31 December 2019

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

O God, who by the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary, hast bestowed upon mankind the reward of eternal salvation: grant, we beseech thee, that we may know the help of her intercession, through whom we have been accounted worthy to receive the Author of our life, Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Treasury of Truth

On the Octave Day of Christmas our thoughts go to the one whose “yes” allowed it all to happen. St. Luke tells us of how the Archangel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth to a young virgin named Mary, addressing her as “full of grace,” and assuring her that there was nothing to fear, that she had been chosen by God to conceive and bear a Son. And when Mary questioned how such a thing could take place, Gabriel outlined for her the great plan of God, how she would be overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and would give birth to the Son who would be holy, the Son of the Most High God.

To all of that, Mary said “yes.” And it is in her “yes” to God that we find a treasury of truth – truths which we accept, and around which we form our devotion – because these truths about Mary speak impressively about her divine Son. So what are they?

First, the Church teaches us that Mary was immaculately conceived. At the instant of Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, she was, by the special grace of God, protected from the stain of original sin. Why would God do that? He did it because of the great destiny which was hers – that of being the Mother of God. It was her flesh which would give flesh to Jesus; it was her body which would be His tabernacle for nine months; therefore, it would be beyond possibility that the Mother of God should be stained with the sin of Adam, since God can endure no sin. This was taught implicitly and explicitly from the earliest days of the Church, and was confirmed and solemnly proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854, when he stated infallibly, “The most holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin.”

Second, the Church teaches us that Mary was impeccable. In other words, she committed no personal sin, and she was free from every moral imperfection. Certainly, she lived a human life. She had to labour and was subject to pain and tiredness; but she, like her son Jesus Christ, had nothing in her which led her to act against the perfect moral law of God. This formal teaching of the Church is deduced from the words of the archangel Gabriel, when he addressed her as being “full of grace,” since moral guilt could not be reconciled with being filled completely with God’s grace. Once again, this teaching is defined because of Mary’s relationship with her Son, and not through simple merit of her own. She did not sin because of a special grace and privilege given to her by God, because He had chosen her to bear the Incarnate Word.

Third, the Church teaches us that Mary was perpetually a virgin. Three states of virginity are professed in this teaching: Mary conceived her Son without a human Father; she gave birth to Jesus without violating her virginity; and she remained a virgin after our Lord was born, for the rest of her life. The virginal conception is contained in all the ancient creeds, which speak of “Jesus Christ… who was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary...” The biblical basis of this, of course, is the prophecy of Isaiah (“A virgin shall conceive and bear a son...”), and it is confirmed in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which quotes this directly from the prophecy of Isaiah. All the early Church Fathers confirm this teaching, and it was verified by the fifth general council of the Church, held at Constantinople in the year 553, where Mary was confirmed as being “perpetually virgin.” Certainly, the ancient theologians did not go into the physical details, but they speak in modest analogies, such as the “emergence of Christ from the sealed tomb,” his “going through closed doors,” the “penetration of light through glass,” the “going out of human thought from the mind.” The Church also teaches us that she remained a virgin after Christ was born. Her marriage to Joseph was not consummated physically, and so she bore no other children. From the fourth century on, such sayings as that of St. Augustine became common: “A virgin conceived, a virgin gave birth, and a virgin remained.”

All these truths about Mary go beyond her, to her Son Jesus Christ. All of them are true because of the one great truth of history: that Almighty God took human flesh upon Himself, and was born of this special woman, a virgin, chosen by God Himself, a virgin prepared for this task through her immaculate conception, a virgin preserved for this task through her impeccability, a virgin honoured for this task through her perpetual virginity, as a constant witness to the fact that it was her pure flesh which was given to the Incarnate Word. These truths are not simply esoteric theological statements. They are truths which impact history. They are truths which prepared for that ultimate moment of history when God entered personally into time and space.

It was at that time that Caesar Augustus, the master of the world, determined to issue an order for a census of the world which was ruled by Rome. To every outpost, to every corner, the order went out: every Roman subject must be enrolled in his own city. It certainly was not in the mind of Caesar Augustus that his imperial order was a part of God’s great plan that the Saviour of the world should be born of the chosen Virgin Mary in a little-known place called Bethlehem. But this order of Caesar Augustus – perhaps thought of by him only incidentally, and then ordered casually – meant that countless lives were interrupted as people gathered the necessary supplies for their various journeys. So it was that Joseph and Mary, visited by angels and touched by God, were traveling in eternity at the order of an earthly ruler. And because of that, how things were to change! In a dirty stable, Pure Love was born. The “Living Bread come down from heaven” was laid where animals had eaten. The ancestors of Joseph and Mary, the Jews, had worshipped the golden calf, and now the ox and the ass were bowing down before their God.

As Mary fulfilled the plan of God by conceiving and giving birth to Jesus Christ, so His passion began. He was born in a borrowed stable; He was buried in a borrowed tomb. The swaddling clothes which Mary wrapped around him when he was born looked forward to the grave-clothes which she would help to wrap around His lifeless body some thirty-three years later. The wooden manger in which His mother had laid him foreshadowed the wooden Cross from which she would receive His body into her arms.

And so in Christ, heaven came to earth, and it came through the Blessed Virgin Mother. God’s glory was announced to shepherds and to kings. And they came, as men and women have been coming ever since, to worship the Word Made Flesh. The Blessed Virgin, holding out the Child Jesus, just as she is depicted in the image of Our Lady of the Atonement, becomes truly our Mother and our example, as God calls each one of us to hold out Christ to the world – to hold Him out in our actions and in our words – so that all may come to worship Him, the Incarnate God.

30 December 2019

Pope St. Sylvester

St. Sylvester was born in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood by Pope St. Marcellinus. This took place during a brief time of peace for the Church, immediately preceding the persecutions of Diocletian. Sylvester was one of the clergy who survived the cruelties during the reign of terror which ensued, and eventually saw the triumph of Constantine in the year 312. Two years later he succeeded St. Melchiades as Bishop of Rome.

The Council of Nicaea was assembled during Pope St. Sylvester's pontificate, in the year 325. By that time he was advanced in years, and so was not able to attend personally. He sent legates to the Council, and because they were the Pope's personal representatives, their names appear first among the signatories of the Decrees, preceding the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch. St. Sylvester was Pope for twenty-four years and eleven months, and he died in the year 335.

Be merciful to the people of thy flock, O Lord, eternal Shepherd of our souls: and keep us in thy continual protection at the intercession of Saint Sylvester, whom thou didst raise up to be shepherd of the whole Church; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

29 December 2019

The Sixth Day of Christmas

“There was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” 
 - Luke 2:36-40

The prophetess Anna was one of the “anawim,” a term which referred to the remnant people, the lowly and quiet ones who simply waited in faithfulness for the Day of the Lord. We know nothing about Anna except what these verses tell us, but even in this brief description we learn the important things.

Anna was a widow. She had known sorrow, certainly, but she had not grown bitter. Sorrow can have different effects upon people. Either it can make a person hard and bitter, resentful and rebellious against God; or it can make a person kinder and more sympathetic. Intense sorrow can rob a person of faith, or it can root faith even deeper, helping it to blossom. We see in Anna a woman who loves God and who quietly serves Him with her worship.

At the time of the Presentation of Our Lord she was eighty-four years of age. Advanced age can take away the strength of the body, but sometimes it can do even worse by taking away hope and a love for life. But in Anna we see a woman who lived in hope and anticipated each day as a gift from God.

She never ceased to worship and she never ceased to pray. The years had left Anna without bitterness and with an unshakable hope because day by day she kept herself close to God, who is our source of strength and in whose strength our weakness is made perfect.

Helping to heal the rift

"When all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne…" and that Word took flesh untainted by sin from the Virgin chosen from the beginning of time. It was done for the healing of that tragic rift between God and Man.

God created all things to be in perfect unity. He made the universe as a reflection of His own divine order. He created Man in His own image, to be in perfect communion with Him. But through the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, disorder entered into the world, and perfect communion was broken. And ever since that time, there has been a tendency in the natural order of things for there to be disintegration, the breakdown of things, a crumbling. Sadly, what should be unnatural has become all too normal in the world around us, and within us, and even within the Church.

Christ founded the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – and so it is. But our sin has caused division, and that is a clear contradiction to the Divine Will of our Lord. While there is an invisible spiritual communion deeper than we know, especially through the bonds of baptism, nonetheless there is to be a visible communion, too, because that is the Will of Christ.  The constant invitation from God is that we work and pray to build up both the spiritual and visible unity of Christ’s Body.

It is this purpose – the building up of unity – which is outlined at the very beginning of the Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum coetibus. In fact, this stated purpose is sometimes glossed over in the search for the particulars of the Personal Ordinariates. People tend to look at the details of how they are established, and of who can belong, of the liturgical use, and of who can be ordained – indeed, any number of other details.

But all that neglects the reason for Pope Benedict XVI’s great generosity, and that is to help bring about the prayer of Christ “that they all may be one.” It is not accidental that the first three paragraphs of the Apostolic Constitution speak of the Church as “a people gathered into the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and that the Church was instituted by Christ as “a sacrament…of communion with God and of unity among all people,” and that this Church is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Then, recognizing that there are “many elements of sanctification and of truth [which] are found outside her visible confines,” he says that these “are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”

What had been broken, the Personal Ordinariates invite us to repair. The communion that has been impaired, we are asked to help restore. The fellowship which has been strained, we are bidden to strengthen.

God’s Incarnate Love came into this world by Our Lady’s “yes,” and it would gladden her heart for her children to be one again. She, who stood beside the Cross and saw her Son in agony, would be comforted by us taking away this pain of separation. There are few things that touch a mother’s heart more, than to see her whole family together at one table. This is why we have been given the Apostolic Constitution: so that we can put division behind us, and join together with one voice and one heart in “that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel” to the whole world.

“Lord Jesus, make us one, as you and the Father are one.” Amen.

28 December 2019

The Feast of the Holy Family

The Feast of the Holy Family gives honour to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and it is an occasion when we remember the importance of every family. In fact, it is so essential in the Church’s understanding of herself that the family is known as the “domestic Church.” Parents have the great privilege and responsibility of raising up yet another generation of Catholics who will walk in the great “stream of faith” which has come from others, and they are given the grace to do this through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

While parents have this as their primary obligation, every one of us – whether parents or grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, clergy, teachers, friends – has the responsibility of assisting in the solid Catholic upbringing of children. Christ Himself has given us this responsibility as members of His Body.

Children need to be developed in virtue; they need to be formed in character. And as our children learn the virtues, so our families – and the Church – will be strengthened and will be that leaven which will help our society come to know God as He has revealed Himself to us.

How do children learn these things?

First, through the examples they see around them. What children witness in the lives of parents and grandparents, and in the other adults whom they admire, they will tend to imitate.

Second, by repeated practice. We need to remind our children constantly to do the right thing, to the point that they know they can do the right thing because they have become accustomed to doing it.

And finally, by word; that is, by what they hear coming from our own lips, and having those words match the actions they see in our lives.

We do our children no favour when we allow them to control us; rather, we have an obligation to assert a godly control over them, guiding them and correcting them and forming them in the image of Christ.

Let this Feast of the Holy Family be a reminder to us of our responsibility to exhibit a solid, holy Catholic life. We must impart good habits of mind, will, and heart to our children, and to do it through hard work and sacrifice each day, setting an example for them of what a Catholic life can be, when it is well lived.

With God's assistance and with our own dedicated and sacrificial work, we can help our children to grow into great men and women, and that will lay the foundation for every family to become more like the Holy Family.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the prayers of the Blessed Mother and of St. Joseph, help us to do this.

O Lord Jesus Christ, who by thy wondrous holiness didst adorn a human home, and by thy subjection to Mary and Joseph didst consecrate the order of earthly families: grant that we, being enlightened by the example of their life with thee in thy Holy Family, and assisted by their prayers, may at last be joined with them in thine eternal fellowship; who livest and reignest with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

27 December 2019

The Holy Innocents

In the midst of celebrating the incarnation of holy innocence, our joy is tempered by the remembrance of the deaths of the Holy Innocents. A wicked ruler ordering death much as he might order the destruction of an unwanted animal; terrified parents seeing their children's blood on the same streets where their families had walked for generations; brutalized children having their lives stolen scarcely after they had begun; a whole town maimed beyond recognition, all because the sin of Adam and Eve necessitated the birth of a Saviour.

We relate the slaughter of the Holy Innocents to the millions of children murdered through abortion -- and quite rightly so. But the horror of abortion is something that goes even beyond what happened on the streets of Bethlehem. The deaths of those little boys in Bethlehem afforded some safety to the Christ Child, because the sly Herod thought he had accomplished his purpose, and so the Holy Family was able to continue unmolested on its journey to the safety of Egypt. Those little boys, even in their suffering, had parents who did all they could to protect them from the violence descending upon them. Those little boys were named, and they were loved, and they were incorporated into God's family through the religious rites attended to by their mothers and fathers. The little boys of Bethlehem are remembered even today, and their deaths are able to be seen as being directly related to the mystery of the Holy Incarnation.

But the little victims of abortion... theirs is a holocaust that defies description. Not a single action of a single wicked ruler are their deaths; rather, their deaths are "a matter of choice" -- choices made by the very ones who should be protecting their innocent lives. These are not deaths being endured for any noble cause. These are deaths born of ignorance, of selfishness, of greed, of any number of the spoiled fruits of sin.

As we remember the deaths of the Holy Innocents, pray also for those who are being murdered in their holy innocence. And pray, too, that the twisted hearts which allow and encourage such unspeakable things might be changed.

O Almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and nurslings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths: mortify and kill all vices in us; and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith, even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

The need for silence...

The Scriptures refer often to silence. We read of the beauty of silence, and of how it pleases the Lord to receive from His faithful children the sacrifice of words unspoken and thoughts not expressed.

We see the greatest example of the meaning of silence in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He is the omnipotent Word of God, the very Word which brought the universe into being, and yet He came into the world as a child unable to speak. Indeed, there are no recorded words of His until He was twelve, and then silence descended again until His public ministry commenced.

There were times during His passion that our Lord’s silence spoke with a particular eloquence. Scripture tells us that when He was before Pontius Pilate, He made no answer to the accusations leveled against Him, nor did He speak a word while He was being mocked in Herod's court. But in those times of silence there was a strength communicated which ultimately would put to silence the cacophony calling for His death, until at the end there was but one voice remaining which proclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

One of the many things our Saviour teaches us is that we should challenge the habit of constant chatter and non-stop access to every word being said in every corner of the world. We should take time out from incessant talking with people and listening to the media. We need to provide for times and places of silence. We must "go apart" as Christ did on occasion, periodically leaving the crowded world that insists upon being seen and looked at, to be heard and listened to.

Of course, there are those with freedom to have solitude, but for some it is less easy. Different people are in different circumstances. Yet everyone should do whatever is possible to have at least some freedom from the oppressive noise that the world inflicts on us so that we can have times of quiet silence before God.

26 December 2019

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

The cave of St. John on Patmos.

Our spiritual journey continues during this Octave of Christmas, as we travel from the Feast of young St. Stephen to the Feast of the aged St. John. And what a journey he made, being taken from tending his fishing nets by the Galilean sea to a cave of exile on the island of Patmos. In both places he was called by the Lord Jesus; first, to listen to the Divine Word so he could follow, and second, to record the Divine Word so those of us who have come later can also follow.

On one of our parish pilgrimages we went to Greece and Turkey, where we visited the cave in which St. John received the apocalyptic vision. As many holy places as I have visited, rarely have I been as affected as I was while standing in that place. There it was that the Risen Lord spoke to John with a power so overwhelming that a fissure was left overhead, dividing the rock into three pieces as a reminder that the Trinity had revealed the truth on that spot. Every place one looked, there was a reminder of John: the hollow in the rock where he rested his head when he grew so tired he could no longer stand upright; the sloping shelf on which the Revelation was recorded. It was all I could do to keep my shoes on my feet, so clearly was this "holy ground." It seemed as though the breath of history was held in that place, and that the apostle would at any moment appear once again to take up his pen to continue recording the living and awe-full word of the Lord. But of course, that could not be. It was there, in that cave, that the final word was spoken. What St. John heard there was the last word of truth. There is no more to be revealed; all we can pray for now is for our increased understanding of what Christ has spoken once for all. Here are the last words the Lord spoke to the last living apostle, written down with trembling hand:
"I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let him who hears say, "Come." And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with the saints. Amen.

The icon pictured here was obtained during a parish pilgrimage, which included a visit to the island of  Patmos, where St. John had been exiled and where the Revelation was given to him by the Risen Christ. This image hangs in the Chapel of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, near the altar.

Shed upon thy Church, we beseech thee, O Lord, the brightness of thy light; that we, being illumined by the teaching of thine apostle and evangelist St. John, may so walk in the light of thy truth, that we may at length attain to the fullness of life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

25 December 2019

Pure Love rested here...

Chapel of the Manger, Basilica of the Holy Nativity, Bethlehem.

One of my earliest Christmas memories was learning to sing "Away in a manger" for a pageant.  I must have been very young indeed, because I can remember it hadn't been too long before that I had stopped sleeping in a crib, and since the carol said that our Lord had "no crib for his bed" I had the thought that we could probably give the one I had been using to the baby Jesus.  It was a child's charitable thought which never worked out, but I've always loved the lullaby that inspired it.

Here's the traditional first verse, with three other verses I wrote several years ago.

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Dear Mary, his Mother, sang sweet lullabies,
as Jesus, awaking, gazed into her eyes.
The most holy Virgin, with loving caress
embraced the world’s Savior with Love’s tenderness.

Good Joseph stood guarding the Mother and Child,
his soul filled with awe and his heart undefiled.
The birth of young Jesus made angels to sing,
but Joseph in silence kept watch o’er his King.

What once was a stable may our hearts become;
may God’s holy fam’ly in us find a home.
With Mary and Joseph and angels above
we worship the Infant, the gift of God’s Love.

Text: V.1, Traditional,
vv. 2-4, Fr. Christopher G. Phillips, 1995
Music; CRADLE SONG, William James Kirkpatrick, 1838-1921)

St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

Saint Stephen was one of the first ordained deacons of the Church. He is also the first Christian martyr. The Greek word from which we derive the English word martyr literally means witness. In that sense, every Christian is called to bear witness to Jesus Christ, in both their words and their actions. Not all are asked to shed their blood.

Those who shed their blood for the faith are the greatest of witnesses. They have been especially honored since the very beginning of Christianity. Stephen was so conformed to Jesus in his holy life that his martyrdom was both a natural and supernatural sign of his love for the Lord. It also inspired the early believers as they faced the first round of brutal persecution.

His name means “crown” and he was the first to be martyred. His final words showed his understanding that Christ had come not just for the Jews, but for the whole world.

As he was being stoned, the young rabbi holding the cloaks of those who were stoning Stephen was named Saul, and what he saw in this young martyr eventually led to his own conversion.

I find it spiritually invigorating to move so rapidly from celebrating the birth of Our Lord, into the next day's commemoration of the first one to die for faith in that same Lord. St. Stephen, the great deacon, the compelling preacher, the martyr whose blood was a seed of faith in St. Paul, his was a life which showed very early that the Catholic faith was not designed for cowards!

When I celebrate Mass each year on St. Stephen's Day, it is a special day for me as it is the anniversary of my father's death, and it is a privilege to be able to pray for the repose of the soul of George William Phillips.  It makes the day bittersweet - it seems to me to be right for such a good man to have died on the feast of such a good saint.

Pray, good St. Stephen... pray for us all.

Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed: and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and bless our persecutors, by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen; who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our Mediator and Advocate; who livest and reignest with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

24 December 2019

To you...

I can remember as a child the excitement of looking under the Christmas tree, with all the gifts wrapped and waiting, and then seeing one that had my name on it. In fact, even as adults we still get a little bit of that feeling, when seeing a beautifully wrapped package, sneaking a look at the tag, and seeing that something’s been chosen and wrapped, just for you.

So then, imagine a gift, beautifully wrapped, with a tag that simply reads, "To you." No other name on it, just "to you." A present labeled like that would mean that anybody who saw it and picked it up, could say, "This one's for me." Anyone could unwrap the gift and claim it as his own. Well, that's what the tag says on this bundle wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in Bethlehem's manger. It says, "To you, from God." Or as the Gospel puts it, "For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour…."

There, lying in the manger, is God's pure love for each one of us. There sheltered amidst animals and straw is His love which has come to us. There, in the form of the Divine Infant, is God’s desire for each one of us to be His own.

Before we even knew enough to ask for a Saviour, God sent One. Before we even knew enough to ask for a Lord, He came and showed Himself to be our Lord, a Child conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. Here, wrapped in swaddling cloths, is God's gift to us. And it’s a gift that will outlast all the others.

This little Child in the manger gives us exactly what we need most. When we’re oppressed with guilt, when we’re burdened by our past, when we’re at a loss about who we are and why we exist, when we’re afraid, in the hour of our death, He gives us exactly what we need.

Salvation is born!

Lest the fact of the Incarnation and the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ become something relegated to cards expressing the greetings of the season with stars and angels hovering over nothing, our Holy Mother the Church marks each day of of the year, including Christmas, with the offering of the Mass, making the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ a present reality.

The Child was born for that purpose. The wood of the cradle makes way for the wood of the cross. The infant in the arms of Mary is the Saviour reposed in her arms. The beginning of the Passion of our Lord was at the moment of His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Shepherds came to adore the Lamb of God, and the Magi brought gifts in preparation for the death and resurrection of the King of the universe.

Here is mysterium tremendum: salvation is born in the stable, salvation is born on the cross, salvation is born on our altars.

O precious Lord, once born for us
in stable small and poor;
be born again within our hearts,
and there let us adore.

As once our Savior thou didst come,
both Man and God divine,
so now thou givest Flesh and Blood
'neath forms of Bread and Wine.

Sweet Fruit of Virgin Mary's womb,
once hid from earthly sight,
may we thy children fruitful be,
and show the world thy Light.

Now stay with us, Lord Jesus Christ,
in solemn Mystery,
that when our work on earth be done
thy glory we may see.

Text: Fr. Christopher G. Phillips
Music: St. Botolph, by Gordon Slater

23 December 2019

Benedictus Dominus Deus

The Benedictus is the canticle of thanksgiving spoken by Zechariah on the occasion of the birth of his son, John the Baptist, and recorded by St. Luke in the first chapter of his Gospel (vv. 68-79).  It is included in the portion of the Gospel read on the morning of December 24th.

It is composed of two parts, the first section being a thanksgiving for the fulfillment of the Jewish hope for the coming of the Messiah. The time of their long-awaited deliverance was here, and it was the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham.  It meant that God's people would be able to "serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness."

The second part of the canticle is addressed by Zechariah to his own son, John, who was to have an important a part in the redemption of mankind. He was to be a prophet.  He would preach repentance, and would "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways."

The Benedictus Dominus Deus is found in our Divine Worship as one of the canticles in Morning Prayer.

BLESSED be the Lord God of Israel; * for he hath visited and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, * in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets, * which have been since the world began;
That we should be saved from our enemies, * and from the hand of all that hate us.
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, * and to remember his holy covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham, * that he would give us;
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies * might serve him without fear;
In holiness and righteousness before him, * all the days of our life.

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: * for thou shalt go. before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people * for the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; * whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, * and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

A pure reflection...

The prophet Malachi spoke of “a refiner and a purifier of silver.” It was the Messiah to whom he was referring. “He shall sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; and He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver.” [Malachi 3:3]

The refiner of silver worked like this: he would sit before the furnace and hold a crucible above the fire, containing the impure mixture of silver and lead. Then, as the crucible was heated, the lead would crumble away, until the pure silver would begin to shine. And when the refiner could see his own reflection shining clearly in the silver, then he would know that the metal was pure, and needed no further refining.

When our Lord Jesus was born and when He looked at His mother’s face, the first recollection of His earthly life would have been His own face, shining, reflected in His Mother’s eyes, as the refiner of silver could see himself in the purity of the metal before him.

That’s what Jesus saw in Mary. He saw His own image, the image of God, shining and reflecting in her soul. He saw the reflection of His own love and holiness in her.

That’s what He looks for in us. Our sins are to be purged away. Our selfishness and our worldliness are to be refined away, as the lead is from silver, in the furnace of our contrition, until Christ sees His own face reflected in our hearts. He has promised that He will purify us, if we come to Him.

What Jesus saw in Mary, He looks for mystically in us, and He has made it possible through His saving work of redemption. As Mary bore the Incarnate Word within her, so we are afforded the privilege of bearing Christ within us. He was planted within us at baptism, and each time we receive Holy Communion, we bear Him within us in a marvelous way as we become living tabernacles for His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

22 December 2019

"He shall be called John."

Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, "Not so; he shall be called John." And they said to her, "None of your kindred is called by this name." And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, "His name is John." And they all marveled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What then will this child be?" For the hand of the Lord was with him.

- St. Luke 1:57-66

In the Old Testament it is written in the Book of Malachi that when the Day of the Lord approached, the great prophet Elijah would return to announce the coming of the Messiah, who would be the Saviour and Ruler of all creation.

Elijah did indeed return, or it would be proper to say that one came who stood in Elijah’s place, fulfilling the role of the great prophet; that is, St. John the Baptist. His birth shows the love God has for His people, as everything was prepared meticulously for the coming of the Incarnate Word.

The Gospel appointed for December 23rd relates a very human situation. The relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth have gathered on the eighth day after their son’s birth. It was the occasion on which the child would be named, but there was disagreement over what to name him.

In our own families, sometimes there are those who think a newborn child should be named after his paternal grandfather, or a child should be named such-and-such because “I’ve always loved that name.” In our ordinary family life we have opinions about such things. But the child in the Gospel today has already been named, and the name was made clear by the very angel who first brought the news. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are firm about it: “He shall be called John.” It is an important name, and a name appropriate to the circumstances. It means "the Lord has been gracious."

With the birth of St. John the Baptist the way is paved for the outpouring of the grace and favour of God in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Lord has been gracious, because the world which had been maimed by sin and death is now able to be a place of hope and new life for all mankind.

21 December 2019

Advent IV: St. Joseph's Annunciation

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.

-Matthew 1:18-25

In his Gospel, St. Matthew tells us that an angel from God appeared to St. Joseph. It was in the context of a dream, but that didn’t make it any less real. It’s related to another event recorded in scripture, when the Blessed Virgin Mary also was visited by the angel, and she was told that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her, and that she would conceive and give birth to a son. The Virgin Mary’s encounter with the angel we know as the Annunciation, and St. Joseph’s experience was no less an annunciation, too. So let’s look more closely at St. Joseph and the place he was given by God.

St. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “just man.” What is it to be “just?” It means being upright and righteous. Then we’re told that he resolved to send Mary away quietly. Let’s look carefully at that. If Joseph really thought Mary was guilty of wrongdoing, then as an upright, righteous man, he would be obliged by law to denounce her publicly. That’s what was required of a just, righteous, obedient Jewish man. A just man would keep the law meticulously, and the law would require that Mary face the consequences of being a young unmarried woman who was expecting a child. But on the other hand, if Joseph thought that Mary was innocent, then he would certainly be unjust in sending her away. A righteous Jewish man, upholding the law, could never knowingly inflict an injustice on someone. So this gets us to the important question – and the answer to this question tells us something extremely important about Joseph. Here’s the question: “If Joseph was indeed a just man, why was he going to send her away?” It’s in the answer to that question that we’re going to gain insight about Joseph’s spirit, his uprightness, his humility, and his sense of justice. The real crux of the matter isn’t whether Joseph believes Mary to be innocent, or whether he thinks she’s guilty. Rather, it’s this: it’s whether Joseph already knows, at the time of the visit of the angel, that Mary has miraculously conceived this Child. But why is that important?

If we look at the words the angel spoke to Joseph, we get a clearer picture. Our translation says, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit…” Really, a more accurate translation of the original text would be this: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for you know that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit…” In the original language of the scripture it’s apparent that Joseph already knew of the supernatural origin of Jesus. The purpose of the visit of the angel wasn’t to inform Joseph that Mary had conceived this child; rather, the purpose was to tell Joseph what his place was to be in all of this.

Now we can more clearly understand Joseph’s uprightness and sense of justice. It wasn’t that he wanted to put Mary away in secret; rather, it’s that Joseph didn’t want to presume a role that wasn’t his. In his humility he didn’t want to pass himself off as the father of the child whom he knows to be the Son of God. It would have seemed to him that he was usurping a role that the Lord hadn’t entrusted to him. That’s why he planned to send Mary away quietly and respectfully and with delicacy. In Joseph’s thoughts, God had plans for Mary, and so he thought he probably should just disappear, he should get out of the picture, so as not to meddle in a plan that was much bigger than the marriage they had planned.

But God did have a place for St. Joseph in this great plan of salvation for the world, and that’s why he had the visit, that annunciation, from the angel. It was Joseph’s vocation to accept, and take into his own home, the Lord of the universe. St. Joseph, as a descendant of David, was to take Emmanuel – God with us – into his own family, into his own genealogy, to be of the house of David. Joseph, the just man, the upright and obedient descendant of David, was to be the means whereby scripture would be fulfilled, and Joseph’s acceptance of this was the last ingredient that was needed for God’s plan to be put into action. Joseph was the first one after Mary to accept the Lord Jesus Christ into his life.

As Jesus comes to us as Word and through Sacrament, so we need to be as Joseph was: willing to serve, willing to obey, willing to open our own hearts and our own homes to the living God who has come to us. Just as St. Joseph had a role in fulfilling God’s plan for the world, so do we. But we need to be intentional about it. Are we opening ourselves to what God has planned for us? Do we pray regularly? Are we involved in regular works of charity? Are we holding a grudge against anyone? Are we giving in to gossip? These are the sorts of things that can either help or hinder us from following the example of St. Joseph.

We need to open our hearts and our minds and our lives to Christ. And when we do that we’ll be helping others to open themselves and their lives to the Incarnate God, who wants all of us to be in that closer relationship with Him.

 Let that be your resolution this Christmas – to be like Mary, to be like Joseph, in saying “yes” to God’s call for us to be close to Him, and to obey His divine plan for our lives. It’s in obedience that we find real freedom; it’s when we say “yes” to God that we become the men and women He intends us to be.

20 December 2019

Mary, Missionary and Evangelist

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."
-Luke 1:39-45

It was shortly after the Annunciation that the Blessed Virgin Mary visited her cousin St. Elizabeth, who in a few months would give birth to St. John Baptist.

It was the Blessed Virgin Mary who in her womb bore the King of heaven and earth, the Creator of the world, the Son of the Eternal Father, the Sun of Justice. She was the first missionary and evangelist, as she carried in her womb the Incarnate Word, taking Him to others. And when the two mothers embraced, it was the close proximity of Jesus which brought about the cleansing of John from original sin in his mother's womb. Hearing herself addressed by the most lofty title of "Mother of the Lord" and realizing what grace her visit had conferred on John, the Blessed Virgin would later break out in a canticle of praise proclaiming: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is His name" (Lk. 1:46).

As we approach the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, all these things should increase and inspire our love and devotion to Mary, Mother of God. and in imitation of her, we are all called to be missionaries and evangelists, carrying the Lord Jesus within us so that he might be shown to others through our own words and deeds.

19 December 2019

"Hail, full of grace..."

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, "Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test." And he said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  
- Isaiah 7:10-14

A prophecy had been given long ago, that a virgin would conceive and bear a son. It was given to a rather unfaithful king of Judea, Ahaz by name, who greeted it with sarcasm and some disdain – much like the world greets it today. But whether the world likes it or not, the prophecy has been fulfilled. The Virgin spoken of in the prophecy we now know is a young girl named Mary, and she would be lifted from obscurity to become the best-known woman in history. And the son spoken of in the prophecy now has a name: it is Jesus, and He is the Son of the Most High God.

Until that time the prophets had been called to announce the will of God to a particular people in a particular place. But God has revealed something not just to the Children of Israel, but to the whole world. Until then prophets and kings had desired to see this great thing, but they had not been so privileged. In fact, no human being was to know it before it was revealed to the Virgin herself.

The archangel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, always ready to announce the divine Will of God to mankind, was the messenger. The purpose in visiting Nazareth was to announce the coming of the God-Man.

We can never know what Mary was thinking when the archangel came to her. We can only imagine that Gabriel’s gaze was kind and steady as the words were spoken to her – words which have woven themselves into our own devotion: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” And the archangel went on to deliver the divine message: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

In simplicity Mary asks a question: “How can this be...?” Gabriel makes everything clear to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God…” and then those beautiful words of assurance: “…for with God nothing will be impossible.” And it was when Mary heard those words that she eagerly replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In those words was the obedience which would change history.

“For with God nothing will be impossible.” That’s what strengthened Mary and opened the door to her complete obedience to God’s plan. And in the face of the difficulties we sometimes have in our own lives, with the decisions we have to make, and with the responsibilities we have, we should remember the words of Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “with God nothing will be impossible.” When we seem to be almost crushed with worry or confused by the many thing in this life that try to draw us away from our life in Christ, we should remember those words. Those are the words which contain God’s promise that He will be with us in all things, just as He was with Mary. His promise, and her faithfulness, meant that she bore the Incarnate Word for the salvation of the world.

And God makes the promise to us – that with Him nothing will be impossible. All He asks is that we say “yes” to what we’ve been called to do – to pour our heart and soul into our marriage, into being parents to our children, into the priesthood, into religious life – whatever our state in life, and whatever our vocation, to seek God’s will and then to do it. It really is that simple. It may not always be easy, but it is quite simple. God is asking for our obedience in remaining faithful to Him – and if we do that, He’ll give us the grace and the strength to meet every challenge, and to bear the good fruit of the Incarnate Word in our own lives, so that through our cooperation, the world might be sanctified, and that all mankind might come to know Emmanuel – the fact that God is with us, in our Savior Jesus Christ.

18 December 2019

Renewing our hope...

And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, "Behold, you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son.” - Judges 13:3

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.” - St. Luke 1:13

Advent is a time to renew our hope and confidence in God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with his people. In preparing the way for a Savior, we see the wondrous miracle of two couples who didn’t think they would have children. But they did conceive and bear sons – Samson in the Old Testament and John the Baptist in the New Testament. These men were used by God to bring hope and deliverance at times of great difficulty in the history of God’s people.

Zechariah was from a priestly family and it was his privilege to be chosen to enter the inner court of the temple to offer sacrifice to God. While carrying out his duties he was visited by the archangel Gabriel, who told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. The people wondered why Zechariah was delayed and they were amazed that he was speechless when he returned from offering sacrifice. They rightly perceived that something special had transpired.

It was a great mystery for Zechariah to grasp all at once. Elizabeth, thought to be barren, would conceive, but both of them were beyond the age when they might expect to have a child. The Gospel tells us that Zechariah became speechless until the day his son was dedicated to the Lord and had been named John.

Silence allowed Zechariah to move more intensely into God’s presence, enabling him to be still and quiet so that he could hear God’s voice more clearly. Zechariah is a reminder to us of the importance of being silent before the Lord, to allow Him to speak to our hearts and reveal His mind to us.

17 December 2019

St. Joseph and his dream...

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but her knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
- Matthew 1:18-25

What we know of St. Joseph for certain, we know from the Gospels. It's there that we see him to be a man who was determined to do what is right in the sight of God, and to do it in a kindly way.

He was betrothed to Mary. According to Jewish practice, betrothal was as sacred as marriage. Because of that, any infidelity before the actual marriage was treated in the same way as infidelity after marriage: death by stoning was the punishment for such sin. By all human appearance, Mary was in just such circumstances, and Joseph had to act in the way that seemed best. He was a just man, but he was a kind man, too, and surely what was revealed to him about Mary made a great demand on his faith.

But that is the point: Joseph was, above all, a man of faith and completely obedient to the divine Will of Almighty God. When it was revealed to him that Mary was to bear the Incarnate Son of God he took her to be his wife. There was no hesitation, no consideration of what others might think or how they might judge. It mattered little to him that it was assumed he was the human father of this Child – not that he would have encouraged others to believe such a thing, for he knew the truth – but it was better than having people think that Mary had shamefully conceived with someone else. So Joseph took the responsibility, knowing one day the truth would be known, and that Truth "would make men free."

16 December 2019

Don't neglect the begats...

In our modern western culture it's important for families to have a sense of heritage. Some may have family traditions, but large numbers of people don’t even know the names of their great-great grandparents, or care where they lived, or what they did. Even those who might dip into genealogy do it out of a curiosity which is short-lived.

In contrast, genealogies were a deeply integral part of Jewish society at the time of Jesus. Land was inherited based on family lines, and those who could not prove their ancestry in Israel were considered to be outsiders.

Because of this difference, modern readers tend to skip over the genealogies in Scripture. The “begats” may not be fascinating reading, but don’t disregard them. God had reasons for inspiring every part of the Bible—even the genealogies of Christ.

On December 17th, with the beginning of Late Advent, we hear the lineage of our Lord Jesus Christ as it’s recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel. His genealogy is recorded all the way back to Abraham, and in the Old Testament we have the genealogy from Abraham back to the first man, Adam. This is not an insignificant detail. Indeed, it is a crucial fulfillment of prophecy. Adam’s sin brought judgment and death into the world, but a Savior was promised—the Seed of the woman who would strike the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Jesus Christ is the “Last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), the promised Seed of the woman.

Jesus is the Saviour who was promised throughout history. The genealogies in Matthew and Luke show Him as the descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and eventually David—men to whom these prophecies were made. God promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his offspring, a promise which was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

By reading these genealogies, we see that Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. This is also a fulfillment of many Old Testament promises. The promised Messiah would be the descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:12–14) and would one day rule on David’s throne (Isaiah 9:6–7).

Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah—the descendant of Abraham and David, and He is our Saviour who gave His life to redeem us from our sins.

Late Advent

With the beginning of Late Advent on December 17th, so we begin the great “O" Antiphons, which lead up to the Vigil of the Nativity. Each antiphon highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel (O God With Us), and they are taken from the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming of the Messiah.

Of course, most of the Catholic Church already shares our patrimony’s gift regarding the O Antiphons in the metrical translation of these antiphons, the universally beloved: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” That translation is, in large part, the work of the famed Anglican priest, translator and hymnographer, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), to whose scholarly and literary gifts the Anglican Church owes its recovery of the great treasury of pre-Reformation Latin hymnody.

There is, however, another antiphon which is firmly part of our patrimony.  It is our unique eighth O Antiphon, which we hear on the morning of December 24th — a most fitting antiphon indeed to echo throughout the monasteries and churches of the land known then – and now again – as “Our Lady’s Dowry,” the antiphon O Virgo virginum:
O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? quia nec primam similem visa es, nec habere sequentem. Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? for neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? the thing which ye behold, is a divine mystery.

15 December 2019


On Monday of the Third Week of Advent these words are included in the readings for Mass: from the Book of Numbers (24:17): “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…”; and from St. Matthew’s Gospel (21:23) we read “When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’”

The thread in today’s Scripture readings has to do with authority. From our experience we might tend to think of people with authority as being people who just want to boss other people around, but of course, that’s not really what authority means.

First, look at Balaam. He was a seer or diviner who was hired by the enemies of Israel to put a curse on the Israelites. Why? Because the Children of Israel were nearing their forty-year period of wandering and were getting ready to enter into the Promised Land. The people who were already there didn’t want them and so they wanted to do whatever was necessary to keep them out.

 Balaam was a greedy man, and although he was being paid by the enemies of Israel, he tried to make a deal with God, too; and God agreed, but as a result Balaam couldn’t curse the Israelites. In fact, he prophesied about a king who would be coming, a king who would lead Israel. The enemies of Israel weren’t happy about that! Balaam had no other choice but to prophesy what God revealed to him, because the authority of God was stronger than any deal Balaam could have made with Israel’s enemies.

In the Gospel the chief priests and elders of the Jews go to Jesus and demand to know by what authority He was acting and speaking. After going back and forth, Jesus refused to answer their demand, because they were only trying to trap Him and have him arrested. He had made it very clear that His authority is God’s authority, and He had come as the Messiah.

So let’s look briefly at the idea of “authority.” The word comes from the Latin “auctoritas” which is related to the word “augere” which means "to increase, make bigger." A person with ‘authority’ isn’t somebody who wields coercive power over others. The exercise of genuine authority is not to control, or to keep people in line; rather, to have authority is to be someone who helps people reach their full potential.

So, when parents exercise authority over their children, it should be done in such a way as to help them become better people. When the clergy exercise authority, it should be to help people to become more of what God intends them to be.

This is the kind of authority Jesus showed perfectly. He invited people to follow Him, and to be more like Him. He came to serve, and not to be served. He came to give life in its fullness. He came to lead people into all they could be and were meant to be. We can tell the difference between good authority and bad authority – is it making you a better person? Is it helping you to become what God wants you to be?

14 December 2019

The builder of a highway...

Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings' houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you.’”
-St. Matthew 11:7-10

St. John the Baptist was the builder of a highway. His birth had been prophesied for generations, that it would be a sign of the coming of the promised Messiah. The prophet Malachi had said, “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple.” Isaiah had spoken of the “voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” St. John the Baptist was this Messenger, and his coming bore witness to the impending coming of Christ, making John the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the first of the New Testament prophets.

When John was born the people asked the question, “What kind of child will this be?” The people had their answer in the words spoken by his father, Zachariah: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins.” It would be John who would prepare the people to receive the Messiah and His mercy. John would, through his preaching, bring light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

And the scriptures foreshadow how powerful John’s message would be. We’re told that mountains would be laid low; valleys would be lifted up; crooked places would be made straight; rough places would be made smooth.

Did those things actually happen? Well, we don’t read in the scriptures about mountains falling flat, or the floors of valleys being pushed up to the level of the mountains. Those things did happen, but not in the plain, human, worldly sense that we might first think of. No, as John preached, those things happened in men’s hearts. Those who had hearts that were like mountains, puffed up with selfish pride – those who trusted in their own goodness – they were struck down by the crushing words of John’s proclamation. Those who were like valleys – those who lived in despair and who thought they could never achieve any righteousness – they were lifted up by the hope they found in John’s message. Hearts and minds which were crooked were made straight at John’s call to repentance. Lives which had been made rough with sin were smoothed out as they pressed towards John to let him wash them in the Jordan. It was through this message of repentance that the highway was built for Christ and for His Gospel. It was a highway for God Himself to come, where He would turn the dry, dead desert into a place of life.

It was to build this highway that John was born. It was for this reason that he went out to the desert. This is why he clothed himself in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. This is why he preached. It was all so that he could prepare the way of Christ.

And that’s exactly what he did. By his preaching of repentance, people were prepared for the One Who was to come. Of course, there were some who refused to listen then, just as there are those who won’t listen today. But for those who listened and believed, they were made ready to receive the Lamb of God who would take away their sins. And when the Lamb came, John pointed him out clearly. And those who repented and turned away from their life of sin and death found what they needed. They found forgiveness; they found life; they found salvation in Christ Jesus.

And that’s the way it is with us today. The message of St. John the Baptist still sounds in our ears through the preaching of God’s Holy Catholic Church. John’s task of preparing us for Jesus continues. It’s no longer John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth who proclaims it; but we hear it through the Church’s faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word. And this teaching calls us to stop our sinning and to turn our hearts away from ungodly things.

If we’ve built a mountain of spiritual pride, we’re called to stop being self-righteous, and we’re asked to humble ourselves before God. If we’ve been common or crude in our thoughts, or words, or deeds, God calls us away from these things, and we’re asked to put them behind us. If our hearts have become crooked, we’re called to turn away from dishonesty. If our lives are rough, the Church calls us to strive for the good and the beautiful and the godly.

And this message doesn’t ask us to do something that’s beyond us. We’re not expected to remedy these things on our own. No, we’re asked to acknowledge our condition, and to repent, turning to God – and He’s the One who will give us the necessary grace and strength to do these things.

Through the Church’s continuation of the preaching of St. John the Baptist, a highway is laid down in the desert of our hearts. A path is made, so that the Lamb of God can come in and change the desert into a garden.

13 December 2019

St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross was born in Spain in 1542, and he learned some important lessons from his parents -- especially the importance of sacrificial love. His father gave up tremendous wealth and social status when he fell in love and married a weaver's daughter, and was disowned by his noble family. After his father died, John’s mother kept the destitute family together as they wandered homeless in search of work. These were the examples of sacrifice that John followed as he came to know that one great love in his own life -- God.

When the family finally found work, the family still lived in poverty. When he was only fourteen, John took a job caring for people in a hospital for those with incurable diseases or who were insane. It was in the midst of this poverty and suffering that John learned to search for beauty and happiness not in the world, but in God.

St. John eventually became a priest and joined the Carmelite order. This was at the time of great Saint Teresa of Avila, and she asked him to help her in her efforts to reform the Carmelites, who had become very worldly. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer, but many Carmelites felt threatened by this reform, and some members of John's own order kidnapped him. He was locked in a cell which was only six feet by ten feet, where he was frequently beaten. There was only one tiny window high up near the ceiling. Yet in that unbearable dark, cold, and desolate cell, his love and faith continued to grow. He had nothing left but God -- and God brought John his greatest joys in that tiny cell.

After nine months, John escaped. Taking only the mystical poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets. He managed to hide from his pursuers, and from then on his life was devoted to sharing and explaining his experience of God's love.

"What more do you want, o soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfaction and kingdom -- your beloved whom you desire and seek? Desire him there, adore him there. Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and you won't find him, or enjoy him more than by seeking him within you."
Saint John of the Cross
Priest, Mystic, Poet, Doctor of the Church

O God, who didst give to blessed St. John of the Cross, thy Confessor and Doctor, grace to show forth a singular love of perfect self-denial and of bearing thy Cross: grant, we beseech thee; that we cleaving steadfastly to his pattern, may attain to everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

12 December 2019

St. Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

Lucy’s name has as its root the Latin word for light, lux. This makes her commemoration all the more meaningful during this time of Advent, as we increase each week the number of candles we light on the Advent wreath, reminding us that our lives are to be more and more illumined by the light of Christ.

We can be certain that there was a young Christian girl named Lucy who lived at the end of the 3rd century and into the beginning of the 4th century, because devotion to her is widespread from the 4th century on. Lots of the details of her life, however, come from legends and stories which were told from one generation to the next – and although the stories no doubt have some factual basis, many of the details were added over the years.

So what do we know about her? We know that Lucy’s father died when she was very young, because there is no mention of him whatsoever in the stories about her. Lucy’s mother, Eutychia, suffered from a serious sickness for many years, and she was unable to find any doctor who could help her. Young Lucy had heard of the healing power of the prayers of a young girl, St. Agatha, who had been martyred for the faith. The story is that St. Lucy convinced her mother that they should travel to the tomb of St. Agatha, so they could ask for her prayers for Lucy’s mother. They prayed all night, even falling asleep at the tomb. In her sleep, Lucy had a vision of St. Agatha, and at that moment, her mother Eutychia was cured.

Now, it happened that some time before this, Eutychia had arranged a marriage for Lucy with a young man who was a pagan, but Lucy insisted that she wouldn’t marry, and that the money which would have been used for her dowry should be spent on the poor. In fact, Lucy gave away everything she owned, including her property and her jewelry. News of this came to the attention of the young man whom she was supposed to marry, and he became very angry. He went to the local authorities to report that Lucy was a Christian – and this was a time when it was illegal to belong to the Church.

She was condemned to prison, but when the guards came to take her away, they found that it was impossible to lift her. No matter how much they tried to lift her, she seemed to become immoveable. It is said that she was killed when they plunged a dagger into her throat, and the story is that they had gouged out her eyes before her death. She is often pictured in art with two eyes on a plate, and for that reason she is the patroness of those who are blind or who have any disease of the eyes.

She is Lucy – lux – who lived and died in the light of Christ.

Almighty and everlasting God, who dost choose those whom the world deemeth powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of thy youthful martyr St. Lucy, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

11 December 2019

Our Lady of Guadalupe

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe
at Our Lady of the Atonement Church

On December 9, 1531, in Mexico, Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego, a poor humble Aztec Indian who had recently converted to the Catholic faith, and we heard about this last week when we commemorated St. Juan Diego. She asked him to go to the Bishop and tell him to build a church where she said “I will show and offer all of my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to my people.” Juan Diego did as she asked, but the Bishop asked for a sign that this message was really from Our Lady. Mary granted his request. On December 12, she showed Juan where the most beautiful Castilian roses were and told him to gather them. It was a miracle that the roses were there and in bloom because there was frost on the ground, and the ground was an infertile place where only cactus and thistles grew. After he gathered them, she helped arrange them in his tilma and told him to show them to the Bishop. When he brought them to the Bishop, the Bishop was amazed at the roses, but was even more amazed at what began to happen to Juan Diego’s tilma. Right before their very eyes, the image of Our Lady began to form on the cloth. The picture of Mary was beautiful and the Bishop fell to his knees. He had the church built at her request. The tilma is still intact after 485 years. The colors have not faded and the cloth has not deteriorated. It has been on display in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe for all this time.

The manner in which Our Lady appeared on the tilma was very significant to the Aztec Indians. God had her dressed in a way that they would understand who she was. She was dressed in royal clothes that showed that she was very important, perhaps a queen. She also had the symbol of the cross at her neck which was the same symbol the Spaniards had on their ships and in the churches they built. She had a sash tied around her waist which meant that she was going to have a child, for this was the way the Aztec women dressed when they were pregnant. And on her beautiful dress were all sorts of designs and flowers. But there was one flower on her dress that was very significant. It had only four petals. To the Aztecs, the four petal flower was the symbol for the true God, the God above all gods. This flower was located on her abdomen, right over the place where Jesus was growing inside of her. The Aztecs immediately understood that this was the mother of the true God! This appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe was very important to the history of our continent. You see, the Aztec Indians and the Spaniards were on the brink of war. The Aztec Indians’ culture and religion were very different. They worshipped gods, to whom they would offer human sacrifices, often killing 50,000 people a year. If a war had occurred, it would have been very brutal and the Spaniards and Christianity would have been totally wiped out. Mary’s appearance changed everything. It helped the Indians to embrace Christianity and it helped the Spaniards to treat the Indians with respect and as human beings. In the course of seven years, 6,000,000 Indians converted to the Catholic faith. This was the biggest conversion in the history of the Church! This is why Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Patroness of the Americas. Mary’s appearance put an end to the worship of stone gods and the ritual of human sacrifice. Our Lady of Guadalupe is also called the Patroness of the Unborn. We pray for Mary’s help today to bring an end to the human sacrifice of God’s children through abortion and to convert non-believers.

O God, who hast willed that under the special patronage of the most Blessed Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, we should receive an abundant measure of unceasing favours: grant us, thy suppliant people; that as we rejoice to honour her upon earth, so we may enjoy the vision of her in heaven; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.