Monthly Archives: December 2011

Witnesses to love

Today is the feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist.

A tradition, related by St. Jerome, tells us that St. John in his old age had to be carried into the assembly and always had the same message: “My little children, love one another.” When asked why he always used the same words, he replied, “Because it is the word of the Lord, and if you keep it, you do enough.”

But love is not easy; it is, as Dostoevsky wrote (and Dorothy Day used to quote), “a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.”

Love can be costly, even to the point of giving one’s life. For her love, Blessed Sara Salkahazi, SSS, Sister of Social Service was killed by Nazis in Budapest, Hungary, for hiding Jews, on December 27, 1944.

As she once wrote:

“It is not dynamite, chemical acid, or bombs that destroy and kill, but the spirit of hatred directing them. Hatred causes bereavement and pain. Love wipes tears. We want love! We want to create structures based on justice! Let is take a look at the terrible effects of injustice in the life of the world!… It attacks countries and sets up barriers… It instigates races to rebel against one another! On the other hand, justice acknowledges the right to life of other countries and demolishes the barriers that separate people. It identifies the characteristics of various races as God’s different ideas.”

St. Stephen, first martyr

Today, immediately after celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Church celebrates Stephen, the first martyr of the community of followers of Christ. The manger and the cross are not really separated. The one born in the poverty of the manger dies in the poverty of the cross, a God who became poor and emptied himself for us. This means a new way of living and thinking.

Fr. Alfred Delp, the Jesuit killed by the Nazis in 1945, wrote in prison that Stephen was one who recognized that something new had begun with the incarnation

He saw clearly that humankind has been lifted to a new plane through the miracle of the holy night and the encounter with Christ; that human beings now had new strength and the new responsibility of bearing witness. What had been enough before was enough no longer….

This is his message and his judgment. He challenges us to get out of our rut. As we draw near to God the old and familiar become useless. God will transform us into faithful witnesses if we earnestly and with complete surrender turn to him for help.

May we be witnesses (which is the literal translation of martyrs) to God made flesh, God-with-us.


The shepherds

Some shepherds were in the fields…

The first worshippers, the first company that our Lord wants around his crib is that of the humblest, the most rustic, the least and also the most ordinary, the shepherds…

He is not content with accepting them, he calls them…

Let us esteem the least of our brothers and sisters infinitely. Let us honor them as Jesus’ favorites. Let us mingle with them. As much as God wishes, let’s be one of them. Let’s do all possible good to them, body and soul. Let’s treat them honorably so as to honor Jesus, fraternally in order to have the honour and happiness of being counted as one of them.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld
Little Brother of Jesus

St. Isaac the Syrian – Christmas Night

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One –
Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One –
Let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy –
Let us not seek revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will –
Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace –
Let us not be conquered by anger.

Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.

Today the Divine Being took upon Himself
the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated
by the Seal of Divinity.

St. Isaac the Syrian



A modern Jewish prophet

Thus says the Lord GOD:
Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me.
Malachi 3:1 

On December 23, 1972, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel died. This orthodox Jewish rabbi, was a teacher and prophet who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., for racial justice, and joined others in opposing the war in Vietnam. He opened up the Scriptures by his writings and teaching, not least of all is his tome on The Prophets.

At one point he was asked about marching for justice and peace and responded that he felt that his feet were praying.

Prayer is to be part of life and the struggle for justice. As this Rabbi and Prophet once wrote:

 “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”


Martyrs and Mary’s Magnificat

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Luke 1: 52-53

 Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat, has been set to music by many, including Johann Sebastian Bach. But its words are a great challenge to the powerful and rich of this world and have been lived by many, often to the point of martyrdom.

Mary proclaims the greatness of the Kingdom of God and describes what it entails:

food for the hungry, the exaltation of the lowly.

 But many who have struggled for this Kingdom has lost their lives in the process.

On December 22, 1988,  Chico Mendez, rubber-tapper, advocate of the environment, was killed in Brazil. This martyr for the environment once said:

“If a messenger from heaven would guarantee that my death would strengthen our struggle, it might be worthwhile. But experience teaches us the opposite; so, I want to live.”

On December 22, 1997, in the chapel in Acteal, municipality of Chenalhó, Chiapas, Mexico, 45 civilians were murdered. They were members of Socieded Civil Las Abejas (The Bees Civil Society), a nonviolent community involved in the struggle for justice for the indigenous in one of the poorest areas of Mexico.

A survivor of the massacre said:

“. . . we do not have arms to defend ourselves. . . .But we decided to trust in God and we began to pray in the church. Now we know that they are martyrs. We know that God received the 45 and that God is preparing to receive us also. Because the struggle continues. We are not afraid to die. We are ready to die, but not to kill. If God permits us some more days here, all right. If not, that is all right also.”

It appears from these and other cases that the lowly are not being lifted up, that the rich are grabbing more and more. But in the plan of God there is a hope for something different as well as a call for God’s people to struggle for a world where the lowly are lifted up, honored, and have what they need.

Will we live the Magnificat – or just “pray” it?


A prophetic denunciation, 1511

Five hundred years ago today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a Dominican friar mounted the pulpit of the church in Santo Domingo, Hispañola (now the Dominican Republic), and preached a fiery sermon denounced slavery and the system that enslaved the native peoples of the Americas.  Fray Antonio de Montesinos, O.P., did not speak for himself alone but for the whole community of Dominican friars. The reaction was fierce, but the word had been spoken.

“You are all in mortal sin! You live in it and you die in it!

“Why? Because of the cruelty and tyranny you use with these innocent people. Tell me, with what right, with what justice, do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars on these people, in their mild, peaceful lands, where you have consumed such infinitudes of them, wreaking upon them this death and unheard-of havoc? How is it that you hold them so crushed and exhausted, giving them nothing to eat, nor any treatment of their diseases, which you cause them to be infected with through the surfeit of their toils. so that they ‘die on you’ [as you day] — you mean. you kill them — mining gold for you day after day? And what care do you take that anyone catechize them, so that they may come to know their God and Creator, be baptized, hear Mass, observe Sundays and holy Days? Are they not human beings? Have they no rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not grasp this? How is it that you sleep so soundly, so lethargically? Know for a certainty that in the state in which you are you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks who have not, nor wish to have, the faith of Jesus Christ.”

Would that we had more Christians like him who speak out boldly against injustice and oppression!


I have seen some reports that the sermon was delivered on December 5, 1511. But Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote that it was the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 1511. Las Casa also noted that  the Gospel reading  was John 1: 19-28, what the Dominican Rite Missal used on the fourth Sunday of Advent.


In today’s Gospel reading, Zechariah, fearful and doubtful, is struck mute when the angel tells him that Elizabeth, his wife, and he will bear a son,  John the Baptist.

In a sermon on the passage, cited in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, the evangelical theologian Karl Barth reminds us that God is the one working in us and sometimes our plans are turned upside down and we can hardly explain what has happened.

Barth also notes:

 “We must once and for all give up trying to be self-made individuals. Let us cease preaching by ourselves, being right by ourselves, doing good by ourselves, improving the world by ourselves. God wants to do everything, certainly through us and with us and never without us; but our participation in what he does must naturally originate and grow out of his power, not ours. O, how we could then speak with one another.”

Mute before others, let us ask God to work and speak through us.


Mary, the Lord’s servant

Mary’s “Yes” to the angel Gabriel is central to the last week of Advent. In Mary the God who made all that is becomes flesh, like us.

Again I turn to the prison meditations of Father Alfred Delp, S.J.:

 Our blessed Lady. She is the most comforting of all the Advent figures. The fact that the angel’s annunciation found a motherly heart ready to received the Word, and that it grew beyond its earthly environment to the very heights of heaven, is the holiest of all Advent consolations….

The golden threads of reality are already shining through; if we look we can see them everywhere.

Mary was aware enough, full of the grace of the Lord, to recognize the call of the Lord, the signs of what is truly real, in the words of Gabriel.

And she said “yes.”

May we have hearts open to recognize the call of the Lord to reveal the Lord’s presence in our world – despite the pain, the misery, the suffering, and the darkness.

Light comes to us and is made flesh by the “yes” of a young virgin.

In the words of the twelfth century Cistercian monk, Blessed Isaac of Stella – quoted in the commentary of Fr. John F. Kavanaugh, SJ, The Word Encountered:

 In a way every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, His daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful. These words are used in a universal sense of the church, in a special sense of Mary, in a particular sense of the individual Christian…. Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the church’s faith.


The Gospel of “begot”s

Today the lectionary offers the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Growing up I remember this as the Gospel of the “begot”s since the translation was

Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, …

The current translations are a little weak – “Abraham was the father of Isaac,” etc.

The list is long – three groups of fourteen. But it is full of surprises. The men are not saints – including the adulterer and murderer David.  There are also five women – unusual in a Jewish genealogy – including, a prostitute, an adulteress, a foreigner, and Mary. And then there are the many unknown.

What is one to make of this?

Gail Godwin, in her novel Evensong, excerpted in Watch for the Light: Reading for Advent and Christmas, has Margaret, an Episcopal priest, inspired by the Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown, explain this.

If so much powerful stuff can have been accomplished down through the millennium by wastrels, betrayers, and outcasts, and through people who were such complex mixtures of sinner and saint, and through so many obscure and undistinguished others, isn’t that a pretty hopeful testament to the likelihood that God is using us, with our individual flaws and gifts, in all manner of peculiar and unexpected ways?

And so, how is God using us today? To paraphrase Megan McKenna, though we may be nobodies, we still belong to God and God can work great things through us.