Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:6-10 / Hebrews 1:1-12 / John 1:1-14

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by His Son ...

Why do they gather at the manger, those shepherds of old? Curiosity, perhaps. A humble submission to the word of an angel? Most assuredly. Delight at the song of the heavenly hosts? Perhaps even that, too.

Why do they gather at the manger, those wise men from the East? Are they following their own holy books, seeking to find whole, pure, entire what they find there only in broken and partial ways, alloy of divine truth, the best of human hopes, and empty imaginings, both malevolent and benign? Undoubtedly. Might they also intuit that this star which guides them speaks a truth more than the stars in their cold, unchanging light can ever know, that perhaps the local, specific, even narrow revelation to the long-humbled people of Israel may hold a truth greater than the whole world could contain, now made even more miraculous by its coming in a little cave in Bethlehem? We may never know.

Why do they gather at the manger, those faithful at Church last evening, at midnight, at dawn, and during the day? Have they come with a long-stable and fervent faith, rejoicing in words they know too feeble to celebrate the Word made flesh? Quite certainly, for many this is so. To fulfill an old family custom, as much out of intertia and a worry that Christmas is not Christmas without a dollop of church on the side as of any remnants of lively faith? Because the beauty of the music, the majesty of the words, the poetry of the story itself, if not believed, is at least evocative of meaning, what truth ought to look, sound, even smell like, if only it were so? For these and countless other reasons.

Yet, come they do, and for that we ought not to shake our heads in dismay but instead rejoice in wonder. It should have been altogether easy for the people of promise to recognize his first coming, but He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not; He came to his own, and His own received Him not. He was received by many — the lowly and the powerful, shepherds and magi. He was worshiped by all, by the brute beasts and the awesome and terrifying bodiless hosts of heaven, and by the sons of earth as well, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve whom he had come to save, whose kin he had become, whose lot he had chosen to share. It mattered little what brought them there. What mattered in the cave at Bethlehem was what would matter some thirty years later at another cave in which no one had been laid. What matters is that they saw and believed.

The world holds forth many reasons not to believe: pain, sorrow, a lack of confidence in prophecy or even that the prophets spoke of a future at all. Fine, then, we will speak another way. We will proclaim the Word made flesh with words old and new, and with no words at all. We will appeal to God's prophets to Israel, of course, but if these will not be heard, we will point to the providentially vatic words of those far from the faith. Si non suis vatibus, credat vel gentilibus; Sibyllinis versibus haec praedicta. "If not their own prophets, let them at least believe the Gentiles; in the sibylline verses these things were predicted." And if by the Sibyl, why not also in the Vedas or the stories passed on by elders and medicine men along the banks of the St Lawrence? Scruple not what brings them to the Christ child. Let them come, let them see and believe!


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7 / John 1:19-28

A young man receives a gift from his mother. It's not much, just a few dollars. It comes, however, with a request, "Do something nice for yourself! I don't want to see this going for groceries or paper towels!" She means well. More than that, she is altogether in the right. She has heard in her son's voice of late a tension, an anxiety, a worry that things are not going as they should and that perhaps what he had hoped and dreamed would be his life may never come to pass. She knows her token will not dispel his difficulties or troubles. Even so, she knows that there is more to the world than his anxieties, and in the middle of his dark season, she sends a rosy message of hope: Rejoice!

Will he be able to receive her message of joy? It all depends. If he knows, or at least trusts that his darkness will come to an end, that is does not have the final say, that in fact he will never escape his anxieties so long as he lives in them utterly, so long as he will not refuse to bend his knee to fear and instead, even when it seems folly to do so, sets aside the troubles of his heart and indulges in joy — then his mother's gracious gift may well be received in good cheer and to good effect. But if he cannot, or will not see that there is any end to his worry, if he has no grounds for hope, then even the most delightful good news from the most loving of persons does not have a chance to be planted, much less thrive and bloom in his heart.

Our holy Mother, the Church, has given us a good message today. She has donned the color of rose and has called us, with the words of her Apostle Paul to rejoice in the Lord always. Can we hear her message? Does it seem real to us? Can we set aside our worries and anxieties? In the end, do we really, truly believe that our Lord's coming is certain and sure, and that he will not delay? Can we, in the midst of the very real gloom that may cloud our lives and darken our hearts, step out for a moment, set aside the very real and pressing cares that strive so mightily to hold our attention, and instead choose to rejoice in the Lord?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Second Sunday of Advent

Romans 15:4-13 / Matthew 11:2-10

Paul presents us with a bit of a puzzle today. First he reminds us of the inspired character of Scripture, and moreover that the Scriptures are fundamentally directed not to some person in the past only, but to us also: Whatever things have been written have been written for our instruction. The puzzle is what comes next. From the fact of the inspiration of the Scriptures and their being addressed to all believers, Paul makes what looks to us like a bit of a logical jump: May then the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of one mind toward one another. How did we get from the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures to ecclesial unity?

This is a puzzle for us especially who have been led to think of religious teaching, especially explicit doctrine with direct appeal to the revealed and inspired Word of God, to be divisive rather than unitive. The principle of etiquette is clear enough — at dinner parties, never speak of politics or religion. We worry that such talk will get tempers to flare, unkind things to be said, and little to no good will come of it. Unity, or at least unanimity, we suspect to require the absence of doctrine, of party, of loyalty. Hold what you will if you must. Indeed, the world is better for the variety of things held. But, whatever else you do, hold your tongue! Don't even suggest that you hold any view about which one could divide.

While this is a common enough worry, the readings today invite, require even, that we see things quite differently than this. To be sure, the worry of dinner party etiquette does get one thing quite right — a too narrow view of things, a too doctrinaire approach to life and to God's Word, will actually close our eyes to the crucial doctrine God means to give us. When the disciples of John came to Jesus, they needed to ask if he was the one, or whether they should look for another. Jesus invited them simply to recall what the Scriptures said and to judge based on what they had seen — Go and report to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers and cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise, the poor have the gospel preached to them. The answer to their question is the the very place where the question itself arises, namely from an attentive concern to the whole of what God has revealed about his Anointed.

Jesus then does the same for the crowd, but this time about John. If Jesus was the one who was sent, then who was this captivating figure John, a preacher so powerful one might easily have thought him to be the one the Father had sent. This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who shall make ready Your way before You.' If you would know who John the Baptist was, know all the Scriptures.

Paul, of course, must do the same with the Church in Rome. Does Paul's mission to the Gentiles mean that God has abandoned his people, or that Paul preaches another God than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? No, for Christ Jesus has been a minister of the circumcision in order to show God's fidelity in confirming the promises made to our fathers. But does that mean that the Gentiles have a second place in God's heart? Not at all, for the Gentiles glorify God because of His mercy. Mercy and fidelity — both are from God, neither is known without the other. To see in the mercy to the Gentiles a rejection of Israel is to fail to hear God's Word. However, to speak of the faithfulness to Israel as though it alone mattered, or that it is independent of or anything other than the very work of Jesus Christ, that also is to fail to keep God's Word.

To be one, to be true to what God wants of us, and to find among ourselves true unity and oneness of mind means heeding the whole of the Scriptures. It means abandoning any strategy of reading that would leave out what is uncomfortable, whether the teaching seem too severe and restrictive or conversely whether the teaching appear too indulgent, too inclusive, too permissive. God is simple and one, and does not admit to parts. If we would have him, we cannot have him only partially. We must then receive, in all its richness, in all its fulness, ready to be surprised again and again by the riches it holds, the whole of the Bible and the whole of that Body to whom it is addressed. It is in our fidelity to the Word that we will have unity, that the God of hope will fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope and in the power of the Holy Spirit.