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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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.

The Song of Faith

22 December

Readings

As we continue through Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, we come to the Magnificat, Mary’s song in response to Elizabeth’s blessing. As we read her words, we do well to remember that as far as Mary knows, nothing has happened. She may have had no evidence that our Lord had been conceived yet. No baby bump. No morning sickness. Just the words of Gabriel, affirmed by Elizabeth.

Yet, in faith, she realizes that she is standing at the turning point of all history. She rejoices for being chosen by God. She foresees that from now on, all people will call her blessed.

Mary realizes that what she cannot even detect yet is going to change the world. Thrones cast down, the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled. This is the realization and fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel to provide for them a savior, the anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah.

Consider Hannah who had prayed for a son. Three years later the boy is weaned, can walk, and is toilet trained. He’s ready to go. Hannah brings him back to the temple and drops him off. I asked for him, God provided him, so now I dedicate him to the Lord.

Can you imagine dropping your three-year-old off at church and leaving him there for good? Plenty of parents have a struggle dropping their 18-year-old off at college, but this is way beyond that.

In the light of these two women who exhibited such great faith, what do we need to do, today?

I’m reminded of the rappel tower at Fort Jackson. When I was a chaplain for a basic training battalion, I would often be present on the day the new soldiers were there. For many, it was a fun day; for some it was an emotionally significant event to clip onto the rope and lean back over the edge, stories above the ground.

But it is a great example of faith. Watching someone else go down the tower isn’t the same as doing it yourself. Putting on your harness, feeling the rope, handling the carabiner and the figure eight isn’t the same as going down the tower. You only exhibit faith in the equipment when you put your feet on the wall and get into that “L” shape, with nothing but some rope keeping you aloft.

What ledge are you standing next to that God is leading you to step off? It’s a scary feeling. Part of the reason I spent so much time at the rappel tower was to work on my own fear of heights. I had to act comfortable to encourage the soldiers who were scared.

But we trust in a God who is so much stronger than a climbing rope. Sometimes he calls us to do what can feel like stepping off a cliff. But when he calls, he will catch. May we take courage from the faith of Hannah and Mary and step out in faith.

Off to Elizabeth’s

21 December

Readings

Mary goes to see Elizabeth soon after the annunciation. She goes to see what the angel Gabriel told her, that her relative who had been barren all her life is now with child. More importantly, she goes to spend time with the one person who might be able to understand what is happening to Mary.

When Mary arrives, John, still in Elizabeth’s womb, jumps for joy at the sound of her voice. Just as Gabriel had told Zechariah, the boy has the Holy Spirit even in the womb and therefore responds instantly to the Mother of our Lord and his.

At this unusual circumstance, Elizabeth is now filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims a blessing to Mary, confirming that she is carrying the Lord in her womb.

Elizabeth had no way of knowing about Gabriel’s conversation with Mary, yet once she is filled with the Holy Spirit, she has understanding of what has happened and what is happening.

Mary arrives and breaks Elizabeth’s five months of seclusion. Mary arrives and begins three months of her own seclusion before she returns to Nazareth to face Joseph and her family.

There is a home for unwed mothers in Indianapolis called St. Elizabeth’s. It is an appropriate name since St. Elizabeth is the patroness of pregnant women and since St. Elizabeth supported and sheltered Mary, the most famous unwed mother in history.

Today when such a large percentage of children are born out of wedlock, we don’t give much thought to such an occurrence. Much of the social stigma is gone in our culture. But not so for Mary in first-century Israel. Under Mosaic law, if the pregnancy was the result of adultery, she could be stoned to death. Since she was betrothed to Joseph, sexual relations with anyone else was considered adultery.

If the pregnancy was not the result of adultery and the child was Joseph’s, they would both be publicly scorned and shamed for not being able to wait until they were properly married. But as we all know, the child Mary carried was not Joseph’s, but conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.

So Mary is with Elizabeth for three months. We don’t know most of what they talked about or what they did. We read this passage and see it as a prologue to Christmas, which it is, but in our rush to get to the manger in Bethlehem, we can overlook the fear and confusion that may have been Mary’s.

As we work and pray for the end of abortion, we do well to treat it not just as a political issue, but as a religious issue. We do well to remember that every mother who considers abortion is a woman precious in God’s sight. A woman full of fear and confusion. May we see an army of Elizabeths raised up to comfort, guide, and encourage these women and help them care for and nurture their children.

May Christmas remind us that every child is intended as a gift, a blessing from God.

May It Be…

20 December

Readings

clark-annunciation

Gabriel never asked Mary for her consent. The angel did not say, “Hey, Mary, God has this idea and wanted to know if maybe you wanted to be a part of it.” No, the message was, “Behold, you shall conceive.

In the same way, the Lord did not offer a sign to Ahaz. He told him to ask for one. Yet, Ahaz refused. He put a pious sounding spin on it, but he said, “I will not ask.” Anything he says after that is just an excuse; he is being disobedient. The Lord is not impressed by his excuse, either. I detect hints of a frustrated parent in the Lord’s response. I’ll give you a sign.

The virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel.

Now Gabriel has appeared to the Virgin to proclaim that this sign, which Ahaz refused to ask for, will come to pass.  Mary questions Gabriel, “How can this be?” She does not doubt that it can be, like Zechariah, who asked, “How shall I know this?” Mary is trying to understand how it will happen; Zechariah is asking for confirmation that it will happen. Therefore, Zechariah finds himself mute for 9 months, while Mary receives an explanation.

Mary submits herself to divine providence. May it be done to me according to your word.

Mary understood her relation to God. Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Everything belongs to God, but to man is lent the freedom to say “yes” or “no”; the freedom to love or reject. Love’s free “yes” is the only thing for which God must wait, the only worship or sacrifice that can have any meaning.*

Our consent is the only thing that is truly ours. Everything else belongs to God. From the food on our table to the clothes on our backs, they all have their source in him. Yet he has given us our will so that we can accept or reject his will. He has given us free will so that we may freely love him.

We express our love to God, as Mary demonstrated, by accepting his gift. God offers us his Son and we may either receive him or reject him. We can be Ahaz or we can be Mary. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor; we already have it. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Left to our own, we are dying in and of sin. But the gift of God is before us, if we will accept it. We are afraid, though, because we know that to accept Christ is to be crucified. To be crucified to our sin, to our selfishness, and by the world.

Mary didn’t know that when Gabriel stood before her. She probably had an idea that being found pregnant was going to be awkward, but all that lay ahead she did not know. She could not see her Son on the cross from Nazareth. Neither can we see how God will lead us. Yet he calls.

May it be done unto us according to His word.


* Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Benedict XVI), Introduction to Christianity, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004. p. 285-286

Our Lady

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Tuesday, Second Week of Advent

Readings (Luke 1:39-47)

Marian apparitions can be a stumbling block to those outside the Church. It can be hard to believe that the Mother of our Lord appeared to someone. But is it really any harder than believing that an angel appeared to Mary in the first place?

Juan Diego was an indigenous Mexican to whom Mary appeared about 500 years ago. The apparition, over the course of a few days, encouraged him to speak to the bishop in order to have a church built on the site where she appeared. Finally, a miracle of roses and the image of the Virgin upon Juan Diego’s cloak convinced the bishop that the apparition was genuine.

While that is fantastic, the real miracle of Guadalupe was that subsequent to these events, a large-scale conversion broke out among the native inhabitants. Around eight million natives came to faith as a result.

To our supposedly sophisticated twenty-first century selves, all of this seems a bit like a fairy tail. Charming, perhaps, but unlikely. Certainly things like this are outside of our experience. Such things just don’t happen. At least we have never seen them.

It seems hard to judge such things, and our a priori bias seems to determine the outcome more often than not of those who investigate such things. If we believe these thing can’t or don’t happen, we are almost sure to find evidence to support our assumption. But if we are open to the possibility, then perhaps the evidence may seem more convincing to us.

But it is not my purpose to argue for or against Juan Diego’s visions. One vision I am sure of is that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel. He revealed that she was to be the mother of our Lord and that her cousin Elizabeth was also expecting. Mary acted on these revelations.

Mary left quickly to visit Elizabeth. The Scriptures don’t tell us explicitly why. Maybe she wanted to see if things were really so with Elizabeth, reasoning that if they were, then Gabriel’s words to her were genuine and would come to pass. Maybe she fled Galilee more than running to Elizabeth. If she was really pregnant out of wedlock, and not by her betrothed on top of it, things could become very comfortable for her in short order. Time to skip town.

Maybe Mary just needed someone to process her angelic visit with, and she figured if things are going a little supernaturally crazy in her cousin’s life, then she might be a good person to talk to about such things.

When she met up with Elizabeth, she received some solid confirmation of Gabriel’s message. Elizabeth was with child. She was also moved by the Holy Spirit.

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

May we have similar faith and receive blessings as a result of our faith-filled actions.

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.