Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Little Something Extra...Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Who We Are and What We Do 

Today's Second Reading may be taken from the First Letter of St. John, chapter 3, verses 1-2 and 21-24. The Church seems to have constructed this reading to show us both who we are in Christ and what we must do as a result. 

Let's first examine who we are in Christ, according to this text. 

St. John first tells us that we are the beloved of God. “See what love the Father has bestowed on us...” John encourages. The Father has generously poured out His love upon us, not because we have deserved it but because He longs to give it. The Greek word for “has bestowed” here is dedōken. It implies a free gift, something that greatly benefits the receiver. Further, the verb is in perfect tense, which gives it a special emphasis in the Greek. The perfect tense highlights an action, setting it in the foreground as something highly significant that must be noticed. 

Because the Father has given us His love, John continues, “we may be called the children of God.” We assume the name of children, family members, heirs, people who are cared for, nourished, and protected by God. But John doesn't stop there. We are not just called children of God, he says. We are children of God. This is so important that he says it twice. We are the children of God. 

As children of the Father, we find ourselves misunderstood by the world. The world does not know God, John explains, so how can it know His children? We Christians face trials in the world, which often scorns our beliefs, our values, and our moral standards. We are taunted, mocked, and persecuted for being God's children, but we remain so just the same, for we know that belonging to the family of God provides meaning and love that the world can never give. 

If we are the beloved children of God, then, what must we do to accept this high status and fulfill it worthily? John tells us. We must keep God's commandments, and these are simple. We must believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and we must live out our faith in love toward one another. Faith and love. 

When we obey God, we remain in Him, and He remains in us. We participate in His divine life, and He dwells within our souls. The Spirit works actively in our lives, and we have great confidence that God hears and responds to our prayers. 

We are God's beloved children. That's who we are. We behave like God's children in faith and love. That's what we do. Then our relationship with God in Christ grows ever stronger, deeper, and richer until that day comes when, as John assures us, “...we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is” face to face in our Heavenly home.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Notes on the Gospel of Matthew – King Herod

As we begin reading the second chapter of Matthew's Gospel, we immediately encounter the infamous King Herod. 

Herod stepped into the office of Procurator of Judea (under Roman rule) in 43 B.C. after his father Antipater was poisoned. Herod was slick and ambitious, and he soon traveled to Rome with a request for Roman rulers Octavian and Mark Antony. He would give them 1,000 talents and 500 women if they would make him King of the Jews. Antony and Octavian, recalling the past service of Herod's family to the Roman regime, agreed. Herod, who was an Edomite by birth and lacked Jewish blood, returned to Judea as a proud ruler, the King of the Jews (Carroll 254, 272, 278). 

He was determined to keep that position at any cost. Listen to what Henry Alford, author of a commentary on the Greek text of the Bible, has to say about Herod: “[Herod] sought to strengthen his throne by a series of cruelties and slaughters, putting to death even his wife Mariamne, and his sons Alexander and Aristobulus. His cruelties, and his affectation of Gentile customs, gained for him a hatred among the Jews, which neither his magnificent rebuilding of the temple, nor his liberality in other public works, nor his provident care of the people during a severe famine, could mitigate.” 

Herod was just plain brutal. He tried to win the Jews' esteem through favors and programs, but most of them saw through his outward show and identified the king as the paranoid bully and murderer that he really was. 

Then one day magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. “For we observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage” (Matthew 2:2). 

Herod hackles must have raised immediately. What was going on? A new king of the Jews? 

The NSRV-CE translation of Scripture tells us that Herod was “frightened” by the magi's question. Other translations read “troubled” or “disturbed.” The Greek word, however, is actually stronger than any of these; tarassō means “to stir up, to agitate, as water in a pool; of the mind, to stir up, trouble, disturb with various emotions.” Herod was all stirred up...agitated. He was experiencing “internal commotion” that made him restless and robbed him of whatever peace he may have had, which probably wasn't much to begin with (www.greattreasures.org). 

But Herod knew one thing for sure. He would never relinquish his kingship. He would cut off this threat at its root...immediately. 

Herod found out from the scribes that the Messiah, the much-prophesied King of the Jews, would be born in Bethlehem, and he sent the magi to search diligently for Him. He must have smiled as he told the magi to report back to him so that he, too, could go and pay his homage to this new ruler. 

Could the magi sense the danger behind Herod's smooth words? God made sure they did, for He sent His angel to warn them in a dream not to return to the treacherous king. 

Herod's rage must have been terrible to behold when he discovered that the magi had disobeyed him and would not return. Very soon the people of Bethlehem would be immersed in grief beyond telling as Herod sought to eliminate his competition by resuming his bloody reign of terror. 

But the new King lived. 

Despite his best efforts, Herod lost his beloved kingship when death caught up with him. He died in April of 4 B.C., but before he left this world, he ordered that hundreds of prisoners, many of whom were prominent citizens, be killed so that “mourning would accompany his funeral, since he knew there would be no mourning for him.” Luckily for those condemned, Herod's relatives refused to carry out the order (Carroll 306). 

Herod's one goal was to be king and to remain king. He never realized that the One he had tried to kill in order to protect his kingship could have made him a king in ways he never could never have imagined, a king who would have been remembered for far more than his ambition, brutality, and fear. 

Source: Carroll, Warren H. The Founding of Christendom. Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1985.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Little Something Extra...Fourth Sunday of Advent

Bethlehem Q & A 

Q-1. What does the name Bethlehem-Ephrathah mean? 

A-1. Bethlehem means “House of Bread” (quite appropriate, really, since the One Who is the true Bread of Life was born there). Ephrathah (sometimes spelled Ephrath) was an early name for Bethlehem. It means “fruitful” and refers to the town's fertile countryside, which produced olives, figs, grapes, and corn in abundance. 

Q-2. Where is Bethlehem located? 

A-2. Bethlehem is located six miles southwest of Jerusalem. 

Q-3. Which prophet predicted that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah? 

A-3. The prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem when he wrote: 

Thus says the LORD:
You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for Me
one who is to be ruler in Israel;
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times.
(Micah 5:1) 

Q-4. Which Old Testament matriarch is buried near Bethlehem? 

A-4. Jacob's beloved wife, Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, is buried near Bethlehem. She died shortly after giving birth to Benjamin. 

Q-5. Who was the Moabite woman who came to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law? 

A-5. The Moabite woman Ruth came to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. Both women were poor widows, so Ruth gathered their food by gleaning unpicked crops in the field of Boaz, who soon married her. Ruth and Boaz became the great-grandparents of Jesus. 

Q-6. Which great Old Testament king was born and anointed at Bethlehem? 

A-6. King David was born at Bethlehem and anointed there by the prophet Samuel as God's choice for King of Israel. 

Q-7. What is the weather like in Bethlehem during the winter? 

A-7. Bethlehem's winters tend to be cool and damp. Temperatures in the coldest month of January range from 33°F to 55°F. 

Q-8. How large was Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth? 

A-8. Bethlehem was home to only a few hundred people when Jesus was born there. 

Q-9. How many times is Bethlehem mentioned in the Bible? 

A-9. Bethlehem is mentioned by name 49 times throughout the Old and New Testaments. 

Q-10. Who built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem about 330 A.D.? 

A-10. St. Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, ordered the building of the Church of the Nativity about 330 A.D. atop the traditional location of the cave where Jesus was born. 

Sources: Biblos (http://topicalbible.org/b/bethlehem.htm); Wikipedia articles about Bethlehem, Rachel, Ruth, and David; e-Sword sources, including International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Smith's Bible Dictionary, Easton's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, and Fausset's Bible Dictionary 

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Prayer to Prepare for Christmas

Prepare my heart for Christmas, Lord. 

Slow me down. Envelope me in silent meditation. Show me the deep meaning of Your birth among us as the God-Man. 

Prepare my heart for Christmas, Lord. 

Teach me let go of my fears and anxieties and to trust that You will lead me through whatever plan You have for me, just as You led Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi. 

Prepare my heart for Christmas, Lord. 

Lead me to repentance that my heart may be swept clean to welcome You.

Prepare my heart for Christmas, Lord. 

Help me understand that You are the greatest gift I will ever receive and the greatest gift I can ever give to others. 

Prepare my heart for Christmas, Lord. 

Shine Your light in me and through me that everyone around me will see not me but You. 

Prepare my heart for Christmas, Lord. 

Fill me with joy, the joy of Mary and Joseph, the joy of the angels, the joy of the shepherds and the magi, that I may praise and worship You from the depths of my being. 

Prepare my heart for Christmas, Lord. 

Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Little Something Extra...Third Sunday of Advent

Joy! 

The third Sunday of Advent, has long been known as Gaudete Sunday. It is a day of rejoicing in the midst of our Advent penance and busy preparations for Christmas. In fact, the word “Gaudete” means “Rejoice!” It's an imperative word, a command, that comes from Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; I shall say it again: rejoice!” 

Our readings for today emphasize the joy of Gaudete Sunday. 

Joy permeates our First Reading, Zephaniah 3:14-18. 

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel! 
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem! 

Why should you rejoice, O Israel? God is in your midst. He will not judge you; in fact, He has turned away all your enemies. You need not fear misfortune or be discouraged. God, Your Savior, is with you. 

What's more, God is rejoicing over you! He is singing over you as one sings at festivals. He is renewing you in His love with great gladness. 

These words apply to us today as much as they did to Israel when Zephaniah wrote them some time in the 600s B.C. Think about this for a moment. God loves you. He rejoices over you. He wants you to rejoice in Him in response. 

The psalm invites us to exclaim our joyful response to God as we hear and say: Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel. The psalmist emphasizes once again that we rejoice because God is in our midst and has done wonderful things for us. He is our Savior, in Whom we find our strength and courage. We therefore sing His praises, shouting with exaltation and proclaiming His great deeds through all the world. 

St. Paul, in our Second Reading, Philippians 4:4-7, again calls us to rejoice (Gaudete!) always, for God is near. Why should we be anxious and fearful about the past, present, or future when we can pray to our loving Father and entrust to Him all our needs and desires? Why should we be gloomy and dejected when we have so much to be thankful for? God longs to give us His peace through Jesus Christ, a peace that will guard our hearts and our minds. Why should we not rejoice? 

At first glance, today's Gospel, Luke 3:10-18, doesn't seem particularly joyful. John the Baptist was merely responding to questions from the crowd as to what they must do now that they have received a baptism of repentance. John's answers were simple: share your food and clothing, don't cheat people, don't exert unfair power over others, and be satisfied with what you have. John's listeners were excited. “Could this be the Christ? The Messiah? The One we've been expecting for so long?” they whispered amongst themselves. John solemnly assured them that he was not. One much greater was coming, One Who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, One Who would bring judgment.” 

Yet John's words should be a reason for us to rejoice. We know what we must do to please God, and it isn't difficult. We must open ourselves up to others in a loving way, providing for their needs and treating them with kindness and respect. We also know that we have access to a greater baptism than John's listeners could ever imagine. When we are baptized, God comes to dwell in our souls, filling us with His Holy Spirit and the fire of His love. Even God's judgment is joyful for those who believe in Him and follow His commands, for it means that we will be gathered to Him to live in His presence forever. 

Indeed, there is much to be joyful about on this Gaudete Sunday, for God is in our midst no matter what happens in our lives, in this nation, or in the world. We can and should rejoice. God is with us!

Friday, December 14, 2012

10 Things To Do before Christmas

I can hear some of you right now: “Not another to-do list! My days are packed full as it is!” The to-do list I'm about to present is not designed to be “just one more thing” but rather to help you cope with the last few busy days before Christmas. 

The follow ten suggestions will encourage you to focus on what Christmas is all about...Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, born among us as a true human being Who is, at the same time, truly God. 

1. Read the Christmas story in Sacred Scripture (Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 1:18 – 2:12). Don't just rush through these texts; read them slowly and meditatively, as if you've never read them before. Savor each word. When you've finished, read each passage once more in the same way. Then identify one aspect of story that especially strikes you, and spend at least five minutes reflecting on its meaning for your life. 

2. Pray the Rosary. If you don't have time to pray five full decades, pray just one, and really meditate on the mysteries. You might wish to focus on the Joyful Mysteries. 

3. Volunteer. Choose one event in your Church, school, or community, and set aside a few hours to help out. 

4. Spend some time with a good, spiritual book. Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives would be an excellent choice. 

5. Pray the Stations of the Cross. This might seem out of place at Christmas time, but praying the Stations reminds us why Jesus was born...that He might die to save us from our sins and reunite us with our Heavenly Father. 

6. Sing a few Christmas carols, or listen to some Christmas music if you prefer not to sing. Music lifts the spirits and alleviates stress. 

7. Tell Jesus about your day. Take a few minutes and talk to our Lord as a friend. Let Him know all about the joys and trials you've been experiencing. 

8. Go to Eucharistic Adoration, even if it's only for fifteen minutes. 

9. Meditate on your Christmas tree. Yes, you did read that right. The colors, lights, and ornaments we use to decorate our Christmas trees are often symbolic. You might reflect, for example, on the blue lights on your tree, for blue is a color often associated with our Blessed Mother. Blue can also point to Jesus' divinity, for it is the color of the sky. There are endless possibilities if you open your mind and your heart and let the Holy Spirit lead you. 

10. Count your blessings. In this busy season, our focus is so often on “I want” and “I must”. For a little while, concentrate on “I have” and “I'm grateful.” 

May God bless you during these last few days before Christmas.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Little Something Extra...Second Sunday of Advent

Preparing the Way of the Lord 

John the Baptist is the voice crying out in the desert. He lives in the wilderness, the deserted places, where most people never go. He wears a garment of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist and makes his meals of locusts and wild honey. He is a strange man, but people can't help listening to him. 

John the Baptist has a mission: to prepare the way of the Lord and to help others do so. He calls the Jews to repentance, offering a baptism that allows them to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. This is not yet a sacramental baptism, the kind that infuses God's sanctifying grace, His very divine life, into people's souls. But it is a preparation. 

John the Baptist is fulfilling a prophecy made hundreds of years before by Isaiah. He is the voice crying out, 

"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight His paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." 

Take these words to heart this Advent, and ask yourself some very important questions. 

1. What makes you turn aside from the straight path to the Lord? 

2. What kinds of obstacles do you put in the Lord's way as He seeks to enter and go deeper into your heart?

3. How have you dug valleys or built mountains with your worldly desires and sins?

4. Are you willing to let God level those valleys, flatten those mountains, straighten your paths, and smooth your road to Him?

5. How might you cooperate with Him in this task? 

John the Baptist knows that that the efforts involved in preparing the way of the Lord would lead to great rewards. Isaiah gives us a hint: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” When we prepare our hearts to meet God, He does not hesitate to come, bringing salvation with Him. Salvation from sin. Salvation for eternal life with Him. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Little Something Extra...First Sunday of Advent

Beware 

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on the coming of Jesus, not only as a little Child in Bethlehem so long ago but also at the end of time when He comes in glory and as He enters our hearts now every time we receive Him, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist. 

In today's Gospel, Jesus tells us that we must prepare for His coming. We must be ready to welcome our newborn Lord at Christmas when we recall His coming among us as the God-Man. We must be ready to greet Him on the last day, either when He arrives in splendor on the clouds or when He comes to us quietly at our last breath. We must be ready to accept Him gratefully and lovingly into our hearts each time He visits us in Holy Communion. 

Jesus also offers us some crucial advice to help us prepare: 

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life... 

Beware. The Greek word here is prosechete. Pay attention. Turn your mind to this because it is critically important. Be intent upon these words. 

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. In the Greek, the verb for “become drowsy” is barēthōsin, which means becoming weighed down, oppressed, and heavy. 

Is your heart, the very core of your being, heavy and oppressed? Is your spirit sleepy and sluggish? 

What would make a heart drowsy? Jesus lists three possibilities. First, carousing. The Greek word here actually refers to the giddiness that comes with intoxication and then the hangover that arrives afterward. Certainly this physical reaction to alcohol would weaken one's spiritual awareness. But what if we use this word in a metaphorical sense? What if we allow our emotions to ride a roller coaster, flying with the ups and crashing with the downs of life? Would that, too, not hinder us from being aware of and prepared for Jesus' coming? 

Second, drunkenness. This word, too, refers to intoxication. Again, we might think of physical intoxication through alcohol or other substances, but people can also be intoxicated by other strong desires...money, power, fame, the approval of others, anything that blinds the judgment. Are you intoxicated by anything in your life? 

Third, the anxieties of daily life. At first glance, this heart-wearying possibility doesn't seem to be in the same category as the others. But think for a moment about the effects of stress on a person's physical, mental, and spiritual health. The Greek word for “anxieties” here is merimnais. This word refers to something that divides the mind and draws it in different directions. Our daily cares can distract us by splintering our attention, pulling our minds away from Christ, and exhausting our hearts. Are your daily anxieties doing this to you? 

Jesus warns us. Beware, He says. Don't get distracted. Don't allow yourselves to be drowsy with the pleasures and temptations and cares of this life. Focus on Me. Then you will be ready to greet Me whenever I come.