St. Peter Claver a Spanish Jesuit of the 16th century took very seriously the words of our Lord at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel. At the end of that Gospel Jesus says, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” As a student at the University of Barcelona, Claver was noted for his intelligence and piety, after two years of study he wrote in his notebook, “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave.”
Claver joined the Jesuits and they sent him to the port city of Cartagena in Columbia. It was in that city that he completed his studies for the priesthood. Living in that city he observed and was greatly disturbed by the harsh treatment and living conditions of the slaves who were brought from Africa. Cartagena was the slave-trading hub and 10,000 slaves came into the port every year. While in seminary Claver learned all he could about the languages and customs of the slaves who entered that port city. At his solemn profession St. Peter Claver signed his document with these words, “Peter Claver, servant of the Ethiopians forever.” With his ordination Peter Claver began his work with the slaves.
When the slaves disembarked, they were unwashed, starving, and covered in sores. And so Peter met them with medicine, soap, disinfectants, food, bread, brandy, lemons, and tobacco. And with the help of interpreters and pictures he also gave basic instruction in the faith. And in the off season he would visit the slaves at the plantations, going from village to village, giving them more instruction and spiritual consolation. One of the simple prayers he taught to the slaves was this; and this one makes me smile, “Jesus, I love you very much, much, much.” During his 40 years of ministry it is estimated that St. Peter Claver personally catechized and baptized 300,000 slaves. They called him a man filled full of God.
The word baptism comes from a Greek word which means to immerse or plunge. Baptism is a sacrament, which is an outward sign instituted by Christ that gives grace. Baptism is a sign that points to a reality beyond itself. It’s a special sign that causes to happen what it signifies. The outward sign is the body being washed, while at the same time the soul is cleansed and made whole. And it is Jesus who works through the sign. Jesus is the one who baptizes. Even though I pour the water, Jesus is the one who baptizes; he’s the one who celebrates all the sacraments using me as his instrument.
So what can water do? First, it destroys; think of the devastation caused by Tsunamis and Hurricanes. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:3, “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Baptism sacramentally connects us to the Cross. Baptism destroys sin, both personal and original. And second, water gives life. Without water there is no life. St. Paul when speaking of baptism says that a new life is poured out onto and into us. The Holy Spirit begins to dwell in us, and we are reborn.
Baptism means we have access to an extraordinary power, a Divine Power. We can change. We are not stuck in our habits, and fears, and anxieties, and struggles. Living the Christian life means I can change. I can change because the One, who raised Jesus, lives in me. If I surrender to him I can be different.
Baptism gives us a new identity. You are a daughter of the King; you are a son of the King. To know this with conviction changes everything. Our God is not distant. The prophet Isaiah writes, “Fear not to cry out, here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God…like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” Our God is not distant.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus once said this about baptism, “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift… We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; garment since it veils our shame; and bath because it washes.”
In today’s Gospel we heard God the Father say to Jesus, “You are my beloved.” Every baptized person should know and hear these words, every person made a member of the mystical body of Christ should hear these words, “You are my beloved, my beloved son, my beloved daughter.” So the next time you come into St. Joseph’s and dip your fingers into the Holy Water, remember these words, “You are my beloved.” As you make the sign of the Cross repeating the words of your own baptism, In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, remember the words of God our Father, “You are my beloved.” “You are my beloved.” To which we might respond, “I love you very much, much, much!”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley
The Magi are blessed with the profound experience of gazing upon the new born King of Israel. What an awesome encounter this must have been, to see the Lord of the entire universe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Few people in history have been graced with such a moment. And because of the depth of their experience, the Magi simply cannot be the same afterward; the reality of the moment was too great! So, instead of following their original plan and returning to Herod, scripture says they departed for their country by another way. This physical change in direction expresses a deeper spiritual experience. They cannot be the same as they were after encountering Christ. The truth is too great! The Magi encounter Christ in worship, they see him with their own eyes, and they leave the experience, physically and spiritually, in a different manner than when they arrived. They are changed.
I have a story about a man who like the Magi, for many years was only able to look upon our Lord, but it made all the difference in his life. For years, Mark Ji Tianxiang, known to everyone as Ji, was a respectable Christian, raised in a Christian family in 19th-century China. He was a leader in the Christian community, a well-off doctor who served the poor for free. But after many years of practicing medicine he became very sick with a violent stomach ailment and so he treated himself with opium. Back then in the 19th century it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Ji soon became addicted to the drug, an addiction that was considered shameful and gravely scandalous.
As his circumstances deteriorated, Ji continued to fight his addiction. He went frequently to confession, refusing to embrace this affliction that had taken control of him. Unfortunately, the priest to whom he confessed (along with nearly everybody in the 19th century) didn’t understand addiction as a disease. Since Ji kept confessing the same sin, the priest wrongly thought, that he wasn’t even trying and that Ji had no desire to do better.
After a few years of this, Ji’s priest told him to stop coming back for confession, and to stop receiving the Eucharist, to stop until he was serious about quitting the opium. They just had no understanding about addictions in the 19th century. Ji just could not quit. For some, this might have been an invitation to leave the Church in anger or shame, but for all his fallenness, Ji knew himself to be loved by the Father and by the Church. He knew that the Lord wanted his heart, even if he couldn’t manage to give over his life. Instead of receiving the Eucharist using the sense of taste, he received instead using the sense of sight. And how he would stare at the Blessed Sacrament held aloft over the priest’s head at the time of the elevation, taking our Lord in through his eyes, receiving Him through the sense of sight, just like the Magi. He couldn’t stay sober, but he could keep showing up, showing up to adore our Lord in the Eucharist.
And show up he did, for 30 years. For 30 years, he was unable to receive the sacraments. God’s grace is not limited to the sacraments, the Mass made all the difference in his life. The adoration of the Eucharist made all the difference in his life.
In 1900, when the Boxer Rebels began to turn against foreigners and Christians, Ji was rounded up with dozens of other Christians, including his son, six grandchildren, and two daughters-in-law. Many of those imprisoned with him were likely disgusted by his presence there among them, this man who couldn’t go a day without a hit. Surely he would be the first to deny the Lord.
But while Ji was never able to beat his addiction, he was, in the end, flooded with the grace of final perseverance. No threat could shake him, no torture could make him waver. He was determined to follow the Lord who had never abandoned him.
As Ji and his family were dragged to prison to await their execution, his grandson looked fearfully at him. “Grandpa, where are we going?” he asked. “We’re going home,” came the answer.
Ji begged his captors to kill him last so that none of his family would have to die alone. He stood beside all nine of them as they were beheaded. In the end, he went to his death singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And though he had been away from the sacraments for decades, he is today a canonized saint. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang
Friends, does our experience of Sunday worship, of Catholic life, or of our parish communities change our heart or mind? The Magi worshiped Jesus in a crib, and they went away different. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang worshipped Jesus in the Eucharist Sunday after Sunday, and he too went away different. He struggled mightily, in ways we’ll probably never know, but he never left our Lord or His Church. Today we worship Jesus truly present on the altar, in the tabernacle, and within our hearts in the Eucharist each Sunday; do we come away from this experience different, with a change of mind and heart? This Epiphany, we ask that our encounter with the Lord may lead to an ever greater change of mind and heart within ourselves. Whether they know it or not our friends, neighbors, and family members are counting on the light that our experience of Christ has brought us, to bring that light into their lives! Pray for the grace to be a fervent light of Christ.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley
From a sermon by Saint Leo the Great, Pope
Christian, remember your dignity
Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.
No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no man free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he receives the offer of forgiveness. Let the pagan take courage as he is summoned to life.
In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown mankind.
And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest, and they proclaim peace to men of good will as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God’s goodness, what joy should it not bring to the lowly hearts of men?
Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh.
Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.
Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.
Edna Costello was one of those irreplaceable women who seem to appear in every parish. She was the most active member of the altar society, the parish council, the Bible study, marriage preparation classes, and the right to life group. You could find her in church every morning, a half-hour before Mass. She would still be there for another hour after the Mass was over: making her thanksgiving, tidying up the pews, praying her Rosary, arranging flowers, and making the Stations of the Cross.
During the day Edna did good deeds. If anyone in the parish was seriously ill, she would know about it within a matter of hours, and send flowers or visit the hospital room. She would bring meals to shut-ins and place phone calls to lonely widows. On a few occasions she even tactfully asked some of the wealthier members of the parish if they could spare a few dollars for a family that had fallen behind on the mortgage payments.
Then in the evenings, more often than not she would be back at church again, this time for a meeting of one of the many parish organizations that she dominated.
Now if this description makes you think that Edna was saint, you should realize that many – even most – of the parishioners found her insufferable. And she certainly did have her faults. She could be a bit of a busybody. She was better at talking than listening. She was definitely pushy. But no one would ever deny that Edna Costello tried her best to be a good Catholic. And because she was such a serious, active Catholic, many people followed her lead.
Take Tom Brown for example. The Brown family lived just a few doors down from the little house where Edna lived after her husband’s death. When he was just twelve years old, Tom became intrigued by the sight of a little woman who marched past his front window every morning at 6:15, in rain or shine. “If she can go to Mass every day,” he asked himself, “why can’t I?” Soon he too was a fixture at the morning Mass and Tom was not alone. For every jaded neighbor who laughed to himself when Edna began passing out holy cards, there was another more sensitive soul who would take the card, and begin to develop a habit of prayer.
Years passed and age took its toll, Edna moved to a smaller home in another town. Within a matter of months she had become the backbone of a different parish. For years she carried out all the same functions in a new location.
Then at last, just before she reached the age of ninety, Edna was diagnosed with cancer. She learned of the illness during Holy Week, and thought that was appropriate. She continued her usual activities for as long as she could; doing the best she could to ignore her fatigue and pain. But on the day after Christmas she collapsed in church, and was rushed to the hospital.
The doctors were able to revive her, and for two days her conditions steadily improved. But on the third morning she took a sudden turn for the worse, and the doctors realized that she had only a matter of hours to live. At Edna’s insistence, the nurses began to look for a priest.
But there was a complication. A huge blizzard had hit the town that morning, and traffic was paralyzed. The local pastor had rushed out early in the morning, hoping to get a few last-minute errands done before the snow arrived; he miscalculated, however, and was now stuck in a snow bank several miles away, unlikely to return before nightfall. No other priest lived close enough to the hospital to make through the snow on time.
Edna was drifting in and out of consciousness, but when she was awake she was lucid. She was hounding the staff: “Have you found a priest for me yet?”
Fortunately, someone remembered hearing that a young priest was spending his vacation at his sister’s home just a few blocks from the hospital. The nurses tracked him down, and the young priest quickly agreed to come bring the sacraments to a dying woman.
When he entered the room, the priest saw a tiny gray haired woman asleep in her bed. He thought he would awaken her gently by whispering her name. But when he saw the name listed on the chart at the foot of her bed, he blurted it out loud: “Edna Costello!”
Edna opened her eyes wheezing as she said, “Oh, Father, thank God you’re here!” “Thank God you’re here,” said Father Tom Brown. “You’re the reason I’m a priest!”
Now I’ve told this vocation story because I think today’s Gospel is also a vocation story, Mary’s vocation. Mary’s life was turned upside down, God was asking something of her that she never would have expected and this greatly troubled her. Mary’s heart experienced fear. All of us whether married, single, priest or religious sister may at one time or another experience fear. Was Edna ever fearful during her marriage? Was she fearful when there were struggles or arguments or misunderstandings? Was Edna fearful when her husband died making her a widow? Was Edna fearful as she neared death? Did fear ever arise as Tom first discerned the priesthood, did fear arise in the Seminary, and did fear ever arise in the parish? Do we have fears about the life we are called to live in our Christian vocations of marriage, single life, priesthood, or religious?
God doesn’t reveal himself through fear, pressure, or confusion. This is where the spirit against Christ reveals himself. The spirit against Christ makes us afraid, not God. This spirit against Christ uses fear, pressure, and confusion to draw us away from following God. This spirit against Christ can come from us, the world, or the evil one. But the constant message of God is not to be afraid. We hear this message of “Be not afraid” 21 times in the gospels. The Angel Gabriel Immediately tells Mary “Be not afraid” letting her know that fear is not from God. Pope St. John Paul II also said the very same thing knowing fear is the tactic used by the spirit against Christ to discourage a person from doing the will of God.
God has plans for each of us. These plans may call for great changes in our lives, just as they did for Mary. God our Father wants to grace us so that we can do great things for him. But we’ll see these great things happen only to the extent that we listen to him and keep our hearts set on him. If we let ourselves get distracted, we risk missing what he wants us to do. But when we let Jesus live in our hearts, we will find ourselves doing his will. Our Lord tells us through the prophet Jeremiah, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you…plans for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.” God’s plans for us are better than what we could come up with on our own. If we want to know the blessings of God’s plans we have to be open to them.
Mary was troubled at the message of the Angel but she responded to the grace to trust. She knew that God was good. She knew God was loving and that God would never abandon her. With these truths she reasoned that she could accept God’s plan and believe that he would provide for her. May we do the same.
Let us never be afraid to live out our vocation to its fullest. Who knows how God will use us to inspire another person to their own vocation. People are watching us so let us, like Mary, be willing to bear Christ wherever we go. Let each of us say to our Lord, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley
December 18, 2020
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Peace be with you!
In these Advent days of preparation for the coming of our Lord, we hope and pray that the Prince of Peace may console you and draw you to himself. Over this past year the struggles with the global COVID-19 pandemic have weighed heavily on our hearts, yet our Lord has been with us to deepen our faith and trust in him. Know of our prayers for you and for all health care workers who are so diligently caring for those who are ill.
As vaccines for COVID-19 are now becoming available, we wish to address the moral questions that have arisen, insofar as some vaccines are developed using cells lines that have originated from the tissue taken from babies who were aborted decades ago.1 Abortion is a grave evil, and we must avoid complicity in abortion. Let us also pray for God’s peace, healing, and mercy for all those who have had abortions.
At the time of this writing, the Food and Drug Administration has given approval for the emergency use of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer. Two other vaccines, one developed by Moderna and the other developed by AstraZeneca, might also gain FDA approval.2
It is morally permissible to receive the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna. Neither of these vaccines have used cell lines originating in tissue taken from aborted babies in their design, development, and production. However, both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine did use such a cell line in the confirmatory testing. This connection to the abortion is very remote, however, and it is important to keep in mind that there are varying levels of responsibility. Greater moral responsibility lies with the researchers than with those who receive the vaccine. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has indicated that it is morally permissible to be vaccinated if there are no alternatives and there are serious health risks.3 Such serious health risks are present due to the current pandemic.
The vaccine developed by AstraZeneca is more morally problematic, however. It did utilize in the design, production, development, and confirmatory testing a cell line that originated from tissue taken from an aborted baby. This vaccine may be received only if there are no other alternatives. If one does not have a choice of vaccine and a delay in immunization may bring about serious consequences for one’s health and the health of others, it would be permissible to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine. It is somewhat similar in production to the Rubella vaccine, which the Pontifical Academy of Life indicated could be received for grave reasons and if there are no other alternatives.4
1 For more on the morality of COVID-19 vaccines, see the joint statement of the chairmen of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine and Pro-Life Activities on which our statement is based: moral-considerations-covid-vaccines (usccb.org)
2 For more information about specific vaccines being developed for COVID-19 see this reference chart from the Charlotte Lozier Institute: COVID-19-Vaccine-Candidates-and-Abortion-Derived-Cell-Lines.pdf (lozierinstitute.org)
3 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Bioethical Questions (Dignitas Humanae) (2008), nos. 35-36: Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (vatican.va)
4 Pontifical Academy for Life, “”Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses,” (9 June 2005) in National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 6:3 (2006): 541-49
If one were to choose not to be vaccinated, one would have a moral responsibility to embrace the necessary precautions to avoid spreading the disease to others.
At this same time, we join our voices to call for the development of vaccines that have no connection to abortion. Our consciences must not be dulled, nor may we imply in any way that abortion is acceptable.
Let us implore the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that God may bring an end to the pandemic and that all esteem and respect the dignity of human life.
Most Reverend Allen H. Vigneron Most Reverend Paul J. Bradley
Archbishop of Detroit Bishop of Kalamazoo
Most Reverend Earl A. Boyea Most Reverend John F. Doerfler
Bishop of Lansing Bishop of Marquette
Most Reverend Robert D. Gruss Most Reverend Walter A. Hurley
Bishop of Saginaw Apostolic Administrator
Diocese of Gaylord
Most Reverend David J. Walkowiak
Bishop of Grand Rapids
Creative Connections: Persons with Disabilities are invited to a virtual gathering from 1:00 – 2:00p.m. on Sunday Jan. 24th. The focus is to build fellowship and have fun. We’ll spend some time getting to know each other and catching up, have a brief reflection on Sunday’s scripture passage and end with prayer. To learn more or to register go to https://www.diokzoo.org/personswithdisabilities or contact Lisa Irwin at 269-903-0177 or email@example.com by Jan. 20th. Zoom link will be sent to those who register.
In the Gospel today, St. John the Baptist says to us, “There stands among you, one unknown to you, the one who is coming after me.” Now there is a story of a monastery that existed centuries ago. And in that community things were not going so well. The monks argued all the time. The prayers had become sloppy, the chant was hit-and-miss. Many times they were off key and they didn’t care. Young men were no longer joining the community; those who entered didn’t stay. The place was a mess, the gardens were overgrown, the monks lost all pride in their place. People even stopped visiting, why would anyone want to travel to such a pitiful place? Father Abbot looked on and watched as his abbey died. He had to do something, he thought. He then remembered that miles away on the other side of the mountain, there was a hermit known for his holiness and good spiritual advice. Father Abbot decided he would go and see him. So he got on his mule and off he went.
When he got to the hermit’s house, the holy man welcomed him. He asked how things were, and the Abbot told him the whole tragic story of his once flourishing monastery. The hermit listened intently as the Abbot spoke all night. When he had finished his sad story, the hermit looked directly at him and said, “Father Abbot, I am about to tell you something, and you must listen, because I’m only going to say it once. You are not to ask me any questions, and in the same way, you are to tell your monks this very same message. Do you understand?” The Abbot said yes he understood,, and so the holy hermit said to the Abbot in a very loud voice, “Dear Father, Christ is living in your Abbey!” The Abbot looked at him with a puzzled look but remembering his agreement, nodded and remained silent. All the way home he kept thinking “Christ is living in my Abbey.”
The next day he returned home and called the monks together. “Brothers, he said, the holy hermit has given me a word for all of you. I will only say it once, and I will not repeat it, and you may not question me.” The monks waited as the Abbot gathered his thoughts, and the Abbot said to them in a loud and steady voice, “Christ is living in our Abbey.” The monks looked at one another wondering; what does that mean? Does it mean Christ is living here? Did he actually mean living here, living here like one of us? And they looked at each other, wondering which one was the Lord.
Later, they were in choir, and the choirmaster said to himself, “If he is here, we better sing as best as we can.” The chant got better. The brother in charge of the kitchen said to himself, “If he’s here, I better make sure he gets the best food.” The meals were prepared with great care and attention. The monk in charge of the housekeeping said, “If he is here, we better tidy the place up!” He had the broken windows fixed; the cloister was cleaned and painted. The brother in charge of the farm put the fields in order, and had the gates and fences repaired. Monks who hadn’t been on friendly terms came to agreement and reconciled, just in case their opponent was the Special Guest.
Bit by bit, the monastery changed as each monk served each other, as if he were the Lord, just in case. Soon their care became genuine affection and love. They helped each other, they sang beautifully, and they prayed with such intensity that news of the change spread throughout the country. People came back to visit. Young men were attracted to join the community, and the monastery began to flourish.
On the third Sunday of Advent many parishes will bless the bambinelli, the baby Jesus’ of our nativities, and in part of that blessing we hear, “We pray that, with your blessing, these images of Jesus might be a sign of your presence and love in our homes…open our hearts, that we might receive Jesus in joy, do always what he asks of us and see him in those who need our love.” In every moment of our lives, Christ presents himself to us, maybe as a friend maybe as a stranger. In our work, we meet him, in school or in college, we meet him, in the factory, and in the store, we meet him. As we heard in the Gospel, “There stands among you, one unknown to you, the one who is coming after me.” This advent, we pray that the Lord will open our minds and our hearts, so, that like the monks, we will make our lives and world a place where Christ is welcome.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley
A voice of one crying in the wilderness
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. The prophecy makes clear that it is to be fulfilled, not in Jerusalem but in the wilderness: it is there that the glory of the Lord is to appear, and God’s salvation is to be made known to all mankind.
It was in the wilderness that God’s saving presence was proclaimed by John the Baptist, and there that God’s salvation was seen. The words of this prophecy were fulfilled when Christ and his glory were made manifest to all: after his baptism the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove rested on him, and the Father’s voice was heard, bearing witness to the Son: This is my beloved Son, listen to him.
The prophecy meant that God was to come to a deserted place, inaccessible from the beginning. None of the pagans had any knowledge of God, since his holy servants and prophets were kept from approaching them. The voice commands that a way be prepared for the Word of God: the rough and trackless ground is to be made level, so that our God may find a highway when he comes. Prepare the way of the Lord: the way is the preaching of the Gospel, the new message of consolation, ready to bring to all mankind the knowledge of God’s saving power.
Climb on a high mountain, bearer of good news to Zion. Lift up your voice in strength, bearer of good news to Jerusalem. These words harmonize very well with the meaning of what has gone before. They refer opportunely to the evangelists and proclaim the coming of God to men, after speaking of the voice crying in the wilderness. Mention of the evangelists suitably follows the prophecy on John the Baptist.
What does Zion mean if not the city previously called Jerusalem? This is the mountain referred to in that passage from Scripture: Here is mount Zion, where you dwelt. The Apostle says: You have come to mount Zion. Does not this refer to the company of the apostles, chosen from the former people of the circumcision?
This is the Zion, the Jerusalem, that received God’s salvation. It stands aloft on the mountain of God, that is, it is raised high on the only-begotten Word of God. It is commanded to climb the high mountain and announce the word of salvation. Who is the bearer of the good news but the company of the evangelists? What does it mean to bear the good news but to preach to all nations, but first of all to the cities of Judah, the coming of Christ on earth?
Happy New Year, the first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year. This year we’ll be reading from the Gospel of Mark. Advent is a season that directs the mind and heart to await our Lord’s coming at Christmas but also our Lord’s Second coming at the end of time. It’s supposed to be a period to heighten our devout and joyful expectation. Now during this season of Advent we sing one of the most beautiful hymns, “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The word Emmanuel means God with us. The next two lines are, “And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”
Centuries ago travel was very dangerous, especially if you were wealthy. Criminals preyed upon the rich. If they could they would capture them and hold them for ransom, usually holding them and hiding them away in a foreign country. And there they were in this foreign country; captive, and exiled, and waiting and watching, and hoping, hoping that someone might pay for their release.
“O Come O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”
We too, like Israel, are in exile; we live in a foreign country, we are on a pilgrimage through a foreign land, because Heaven is our true homeland. Heaven is the place where we belong. We were made for it. And we too are held captive, captive to sin and captive to powers alien to God. And so in our captive exile we hope and we wait, and we watch.
“Until the Son of God Appear.”
I have a story. In Scotland in the 1600s Catholics were persecuted, both priests and laity had to flee the country or go into hiding to avoid imprisonment or even death. One day a Bishop wanted to explore his diocese to see who was left of his flock, and to see how they were faring. And so there he was walking from village to village in the mountains, dressed like a poor farmer to escape capture. It was winter, and as the sun went down he became lost among the snow covered hills. Almost exhausted with wandering, he finally saw a dim light in the distance, and made his way towards it. It was a poor cottage on the edge of the woods; he knocked on the door. The family welcomed him, warmed him at their fire, and prepared him some food. He didn’t see any crucifix or image of Mary in the house, so he concluded they weren’t Catholic. They were extremely kind and hospitable, and as he ate their delicious food, they conversed politely and pleasantly. He didn’t bring up the topic of religion.
As the Bishop sat there he noticed that the family seemed sad underneath their good-natured hospitality. And so he asked about this, and the mother explained that in the back room, on a bed of straw her father lay dying, but he refused to admit it, and so he was not preparing himself well for death. The visitor offered to speak with him, and he was led to the back room. Sure enough, the old man lay there, feeble and clearly dying. The bishop offered words of sympathy, but the old man seemed to regain strength and said, “No sir, I am not yet going to die. That is impossible.” The disguised bishop asked why he was so sure, and after hemming and hawing, the old man asked quietly if the visitor was Catholic.
Assured that he was, the dying man gave this explanation. “I also am a Catholic. From the day of my first Communion until now I have never failed even for a single day to pray to Our Blessed Lady for the grace of not dying without first having a priest at my bedside to hear my confession and give me the Last Sacraments.” “Now sir, do you think that my heavenly Mother will not hear me? Impossible! So I am not going to die till some priest comes to visit me.” Tears rolled down the bishop’s face as he realized that he was God’s faithful answer to this man’s humble and confident prayer. The old man, in a faithful Advent spirit, hoped and waited, and watched. And our God was faithful to him and ransomed him from his captivity. Sending him his longed for priest to give him the sacraments.
Our God is a faithful God. He fulfills his promises. God didn’t abandon the human race after the Original Sin. He promised to send a Savior, and he fulfilled his promise on the very first Christmas. And God has also promised that this Savior, Jesus Christ, will come again to bring our earthly exile to its completion, just as he brought his Chosen people out of their exile. God is faithful, he will fulfill his promises. And with his grace we too can be faithful, just like that old man in Scotland.
St. Paul from our second reading writes, “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And now for the last line of our Hymn’s first verse, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley