Each Advent season, we prepare to welcome Jesus into the inns and stables of our hearts. But Jesus’ coming wasn’t welcomed by everyone with choirs of angels. For St. Joseph, the first coming of Jesus was a bit more complicated. “When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” For Joseph, opening his heart (and home) to Jesus meant, at best, appearing to all the world like a man who had impregnated his wife out of wedlock. At worst, he appeared a cuckold, raising the child of another man. God doesn’t always appear the way we expect.
For some of us, the birth of Christ is a bit relationally complicated. Perhaps over the past few months, a loved one has died. This Christmas, you’re taking it upon yourself to keep up the traditions and hold the family together. Welcoming Jesus means welcoming grief. Perhaps it’s a difficult relative (or two or three) and it’s all you can do to bite your tongue and swallow your pride while they’re under your roof. Welcoming Jesus means welcoming strife, discord, and tension.READ MORE
Who did you come to see? A version of this question is posed by Jesus many times in the Gospels. He asks it of Andrew and John when they begin to follow him. He asks it of Mary Magdalene in the garden of the resurrection. He asks it in today’s Gospel. “What did you go out to the desert to see?” There is something innately human about “seeing.” Animals have eyes — some with much more powerful vision than our own — but that’s not the kind of seeing Jesus is talking about. We could phrase the question several other ways. “What are you looking for?” “What are you longing for?” “Whom do you seek?”
It is in seeing for ourselves that our suspicions or hypotheses are confirmed, that our desires discover their fulfillment, and that we can rest for a moment in certainty. John the Baptist sought certainty of Jesus’ identity. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus sends word to him based on the testimony of sight, observations of the mighty deeds Jesus has begun to work. “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”READ MORE
What does it mean to be worthy? There are a few different ways to approach this question. Today’s Gospel highlights two: the way of the Pharisees and the way of John the Baptist. Our faith values good works and discipleship. Perhaps, then, we “earn” our worth by adhering to the right doctrines and following the right pious practice. The Pharisees thought they were worthy. Due to their religious pedigree and proper procedures, they were self-satisfied. John the Baptist’s words to them are strong. “Do not resume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” Of course, Jesus (and John) don’t omit the responsibility for moral behavior. John gives the Pharisees quite a strong warning in that regard. “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance … every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”READ MORE
“I’m never getting enough rest! How can I possibly be ‘asleep’?” In a world of jam-packed schedules and high anxiety levels, physical rest may be hard to come by. Yet relentless pursuit of our todo lists and social calendars may keep our minds off of the things that really matter. Jesus knows all too well a pattern of busy, harried ignorance. “In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage … they did not know until the flood came and carried them all away … two men will be out in the field … two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.” When it comes to the spiritual life, we can be at work or at relaxation and still be spiritually asleep.READ MORE
“The rulers sneered … the soldiers jeered … one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus.” Is this the King of the Jews, the King of the Universe? If it is so, perhaps his kingdom is not at all what we would expect! In his letter to the laity, St. John Paul II spoke about how Christians share in the kingly mission of Christ. First, “they exercise their kingship as Christians, above all in the spiritual combat in which they seek to overcome in themselves the kingdom of sin.” In other words, before we give any thought to transforming society, we must first allow God to transform us. Through daily prayer, regular self-examination, and frequent confession, we can recognize our faults more readily and choose love instead!
Second, St. John Paul II writes that the laity “make[s] a gift of themselves so as to serve, in justice and in charity, Jesus who is himself present in all his brothers and sisters, above all in the very least.” Christ’s kingship, and our own participation in it, is requires us to look beyond the privileged of society. It goes beyond networking and struggles of power. It goes with Jesus to the Cross!READ MORE
Where would you go if the world was ending? What would you do? The last decade has seen a rise in doomsday prepping, the marketing of survival techniques, and a sea of products designed for you to weather the apocalypse. “The days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another that will not be thrown down,” Jesus warns in today’s Gospel. On the one hand, he is referring to the literal downfall of the city of Jerusalem. Indeed, many of his prophecies here have come true over the last few millennium. Nations have indeed “rise[n] against nation[s],” kingdoms against kingdoms. Surf any world news website today alone, and you will see stories of “powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues.” Jesus’ advice to his disciples, however, isn’t to build a bunker. It’s to persevere in faith … which won’t be easy.READ MORE
“Some Saducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus …”
In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Saducees avoid their real question. Is there a resurrection from the dead or not? Rather than ask this question point blank, the Saducees try to prove their point through a roundabout, unrealistic scenario. Jesus cuts straight to the question behind the question, citing Scripture passages relating to the resurrection.
The Saducees are trying to trick Jesus. While we may not intend to stump God, our doubts and questions may have more in common with the Saducees than we care to admit. Doubts are part and parcel of life in a fallen world. Still, there are different ways we can word our doubts to ourselves, God, and others. When we’re struggling, truly struggling, about some article of faith, do we admit it? Or do we cloak it with other, obtuse questions to hide the nature of our concern?READ MORE
Christ loves us first. So much of the Christian life is as simple as that. Today’s Gospel is a prime example! “Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man … was seeking to see who Jesus was.” We may have gotten used to the story of Zacchaeus, this short, seemingly innocent man who climbs a sycamore tree in his desperate desire to see Jesus. But this colorful, children’s Bible illustration isn’t what the gathering crowd would have seen. They would have seen the white collar criminal. Tax collectors were notorious for extortion. They were collaborators with the oppressive Roman overlords, overcharging for taxes and skimming a cut off the top. And how does Jesus respond to this man?
“Come down quickly,” Jesus says, “for today I must stay at your house.” If you had been there, would you have believed it? No doubt there were other disciples in the city or, at the very least, kind, generous, and just people. “Good” people. But those aren’t the people Jesus chooses to share a meal with. Christ loves us first. He chooses Zacchaeus even before the man makes a public profession of his repentance.READ MORE
“This Sunday’s Gospel contrasts two different religious attitudes. First, the self-righteous Pharisee. Here is a man who seems to impeccably follow the law. In some terms, he is the model citizen! Honest, fiscally generous, and faithful to his marriage vows. But something else lurks in his heart: pride. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity … or even like this tax collector.” For the Pharisee, no fault can be admitted. The only way to stay on top is to preserve one’s image — even to God, it seems! — and point out the flaws of others from the pedestal.
In the back of the temple, hidden and bowed down, is the tax collector. “O God, by merciful to me a sinner.” This man’s prayer is one of supplication and petition. He isn’t afraid to express his sinfulness and misery. This, Jesus says, is the one who “went home justified.” How many times have we heard the mission of Jesus to seek and save the lost? Jesus is the one who dines with sinners and invites every heart to repentance. But how can we return to him if we don’t know we’ve left? How can we receive God’s grace when we’re adamant we don’t need it?READ MORE
“Render a just decision for me against my adversary.” Today’s Gospel features a persistent widow who ekes out justice from a notoriously cold-hearted judge. Why does she win the day? “Because the widow keeps bothering me.” Jesus’ recommendation to the disciples is to be persistent in prayer, because surely God the Father is far more attuned to their needs than this judge. If only it were that easy, right? We’ve all experienced the unanswered prayer, the silence after our cries. When this continues, sometimes it can be difficult to have faith in God or believe He answers prayers. It can be easy to lapse into a sense of His distance. We want Him to do something “fair,” which — in our limited view — typically means that something works out in our favor.READ MORE
“Ten lepers met him. They stood at a distance …” In the ancient world and into the Middle Ages, there was no treatment for leprosy. People thought it was wildly contagious and were suspicious of any skin diseases. Lepers were isolated from civil society. This isolation was uphold by the Mosaic Law. Should there be a healing from leprosy, the former leper was to present himself to a priest to certify the healing. Like Jesus commands, “Show yourselves to the priests.” The person would then undergo a religious rite to be formally reintroduced to society. In other words, a leper got their life back. So why didn’t they come back?READ MORE
Compartmentalization or consistency? In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells a strange story of a sneaky, savvy steward that raises questions about our personal virtue. “How much do you owe? Here is your promissory note, write one for eighty.” This parable isn’t advice for money management. Historically, there were many positions that acted on behalf of their masters regarding money, like customs agents, household stewards, and tax collectors. Often these workers over-charged and skimmed off the top.
Usurious practices like this were not in line with the traditional Jewish understanding of money lending, which strictly forbade them from to taking interest or making a profit off of their own people. As the steward reduced the debt, he was likely writing out the amount he originally intended to take for himself. Before the steward can be commended, he needs to right the wrong done.READ MORE
“Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain…” In this Sunday’s Gospel, we learn the context for the forthcoming parables about the lost and found. A great mixed crowd surrounds Jesus. The religious elite are present, along with all manner of local lowlifes. The Pharisees seem a bit upset that this wasn’t the lecture series they were hoping for. Why would Jesus welcome sinners?
Jesus responds as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep … rejoice because I have found the coin that I lost … let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine … was lost, and has been found!” Each of the parables features a dramatic example. Of 99 sheep, one has gone astray. Of 10 coins, one has gone missing. The welcomed son has previously been a covetous scoundrel. Jesus’ point to the Pharisees is clear. If the Gospel really is “good news,” if our faith really has the power to save, why wouldn’t we want everyone drawing near? Why wouldn’t we do everything in our power to eke out that possibility for every single person, no matter where they have wandered? After all, if this message is not of value to everyone, why is it of value to anyone?READ MORE
It’s said that upon reading the Gospels, Gandhi commented that he very much liked Jesus Christ. It was Christ’s followers he found troublesome. One wonders who Gandhi had met and if these Christians had truly counted the cost of their faith. Following Jesus, really following Jesus, is much more challenging than we may think. He emphasizes this with strong language in this Sunday’s Gospel. He compares discipleship to the carrying of one’s own execution device — “his own cross” — and for the need even to “hate” what could disrupt one’s commitment. Some of this is standard hyperbole, exaggeration for effect common to the time period. Some of this should make us wonder how deep our discipleship goes.READ MORE