The Child Jesus

As we start to look down the road to the Lenten Season (which will be here in just 10 short days) the teachings and reflections of the Christmas season start to recede in our minds. But this coming Tuesday Holy Mother Church seems to take a step back in time to our Lord’s presentation at the temple; He is back to being a babe.

It gives us a good moment to go back again and reflect on the beginning of His earthly life right before we start to dive deep into His last years and His greatest gifts. I have always been interested in the devotion many have for the Child Jesus – it is a prominent devotion and one that I have a great fondness for. Yesterday, while catching up on some reading I came across the December 30th General Audience of Pope Francis[1] – it is a short and unique reflection on what the Child Jesus can mean for us – and I would like to share it with you.

Devotion to the Child Jesus is widespread. Many saints cultivated this devotion in their daily prayers, and wished to model their lives after that of the Child Jesus. I think in particular of St Thérèse of Lisieux, who as a Carmelite nun took the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. She is also a Doctor of the Church who knew how to live and witness to the “spiritual childhood” which is assimilated through meditation, as the Virgin Mary taught, on the humility of God who became small for us. This is a great mystery. God is humble! We, who are proud and full of vanity, believe we are something big: we are nothing! He, the Great One, is humble and becomes a child. This is a true mystery. God is humble. This is beautiful!

There was a time in which, in the divine-human Person of Christ, God was a child, and this must hold a particular significance for our faith. It is true that his death on the cross and his Resurrection are the highest expressions of his redeeming love, however let us not forget that the whole of his earthly life is revelation and teaching. In the Christmas season we remember his childhood. In order to grow in faith we will need to contemplate the Child Jesus more often. Certainly, we know nothing of this period of his life. The rare indications that we possess refer to the imposition of his name eight days after his birth and his presentation at the Temple (cf. Lk 2:21-28); in addition to this, the visit of the Magi and the ensuing escape to Egypt (cf. Mt 2:1-23). Then, there is a great leap to 12 years of age, when with Mary and Joseph he goes in pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, and instead of returning with his parents, he remains in the Temple to speak with the doctors of the law.

As we see, we know little of the Child Jesus, but we can learn much about him if we look to the lives of children. It is a beautiful habit that parents and grandparents have, that of watching what the children do.

We discover, first of all, that children want our attention. They have to be at the centre — why? Because they are proud? No! Because they need to feel protected. It is important that we too place Jesus at the centre of our life and know, even if it may seem paradoxical, that it is our responsibility to protect him. He wants to be in our embrace, he wants to be tended to and to be able to fix his gaze on ours. Additionally, we must make the Child Jesus smile in order to show him our love and our joy that he is in our midst. His smile is a sign of the love that gives us the assurance of being loved. Children, lastly, love to play. Playing with children, however, means abandoning our logic in order to enter theirs. If we want to have fun it is necessary to understand what they like, and not to be selfish and make them do the things that we like. It is a lesson for us. Before Jesus we are called to abandon our pretense of autonomy — and this is the crux of the matter: our pretense of autonomy — in order to instead accept the true form of liberty, which consists in knowing and serving whom we have before us. He, the Child, is the Son of God who comes to save us. He has come among us to show us the face of the Father abounding in love and mercy. Therefore, let us hold the Child Jesus tightly in our arms; let us place ourselves at his service. He is the font of love and serenity. It will be beautiful today, when we get home, to go to the nativity scene and kiss the Baby Jesus and say: “Jesus, I want to be humble like you, humble like God”, and to ask him for this grace.

As I reflected on our Holy Father’s talk I came away with two powerful insights:

  • The first, is that this Lenten season, in this year of Mercy, I want to focus on the actions of Christ and the meaning of Calvary and the empty tomb through the eyes of a parent looking at his child.
  • The second, is to give thanks to the Father for the children around me who show me what is missing in the Bible about the Child Jesus.

Brothers and sisters may each of us never release from our embrace the Child Jesus. Let us always, in our hearts, gaze down at the babe who is love incarnate and allow the emotions this brings to sink deep and remain always within us.

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[1] L’Osservatore Romano English edition 1/8/16

Conversion – it’s lifelong

As disciples of our Lord we spend ourselves to our limits in making His good news known. But, just as we spend ourselves in His name, every so often we run into periods of frustration and exhaustion which can lead us into doubt. Thoughts such as – I have given my life to my God; why isn’t my life easier? Why isn’t my witness met with more interest than derision? Why do I receive ridicule instead of curiosity? Why don’t people want what I have? – enter into our hearts and minds. It is all too easy to question our choice for God, our vocation as His disciple, within this attitude of despondency.  And this is made all more difficult by Satan who looks for these cracks in us; as we hear in Peter’s first letter: ‘Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.[1]

Tomorrow (January 25th) we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul; it is one of my favorites.  For me, this is a feast that shows me the truth about successful discipleship – conversion.

Tomorrow’s feast is all about conversion. To only think of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus does this feast a disservice because it hides a most important aspect of his conversion; St. Paul’s conversion is a lifelong conversion. Pope St. John Paul the great wrote: ‘His conversion on the road to Damascus was immediate and radical, but he had to live it in faith and perseverance for long years of apostolate: from that moment on his life had to be an incessant conversion, a continual renewal.[2]

Brothers and sisters, let’s take tomorrow’s Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul as a time to look at what conversion means in our lives. It is not a onetime thing, it is constant. As St. Paul was constantly tested in his faith, so will we.  As we are challenged almost daily to prove our discipleship, so was he.  Each morning St. Paul woke up and made the decision to take up his witness again, so should we. Each evening he laid his head down in review of how his decision for the day went, so should we. Being challenged day in and day out, being exhausted in the Lord’s work day in and day out, is the way of continual conversion; because it is our response to these hardships that builds our lives into a continual ‘yes’ to God. It is not easy but it is necessary; the path to conversion is through the cross since it is by the cross that we have the chance to begin with.

This is a tough road – this road of conversion. What can we do to assure our ‘yes’ to our constant and continual conversion? Abandon yourself to Him! Surrender to the will of Love Himself. ‘Depend on Jesus for everything.[3] Trust in He who never leaves. Live within the ever open embrace of Mercy.

I will finish with a beautiful quote from St. Josemaría Escrivá, one that I go back to time and time again; it helps against those doubting times: ‘Each day, O my God, I am less sure of myself and more sure of you![4]

Amen

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[1] 1 Peter 5:8
[2] Pope St. John Paul the Great General Audience January 1980
[3] St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way #731
[4] St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way #729

Making People Hungry

This weekend we are back in Ordinary Time; but in spite of the change in liturgical seasons we are still contemplating what was started in the Christmas season – the great epiphanies of Christ. Today, we finish with the last of the four great events that, by the way, the Feast of the Epiphany originally celebrated. The Nativity of our Lord, the Visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River, and now the Wedding Feast at Cana.

We are also one month into the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. There has been quite a lot of interest and activity already, which is a good thing. My worry, however, is that if we are not careful this celebration of the Year of Mercy might cloud the great initiative already in progress – The New Evangelization. This would be a tragedy because they fit so well together – indeed they have the same goal. The initiative of the New Evangelization is to bring Christ to those who have forgotten Him; to bring the Face of Mercy Himself to those who have forgotten what God has to offer His creation.

With any ministry and mission we are always looking for ways to implement them; the New Evangelization is no different. As faithful disciples we should always look to Jesus and see how He accomplished His mission on earth; in order to gain insight into how we should participate with Him. In this case – how do we continue to bring His face of Mercy, and what it involves, to those who have forgotten or never knew Him. With these celebrations of the four Epiphanies we can go back and look at how Christ brought Himself to the world.

The Nativity in Bethlehem.
Christ comes first to a family. His presence, the presence of divine mercy enters mankind through a family. It is true that the love and mercy of a mother and father to their child was always there, and Mary and Joseph come to know what this love and mercy is about.  They feel it well up in them and pour it forth on this little and defenseless baby. They knew He was God – but I have to believe that in Bethlehem that realization took a back seat to the love of a parent for their child.  But Christ’s presence brings a holiness to this relationship of parent and child, as well as to the relationship of a family. His presence, His love and mercy, elevates the dynamic of a family to something different, something holy, sacred.

The Visit of the Magi.
The world, in the personage of the Magi, comes to the great king, announced by an amazing cosmic display. But when the meeting happens, I can’t help but believe it is just three tired, worried and worn out journeyman visiting a poor rural family with a toddler. And yet their hearts are moved by what they see; they are fulfilled. The world comes face to face with Mercy Himself as they enter this house of a family filled with sanctity.  These outsiders are affected by what radiates from a family, they are changed; or as St. Matthew states more poetically: ‘they departed for their country by another way[1] Mercy is introduced through a normal encounter– not the extraordinary.

The Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan.
Christ, now an adult, is shown to those at the river as a chosen one of God. Mercy is made known by God Himself. And though it comes in the form of a profound mysterious event it comes during an event with the townsfolk of the region. Christ comes to the river with them and comes out of the river as they do; He is one of them. Mercy is made known through a neighbor and human social activity.

The Wedding Feast of Cana.
Christ, now with a few followers makes His first outward act of a miracle. His changing the water into wine wipes away doubt from His disciples who came with Him that He is special. But, just what was the event that He used. Christ, used the event of a wedding, a special but still common occurrence; and not only that but He used six relatively common vessels used to hold water, to show that Mercy was among the people.  He took the ordinary and raised it to the Holy.

Our Model and Our Turn
Brothers and sisters, as we try to contemplate our part in this much needed New Evangelization let’s look to Christ’s actions in these epiphanies as our model. Christ, in all of these moments, took what he was experiencing, took His daily events and raised them, sanctified them by His actions.  Now, some you might be thinking that – well, He was God and He had special gifts that allowed Him to do this; but, I urge you to reread the second reading today. St. Paul tells the Corinthians and us that we too have been given talents to help the face of Mercy be made known. ‘There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.[2] St. Paul proclaims and then goes on to list a few of the inexhaustible gifts given to us. God has not left us without tools to reintroduce the face of mercy.

My friends – what these epiphanies show us is that our part of Christ’s mission to bring His face to everyone is to take normalcy and raise it to holiness – to always sanctify every moment of our day. This is our task, this is our obligation to He who showed us mercy first; not by clever words but by holy action. Sanctify the workplace, sanctify the home, sanctify the public square; with fearlessness and love. By these actions the people around us will hunger for what we have.

Out part is to make people hungry – Christ will feed them.

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[1] Mt 2:12
[2] 1 Cor 12:4

The Face of Mercy

One of the beauties of the liturgical year is that Holy Mother Church uses special events to highlight an aspect of the faith; this time it is the whole year. The Holy Father opened the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy a little over a month ago on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The theme of the year can make things look new, different, fresh, and uniquely beneficial for our journey Home. For instance this year I look at today’s feast of the Baptism of Lord in a new light, with new emphasis; and it has, for me, become a hermeneutic of sorts, a key, for understanding this special year.

Today marks the end of the Christmas Season which has reflected on the birth of Christ and some events during His so-called hidden years. Last week, of course, we see the Magi come to do Him homage; but that was only one of three events we know about in his youth. With the exception of the event of Anna and Simeon at His Presentation Christ lived His life, more or less, hidden way. Even when Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple surrounded by an astonished crowd, it was only they who knew who He truly was.

But today, today we see Jesus rise from the river; rise from the Jordan in the midst of a great crowd of people. As He rose out of the water with God the Father proclaiming ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.[1]; the crowd (and us) finally behold the face of mercy itself. The people of Judah are now becoming aware of ‘God among us’. No longer is mercy an abstract thought, an ideal, something to be meditated about, a goal to strive for; mercy has a face. It is true that from this face comes the ideal of mercy, the plan of a merciful life, a mercy-filled attitude; but mercy is first and foremost, as Father David preached about on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a person.

Brothers and sisters, as we dive into this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy let’s not forget that mercy is not something that we determine from our feelings or our intellect. It is not something that even the great and wise holy men and women throughout the history of Holy Mother Church have discovered from philosophical and theological reflection.

No, mercy is Jesus Christ; when we gaze upon Christ we see God’s mercy. This is the paradigm that this whole year should be viewed from: Mercy is Christ – all of Him. It is all too easy to allow clever arguments about mercy dictate how we understand it. It is all too easy to allow ourselves to ignore some teachings of Christ, to push aside truth, in favor of seeming kindness and call that mercy. But, that would be wrong – because that would be part of Christ and mercy is all of Him. So, let’s keep Him close to us; in our thoughts, our prayers, and our actions. His face will light our lives as we discern Him, discern about the true meaning of mercy. If we open ourselves to Him He will show us mercy in full. And maybe most importantly, let’s never forget that He will be our strength until He returns to us again.

On this last day of the Christmas Season – when we have celebrated the arrival of mercy among us; let me end with a quote from the great book ‘Imitation of Christ’; which for us, we can make a valuable prayer in our lives, especially in trying times:

How can I bear this life of misery
unless You comfort me
with Your mercy and grace?
Do not turn Your face from me.
Do not delay Your visitation.[2]

Merry Christmas

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[1] Luke 3:22 (RSV)
[2] Imitation of Christ – Thomas á Kempis et al – Book 3 Chapter 3

Change

This week I have been struck by the celebration of the New Year; how the world celebrates this passing of time and what it means. When we have the idea of change and make resolutions to affect them; when we put the past behind us and look for a new start. But just where are we looking? Where do we expect these life altering events to come from? From the New Year?

Then there is our Christmas celebration of the past two weeks, especially today. In a very real way the Gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Epiphany[1] shows us an alternative to the New Year’s resolutions. Today’s reading shows that with the encounter with our Lord our lives can change, and if we allow it, for the better.

But, the operative phrase here is ‘if we allow it’. We have the final say.

It is much easier to throw ourselves into the hope of the New Year – it is inanimate. It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t react. The New Year doesn’t change us, we try to change ourselves. When our resolutions for change fail nothing happens; times goes on and so do we.

But, an encounter with the Lord, with the person who is God, is different. At first it might seem much more intimidating.

  • First, we are opening ourselves up to ‘a someone’; and this someone is holding us accountable; He desires our best and laments at our shortcomings. He loves us and we love Him, and as we all know, the pain of letting a loved-one down is a great pain.
  • Second, this encounter with Jesus does change us, it demands a newness to our actions and lives; which means it demands real effort.

But this encounter with Jesus is much more than a meeting where we set goals with an observer; it is a conversion, a retooling. Christ brings to this encounter more than just aloof and obdurate observation. He brings love and with it, help. As with the celebration of the New Year we bring to Christ our baggage from the past, but we bring more to Christ; we bring the gifts that He gave us as well. When we allow this encounter to enter our souls Christ takes our experiences, our baggage, and our gifts and uses them in ways that we could never have thought of. He remolds us into a healthier person. His presence calms the hurts and failures of the past – places them in the perspective of the future, indeed eternity. His use of our gifts isn’t surprising since He gave us these gifts and with this encounter He is guiding them to be used as He intended.

The issue is whether we have the strength and desire to allow ourselves to be changed, allow ourselves to be pointed in a new and unknown direction. Do we have the faith to be led? Our part in this encounter is to place our doubts and fears aside and follow without reserve; which leads to using our talents and gifts in ways that cause change in our seemingly comfortable and protected lives. Following someone blindly, trusting, is not easy. Our life experiences with this type of trust give us valid cause for concern; but this is different, He is God not just another person. This is why the psalmist can proclaim:

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever;[2]

Brothers and sisters, we are celebrating the New Year, and the world, in varying degrees, looks hopefully to the future for a better life. They make plans to change, to turn away from the old and travel the new.

Today’s feast celebrates the same; only more powerful and more dependable. But we are not basing this on the passing of one second to another, we are basing it on an encounter with a person. Someone who is real, who has help for us. Someone, who walks with us, who has given us His bride to be our strength when we are weak, our teacher when we are confused, our guide when we are lost.

In the old standard ‘Auld Lang Syne’, sung at midnight of New Year day, we ask wistfully: ‘Should old acquaintances be forgotten, and never brought to mind?’ Then there is the book of Revelation: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.[3]

Where do we look for a better future? Where do we get our strength for change? Where is our hope from?

Passing time? Or our constant and eternal friend?’

Come Lord Jesus![4]
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[1] Mt 2:1-12
[2] Psalm 146: 3-6 (RSV)
[3] Rev 1:8 (RSV)
[4] Rev 22:20b (RSV)