Sunday, January 17, 2016

2nd Sunday per annum (OF)

We are a people who are enamoured of improvements and upgrades.  Rare is the individual who would settle for the least or the simplest.  If we can find a way to get something better - especially if it costs nothing - we will take it.  Why settle for the nosebleed seats if you can get a seat right next to the action?  Why settle for the sardine can feel of economy when you could upgrade to first class comfort?  Getting the best we can is what we desire in all of our affairs.  Yet do we desire the best in our life with God?
As we enter into the time after Epiphany, entering into the Time throughout the Year or Ordinary Time, we are given a minor epiphany in our Gospel text today.  Traditionally, the third epiphany celebrated in the sacred liturgy after the meeting of the Magi and the baptism of the Lord is the wedding feast of Cana. It is at this event that Saint John tells us in his Gospel account how those who had been following Jesus up to this point “began to believe in Him.” However, what is it they they begin to believe? They begin to believe that there is something more to this itinerant preacher than meets the eye.
Saint John recalls for us the occasion of what prompts as he calls it “the beginning of [Jesus’] signs.” People are gathered for a wedding feast, much as we do today: feasting and drinking and revelling in the joy of a newly-inaugurated marriage.  In the time of Christ, it seems that it was the duty of the bridegroom to supply the wine for the feast, which could last up to seven days. But at this feast, we hear that the wine had been completely finished.  What shall be done?
At the prompting of His immaculate Mother, Jesus will provide a rich bounty of wine: a wine, in fact, that is far better than what was at first provided.  It is so good, in fact, that the headwaiter will complain to the bridegroom about holding this very good wine back up to now.  It is this sign of water turning to wine which will cause the disciples to believe in Jesus as not merely a preacher, but as something else, someone whom Isaiah foretells in our first reading today: the heavenly Bridegroom come to be wed to His bride.
Isaiah is speaking to a dejected people: the Israelites have been exiled from the land promised them by God and seem to have been rejected.  Many perhaps feel that God is no longer with them.  Yet Isaiah prophesizes that this dejection will not last forever, that a day will come when not only will the Chosen People be restored to their former glory, but that an even greater event will occur: the Chosen People shall be united to their God “as a young man marries a virgin” and God will rejoice in them “as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride”.  We see today the fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ bringing the good wine to the wedding feast: the eternal Bridegroom revealing Himself to His newly-chosen people, the Church.
From this point in His earthly life, Jesus will begin to preach and teach and work many more miracles, all of which is meant to draw humanity to Himself and be united with Him.  The ultimate sign He will offer of this desire for unity and to demonstrate the depths of His love for His newfound bride will be on the Cross, of which He tells us: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32).  Those outstretched arms on the Cross are not merely the tortures of the Roman soldiers, but they are also the open arms of a man desiring to draw His beloved to Himself.
But do we desire to be drawn to Him? Do we wish to partake of the wine He has brought for us?  Many of the Church Fathers viewed this miracle of the water to wine as demonstrating the conversion of dull, sinful humanity into the sweet vessel of divine grace. It is meant to show our conversion from the old ways of sin and ignorance towards the new way in Christ.  It is meant to represent the greatest upgrade we can ever achieve: from being the sinful sons and daughters of Adam and Eve into being the true sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, the souls united most clearly to Christ the divine Bridegroom.
This transformation, just like any other marriage, is meant to bring forth fruit.  Saint Paul outlines some of that in our second reading in enumerating some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the Church.  This is what is meant to happen in our relationship with Christ, both individually and communally as the Church; we are meant to bear the fruits of holiness.  Above all, this is meant to be done through a richer and deeper participation in the act of receiving Holy Communion.  Every time we receive that Sacred Host and let it pass our lips, we are meant to draw nearer to the Bridegroom who calls us to Himself, who calls us for Himself.
But do we let this happen?  Do we allow ourselves to be transformed into wine by Holy Communion, or do we prefer to remain tasteless, colorless water, no different than before?  Do we wish to produce the fruits of our union with Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or do we remain empty, lifeless fields?  To be a Catholic means to belong to Christ with and through His Church along with the desire to bring all peoples to know, love, and serve the God who has created us, who has redeemed us, and who is sanctifying us. All of this - the Mass, the sacraments, the preaching, the prayers - all of it is meant to lead us to unity with Christ as individuals and as a community.  It is meant to transform us and to transform the world.  But it must begin with each one of us.  G. K. Chesterton once famously replied to a friend writing about what is wrong with the world by saying, “I am.”  But I can make the world right if I am united to Christ in His Church and in His sacraments.
Let us pray, first of all, that we will receive the grace to accept the invitation of our divine Bridegroom to unity with Him.  Without God, nothing is possible, but with Him, all things are possible.  Let us pray as we receive Holy Communion today that we may be transformed from the water of indifference and timidity into the wine of fervor and intention.  Let us desire to draw nearer to our Bridegroom through His Mother, who best exemplifies what she commanded in our Gospel today: “Do whatever He tells you.”  Let us believe in Jesus and follow Him, just as all the saints and holy disciples have done throughout the ages, bringing forth the fruits of our relationship with Christ.  Let our lives truly reflect a unity with Christ here and now, so that we may be worthy to join Him in the eternal wedding feast which awaits in Heaven.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Baptism of the Lord (OF)

If I had been a member of a bridge club or a fraternity, yet I had left the club because I did not agree with their rules, could I still claim to be a member of that club? The answer seems pretty obvious that I should not claim membership to a group which I have such deep disagreement.  If I wanted to make the bridge club play euchre or the fraternity drop out of college altogether, could I really say that I represent the ideas and positions of each group?  Better still, if I claim to be a member of the club yet I never attend nor do I support the club, am I really living as a member of that club?  Yet how many will claim that they are Catholic yet either disagree with one of the Church’s fundamental positions or offer little in the way of support or even their presence in church?
As we conclude the Christmas season, we look at the mystery of the inauguration of Christ’s public ministry: His baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist.  We receive another epiphany of Christ, another manifestation of the One whose birth we have been celebrating these past few weeks. But in this manifestation is made present not only Christ, but the full Trinity which is at the heart of the divine being.  God the Father speaks towards God the Son, while God the Spirit descends and anoints the Son as the Christ, the Messiah, the One chosen from before time to bring about the redemption and salvation of humanity.
Christ undergoes His baptism not out of a need for it; how can He who is God incarnate have any need for the removal of sins?  Yet He willingly receives His baptism so as to receive the anointing from which the name Christ comes.  Jesus also undergoes baptism, Saint Ambrose tells us, so that the waters of the world are made clean for baptism (cf. Catena Aurea on Lk 3:21-22).  This moment marks the transition from Christ’s life as unknown son of a carpenter to His very public ministry of preaching and teaching and effecting miracles, all pointing towards His ultimate destination in Jerusalem on Good Friday and beyond.
Jesus’ baptism serves to distinguish Him from all the rest of humanity through those words pronounced by God the Father from on high: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” In this statement is revealed that Jesus will be the fulfillment of all that was prophesied, most especially something we hear in Isaiah today: the chosen One of God upon whom His Spirit dwells.  From here we will see Jesus revealing bit by bit the mysteries of the kingdom of God until all is opened to us on Easter and at Pentecost.
Yet the Baptism we celebrate today should make us mindful of our own baptism, for each one of us has been washed clean by the waters of baptism.  We have become members of Christ and of His Church through this cleansing action, along with becoming a new creation in the New Man who is Christ.  In union with Christ, each one of us is called by the Father “His beloved, in whom He is pleased,” because of our union with His only-begotten Son that begins at the moment the water touches our forehead and the priest says the baptismal formula over us.
Baptism should remind us of the great miracle of water worked by God for the Israelites as they escaped Egypt, when Moses invoked God to part the waters of the Red Sea so that they could escape slavery in Egypt.  Just as the whole people of Israel passed through the parted waters towards freedom, so too have we passed through water towards the freedom from slavery and freedom in Christ.  Yet, just as the journey of the Israelites was not finished at that point, so too is our journey in Christ not finished at baptism, but has only just begun.
When we are baptized, we make a solemn vow to reject Satan and all his empty works and all his empty show, taking instead as our captain and guide Christ and His Church.  This vow means that we belong now to nothing else and no one else but God.  No one has any right upon us except God in whom we have been redeemed and are on the way to salvation.  Yet how often is it that we do not truly realize this reality but instead try to make God to be beholden to us?
Many modern Christians will try to claim that they love Christ but do not love His Church, or they will say that it would be better if the Church changed some of her positions on certain topics so as to catch up to the times or to better attract the masses.  Yet many of these positions strike at the very core of the Church’s beliefs and, in fact, infringe upon those teachings which have been revealed to us by the God who was personally present to humanity over two thousand years ago and still speaks today through the Church which He has founded upon the apostles.  To change any of these positions would be like our earlier examples of making the bridge club play euchre or the fraternity drop out of college.  It redefines what it means to be Catholic and to be a Christian.
When we were baptized, each one of us was made bound to God with and through His Church.  This does not give us the right to decide what is to be held or what is to be tossed aside.  Ours is to accept that which has been handed on to the apostles and has been passed on to us whole and complete for over two thousand years.  We do not get to decide what the Church believes and professes, but it is we who accept what she teaches and proclaim it to the world.  To do otherwise is to be like the numerous Protestant branches claiming to act in the name of the universal and traditional Church when they have splintered so far from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that it seems as if new branches are splintering off by the minute.
In baptism, we have received the gift of God’s mercy first won for us on the Cross and the promise of the Resurrection.  This in turn imposes a sacred duty upon each one of us to maintain the traditions which have been delivered to us from the apostles (cf. 1 Cor 11:2).  If we are to be members of the Catholic Church, we cannot then let the phrase, “I’m Catholic, but...” escape our lips.  Otherwise, we are not faithful to the vow we made at baptism and to the Church which Jesus Himself established and maintains to this very day.  And if we are not faithful, then we will not be the beloved children of God and unworthy of the reward God wishes to give to us.
Let us not fall into the trap of the devil in trying to make ourselves the rule of faith, but let us be obedient to Christ through His Church.  Let us be faithful to our baptism and to the vows we made, following the example of the One who was first baptized.  Let us renew our vows to reject Satan and to believe in Christ and begin to live out those vows each day.  Let us marvel in the mystery of the life of Christ who leads us on as He lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom.  Let us not make our baptisms the beginning of our eternal condemnation, but the beginning of our eternal life in Christ, where we will receive the reward of faith for all time.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Epiphany Sunday (OF) - The Two Reactions

When a child is born in our day, everyone tries to come and greet the newborn child and to congratulate the parents. Gifts may be exchanged, especially for a first child. The visitors oooh and aaaah over the baby, trying to see the parents in the child’s features. It is a joyous occasion for all, except perhaps the baby tossed around the room.  These past few days in the Church have been no exception to that. How many people have come before the crib scene to rejoice in the birth of the Christ Child? How many have joined the angels and shepherds in glorifying God on this great day? The crowds have come from every land and nation, every people and tongue.
Today we see the beginning of that procession in the Magi coming from the East. Three non-Jewish men become the first to greet the newborn Child from outside of the people of Israel. They come bearing their own gifts for the Child, each pointing to who that Child will be when He grows up. But the coming of the Magi is not joyful for everyone.
Herod, the reigning king of Israel, is furious at the news which the Magi bring him. In fact, all of Jerusalem is afraid of the news, as Saint Luke tells us. They are afraid because they fear what Herod will do. And Herod’s reaction is gut-wrenching: he tries to kill the child by killing all the boys born around the same time as Jesus.
What an awful reaction to have at the birth of a child! Yet Herod, in his rage and his jealousy, expresses the fulfillment of what will be said about this Child when the Child is presented in the Temple; that this Child will be the fall and the rise of many. For today marks that point when the Light of the World born on Christmas Day begins to shine upon the whole world.
The word Epiphany signifies a revelation or a manifestation, and the visit of the Magi indicates the beginning of the manifestation of Christ to all the world. This manifestation of Christ can only lead to one of two reactions: the first is seen in how Herod reacts - though perhaps not as extreme. Yet one reaction to Christ is rejection, even a forceful and furious rejection. How, you might say, can one reject a child? The reasons or the excuses concerning this Child are numerous: too many demands, too impossible to be real, too simplistic, and so on.
We've heard the excuses from family members or friends about why they don't believe the Gospel. But they are all excuses, especially when compared to the reaction of the Magi - humility, reception, and service. These Wise Men are indeed wise in more ways than one; they are scholars who have determined that the Child born in a lowly stable will one day reign as King of the universe.
In light of this, they do three things. First: they humble themselves before the newborn King. Recognizing Him as King even while held in His mother’s arms, the Magi react with the normal reaction before the divine: awe and reverence. Next, they receive Him as their King by offering gifts. To give a gift to a king in ancient times meant that you hailed them as a king, and the Magi do the same for Christ. Finally, they serve Him both in their gifts and in their lives. While the Scriptures do not give us more about them after they return home, tradition tells us that the Magi left and bore witness to Christ the King until their deaths.
How then shall we react to the newborn Child manifested before us? Shall we reject Him and embrace anything and everything else other than Christ? Shall we reject Him not with the anger and violence of Herod, but with the coldness and indifference of our modern times? Shall we reject Him while still pretending to receive Him? Or shall we imitate the Magi?
Let us pray, brothers and sisters, that we do not reject the newborn King, but that, by the grace of God, we follow the wise example of the Magi. Let us humble ourselves daily before our God and King. Let us bring Him our gifts of love and thanksgiving and reverence, especially when we come to receive Him in the Eucharist. Let us also desire to serve Him by the daily witness of our lives, manifesting the newborn King in all that we do. Let us do all this so that we may be found worthy to marvel in the courts of our King for all eternity.