Lectio

The silent can speak loudest

St. Joseph teaches us so much without a single, quoted word in the Bible.

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Christmas Vigil Mass, 2018

Gospel, MT 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, 
but before they lived together, 
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, 
yet unwilling to expose her to shame, 
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, 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, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,

which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him 
and took his wife into his home.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son, 
and he named him Jesus.

Stand-out words: 

Righteous man, unwilling to exposure her to shame, do not be afraid

Meditation

St. Francis once said, “Preach the Gospel, and when necessary, use words.”  About eleven hundreds years before he said that, St. Joseph was did just that.  He has no recorded words in the Gospels, yet we know so much about him by what he did. (How many of us knew what our dads meant by their actions, or by the looks they gave us?)

We know St. Joseph by his recorded actions.  He was a righteous man who followed the Hebrew Law, but he is compassionate.  He suspects Mary has been unfaithful, but will not hand her over to harsh judgement.  They will quietly go their separate ways, and then whatever happens, happens.

This is St. Joseph’s first example to us:  Follow Church teaching, but do not be prudish.  There is a legal judging, and then there is judgemental.  He is not judgemental toward Mary, but he does intend to follow the law with care. No one ever came back to the Church after the door was slammed in their face.

An angel then tells St. Joseph that things are not what he fears; God is behind this situation, not Mary, and that he should not be afraid.  This is the second example St. Joseph sets for us:  Trust God, even if we think we know better.  Sometimes things do not work out as we plan, but that may have been God’s plan all along.

St. Joseph goes on to take Mary into his home.  In further readings, St. Joseph leads his family into Egypt for Jesus’ protection, then back to Nazareth, where he provides for them and makes them the center of his life.  Here, we have the third example of St. Joseph:  He is the provider for the first Christian family.  The Christian family is the most basic building block of the Church.

St. Joseph teaches us so much without a single, quoted word in the Bible.  This Christmas, and throughout the coming year, may we remember to trust God’s Hand in our lives, to practice the Church’s teachings with compassion, and that our family’s needs are our own needs.

Thrice-blessed who bears the Lord

How does Elizabeth know of Mary’s pregnancy?

Occasion: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reading: Luke 1·39-45

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah, 
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
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, 
“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.”

Standout words or phrases

traveled in haste, blessed, leaped for joy

Reflection

While praying the Rosary some years ago, I arrived at the second Joyful Mystery — the one described here in the Gospel — and somehow got it into my head that perhaps Mary traveled to Elizabeth’s home in order to escape the curious eyes and gossiping lips of her neighbors — perhaps even to escape her parents’ own knowledge. From Matthew’s Gospel we have certain knowledge that not everyone was inclined to believe that her pregnancy was brought about by God; Joseph himself sought to divorce her quietly. The situation for Mary was certainly dire; she could have been stoned. So, thought I, perhaps this was something akin to the situation in contemporary times where a prominent family discovers a pregnant teenage daughter, and has her travel to another location to bring the child into the light.

These days I have been imagining that that was simply a hyperactive imagination, but perhaps not. Consider Elizabeth’s greeting:

Blessed are you among women … blessed is the fruit of your womb … Blessed are you who believed…

This is no mere greeting, for the evangelist tells us that the Holy Spirit himself fills Elizabeth. The words she cries out are divinely inspired, and echo through the millennia in the prayers of the faithful!

Thrice-blessed is Mary, and we repeat the first two blessings word for word in the Hail Mary. In poetic fashion, the second blessing reflects Mary’s unique role in salvation by bringing forth our Lord, the fruit of her womb. Her mere arrival in Elizabeth’s home brings joy, because she bears our Lord. Even John, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. (An aside: One wonders if Luke was inclined to make note of this on account of his possible familiarity as a doctor with the close connection between a mother’s senses and emotions and her unborn child’s.)

Notice also when this leap occurs: at the moment Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears. Reflect on this: When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he foretold John the Baptist, but not Jesus. Some months later, he reminded Mary of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which by now would have been well-known. It seems likely that Mary was already aware of this miraculous pregnancy, and Gabriel was reminding her; while it is also possible that she was unaware, the fact that it was Elizabeth’s sixth month makes this rather unlikely.

But how does Elizabeth know of Mary’s pregnancy? I imagine two possibilities. One is that the news has spread; as Elizabeth is Mary’s relative, this is not unlikely. Luke writes that Mary traveled “during those days” that followed the angel’s announcement, so there was not much time at all for news to spread. Joseph himself probably did not know yet. Mary’s parents may well have arranged a quick departure, as I wondered way back when. Another, of course, is that, when the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, she was enlightened. This would not seem entirely unreasonable; after all, she was a holy woman herself.

In the end, it is not for us to know. What does matter are the blessings that come to us from God, through Mary, the New Eve, on account of the cooperation she gave him, which we ourselves owe him every day, through whatever angel he announces his plan for us. We, too, might thus be thrice-blessed: blessed among humanity, blessed for the fruit of God’s grace in us, and blessed for our belief.

Are you a mountain or a valley?

Those that ignore our Lord are the mountains that shall be made low. Those who hunger for Jesus are the valleys that shall be filled.

Occasion: Second Sunday of Advent

Gospel, Luke 3·1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Standout words or phrases

Prepare, make straight, mountains made low

Meditation

Last week, Jesus told his disciples of the time to come, when people would see great, destructive signs and die of fright, but they must remain alert for those times and be ready. This week, we are rewinding to when John the Baptist sets off on his mission to make ready the way of the Lord. His message sounds similar. John says to prepare the way of the Lord. Mountains will be made low, valleys will be filled.

This is some vivid imagery that may allude to earthquakes and landslides. Eventually, there would be times when the followers of John and later Jesus would feel that their world was being turned upside down. There were many trials to come, and they would need to be strong and have faith that all would turn out as God wills. This message rings true for us today.

To prepare the way of the Lord and make straight His paths is to repent of sin and to make oneself worthy to greet Him when He comes. The people of John’s day were to do so for Jesus’s first coming among them. For us, is to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, to prepare to receive Him at every Mass in the Eucharist, and to be ready for His second coming at the end of time.

John’s sermon is one of hope. Winding roads shall be made straight as we mend our sinful ways. Those that ignore our Lord are the mountains that shall be made low. Those who hunger for Jesus are the valleys that shall be filled.

At this time of year, this passage serves to help get our hearts ready to celebrate the birth of our Lord, but they ring true throughout the year to keep ourselves worthy to receive Him at every Mass, and of course, for the day we stand before Him.

Beware that your hearts be not drowsy

Do you wish, fellow Christian, to keep vigil? …prayer takes but a moment; we need merely turn our hearts to God.

First Sunday of Advent, Year C

Reading: Luke 21·25-28, 34-36

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Standout words or phrases

perplexed, die of fright, stand erect and raise your heads, do not become drowsy, surprise, be vigilant, tribulations

Reflection

It has been 2000 years, and our Lord has not returned.

This may well have surprised the evangelist and his first readers; they dwelled in a world where it may well have seemed that these predictions were being fulfilled. Some scholars believe that one reason Nero’s savage persecution of the Christians was popular among Romans was the open rejoicing of many Christians who concluded wrongly during the fire that Christ’s return was imminent. Jerusalem itself was besieged by armies and dismantled, with the leader of the rebellion claiming to be the Messiah. Earthquakes are a commonplace of the Mediterranean world.

Ancient Christians who fell prey to this temptation have good company today. Many of us are familiar with a certain breed of Christian who pays constant attention to earthquakes and other natural disasters. In my youth, one local realtor used his office billboard on one of the two major arteries through town to advertise that the “Rapture [would be the] major event of the [19]90s.” Certain sects have their origins in the conviction that Jesus was about to return during the 19th century; the Millerites even assembled on a mountain to await his return and subsequently referred to this as The Great Disappointment. One group publishes a tract that, for many decades, insisted that the world would end in some way connected with the year 1914.

It is easy to laugh at those who are wrong, decade after decade. On the other hand, what makes people loyal to such organizations? Surely some of it is that they have a reputation for taking care of each other, whereas mainstream Christianity seems to have lost that reputation, at least if we judge by how the mainstream culture’s attitude has changed incredibly.

Have we become drowsy? The roll of those the media terms “devout Christians,” whose devotion to carousing and drunkenness is essentially indistinguishable from that of devout non-Christians is unadmirably long. Others, by contrast, may act superficially pious, but a consideration of their obsessions with the anxieties of daily life make it plain that they are more content with these than with genuine faith in God and Providence. All too many seem to prefer not so much the churches that enshrine prayer and worship as those that enshrine sedation and entertainment, in the form of a carousing and spiritual drunkenness that disdains faith with serious content, but focuses almost exclusively on the concerns of this world; i.e., the anxieties of daily life.

And we laugh at those who would keep vigil. It is, perhaps, no more certain a sign of Satan’s smoke in the Church that we allow him to use us to mock those who try, however incorrectly, to keep vigil for the Lord whom we should desire more than life itself. What reflects love more accurately: so great a desire to be reunited with the Beloved that we mistake His coming? or not to long at all, and to live as if we do not desired to please the Beloved?

The dilemma is false, of course, but that is beside the point.

The Gospel suggests that our attitude should be otherwise. Early Christians frequently rose at night to keep vigil, a practice preserved by monks even today in the service called “Matins”. Thomas Merton writes of this in his poem, The Quickening of St. John the Baptist, memorably adapted by John Michael Talbot:

Those who by vow lie buried in the cloister or the hermitage;
The speechless Trappist, or the grey, granite Carthusian,
The quiet Carmelite, the barefoot Clare,
Planted in the night of contemplation,
Sealed in the dark and waiting to be born.
Night is our diocese and silence is our ministry
Poverty our charity and helplessness our tongue-tied sermon.
Beyond the scope of sight or sound we dwell upon the air
Seeking the world’s gain in an unthinkable experience.
We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.

Do you wish, fellow Christian, to keep vigil? There is no need for so great a work; prayer takes but a moment; we need merely turn our hearts to God. When words are wanting, the spirit’s groans will do — though a Psalm or two can also help. But we are to keep watch and to pray ceaselessly, as our Lord  tells us in the Gospel above and the Scriptures tell us elsewhere and repeatedly. Though we may not see the end times in our lifetime, our own death will surely overtake us in due course, and the best way to welcome them is to await them with the confident joy of faith.


The days are evil

Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret…

Occasion: Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Epistle, Ephesians 5:15-20.

Reading

Brothers and sisters:
Watch carefully how you live,
not as foolish persons but as wise,
making the most of the opportunity,
because the days are evil.
Therefore, do not continue in ignorance,
but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.
And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,
giving thanks always and for everything
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

Stand-Out Words and Phrases

the days are evil, debauchery, giving thanks always and for everything

Reflection

“The days are evil.”

St. Paul wrote these words roughly two thousand years ago in reference to the culture of the Roman Empire, but they seem to hold in every age. The Church seems darkened by a shadow of evil, and while many of the clergy have been forthright about it, some of the more influential ones can’t be bothered even to name it as evil. Perhaps, when they read this passage, they hear the same thing I once heard one homilist state: that St. Paul is “just telling us to relax.”

I beg to differ. “Telling us to relax” has led to a sanctuary darkened by yet more smoke. Bishops and cardinals appointed by Pope St. John Paul II himself not only knew of this darkness, they hid it or embraced it. Tell me again how we should relax in the face of this evil.

It would be worth our while to review some of the verses that precede today’s reading:

Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.

“Expose them.” Those who fight to expose the misdeeds of clergy do us all a favor in bringing their works of darkness into the light. To the contrary, certain bishops threatened such people — including fellow clergy — with legal action, or referred to them in internal correspondence as “squealers”. It is not at all unreasonable to demand that McCarrick’s close associates, whose careers the current Pope has favored, speak a little more honestly about the gravity of his debauchery.

Is there hope in this, or should one give up on the Church, possibly on Christianity itself, and join the swelling ranks of the Nones who actually desire spirituality?

I would answer no, and point to the following signs of hope.

  1. Unlike previous scandals, McCarrick was not exposed by the media. The Church itself exposed McCarrick to shame and announced the problem. This is an enormous improvement over fifteen years ago, when the Boston Globe began its series of articles on the scandals in the Boston archdiocese. Instead we have learned that at least one prominent media publication had at least one opportunity to expose him, and elected not to do so.
  2. The Church’s history shows repeatedly that She rises from scandal to renewed life. Things have been worse in the past! Yet God’s light triumphs over darkness. St. Paul himself frequently battled those who wanted to reduce Christianity to a flavor of Judaism, and at one point told the Corinthians in regards to an open, unrepentant adulterer to “purge the evil” from their midst. (Would that we had more bishops who felt this way, rather than in the thrall of a false sense of mercy that hesitates even to name evil for what it is.) Similarly, Dominican Laity can take inspiration from one of their own, St. Catherine of Siena, who had no qualms taking clergy to task for their misbehavior.
  3. Much of the despair is accompanied by the recitation of rumors regarding the situation in American seminaries. I’d like to address this from personal experience. I spent the better part of a decade trying to find my vocation in consecrated life or diocesan ministry, and never quite succeeded. I visited abbeys, priories, houses of formation, and inner-city missions, and managed to do rather well academically in one year at one of the largest seminaries in the nation. Eventually I found my vocation in a wife and children, in a manner that I had never really expected.

    That seminary seems to have a bad reputation among many orthodox or conservative Catholics, perhaps because a 2003 book named it as having an open, “dominant culture” of unchastity. In the year and a half that I attended, I never once saw any of the activities the book describes as routine. If they were there, they certainly weren’t open. To the contrary, one of my most vivid memories is that of the formation director pointing out to us that, twenty years after he was told not to worry about celibacy because it would be removed as a requirement “any day now,” it was still a requirement. He related that he and many of his classmates had to struggle with poor formation on both celibacy and developing a prayer life, a mistake the seminary had no intention of repeating. Many of his classmates had left priesthood because on that account, and he concluded along these lines: “Get serious or get out.”

    Near as I could tell, most of us were glad to hear the seminary would take this seriously. I heard of only one exception, and even that through the rumor mill. If true, I know he didn’t make it to ordination, not at our seminary anyway. (Then again, neither did I.)

The days are evil: they always are. What is St. Paul’s suggestion to us who live in evil days? The same as a good priest’s suggestion to me after I left seminary: pray! Address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; to sing and play to the Lord in our hearts; to thank God always and for everything. No matter how dark the world is, Christ’s light is still there, waiting to shine on us if we but turn to it — and the Hours, the “official prayer” of the Church, make this readily available.

Occasion: Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Mass During the Day)

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the reading from Luke  1:39-56.

Reading

During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 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.”

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Stand-Out Words

Leapt in her womb, who am I, Blessed are you, lifted up

Meditation

“In all the troubles of life, Mary’s power as the Mother of Christ is the most far-reaching.”
— Pope Leo XIII

I had EWTN on while I was writing this reflection, and the above quote, paraphrased as it is, just happened to flash across the screen. Perfect timing!

These days, the Catholic Church is often criticized as being discriminatory to women. One need only look at how we cherish Mary. No man will ever be raised to the heights of which she has been raised. Her veneration throughout history has surpassed that of all other saints, and is second only to God. As the Lady of the Immaculate Conception, she is patron saint of the United States.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus shows us how to accept Mary. At the wedding at Cana, she intercedes on the behalf of the wedding party when they run out of wine, but she also adds, “Do whatever He tells you.” As He hung on the cross, Jesus entrusted the care of His mother to St. John, but He also entrusted St. John and all of us to her motherly care. As the centuries unfold, Jesus continues to teach us that the easiest way to Him is through His Blessed Mother.

Nothing definite is known about the death of Mary. Whether or not she experienced death at all is even debated, but that she was assumed body and soul into Heaven seems to be the more important point. It is an old belief accepted by both the Eastern and Western Churches. Pope Pius XII dogmatically defined the Assumption in 1950, specifically referencing verses in Genesis and the First Letter to the Corinthians in his writings.

What does this all mean for us? It is the promise made to all of us if we follow Mary’s example. She followed God’s plan for her, despite any fear or uncertainty. We are taught that if we are faithful, our bodies will rise again on the Last Day, and we too will spend eternity with God and Mary, body and soul.

One more about the Church’s place for Mary: Our God, the Holy Trinity, is loved and exalted above all things and all people. Some of our Lord’s feasts may be transferred to the nearest Sunday, including that of His Ascension into Heaven. However, for His Blessed Mother, Her Solemnities as Mary, the Mother of God, of Her Assumption, and of the Immaculate Conception do not move. If her Assumption falls on Tuesday, then we better be at Mass on Tuesday!

~ Joseph Cook

Hurry Up and Wait

Occasion: Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the reading from Romans 8:26-27

Reading

Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.

Stand-Out Words

weakness, intercedes, intention of the Spirit, God’s will

Reflection

This short reading seems very appropriate for me at this time. During the last few days, I have had a few people ask for prayers. The past week has been trying for me in particular. For one, I had a job application turned down. There have also been a few personal issues that my family has been facing and they really came to head this past week.

We all know how to simply ask God for something we want. “Lord, please help me get this job.” “God, please help me get this promotion.” “Please, Lord, heal my sister.” What about when we have multiple issues? What about the times when it seems there is one major thing after another and there is a domino effect and it all just comes crashing down on top of us? In those times, ever stop formally making the specific request and just crying out, “Lord, HELP!?”

I felt like that the other day. It felt like I had been praying forever for these certain intentions and things seemed to only be getting worse. One morning on the way to work, I spoke to God a bit more casually than I normally do. “Lord, where are you? Things are past desperate, and I need your help, PLEASE!”

Later that day, I actually got some good news. Not a total resolution, but a ray of hope pointing in one direction. My mother and I were discussing all this, and I felt that I had been disrespectful to God. She pointed out that even the saints lost patience and were fearful because they did not always understand God’s will, or if He was even listening. St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “While I do not have the joy of faith, I am trying to carry out its works at least.”

Another point St. Paul makes in this reading is that we may not always know what to pray for. We may think we know our needs, but the Holy Spirit truly does know them, and intercedes on our behalf. Maybe this is what it means to just tell God, “Here is the issue, Lord, and I place it in Your hands!”

I know God does everything at the right time and in His own way. I do not always feel it, and sometimes I wonder if I can wait as long as He can, but I know He does it. Knowing and feeling are two different things.

Sometimes, knowing is all we have. For now, at least, I
feel like I can keep stepping a little bit longer.

(Written by Joseph Cook, posted by Rusty Tisdale)