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham.'” (John 8:39)

It did them no good to be related to Abraham unless they shared Abraham’s character. It does us no good to be affiliated with Christ unless we follow him with much diligence. The Scriptures and history are full of those offspring who did not walk in the way of their parents, but instead departed from their sound example and teaching.

But thanks be to God, we have the opportunity to be sons and daughters of God if we will obey his will. Just as Mary was chosen to bear Christ in the flesh, so we are predestined to bear him in our hearts and lives. May we be worthy of the promises of Christ.


*Homily 44 on Matthew

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Weapons of War

Wednesday Second Week of Ordinary Time

Readings

David slew Goliath; Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. Could there be a more jarring juxtaposition of passages?

These are both great texts from Scripture. They are stories most of us know. But what do they have in common? On the surface, not much. But that’s because we focus on the withered hand and not the Pharisees.

Warfare. That is the unifying theme. It’s blatant in the passage from First Samuel. Spears and swords, shields and slings. Taunts, attacks, and death. But it is there in the Gospel as well.

Jesus walked into an ambush in this particular synagogue. The Pharisees are lying in wait to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, if he will act contrary to their interpretation of the Law, so that they might accuse him.

Just as David walked out onto the frontlines before Goliath, Jesus calls the man with the withered hand up to the front of the synagogue. Just as David answered Goliath’s taunts with his steadfast faith in God, so Jesus stands firm and questions the Pharisees.

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

David is offended at Goliath’s blasphemy and taunting. Jesus is grieved at the hardness of hearts.

Silence. Movement. The clash is imminent.

A stone flies. Jesus speaks, “Stretch out your hand.”

The giant falls. The man is restored.

The Philistines break in fear and run. The Pharisees break in anger and plot to put Jesus to death. This is only the third chapter of Mark, yet they have already decided Jesus must die. It takes until chapter 14 for their plot to come to fruition.

Because we know Jesus triumphed, it is easy to forget the struggle. But we need to understand his struggle so we can understand our own.

We have an enemy. He seeks our destruction just as surely as Goliath wanted to slaughter David. But the Lord, our rock, trains our hands for battle, our fingers for war.

It seems odd that the Psalmist chose to focus solely on our hands. Certainly in war arms and legs are important as well? Perhaps he was being unintentionally prophetic. We clasp our hands in prayer. We work the beads with our fingers. These are the weapons of our warfare. Prayer, confession, contemplation.

We do not casually arrive at the conviction to stand before a giant with a stick and a sling. Jesus had spent years in silent preparation. We know of his 40 days in the wilds, but of what went before, the Gospels are mostly silent.

David did not come against his enemy in his own strength. He declared, “I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” Without him we can do nothing. (John 15:5). Our only strength is in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May we abandon ourselves to God for his glory.

Follow Him

4 January

Readings

I can imagine John a bit frustrated as he stands with two of his disciples when Jesus walks buy. His entire ministry had been pointing to Christ’s coming. Now, Jesus had come and had been baptized, proclaimed, and heralded from heaven. Yet John still has disciples following him.

“Behold the Lamb of God.” Nudge, nudge. There he is, guys. He’s the one, not me. Go follow him.

Now they follow after Jesus.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and you will see.”

Andrew soon afterward goes to his brother Peter. “We have found the Messiah.”

How did Andrew know this? On the testimony of John. As John’s disciple, Andrew believed what his teacher said. He believed him enough to leave John in order to follow the teacher he pointed to.

That is a significant act for both student and teacher. For the teacher, it means having the self-awareness and humility to know, “I have taken you as far as I can; now you must be entrusted to another.”

For the student, it means leaving the familiar and beginning again with a new teacher. While it may be a progression of subject matter, there will be different styles of instruction, different idiosyncrasies, different expectations to adapt to.

But sometimes it is worth it. Your teacher recommends someone who you have heard of, who the really good students all study with. It is a compliment to be thought worthy of studying with such a teacher.

This seems to be the case with Andrew. He goes to his brother Simon. “We have found the Messiah.” He’s taking disciples. This is a great chance!

Simon and Andrew return. Jesus looks at this newcomer.

“You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Peter.” Jesus not only knows who this new follower is, he proclaims that he will be transformed by his time with the master. His given name meant listening; some sources say it can also mean little hyena. His new name was to be rock.

Andrew and Peter became early disciples of the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Son of God revealed to destroy the works of the Devil. These two men had made a serious choice. Exactly how the Messiah’s coming would play out, they couldn’t know for sure, but at the least they expected there to be clashes with the Romans.

Nothing has changed with following Christ. It is still a serious commitment. It may cost us our family, our country, our very lives. To stand with Jesus is to stand against the powers and principalities of this age. To follow Jesus is to thumb our noses at the devil and walk out on him, with all the danger that leaving an abusive, manipulative relationship entails. We will be pursued.

But we, unlike Andrew and Simon at this early encounter, know the rest of the story. Upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Satan can’t hold us if we are following Christ.

The Lamb of God

3 January

Readings

The Lamb of God

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

For as well-known as this metaphor is, it is surprising that today’s passage in John is the only mention of it in the Gospels.

Despite this relative obscurity in the Gospels, it is a powerful image because it draws on so much of Israel’s history. The lamb sacrificed during the Passover carried much symbolism with it, especially of protection and deliverance, as the lamb’s blood was smeared on the door frames of the Israelites’ dwellings as a signal to the angel sent to kill every firstborn in Egypt that these houses were to be spared.

The sacrifice of lambs was a central act in the Jewish temple, used for many different offerings. From purification after childbirth to purification after being healed from leprosy, lambs were the prescribed sacrificial animal.

Jesus also appears in Revelation as a Lamb who was slain. He is the only one found worthy to open the sealed scroll. He is worthy because he shed his own blood in love and obedience.

This is surely a significant portion of what it means to be the Lamb of God. It was not that Jesus came as a God-sized lamb to be a big enough sacrifice to purify all of humanity from their sins. Jesus was not lamb-zilla.

We must change our point of view and consider it through the lamb’s eyes. Lambs are fairly docile creatures by nature. They are easily led by shepherds and sheep dogs. They don’t have to be tamed like horses. They are trusting creatures, allowing themselves to be led to slaughter without fear or anxiety.

In the same way, we see Jesus as the Lamb of God. He was a lamb because he was gentle and meek. Indeed, he lived at least part of his life a bit like a lamb, without a home, wandering around the Judean country side.

Jesus is the Lamb of God because he allowed himself to be offered as a sacrifice for us out of love for the Father and love for us. He became a target for death, and by allowing himself to be swallowed by death, he destroyed its power.

This relates to today’s Epistle reading as well. John is discussing how we are children of God, how we know that those who act righteously are begotten by God. As we draw closer to the Lamb, we can’t help but come closer to each other. Two people walking toward the same spot, no matter where they begin, cannot help but become closer as they close on their objective.

So too with us, as we draw closer to the Lamb of God, we are drawn together by him and in him and for him. We become one with him and with each other in unity and holiness. May we continue to work for that day when we will all be one with the Lamb before the throne.

Veni, Veni Emmanuel

18 December

Readings

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

I enjoy Advent for many reasons, but one of them is that we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” my favorite hymn ever. My “Advent” playlist on my iPod is just a dozen different versions of this one song.

I like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” because it always reminds me of this verse. Emmanuel means, “God with us.” It is the first fulfillment of a promise that runs throughout the Old Testament. It starts with God’s covenant with Abraham, and is made more explicit with God’s covenant with Moses and Israel. In Exodus we read, “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God.” (6:7) Again in Leviticus we hear, “I will walk among you, and will be your God and you shall be my people.” (26:12)

The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both pick up this theme, repeating it at least 7 times each. Then we see God fulfilling it in the incarnation. Jesus is truly God with us, as with us as he can be. Bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, yet fully God, fully divine. Is it any wonder it took the early church a few centuries to really wrap their minds around Jesus being fully God and fully man? It is an amazing thing. A source of great hope and comfort.

But not only is Jesus the fulfillment of this promise of God in the incarnation, he is also the means by which this promise is finally fulfilled. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus has secured for us eternal life. That eternal life, that second coming, is the final and fullest fulfillment of the promise begun back with Abraham.

Hear the words of Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for former things have passed away.'” (21:1-4)

This is the message of Advent. We look forward to the coming of the Christ Child, who would be God with us, and we look forward to our final redemption, when God will be with us and we with him in perfect love and peace for all eternity.

On Come, O Come, Emmanuel! We your people await you.

What About Elijah?

Saturday, Second Week of Advent

Readings

“As they were coming down from the mountain.” What mountain? The mountain upon which they had witnessed the transfiguration. Peter, James, and John were asking about Elijah because they had just seen Elijah speaking with Jesus.

The scribes said that Elijah must come first, because Malachi prophesied that Elijah would come before the Day of the Lord.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.”

Malachi 4:5-6

The disciples are wondering if the transfiguration they just saw is the Lord coming in glory; they wonder why Elijah did not appear and fulfill his prophesied role. Sure, he was there on the mountain, but he didn’t seem to do anything other than talk with you, Lord.

According to Malachi, unless Elijah comes, it is not Advent. His appearance and second ministry is a necessary precursor to the coming of Messiah. The scribes knew this and it was widely taught.

It was a beneficial teaching for the Jews, because messianic expectations were running high. In that atmosphere, many people proclaim to be the one, some out of sincere delusion and others out of opportunistic self-seeking.

Propagating this teaching from Malachi aided in suppressing such uprisings, because as word of a so-called Messiah would spread, the question had to be asked, “Have you seen Elijah?” No, of course not, so calm down and don’t give the Romans another reason to suppress us.

“Elijah has already come.” As we read yesterday, Jesus points to John the Baptist as Elijah. The disciples understand that he is speaking of John. He has come, fulfilled his mission, and been wrongfully executed by Herod.

Elijah has come, but the scribes failed to recognize him. They went to the Jordan and heard John preach, but they did not receive him. The crowds were baptized in droves, but the scribes and Pharisees were unmoved.

Not only has Elijah come, Jesus declares, but in the same way, Jesus will be handed over to the Romans and wrongfully executed. The conquering Messiah will be killed. It seems illogical. How can the heroes all die? First John, and next the Lord? This isn’t how the story is supposed to play out.

But it is precisely through suffering and death that Jesus opened the way of life for all of us. He defeated death by taking it upon himself, by submitting to it, and by going all the way with it until he turned it inside out by coming out the other side. The world looks for power and might, but God reveals himself to us through suffering and obedience.

How is this good news? Few of us will ever have an opportunity to follow in power, but we all have opportunities to follow in obedience and suffering.

Playing Our Part

Friday, Second Week of Advent

Readings

John the Baptist is what you expect of a prophet. Quirky. Eccentric. Weird. He lived in the dessert, ate locust and honey, and dressed in camel-hair. Not unlike Elijah. He said what needed to be said and it got him in trouble.

Jesus was not the Messiah people expected. They expected someone with military might, political prowess, and ethical excellence. What they got was a homeless miracle worker who hung out with the wrong crowd.

However, this was not the only side of Jesus. He was not one-dimensional. The same Jesus who miraculously made 180 gallons of wine for a wedding reception also spent 40 days in prayer and fasting. He went to banquets hosted by tax collectors and he spent nights alone in prayer in solitary places. He challenged the Pharisees and Scribes, calling them snakes and whitewashed tombs, and he spoke words of tenderness and healing.

Jesus calls out those listening in today’s Gospel for being too timid. You don’t want to mourn; you don’t want to dance. You don’t think you need the repentance that John preached and you don’t celebrate that the bridegroom has arrived.

G. K. Chesterton commented once that God tends to send us the kind of saints we need in each age, and that often involves someone who goes against the prevailing currents. If we consider Jesus as a saint for a moment — and why shouldn’t we? — we see him in contrast to the religious leaders of his day.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were concerned about preserving their status and the power they had. They cultivated their images and protected their turf. These are not things shepherds of God’s flock are called to do. Jesus threw all of that out the window, as did John before him.

John, as we mentioned, was an extreme ascetic and powerful critic. Jesus, on the other hand, healed the masses and taught them. He mingled and ate with ordinary people. He called common men to be his disciples. He gave an example that was sorely needed then, one we need to be reminded of in every generation.

Just as Isaiah relayed, “I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is for your good, and lead you on in the way you should go.” This is why not only our Lord, but all his saints through the ages, are so important as examples for us. We are able to see the myriad ways that the love of God and neighbor have been lived out. Not all of us are going to be a John the Baptist. That’s good; we need the whole body. Just as Paul was fond of reminding his readers, we are a body made up of many parts. The body works best when all the parts are fulfilling their design. We each have a part.

May we each learn to live the design, the charism, the vocation, that we have been created for and called to, without regard for the world’s accolades or criticisms.