Homilies - December 2007
- December 16, 2007
- by Fr. Boniface
- Isaiah 35:1-6A, 10
- James 5:5-7
- Matthew 11:2-11
John the Baptist, Herald of the Kingdom
Since the prophet Elijah was taken up alive into heaven, tradition held that he would return to herald the Day of the Lord in which Israel would be vindicated and restored. The book of Sirach describes this zealous prophet as “a fire…whose words were as a flaming furnace [who] three times brought down fire…You [Elijah] are destined…in time to come to put an end to wrath before the day of the Lord, To turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons, and to re-establish the tribes of Jacob” (Sirach 48: 1,3,10).
Although we know of no miracles worked by John the Baptist like those of Elijah, yet he too was a fiery prophet who announced the imminent breakthrough of the Kingdom and the repentance necessary to enter it. Who can forget his denunciation: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Give some evidence that you mean to reform” (Matthew 3: 7-8). In speaking of the in-breaking of the Kingdom in the person of Christ, he thundered: “I baptize you in water for the sake of reform…the one who will follow me…will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear the threshing floor and gather the grain into the barn, but the chaff he will burn in unquenchable fire” (Mt 3: 11, 12). Jesus pointed out to his disciples that, yes, Elijah has come to inaugurate the Day of the Lord in the person of John (Matthew 17:12).
In the iconography of the Eastern Church, John the Baptist is usually depicted in a startling way: Hair unkempt and blowing in the wind, gesturing fiercely, with the shriveled appearance of the ascetic and wings indicating his office as messenger, he seems to be still thundering out at us from the icon. His is an almost frightening figure. Oddly enough, with the exception of his ascent in a fiery chariot, the icons of Elijah usually show him in a more relaxed, contemplative pose.
But perhaps this is as it should be. John was desperately trying to make the people see the reality at hand: “The Kingdom is on its way. Repent from all that hinders you from entering it. The Day of the Lord is upon us. The ancient promises are about to be fulfilled.” And how this subjugated and impoverished people longed for the ancient prophecies to be fulfilled!
In poetic language, the prophet Isaiah long ago foretold the coming restoration. The desert, that place to which the Israelites had been drawn by God and set free, that place in whose desolation they had met God, was to break forth into abundant life. What Isaiah foretold was to be more than a restoration; it would be a new creation as well. And at the center of this new creation would be the God of Israel: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God.” Words connected with the divine presence are woven into the text: Glory, splendor, divine recompense, salvation. This new creation made possible by the mercy and love of God would hearken back to a world in its original state. As a result there would be no more lack: the blind would see, the lame would walk and the mute would sing. In biblical language, healing is a sign of salvation.
It was to be John’s mission to introduce this new creation in the person of Jesus, the Christ. When the crowds had gone out to hear John, their hearts burned within them because without realizing it, they were looking for Jesus. What they found in John, was a path to Jesus, a connection to God. 1 But John himself would die before the kingdom would get fully underway in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Even though we may remember John for his fire, there was another side to him as well. Totally committed to God and to the truth, he steadfastly pointed away from himself to the One who was to come. His mission was to prepare the way for the Christ and all those who would follow Christ. No more, no less. He would be faithful to death to that call. He would send his own disciples to follow Jesus, and in those remarkable words that show the depth of his humility and his radical adherence to God, he would say of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The stage was set; the One who would actually bring on the Kingdom was at hand. John’s work was done.
Now languishing in prison, about to die, physical and interior darkness begin to close in on John. Through his disciples, John heard about Jesus’ ministry and was puzzled. Was he disturbed, perhaps by the gentle behavior of Jesus, who did not really fit the figure of the Messiah-Judge that he had imagined? Had he imagined the imminent arrival of that terrible Day of the Lord which would inaugurate the arrival of the Kingdom? And this in spite of his witness to the one who stood before him on the banks of the Jordan and whom the Spirit had pointed out to him. 2 Had he been deceived? Had his life been in vain? And in a profound humility and directness, he sent his disciples to Jesus with the question: “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” “Who do you say that you are?”
Jesus points John’s disciples to his works: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” And John, familiar with the Scriptures, understood that Jesus was the Christ, the One he and the world longed for.
Jesus gave John the highest praise possible, “among those born of women …none [is] greater than John the Baptist.” But in closing, Jesus added “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” John was great, but he died before the Kingdom got fully under way in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As a people baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have a prerogative in this life that John did not enjoy. We are to admire John, but above all, to see to it that we belong to the Kingdom of heaven. 3
With the Incarnation, the Kingdom came among us. Its fulfillment may not yet be here but Christ’s birth and his coming in majesty are in reality one. In this sense, the kingdom in its fullness has already arrived. We who live in time, in the already and not yet of that coming, are called to witness by our lives to our faith in God’s promises, to draw others to Christ by our lives. To help us on our journey, which can be difficult at times, we have been given the sign of the Body and Blood of Christ which we celebrate today, the sacrament of “already” and “not yet, the memorial of the Lord’s saving action and pledge of the reality to come, 4 the kingdom for which John lived and died and in which we have our citizenship.
Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Year A (Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 2007) 40.
2 Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, volume 1: Season of Advent, Season of Christmas/ Epiphany (Collegeville, Minn., The Liturgical Press,1991) 105.
3 Days of the Lord, 103.
4 Days of the Lord, 105
- December 9, 2007
- by Fr. James
- Romans 15:4-9
- Matthew 3:1-12
In the booklets we use here at St. Anselm’s for Morning and Midday Prayer on the Sundays of Advent, there is an image of a child standing with his right arm around the neck of a lion and his left embracing a lamb. That’s more or less based on a verse from our first reading today, from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, although the text speaks of a wolf being the guest of a lamb, while a lion gets mentioned a couple lines later, browsing with a calf. At any rate, commentators are surely correct in saying that this entire passage is a dramatic symbol of the universal peace and justice of messianic times.
Those times may have been inaugurated with the coming of Christ, but it is sadly evident that they have not arrived in all their fullness. Even sadder, some of the strife evident around the world can be traced to animosity among the adherents of different religions. One of the recent best-selling critics of religion writes that “competing religious doctrines have shattered our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continual source of human conflict.” [i] Another author, in the preface to a new book about the challenge of nonviolence in religious traditions, likewise observes that “many young people now equate the religious impulse itself with violence,” [ii] even as she notes that the various authors in that book also make a detailed case for the centrality of peace teachings in their own traditions. Most impressive of all, the late Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz once suggested that if an unbiased observer on another planet, aided by a powerful telescope, could observe world-historical events here on earth, that observer would never conclude that human behavior was guided by intelligence. The fact is, he writes, unreasoning human nature “induces two political parties or religions with amazingly similar programs of salvation to fight each other bitterly, and it impels an Alexander or a Napoleon to sacrifice millions of lives in his attempt to unite the world under his scepter. We … are all so accustomed to these phenomena that most of us fail to realize how abjectly stupid and undesirable the historical mass behavior of humanity actually is.” [iii]
Some such behavior is, of course, evident in the Bible itself and apparently approved. For example, toward the end of the Book of Jeremiah there are two prophecies against Babylon, the nation that had taken many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem into exile. Part of the prophecy goes like this: “Shoot at her, spare not your arrows, raise the way cry against her on all sides…. Vengeance of the Lord is this! Take revenge on her; as she has done, do to her” (Jeremiah 50:14-15). On the other hand, there were voices that opposed the taking of vengeance, that spoke instead of the people’s new role as a light to the nations, of their beating swords into plowshares and, as in the powerful story of Jonah, of the Lord’s desire that all peoples flourish and be saved, even those who had treated the Israelites most harshly. It is in this latter tradition that Jesus himself stood. It is impossible to imagine the one who urged turning the other cheek and going the extra mile could have said of any nation, “Take revenge on her; as she has done, do to her.”
One of the great questions before all of us today is how we, as disciples of the one we call Prince of Peace, can actually promote peace in our cities, our country, our world. Entire books have been written about this. In a short homily, all I can do is offer a couple points, both drawn from the work of Konrad Lorenz whom I mentioned earlier.
For one thing, the cultivation of friendships across national boundaries is very important, for “no one is able to hate, wholeheartedly, a nation among whose numbers he has several friends.” [iv] Some years ago, a man named Walter Corti put this idea of promoting international friendships into practice by starting a children’s village in Trogen, Switzerland, where children and young people of various nations could live together in friendship and community.
One of my university students just wrote a fine term paper in which she discussed a more recent example of this in one of the tensest parts of the world, Israel. There is a village there known as Neve Shalom or, in Arabic, Wahat al-Salam, terms that mean “Oasis of Peace.” In that village, Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship live cooperatively. They run a bilingual, bi-national school and provide multiple educational opportunities for all residents as well as humanitarian assistance for people in the surrounding area. This is a wonderful, hope-filled example of the possibility of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians in a community based on mutual acceptance, respect, and cooperation.
Of course, such examples not only should be multiplied today, but we must also make ideals of this kind attractive to a younger generation, and for this we need something more than the academic dryness that is unavoidably inherent in humanistic ideals as such. Lorenz writes that such dryness “might forever prevent average humanity from recognizing their value, were it not that they have for their ally a heaven-sent gift … that is anything but dry, a faculty as specifically human as speech or moral responsibility: humor
G.K. Chesterton has voiced the altogether novel opinion that “the religion of the future will be based, to a considerable extent, on a more highly developed and … subtle form of humor.” This possibly astonishing statement nevertheless makes sense. Traditionally, the gravest of the capital sins has been understood to be pride, which Lorenz calls “one of the chief obstacles to seeing ourselves as we really are, … [but] a man sufficiently gifted with humor is in small danger of succumbing to flattering delusions about himself because he cannot help perceiving what a pompous ass he would become if he did.” [v]
Moreover, laughter, as the overt expression of humor, is a specifically human trait that is “never in danger of regressing and causing [any] primal aggressive behavior to break through. Barking dogs may occasionally bite, but laughing men hardly ever shoot!” [vi]
A few months ago I mentioned in a homily a drawing of Jesus laughing that was given to me by a woman named Thecla, who lives in Korea. Today I have placed that drawing on the table at the head of the nave, so many of you will have seen it as you entered our church this morning. All too often we think of Jesus as constantly serious, but if he was fully human, he certainly laughed, and no doubt some of his similes and parables led his hearers at least to chuckle if not laugh right out loud. It has been said that humor and knowledge are the two great hopes of civilization. As we continue with our season of Advent and so prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace at Christmas, let us make full use of both of these hopes to promote peace in our world in whatever ways we can.
Fr. James Wiseman
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[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), 79.
[ii] Virginia Benson, preface to Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, ed., Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2007), x.
[iii] Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, trans. Marjorie Kerr Wilson (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), 236-37
[iv] Ibid., 283.
[v] Ibid., 296.
[vi] Ibid., 294.
- December 2, 2007
- by Fr. Peter
- Isaiah 2:1-5
- Romans 13:11-14
- Matthew 24:37-44
“But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”
Isaiah describes the time when the holy one of Israel will come to bring peace and the Chosen People will have an abundance of good things.
”One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Or as Jesus says today, “Stay awake. You must be prepared.” And again, “Go, then, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and proclaim the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Once and for all, God would intervene in history in order to set up a universal kingdom of peace. All nations would accept and abide by the laws of God, and the result would be everlasting peace. However, the full manifestation of God’s kingdom of peace is still to come.
Like Saint Anselm, we must be willing to work for this peace by teaching the coming to us of the true faith, by guarding the laws of the Church and defending orthodox teaching. Anselm once wrote: “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.”
In common words, the mysteries of the Incarnation are beyond mere human reason. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets and the Jewish people had been preparing for the coming of the Messiah for some four thousand years. A virgin was to conceive her Child and give birth to this Child in Bethlehem; for the Prophet Micah has said of Him, “His going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity. And you, O Bethlehem, are not the least among the thousand cities of Judah, for out of you, He shall come.”
Or again, “O King of Nations, and their desired One, and the Cornerstone that binds two into one: Come and save poor man whom you fashioned out of clay.”
However, these prophecies, these plans as the Chosen People understood them, were not God’s plan for when the Christ did come; He was not of their expectation. In this sense, we all have two futures. One future is what we plan for, what the Chosen people understood as the triumphant King who would enter into their world and restore Jerusalem as a major power. The other future is what comes to us from God. But this planned-for Messiah did not fulfill the expectations of the Chosen people; this Jesus of Nazareth was a man who would suffer and die on a cross, and the new Jerusalem would be the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not what the Jews expected, what they wanted. Likewise, we do not know when we will be called by the Father, we do not know what God has in mind for us. But one thing is sure: we must always be prepared. During Advent we must wake up and work for the full manifestation of God’s Kingdom through holy and committed lives–now, for tomorrow, and forever into the future.
With the first Adam, we were created, and with his fall, how wretched is the fate of mankind. Adam has lost the blessedness for which he was made, and we have found wretchedness for which we were not made. Adam was so full in the Garden of Eden, we are so hungry that we sigh; he had abundance, and we go begging. Adam held what he had in happiness and left it in misery, we too are unhappy in our wants and miserable in our desires. Why did Adam shut out our light and surround us with darkness? Why did he take away our life and give us the hurt of death? And so we must be brought back to life again.
It is through the mysteries of Advent that we shall have the possibility of being made whole once more. From exile, we will be brought home again. Anselm asks the question, “Cur Deus Homo?” Why does God have to become man?” He becomes man so that we may share in His Divinity.
”O People of Zion, who dwell in Jerusalem, no more will you weep; today the Lord binds up the wounds of his people, he will heal the bruises left by his blows.”
And when this mystery of the Incarnation is complete, we will be able to sing and understand the antiphon at Vespers for the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.
O wonderful exchange!
The creator of mankind, being born of a Virgin, has
Himself become a man.
And we have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ,
who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.
Of course, this only becomes possible through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of His Anointed One. God was not obliged to save mankind in this way, but human nature needed to make amends to God like this. God has no need to suffer so laboriously, but man needed to be reconciled this way. God did not need to humble himself, but man needed this, so that he might be raised from the depths of hell. The Divine nature did not need, nor was it able to be humiliated and to labor so much. It was for the sake of human nature that all these things needed to be done, so that it might be restored to that from which it was made. Thus this Messiah must become the key that unlocks the gates of hell.
O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel,
who opens, and no man closes;
and closes, and no man opens;
Come, and lead the captive from prison,
sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Eternal Light, You have to shine in the midst of this world’s darkness in this prison where the captive, whom You have come to deliver, sits in the shadow of death. Open these prison gates by Your all-powerful key. And who is this captive, but the human race, the slave of error and vice. Who is this captive, but the heart of man, which is chained by the very passions it blushed to obey.
O, come and set at liberty the world You have enriched by Your grace, and the creatures whom You have made to be Your own brothers and sisters. Like Saint Anselm, we too believe that the world must be redeemed. We believe that the material substance of the world must be renewed, and that this will not take place until salvation comes to all nations, and that happy kingdom of the New Jerusalem is made perfect, and after its completion there will be no more change.
Fr. Peter Weigand
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