Living as Missionary Disciples

misdiscHere is a brief excerpt from my letter as pastor to the parish:

“The purpose of youth ministry is to ENABLE, not to entertain. It seems to me that much of youth ministry these days seeks to amuse; and yet, too much of their lives are already consumed by pursuing pleasure and gratification. Various synonyms for entertainment are telling: “beguile,” “distract,” “gratify,” “divert” and “indulge.” We do not want to beguile or fool our young people, but to have them encounter the truth. The last thing we want is any additional distraction when they need to be focused on the Lord. While there is a certain satisfaction with being in right relationship with God, this is a far cry from seeking pleasure for its own sake or selfishly losing ourselves in a contrived stupor, spiritual or otherwise. We need to work with our natural longing for purpose and meaning. It is here that we can share the compass setting toward Christ and the kingdom. We were made for God; nothing should divert us from this primary orientation.”

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Suggested New Sign

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Blessing of Catholic Homes

home blessingContact the rectory (301-249-2266) or email Father Joe (frjoe@erols.com) and schedule to have your home blessed by a priest and/or deacon.  Sanctify your residence and put the devil on notice that he is not welcome in your house. Remember that every house blessing is also a minor exorcism where we seek God’s protection over you and your loved ones.

Homes are ultimately blessed, not simply by clergy with holy water, but by the holiness and faith of those who live there.  Make your homes “little churches” where you will never be ashamed or dismissive of the presence of Christ.  Instructions will also be shared about the creation of a home altar or shrine that will become a focus for daily prayer.  As Missionary Disciples of Christ, witness to your family and neighbors what it means to be a Catholic Christian believer.

Copies of the ritual and accompanying prayers will be given family members to assist in the home blessing and as a resource for the spiritual growth of members.  The booklet includes the following:  Service for the Home Blessing; Litany and Consecration to the Sacred Heart; Recommended Prayers for Room Blessings; Basic Catholic Prayers; and the Rosary.

It is also traditional to leave an image of Jesus and/or Mary as a gift for the home being blessed.  We have an assortment of images from which parishioners might make a selection  (one of Christ and one of Mary).

Icon Images of Jesus & Mary (1/2/3)

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Other Images of Jesus Christ (4/5/6)

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An Image of Mary Alone and an Image of the Holy Family [counts as 2] (7/8)

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Images of Jesus at the Last Supper (9/10)

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Services at Holy Family Parish

coverbap marriage funeral

Baptism Registration Form

Godparent Permissorial Form

Funeral Planning Form

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Ministries at Holy Family Parish

aguild catechist emohc

music pcouncil reader server sodality usherkoccoverlohfmcover ksjcover

Usher Application

 

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[74] Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Readings: Job 7:1-4, 6-7 / Psalm 147 / 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23 / Mark 1:29-39

Job speaks of life as “drudgery” or as a battle to survive.  Like “hirelings” we must work to live and to put food on the table.  This is not our true home and we are wayfarers in a foreign land.  We are a “slave” to the mortal condition, longing for leisure and comfort from our toil.  One might summarize his remarks thusly:  life is hard and life is short. When he speaks about the lack of hope and that he “shall not see happiness again,” he is speaking about the fleeting joy or satisfaction this world offers.  Job is not spurning God but he does indicate that there is something about the mystery of pain that remains unintelligible.  Any of us who have endured loss or grown old or know sickness and pain can add our voices to the truth of what Job says.  We get older and know that there are more days behind us than before us.  We appreciate that our bodies fail us and there are some ailments from which we will not recover.  Pain becomes the constant companion to many of us.  While as Christians we trust that the Lord can restore all that the world takes away, the world will not let go of us until it has killed us.

The Book of Job is not a testament to despair, but rather is a witness of faith against the harsh truth of existence in the mortal world.  I am reminded of St. Teresa of Avila and her appraisal as a Christian of hardship. She was on her way back to the convent during a torrential storm.  She tumbles down an embankment into a pool of mud.  Dragging herself out, she looks up to heaven with this address to the Almighty:  “If this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few of them!” Perpetually in conversation with God, her assessment is no affront to the deity, but is a tenacious expression of an existential truth in facing the mystery of suffering.

Visitors to his home attempt to convince Job that his dire plight must be a punishment for some crime or sin.  The Jews saw this view as safeguarding God’s goodness and divine justice.  Suffering is perceived as self-inflicted or as the price for sin.  That assessment also feeds into our notion of original sin.  God as the creator is good and in no way can be the source of evil.  Sin is the consequence of our violation of freedom— a transgression of the moral law— and is an offense against God, the divine lawgiver.  It follows that God as the just judge rewards good and punishes evil.  This reckoning of the moral order would have us interpret suffering as “justified evil.”  However, the story of Job, while not invalidating this stance, shows that it is overly simplistic.

Pope John Paul II writes in Salvifici Doloris that Job is “the story of this just man, who without any fault of his own is tried by innumerable sufferings… loses his possessions, his sons and daughters, and finally he himself is afflicted by a grave sickness.” Job honestly reflects upon his life and upon the good he has done.  He can see no grounds upon which he deserves the punishment that comes to him.  “In the end, God himself reproves Job’s friends for their accusations and recognizes that Job is not guilty. His suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent and it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence.”  The notion of an innocent victim will find its prime paradigm in Jesus Christ.  The setting for the testing of Job is one that emerges from the devil’s provocation.  “And if the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, he does it to demonstrate the latter’s righteousness.”  Francis Bacon once wrote, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”

While life can be hard and suffering comes to all, we are admonished not to despair.  The psalm tells us, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”  The Church realizes this promise by extending the message and mission of Jesus.  Our souls are healed and we know forgiveness.  One day we will be restored, body and spirit.  While we live in a world where some seem to suffer more than their lot, we are also told that “The LORD sustains the lowly; the wicked he casts to the ground.”  The innocent might sometimes suffer and the wicked may appear to flourish.  But God sees everything, and the innocent will be gifted with mercy while evil doers will merit justice.  The early Jews largely defined divine reward as wealth, power, property and children in this world.  The question of Job and suffering would move them to consider life after death.  There has to be an existence where the scales are balanced in favor of the innocent.

Most eulogies celebrate life and leave unspoken certain truths that make us fearful.  We selectively remember someone as fun to be around or who knew how to have a good time or who did not make too many demands upon us.  Nothing is said about a general lack of charity or a failure to sacrifice for others or one too self-preoccupied to worry about anyone else.  We extract a list of secular virtues that would make one well-remembered in this world but still largely unknown in the next. We mention his favorite food, that he was a fan for the local football team, and that his dog will miss him.  “We will never forget him.  He will always remain in our memories.” That is what we tell ourselves. Of course, life goes on and a short time later most would have put him out of mind.  His name will go unspoken.  Photos will be filed away in an album that will one day be opened by relatives not yet born.  They will look at his picture and wonder, who is that?  People of faith tend to focus on the positive.  They figure that we might as well imagine he is in heaven so as not to distress his family and friends.  After all, if he is in hell, who among us  will know until we are dead?  Catholics might pray for his soul as one in purgatory, but are fearful of asking others to pray with them since it means that judgment after death is real.  We are attracted to Christ as the Divine Mercy, but not so much to the Lord as Divine Justice.  Nevertheless, they are both truthful assessments about his identity. Love is stronger than death.  Love is forever and in Christ it has conquered the grave.  God will love us forever and thus he gives us a share in his life.  This is the great consolation for believers.  But we must not forget that just as the beatific vision and the joy of the saints is eternal, so is hell-fire.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.” The Christian kerygma is one that challenges basic Jewish presumptions about social position reflecting divine favor.  The apostle is literally saying that he is making himself a slave for others.  He is fulfilling the summons of Christ to take up the cross in following him.  That is fundamental to the sacrifices made by priests and religious to celibacy, poverty and obedience.  They embrace for the kingdom that which is traditionally regarded as punishment or curse.  The Christian meaning of suffering would forever be associated with the Paschal Mystery of Christ.  If we die with Christ then we can live with him.  We offer ourselves as grafted to the crucified Savior.  We take all the struggle, sickness, pain, loss, and hurt we experience and make them redemptive in the Lord.  Catholicism emphasizes that even the dark things of life can come to God’s glory.

It was this message about suffering that was a hallmark in the witness of the late Mother Teresa.  It was also a truth about which her critics despised and maligned her.  Those who saw no value in pain hated Mother Teresa.  They are the same voices that speak in favor of abortion and euthanasia, today.

Turning to the Gospel, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Later, we are told that “the whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.”  Everyone he healed would get sick and die.  All his miracles and healings pointed to the lasting healing of the soul, in the forgiveness of sins.  He will give us a share in his Easter mystery.  Jesus is the revelation of the Father, the face of God.  When our Lord acts, it is always to heal and to liberate.  All who suffer can find solidarity in Christ.

  • When we cannot escape pain, do we become frustrated and angry?
  • Have we ever embraced suffering and discomfort as mortification and penance?
  • How do we take up our crosses in following Jesus?
  • Can we add our struggle to the passion of Jesus as an offering to the Father?
  • Do we place our hopes in what this world offers or in the kingdom of Christ?
  • If we should die today, are we prepared for judgment?
  • Have we experienced cases where the wicked flourished and the innocent suffered?
  • While we believe that the scales of justice will be balanced in the world to come, what is our obligation to building up the kingdom in the here-and-now?

 

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[71] Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This homily will not be preached Sunday as it will be replaced by the message for the Cardinal’s Appeal…

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Readings: 1 Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / Psalm 95 / 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 / Mark 1:21-28

Moses tells his people that prophets like him will be taken from their number and will lead them.  If we are to properly understand what he is saying, then we must look to the prior verses not included here against false worship and divination.  We read: “Let there not be found among you anyone who causes their son or daughter to pass through the fire, or practices divination, or is a soothsayer, augur, or sorcerer, or who casts spells, consults ghosts and spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead” (verses 10-11). Moses is emphasizing several important points:

  • They must not corrupt their faith with the worship of other or false gods.
  • They do not have to look outside of themselves as the chosen people for prophets (God speaks to them through their own).
  • They trust the providence of God and do not seek forbidden knowledge.

Echoing the commandments, any violation of these points is condemned as an abomination before the Lord.  Fearful of any direct confrontation with almighty God, the people will be guided by the Lord through his intermediaries.

This pattern is still pursued today in the Christian community.  The new People of God or the Church is called by God and given shepherds who govern and speak in Christ’s name, empowered to extend the ministry or work of Jesus.  The Mass is our great worship where the sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented in an unbloody manner at our altars.  The bishops in union with the Pope constitute the authentic teaching authority of the Church.  We are anointed at baptism into a nation of prophets.  It is that commission that makes us missionary disciples.  Outside the Catholic community, there is no guarantee to any message proclaimed and no assured efficacy to divine mysteries or sacraments.  Catholic Christians, like their Hebrew counterparts of long ago, are warned to steer clear of false worship and the occult.

True religion signifies the end of magic.  Judaism (a natural religion) and Catholic Christianity (a supernatural religion) are both instigated by the same one true God.  We are forbidden to engage in voodoo, oriental mysticism, new age religion, naturalist religion, and conventional witchcraft or Satanism.  Divination of the future is interpreted as a distrust of God’s will for us.  Black magic or spells is condemned because one invokes the demonic spirits.  Similarly necromancy is condemned; an important admonishment when there is a new fascination with ghost hunting.  Christians are warned to avoid Quiji boards, tarot cards, palm readers, and séances.  All of it violates the first commandment of the Decalogue.

The Canaanites worshipped Molech, a false deity judged by the fathers of the Church as a bloodthirsty demon.  Indeed, sometimes his name is still mentioned in Christian circles in regard to the sins of abortion and infanticide. Molech demanded child sacrifice.  Heated with fire, the idol was a bronze statue into which the victims were thrown. The pagans believed that favors and special protection could be merited by such sacrifices.  Might the abortion of millions of children constitute the return of the demon Molech’s reign?  Just another name for Satan, it may be that the devil hides his thirst for human blood behind the semantics employed to disguise the true nature of abortion.  Consciences are numbed to the terrible truth that we are murdering our children.  There is no pro-Choice or pro-abortion Christianity.  Such opposition to the Gospel of Life is not only immoral but renounces the Christ and the God of Abraham.  It assumes the mantle of idolatry. The responsorial psalm also speaks of the need to replace rebellion with fidelity and idolatry with right worship.  Our minds must be opened and our hearts softened to the truth. We are admonished, “Harden not your hearts as at Mariah….” God’s people of old turned away as faithless, fearful and selfish. People today are also tempted away from true faith.  They are afraid to take responsibility for their actions, even parenthood.  They give preeminence to their own wants, even over the needs of others, as with the dignity of persons and the sanctity of life.

The second reading mentions some of the fears or anxieties that can afflict us. While they should be an occasion for heightened fidelity, the opposite is what often occurs.  People forget the goodness that God has shown them. Others get angry or doubt when God does not answer their prayers as they would like.  They wrongly postulate prayer as a demand instead of as a humble request.  It is just such a situation that led people of old astray.  St. Paul urges that believers should be “free of anxieties,” as the concerns of the world might distract us from the Lord and from his service.

The Gospel chronicles our Lord’s visit to the synagogue in Capernaum. He encounters someone possessed by a demon.  Jesus immediately rebukes him, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The “unclean spirit” makes a loud cry and leaves.  The onlookers are amazed both at his power and that he speaks with authority.  As prophets, we can invoke this same authority and power in casting out the demon that secretly devours the lives of our children in abortion.  As prophets, we can proclaim that Jesus is Lord and invite others into the Catholic community of faith.  We are summoned to speak the truth about justice and charity to an oppressive and selfish world.

  • Do we place confidence in the Lord who calls us to take up our crosses and to follow him?
  • Are we prophets— faithful, courageous and strong in proclaiming the truth?
  • Have we been the voice for the voiceless, especially the marginalized and the unborn?
  • Do we avoid the occult and any “false gods” that would compromise our witness?
  • How have we sought to bring the light of Christ against the darkness or demonic in the world?

 

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[68] Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Jonah 3:1-5, 10 / Psalm 25 / 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 / Mark 1:14-20

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Jonah has barely begun his cry of prophetic warning when the people of Nineveh repent and all of them “great and small put on sackcloth.”  Why is there such an immediate reaction? It may be that they had heard the prior story of the prophet Jonah.  The reputation of Nineveh as a wicked city is so severe, that Jonah seeks to flee his divine summons.  Trying to flee by sea, God brings forth a great storm and acknowledging his fault, Jonah has the sailors throw him into the sea.  What we learn here is that the failure of Jonah to be the prophet he has been called to be will result in the death or destruction of others.  He will be held accountable.  Jonah calls upon the Lord and he is swallowed by a great fish.  Later, he is spat upon the shore to continue the mission given him.  Jesus would speak about this as the one sign given in his own regard.  The water symbolizes death and the big fish represents the tomb.  Just as the sea and fish could not destroy Jonah, so too would the sea and the tomb not be able to contain Jesus.  God shows his power.  The people of Nineveh, either out of fear or love of the Lord, would change their ways.  Similarly, after Christ’s victory over death, the apostles would go out to the nations and many would come to repent and to believe.

We are told that the citizens of Nineveh put on sackcloth.  Sackcloth and ashes were signs of humiliation and repentance.  As a coarse material made from goat’s hair, sackcloth was uncomfortable to wear.  Symbolizing desolation or dying to self, many Christian believers would later employ it as a tool for penance.  We would have to die to our old ways and life so as to be reborn and to live for Christ.  Here in the story of Jonah, sackcloth and ashes served as a public sign of repentance before God.  We were told that they even went to the extreme of placing sackcloth on their animals.  They hoped that God might look down upon them, and seeing this incredible expression of contrition and remorse, grant them mercy from the impending judgment.  Of course, God can read our hearts and would not be fooled.  The outward sign rendered by the people of Nineveh worked because the external sackcloth and ashes signified an inward change or disposition.  They were truly sorry for their sins.  We read: “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” Similarly, we as Christians should know that as long as there is breath in our bodies, there is no sin that God cannot forgive.  All that is required is a contrite heart and a firm purpose of amendment.

The psalm brings to this theme of repentance and mercy another important component— the change of one’s life.  We read: “Teach me your ways, O Lord. Good and upright is the LORD; thus he shows sinners the way.” Left to ourselves and we do not really know how to be good.  God gives us guidance by his commands.  Without God we would be uncertain as to right and wrong.  Strip the commandments about honoring God from the Decalogue and the remaining laws would become capricious.  If there is no God and judgment, then why follow the rules?  If there is no life beyond the grave, then why sacrifice for others? Love of God for some and fear of God for others is what marks the path between virtue and vice. The second reading emphasizes the shortness of life and thus infers the gravity of the coming judgment.  This world is “passing away,” now is the appointed time.

The Gospel reading has Jesus taking up the cry of John the Baptizer, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” The message of Jonah is now extended to the whole world.  Our Lord calls the apostles to himself because they will be his voice to the nations.  Simon, Andrew, James and John are summoned.  They all immediately leave their nets and our Lord tells them that they will be made into “fishers of men.”  Jonah is thrown into the sea, not simply as bait for a big fish but that the citizens of Nineveh would repent and believe.  Our Lord would make himself the bait in his paschal mystery to draw all men and women to himself.  The apostle Paul would literally speak about the resurrection of Christ as “the hook” of Christianity.  The center of the Christian kerygma is the person of Jesus.  He is the kingdom of God breaking into our world.  The calling of the apostles as “fishers of men” is often associated with the need for priestly vocations.  However, every one of us has been called in baptism as a “missionary disciple.”  Evangelism is not solely the responsibility of bishops, priests, deacons and a few Catholic lay evangelists.  It is an obligation for all who claim to be Christian.  Given this as the situation, the following points are essential:

  • We need a living personal and communal relationship with Jesus.
  • We need a faith informed by Scripture and the teaching Church.
  • We need an apostolate of service that expresses genuine charity for others.
  • We need to be regularly nurtured and healed by the sacraments.
  • We need prayer for spiritual life just as breathing gives physical life.

Why is all this essential?  While almighty God can use broken instruments and even wicked people, to bring about his providence; the truth is that he rarely does so. It is hard to impossible to give what you do not have.  If you do not know where to throw the net or if there is no bait for the hook, it is doubtful that you will catch anything.  The fisherman or –woman, who never makes a catch, may also go hungry.  The faith like love is only real when it is shared or given away.  We must possess Christ if we would give him to others.  We may all be sinners, but when the wounded are contrite, God can bring his healing to us and to all whom we meet.

  • Are the five elements here realized in your life?
  • Can you list any people who are believers because of how God has used you?
  • As a sign of Jonah, how have you died so as to rise in the Lord?
  • Have you promoted or supported vocations to the priesthood?

 

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[65] Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:3-10, 19 / Psalm 40 / 1 Cor. 6:13-15, 17-20 / John 1:35-42

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The first reading can be divided into three segments: (1) the triple call of Samuel; (2) God reveals his presence in response to Samuel’s readiness; and (3) Samuel would proclaim what he had heard, “…not permitting any word of his to be without effect.” (The liturgical selection skips where he informs Eli of God’s message.) We find this same pattern in our vocation as believers.  Three times Samuel is called and he fails to recognize that the source is not Eli but almighty God.  Eli has to assist him and tells him to respond, on the fourth time, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” Every Christian believer is summoned to be a prophet and that requires that we too might discern the voice of God.  Against the loud noise of the world, that divine voice might come across as a whisper.  As such we must be attentive and listen closely.  Also, like Samuel we might get confused between the call of God and that of men.  We need to know the difference lest we find ourselves seduced by the world and listening to the wrong voices.  These voices appeal to selfishness and sin.  What do they tell us? “If it feels good then do it.  You owe nothing to anyone.  No one can tell you what to do.  Life is short so always make yourself number one.  Get what you can no matter who it hurts.” The voice of God by contrast is barely audible.  What does God say? “Love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.  If you desire perfection than sell all you have, give to the poor and then follow me.  Forgive all wrongs. Love those who hate you.”  I suspect that many of us sometimes listen to the wrong voices.  But ours is a jealous God and he does not want to share us.

Note also that Samuel kept going back to sleep.  Our Lord speaks about such sleep as the weakness of a fallen nature.  “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” As prophets we are beckoned as sentinels or watchmen for the Lord.  We are called to be awake so as to hear the Lord and to be attentive when he comes.  God reveals his presence to Samuel.  As prophets who await the second coming, we also discern the presence of God. We draw others to the presence and saving activity of Christ in the proclaimed Word and in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  What we receive from the Lord, we must share with others.  As Christians, formed within the body of Christ by the saving truths of Scripture and Tradition, we must proclaim our faith and values to others both inside and outside the Church.  As the second reading reminds us, we “are not [our] own, [we] have been purchased at a price,” and while in the flesh or the body mimic the angels in glorifying God.

The psalm reiterates our divine calling. God takes the initiative and sows the seed of faith within us.  God places the “new song” upon our lips, giving us his mind and the words to say.  God is the one who opens our ears so that we might hear and obey him. God has planted his “law within [our] hearts.”  All this must be appreciated in the context of gift.  It is not enough to encounter God.  Rather, we must have a relationship with him.  We cannot speak his Good News if we do not know him.  Of course, faith is about more than knowing the catechism. God wants our hearts.  Any who would be counted a disciple must love the Lord.  This is what transforms fidelity from an arduous and reluctant duty to an eager and joyous service.  We should not grumble in our fidelity, rather it should by an expression of adamant praise.

Just as Eli alerted Samuel to the calling and presence of God. John the Baptizer points Jesus out to his disciples as “the Lamb of God.” They immediately follow him. Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus, telling him, “We have found the Messiah.” When Jesus asks as to what they are seeking, they merely ask where he is staying. Jesus responds, “Come, and you will see.” Our Lord gives the same summons to you and me.  We are invited into the story of Jesus, the very story of salvation.  He wants us to walk with him and to listen to him.  He reveals himself in the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church and in the quiet whisper we hear at prayer. A whisper is a quiet or breathy way of talking.  Breathing is intimately connected to life.  Stop breathing and you die.  The breath of God brings forth creation itself in the book of Genesis.  The breath of Christ makes possible forgiveness, healing and eternal life.  Note that in the liturgy the priest breathes into the chalice as the wine will be transformed into the saving blood or presence of Christ.  The whisper of God is literally God breathing his life into us.

Notice in the Gospel reading that Jesus immediately gives Simon a new name, Cephas or Peter or Rock.  While it says something singular about this apostle, we can also infer something about ourselves. Any who would respond to the calling of God are not left unchanged.  This is a truth we see again and again in Scripture. One of the most striking examples is Moses when he comes down the mountain after conversing with the Almighty: “As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he spoke with the LORD. When Aaron, then, and the other Israelites saw Moses and noticed how radiant the skin of his face had become, they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:29-30). Particularly in our faith and baptism we are born again—no longer just creatures of God but adopted sons and daughters to the Father, temples of the Holy Spirit, filled with sanctifying grace and transformed into the likeness of Christ.

  • Do we take time each day to pray and quietly listen for the Lord?
  • Have we made our lives too busy for God to reach us?
  • Are we truly prophets of the Lord or do we belong to the world?
  • Do we take guidance from our pastors and other faithful believers?
  • When was the last time that we witnessed for Christ and his Church?
  • Do we see our obedience to the commandments as a joy or as a burden?
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[20] The Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 / Psalm 72 / Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6 / Matthew 2:1-12

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We are fascinated by the story of the three wise men that came to pay homage to Christ, the newborn king.  Just as shepherds symbolized the Jewish people who had long awaited the coming of the Messiah; the magi represented the Gentiles, who would be included within the saving intervention of the Christ.  The healing of a broken world would begin.  The three magi have been called astrologers and later tradition referred them as kings.  All earthly kings would be called to imitate the magi in bending the knee to the Christ Child.

We know little to nothing about the magi.  They are men cloaked in mystery.  Learned scribes, they have interpreted the ancient scrolls and prophecy.  They follow a star and come to the scene of the nativity.  Their benevolence is proven when by night they steal their way out of Bethlehem, suspicious of the intentions of the elder Herod.  The warning they receive would be verified when Herod, fearful of being displaced by the newborn king, orders the massacre of the Holy Innocents. The gifts they bring were the typical offerings made to royalty or even to a deity.  Just as today, gold was a precious metal.  Frankincense was also employed by royalty and increasingly in worship as incense. Kings were typically anointed and myrrh was oil frequently used for this purpose.  Isaiah’s prophesy would be fulfilled:  “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.”

The magi came guided by a star, but the one who would one day be called the Star of the Sea, and who always summoned her children to Christ, was the Blessed Virgin Mary.  They first visited Herod, and while he did not know where the promised one might be, it was apparent that he was familiar with the ancient foretelling.  However, he was more a political animal than a man of faith.  He allowed himself to be a dupe for Rome so as to maintain his kingdom; there was no way that he was going to allow his precarious situation to be disturbed by a new born king, especially not one augured to topple their enemies and to restore the Davidic kingdom. Note the odd disparity, these three foreigners had spent several years seeking the child of promise; and yet old Herod, a member of God’s chosen people, neither sought nor wanted any part of him.  This would remain the situation three decades later with another Herod and a crowd that would shout to the Roman procurator, “We have no God but Caesar!”

The telling intrigues us; but we do much to fill in the gaps.  The Scriptures do not define the visitors as kings.  Indeed, we are not given a number. Nevertheless, the legacy of tradition and imagination gives us three magi, even giving them names.  Melchior of Persia carries the valuable gold. Gaspar (or Kaspar) of India offers frankincense. Balthasar of Arabia brings the myrrh.  If the shepherds represent the Jewish poor, these men signify the Gentile rich. Traditionally, a spiritual meaning is given to the gifts.  Gold represents Christ’s royal identity.  He will combine the Davidic kingship with the royal household of heaven.  Frankincense is connected to priestly sacrifice.  Christ would be the one true priest who would offer not the grain of the field or animals but his very self as the victim to atone for sin.  While oil is used both to anoint kings and those called to priestly service, myrrh may have also prefigured Christ’s death and the anointing of the body. It is argued that the anointing comes with the birth because Jesus is born to die for you and me.  It is also conjectured that the myrrh and anointing would have to come early in the story of Christ because there is no opportunity at the end when he rises from the dead.  Similarly he is anointed in Bethany just prior to his betrayal by Judas.  After his death, we read the following: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. He said to them, ‘Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him.’” Our Lord begins his life in the stable of the nativity, little more than a cave on the side of the hill.  He rises to eternal life in another cave, a tomb that could not contain him.  As a vulnerable and dependent child others came to him.  As the immortal and risen Christ he will go out to the entire world in Word and Sacrament.  Present to all who would receive him in faith and grace, he would no longer appear to us face-to-face; however, we will never be orphaned and he promises to come again in glory.

What happened to the gifts? We do not know. While it is probably more representative of human fancy than historical truth, certain stories are told.  One tale was that Joseph used the gold at the time of their flight into Egypt, both for the expense of the journey and to pay off or bribe one of the soldiers involved with the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents.  If they treasured the frankincense or incense, they may have presented it as a gift to the priest at the temple when Jesus was twelve years old.  As for the myrrh, it would seem likely that it was used to anoint Joseph’s body for burial. His calling as the Lord’s earthly foster father had come to an end. Joseph was a good man but even good men might sometimes get in the way, especially the one who was the protector of the Holy Family.  He would have to leave the world before our Lord could begin his three years of ministry, a final journey that would take him to the Cross.  Celebrating the Epiphany, I have a few questions we might reflect upon:

  • Do we seek Christ and always answer the summons to worship him at Mass?
  • Angels and then shepherds announced the Good News; have we done our part to transmit our saving faith to others?
  • We gave and received gifts at Christmas; what (if anything) did we give Jesus?
  • Would we let go of everything to possess Christ as our treasure, or are there things we would be unwilling to surrender?
  • Old Herod placed his politics and self over faith and the Lord; where do we place the priority in our own lives?
  • Do we discern the presence of Christ in the likeness of others, especially children, born and unborn?
  • Are men inspired by Joseph to be responsible for their actions, faithful to their duties and respectful of women as he was to Mary?
  • Do women realize their high calling in emulating Mary’s assent to God and her maternal love?
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