Let’s talk for a moment about today. Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph. A Solemnity is a special type of feast day, typically reserved to events revolving around Jesus’ life or for members of His family. They are holy days essentially equivalent in rank to Sundays (which are miniature Easters). This, just by the way, means you can rest from your Lenten fasting today guilt free!
St. Joseph is a Saint of particular importance, one could say almost for the opposite reason as his wife, Mary. What is Mary’s great claim to fame? Her fiat, which was her free and even cheerful assent to being the Theotokos (the God-bearer) for Christ. On this one moment the whole plan of salvation hung, on this great yes is based all the wonders of Christmas, the sorrows of the Passion, and the glories of the Resurrection. From this yes flow all the wonderful things we call Mary – Mother of God, Spouse of the Spirit, Ark of the New Covenant, Queen of Heaven, New Eve. On this terrible moment the whole of human existence poised on the brink of a second Fall – for Mary like Eve could have said, “No,” to God. And had she done so, no mind among us can imagine the depths to which we might have fallen since, nor comprehend the means by which God would ultimately come to redeem us. Redeem us He certainly would, all we know is that.
As I said, Joseph is really the opposite to Mary. Mary speaks and declares her, “yes” to God. Though perhaps spoken quietly, it is a word heard throughout the heavens and across the Earth, indeed it blazes across Creation like a shooting star, and resounds like a trumpet blast. Joseph never speaks at all. He is the great, silent Saint. Instead, Joseph is like Adam in the account of the Fall – but he is an Adam who fulfills the original purpose of Adam: Adam’s role was to protect Eve and the Garden which contained the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. From who or what only becomes clear when the Serpent appears to tempt Eve. From that story we know that Eve speaks with Evil and chooses to eat from the forbidden fruit. But we also know that it says she gave some to her husband, “who was with her” (Gen 3:6). Adam stood silently by as the Devil tempted his wife, and then chose to Fall with her, rather than remain obedient to God that she might be saved through him. Adam is silent when the world most needed him to speak. St. Joseph, too, is silent. But St. Joseph, “a righteous man, but unwilling to expose [Mary] to shame” is silent in the opposite manner (Mt. 1:19). Deeply pious, St. Joseph doesn’t plan on taking in Mary once she is found to be pregnant before they have consummated their marriage (the only reasonable conclusion being adultery on her part) – but he is also unwilling to publicly expose her, the punishment for adultery being stoning to death. Joseph is not a self-righteous man, but a righteous one. His love of God makes him seek purity and holiness, his love of Mary ensures that he will protect her. He thinks he has found the way to do both in quietly divorcing her – but God has other plans. In a dream, the angel Gabriel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary into his home, and explains the origins of the child to him. Unlike Mary, Joseph says nothing – but he takes Mary into his home, giving her the full mantle of legal and familial protection which a husband provided his wife at that time. Before, Joseph was willing to protect Mary from shame, but remember an unmarried woman had no legal rights or protections – Joseph was called by God to give a greater protection to Mary and her child, Mary the new Eve, and in her womb, the Fruit of the Tree of Life, a new Eden as well.
This protection was soon exercised, as Herod plots the death of the infant Christ almost immediately after his birth. The joy of Christmas gives way to darkness and terror as those first gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are sold to finance the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. Again warned in a dream, Joseph gathers his family in the dark of night, and departs for Egypt – a bare step ahead of the soldiers who murder innocents all throughout Bethlehem. “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation,” but the voice was not St. Joseph’s (Mt. 2:18). Then, once more, Joseph is summoned via dream to return from Egypt to Israel, but instead of returning to Bethlehem, the city of his people, the city of David, the dreams move him to a self-imposed exile in Nazareth of Galilee, a place half-civilized, and of hard-living, in a region that was looked down upon by the Jews of Jerusalem – remember the mockery of Nathaniel, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” – that the prophecies about Jesus might be fulfilled (Jn 1:46).
At this point we should have been reminded of another Joseph of Scripture, another great Father or Patriarch, and yet one also not famous for his own children. The three great Patriarchs of Israel are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – yet it is Joseph alone among the twelve sons of Israel who is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Patriarch for it is through him that God saves Jacob’s people during the great famine. This Joseph, too, was a man of dreams, given to understand their meaning and act upon them accordingly. This Joseph, too, was a man whose life was sought by his people, his own brothers, and who escaped death by only the narrowest of margins. This Joseph, too, escaped to Egypt, to prepare there a place for Israel and provide for God’s people, setting the stage also for the Exodus, the Passover, and the covenant; St. Joseph in providing for Mary and the Child provided for the new Israel, the new Moses, and the new Covenant.
St. Joseph, the silent Saint, gives us the picture of a man who fulfills the duties of Adam even after the Fall, preparing the way for the New Adam who is Christ. He is also the new Joseph, a new Patriarch for a new Israel, and thus the Patron of the Universal Church which is now the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of [God’s] own” (1 Peter 2:9). Most of all he provides the portrait of a man who loves his family, who was so good a father that alone out of all humanity God Himself chose to call him, “Father.”
Celebrate St. Joseph today. Be not silent in praise of this great Saint.
I want to take a moment to remind everyone that taking up a penitential practice for Lent isn’t the same as a New Year’s Resolution. The prevailing opinion seems to be for the latter that once you “broke it” you can’t regain it. That’s not true for Lent!
If you mess up and break your fast, that doesn’t mean you give up on fasting, it means you redouble your efforts. If you’re experiencing a lot of temptation and spiritual struggle, that’s good! It means you’re developing new spiritual muscles – no one finds working out to be easy when they are just starting.
Everybody makes mistakes or stumbles once in a while. But part of the power of Lent lies in the perfect complementarity of the penitential practices. What do I mean by that? Let’s try an example: Did you give up pop? Drink one by accident? Every time you realize you had pop out of habit, donate a dollar to charity. Or pray a decade of the Rosary. Link prayer, fasting, and alms-giving together, so that even your mistakes become part of a greater scheme of offering up your life to God. Need help with that? Let me know and I’ll help you brainstorm ways!
Want to know the best part? When you turn your mistakes into opportunities to grow closer to God instead of moments where we turn away from Him, you get to laugh in the face of the Devil. If the temptations and trials he puts into your life have the exact opposite effect from what he wanted … well, let’s just say we call that a WIN!
So two days ago we celebrated the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. I figure this is an odd enough sounding feast that we should probably talk about it a little.
Why are we celebrating a chair?
The chair of St. Peter, or “cathedra,” is the specific place and object associated with the universal teaching authority of the Church.
Well what does that mean?
In ancient times chairs were seen as symbols of teaching authority, so for example, in Matthew 23:2, Jesus refers to how the Scribes and Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses. This is a reference to a teaching authority inherited by the religious leaders of the day from the Prophet Moses. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, however, certain events happen which essentially strip this authority of meaning.
The first is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Moses went up a mountain to receive teaching from God and brought it back to the people, hence being the greatest Prophet in Hebrew history, and the source of Jewish teaching authority. Jesus is the New Moses, who sat upon the mountain as God Himself, and taught His disciples – and if you examine what He says in that Sermon, you will see that He corrects numerous misunderstandings of the people in regards to the Law given by Moses, including on subjects like divorce, and murder. Jesus has not replaced the Law here, but He has replaced Moses as the true Lawgiver, and thus as the source of teaching authority.
What else happens in Matthew’s Gospel? Jesus gives authority to others. First to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19, in a specific way as the rock upon which He will found His Church, and then in a more general way to all the Apostles in Matthew 18:18-19. But in Matthew 18 this establishing of authority to bind and loose and to teach follows on the heals of Christ speaking more fully on the role of the Church in authority. Christ establishes it as the final appeal when a dispute arises among believers, if it cannot be settled privately, or with the aid of a few, then believers are to go to the Church, and those who do not listen as to be treated as if they aren’t part of the community of believers.
So Jesus takes the place of Moses, superseding him in authority. He then establishes a Church, which has authority to teach. Next He establishes Peter as the rock upon which it will be built after what we could call the very first infallible statement by a Pope – the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of God. Finally He sets up the Apostles as collectively sharing in some of that same authority.
This Feast is a celebration of St. Peter, but even more than that it is a celebration of the blessing of God which has seen fit to give us infallible teachings through the Apostles and their successors the Bishops, both in councils, and in the particular statements of the Popes which fulfill the requirements for infallibility. This is what’s referred to as the Pope speaking “ex cathedra” or “from the chair.” What chair? Peter’s chair. Hence our feast!
Tomorrow is the unofficial feast of St. Valentine.
Why unofficial? Because in the most recent calendar created for celebrating the Saints’ feasts removed Valentine due to there being so little known about him. Instead, we celebrate Sts. Cyril and Methodius on the 14th of February in the liturgy.
Yet there are some things that we at least think we know about St. Valentine, and one of them explains the apparent relationship between his feast and the celebration of romantic love that has overwhelmed it.
St. Valentine appears to have been a Catholic priest in Rome in the time of Emperor Claudius II. He was known for marrying Christian couples and aiding those being persecuted by the emperor. Valentine married them because of his love for God and those couples. They married because of their love for God and for each other. That’s right, Valentine was a man who risked his life to help Christian couples get married. So valued was marriage, and so important and powerful the image of the Triune God which marriage offers to humanity that Valentine put his life on the line to marry these lovers, and they put their lives on the line to get married. Do you know why it was so valued? Why it is so beautiful and powerful? How many today can say that they would marry their spouse if doing so meant possible death? How many priests would risk their lives to aid them? Valentine was eventually caught and imprisoned in Rome. Not content to be idle in prison, he struck up a friendship with the emperor, and then tried to convert him to Christianity. This so enraged Claudius II that he ordered him clubbed, beheaded, and burned. Valentine, whatever else he was, clearly had chutzpah, and would dare anything for his Love.
Indeed, today many people don’t bother with marriage at all. Many aren’t willing to offer their whole selves in marriage, even with so little risk. Others have seen the sky high divorce rate and other issues. They have given up faith in marriage as an institution and any hope that they’ll marry. Yet still we celebrate the feast of St. Valentine. Still we believe in love. Don’t we? Don’t we all deeply desire the kind of love that would die for us? Don’t we all dream of a love so perfect that it would be worth death to dare?
This love has a face, and a Name, and that Name is above all other names: Jesus the Christ. Start with Him, and a relationship with Him, and find out the worlds of love that await.
Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. There are lots of things going on in the readings for today from Acts, and in this story, but I want to focus on just one: Ananias. Ananias appears first in Acts 9:10-16, and without quoting the entire passage, I want to point out things to consider from it:
First, Ananias is told, flat out, that God has guaranteed to Saul that Ananias will come and heal him.
Second, Ananias knows very well who Saul is, and what he has done and planned to do to Christians. He is understandably hesitant to go to him.
Third, Ananias is convinced when God tells him Saul is to be an instrument of God in preaching the Gospel, and that he will suffer for His (God’s) name.
Fourth, Ananias goes and finds Saul and heals him.
Let’s think of this in terms of all our journeys of discipleship. Many of us might have a powerful experience of God, an encounter with Jesus Christ where we don’t even know who He is, or what He wants from us at first. And that experience may be so incredible that we can understand St. Paul’s position. St. Paul is physically, literally, blinded by it, but many of us can at least identify with being so focused on it that we can think of nothing else. In one sense, we don’t see anything else but that moment. We certainly don’t see the road ahead. And like St. Paul we can get stuck in that moment praying and waiting for some sign, for someone to show us the next step.
Enter Ananias. Ananias plays a crucial role in Saul becoming St. Paul – he is the one who helps him move past and through his initial conversion into living out his discipleship – into being the great preacher and missionary of the New Testament, and a martyr for Jesus Christ who suffered yet with incandescent joy for God all his life. Without Ananias doing God’s will as one disciple helping another disciple (one he had strong reasons to believe would actually arrest and execute him), we don’t have St. Paul, half the New Testament, etc.
Be someone’s Ananias. Don’t be afraid. Trust the power of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts, minds, and lives of people. If God can convert Saul of Tarsus, He can convert anyone. Let us trust Him and do our part to help disciples BE disciples. As Ananias said, “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me […].”
In Dante’s Inferno Satan is imprisoned in the lowest circle of Hell. This part of Hell is not conceived of as filled with fire and brimstone, but as a prison of darkness and cold. Satan’s sins according to Dante are pride and treachery – and he is depicted as half frozen in the lowest circle, eternally struggling to tear free from the ice.
What does this mean for us though? Well, there are a couple takeaways. The very first, and oft misunderstood, is that Satan isn’t the ruler of Hell. Satan is as much a prisoner of Hell as anyone else.
The second is more important, in that it should change how we see Hell. The depiction of Hell ultimately as a place of utter void – cold, dark, and filled with monstrous prisoners, is far more real than most give the poetic work credit for. After all, cold and darkness are two expressions of the same tendency. Heat and cold are measurements of energy – when molecules move around, there’s greater energy, and they are warmer, when they slow, there’s less energy, and they grow cooler. Cold is just the absence of that movement, that energy. Light, too, is about energy and movement, and darkness is its absence. You didn’t think you’d get a physics lesson here, did you? Well take it one more step. What happens to things when they lose that energy? Water when it grows cold enough freezes. Eventually, so does everything else.
So what? Who cares? Well, we should, because all sin, but especially Pride which is the root of sin, results in that same hardening. That’s the meaning of the expression, “hardness of heart.” When we sin, our hearts grow cold – numbed to the damage we are doing to ourselves, and the pain we do to others. They grow harder and harder until they become like stone. And remember that sin separates us from God, and just think of everything associated with Him in all our tradition and experience – light, love, joy, warmth, affection, goodness, patience, peace, kindness. It is these things that we lose when we let our hearts grow cold, especially that ability to love. Are these things you want in your life? Then you should care, for a frozen heart cannot love.
Here’s the good news: God knows this about us, and has made us a promise: “I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; […]. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:25-26). Catch the reference to Baptism there? We are people of God’s promise, and His sacraments are where He accomplishes this restorative work. But go a little further, to Acts, “‘Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, my brothers?’ Peter [said] to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you […]” (36-8).
You cannot cut a heart that is made of stone, a heart of frozen flesh. God accomplishes His healing in the Sacraments, but He begins it through the process of repentance – through sorrow and heart-brokenness over our sins. A heart that has hardened through sin must be broken open – it must feel agony for what it has done, so that it may feel anything at all. “He disperses hail like crumbs, who can withstand his cold? Yet when again He issues his command, it melts them; He raises His winds and the waters flow” (Psalm 147:17-18). God’s command is issued via His Word. God’s wind is His Breath, His very Spirit which hovered over the waters of Creation. He sent His Son to preach the forgiveness of sins – but more than that to die for us and rise to Life that we might live. And together Father and Son sent the Spirit at Pentecost, immediately before the scene in Acts which we just read, to thaw men’s hearts, to cut them that they might be healed, and made new.
One final thing to learn from Dante today: we should remember that it’s really, really difficult to get free once you’re stuck on ice, so be careful in this storm, everyone!
Today is the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. Let’s think about this for a moment. Paul in Philippians says that because of His humility and obedience to God the Father, Jesus has been greatly exalted, that His name is above every other name, and that at His name, every knee should bend of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth (2:9-10).
Isaiah prophesied that the Savior would be called, “Emmanuel.” Emmanuel means “God with Us,” and is a reference to the Incarnation. A fitting reference for Christmas time. But Jesus means, “YHWH saves,” referring to the Unutterable name of God. Jesus is called Emmanuel, but the Angel instructs Mary and Joseph to name Him, “Jesus,” and so they name Him at His circumcision. The name above all other names is God’s own name testifying to His saving power. But this isn’t just a Christmas reference, though the story occurs here. God accomplishes His salvation through Christ’s humility and obedience, those two words most perfectly expressed in the Cross itself. Humility in the vertical beam which connected Earth to Heaven by the descent of the Son, obedience in the horizontal beam, which opened wide the arms of God to the worst of Man. The Most Holy Name of Jesus is all this, His Incarnation and the joy of Christmas, yes, but also His Passion and Death for us.
Thus far, all those in Heaven and those on the Earth have reason to bend their knees at the name of Jesus. But what of those under the Earth? St. Paul very intentionally spells out the three places in Hebrew cosmology affected, and they go beyond the lands of the living and into the realm of the dead. We state in the Nicene Creed that Christ descended to the dead. We state in the Apostle’s Creed that He descended into Hell. To the ancient Hebrews, both were Sheol, the abode of the dead. Why do these have cause to bend the knee? Because God’s saving work continues in His preaching and saving the dead, scouring Hell and reaching even to Adam and Eve (to our uttermost beginnings) in His determination to bring salvation to Mankind. In three days He accomplished this, and rose from the dead, to finally ascend to Heaven and rule at the right of God the Father.
It is because of this that the name of Jesus is most holy. It is because of this that we genuflect to Him, and bend the knee to God. It is because of this that at His name demons tremble and angels sing God’s praises.
So happy Feast of the Most Holy Name. May God bless you all this day.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. I know a lot of our families aren’t very holy. Mine certainly isn’t. It’s important to remember that for thirty years of His life, Jesus Christ lived as a regular boy, in a family with a foster father and biological mother, and eventually without a foster father at all. The Holy Family was poor, spent several years in exile as refugees because a power mad despot wanted to kill Him, and even when they returned to their homeland, they couldn’t return to the city of David, but had to remove to Galilee (a provincial backwater of a provincial backwater). Joseph worked in heavy carpentry, which could translate to construction work in our time, and they essentially lived the life of a poor family of migrant workers today, with Jesus working alongside Joseph.
I think it is important to remember because God could have chosen any life for His Son on Earth. Jesus could have provided that Mary be a Queen on Earth, surrounded by pomp and luxury – that Joseph be an Emperor – whatever. Jesus chose to come down not into perfection, polish, or posh. He chose to enter our mess. Our messy little lives that can seem so pointless and empty and dull. It was into this kind of life that He was born, because God has never believed our lives to be pointless, empty, or dull. “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare, and not for your woe, to give you a future of hope,” He says in Jeremiah (29:11). And in being born to us in poverty like us, in times of darkness and doubt like ours, in wretched conditions which most of us would find unbearable – maybe do find unbearable and yet bear – He is saying very simply, “I am with you, always” (Mt. 28:20).
So on this day, in this night, may God bless all our families with the gift of His Son. May Christ be born again in our hearts this Christmastide – that we might love Him as our own, and love one another just a little more. God is with us – our Emmanuel.
This week is the first week of “Ordinary Time.” The first week after the season of Christmas is always the beginning of ordinary time in the liturgical calendar – but what do we mean by “ordinary?” Let’s start with what is NOT meant by ordinary: by ordinary we do not mean “of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional:”
The Church does not consider “Ordinary Time” to be ordinary as in common, because it isn’t – because it is the end times, the times in which God’s promises have been fulfilled and we live in the active coming of His Kingdom in the Person of Jesus Christ and the Church He builds as His very Body. Our times are hardly ordinary – God has walked the Earth as a mortal man, we have known Him and He us, and what is more He conquered death which was the most ordinary fact of all human existence. Nothing was more in common for Mankind than our destiny of extinction, generally attended by pain, sorrow, and fear. Nothing is less ordinary than to be part of God and conquer death with Him.
So what does it mean? It means simply to be ordered or numbered. This is week number 1 after Christmas, and next Sunday will commence week number 2. The Church marks this time with an ordinal system, and so has called it “Ordinary.” Don’t be deceived, Ordinary time is anything but ordinary.