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Walk with Me Advent 2014

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Luke 1:5-25

‘O Stock of Jesse, you stand as a signal for the nations; kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim. O come to deliver us, and do not delay.’

Luke’s account of the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist do not fail, time and time again, to grab our attention. This is not surprising as Luke was a master storyteller who captures so beautifully the drama of the events which led to the birth of the Baptist.

The raw material Luke has to work with provides a rich mix for a compelling narrative: a barren couple, the appearance of an angel, the silence of unbelief (in the form of dumbness) and a heavenly name for a baby boy; but, of course, John was no ordinary baby boy. There is so much to reflect on and draw from this rich vein of Scripture that it can be hard to know where to start. We would like to concentrate on the lessons it has to teach us on prayer.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were a couple who prayed. Their relationship with God was expressed through their prayer life. Their plight of barrenness, a heavy burden to bear in a society which viewed childlessness as a curse and a sign of God’s displeasure, was, for sure, the basis for much of their supplication and intercession. Did they cry out to God in their suffering and anguish? Almost certainly they did, probably also yearning, groaning and beseeching God to help them. The fruit of their prayer was rich blessing and the result a baby boy.

God wants us to have confidence when praying to him because he wants to answer our prayers. This is not to be facile or simplistic. God delights to answer our prayers if we but turn to him. We all have different issues, concerns, problems, challenges which we have to face and deal with.God knows this, but sometimes what is needed is, as St Ignatius of Loyola said once, in The Art of Prayer: ‘the essential, indispensable element in prayer is attention. Without attention there is no prayer. True attention given by grace comes when we make our heart dead to the world.’

Lord, as Elizabeth and Zechariah were focused in prayer, may I too focus all my attention upon you, confident that you are holy and good and hear our prayer. Amen.

Judges 13:2-7, 24-25  •  Psalm 70(71):3-6, 16-17
Luke 1:5-25

Matthew 1:18-24

‘O Adonai and leader of Israel, you appeared to Moses in a burning bush and you gave him the law on Sinai: O come and save us with your mighty power.’

There are two equally profound truths which it is imperative for every Christian to understand about Jesus. If we miss these truths, then we miss the entire gospel message. You might think it impossible to miss these truths about Jesus, but many do, to their detriment.

There are a great many things we can rightfully say about Jesus: he was an outstanding oral teacher; he did amazing miracles; no one like him has ever walked the face of the earth; and so on. The two truths we are focusing on (revealed so beautifully in today’s Gospel) are, however, the cornerstone upon which the edifice of Christian faith is built. The first is that Jesus is Immanuel (God with us) and the second is that Jesus came to save sinners (Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua which means ‘the Lord saves’). There you have it in a nutshell – these two truths encapsulate the mystery of Christian revelation.

You may well find yourself protesting that you know that Jesus is God and that Jesus is Saviour, but we gently and respectfully suggest that each Advent the Spirit invites us to enter these mysteries in a new and exciting way. We need to appreciate that, as Aelred of Rievaulx taught, ‘Your teaching, Lord, does not fill the ear with fine-sounding words but is breathed into the mind by your gentle spirit.’ Joseph could not grasp the mystery unfolding before his very eyes without the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need the same help and guidance.

The Holy Spirit can help us to grow in a sense of anticipation that during this season of Advent we will grasp these two truths of our faith in such a fresh and meaningful way that it will impact and even change our lives. Don’t be afraid, therefore, to ask the Spirit to illuminate your mind and heart in order that you may bow down and worship before the One who is Immanuel, God with us, and Jesus, our Saviour.

‘Illumine me with the true light, O compassionate One, so that I may see the glory which you had with your Father before the world began.’ (Symeon the New Theologian)

Jeremiah 23:5-8  •  Psalm 71(72):1-2, 12-13, 18-19
Matthew 1:18-24

Matthew 1:1-17

‘O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner. O come to teach us the way of truth.’

In recent years there has been a great resurgence of interest in family trees and genealogies, with a number of television series and a flurry of new books on this fascinating subject. Of course, there is no surprise in this – it makes sense to want to know about our family history because in some way it sheds light on our past and informs our identity.

Ancient manuscripts often began with a genealogy, and so Matthew was simply following the literary style of his day. Not being familiar with it, we have to resist the temptation to skip over the opening paragraphs for the greatest story ever told. Matthew’s concern is to teach and enlighten his believing Jewish readers that Jesus’ Jewish credentials are second to none, and that his life and mission are tightly woven into the fabric of the nation of Israel.

Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage right back to Abraham, Jacob and Isaac and includes such important historic figures as Jehoshaphat, Jotham and Jeconiah. While his readers would have been reassured and comforted by their appearance in Jesus’ ancestry, the opposite would have been true of his inclusion of Tamar (a shrine prostitute), Rahab (another prostitute from Jericho) and Bathsheba (with whom King David committed adultery). To include women in a genealogy was unusual (they were after all considered second-class citizens) but to include women of ill repute and scandal would have been unheard of and probably offensive.

Knowing that Matthew was trying to win over his Jewish audience, why did he do this? The answer is because their inclusion revealed a profound truth of Jesus’ incarnation, namely that he came to identify not with the righteous but with sinners; he came to seek and save the lost.

Lord Jesus, during this holy season may I grow in a new understanding of the revelation that you came to set us free from sin, darkness and death and that no human being is excluded from your love and mercy.

Genesis 49:2, 8-10  •  Psalm 71(72):1-4, 7-8, 17
Matthew 1:1-17

Matthew 21:28-32

We may be surprised when we die to discover who’s in heaven. It may come as a shock to discover that those who, while on earth, didn’t seem remotely interested in God or faith or in leading a good life are in the Father’s warm embrace, enjoying the delights of heaven and rejoicing in the beatific vision. We can never know what is inside a person’s heart. We know that God is like the ‘hound from heaven’ in Francis Thompson’s famous poem, always chasing, always urging, never giving up on those we may consider a lost cause or beyond the pale. To God no one is a lost cause; no one is beyond redemption or outside of his love, mercy and compassion.

As the parable of the Two Sons illustrates, there is something innately rebellious and resistant in our nature to doing God’s will. We don’t like to hear this because the image we have of ourselves is that we are better than this. However, if we look into our hearts we detect a certain dichotomy: we want to do good but find a power at work within urging us to do the very opposite.

The Holy Spirit is working in us to give us this kind of self-knowledge. The son who immediately said ‘yes’ to his father’s request but actually did not do what his father asked, lacked self-knowledge. He did not reflect on his behaviour or examine his life. The other son said ‘no’ at first but then reconsidered his decision: he reflected on his response; he examined himself; he changed his mind; he got insight. We need this kind of self-knowledge because it leads to freedom. The way of freedom is found through examination of conscience, reflection and repentance.

Repentance is much more pleasing to God than we imagine. God knows that we sin: it is in our nature to sin; but it is not in our nature to turn away from sin. It is a work of grace. As Jesus pointed out at the end of his parable, it is often those most aware of their need for God, like tax collectors and prostitutes, who are quicker to confess, repent and turn to God for mercy than those who consider themselves to be righteous.

‘He who commits sin does what is not pleasing to God: but he who repents of his sins, does what is most pleasing to God.’ (St Robert Bellarmine)

Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13  •  Psalm 33(34):2-7, 16-19, 23
Matthew 21:28-32

Matthew 21:23-27

When Jesus spoke the people recognized that he spoke with authority. Authority is an important idea and Jesus’ final words on earth refer to it: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Matt. 28:18). No wonder the Lord was perceived and understood as such a threat to the nation. We encounter the fears and insecurities of the religious leaders in today’s reading: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ (v. 23).

Jesus’ authority came from God, his Father, and Jesus passed this authority on to the apostles and the Church. It has been handed down through the ages and now resides in the Church and with the Pope and his cardinals and bishops. This is the sacred truth of revelation and we revere it, but it is also important for us to ask: What does this mean practically in our lives? In other words, what difference does it make?

Pope Francis has published a landmark exhortation called Evangelii gaudium, which is a magnificent, anointed and prophetic call to the whole Church to be joyful and confident evangelisers. However, in it he quips amusingly that not many people will read it!! Not because it isn’t readable but because he knows perhaps instinctively that the teaching of the Pope can be ignored or not taken too seriously! In other words, the Church teaches in God’s authority but we can choose to ignore that teaching or not take it seriously or allow it to touch our lives.

God’s authority is different from other authority in our lives because his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:29). God moves us by his tender mercy and calls us by his abundant love to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of Christmas. God’s authority over our lives leads to joy, freedom and a growing experience of the power of the gospel. All men and women live under some kind of authority – even if it is simply their own – but when we live by God’s authority, look to the teaching of the Church and the light of her wisdom, we walk as sons and daughter of God.

Lord, teach me to live my life by the light and wisdom of your loving authority. Show me the way of Christ and grant me the grace to learn of you who are gentle and humble of heart.

Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17  •  Psalm 24(25):4-9
Matthew 21:23-27

John 1:6-8, 19-28  •  Third Sunday of Advent (B)

It seems rather ironic that John the Baptist is often the focus of our readings during Advent since he himself was at pains to stress that he was not the focus of the message, but merely the messenger. He constantly directed attention away from himself, saying, ‘I am not the Christ’ (John 1:20). John the Evangelist gave beautiful and eloquent expression to the Baptist’s ministry of testimony when he wrote: ‘He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light’ (John 1:7-8).

The humility of John the Baptist was born of a deep work of God in his life. From early childhood he would have been aware that God had set him aside for a very important, specific task. At the time of his birth, his father Zechariah had prophesied, ‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins’ (Luke 1:76-77).

In a sense, in Advent, the liturgy performs the same task as John the Baptist in pointing us to the Christ, the One whose birth is the true meaning of Christmas. Two thousand years ago God – the Creator of the Universe, through whom and for whom we were created – stepped into human history and revealed himself in the baby in the manger as God made man.

However, although the Christ stands among us, there is a way in which he remains yet unknown. Advent is a wonderful time to recover a lively interior sense of the burning love which motivated God to humble himself and be born as one of us. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us a living sense of the glory of the incarnation. It is all too easy to move through this season unmoved by the revelation unfolding before our very eyes, but the Holy Spirit leads us to humble ourselves, as the saints before us humbled themselves, before Jesus, the King of the Universe, humble and poor in the stable.

Lord, the great joy of our salvation fills our hearts and makes us sing in praise and adoration, ‘O come, O come, Immanuel.’ We bow before the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11  •  Luke 1:46-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24  •  John 1:6-8, 19-28

Matthew 17:10-13  •  (Memorial) St Lucy

How good are you at reading the ‘signs of the times’ (cf. Matt. 16:3)? The truth is most of us are so busy trying to get through our day that we don’t have time to give much attention to the signs of the times. However, as believers, our vocation encourages us to be sensitive and alert to God’s movement and action in history – past, present and future. From the past we learn how God has worked through his holy people Israel and through the Church; in the present we learn to be responsive to what God is doing in our own lives and in our midst; and although we cannot see into the future, God’s light and wisdom sheds light on our way.

Advent is a season in which we can reflect on how from the very beginning of time God was preparing to come as the Messiah. Isaiah proclaimed the coming of the Messiah (Isa. 9:6; 11:1-9) and also prophesied that the Messiah would be rejected (Isa. 53:1-9). The teachers of the law in Jesus’ day taught that the coming of the Messiah would usher in a time of final judgement, the end of the world and a day of triumph. Their belief that Elijah would come first to prepare the people was based on the prophet Malachi’s assertion: ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes’ (Mal. 4:5). The disciples, as faithful Jews, would have been familiar with this teaching and influenced by it. Jesus opened their hearts and minds to understand that John the Baptist was the Elijah who was to come, the one sent to prepare the way. The teachers of the law rejected this interpretation and this brought them into sharp conflict with Jesus.  

We must resist becoming fixed in our own thinking. Although there will be no new central revelations to the Christian faith, God is always at work among us. Fresh winds of the Spirit blow as the work of renewal, conversion and proclaiming the gospel continues. We must strive to ensure that we are those who welcome the work of God with joy and confidence and not those who resist the work of the Spirit in our midst. For this we need wisdom and the gift of discernment.
Lord, teach me to read the signs of your work in my own life, in the lives of others, in the Church and in the world.

Ecclesiasticus 48:1-4, 9-11  •  Psalm 79(80):2-3, 15-19
Matthew 17:10-13

Matthew 11:16-19

John the Baptist came with a message of self-denial and abstinence, and he was accused of being possessed by a demon. Jesus dined with those whom polite society considered ‘sinners’ and he was accused of being a glutton and a drunk. If you are ever wrongly accused of being a drunk or a glutton, bear in mind that you are in very good company. The powerful punchline of today’s reading is one we would do well to reflect and ponder on: ‘But wisdom is proved right by her actions’
(v. 19).  

What can we learn from today’s Gospel? What wisdom can we draw from the sacred text? Well, of course the Spirit will speak to each of us in an individual way, but we can identify two very clear strands of revelation and insight which can help us in living the Christian life. The first is that human nature needs the salt and light of God’s grace to save it from a certain contrariness and extreme way of thinking which is the result of superficiality. John the Baptist was one of the greatest men who ever lived; he was not demon possessed, but it was easy and convenient for those who wanted to reject his message of conversion and repentance to draw that conclusion. Jesus was no glutton or drunkard, but it was easy and convenient for those who rejected him and his message to label him as such. If we simply rely on our own thinking we can only be informed by our own prejudices and narrow vision. If we simply rely on our own mind we fail to open ourselves up to God’s light and wisdom.

Men and women who have served time in prison often say that one of the most important lessons they learned was not to be quick to judge. They have often been humbled by their prison sentence and they see that it is easy to judge but wiser to hold judgement because life is often more complex than it appears and things are not always as they seem. This enlightened way of thinking is the fruit of their experience, but we can be enlightened by the light and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit. Teach me to live a wise and good life; teach me to be slow to judge, quick to show mercy and eager to see the many ways God is working in everybody’s life.

Isaiah 48:17-19  •  Psalm 1:1-4, 6
Matthew 11:16-19

Matthew 11:11-15

Deeply rooted in the faith of Israel is the longing for the coming of the Messiah. In Advent we are encouraged to recover this holy desire for God’s coming among his people. We pray, however, not for God’s first coming as Messiah but for his second coming as Lord and King of human history, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church eloquently expresses, ‘By sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming’ (para. 524).

It is a gift of the Spirit and a great grace and blessing to read the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, through the prism of the unfolding of the mystery of Christ (CCC 1094). The Jews have always looked to the coming of the Messiah. Christians too look to the coming of the Messiah, God’s Anointed, but as the One who will wrap up human history and lead us into the eternal joy of the kingdom of God.

The Jews belong to the age of the Old Covenant; we are children of the New Covenant. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the Old Covenant (v. 13). Jesus identified him as the one referred to by the prophet Malachi as God’s special messenger: ‘Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me’ (Mal. 3:1). This John did by proclaiming the message of conversion and repentance in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah (v. 13; see also Luke 1:17). Although truly one of the greatest men who ever lived, Jesus said that ‘the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’ (v. 11). This is because to be ‘in Christ’ is the highest privilege – one for which the holy men and women of the Old Covenant longed.

God has lavished his love upon us by making us his children. We are the recipients of the grace of the Old Covenant fully revealed in the New. The revelation kept hidden but now revealed is that God sent his One and Only Son to be our Saviour and Redeemer.

Lord, I have ears to hear, a mouth to sing your praises and feet to bring the good news to others. I give praise for the Old Covenant, given to the Jewish people, our elder brother in faith, and rejoice in the New Covenant, sealed in your precious blood.

Isaiah 41:13-20  •  Psalm 144(145):1, 9-13
Matthew 11:11-15

Matthew 11:28-30

God knows we carry many burdens – but what is our greatest burden? God knows we have many troubles – but what is our greatest trouble? God knows we have many challenges – but what is our greatest challenge?

We can often think we are alone and isolated with our burdens, troubles or challenges but perhaps the truth is we all carry one burden, trouble and challenge in common. And that is that deep down we have lost a sense of God’s love and forgiveness, and we feel that God is far from us. Our deepest need, then, is to rediscover God’s love, forgiveness and plan for our lives.

How can we come to this knowledge and understanding? God created us without us but we are saved and work out our salvation by co-operating with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit urges us to find time to pray and be still for it is in this time of quiet and reflection that we can hear the Lord speak to us.

And what does God say to us in prayer? The Holy Spirit urges us to find time to read his Word and calm our minds and refresh our spirits. And what does God say to us through his Word? The Holy Spirit urges us to deepen our gratitude and our sense of awe every time we celebrate the great gift of the Body and Blood of Christ. And what does God say to us through the Eucharist? The Holy Spirit urges us to forgive those who have sinned against us or offended us in any way. And what does God say to us through this gift of forgiveness? The Holy Spirit urges us to reach out to the poor, to the cold, hungry and naked, and to the prisoners and those on the margins of our society. And what does God say to us when we reach out in charity and love to others? When we co-operate with the Spirit, find time to pray, read the Scriptures, receive the Eucharist, forgive our enemies and serve others in love and humility, God says to us:

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matt. 11:28-30)

Isaiah 40:25-31  •  Psalm 102(103):1-4, 8, 10
Matthew 11:28-30

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