Fall to Restoration: A reflection on this week’s Gospel (Mt 4:12-23)

A common saying is “pride comes before a fall.” And there is certainly a ring of truth to it, but that doesn’t have to be the end. Frequently in scripture one can find examples of where God reverses human expectations. Here is an instance where this saying is proven to be incorrect, or at least incomplete.

Two places connect the first reading (Is 8:23-9:3) to the gospel: Zebulun and Naphtali. But apart from being listed, why are they there? These places marked the start of the collapse of the kingdom as they were among the first to be taken captive by the Assyrians. Similarly, there is another reference to the far side of the Jordan, province of the nations.

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It is within this context, using namely the symbol of light, that Isaiah prophecies hope, joy and relief of oppression: the opposite of what they were experiencing at the time. It becomes no surprise then that Jesus after his forty days in the desert goes to these places first to begin his ministry, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. He first proclaims repentance. Repentance of what?

Zebulun and Naphtali fell because of the Kings unfaithfulness; he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Jesus’ call for repentance begin with a returning to the ways of the Lord. The light that comes in darkness is seen through the eyes of repentance; first seen by those who marked the beginning of the end of the kingdom, they now are the first to witness its restoration: the first to see the light of Christ who brings salvation.             

Examples of repentance are seen later in the gospel when Jesus calls his first disciples. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and ‘at once… they followed him.’ While the disciples may not have been the first to have had the call to repentance, they were the first to show what repentance looks like. Ultimately the forgiveness of God experienced through repentance draws us to a deeper participation in the mission of Christ: proclaiming the kingdom of God and curing diseases and sickness among peoples.

Even in the days of Paul, well after Jesus’ restoration, there remains those who divide the kingdom. Paul calls these to be united in belief and practice. Those who are not united by belief and practice have serious difficulties among them. The added depth to Jesus’ restorative act is very real to him when he prayed on the night before his crucifixion “that they may all be one.”

Christ proclaims the coming of God’s kingdom first to the source of the downfall of the kingdom of Judah. Do you allow Christ to heal the source of your downfalls (sins)? Repentance leads one to encounter Christ in a very real way. How do you respond? In what ways are you united in belief and practice to others? What does this look like?         

Hey, there he is!: a reflection on this week’s gospel (Jn 1:29-34)

At coming to the end of the Christmas Season, at least for most of us, we enter ordinary time reflecting on a gospel with an unusual feature: one in which Jesus doesn’t speak a word. And yet his silence allows him to be the center of John the Baptist’s monologue. So why is this gospel, one with which Catholics should be well familiar given it is in the mass, selected as the introduction for the year?

I think it may have more to do with the context of the story. Jesus returns from the desert and John, with his disciples, see Jesus. This begins the gospel. Upon John pointing the way to Jesus (I like to think of it as a “Hey, there he is!” moment) some of his disciples start following him, and rightly so: John is the one who, of Jesus, cries out in the wilderness, is the one unfit to untie his shoes, the one for whom he must decrease.

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Within this context one begins to see the meaning of the gospel. John points the way to Jesus, a way we too must follow. For the start of the year and the season of ordinary time – which, by the way, does not mean ordinary as in plain but ordinary as in ordered or sequential – it is fitting then that the first gospel directs us to Jesus, the Chosen One of God.

Insofar as the Mass is concerned, it may seem strange that these words of John’s direction are placed where they are. If the words, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” are inviting us to be aware of the presence of Jesus, shouldn’t they be earlier perhaps at the start of the Mass or at least before the consecration? Valid arguments, since Jesus is present earlier than when these words are said. So why are they placed there?

I believe – and though I have studied the Mass and indeed given presentations on it, it is no more than a belief, or at best a lucky shot – I believe that while the real presence of Jesus becomes manifest at the point of consecration, just as Jesus was present prior to these words of John, it is not until after Jesus is recognized that others begin to follow. Likewise, it is soon after our public recognition of Jesus in repeating these same words of John that we too begin to follow Jesus, quite physically and publicly, in the reception of the Blessed Sacrament.

I am told there are still disciples of John the Baptist in existence today in a remote part of somewhere (sorry the details are sketchy, some years have since past when I heard that). In spirit at least, I think there are more. These followers of John have not taken heed of his word, have not followed his direction. There are some people today (and perhaps more than some) who have not followed John to Jesus. They may live a worthy life and while they may have come close to Jesus, they have not begun to follow him. They continue to follow a false Chosen One.

In living a life faithful to the gospel, do we point the way to Jesus like John did? Are we continuing to follow a “John” like replacement? Can we let go of the comfort of what we know and like the disciples of John reach out to Jesus and follow him in a radical life? Do we point the way to Jesus in the ordered life?

Let the silence of Jesus be at peace within you. Follow the promptings of his Spirit, in whichever form they take for you – for I’m fairly sure they will not be manifested in the same way as it was for John! – and let your faithfulness to these promptings draw you closer to Christ, and in turn direct others to him on whom the Spirit rests.

Epiphany to Theophany: A reflection on this week’s Gospel (Mt 3:13-17)

One of the things I really love about scripture is it many historical and contextual layers. Often there are things going on in the text that today’s readers are likely to miss, at least without further study. Despite this, one can take profundity from any of these layers that can make a real impact on lives. In a more humorous and contemporary understanding one might say of scripture that, like Shrek, it has layers like an onion. All parts of the bulb are still the onion and still have the distinctive odour. Likewise scripture remains scripture at every depth. Nonetheless, this week’s gospel of Jesus’ baptism is a great example of this. I will explore just a few of these layers.   

 

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The first words spoken are from John the Baptist, “I need to be baptized by you.” These words on their own may for some create a discord already. For those reading it at the time it was written the discord has a deeper resonance. The context was that those who are baptized become subordinate to those who baptized them. This didn’t sit well with some early Christians because if Jesus was really God them he was not subordinate to anyone. While this was not articulated then, there was an understanding that it was so. A discord then lies: if his baptism could be omitted from the text (because of its implied subordination) why wasn’t it? And yes, some things have been omitted or redacted out of scripture.

The baptism of Jesus was likely a well known, though uncomfortable, fact: a public act which had to be dealt with. (You do know there wasn’t someone following Jesus around and writing everything he said or did, right?) Some speculate that the words of John were added as a way to deal with this: John recognizing his unworthiness and transferring the subordination to himself. While the transfer exists what’s to say it didn’t happen in this way? It would have been a matter for John, Jesus and the disciples to address then too.

Jesus replies, “Leave it like this for time being.” Implied here is an undisclosed future time, after the baptism, when the correcting transfer will take place. At the crucifixion? At the death of John the Baptist? Whenever it is, it will occur. In doing “all that righteous demands” Jesus in his earthly manifestation begins to fulfill his mission; a mission proclaimed from creation and a beginning confirmed by the Holy Spirit and the Father.

There is a technical term used when the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are revealed simultaneously in scripture: Theophany. With a similar root word to Epiphany, which means ‘to show forth’ or ‘to reveal’, theophany is God’s self revelation. There is one other, perhaps two, where thephanies occur. Most scholars agree that the Transfiguration is a theophany and some also include the crucifixion. Here at the baptism, the Son comes out of the water, the Spirit of God descend on him, and a voice in heard from heaven. The presence of the other two in such an explicit form confirms the divinity of the Jesus. Epiphany is God revealing more of himself; theophany is his self revelation.  

More could be said about the act of Jesus’ baptism being the sacramentalising of baptism given that at the time it was symbolic; More could be said about the symbol of water being cleansing and quenching; more could be said about the breaking of the surface of the water from the submersion in the Jordan as a sign of rebirth. But I’ll finish dwelling on the thought of God’s explicit self revelation. Here he is in his fullness, publicly declaring his presence. Do we do the same? Do we declare God? He publicly confirms humanity (and we as adopted sons and daughters); do we publicly confirm him? Do we reveal God? 

Encountering Christ: A reflection on this weeks Gospel (Mt 2:1-12)

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, a day earlier than the traditional date of January 6. These twelve days of the Christmas season (Christmas to Epiphany) is a time of encountering Christ, deeply submersed into the mystery of God himself. The God-man enters time and space, becomes an historical event and, through the subtle humility of poverty, brings an immediate and profound discord to all anyone ever thought they knew about God. And thus we are privileged to enter the mystery.

God, who has reveled more and more of himself to the Israelites as each generation passes, begins to penetrate humanity through the intimacy of babe who has the name above all names (Phil 2:9). Born in the Hebrew tradition, he as God comes as a light to enlighten the gentiles and to give glory to Israel, his people (Lk 2:32).

 

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The glory of Israel is its fulfilling of the many prophecies concerning the foretold Christ: a glory recognized by the Magi because of these prophecies. Drawn by the recognition of his star it is implied that others recognized it too by their arrival and inquiry at the palace. But this was not the case: the prophecies were clearly known (by the “wisdom” of the foreign occupants) but no one other than the Magi recognized the star. Two things can be taken from this; first the star was subtle enough to be seen by those who were paying attention and obscure enough for those who weren’t (therefore it is unlikely to have been something explicit and dramatic like a meteor or comet which everyone would have noticed), and secondly those who were seeking him were not in Israel (though some speculate that they may have had Hebrew linage, which is possible).

One thing is for sure: the triple representation of the Magi as gentiles, as the wise, and as “kings” (or leaders) becomes a contrast for the shepherds who are Hebrew, humble, and outcast. The universality of salvation and the openness of encountering God, no matter the situation or circumstance, becomes present from the first moment of the infants birth.

I find that my encounter with Christ began as a subtle internal recognition of little things that changed and reinforced the orientation of my heart towards God. This may reflect your experience too. This same process is seen in the coming of Christ; here is its conclusion. The encounter with Christ eventually leads to others outside of ourselves and our community through their recognition of the presence of God in their lives. This is personified by the Magi from the East. Once this presence is acknowledged a change is found which demands to be followed: the recognition of the presence of evil in our own lives and beyond which grows to the point of avoidance. The Magi after their meeting with Herod, who represents evil not just here but elsewhere in scripture, return home by another way.

After preparing for the coming of Christ through Advent and now receiving him in the season of Christmas, how are you continuing to be on watch for the ongoing presence of Christ? How do you plan on sharing Christ to others? Have you recognized the presence of evil in your life, from within or without? How do you avoid it? These will be a great way to begin a new year.