How and Why They Missed Him

There is one among you whom you do not recognize. (John 1:26)

baptist-greco2This is what St. John the Baptist said to the priests and Levites. We will read this gospel passage at Sunday Mass. The Baptist told them: The Son of God is here, but you don’t see it. God became man and walked the earth, and most of the locals did not notice. [Spanish]

Let’s consider the how and the why of this. How could it happen?

First of all, people were looking forward to the coming of Christ, but they expected it to be different. The pagans had all kinds of myths about the gods coming down to earth, but none of them involved stables and mangers, and gentle, humble virgin mothers. The pagan myths about gods coming to earth involved smoke and lightning bolts, terror and fury.

The pagans back then respected wealth and prestige, just like they do now. They were not looking for a poor carpenter who taught His closest followers to give away all their possessions.

The Jews, meanwhile, were looking for a field general to lead a revolutionary army. They were convinced that God would come to smite their foes. It was us vs. them. The Jews did not think that the Messiah would come and say, “Love your enemies,” and “Turn the other cheek.”

Also, when God became man, He veiled His divinity with His humanity. He took our human nature to Himself so intimately that He only made His divinity evident a few times during His pilgrim life, like when He worked miracles, or at the Transfiguration. Otherwise, the Christ was indistinguishable from other men. He ate, drank, slept—just like us. The God-man walked wherever He went, just like the other poor people of the time.

Considering all this, it is not hard for us to see how people could miss the Christ.

Now we come to the hard question: Why?

Why did the Lord conceal Himself this way? Why did He choose to be born of an insignificant woman, instead of a queen? Why did He labor in obscurity in a carpenter-shop for most of His earthly life? Why did He reveal His true identity only to a chosen few, ordering those who saw His miracles not to tell anyone about them? Why did God allow Himself to be arrested, tried, and condemned like a petty criminal? Why did He let Himself be crucified as if He were a powerless mortal? Why is He so confoundedly humble?

Now, we cannot, of course, presume to read the depths of God’s infinitely glorious mind or understand His plan. May it please Him, we will spend eternity contemplating His generous love, which led Him to do everything He has done, in the way that He has done it.

We can, however, give a short answer to the question of why God came so gently and unassumingly to earth, why He submitted to indifference and insult. Simply put, the reason is this: He came not to condemn, but to save.

The day will come when the heavens and the earth will shake. The day will come when the Lord will show Himself in power and glory, and no one will miss it.

He could have come that way the first time. But He did not come to terrify; He came to love. He came to make justice and praise spring up, as we will read from the prophet Isaiah on Sunday. Slowly, quietly, like a garden grows. His first coming was to plant the seeds.

The Lord does not want to find us unprepared for the final Judgment. He came to the earth humbly in order to give us the grace and knowledge we need to be ready when Judgment Day does come.

Now, even when the people failed to recognize Him in the flesh, God remained altogether powerful. Jesus the poor man made everything we see and know. But this is what shows us how awesome He truly is: He was willing to be ignored. He cast aside even His own divine honor in order to save us.

Looking for God, Experiencing God

baptist-greco2

“What are you looking for?” The first words of Jesus recorded in the gospel of John. Christ asks this question of those who follow Him. Andrew and the other gentleman literally followed Christ–after they saw Him walk by and heard St. John the Baptist call Him the “Lamb of God.” [Spanish.]

“What are you looking for?” Christ asks us the same question, we who propose to follow Him as His disciples, here and now, 2018. What are we looking for?

How about: “We’re looking for God.” We seek our Maker, our Lord. We seek His true and eternal goodness and beauty. We behold His works: the splendid visible creation, and the great mystery of ourselves. We see from His handiwork that God has unimaginable power and knowledge. We long to share in His wisdom. We know that we can have no peace without His friendship.

St. Andrew and the other gentleman answered Jesus’ question by calling Him “rabbi.” A rabbi taught the Law, the wisdom of God. By addressing Jesus with this title, they said pretty much what we just said. That is, “Jesus, sir, teach us about God.”

They added a question of their own. “Where are you staying?”

Now, on the one hand, it’s a strange question to ask the Son of Man–Who had no place to rest His Head, Whose only true dwelling is with the Father. But, on the other hand, the question expresses genuine earnestness. It means: ‘Teacher, we want to learn from you, not just as religious tourists chasing curiosities. We want to follow You as real disciples, living in intimate closeness with You. We will give up our own homes, and we will make our home at Your feet.’

Can we say the same? We said that we follow Christ because we want God; we know that only God can give us true happiness and peace. Can we join St. Andrew and St. Peter in putting everything on the line for the sake of learning God’s wisdom from Jesus? Everything: all that we thought was ours, all that we thought we knew. Can we renounce every ounce of pride and self-satisfaction and put ourselves humbly at Jesus’ feet?

aquinasHe demands no less. “Come and see,” He says. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, this means: Come, follow Me, and experience true union with God. Experience it, because it cannot be explained using words alone.

Christianity is not something in which you can dabble. It’s not a hobby. It involves an all-encompassing experience of God’s revelation in Christ.

Yes, to be sure, the baby Jesus is lovable and cute. And God became just such a baby so as to communicate the indescribable tenderness and gentleness of His love.

But the cute baby grew up to become the High Priest Who baptizes with the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit. He grew into the rabbi who taught doctrine so demandingly sublime that His rivals came to hate Him for it, and they wanted Him dead.

Now: How can we possibly experience what Jesus demands that we experience? Namely, His Holy Spirit working in our souls, giving us an intimate union with Almighty God. Putting us in communion not just with the heavens and the earth, but with He Who made the heavens and the earth.

Well, if you expect me to have a complete answer to that question, think again. I’m hardly qualified to discourse about such holiness.

But we can say this much: We experience the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls when we stay close to Christ in His Church. He speaks to us through the Scriptures and all the words and works of the Sacred Liturgy; He fills us with His grace through the sacraments.

Yes, it’s amazing that this humble building of ours could house such mystical activity. It’s incredible that these simple ceremonies we do here actually involve God incarnate ministering to us. It’s hard to believe that we unremarkable individuals could find ourselves caught up in the work of the Holy Spirit of God. It’s amazing. But it’s true.

So let’s stay faithful to it. What more can we do, other than stay faithful? We can’t claim to understand the works of God. We certainly don’t know of anything more wonderful. So let’s stay faithful, and the Holy Spirit will do His work in us.

Fig-Tree Canopy

 

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Sitting under the fig tree. The prophets Micah and Zechariah both proclaim that the Messiah will come, will bring truth and justice to the earth, will take away the world’s sin—and then each Israelite will rest in the shade of his fig tree, with his neighbor, in peace.

At the time of Christ, zealous students of the Torah would spend time every day meditating, in the shade of a fig tree in the garden. They would always conclude their meditation by praying hard that the Messiah would come.

Let’s imagine that we all had fig trees, and that they offered not just shade, but also a sheath of warmth. You sit under your fig tree, and it’s 75 degrees.

All this might help us understand the dramatic change of heart which Nathanael had in his conversation about Christ, and with Christ, narrated in John 1. Philip says to Nathanael, “We have found the Messiah!” Nathanael basically responds, “Yeah, right.” Then Jesus says to Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree.” And Nathanael cries out, “Yes, the Messiah!”

But even more amazing is what Lord Jesus says next. Again: we’re on the right track when we grasp that the fig tree offered a physical and spiritual canopy for the Israelite. A fig tree meant: a canopy of prayer and holiness, a place to live a genuinely humane life in communion with God, protection from chaos and confusion.

But Christ says to Nathanael: this symbol actually communicates true reality, no matter where you are. For Jesus, the wide open sky is the fig tree of the Israelite. The Messiah lives under the canopy of the Father’s love and protection always. There is nowhere, Golgatha included, where the branches of that loving protection do not reach. For Christ, the fig tree is nothing other than the great heaven above, because the Father always hears the prayers of the Son.

And all this goes for us, too, when we are in the Son. The Father is the Son’s fig tree, and the Son is ours (which means the Father is ours, too.)

The Messiah has come. And He spread out His own arms on the branches of a tree. To give us the shade that the holy fig tree gives the Israelite, wherever we are. The shade of Christ’s cross always offers us a canopy of holiness.

The Mercy of Baptism

He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. (John 1:33)

St. John the Baptist washed sinners in the Jordan River. People came from all over the Holy Land to repent of their sins and receive John’s baptism.

baptismDid St. John the Baptist invent baptism? Not exactly.

The ancient Temple in Jerusalem had water baths for pilgrims to cleanse themselves in. Ritual washing goes way back. Water cleanses our bodies. So the religions of mankind have added a spiritual dimension to this cleansing power. In other words, “baptism” is as old as the human race; St. John did not invent it.

But John did administer baptism to God Himself, the God-man Jesus Christ. Not because God needed cleansing. But because God wills to use water to baptize with the Holy Spirit, through His Church. Lord Jesus commissioned us to “go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

John said it: Christ baptizes not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Jesus pours out divine grace along with the water. So, yes: Catholic baptism is a religious cleansing ritual, similar to such washings in other religions. But that’s not all Catholic baptism is. Because here Christ acts through the ritual washing. God Himself produces invisible effects on the soul of the one baptized.

Jesus died and rose again for us, and He ascended into heaven. Through the sacrament of baptism, our High Priest applies to the baptized person the fruits of that mystery. Christ makes a Christian, a new anointed one. He unites the baptized person to Himself. Baptism cleanses us of sin. But the “cleanness” brought about by Christian baptism involves more than just pardon for personal sins. It involves unbreakable solidarity with Jesus Christ. In Baptism, Christ marks the soul with a permanent character. He “brands” the soul, so to speak, as belonging to Him.

Now, God possesses a firmness and permanence beyond what we can even imagine. We think of mountain ranges and vast oceans as being permanent fixtures, but they have nothing on the permanence of God. We also have a tendency to think that everything depends on us clever human beings. But it doesn’t. God works effects through His sacraments, effects that go beyond what we can understand. Baptism means God uniting Himself with us on His terms, not ours. As St. Paul puts it, “God must prove true, even if all men are fickle.” (Romans 3:4)

baptism-holy-card1If you pay attention to the Catholic press, you may know that lately various prelates and ecclesiastical big-wigs have emphasized the importance of “pastoral accompaniment.” We need to accompany everyone with supportive love, regardless of whether we approve or disapprove of how they behave.

To understand this, I think we need to meditate on what God affirms when He pours out the Holy Spirit on us in the sacrament of Baptism. He assures us: I made you in the beginning, and I made you out of love. I made you to reign in happy blessedness, as a member of the divine household. The nonsense of this world does not control your destiny. I will only good for you. I have a detailed plan for your life, which leads ultimately to heaven.

This doesn’t mean that baptized people can’t wind up in hell. You or I could wind up in hell tomorrow, if we don’t watch our p’s and q’s. Our choices have consequences. God’s law binds. The Lord does not lower His expectations of the morals of those He unites with Himself through baptism; he raises those expectations. God help anyone who knowingly chooses to break God’s law.

But if we think that Christianity simply means: “me being a good person,” we have missed it altogether. Because we are not good people.

Christ came to save us because we are sinners. We’re sinners who all deserve to go to hell. As St. John Paul II put it, in his encyclical on Christian morals:

No human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in…rendering God the worship due to Him…This fulfillment can come only from a gift of God. (Veritatis Splendor 11)

God loves sinners who deserve to go to hell. He died for sinners who deserve to go to hell. He came to affirm the truths that He affirms through the sacrament of baptism: Sinner, I love you. Sinner, I made you for happiness and glory. Sinner, I have a plan for you.

“Pastoral accompaniment” hardly means just chumming around and ignoring the Ten Commandments. Hanging out and talking sports hardly counts as “evangelization.” Much as I personally enjoy doing it. We can’t hide the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes very challenging demands on us, precisely in order to help us find true happiness.

But we also can’t forget that all human beings fundamentally stand on the same footing before God–namely that His mercy can and does overcome all our evil. When we baptized people know we have done wrong, we can get right again by going to “second baptism,” also known as…confession. We can go again and again, because God never tires of forgiving.

Christ’s infinite and omnipotent mercy really is the pre-eminent power that reigns in the Church. Which is because, when everything is said and done, His infinite, omnipotent mercy is the pre-eminent power that reigns over all things.

So let’s help each other, and let’s help everyone we know, respond humbly to that bounteous divine love.

Standing on the (written and unwritten) Word

As we have been discussing over the past few weeks, Almighty God has revealed Himself to us by a particular course of events. By words and deeds, which culminated in His personal appearance as a man, God has revealed the divine truth.

The truth that God is love, triune love. The truth that God conquers evil and brings good out of it. The truth that God wills the eternal salvation of every human being.

So the next thing we have to consider is this: God has spoken His Word in Christ. We want to stand on this Word of God, since it alone provides the foundation of truth. How do we do that? How do we stand on God’s Word?

Continue reading “Standing on the (written and unwritten) Word”

St. Thomas on “Come and See”

“Teacher, where are you staying?”

When the aspiring disciples put their question to the Lord, they articulated it with penetrating subtlety. They were talking with a wanderer who had no place to rest his head. So they did not speak of a permanent residence. “Where are you staying?”

The Lord, of course, found a home under many roofs while He was making His pilgrim way on earth. At various times, He took His place as an honored guest in a number of homes in different parts of the Holy Land.

“What are you looking for?” The Lord Jesus had asked these followers of His, near the River Jordan. “What are you looking for?” He asks us the same. And we reply with the same question that the disciples put to Him.

Where are You staying? Where can we find the place where we might spend some time with You, O Lord? Can we while away the afternoon and evening in Your company? Maybe drink a coffee with You?

We know that the Lamb of God can have no fixed address on this earth. We have no delusions of domesticating You, Lord; of tying You down somehow.

No, on the contrary: We want to learn the mystery of Your true home. We want to dwell with the Father like You do.

…Where does the Son of God stay?

Continue reading “St. Thomas on “Come and See””