Sunday, January 27, 2013

God's Promises - Our Hope

Everyone makes promises. Politicians promise us everything from affordable health insurance to job security. Products promise to make us more beautiful and to save us money. Partners promise that they will love one another forever. It is not uncommon for people to make promises. Sadly, it is also not uncommon when those promises are not kept. Each of us knows what it is like to have someone back out of a commitment that was made to us. If we are honest, we probably can name more than a few times when we also did not live up to the promises we have made.

God also makes promises. After the fall of Adam and Eve, he promised to send one who would defeat the cunning serpent. After the flood, he promised Noah that he would never destroy the earth again. He promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. And he promised the people of Israel that he would send a Messiah to save them. Like us, God makes many promises. Unlike us, however, he keeps them all. God is faithful. If he says it, he will do it. There is no other word that is more worthy of our complete trust and confidence than is the word of God.

Today's first reading from the book of Nehemiah is an example of God's faithfulness. The land of Israel had been conquered and ravaged by invaders who carried many of the people off to exile in shackles. For many years. they lived in a foreign land unable to worship in the temple or to live in freedom. Though it seemed impossible, God promised to lead them back to their land and to re-establish them in the city of Jerusalem. The reading we heard was God's fulfillment of his promise. The people have finally been led back to their homeland and are about to rebuild their city. They are overcome with tears of joy as they hear God's word proclaimed in their native land by the priest, Ezra. He reminds them that it is not a day to be sad, but a day to rejoice because God has worked marvels for them. As they rebuild the city, they are to keep in mind how God was faithful to his word, and to remember that they could have confidence that he would continue to be faithful to all that he has said.

Though the Old Testament is full of stories of God's faithfulness to his people, the greatest example of that faithfulness is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus' first miracle. In today's reading from the gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus' first sermon. The text he chooses to speak on is from the book of the prophet Isaiah who foretells the coming of the Messiah as one upon whom God's Spirit would rest empowering him to lead captives into freedom, to bring sight to the blind and to proclaim the good news to the poor. In a statement which must have been a shock to those assembled to listen to him, Jesus tells them that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. He tells them straight out that he is the Messiah. In him, they were to find the fulfillment of all the promises God had made to the people.

Jesus does not only tell them he is the Messiah by his words. When he leaves the synagogue, he goes about performing the mighty works that Isaiah predicted. He heals the blind. He raises the dead. He preaches the good news of the Kingdom of God to the poor and casts out demons. Finally, he shows how great God's love for us is by freeing us from sin by his death on the cross and giving us the hope of everlasting life by rising from the dead. Whatever promises God made to the people of Israel, Jesus fulfilled them beyond anyone's expectation.

God's promises were not only made to the people of Israel nor to the people of Jesus' day. Those promises extend to us who continue to hear the good news proclaimed. God's offer of forgiveness of sins and salvation from evil are extended to us here today. All of us who have accepted Jesus' call to follow him know from first hand experience how faithful God is. We have received the strength he promised to offer us to resist temptation. We have received the peace he promised to give us during tumultuous periods of our life. And we have felt his presence by our side throughout the journey of our lives. We know that God's word is true not only because we have read about his mighty deeds centuries ago, but because we have experienced them for ourselves.

It is now up to us who have experienced the Father's love and mercy to bring them into the world. We have been chosen by the Father to make sure that his promises are kept. It is up to us now to show that God cares for the poor by sharing our food with them. It is up to us to show that God cares for captives by visiting them in prison. It is up to us now to show that God has not forgotten the sick by visiting them in the hospital or in their homes. Saint Theresa wrote that God has no hands now but ours and no feet but ours. Saint Paul makes much the same point in today's second reading when he tells us that we are the Body of Christ bringing not only the good news of the Kingdom of God but the works of Jesus into the lives of those we meet.

God is using us now to fulfill the promise of salvation he has extended to all people of every generation. It is up to us by the power of his Spirit to make sure that that promise is not an empty one.

(image by Antonia Ramis Miguel)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Baptism of the Lord

Chances are that for most of us Christmas is already a distant memory. We have already taken down the lights from our windows and put away the Christmas tree and its ornaments. We have packed up the manger scene and stored it away for another year. Our children have returned to school and are already tired of playing with the toys they received. Christmas has passed, and we are dealing with the challenges and opportunities a new year brings.

As a Church, however, the birth of our Savior is still fresh on our minds. We continue to celebrate the marvel of God made man and to unpack its meaning for our lives. On the Sunday after Christmas, we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family commemorating the love with which Mary and Joseph cared for Jesus, and we committed ourselves to following their example in our own families. On New Year's Day, seven days after Christmas, we honored Mary under her title as "Mother of God", celebrating God's choice of her as the immaculate mother of our Savior and recognizing that, through faith, she is our mother as well. Last Sunday, we celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord when a star led the Magi from the east to the child Jesus. We learned that Jesus was born not only to be the King of the Jews, but that all people were to be saved through him.

Today we end our celebration of Christmas by remembering the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. It marks the end of his hidden years as a carpenter in Nazareth and the beginning of his ministry preaching the good news, healing the sick and gathering around himself disciples and apostles who would be the foundation of the Church. This feast day helps unfold for us more of the mystery of who Jesus is and what his mission was. As Luke tells us, when Jesus was baptized heaven opened up, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him and a voice booming from above declared that he is the Son of God, and that the Father is pleased with him. We can only imagine what the scene was like for those fortunate enough to have witnessed it. God was pointing out to all those who would hear that the Messiah they had been waiting for was now in their midst and that the Holy Spirit was with him to lead all those who would follow him into freedom.

Though the scene is majestic, there is another dimension to this baptism story. Anyone who would have been listening carefully to God's voice from heaven would have heard in his words an echo of the ancient prophecies of Isaiah, in particular, several oracles called the "Servant Songs." One of these prophecies serves as our first reading today. Through the prophet Isaiah God gives a description of the Messiah as one with whom he is pleased and as the one upon whom he has placed his Spirit. This matches exactly the words which are spoken from heaven at Jesus' baptism. And so, God is pointing out to the people that Jesus is the servant whom Isaiah had foretold many centuries earlier. In another of the servant songs, however, Isaiah prophecies that it would be through his suffering that this servant would bring about the salvation promised by God. We read these prophecies every year during Holy Week. The Messiah is described as a suffering servant who takes on the sins of the people, who is rejected and persecuted. As Isaiah puts it, "By his stripes, we are healed."

Through these words, a little bit more of the mystery of Jesus is revealed. Despite the power of the Holy Spirit which rests upon him, despite the good works he performed among the people and despite the beauty of his message of forgiveness and love, this Savior was destined to be rejected and to suffer a horrible death for our sakes.

But Jesus' death is not the end of the story. We gather here two thousand years later because that same Spirit which alighted on Jesus at his baptism raised him from the dead. That same Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and Mary empowering them to pick up where Jesus left off and spread the good news throughout all the nations of the earth. We ourselves are the recipients of the promise made by John the Baptist when he said One was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Each of us has received that baptism of fire through our own baptism and again in our confirmation. The same Holy Spirit who came down upon Jesus was given to us. We were granted the forgiveness of our sins and the promise that the One who raised the body of Jesus would raise us up to everlasting life. Finally, the same Spirit who ignited a fire in the apostles empowering them to spread the good news of Jesus even in the face of persecution and death has been given to us so that we can live and spread his word not with our puny efforts but with the very power of God. All this is given to us who have believed in the name of Jesus and have been baptized in his Spirit. It is a Spirit that leads us out of fear and slavery to sin into freedom.

And so today we wrap up our celebration of Jesus' birth for another year. However, we commit ourselves once again to keeping the spirit of Christmas alive all year long. We do not do that, however, by keeping our Christmas tree up or singing carols. We do that by living our baptism in the power of the Spirit we have received. We do that by calling others to recognize and accept the gift of salvation offered them in the person of Jesus. We do that by striving to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah to bring freedom to captives , sight to the blind and food to the hungry. We do that by every day giving our lives over to Jesus, our Messiah, and by asking him to work wonders in our lives and in our world.

(image by Fr Andrew Johnson, Good Shepherd Parish, Fall River, Ma)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

By the Light of that Great Star

No manger scene would be complete without the statues of the three kings from the East. Though the Bible does not tell us where they came from or what race they were, we typically portray them as a white, a black and an Asian man. They are meant to represent all the nations and peoples of the world coming forward to worship the newborn King of the Jews who is destined to be the Savior of the World. They represent the plan of God to bring about peace by uniting women and men of every language and race through faith in Jesus Christ. The Magi are the first outside of Israel to be drawn to Christ and to bow down in homage to him who came to save all peoples.

Who were these men and how was it that they came to find Jesus in so obscure a place as a stable in Bethlehem? Scholars tell us that they were most likely from Persia, which is modern-day Iran. They were experts at studying the stars to predict the future and at interpreting dreams. According to their religion, God was a God of light, and they believed they could know him and discern his will by studying the light of the stars. The Scriptures tell us, furthermore, that they were good and sincere men who sought the truth. It was because of their love for the truth that they left their native land and the practice of their religion to follow the star which announced the birth of Jesus. They undertook the dangerous journey through the desert at great personal cost to witness with their own eyes the birth of the King of the Jews and to worship him. Though they were pagans, ignorant of the Scriptures and the God of Israel, their goodness and sincerity was noticed by God, and they were given the great grace of being among the first to see Jesus and believe in him.

In today's gospel reading, however, we meet another man who is not as good and sincere as the Magi. He is King Herod. Like the Magi, he was born a pagan in a land called Idumea. However, he converted to Judaism once he was installed as king of Israel by Caesar. Unlike the other kings of Israel - and unlike Jesus - he was not a descendant of the royal line of David. Therefore, he was an impostor, a puppet of the Roman Empire. Because of this he brutally suppressed and killed anyone whom he perceived to be a threat to his authority. In fact, it was even said that he murdered his own sons. And so, when he learns from the Magi that the real king of the Jews had been born, he is determined to find him and kill him. Herod was following a different star than the one the Magi followed. The Magi were following the star of truth and goodness which led them to Jesus. Herod was following the star of ambition and power which would eventually lead to his destruction.

Like the Magi, each of us is following a star. There is something that each of us is after that motivates us and focuses our attention and energy. It could be financial security. It could be power and prestige. It could be the well-being of our family and friends. Whatever it is, we must ask ourselves, "Is this star leading me to Jesus?" Is it making me grow in faith, hope and love? Am I a becoming a more generous person because of the goals I have set for my life? Or is the light that I am following actually leading me into darkness, making me more selfish and putting distance between me and my family? Is it making me less attentive to the needs of others? The beginning of a new year is a good time to examine our conscience and to take an honest look at what stars we are following and where they are leading us. There is one thing we can know for certain: if our star is not leading us to Jesus, then it is leading us astray.

Another important question to ask ourselves is, "Are we stars to others?" Does the way we live our lives lead others to Christ or lead them astray? Are we examples for our family and friends of what it means to know, love and serve God? If people were to follow us, where would we lead them - to Christ or somewhere else? No doubt each of us has someone in our lives who looks up to us for guidance. Are we a light of truth and goodness to those people or are we leading them further into darkness?

The light of the star which led the Magi to Jesus no longer shines in the night sky. We are the light which announces to the world that Jesus is the Savior of the World. We are the ones who must lead others to the place where he may be found. It is up to us now to repeat the glad tidings that God has come to save us. We are to bring that message to all people - the poor and the rich; the lowly and the mighty; the ignorant and the wise. God wants to gather all people together to bring homage to the newborn King, the Savior of the World, the Messiah. Will we follow the light which leads us not only to Bethlehem but to Calvary? And will we be a light for others along the way? If we heed God's call, we can be assured that the result will be a harvest of peace and justice for all the peoples of the world.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mary, the Mother of God

As a Church, we have many beautiful titles to describe Our Lady. She is called the "Blessed Virgin Mary" because she conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is called the "Ark of the Covenant" because the child she carried in her womb would be the fulfillment of all the promises God made to the people of Israel. We also call her "Gate of Heaven", "Star of the Sea" and "Comfort of the Afflicted", because she continues to intercede for us at the throne of her Son in heaven.

We begin every new year in a special way by remembering and celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary under one of her most ancient titles, that of "Mother of God." When we call her, "Mother of God", we are first of all making a statement of faith about who it was she conceived in her womb. That child who was named Jesus is the Son of God Most High. He is God himself who takes on our human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because that child is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, equal to God in majesty and power, we rightly call his mother Mary, the Mother of God.

This ancient and venerable title also tells us much about who the Blessed Virgin Mary is and the role she played in the salvation Christ brought to the world. Mary was not merely the vessel chosen by God for the birth of his Son. Rather, she was an active participant in the drama of salvation. Without her "yes" to the message of the angel Gabriel, the Son of God could not have been born. After his birth and throughout his ministry Mary is present at the wedding feast at Cana, at the foot of the cross and at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the apostles giving birth to the Church. Mary is the first to believe in Jesus and the first to follow him. Saint Augustine wrote that before Mary conceived Jesus in her womb, she had already conceived him in her heart. And so, Mary, the mother and the disciple, rightfully has a central role in our salvation and is worthy to be venerated by us as an example of what it means to follow and believe in her Son, Jesus.

At the center of Mary's identity and mission is first and foremost that she is a mother. No other title better describes who she is and how she serves the plan of God. As followers of Christ, we can rightly claim her as our mother as well. Jesus said as much from the cross when he turned to Mary and entrusted his disciple John and us along with him to her with the words, "Woman, behold your son." Because she made it possible that Jesus could have life, and because he became the source of our life through his death and resurrection, we can point to Mary as our mother in faith. Furthermore, Saint Paul tells us in the second reading that in baptism we received the Holy Spirit who makes us sons and daughters of God together with Christ. That same Spirit who hovered over Mary so that she could conceive Jesus in her womb puts the very life and love of the Father into our hearts. Through baptism, Jesus, born of a woman, becomes our brother, God becomes our Father and so Mary is now our mother. Because of that, we can count on her to take our needs to her Son and to watch over us on our journey to heaven.

As we begin this new year, the most important thing for us to keep in mind is that we should follow Mary's example. Because of her faith, she brought Jesus into the world. It is now up to us in the power of the Holy Spirit to do the same. By the kindness we show to those in need, we are to make it known that Jesus still walks among us in the person of believers. By bringing food to the hungry, we are to make it known that God continues to feed his people. By standing with those who weep and are sorrowful, we are to make it known that Christ is always by the side of those who suffer. As Mary gave her life and her body over to God's plan of salvation, we must give our very selves over daily to the wonderful works the Father wants to accomplish in our lives and in our world.

Mary is the Mother of God. She is blessed above all women because she carried the Son of God in her womb. It was her incomparable joy to hold the baby Jesus in her arms, to look on his face and to contemplate the wonder of a God who loved us enough to come down from heaven and save us. She is our mother as well. Because she cares for us, she wants nothing else than that we turn to her Son to seek forgiveness for our sins, strength against temptation and the power to do good for the needy who cross our path.

The Son of God took on a human body in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He now gives that body to us in the form of bread and wine. Like the shepherds who made haste to see with their own eyes the Word made Flesh in the arms of Mary, let us leave this place proclaiming the mystery we have celebrated and rejoicing in God's goodness. Like Mary, let us carry this mystery in our hearts and ponder it so that we can bring Jesus into a world that longs to hear the glad tidings of God's love. Then God's face will shine upon us, and we will know a peace that can never be taken away.