Our Lady’s Holiness, and Our Lord’s

El Greco Virgin Mary

The Blessed Virgin longed for salvation. She longed for the completion, the fulfillment of God’s loving plan. Her total consecration to God from the moment of her own conception in her mother’s womb did not make her less eager for the redemption of the sin-soaked world; it made her all the more eager for it.

The idea that Jesus and Mary could ever “compete” for our admiration or devotion; the idea that they could have a “holiness contest?” No.

The perfectly holy Blessed Mother longed to conceive the Christ more than any human being ever long for anything. Because she longed like no one else ever has for the salvation of the world.

Once she had conceived Jesus, Mary longed to give birth to Him, to gaze upon Him–more than any mother has ever longed to give birth. Not because Mary experienced extraordinary physical strain during pregnancy, but because her matchless purity as a human being made her long more than anyone else to see God.

Holiness as a human being doesn’t make you long for the holiness of God less. It makes you long for God more.

So maybe we could put it like this: Human holiness during this pilgrim life = emptiness. The spiritual life involves emptying ourselves, as much as we can, of all the folderol that distracts us from the one, true thing—God. We strain throughout our lives to have the emptiness that our Lady had from Day One.

On the other hand, divine holiness is fullness. Divine holiness fulfills the fundamental emptiness of us lowly creatures made of dust and ashes.

Mary is a mother. Not just any mother–she was empty enough to conceive a son by believing in God’s love for His creation.

Jesus is a son.  Not just any son. The Creator.

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Advent Focus

Martyrdom of Pierre Dumoulin Borie
the martyrdom of St. Pierre Dumoulin-Borie

Last Saturday we marked the 180th anniversary of the martyrdom of Pierre Domoulin-Borie, one of the martyrs of Vietnam. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese Christians suffered torture and death for the faith. It was one of the most cruel persecutions the Church has ever seen. The authorities branded Christians on the face with the Chinese characters that mean “wrong religion.” [Spanish]

A week ago Friday, we marked the 91st anniversary of the martyrdom of Miguel Pro. They shot him to death in Mexico City for the crime of being a faithful Catholic priest. He died willingly, shouting… Viva Cristo Rey!

Remembering this kind of Christian heroism, it focuses us for Advent, the holy season before Christmas.

Advent does not mean maxing out the credit cards on American-Girl space suits or Aquaman merchandise. Keeping Advent means going back spiritually to the days before our Savior’s birth. It means sharing intimately in the thoughts, affections, hopes, and longings of a special group of people. The “heroes” of Advent, our brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham, who longed for the Messiah’s coming.

The prophet Isaiah. Sts. Zechariah and Elizabeth. St. John the Baptist. The three Wise Men. St. Joseph. The Blessed Virgin Mary.

Instead of going shopping, they visited the Temple. Instead of watching tv, they memorized the Psalms. Instead of playing video games or fantasy football, they gazed at the stars in the night sky.

Events happen. Campaigns, elections, birthdays, sports seasons, Winter Sales Events, trials, tribulations, travels, transactions, treaties and treaty violations–they happen. Signs in the sun, moon, and stars. The anxieties of daily life. History constantly seethes with events.

Bl Miguel Pro
the martyrdom of Bl. Miguel Pro

But the heroes of Advent stayed vigilant while the world around them flimmed and flammed. It’s not as if the world just recently became crazy. The craziness of the world goes way back.

The prophet Isaiah witnessed events that would make our heads spin. Foreign armies conquering the Holy Land, the people dispersed in exile and degradation. St. John the Baptist saw the Romans take control, wrenching power from Herod the Great’s feckless progeny. Only the Lord knows all the things that the Wise Men saw, as they journeyed west across deserts and through huge ancient cities teeming with Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Greek-speaking self-help gurus.

But, through all this, one thing, and one thing only, touched the innermost hearts of the heroes of Advent. The world turned, unsteady and confused. But one single sentence made its way into the epicenter of the bosom of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold. You will bear a son who will sit on the throne of David.”

If we keep these four weeks of Advent holy, the liturgical season will train our hearts and our minds to remember that all of history has one decisive event. One. He has a name.

Stay awake, “lest that day catch you like a trap.” What could ‘that day’ mean, other than when earth and heaven meet? ‘That day,’ when God opens Himself up as a living temple for our souls, His light shining as a perpetual sun. ‘That day,’ when truth and justice kiss. ‘That day,’ when sick people heal, when blind people read the words of a book, when the human child and the bear cub frolic together. That day: when God and man are one.

The Incarnate Word of God was born in humble circumstances. He never wrote a book, got interviewed on “60 Minutes,” played professional football, or won a Nobel Prize. He never had a facebook or twitter, never ran for office, never made a lot of money. Never endorsed a product or conducted any kind of PR. We’re not even sure exactly what He looked like.

But: in the list of all the things that have ever happened or ever will happen, His coming to earth is The Big One.

They waited. The ancient prophets. The devout foreigners longing to know God. The aging carpenter, living in a chaste marriage and hoping for a future that only God could know. And his lovely young wife who had become pregnant through an act of faith. They kept quiet and waited patiently, calmly. Awaited the birth of the man, the child, the baby boy Who is God.

Advent Scripture-Study Notes

aquinasWe tackled the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. We used the commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas. We started a week early, because we have to end a week early (since, this year, the afternoon of the fourth Sunday of Advent=Christmas Eve).

The handouts below overlap, because we got sidetracked with discussion and never completed page 2. So page 2 always became page 1 for the following week. And we only made it as far as verse 16 (the most world-famous verse of the Bible.)

All that said, you might enjoy clicking through the links and reading St. Thomas’ reflections…

Week 1: verses 1-5

Week 2: verses 4-8

Week 3: verses 6-13

Week 4: verses 13-16

Barges Floating Towards Christ

The one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will gather his wheat into his barn and burn the chaff. (Matthew 3:11-12)

In ancient times, our forefathers awaited the Messiah. God had promised to send a Savior, a holy prophet, a king, a high priest of all creation, Who would overcome the Fall of Man.

boris-pasternak-painted-by-his-father
Boris Pasternak, painted by his father

Justice shall be the band around his waist, faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” He shall judge. With justice. He will eliminate evil from the life of the world. And cows, bears, babies, and cobras will become frolicking friends. No harm, no ruin will then beset the glorious dwelling of the Christ.

The faithful souls of old patiently, earnestly awaited the fulfillment of these prophecies. They awaited the resolution of all history, the end of evil.

St. John the Baptist encountered the Christ while both of them still inhabited their mothers’ wombs. When John grew up, he awaited the Lord Jesus’ manifestation of His glory. Christ showed Himself the Messiah at His baptism in the River Jordan. Again Jesus showed Himself to be the divine Messiah when He glowed with transfigured light on Mt. Tabor. But, above all, Christ showed Himself the priest, prophet, and king of creation on the Cross.

If I might, I would like to share with you a couple stanzas of Boris Pasternak’s poem “Gethsemane.”

The field tailed off
Into the Milky Way.
Grey-haired olive trees tried to walk the air
Into the distance.

Unresisting he renounced
Like borrowed things
Omnipotence and the power to work miracles;
Now he was mortal like ourselves.

The night was a kingdom of annihilation…
The whole world seemed uninhabited…
He gazed into the black abyss…
Sweating blood, he prayed to his father.

Then the poem moves into Christ’s words to His disciples after He wakes them from sleep:

‘The book of life has reached the page
Which is the most precious of all holy things…

‘You see, the passage of the centuries is like a parable
And catches fire on its way.
In the name of its terrible majesty
I shall go freely, through torment, down to the grave.’

Whoa, Father. Heavy. Plus: You’re giving us a poem about the Garden of Gethsemane during Advent. Did you forget what month this is?

St. John declared that the Messiah will baptize with Spirit and fire, and He will separate the wheat from the chaff. St. John and all our holy ancestors lived their lives awaiting the true Judge, who would, by separating evil from good, fulfill the picture Isaiah painted: the paradise that God wills for us. That paradise stands outside time as we know it. It stands on the other side of a holy death.

Pasternak’s poem concludes with the Lord Jesus finishing His words to His disciples: ‘I shall go freely, through torment, down to the grave.

‘And on the third day I shall rise again.
Like rafts down a river, like a convoy of barges,
The centuries will float to me out of the darkness.
And I shall judge them.’

Our ancestors studied the books of Moses and the other prophets; they meditated endlessly on God fashioning the heavens and the earth out of nothing. They stilled their souls to such a silence that they could perceive God communicating as the rising sun began to distinguish the surrounding hillsides from the sky.

Today God may bring all of history to its fulfillment. Today God may show the fullness of His glory. And all yearning, striving, straining, and hoping will end.

Time floats toward Christ with terrible majesty, like barges on the river. But not towards a falls, over which everything topples into oblivion. No. Jesus stands there, at the end of the river, to judge. Life conquers death. And the picnic on the holy mountain begins, with frolicking cows, bears, babies, and cobras. And, please God, us.

The Christ will Winnow

Afghanistan-Winnowing

When the Christ comes, what will He do?

We read that the people were filled with expectation. They had no real doubt that the Christ would indeed come. But they did not exactly have a crystal-clear idea of what would happen when He did. In fact, as we read, they wondered if John the Baptist might be the Christ.

After all, the Christ might just do things like John the Baptist did: Tell people to deal honestly and fairly with each other. To share their largesse with those in need. To live decent, humble lives. God-fearing people live that way, after all. Always have.

Maybe the Christ would baptize people with water, when they repented of their sins– like John did.

We know that the Jews of that time had a number of different ideas about what the Messiah might be like. Maybe a great military man, a commander-in-chief, a liberator. Maybe an imperial ruler.

baptist-greco2Now, no one could mistake John the Baptist for the regal kind of Messiah, or the military kind. But John had the trappings of a third possible kind of Messiah. People easily mistook him for the austere kind of Messiah. The prophetic kind. The monkish kind.

Out in the desert, separated from the nonsense of cosmopolitan life. Living on locusts and wild honey, in total contrast with the gluttonous hypocrites who ran Jerusalem. In a cynical world, John preached repentance and a fresh start at living a holy life.

We can understand the mistake, then, when people began to believe that John was the Christ. But John set them straight. He did not say, “You think I’m the Messiah? Well… I’m flattered…” No, John said, “You have mistaken me. I baptize with water. He will baptize with Spirit and fire.”

Now, literally baptizing people with fire? Could prove highly painful. So St. John must have meant something spiritual with these words of his. The Messiah will not simply preach a just and true doctrine, like the Baptist preached. The real Christ, Jesus, preached a doctrine that penetrates to the center of the human soul and purifies it.

If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other cheek as well. If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also. If someone asks you for money, give, and do not expect repayment. Your reward will be great in heaven. The poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the hungry, and the persecuted will inherit a Kingdom, a kingdom greater than any of the kingdoms of the earth.

Really? The people wondered. They wondered at the idea that the Messiah could be even more of a mind-blower than John the Baptist was. The doctrine of the Christ involved not just an exhortation to live a God-fearing life. It involved a promise about a completely new kind of life to come.

So they asked St. John a reasonable question: What will the Christ do?

The man of consummate gravity said: Look. I am nothing. I am a breath of air. I am a feather floating on the wind, compared to the One Who is to come. The Christ does not simply preach the truth. He is the Truth. He judges all. Christ wields the great winnowing fan, and He gathers His wheat into His barn.

Christ with winnowing fanWith this image, St. John the Baptist has given us one of the great keys for making sense out of life. This world, this pilgrim life, is a threshing floor.

What is “winnowing?” It’s so simple that the Wikipedia article about it has only one paragraph. Chaff has no real substance. It will blow away in the wind. When the winnowing fan beats the air, the chaff blows off, and only the meaty grain remains on the threshing floor.

The Christ of God comes with the winnowing fan of truth in His hand. The truth of divine love. He will judge everything according to the criterion of the Father’s love.

But that’s not the whole image. The Christ wields a winnowing fan for a reason. Because He has a barn. He has a place to put the meaty grain, after the chaff gets separated and burnt.

This pilgrim life involves one big separation. The omnipotent winnowing fan separates beauty from ugliness, good from evil, enduring life from fleeting ephemera. Every good choice we make adds to our substance. Every sin dissipates us more and more, towards the weightlessness of chaff. We don’t want to blow away, in the end. We want to have weight, the weight of God’s goodness. Because the winnowing process does not last forever. Eventually, Christ will completely separate good from evil…

Then: A barn, of a crisp evening. Raking the stables. The smell of the hearth fire burning in the house nearby. Peace. An end to striving, struggling, and fighting. Just home, the comfort of our true home, with God.

Naïveté?

goat

Is it naïve for us simply to say, “We believe that God will save us?”

I mean: no matter what kind of mess we find ourselves in personally, or as a family, or as a nation, or as the human race. No matter what, God will save us.

Maybe my health is failing, and I’ve lost my joie-de-vivre. Maybe my family has fallen into an argument about something really serious, with no apparent resolution. Maybe I got laid off by Volvo in Pulaski and can’t find a job. Maybe it never stops raining. Or: I either hate Obama, or I hate the Obama Haters.

After all, we can hardly avoid the instinctual tendency of the reigning technocrat of the age: All problems have fixes. Problem? Here’s how you fix it. Doesn’t matter that the technocratic fixes sometimes have all the plausibility of asking a goat to make breakfast for you. But a technocrat either proposes a fix, or pretends there’s no problem. That’s what technocrats do.

Meanwhile, we say: “We believe that God will save us.”

Doesn’t mean we put our minds and ingenuity on permanent pause. Doesn’t mean we care not if an asteroid obliterates the globe. We care. We know we have been put here for a reason and have a task to perform for God’s glory.

But: No matter what weight of nonsense, trouble, and nastiness pushes down the scale, we still believe that God will save us. Period. God rules. And He is good. Jesus has taught us that.

Does that make us Advent-observing people naïve? Shouldn’t we give it up now, after 2,000 years waiting for the Second Coming, and just try to get our fifteen minutes of fame? Or at least a flatscreen with Netflix and a friendly pet? If we just gave up our naïve certitudes, maybe we could find something interesting on the internet for like five or ten minutes a day…

No. God will save us. God rules. Not us, and not Satan.

Naivete? I call it the heavenly wisdom of patient perseverance. Or, to use another exceedingly rare word: Hope.

The Big Event

Frank Beamer retirement announcement

This time of year, people begin to look back and consider all the ‘big things’ that have happened in the past eleven months.

Like a change of pastor at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke–doesn’t happen every year.

Big events on the world stage: Terrorist attacks in Paris. New Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Pope Francis visited the U.S. Iran nuclear deal. Migrants flooding Europe, fleeing ISIS. USA won the women’s World Cup.

A little closer to home: The shooting at Smith Mountain Lake. Frank Beamer’s retirement. Cavaliers got knocked-out early from the NCAA tournament in March…

We keep the season of Advent for many reasons. One of them is to put all these events into perspective, to put history itself into perspective. Advent does not mean maxing out the credit cards on “The Force Awakens” merchandise. Or getting into cookie-baking battles with your mother-in-law.

No: keeping Advent means something rather radical. It means an intimate sharing in the thoughts, affections, hopes, and longings of one particular group of people. The “heroes” of Advent. The prophet Isaiah. Sts. Zechariah and Elizabeth. St. John the Baptist. The three Wise Men. St. Joseph. And the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Pope Francis UgandaInstead of going shopping, they visited the Temple. Instead of watching tv, they memorized the Psalms. Instead of playing video games or fantasy football, they gazed at the stars in the night sky. Instead of driving hither and yon in a frenzy, the heroes and heroines of Advent patiently waited, calmly waited.

Events happen. Campaigns, elections, birthdays, basketball seasons, Winter Sales Events, trials, tribulations, travels, transactions, treaties and treaty violations–they happen. Signs in the sun, moon, and stars. The anxieties of daily life. History constantly seethes with events.

But the heroes of Advent stayed vigilant while the world around them flimmed and flammed. The prophet Isaiah witnessed events that would make our heads spin–foreign armies over-running the land, the people dispersed in exile and degradation. St. John the Baptist saw the Romans take control, wrenching power from Herod the Great’s feckless progeny. Only the Lord knows all the things that the Wise Men saw, as they journeyed west across deserts and through huge ancient cities teeming with Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Greek-speaking self-help gurus.

But, through all this, one thing, and one thing only, touched their innermost hearts. The world turned, unsteady and confused–but one single sentence made its way into the epicenter of the bosom of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold. You will bear a son who will sit on the throne of David.”

The four weeks of Advent train our hearts and our minds to remember that all of history has one decisive event. One.

And He has a name.

Stay awake, “lest that day catch you like a trap.” What could ‘that day’ mean, other than when earth and heaven meet? ‘That day,’ when God opens Himself up as the temple of the city, His light shining as a perpetual sun. ‘That day,’ when truth and justice kiss, and all stolen goods get returned to their proper owners. ‘That day,’ when sick people heal, when blind people read the words of a book, and when the child and the bear cub frolic together. That day: when God and man are one.

El Greco AnnunciationAnybody know what continent Pope Francis is on right now? Africa. He traveled to Africa to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Martyrs of Namugongo, in Uganda. The African martyrs were tortured and burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ. They refused to give in to unchastity and corruption. “That day” came for them, and they were ready, because they had trained their hearts to focus on what Isaiah and the Baptist and St. Joseph and Mary focused on.

Yes, He was born in humble circumstances. He never wrote a book, got interviewed on “60 Minutes,” played professional football, or won a Nobel Prize. He never had a facebook or twitter, never ran for office, never made a lot of money. Never endorsed a product, did a tv spot, or conducted any kind of PR. We’re not even sure exactly what He looked like.

But: in the list of all the things that have ever happened or ever will happen, this is The Big One.

They waited. The ancient prophets. The devout foreigners longing to know God. The just man, living for love and a future that only God could know. And the lovely young woman who had become pregnant through an act of faith. They kept quiet and waited patiently, calmly. Awaited the birth of the man, the child, the baby boy Who is God.

“Greatest Pastoral Document”

Pope Paul VI 1975

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, loves Blessed Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. And we do, too, in our humble parish cluster!

The Church holds that these multitudes [of non-Christians or nominal Christians] have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ–riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth.

…The religion of Jesus, which the Church proclaims through evangelization, objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action. The Church thus causes an encounter with the mystery of divine paternity that bends over towards humanity. In other words, our religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven.

This is why the Church keeps her missionary spirit alive, and even wishes to intensify it in the moment of history in which we are living. She feels responsible before entire peoples. She has no rest so long as she has not done her best to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the Savior. She is always preparing new generations of apostles. Let us state this fact with joy at a time when there are not lacking those who think and even say that ardor and the apostolic spirit are exhausted, and that the time of the missions is now past. The Synod [of Bishops, of 1974 has replied that the missionary proclamation never ceases and that the Church will always be striving for the fulfillment of this proclamation. (para. 53, from chapter five)

Perhaps, with the Christmas rush, you do not find the time to read an entire document of the papal magisterium. Your humble servant sometimes finds himself in similar straits.

We present these brief selections…

1. Particularly interesting paragraphs from chapters one and two.

2. Inspiring paragraphs from chapters three and four

3. Helpful passages from chapters six and seven

Advent December

Lord, why do you let us wander and harden our hearts, so that we fear you not? …Would that you might meet us doing right! (Isaiah 63:17, 64:4)

Seems as though the Lord Jesus used the image of the householder traveling abroad, and leaving his servants in charge–He used this image over and over again.

baptist-greco2Two weeks ago, we encountered it in the Parable of the Talents: the master left the country, and gave his servants money to invest. Same image, or one very similar, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Steward, and the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, and of the Wicked Tenants, and of the Master’s Return from a Wedding, and of the Faithful vs. the Unfaithful Servant.

And at Holy Mass this Sunday, in chapter 13 of St. Mark’s gospel: A man travels abroad. Leaves home. Places his servants in charge, each with his own work. And the gatekeeper must watch for the master’s return.

So: Here we find ourselves, together on the earth, with control over things that do not properly belong to us. By right, the goods we have control over, they belong to our divine Master, the Creator. He has entrusted them to us, for temporary service. We exercise power over things in this world–but not ultimate power. A day will come when the true owner, the rightful master of all that we hold in trust–He will appear. He will expect to find things in a certain state.

And if they are not? If He arrives after midnight, and we lay asleep, with empty beer cans scattered all over the floor, and the tv still blaring, and we haven’t made sure the children brushed their teeth, and there are dirty dishes in the sink. If the master comes and finds a mess? As they say, there will be hell to pay. In this case, literally.

So the prayer of Isaiah suits us perfectly. Lord, please don’t let us harden our hearts! Keep them soft and supple, responsive to your influence. Keep us humble and dutiful. So that you might find us doing right, when you return in glory.

Continue reading “Advent December”

Save Your Sunday Afternoons!

Beatus Paul VI

Be watchful with all perseverance and supplication…that speech may be given…to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel. (Ephesians 6:18-19)

Guess what begins precisely one month from today? Holy Advent.

In our parish cluster, Advent-Sunday afternoons mean: Vespers and spiritual reading with Fr. Skinny Crewcut! [This Advent at St. Joseph, M’ville.]

Now, who is our newest beatified pope? Who wrote the original gameplan for the New Evangelization?

What kind of fools would we be if we didn’t read Evangelii Nuntiandi as our spiritual reading this Advent?

The presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism, or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. It is the beauty of the Revelation that it represents. It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world. It is able to stir up by itself faith–faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life. (Blessed Pope Paul VI, EN 5)