Homilies - December 2012
Select a homily to read:
Feast of the Immaculate Conception : December 8, 2012 by Abbot James
Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2012 by Abbot James
Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2012 by Fr. Boniface
Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 23, 2012 by Fr. Gabriel
Christmas: December 25, 2012 by Abbot James
- December 8, 2012
- Year C
- by Abbot James
I hope you will bear with me if I go into a bit of doctrine in this homily—even more than a bit. First of all, even though the Church has always taught that Mary did not commit any actual sin during the entire course of her life, the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception doesn’t directly deal with that teaching but rather with the truth that she, from the first moment of her conception, was preserved from what we traditionally call “original sin.” Furthermore, recall that original sin is sin only in an analogous sense: as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, it is not “an act” but rather “a state,” something “contracted” and not “committed.” Just how this state is contracted has never been defined in any readily explainable way. That same Catechism tells us that “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand,” even though “we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature” and that his sin (and that of his helpmate Eve) “affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state” (no. 404).
This assumption that all human beings are descended from simply one pair of first parents—something that is technically called monogenism—was universally held by members of the Abrahamic religions, and by many other persons, for centuries. Indeed, in the middle of the twentieth century Pope Pius XII taught that Catholics ought not accept the opposite position, polygenism, because (in his words) “it is in no way apparent how such an opinion [polygenism] can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all, and is in everyone as his own” (encyclical Humani Generis, no. 37).
It is, however, fortunate that Pope Pius did not go so far as to declare polygenism actually heretical. Church leaders made that kind of mistake more than three centuries earlier in the case of Galileo when, mainly on the strength of a few biblical verses (such as that God had “made the earth firm, never to be moved”), they declared it strictly heretical to claim that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. More cautiously and prudently, Pope Pius only said that it was “not apparent” how polygenism could be reconciled with what the Church had always taught about the transmission of original sin from a single pair of first parents. Nowadays, however, it has become incumbent on theologians and bishops to attempt precisely such reconciliation, for studies in the field of population genetics have led the scientific community to recognize that at no point did there exist a single “first man” and a single “first woman” who constituted the first true humans and to whom all lineages of modern humans ultimately converge. If the persons whom we traditionally call Adam and Eve ever existed as distinct historical persons, they were certainly members of a much larger population of the same species, early homo sapiens.1
There is no time here to go into detail about any of the ways in which the traditional doctrine of original sin is now being rethought in the light of these scientific findings, but two very fine Catholic scholars—Daryl Domning, a professor of anatomy at Howard University, and Monica Hellwig, who had served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America before her death a few years ago—have jointly proposed an approach that in my opinion deserves a very appreciative hearing.2 In a nutshell, they propose that what they call the “original selfishness” that characterizes every living organism (and that is not in all respects reprehensible) can, through the uniquely human trait of free will, be counteracted by freely chosen, conscious acts of altruistic kindness, goodness, compassion, and love.
And what does all this mean for the woman whose feast we celebrate today? Simply this: through the special grace of God, Mary was at all times—indeed, “from the first moment of her conception”—enabled to overcome any and all sinful self-centeredness and so was enabled to serve other persons and her God in a thoroughly holy and sinless way. We don’t have enough material in the New Testament to say that such behavior would be persuasively evident to every reader of the Scriptures, but there is enough there to give us at least some insight into the effect of this fullness of grace in Mary’s life: her readiness to embrace God’s will at the annunciation even though the angelic message surely left her puzzled; her caring visit to Elizabeth to be with her older cousin in the final months of her pregnancy; her concern for the young married couple at the wedding feast at Cana and her confidence that Jesus would act to help them out of their embarrassment at having run out of wine; and her standing firmly at the foot of the cross on Calvary when almost all the rest of the disciples had fled in fear. However, we must admit that even if we had a hundred or a thousand times as many incidents from Mary’s life described in the New Testament, these would not in any sense really prove her preeminence above all other human beings in her utterly immaculate sinlessness. No, this is, in the final analysis, an important part of our Catholic faith—something with a rational and defensible foundation, to be sure, but not something that wordy arguments could strictly demonstrate. Much better for us to do something else: pray to our compassionate and powerful Mother Mary that we, still succumbing all too often to sinful forms of self-centeredness, may be ever more liberated from those shackles and come to live more and more after the model that she and her divine Son have left us. Or, as St. Benedict puts it in his Rule, pray that each of us may pursue not what he judges better for himself but, instead, what he judges better for someone else (RB 72.7). O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1For a highly technical account by a leading scientist, see Francisco Ayala, “The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins,” Science 270, no. 5244 (Dec. 22, 1995): 1930-36. This is based on Ayala’s presidential address to the Association for the Advancement of Science.
2Monica Hellwig and Daryl Domning, Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006). See also Domning, “Evolution, Evil and Original Sin,” America, November 12, 2001, 14-21, and idem, “Teilhard and Natural Selection: A Missed Opportunity?” in Rediscovering Teilhard’s Fire, ed. Kathleen Duffy (Philadelphia: St. Joseph’s University Press, 2010), 187-95.
- December 9, 2012
- Year C
- by Abbot James
Note: This homily was given by Abbot James at the Caldwell Community at Catholic University.
Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent, whether the Gospel reading is from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, we hear of John the Baptist receiving the word of God in the desert and preparing the way of the Lord by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Christian art, John is regularly portrayed as a rather daunting figure, something of a wildman, dressed in rough garments such as befit someone who addresses in threatening words many of those coming to him. If our Lectionary passage had gone on for just one more verse we would have heard some of those words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” Not exactly the sort of person we might want to approach when receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation!
However, there is another trait of this saint that we would normally find more appealing, namely, his humility. This is, after all, the man who also said: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals,” even as he also said: “He must increase. I must decrease.” We might even go so far as to say that John the Baptist is one of the Bible’s most preeminent exemplars of humility, which a Benedictine bishop back in the nineteenth century called “the groundwork of all the Christian virtues.” Now, as St. Teresa of Avila once said, humility is really equivalent to truth, an honest recognition of who we truly are in the sight of God.
Still, even among Christian authors who clearly recognize that in comparison with God’s goodness and power we are only beggars, the tone with which they express this insight varies greatly. In the monastic rule according to which I live, St. Benedict writes in his chapter on humility that “the seventh step of humility is that a person not only admits with his tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value, humbling himself and saying with the psalmist, ‘I am truly a worm, not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people.’”
How different is something written much more recently by another monk, Thomas Merton, who certainly knew Benedict’s Rule inside out but did not follow that saint’s tone in one of his most celebrated passages, the one describing how he came to abandon the spurious attitude of monastic elitism and separatism that had characterized much of his thought up until that day in 1958 on a street corner in Louisville, when he came to understand how much he had in common with everyone else and how much he loved them. In his own well-known words:
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of [the] hearts [of all these people,] where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes…. At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.
Can these two understandings of the human person be reconciled? Is there any way in which we can be said to be a worm, despised and despicable, feeling ourselves to be inferior to everyone else, and yet acknowledge that we have within ourselves a point untouched by sin and illusion? A simple solution might be to note that whatever goodness and beauty are in us is entirely from God, without whom we are nothing. Moreover, great saints are often so aware of God’s immense holiness that they feel themselves to be the greatest of sinners, far worse than the most unrepentant criminal on death row. All this would surely pass muster in the light of traditional theology and is understandable enough psychologically. However, I want to suggest that it would be still more humble not even to compare oneself with others, to try to calculate where one stands in comparison with one’s friends, relatives, or colleagues. I know some people who are almost plagued with the felt need to know how they stand spiritually in relation to someone else, but that is such a waste of time. An older spiritual writer once put it very well when he wrote: “Humility has nothing to do with self-depreciation. It is not thinking little of oneself, it is rather not thinking of oneself at all. As long as we can feel humiliated, we are not perfectly humble.” That is, indeed, a tall order, but with God’s grace such an attitude is certainly possible. One useful way to move in this direction is to follow the advice of the Letter to the Hebrews: to keep our eyes fixed not on ourselves but on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2). This is exactly what great art regularly shows John the Baptist doing: pointing to Jesus, pointing away from himself. If we follow his example, we need not call ourselves either worms or living saints. To be called a Christian, one who really wants to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, is all the self-designation we need.
Abbot James Wiseman
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- December 16, 2012
- Year C
- by Fr. Boniface
Rejoice in the Lord Always!
In our papers and other media we are told how many shopping days to Christmas are left. We have seen Christmas decorations in the stores and heard Christmas carols on the radio since Thanksgiving. Now we can actually see Christmas trees for sale and nervously hurry to write our Christmas cards. The big feast is quickly drawing near. But amid the bustle of material preparation other voices call out to us showing us how we should really prepare for the coming feast.
“Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, Rejoice,” St. Paul urges in his letter to the Philippians, one of Paul’s warmest and friendliest epistles. Joy and rejoicing is a recurrent theme in this epistle. In this passage taken from the final chapter of the letter it is the tenth time that St. Paul tells his audience to rejoice.1 The dictionary defines joy as a: “ the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or great fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires b: the expression or exhibition of such emotion.”2
The joy of which St. Paul speaks is different, much deeper that the one given by the dictionary although it is a start. St. Paul’s “joy” goes to the very center of our being.
We often find our joy in another person for what he or she brings us. We also can find our joy (or sadness) in what happens to him or her. St. Paul tells us “to rejoice in the Lord.” But “in the Lord’ is a common phrase used by him. This is an important phrase, because it implies union with Christ, the source of our joy. It means in addition that this joy cannot be cut short by any exterior difficulty. Paul writes:
For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Rom 8:39).3
There is much to ponder in these words. Our journey through life brings us face to face with many difficulties and sorrows as well as fleeting joys. We cannot deny the terrible events around us that seem to put an end to our happiness: an alcoholic husband, a wife with cancer, the heartbreaking death of an immediate member of the family or close friend, even the massacre of twenty-eight individuals, most of them innocent children as happened a few days ago.
The joy of the epistle is not a noisy manifestation, but rather marked by serenity and peace. We sometimes find this type of quiet joy in the presence of an invalid or an elderly person whose whole life was marked by the surrender of each event to the will of God, a surrender not of obligation, but out of love. This is a joy that places each anxious thought in the hands of a loving God.
This joy is born of the nearness of God. When St. Paul tells us that “The Lord is near,” one possible understanding is, of course, his second coming. Another one for us, more immediate, is of course, the physical nearness of Christmas. But there is yet another sense is which he is near. Nearness understood as presence.
Most basically he is present in our hearts. Christ is present to us in the Scriptures through which he teaches us as he taught his first followers. He is also present in the sacraments, guiding and directing us. Jesus is near to us in the Eucharist not only as presence but also as food to nourish and energize us for the battle against darkness with which all his followers have to contend. He is also present in the men and women who have followed him as and so bear him and his message to us and the world.4
Rejoicing in the Lord calls for our response and reaching out to others. In today’s reading, St. Paul tells us “Your kindness should be known to all.” We find this expanded in his epistle to the Romans 12:4-17: Your love must be sincere…Love one another with the affection of brothers. Anticipate each other in showing respect…Look on the needs of the saints as your own, be generous in offering hospitality. Bless your persecutors, bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same attitude towards all. Put away ambitious thoughts and associate with those who are lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never repay injury with injury.
Another voice that calls out to us today from the readings is that great Advent figure – St. John the Baptist. Normally we do not associate him with joy. The image we have of him is that of a gaunt severe figure preaching hellfire and damnation. But we forget that he was the babe who leapt, danced, if you will, in his mother’s womb at the advent of the unborn Savior, or that described himself in relationship to Christ as the “friend of the bridegroom.” In spite of a rough exterior, he must have been a happy man since he gave himself totally to God’s will for him. The following verses from John’s gospel are telling. “John gave this testimony:
I saw the Spirit descend like a dove from the sky, and it came to rest on him. But I did not recognize him. The one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “When you see the Spirit descend and rest on someone, it is he who is to baptizer with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1:32-33).
And how could he not be filled with joy as he exultantly exclaimed to his followers “Look! There goes the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:36). John’s joy was in the Lord.
The people, and we with them, ask John, “What are we to do?” How are we to attain to that joy of which our second reading speaks? It is not enough for them, for us to listen to teaching. It must be put into practice. The Baptist preaches conversion; 5 Jesus preaches conversion – ongoing conversion until we die. John’s response, as is St. Paul’s, is simple. He requires nothing extraordinary, but like Christ, and St. John the Baptist. a total dedication to the Father’s will. We cannot achieve it in a day or a year, but by God’s grace we will progress along this way until we find that perfect joy and perfect peace in the unveiled presence of God.
Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 Daniel E. Pilarczyk, Live Letters (Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2002) 28
3 Days of the Lord, the Liturgical Year, v.1 (Collegeville, Minn., 1991) 117
4 Pilarczyk, 29
5 Days of the Lord, 118
- December 23, 2012
- Year C
- by Fr. Gabriel
This will be artificial, but it’s the best I can do. “The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places smooth, and all flesh shall see it together.” This may be my favorite Advent text, but how can I fill ten minutes with it? Two nights ago I heard in Handel’s Messiah a South African tenor make those words electrifyingly alive, in the third movement (Every valley shall be exalted). His name was Sunnyboy Vladla. He was a serious singer, and that was not a nickname. It is spelled “sunny” like “sunny day,” not “son of Mr Vladla.” I wished I could develop this sensational detail. But I took Sunnyboy in spirit back to the text, and found the key words to be straight, smooth, see. The first letters make the same sound as Sunnyboy: this is the poetic device called alliteration. The letter S is curvy and crooked. The prophecy tells us that a crooked letter shall be made straight. Hmmm, there might be something there….
I began to ponder the Christmas stories, the joyful mysteries, to look for the S-words. With some stretching, I found some. I found ten. If one of them helps you think about Christmas, that is sufficient.
1. Sadness. We need Christmas because deep down we are sad. The fifth joyful mystery, the boy Jesus lost for three days, represents this. Life is a matter of sadness and loss. We don’t like to believe this, and fortunately there is much mitigation, but in our heart-searching moments, we know sadness as a strong part of the mystery of existence. This is brought to the surface in such moments as the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. The news media moves on to the next story, but the town can’t, and if we stay connected with them (as, in prayer, we helplessly do), we don’t either.
2. Separation. The lost boy Jesus reminds us that we grow away from our parents, and our children grow away from us. However deep the tie with our life partner, there is always some point of isolation and separation. This is healthy but it is hard.
3. Sword. At the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Simeon recognizes the baby as the future messiah. He will cause the fall and rise of many in Israel, a sign to be spoken against, and a sword will pierce your own heart also. The sword is a symbol of acute suffering, the times when “the iron enters your soul,” and trauma shatters the surface. This leaves long-term scars. Things we don’t get over, even if we stop talking about them, and those around us think everything is fine. Even God’s loving gaze does not remove the scars.
4. Sigh. To groan, to express hardship, to exhale with effort, to long for companionship. We notice this in Joseph, pushed to the fringe of the holy family, who never talks, never complains: he must sigh while leading that donkey. We notice this in Elizabeth, who when her husband is silent, has no one to talk to until Mary came. We sigh when we long for something beyond our reach.
The first four were low places, but Christmas should move us to high places. Mary hastened into the hill country because the valleys will be exalted.
5. Solitude. This is the beautiful place where we commune with the heart in secret. After the shepherds visit, after the boy Jesus was found, Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. What is initially incomprehensible must be mulled over slowly to be assimilated. That is the process by which we learn and discover and find joy.
6. Silence. When peaceful silence lay over all, in the middle of the night, your Word leapt down from the royal throne in heaven (Book of Wisdom 18:14). We apply this prophecy to the tradition of Jesus being born at midnight, but figuratively it applies to the spiritual midnight when Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Each of us is called to be receptive to God, to consent and conceive as she did, and we can only do this in silence.
7. Society. By this I do mean the teeming masses whose opinion is often absurd. I mean authentic connection between people. Out of silence and solitude comes the precious interaction of significant relationship. It is represented by the experience of two women in today’s Gospel when Mary visits Elizabeth. It’s not so much what is verbally said as what is communicated: in Newman’s words, heart speaks to heart.
8. Sight. “Let us go now to Bethlehem, and see this thing which has happened which the Lord has made known to us….When the wise men saw the star, they were exceedingly glad.” The shepherds want to know first-hand what they have heard about. The wise men make an arduous journey to see what they have read about.
9. Song. It’s an interesting piece of trivia that scripture does not actually say the angels sang. “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” But glad tidings of great joy cannot be expressed in words. We need people like Sunnyboy to express in the language of music what is too great for the mind, what must be heard in the heart.
Number 10 could be sacred; it could be savior. But I will cheat and use a C-word: celestial. I do not mean otherworldly or intangible like the cyber cloud. Rather, the celestial is the heavenly. Heaven is a real “place,” where God is, the state of being for which stars and planets is a metaphor. In Christmas, the celestial comes to earth, comes to us.
Sadness, separation, sword, and sighing. These hard things can be transformed, if not erased, by things that lift up: solitude, silence, society, sight, and song. Or, to put it another way, the crookedness of the letter S can be straightened into the letter L. L stands for Light, the kind that shines in darkness but which the darkness cannot overcome. The kind that makes us, at a deep level, “sunny people.”
Fr. Gabriel Myers
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- December 25, 2012
- Year C
- by Abbot James
We’ve all heard the saying that “haste makes waste,” just as we have likely learned from sad experience that rushing to get something done in a frenzied state of mind has led to our failing to accomplish in a suitable way the very thing we set out to do. There is, however, a sense in which haste may at times very well be called for. We just heard in the Gospel of the shepherds learning of the birth of the Messiah, and a couple verses later St. Luke tells us that the shepherds “went in haste” to Bethlehem to see the wondrous sight that had been announced to them by the angels (Lk 2:16). And just two days ago, in the Gospel read at Sunday’s Mass, St. Luke used a similar expression in his account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, for he writes: “Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeting Elizabeth” (Lk 1:39-40). In his recently published book on the Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict made a special point of noting this phrase “in haste,” and he went on to ask a question that ought to lead each of us to serious reflection. The pope asked: “How many Christians make haste today where the things of God are concerned? Surely if anything merits haste—so the evangelist is discreetly telling us—then it is the things of God.”1
There is indeed a sense in which this kind of haste for the things of God was evident in the life of Jesus himself. At one point in his public life, the same evangelist Luke writes of Jesus saying: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished” (Lk 12:49-50). Clearly Jesus was someone to whom we could really ascribe the phrase “a man with a mission,” perhaps most clearly seen in a verse that many regard as the principal turning point in Luke’s entire Gospel, where the evangelist writes: “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). In other words, the birth in Bethlehem that we celebrate tonight was a kind of first step on a single-minded journey that ended only when Jesus was raised in glory and exalted at the right hand of the Father. We might say he journeyed “with all deliberate speed.”
If we are genuinely to be his followers, something of that same hastening to our goal should mark our lives as well. Blissful enjoyment of an eternal Sabbath rest may come later, but for now it is for us to do what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says in the fourth chapter of that letter: “Whoever enters into God’s rest, rests from his own works as God did from his. Therefore, let us hasten to enter into that rest” (Heb 4:10-11). To be sure, if we adhered to one of the Eastern religions that teach about multiple rebirths, there may not be this same sense of urgency. If one expects to be reborn hundreds if not thousands of times before eventually attaining full union with the Godhead, it might be enough simply to try to do enough good in the present life to be reborn into a somewhat higher state the next time around. But there is no convincing evidence for multiple rebirths, and our faith tells us that this is our one and only life on earth—what we might call our first and last chance—which makes the whole question of the way we live an utterly serious one indeed. To repeat that phrase of Pope Benedict, “If anything merits haste, it is the things of God.”
For those of us in the Benedictine tradition, whether as monks or oblates, there is the added teaching of St. Benedict himself, for it is truly remarkable to note how often he uses the language of running already in the prologue to his Rule, whether quoting Scripture or writing in his own words: “Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you” (Prol 13). “If we wish to dwell in the tent of [the Lord’s] kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds” (Prol 22). “If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then while there is still time, while we are in this body … we must run and do now what will profit us forever” (Prol 42-44). And finally, at the end of the prologue, “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (Prol 49).
It should by now be pretty obvious why we have all this talk of haste and of running in some of our most foundational documents: Mary hastening to Elizabeth, the shepherds hastening to the manger, Jesus hastening toward the baptism with which he was to be baptized, Benedict’s monks being urged to run toward the tent of eternal life. It isebHebH simply because there is something really important at stake, the all-important choice between life and death that Moses placed before the Israelites centuries ago and that continues to be placed before us today: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19-20). Our life as Christians is both joyful and serious. Those two adjectives are not at all mutually exclusive. The most joyful persons who ever lived were surely the great saints—we speak, for example, of “the perfect joy of St. Francis”—but the saints were also the ones who took most seriously the call to follow their Savior and were, in the words of our second reading, “eager to do what is good” (Tit 2:14). In this joyful Christmas season, may something of that same eagerness mark our lives as well. The shepherds hastened to the manger, which actually refers to a trough holding feed for livestock, and they found lying in it the one whom we revere as our own spiritual food, the bread of life. Let us, then, hasten to our Eucharistic table to be fed with this heavenly bread, and with the same eagerness let us then go forth to do as much good as we can during the limited time that remains for each of us in our one and only life on earth.
Abbot James Wiseman
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1Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 79.