As the calendar year draws to an end I find myself in an unusual situation. While in some ways my plans for the future have been railroaded, there are many opportunities presented. Which of these I am to take is unclear at this point. When I mentioned my unexpected situation to the Deacon at my local parish he said what a blessed position I am in to be living so much in the mercy of God. Needless to say, these were not quite the words I would have used.
This Sunday’s gospel recounts the first uneasy years of the Holy Family (whose Feast Day it is). It is not surprising that it is after the wise men leave (a symbol of the departure of earthly wisdom) Joseph becomes more explicitly at the mercy of God. Through the intercession of angels God sends word to Joseph (a man docile to the Father) to move the Family here, there and everywhere.
While Matthew explains the meanings behind these (to fulfill what the Lord has spoken through the prophets) there is also an element of the Exodus from Egypt, however now it is to Egypt and not from it. What remains, and always did, is the guiding hand of the Lord to safety and protection. It is through trials that I find my trust in the Lord is tested as through a fire, though the scriptural fire is found as Herod and his son Archelaus.
Many today are persecuted for any number of reasons. For some this persecution drives them out of their homelands and, like Christ, become refugees. Being thrown off course; having plans changed; being driven from a homeland; such trials present opportunities in disguise. These opportunities are not without problems yet these difficulties have a way of uniting those who are persecuted, a way of strengthening bonds.
There’s another key feature of the Holy Family’s journey (I hate this word: life is an adventure, not a passive journey). The Immaculate Mary and the perfect Infant Child both in their humility submit themselves to fallible Joseph. That is trust! Joseph must surely have been a very righteous man! The perfect guided by the imperfect. Relationships are key, no matter who we are, and our ultimate relationship is between us and God. The same God that is so far above us that he humbles himself as a babe in a manger under the protection of a man.
Yet who was protecting who? It was the angels that instructed Joseph to move here, there and everywhere. No doubt all three were under the watchful eye of a loving God, as we all are. The Holy Family holds a special significance to the eyes of the faithful for they become a model for all families who are, as the church describes, the domestic church.
Following the model of the Family there is a certain pressure, yet relief, as the father of my domestic church. The pressure is in the uncertainty of what lies ahead; the hows and whats of provision, protection and direction. The relief is found in the knowledge that ultimately God is providing, protecting and directing the family, if I remain docile to his will. Things often change and each change presents opportunities: the most prominent, to walk closer with God. I don’t know what my future holds but, as the cliche goes, I know who holds the future. May God continue to pour out his blessings on you in 2014.
I remember thinking, when I first become a father, that if I had known of the change it makes within you then I would have become a father years ago. It is a feeling that is rarely duplicated yet lived daily. Nothing else seems as important when children arrive and once you have had children you remain a parent forever.
I wonder if the world felt the same, felt its worth, at the birth of its Saviour? Unlikely! Luke tells us that Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was crowded for the census. Among the throng were shepherds who no doubt brought their stock of sheep with them, close to the towns: extra people, extra animals.
In a world with heightened distractions comes the unobtrusive birth of a babe; an event that would have gone virtually unnoticed if the occasion didn’t call for the heavenly host bursting through the heavens to proclaim his arrival. In this busy world comes the babe who redefines ‘peace’ – the angels’ excited acclamation.
Peace often goes unnoticed. It is not found in the crowd of people or stock. When peace is achieved, there is a sense of worth, a deep sense: a sense that is brought about by the spirit of Christ in us; a profound gift that enables the Christian to hold close to faith even during times of strife and persecution.
Not long after the birth of Jesus the Holy Family had to flee due to the loss of peace in society through Herod’s genocidal persecution. Society is still in turmoil, yet fragile inner peace prevails for those whose ‘soul felt it worth’, even if the world didn’t.
Our response to this as followers of Christ is to find our peace in a busy world. Where distractions abound peace is required all the more. And there is hope in the knowledge that peace will prevail with the change that is made within us through Christ: a feeling of peace that is rarely duplicated yet lived daily.
When all the gifts are opened,
And friends and family fed,
When things return to normal,
And you’re lying in your bed,
When shops offer their discounts,
Leave you spinning in your head,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Lies in his makeshift bed.
He came to offer all some peace
And grace, for all are lost:
A peace never seen before,
And grace without a cost.
His birth is an example –
Calm in a world rough tossed.
His death, too, an example,
As he embraced the cross.
His birth for us a prelude;
For this is why he came:
For when he hung covered in blood
He took upon his name
All our sins committed,
We will never be the same.
So, when your Christmas finishes
Still glorify his name!
Have you ever questioned the faith? It may not be the whole faith, it may just be a part of it. Given that we do not know every aspect of our faith (that’s the beauty of the mystery) if you are anything like me, you have at least questioned parts of it. This is not always a bad thing. I had a lecturer some years back point out to me that the opposite of faith is not doubt but the rejection of faith. You see, doubt can lead us to God, it is the place of learning or as St. Anselm puts it “Faith seeking understanding.”
This week’s Gospel points exactly to that, eliminating doubt so that we may grow in faith closer to Christ. It is no surprise that this is done through John the Baptist who personified and prepared the way to Jesus. At this Advent time, John enables us to look carefully at Jesus and allows us to decide who he is for us: do we look at Jesus through eyes of faith?
From the prison cell John tells his disciples to ask Jesus if he (Jesus) is the one who was to come. Typically, Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Jesus tells them of the sorts of things that he is doing – the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life. Some say that John the Baptist may have needed convincing of who Jesus actually is and point to his pending death which would then mark the end of his ministry. If he was to prepare the way for the one to come, had he got the right “one?”
I am not of this school. I propose – and it really is no more than that – that John the Baptist, the one who leaped in his mothers womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, the one who was related to Jesus and knew him in their early life, the one who reluctantly baptized Jesus (for John thought he should be baptized by Jesus), knew who Jesus really was before anyone else, perhaps except for his Blessed Mother and her spouse, St. Joseph. Notice knowledge. Knowledge is not faith. Faith (a grace of God) requires more from us. We can use our own faculties to know something; to believe in something requires all that and more. Faith is not required when we know (angels do not have faith, they have knowledge).
Then why did John send messengers? John had lost some followers to Jesus earlier, but only some. John again points the way to Jesus; the messengers are to recognize what John sees: that Jesus is the Messiah. The actions listed by Jesus confirm that he is the Messiah for these are what the Messiah would be expected to do. It is not for the sake of John that the messengers are sent, it is for the sake of the messengers!
In talking about John, Jesus, referring to a number of verses from the Hebrew scriptures, points to how great John is; “one greater than John the Baptist has never been seen”. However the key word is “Yet.” No matter how great John is “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The entry into the kingdom of heaven is not death, but faith: a faith developed by questioning the doubts, but founded in first not ‘taking offence’ (some translate to ‘lose faith’) in Jesus. Recognize who Jesus is and accept him for who he is (the Messiah). Those who even begin this process, the least in the kingdom of heaven, are greater than John because of their faith (remember, John had knowledge).
John the Baptist acts as a hinge between the end of the Old Testament period and the kingdom of heaven on earth, seen today in the New Testament. He also acts as a model for us to encourage others towards an encounter with the Christ. He not only prepares the way for Jesus, he also helps prepare others to receive him. In this Advent season be sure to prepare your way, but not at the cost of others: prepare them to receive Jesus.
There seems this week to be a huge dialectic between readings, particularly between the first reading and the Gospel: the prophet Isaiah in the famous “Root of Jesse” passage aligns usual enemies as peaceful friends; the wolf and the lamb, the panther and the kid, the calf and the lion. This notion is picked up again in the second reading; “be tolerant with each other…treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated you….” It seems hard then to adjoin the Gospel where John the Baptist, in a cameo, calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” But fundamentally there is nothing inconsistent with these.
In preparing the way of the Lord, the Baptizer calls all to repentance; which is also the first call of Jesus in the same Gospel (4:17). Repentance is a result of a changing of heart but it does not start from there nor finish there yet is the key for preparation (the heart of the matter) and continuing acceptance of the Kingdom of God which is near at hand.
The process might go something like this: God’s love comes near in the form of his presence; by recognizing his presence we become humbled; in this humility we recognize our failings and repent of our sins (the necessary change); we begin to accept the love of God, as unworthy as we are; this love of God is then shown on our love for others (commonly recognized as good fruits or works); which finally prepare us for a further deepening encounter with God.
This process (as incomplete as it may be) is what John the Baptist is calling the Brood of Vipers to enter. Baptism is the sign of the repentance of sins and a visible sign of our acceptance of God’s love and mercy. However the water baptism of John is only a preparation of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire that will be offered later by Jesus. The paths we are meat to straighten are not literal paths (like clearing the way in a crowd for a king) but rather the internal paths in accepting the love of God and continuing to do his will.
The Pharisees and Sadducees conversely are stuck in their pride. Claiming direct descendancy from Abraham, the father of the faith, they consider themselves above those who otherwise cannot make such a claim. Yet this is a false presumption because they are not producing good fruits. Their pride becomes a stumbling block in receiving what God has to offer, namely himself: they are not making straight the paths. But a faithful God sent his Son regardless to bring hope to those who are willing to accept him.
The wolf and the lamb, the panther and the kid, the calf and lion can only lay in peace because of what God can offer. And what God offers comes from the Root of Jesse. They become symbols (especially the Lion and the Calf which represent Judea and the gentiles) of where accepting God’s love can lead, the breaking down of barriers through which God’s glory is shown. The Pharisees and Sadducees are at one end: the lion and the calf are at the other.
Are you making straight your path to receive God into your heart? Is it any wonder the Advent season is coloured purple. The call of repentance still echoes today. Are you ready?