What Child Is This?

I’m sitting next to my week-old grandson on Christmas Eve while he peacefully sleeps. His three older brothers are occupied in pretend battles and other pursuits common to little boys. But back to baby Peregrine…

On the eve of the celebration of our Savior’s birth, little Peregrine gives me insight into the fragility with which our God entered our world. He was totally dependent on his mother for everything that he needed. He subjected himself to our weakest and most vulnerable state to become one of us and offer us his greatest gift–our salvation!

This morning I read a quote from St. Hilary of Poitiers that captures the essence of this Christmas miracle:

“What worthy return can we make for so great a condescension? The One Only-begotten God, ineffably born of God, entered the Virgin’s womb and grew and took the frame of poor humanity. He who upholds the universe, within whom and through whom are all things, was brought forth by common childbirth. He at whose voice archangels and angels tremble, and heaven and earth and all the elements of this world are melted, was heard in childish wailing. The Invisible and Incomprehensible, whom sight and feeling and touch cannot measure, was wrapped in a cradle.”

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Thank you Jesus! Merry Christmas!

What Child Is This?

Your Prayer Is Heard! Say What?

I love the Advent season, something I have mentioned here before. I love how Scripture introduces us to the main characters of the story that culminates with the birth of our Savior Jesus the Christ. How different that story is from the mind-numbing songs and stories that are paraded out right after Thanksgiving. What more can you tell me about Rudolph or Frosty or the Grinch or even Santa Claus?

But the ancient story is ever new. I never tire of hearing the Old Testament prophecies and reliving the anticipation that Israel must have felt as the people awaited their Messiah. The angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and to Mary leave me with wonder. The hurried visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth and the intrauterine celebration of John the Baptist filled with the Holy Spirit when he hears the voice of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of our Lord.

And just as certainly as we relive the “old favorites,” as is always the case with Scripture, there is always something new to discover. That happened to me today. The Gospel reading is found in Luke 1:5-25. It is the story of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah while he was serving in the temple. Now just a quick backstory: Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been getting their Denny’s discount for many years. They were certainly senior citizens. They had no children because Elizabeth was barren all those many years. Then suddenly, while Zechariah was offering prayers in the form of incense on behalf of the multitude of people who were waiting outside, the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared.

You know the story: Zechariah is afraid; Gabriel tells him he will have a son; Zechariah is incredulous; and Zechariah is told that because of his unbelief he will not speak until the baby is born. Most of us know the way the story plays out. But today I saw something I had never seen before. I almost wonder if it was there before. Okay, I know it was, but I hadn’t noticed it until today.

And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. (Luke 1:11-13 RSV)

Say what? Gabriel’s appearance and announcement to Zechariah was in direct response to Zechariah’s prayer. He had prayed that his wife would bear him a son. God had delayed the answer until the right time. Zechariah, Elizabeth and their son would become part of the great developing story of the coming of God’s salvation to the world in God’s time.

I tend to wonder why Zechariah reacted as he did, especially after the angel laid out all the particulars about this son that would be theirs:

“And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth;
for he will be great before the Lord,
and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink,
and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit,
even from his mother’s womb.
And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah,
to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:14-17 RSV)

What do I do when God assures me he has heard my prayer? I usually keep praying and wondering and sometimes doubting and looking for backup plans. Sound familiar? How does God assure me he has heard my prayer? I can only answer in one way. If God lays a prayer burden on my heart and makes it clear that he wants me to spend time in intercession, then I can be assured that he will also answer. You and I both know that it may not look exactly like what we imagine, but God will answer and it will be something he will use for his glory.

Zechariah expected a child from Elizabeth when they first married and for many years afterward. Yet the answer came when Zechariah was more fit to be a grandfather or even a great-grandfather. But the son did come and Jesus said of him, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11 RSV). By that time, no doubt, Zechariah had passed from the scene. He would not see John be used by God to announce the coming of Jesus. Mercifully he would also not witness his son’s martyrdom, but his prayer was answered.

That gives me great hope for the deep prayers that God has placed on my heart. With Zechariah I sing:

“And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
    by which the daybreak from on high will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
    to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79 NABRE)

 

Your Prayer Is Heard! Say What?

A Stumbling Block for Many

marystain

I just returned from Mass celebrating the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It was wonderful to see the church completely full on this holy day of obligation. It was my privilege to be one of the lectors, reading from Genesis 3.

Coming from an evangelical heritage I understand the issues someone from that tradition may have with a day like today. Many point to the fact that it wasn’t until 1854 that Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be dogma in his encyclical Ineffabilis Deus, “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

This dogma did not come out of thin air. The Church through the centuries held this to be true, and then in defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ in the 19th century, the dogma was declared, not as something novel, but in accord with the time-honored beliefs of the Church, not to elevate Mary, but to glorify Jesus and his salvific work in and through his mother. Here is a sampling of what previous churchmen have said:

“Let us not imagine that we obscure the glory of the Son by the great praise we lavish on the Mother; for the more she is honored, the greater is the glory of her Son. There can be no doubt that whatever we say in praise of the Mother gives equal praise to the Son.”—St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090–1153.

From a sermon by Saint Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109)—

Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night—everything that is subject to the power or use of man—rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. All creatures were dead, as it were, useless for men or for the praise of God, who made them. The world, contrary to its true destiny, was corrupted and tainted by the acts of men who served idols. Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God.

The universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly, working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.

Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain.

Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance. Virgin, blessed above all creatures, through your blessing all creation is blessed, not only creation from its Creator, but the Creator himself has been blessed by creation.

To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary.

God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Truly the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself. (Oratio 52: PL 158, 955-956, from The Liturgy of the Hours, December 8)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

A Stumbling Block for Many

I Am Not Worthy

The season of Advent grows in significance in my spiritual life with each passing year. I first discovered Advent as a ministerial student at Asbury Theological Seminary. There I was introduced to liturgy and the whole concept of the year being expressed by liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time.

I write on this Monday of the first week of Advent; the Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 8:5–13—Jesus and his encounter with the Roman Centurion who requests healing for his servant.

As he entered Caper′na-um, a centurion came forward to him, begging him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (RSV)

This morning before Mass, I sat down to pray this passage using Lectio Divina. After an initial prayer, asking God to speak to me through the Gospel, I read it carefully and three words jumped out at me: centurion, begging, and Lord.

The man who approached Jesus that day in Capernaum was a Roman centurion. A centurion was not a Jew, he was as I have already mentioned Roman, and commanded a “centuria” or century, that from 200 to 1000 legionaries. A centurion was a symbol of the oppression the Jewish population endured under Roman rule. His presence instilled fear, order and obedience, no matter how reluctant. As this centurion himself says, For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 

So here we have this powerful, brave and influential man coming to Jesus and begging him on behalf of a sick servant: “…my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” The centurion in his position with Rome could have ordered Jesus, a Jew, to come to his house and take care of his need. Instead we see the centurion in a posture of a mendicant, a beggar, not unlike others we see in Scripture, e.g. blind Bartimaeus. The posture of begging strips the centurion of his armor, his sword, his Roman swagger and his menacing demeanor. He comes to Jesus as we all must: nothing to brag about, nothing to hold on to, nothing to cling to. As the old hymn “Rock of Ages” says:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

The final word is Lord. The centurion says to Jesus begging: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And later he says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Maybe, like me, you’ve read that story so many times or as a Catholic, repeated those powerful words in the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” For the centurion to call Jesus “Lord” was no small thing. For the centurion and all Romans of his time, Caesar was Lord. To call Jesus Lord was not only novel, it was blasphemous, dangerous and treasonous. Yet somehow the centurion recognized Jesus for who he was: Lord! Jesus is Lord! That became the creed of the early Christians: Jesus is Lord! not Caesar! Many of them gave up their lives for that affirmation of faith.

Where does that leave you and me? Time for confession, my confession. I tend to come to Jesus putting my best foot forward. That can look different at different times and places. I read the Bible thinking about all the times I’ve already read this passage instead of thinking about the fresh thing our Lord wants to say to me through it—like this morning! I start praying and present my list of petitions with the fixes I’m sure would make everyone and everything better, instead of quieting myself before our Lord and letting Him tell me how He wants to change me, which will change how I see the people and the things I want Him to fix. And even when I go to Confession, if I try to put my sins in the best possible light, instead of agreeing with the centurion that I am not worthy, no real forgiveness and cleansing can take place.

Lord, like the centurion, I put aside my perceived merits. I beg of you to hear my plea. I acknowledge that you are Lord and nothing in my life or in my world can compete with that, nor will you accept it. Lord, only say the word and my soul shall be healed. Amen.

I Am Not Worthy