January 1, 2017 - Shepherds

The LORD said to Moses:
"Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,
and I will bless them."

Numbers 6:22-27

This passage holds a special place in my heart because my wife and I say this, with our hands on our daughter’s head, every Sunday night.

In the Gospel reading this week, shepherds arrive in Bethlehem to bear witness to the baby Jesus. In all likelihood, the shepherds were meant to remind us of David who was the youngest of Jesse’s sons and out tending the sheep when Samuel arrived to anoint the next king (1 Samuel 16:11).  His choice as king was totally unexpected.  In every instance, God does not choose the expected firstborn or highest moral achiever.  Moses was chosen as chief negotiator despite a stutter, Abraham was chosen apparently at random and twice tricked wealthy rulers into relationships with his wife to exhort money from them.  Noah and Lot started out pretty well, but wound up engaged in the most unsavory immoral acts.   Being a shepherd did not have noble connotations in Jesus’s time – they were the criminals who couldn’t be trusted with any other task.  Moral purity is not required to approach God. And it is messy, ambiguous people who are chosen to transmit the blessings of God to others.

December 25, 2016 - Christmas

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
from David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!

Isaiah 9:1-6

I wish each of you a blessed Christmas.

December 24, 2016 - Christmas Eve

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:67-79 

This passage is called the Canticle of Zechariah and is said every day in the Liturgy of the Hours.  It is the song Zechariah sings at the birth of John the Baptist.

Tonight, at sunset, Christmas begins.  We will celebrate the fulfillment of prophecy.  I mean something bigger than the fulfillment merely of the prediction of Jesus’s birth by Isaiah.  Jesus is the culmination of something that began in the Garden of Eden when God sewed clothing for Adam and Eve who had become aware of their nakedness; and something that took another major step at Mount Sinai when God declared that they would be His people and He would be their God. Jesus is the Incarnation of God.  If Sinai was the adoption application, Bethlehem was the decree of adoption. Henceforth, God is not just on our side - God is with us.

December 23, 2016 - Fear of God

Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
“What, then, will this child be?
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.

Luke 1:57-66

Why were Elizabeth and Zechariah’s neighbors struck with fear when the infant John the Baptist was born?

I suspect it was a fear akin to Casasdastrapobia, or fear of falling into the vastness of the night sky.   Popular-culture Christianity focuses on the approachability of Jesus.  C.S. Lewis once criticized a relative who talked about approaching God as though he would slap God on the back and invite him for a beer.   Martin Buber once compared encountering God to dangling over an abyss.

God is sovereign and vast; the Alpha and the Omega; He who set the world on its foundations.  At the approach of the divine, fear and trembling is the appropriate response, not because we anticipate anything bad to happen but because we have a sense of our smallness and the asymmetry of the relationship - our ‘creatureliness’ as Rudolf Otto would have called it.

Tomorrow night, we celebrate Christmas.  God becomes incarnate and enters the world.  How will our hearts respond?


December 22, 2016 - St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas, before he donned his red coat and moved to the North Pole, was the third century bishop of the city of Myra in modern Turkey.

Many miracles were attributed to Nicholas.  But the most evocative story attributed to him, and the one that would come to lend the most to our vision of him, wasn’t magical at all.  He reportedly helped a poor man who had three daughters and who could not afford a dowry for them. Without a dowry, in the culture of the day, the daughters would have been condemned to a life of prostitution.  Under cover of darkness, Nicolas threw a small bag of gold coins into the open window of the home of the poor man to pay the dowry of each daughter as they came of age.   As the last daughter came of age, the poor man tried to discover Nicolas’s identity by waiting for him by the window.  So, Nicholas instead threw the bag down the chimney into a stocking the daughter had hung by the chimney with care - to dry after washing.

In another variation of the story, the poor man successfully confronts Nicholas and thanks him.  But Nicholas urges him to thank only God.  

So, Christmas really is about gifts!  But it is not gifts that we give - it is the abundant gifts God gives us.  When Jesus multiplies a few loaves of bread and feeds thousands, he does not expect us to be able to repeat the miracle.  The story demonstrates that God’s love is abundant.  While in the human economy everything of value is scarce, must be rationed and reserved for the worthiest, God’s economy is different. God’s love is abundant enough to go around with plenty left over.  We don’t need to decide who is good enough – and God won’t either -  He’ll just quietly throw His love to us under cover of darkness.

December 21, 2016 - The Blessings of Faith

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Most blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:39-45

In the encounter between the mother of John the Baptist and the mother of Jesus, Elizabeth says:

Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.

It is easy to assume from this passage that Mary’s confidence and faith in God was a prerequisite for Jesus’s conception.  But that clearly is not the case.  Mary questioned the angel Gabriel closely, just as Elizabeth’s husband did.  They conceived nonetheless.  

Mary is blessed by her belief because she can experience the full richness and joy of relationship with God as a result of accepting it.  But the relationship would clearly exist even if only God was sure of it.

December 20, 2016 - A Sign From God

The LORD spoke to Ahaz:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary men,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the young woman shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

Isaiah 7:10-14

I love this passage.  I love it not only because it includes the prophecy which will be referenced in the nativity narratives in the New Testament, but because it includes a great line:

Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? 

Ahaz ultimately could not benefit from God's promise because he was so committed to the dogmatic view that you mustn't test God.  God is not hiding anything from us. We hide it from ourselves.   

December 19, 2016 - God, Enemy of the Perfect

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,
because your prayer has been heard.
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
and you shall name him John. 

Then Zechariah said to the angel,
“How shall I know this?
For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
And the angel said to him in reply,
“I am Gabriel, who stand before God.
I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.

After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived,
and she went into seclusion for five months, saying,
“So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit
to take away my disgrace before others.”

Luke 1:5-25

God is the enemy of the perfect.  Everyone God chooses for greatness either has some serious disability or failing that would seem to disqualify them from service, or eventually disappoints.

Righteous Noah’s righteousness leaves him as soon as he disembarks the Ark as he engages in some shameful exchange with his cursed son, Ham.  Abraham and Sarah, chosen to be the parents of all the Abrahamic faiths, are too old to conceive a single child.  Lot, who is rescued from Sodom for his righteousness, later impregnates his own daughters in a drunken stupor.  Moses, who is chosen to negotiate the Israelites release from Egypt is a stutterer.  The entire purpose of the Book of Ruth seems to be to muddy the genealogy of David and Jesus – interposing a non-Jew in the bloodline.   Even David has his friend Uriah killed in order to move in on his wife.   And in today’s reading, a barren woman is to be the mother of John the Baptist.

The theme is expressed directly in the Beatitudes:  the wealthy, healthy and socially connected are not blessed – it is the sick, the poor and the social outcast that receive all of God’s attention.  

Image: The Annunciation, c. 1420, artist unknown

December 18, 2016 - Emmanuel

The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

Isaiah 7:10-14

Behold! The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”

Matthew 1:18-24

I have come to the conclusion that the most important part of the nativity story is the name which, as far as we know, was never again applied to Jesus, but was associated with him at birth: Emmanuel.   That God is with us doesn’t mean God will intercede to keep us from harm.  We know that’s not true.  Nor does it mean that He’ll keep us from bad behavior.  We know that’s not true.  But there is something about the knowledge that God is with us – not just near us, or among us, but one of us – that has cosmic importance.   Exploring the nature of that relationship and the importance of that fact is what faith is all about. 

December 16, 2016 - A House of Prayer for All Peoples

Thus says the LORD:
Observe what is right, do what is just;
for my salvation is about to come,
my justice, about to be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
the son of man who holds to it;
Who keeps the Sabbath free from profanation,
and his hand from any evildoing.
Let not the foreigner say,
when he would join himself to the LORD,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”

The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
ministering to him,
Loving the name of the LORD,
and becoming his servants–
All who keep the Sabbath free from profanation
and hold to my covenant,
Them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
For my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers the dispersed of Israel:
Others will I gather to him
besides those already gathered.

Isaiah 56:1-3,6-8

In his vitriolic book, The End of Faith, New Atheist Sam Harris declares that religion is irrevocably exclusionary.  We may make feeble attempts at ecumenicalism but, according to Harris, it is all fake.  Religion is divisive to its very core:

Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each.  (p. 15)

In stark contrast to Harris’s claim is today’s reading. God commands that the foreigner is to be given no reason to even think he or she will be excluded! Regardless of their creed, with the easiest of prerequisites, they will be gathered with Israel to His holy mountain and into a house of prayer for all peoples.

Image: The Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Cairo, Egypt. 


December 15, 2016 - Though the Mountains Leave Their Place and the Hills be Shaken, My Love Shall Never Leave You

Fear not, you shall not be put to shame;
you need not blush, for you shall not be disgraced.
The shame of your youth you shall forget,
the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember.
For he who has become your husband is your Maker;
his name is the LORD of hosts;
Your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel,
called God of all the earth.
The LORD calls you back,
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
A wife married in youth and then cast off, says your God.
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great tenderness I will take you back.
In an outburst of wrath, for a moment
I hid my face from you;
But with enduring love I take pity on you,
says the LORD, your redeemer.

This is for me like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah
should never again deluge the earth;
So I have sworn not to be angry with you,
or to rebuke you.
Though the mountains leave their place
and the hills be shaken,
My love shall never leave you
nor my covenant of peace be shaken,
says the LORD, who has mercy on you.

Isaiah 54:1-10

My God, this is a beautiful passage.  God pronounces that He is not particularly interested in whether we are good or bad.   He promises His abundant love.  He promises to redeem, relieve every disgrace, make us forget every reproach.  He doesn’t promise to show us how to earn it. He simply promises to give it.

December 14, 2016 - The Approach of a Loving God

At that time, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
When the men came to the Lord, they said,
“John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”
At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits;
he also granted sight to many who were blind.
And Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Luke 7:18-23

At first glance, it appears Jesus is referring to his ability to perform magic to prove he is the messiah.  But, in fact, he is referring to Isaiah’s prophecies:

The Lord’s Spirit is on me,
because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to those who are bound,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
to comfort all who mourn. (Isaiah 61:1-2)


Behold, your God will come.
He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
Then the lame man will leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute will sing;
for waters will break out in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:4-6)

What’s more, Isaiah was not describing the messiah’s miraculous powers in these passages (although he does appear to describe a messianic figure at Isaiah 7:10-14, 9:6 and chapter 53).  In the first passage, it appears Isaiah is simply describing himself and his prophecy.  By referring to these passages, Jesus appears to be identifying himself and the age itself as a time when God will comfort an afflicted, exiled people.  What is extraordinary is not the performance of magic, but the approach of a loving God.

Image: Photo by Missy Grasso

December 12, 2016 - Mary's Disbelief

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“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 called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-28

We tend to look for moral examples in Scripture and Mary, in this passage, is often praised for being the perfectly willing recipient of God's grace.  But her reaction is actually somewhat ambiguous.

Mary’s first reaction to the appearance of the angel is to be greatly troubled.   When she is told she will give birth to a son she is outright disbelieving, asking how such a thing can be biologically possible.

Mary’s reaction has plenty of precedent.  When Gabriel announced that Mary's aged cousin Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist, Elisabeth’s husband, Zechariah, questions how this can be biologically possible: “How shall I know this, for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1:18).   For his doubt, Zechariah is struck mute.  When God promises that Sarah, aged wife of Abraham, father of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, would have a son, she laughs.  Sarah notes that she and Abraham are far too old biologically to have children.  The passage even notes she was post-menopausal.  (Gen 18:11-12).  But God has the last laugh and her son is named Isaac which means, “He laughs”.  

Pagan, shamanistic religion believed that the gods could be forced to perform tasks with the right ritual or good conduct.   They danced, sacrificed, believed and behaved to receive fertility, rain and good fortune. Many theologians say that the innovation of the Abrahamic religion is their monotheism.  I believe the innovation was the recognition that God acts as He wishes to act and human assistance is not needed.  He will be Who He will be. Even stark disbelief cannot stand in His way.   

Image:  The Pillars of Creation Nebula

December 11, 2016 - Self-Denial

Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Matt 11:11

He who would become the Buddha and four companions sought to achieve enlightenment through severe asceticism.  They all starved themselves to the point of death and subjected their bodies to countless indignities.  It was only when the Buddha left his four friends and rejected asceticism that he achieved enlightenment.  According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha returned to these four friends after his enlightenment and taught them his new way, although they were initially resistant.

Today’s reading ends with a curious rebuke of John the Baptist.  I am struck by the similarities to the story of the Buddha.  John was an extreme ascetic, living off locusts and wild honey and wearing a camel hair coat.  He and Jesus were cousins and some of John’s disciples left to become part of Jesus’s entourage (Jn 1:36-40).  They were almost certainly friends.  There are numerous moments in Scripture where Jesus contrasts his ministry to John’s and explicitly rejects asceticism: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:16-19).  Today’s passage may indicate that asceticism is a false path.

The idea that heroic self-denial, self-discipline and perfect moral conduct is the path to faith is still prominent.  But it simply isn’t supported by Scripture.

Image: The Buddha prior to enlightenment

December 10, 2016 - The Third Sunday of Advent

The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

Isaiah 35:1-6,10

December 8, 2016 - The Immaculate Conception

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke 1:26-38

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, this is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Is the story historically accurate?  Did an angel visit a virgin and did she subsequently become impregnated with the benefit of only one gamete?  

Who cares?  We lose the extraordinary nature of this moment when we get tied up in questions of historicity, gametes, and magic.

This is the moment, whether historic or poetic, when God decided that all His declarations of love and covenant and undying attention weren’t good enough.  Descending to the top of Mount Sinai in a tower of flame with earthquakes and lightning wasn’t cutting it.  He would take the next outrageous step and suffer every indignity with us, and impart on us divine dignity forever afterward ... and the soul felt its worth.

If you are so inclined, I invite you to deliberately set aside, for just ten minutes, whether the narrative is literally true.  In those ten minutes, reflect on what God becoming incarnate means.  Really let the existential shock of that move you.  Set aside the humility of the circumstances surrounding Jesus's birth. Imagine instead a flash rivaling the flash of Creation at the moment the divine becomes human.  

December 7, 2016 - God's Way

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Matt 11:28-30

Here’s something you don’t expect to hear from Jesus:  that his yoke is easy, and his burden light.
What happened to the demanding Jesus who requires us to give everything away, take up our cross and follow him into the teeth of death?

The truth is, Jesus’s message and, indeed, the message of all of Scripture is impossibly good news.  We are not given a map to self-redeem.  We are already redeemed not by our actions but by the act of God.

This sounds like gibberish if we are committed to the view that Scripture if a description of a moral code we must follow.   But once we realize that Scripture is the moral code God is committed to following, and that it is unlike the give and take, reward and punishment, and tit for tat that comes so instinctual to us, it opens a window into the divine ethic.  And it is characterized by love.

December 6, 2016 - The Lost Sheep

Jesus said to his disciples:
“What is your opinion?
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.”

Matt 18:12-14

Utilitarianism – the greatest happiness for the greatest number is what is moral – has gained a surprising popularity lately; both on the right and the left.  

Faith is neither conservative nor liberal.  But it is an utter reproach of utilitarianism.  God sees each one of us as universe unto ourselves.  In God’s eyes, each of us has intrinsic, irrevocable value.  His love is not cumulative.  What makes ninety-nine of us happy is not necessarily the “good” if it is bought at the expense of the one.

Faith is political.  It demands that we see each other as children of God.