Are You My Brother?

Tuesday, Third Week in Ordinary Time


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


The Lamb of God

3 January


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.

According to the Law

29 December


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.

What About Elijah?

Saturday, Second Week of Advent


“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.

Ambrose and Sainthood

Thursday, First Week of Advent

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


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.

Do What She Does

It is May, which, among other indications of spring, includes commencement exercises. At my daughter’s college commencement this past weekend, one speaker told of how he was taught basic dinner etiquette when an undergrad many decades ago. The faculty member he dined with told him to watch her and do what she did. Through this imitation he learned how to eat with fork and knife, and not just his spoon.

This lesson served him well soon afterward when he found himself the guest of a well-to-do family while traveling with a small group of fellow students. At dinner, a vast number of cutlery and dishes were on the table. None of the students were used to such finery and they quickly huddled to figure out how to not bring discredit upon themselves. The one who had recently learned how to use more than just a spoon knew what to do. He told the other to watch the hostess and do what she does. They did, and received praise for their fine manners at the end of the evening.

My mind took this image and ran, uncovering a true guide to life.

The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) craze inspired by In His Steps was at its height several years ago. While motivated by a desire to follow Christ, it failed to be a solid tool for most people because of two main problems. First, none of us are first-century itinerant Jewish rabbis. Our context is so different from Christ’s that trying to pattern our life so directly after his is difficult. Second, Jesus did and said a lot. We have four Gospels full of things he did and said, many of which we may not be able to do.

We can benefit from a simple, concrete example that is no less profound, but may seem more attainable. It is not easier to do completely, but it is less complicated to understand.

Do what Mary did.

Mary’s recorded words and actions in Scripture are few and attainable for all of us. In fact we can sum them up in two phrases. First, when the angel Gabriel came to her to announce what the Father intended to do through her, she replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Second, at the wedding in Cana, her one instruction to others, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)

In these two statements, we find the whole of the Christian life. Submit to God as a willing servant and guide others to do the same. May we watch Mary and imitate her life — quiet, faithful and devout — that we may receive her reward.

Presumption vs. Effort

We are well into Advent, and the lectionary turns our thoughts to John the Baptist and his preparation for the ministry of our Lord. John is an interesting character. We admire his candor and focus, but I dare say we are glad he isn’t hanging out in the back of our church. He came preaching a message of repentance. “Straighten up for the Messiah is coming,” is the main emphasis of his teaching. He had no great regard for the religious leaders of his day; he called them a bunch of snakes and challenged them to repent as well.

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

Matthew 3:8-9 (ESV)

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Do things that are congruent with pursuing holiness and turning from sin. Actively seek to root out pride, gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, envy, and wrath from your life. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t be presumptuous.

“We’re children of Abraham. We are God’s chosen race.” One would think that 70 years of exile in Babylon would have tempered that a bit, but they were short-sighted and stiff-necked, as are we. We always seem to hope for assurance but don’t want it to require much from us.

Jesus, once he eclipses John and begins his ministry, reinforces John’s message.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21 (ESV)

If you skim the preceding chapters of Matthew, it seems like Jesus’ idea of “doing his Father’s will” is more than just “giving him your heart.” Matthew 7:21 and its implications unsettle those of the “eternal security” camp, as it should. There is something to be said for not constantly worrying about “losing” your salvation, but then again, this seems to have a long lineage in history. Most of the saints were concerned about pleasing God through their actions. They sought God with devotion and effort.

To some degree it comes back to Gnosticism. If we think that because “I know I’m saved,” then “I’m good,” we are proclaiming that we have knowledge (the meaning of gnosis) and by that knowledge we are saved. This idea that “we don’t have to do anything, just believe,” has become so entrenched in American evangelicalism that suggesting we must do something is viewed with shock and horror. John the Baptist would be scoffed as a legalist.

But what is Scripture? Is it not a lot of teaching on how we are to act? Perhaps we should quit worrying about vainly trying to earn our salvation and focus a bit on being cast into hell for not being obedient. Not very popular these days, I know. But Scripture hasn’t changed.

We are on dangerous ground we when presume to be “good.” Scripture’s default assumption concerning every one of us is that we are sinners worthy of judgement. We can do nothing to earn salvation — because we have already irretrievably blown it. God’s grace is truly the only thing that can save us, not because he’s so nice and wants to make it easy on us. He desires us to be holy as he is holy.

We should be working double-time to try to appease the wrath of God. We should cling to Jesus like a man dangling from a cliff clinging to a rope. Not presumptuously swinging about and enjoying the view, but doing everything we can to get back up onto the straight, narrow, and high way of the Lord.