Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Holy Innocents

Now after they [the Magi] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  Matt. 2:11-18.

Today the Church remembers the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Here, we encounter a ghastly and appalling story, but I think there are several lessons we can take from this narrative.  We should first examine the character of Herod (known to historians as Herod the Great).  Although Herod greatly expanded the Second Temple, he also murdered many rabbis and members of his own family.  He collaborated with the Roman occupation, and he reigned with a demented savagery.

While scholars may question the historical accuracy of this account in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew’s portrayal meshes well with what we know of Herod’s character.  At the root of these frightening events, we find a genuine insight into Herod’s depravity.  Herod fears losing power, and that phobia sparks his maniacal infanticide.  Into this world, the Christ child is born.

The world hasn’t changed much.  From Dachau to Serbia to Darfur, Herod is still afraid, and the slaughter of the innocents continues.  And this remains the world into which Christ enters.  And ultimately, Christ offers himself as a victim of our savage history.

Matthew offers another insight in this story.  The Holy Family protects the Christ child, traveling to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage.  Matthew refers to Hos. 11:1 and Exodus 4:22-23 with a purpose.  He’s telling his audience that Jesus is the new Moses:  just as Moses delivered the chosen people from slavery, Jesus will free them from sin and death.   Moses and the Prophets reveal God’s dedication to mankind’s salvation; in the Christ child, that dedication becomes incarnate.

I’m also fascinated with the impulse of Mary and Joseph:  I think there’s something more at work here than the simple protective impulse of Jesus’ parents.  You see, I think they’re still out there in the world today: Pharoah, Herod, Stalin, Pol Pot and the other slaves to fear and hatred. 

So, I think Matthew asks us, are we willing to shelter Jesus?  What are we willing to do to protect Christ in the world?  Because I think Matthew and the Church are telling us that our Christmas joy never takes place in a historical vacuum, and the world can be a place of deadly and senseless violence.  As my great-aunt once cautioned me, “May the peace of Christ disturb you greatly.”

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis

 

 

All Who Heard It Were Amazed

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

 Glory to God in the highest heaven,
            and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  Luke 2:  8-19.

Reading Luke’s gospel, we find ourselves awe-struck by the events unfolding here:  heaven and earth have intersected, they have collided,  in this desolate, remote little place.  When locating his entry into human history, God chose neither Rome (the headquarters of the world’s superpower) nor Jerusalem (the seat of religious authority).  

This isn’t just an “out-of-the-way” little spot; the manger is decidedly uncomfortable.  The text makes that clear, noting that there was no room at the inn, and they found their place among the animals.  In no small way, the Holy Family’s rejection by the world (“no room at the inn”), foreshadows and points us toward the Cross, where Jesus is again rejected by the world. 

Similarly, the angels announce Jesus’ entry into human history to a meager group of shepherds.  The angels announce this collision of heaven and earth  to those who are poor, anonymous, not especially important or powerful, and probably misfits in the world.  Curiously, God’s makes Himself present first to those who just don’t seem to matter very much to anyone but the Lord of Heaven.

The angels told these shepherds, men camouflaged by their obscurity, that the Messiah, their savior and ours, lay in a manger among the beasts of the earth.  They ran to spread the news, and are still spreading it.  I’m wondering, can we be amazed at these events?  Can we set aside  our malaise and the mortification of the commonplace, and recognize that the birth of the Christ child is happening now, all around us?  I pray we can.

This Christmas day, I wish you the joy and peace of knowing that God is with us, and that Jesus has come to share God’s dreams for this world.  Love is raining down all around us.  And I’d ask that you save a few moments from your joy to pray and care for those who cannot yet feel that love, those who are broken-hearted, or hungry or alone today. 

Emmanuel, my friends,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis

My Lord and My God!

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’  John 20: 24-28.

On December 21, the church celebrates the Feast of St. Thomas, sometimes known as the Doubting Thomas.  This feast day may seem like a bit of an interruption in our Advent preparation, but I hope to convince you that it makes perfect sense.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing the Incarnation.  Of course, the Latin root of that word is carnis, which means meat or flesh. So, the term Incarnation means that God became flesh and bone, that the immortal became mortal, that the spiritual became physical. God, in a sense, consecrated humanity by entering into our history.  

This was  not, however, some metaphysical entry, nor some encounter with an ethereal spirit.  No, Scripture tells us that Christ was born into human history, born among the animals in a stable or a cave or a stall.  This Incarnation was lowly, mean and decidedly real.

Similarly, in this story of St. Thomas, we learn that even the resurrected Christ bears the scars of his entry into human history, of his encounter with human sin.  Thomas doubted the reality of the resurrected Christ, and would not permit himself to believe until he saw the marks of that encounter in Jesus’ flesh.

I don’t think we should judge Thomas too harshly.  Most of us will face serious doubts at one point or another, and maybe face them again and again.  Perhaps because of my Jesuit education, I’m inclined to think a rigorous examination of our faith is healthy.  Otherwise, we consign ourselves to something I believe is perhaps more dangerous, a faith that is five miles wide and a quarter- inch thick.  Many of us have prayed, in some desperate hour, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  I certainly have, and so feel  a certain spiritual kinship with this good Apostle.

“Then Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!'” I think the point of this Gospel reading is not so much how Thomas came to the conclusion, but that he ultimately reached the conclusion of the  sovereignty and divinity of the Incarnate Word. 

So, we’ve been talking about what Advent means, in terms of the triumph of hope and promise over desolation and darkness.  Advent calls us to look beyond what John Newman called “the shadows and deceits of this shifting scene of time and sense”.  And as we approach again the entry of Jesus into the world, we hear Christ calling to us, “Do not doubt, but believe.” 

Emmanuel, God is with us.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis

 

 

 

Nothing Will Be Impossible

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

So, we pretty much all know this story.  In fact, most of us have heard the Annunciation story so often that it’s lost some of its impact.  If we’re not careful, we can forget just how remarkable and surprising this story is.

In the first place, let’s look at the context.  After centuries of war, occupation and exile, the Jewish people were mired in hopelessness.  Mary, or Miriam as she would have been called, lived on a dead-end street in a long-forgotten town at the far corner of the Roman empire.  More importantly, she was a woman. In that culture at that time, being a woman means nothing much that’s important would happen to her.  So, the angel Gabriel’s announcement that “The Lord is with you” would have startled Luke’s audience. 

This passage clearly echoes Gabriel’s earlier announcement to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  So, St. Luke reminds us that God is up to something astonishing here, involving both Mary and Elizabeth.  God’s action in this regard actually begins much earlier, in the creation story.  In the birth narratives of both John the Baptist and Jesus we find God engaged in the same sort of thing we encountered in Genesis:  creation ex nihilo (from nothing).  The angel even tells Mary that God is doing precisely that with her cousin Elizabeth.  The notion of the virgin birth therefore raises the idea of the Lord resuming the work begun in creation:  re-creating the world.

But let’s return our focus to Miriam, the Theotokos.  Gabriel announces that she will bear a son and name him Jesus. (The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.  Thus, his very name involves the notion of God keeping his promises, fulfilling the covenant.) As was the case with the John, God seems terribly interested in Jesus’ name, as though the words themselves would act as icons of God’s power working in the world. 

Now, while the coming of the Messiah might have constituted very good news for the people of Israel, it might not have sounded like such good news for Miriam.  An unwed mother, at best, would provide the people of Nazareth with a fine scandal.  It’s the sort of thing that could get a girl killed.  I think the Holy Mother understood perfectly well the cost that she might have to pay for bringing God into the world. 

Jesus’ conception through the Holy Spirit will resonate later in the story of his baptism in the Jordan, as a dove descends and the voice of God announces that Jesus is God’s beloved son.  So, these two birth narratives (Jesus and John) will reconnect years later as Jesus begins his public ministry and God claims him as his own son.  All these things happen through Mary’s “fiat”:  “Let it be done with me according to your word.”  Mary thus serves as the real gateway of the Incarnation.

I wonder how many of us are able to hear God’s message in our own lives:  “The Lord is with you.”  Can we come to think of ourselves as  “favored ones”?  Can we bear the Christ child, and are we willing to bring him into the world?  Are we willing to respond, “Let it be with me”?   I ask these things because those same questions that the Holy Mother faced, well, I think the Gospel asks them of you and of me.  While it’s certainly true that God intended to draw Mary into his plan to re-create and redeem the world, I  believe He has exactly the same intent for us.

The Advent message centers on hope and promise, and setting aside our despair and our terror.  The season of Advent recognizes, as it’s so desperately difficult for us to see sometimes, that nothing will be impossible for God.   And while Gabriel says that as a matter of fact, I think for most of us it’s a kind of a prayer: a prayer we might say more often.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P. 

© 2011 James R. Dennis

St. John of the Cross On the Incarnation

Because today is the feast day of St. John of Cross, and we’ve been meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation, I thought we might look at what he had to say on the subject.  In the Eighth Ballad, he wrote:

Then he summoned an archangel;
Saint Gabriel came,
And He sent him to a maiden,
Mary was her name,

Whose consent and acquiescence
Gave the mystery its birth;
It was the Trinity that clothed
With flesh the Living Word.

Though the three had worked the wonder
It was wrought in but this one,
And the incarnated Word
Was left in Mary’s womb.

And He who had a father only
Now possessed a mother,
Though not of man was He conceived
But unlike any other.

And deep within her body
His life of flesh began:
For this reason He is called
The Son of God and Man.

The poem properly focusses on the figure of Mary, by whose acquiescence the mystery of the Incarnation begins.  In many ways, Mary operates as the lynchpin of the season of Advent.  Our Orthodox brothers and sisters call her the Theotokos, or God-Bearer. 

During this season of Advent, we might properly reflect on what it means to be pregnant with God.  I suggest that we consider that, not only as it pertains to the Holy Mother, but also as it pertains to each one of us.  What does it mean for you and I to bring God into the world, a world which is sometimes hostile and often indifferent to Christ?  And while we’re doing so, as with any expectant parent, we might properly wonder just what this event will cost.  How do we carry Jesus into the places where, as with Bethlehem so long ago, there’s just no room for Him?

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation, part of the wonder of belonging to the Body of Christ we call the Church, lies in the recognition that Christ must live within us.  Somehow, through the enigma of God coming to live among us, our very DNA has changed.  St. Paul recognized this, writing:  “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal.  2:20.   Paul reminds us that following Christ does not so much hinge on an intellectual assent to a certain doctrine  as it does on surrendering to Christ’s indwelling within us and allowing Jesus to re-make us.

Our Advent hope lies in recognizing that God’s entry into the world is not an event that took place a couple of thousand years ago, and which made things a bit more bearable.  Rather, the very fabric of time and space have changed.  God has and will re-create all things (including you and me) through this Son of God and Man.

Have a good and holy Advent,

James R. Dennis, O.P. 

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Binding Up the Brokenhearted

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
           because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
          to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
          and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
          and the day of vengeance of our God;
          to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
          to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
          the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  Is. 61: 1-3.

In many respects, this passage from the book of Isaiah provides the perfect Advent reflection.  It gathers up many of the emotions of the people of Israel after the Babylonian exile.   King Nebuchadnezzar and his army had destroyed the Temple, the place where God and man intersected.  Many had been sold into bondage; families were scattered and broken.  The Jews had been humiliated and these were “the worst hard times”.    And Isaiah rose to tell them God remained with them, somehow, in all this mess.

Isaiah refers back to the book of Leviticus, to proclaim the year of jubilee.  (In the year of jubilee, which occurred every fifty years, the prisoners were released, and all debts were forgiven. )  We see this theme running throughout Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments):  God comes to shower his blessings on those whose spirits have been crushed and whose hearts have been broken.  God’s focus doesn’t rest on the superpowers, the wealthy, the priests or the religious elite.  Isaiah thus proclaimed that God was at work; the days of sorrow were over and the days of joy had begun.

 This passage from Isaiah should sound very familiar to Christian readers.  This is the exact passage Jesus reads from in the synagogue when he returns to his hometown, Nazareth.  When Jesus read from this scroll, he announced:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Luke 4:20.  I think this reveals two important messages.  First, it tells us a good deal about Jesus’ understanding of his mission.  He came to bind up the brokenhearted, to release the prisoners and set the captives free, and to bring sight to the blind.

 If we take the Incarnation seriously and believe that we really are the body of Christ the second message of this Scripture becomes clear:  if we follow Jesus, this is our mission as well.  Because of the Incarnation, our task is clear:  we are to tend to the brokenhearted, the blind, those who mourn, and those who are enslaved.  Sometimes, those conditions may be literal, and sometimes they may be spiritual.  Either way, that’s the purpose and the proper function of the Body of Christ.

Thus, Advent announces something deeply joyous, a joy that reaches far beyond our understanding.  As Rabbi Heschel once wrote:

There is not enough grandeur in our souls
To be able to unravel in words
The knot of time and eternity.
One should like to sing for all men,
For all generations…
There is a song in the wind
And joy in the trees.

Our joy approaches, and the whole earth quickens as the Word nears.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis

Dying of Thirst

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

….

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst.  Amos 8: 4-13.

In the Daily Office reading from the Old Testament, we find the prophet Amos acting in the quintessential role of the prophet:  he speaks as a social critic, calling the people of Israel to change their ways.  At first blush, we might wonder what this has to do with us today and how this reading fits into our understanding of Advent.   

Amos speaks out against a terrible social and spiritual problem:  deceit.  Particularly, he is concerned with those who take advantage of the poor.  We don’t have to look very  far to find modern examples suggesting that this is still a problem.  Our newspapers remind us  that there’s nothing archaic about Amos’ concern.  From pools of mortgage-backed securities to deceptive bank  and credit card practices to borrowers who take out loans that they know they cannot repay, we encounter the problem of deceit every day.  But, for the sake of our souls, rather than looking at the headlines, we should search our lives for the ways in which our own deception has separated us from God.  If I have a superpower in this life, it’s my capacity for deception and self-deception. 

Amos believed  that the problem had become so widespread that he compared it to a moral famine and a spiritual drought.  He believed that sharp dealings and deception would result in our inability to hear God in the world.  He wrote about people going from “sea to sea, and from north to east” looking for some whisper of God, and not being able to find it.  That’s the state of the people in first century Palestine:  they knew that their spiritual lives were withering without God’s word, without God’s presence.

Amos summed up our Advent expectation, hoping for a day when justice would “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  Amos 5: 24.  In the Collect for this second we of Advent we pray:  “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” 

Like Amos, we pray for the end of this famine, for this spiritual drought.  We hope for a day when justice, honor and fairness would roll across the land like an  overflowing torrential river.  That’s our Advent hope, as well.  The people of Israel were spiritually parched, dying for God’s word.  Advent tells us that Word is coming. 

God give you peace and a spirit of wonder,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis