The Call ~ The Rev. Frank Bellino, OPI
Many of us, at one time or another, dream of leaving everything behind. All the ties and responsibilities that nail us down, all the daily drudge, our half-heartedness about our work or our families, the weight of our past and our failures, all the things which define us.
It would be so simple to simply dump all the baggage of life, disappear, and start again in another place with a new passport and a Swiss bank account. In our fantasies, running away from everything would free us to start again as a new person, to become someone else more intelligent, more successful, popular or better looking.
In the Gospel, four fishermen leave everything behind, all the ties and bonds of work and family, to follow Jesus. But they leave everything in response to a call:
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (“Follow Me and I Will Make You | bibleteacher.org”)
Jesus doesn’t offer them a career, as carpenters, soldiers or tax collectors. He isn’t offering them exciting new love affairs, or friendships unencumbered by the weight of failure and misunderstanding.
The call to discipleship isn’t an attempt to recreate a new set of ties and bonds of love and responsibility, to escape all that defines and supplies identity. It is a call to discover that God given identity in a new way, in the crimson dawn of salvation in the words and actions of Jesus. I will make you fishers of men.
The call to follow establishes a relationship between what the disciples are now, and what they are to become. Their ordinary work, drawing sustenance from the darkness of the sea, becomes a sign of a deeper reality, drawing men and women from the darkness of sin and death, into the torrent of wind and flame manifested at Pentecost.
That which defines them now is not bypassed or ignored but becomes the scene of an urgent call to a deeper self-understanding, the call of grace. So, the disciples don’t leave fishing nets and boats upon the shore so that they can escape the daily struggle to make a living. Nor do James and John leave their dad sitting in the boat because they’ve grown tired of him or can’t afford a retirement home.
Grace does not take us from one identity to another but opens out a new and surprising depth of identity in the life of God. The disciples then leave everything behind not to escape, but to discover the true depths of the Spirit’s call. This Spirit, pouring from the Risen Christ, doesn’t replace our natural desires and hopes. Sharing in the Divine life does not mean that we are not called to live a fully human life.
Grace, then, begins to manifest itself in the reality of our lives, in those things which define us, make us who we are: but within these things it sounds an urgent call, a call to discover how much more we are, to understand ourselves in the gracious newness breaking into the world in the risen body of Jesus. For some, like the disciples in the Gospel, this call will require a leaving behind. In religious life, Christian men and women do not go in search of a fantasy life, but a life defined by the bonds and responsibilities of grace, of the new human community of the church formed at Pentecost.
But for most people, the call will not require a complete leaving behind, but an expanded vision of who we are, and our value in God’s plan. The call of Jesus to repent, because the kingdom of heaven is close at hand, is a call not to allow sin, and all the failures of life, to define us. For from our baptism, we have been caught up, hooked into this new age of grace, where we may swim freely.
The urge to escape who we are often weighs very heavily upon us. But there are no real clean slates in this life: who we are is intimately bound up with those we live with, those who have cared for us or hurt us, with the ways of making a living and passing the time we have settled for.
The call of God’s grace doesn’t offer us a new identity, the fantasy life we have always longed for. The call to be a disciple is a call to move to an even deeper understanding of who we are, who we are called to be, in the self-giving of God in the cross of Jesus, and the hurricane of glory which finally transformed simple fishermen into fishers of men.
The Feast of the Epiphany~The Rev.Dcn Scott Brown, OPI
Today we mark the end of the Christmas season – the Day of Epiphany. We celebrate this day to reflect on the visit of the Magi – the wise men – to Jesus and the giving of their gifts. We reflect on the meaning of this visit of those wise ones to see Jesus.
Epiphany is about Jesus and his message being available and relevant to people of every age and race. Jesus isn’t just a Jewish prophet with an exciting message, but God made present amongst us and available to all of us to worship and follow. God’s love reaches beyond the everyday barriers of race and class; something the Magi didn’t quite get at first.
So Who Were the Magi?
We don’t know much about the Magi from Scripture. All Saint Matthew tells us is that they were “Magi from the East”. Some translations have “Wise men from the East”. The word in Greek refers to priests of the Zoroastrian religion. They came from Persia, the countries now known as Iran and Iraq, and they saw meaning in the movement of the stars. Their visit fits an Eastern pattern of great births being accompanied by momentous events in the sky. Certainly we know of a comet in 11BCE in Gemini with its head towards Leo, seen by many as a symbol of Judah. We also know of planetary conjunctions in both 7BCE and 6 BCE which would have added to a sense that momentous happenings were on the way. The Magi would have noticed these things and taken them seriously. But who were they?
One commentator, Brian Stoffregen puts it like this;
“Originally in Persia, Magi were dream- interpreters. By Jesus’ time, the term referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. They were horoscope fanatics – a practice condemned by Jewish standards. We might compare them to people in fortune – telling booths, or people on the “psychic hotline” or other “occupations” that foretell the future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards etc. They were magicians, astronomers, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune tellers..”
Another writer, Nathan Nettleton, puts it like this;
“They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices. At worst, the term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver. Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were completely anathema to the people of Israel.”
Whilst in English we get the words “magic” and “magician” from Magi, the Zoroastrian religion forbade sorcery. They clearly were looking for a new king and had found meaning in the movement of the planets and stars which led them to come to Israel to greet the new-born king. They journeyed from their homes in Persia to Bethlehem in search of this baby. Instead of angels and visions, we have the image of the Magi following a sign in the skies – in nature – and for a long period of time. The magi see the intentions of God in the skies. This is not new: Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens themselves declare who God is, and that his handiwork is seen in created nature. “We observed his star at its rising”. The magi know that there is something significant happening.
When did they come?
The Gospel of Saint Luke doesn’t mention the Magi and holds that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth after the presentation of Jesus at the Temple where he was circumcised. It’s probable that Saint Luke didn’t know of this episode in Jesus’ early life. Saint Matthew seems to place the visit of the Magi some time after Jesus’ birth. The Holy Family are in a “house” not in the
stable of the inn. Herod kills all the newborn boys under the age of two years. So it’s likely that the Holy Family had stayed for some time in Bethlehem and the Magi came some time after Jesus’ birth, perhaps as long as two years after.
WHY did they come?
Clearly, the Magi were searching. The Magi recognized much of the truth of Jesus, who he was and what he would become. The magi had a general idea of this God and this King of the Jews, but they didn’t really know who or what they were looking for. Bono and U2 were criticized some years ago by some supposedly orthodox Christians when they produced a song entitled, “I still haven’t found what I am looking for.” I can’t see the problem with that especially given the spiritual depths in many of their songs. You see, the example of the Magi was that they were searchers, not really knowing what or who they were looking for. They didn’t claim to have it all but they saw their lives as a journey of discovery. And in that they are an example to us. We don’t know it all. But if we like them are prepared to be diligent seekers, then like them we may be graced by God’s light, by our Epiphany. When the wise men finally found Jesus, we are told that their first response was joy – “they were overwhelmed with joy”. That is what happens when we find Jesus. This is what awaits us at the end of the journey. Next, they paid him homage – they worshiped him and acknowledged Him as King. After the joy comes the worship. That means acknowledging Jesus as King. Jesus as the center. Jesus as Lord. And then, after joy and after worship, comes offering of their gifts. In response to who Jesus is and the joy He gives, we offer ourselves and our gifts to Him.
So my message for today is to dare, like them, to take the risk of seeking, and God may well bless us with our own Epiphanies which transform us as doubtless the Magi were transformed by what must have been a surprising experience for them as they knelt before the infant Jesus.
So how do you find Jesus? Maybe you can start out like the Magi – with a general idea of God, and a general idea that He is guiding you. Like the Magi, we need to turn to the scriptures. If you don’t read them, you will never really get the specific directions that God is trying to give you. Approach them with the right spirit, the right purpose. Ask for help along the way – the church, God’s people, are meant to help you along that way. The wise men knew when they needed to ask someone else for help. And pray. Ask God. When you find Jesus, rejoice. After all, He is God. Put Him in the center of your life. Ask yourself whether what you are doing honors him a King. Offer to him what you have, who you are.
Where can this Jesus be found? He is with you now. Won’t you seek Him? Won’t you recognize Him? Won’t you let Him fill YOUR life with joy? Amen.
Elizabeth Ann Seton~The Very Rev. Lady Sherwood, OPI
Reading 1: 1 Jn 3:7-10
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 98:1, 7-8, 9
Alleluia: HEB 1:1-2
Gospel: Jn 1:35-42
Liturgical colour: White.
Today we come together as a church and as children of God, to commemorate the Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton who is my name saint within the Order of preachers Independent, due to our Prior (and Presiding Bishop) feeling there apparently , many similarities between the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and that of my own life.
Throughout Biblical history and even in current times, we sometimes come across people who have endured much within their lives and who, regardless of this, remain strong and devout within their faith. Today we remember St Elizabeth, whom is one such person from whose life, heart and devotion, we can take inspiration within our own spiritual life.
Elizabeth was the very first native-born citizen of the United States to be Canonized to sainthood.
Elizabeth was born as Elizabeth Ann Bayley in New York city on the 28th August in the year 1774, and she was a child of the Revolutionary war. She was raised Episcopalian which was the faith of her parents.
Elizabeth married at the tender young age of only nineteen years old, to a man named William Magee Seton. He was a young but wealthy merchant and together they parented a total of five children.
Elizabeth had a very deep devout faith and concern for the poor even as a very young woman and she shared this devotion with her sister-in-law, who was Rebecca Seton, and with whom she became very close friends. Together, Elizabeth and Rebecca undertook various missions for the poor and for the needy of their region and they adopted the name of the ‘Protestant Sisters of Charity` for their mission works.
Elizabeth’s life changed after only the short time of four years of marriage and her life became rather burdensome in nature. Elizabeth and her husband were left with the responsibility for seven half-brothers and sisters of William’s father when he died in the year 1798.
Elizabeth suffered even further in the year 1801, when her own father with whom she had a very close relationship, especially since the loss of her mother at aged only three, himself passed into the care of the Lord.
Then yet again she suffered after only another two years, when both her husband’s business and his health failed. Filing for bankruptcy, Elizabeth and her husband sailed to Italy to help his health and to try to revive his business.
Whilst in Italy, Elizabeth suffered even further, as William’s condition worsened. He was quarantined and subsequently died of Tuberculosis in December of 1803. Elizabeth remained in Italy for several months after his death and during this time, was more fully exposed to the Catholic faith.
Elizabeth returned to New York city in June of 1804, only to suffer yet again with the loss of her dear friend and sister-in=law, Rebecca Seton, in the very next month.
At only the young thirty years of age, Elizabeth had endured the loss of so many who were close to her and she seemed to have the weight of the world upon her shoulders. Even so, throughout all this, Elizabeth still remained fervent in her faith.
The months ahead were life-changing for Elizabeth and she seemed ever more drawn to the Catholic faith and to the Mother Church, much to the horror of her friends and her remaining family who were firmly Protestant.
Elizabeth Ann Seton was received into the Catholic Church on the 4th March 1805. Her conversion cost her dearly in the areas of her friendships and in the support from her remaining family.
Elizabeth relocated to the Baltimore area and there she established a school for girls. She also founded a religious community along with two other young women and she took vows before the Archbishop Carroll as a member of the Sisters of Charity of St Joseph. From this time forward, Elizabeth was known as Mother Seton and she left a legacy of care and education for the poor. She even established the first free Catholic school of the nation.
In so many ways, the journey into the Catholic faith, helped Elizabeth to much more appreciate and to embrace her faith even more profoundly. Elizabeth was willing to endure all things to follow Christ. In her journal, she even wrote, ‘If I am right Thy grace impart still in the right to stay. If I am wrong Oh, teach my heart to find the better way’.
Many of us who have chosen the Catholic faith have experienced some setbacks and have had to endure issues with relationships, but for this brave and devout woman of faith, the cost was even greater.
Elizabeth died aged only 46 on January 4th 1821 from Tuberculosis and she was Canonized on September 14th 1975.
On this your special day, St Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pray for all of us who follow your pathway of faith. Pray that we likewise to yourself will say yes and will accept all that will come to us in the years ahead, and to allow our earthly endurance to further our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Mary, The Mother of God~The Rev. Frank Bellino, OPI
It’s quite common for parents to have unique influence in the lives of their children. Of course, that’s not always apparent while the children are growing up but once they become adults, even a word from a parent can have a significant effect. And the mother-son relationship is no exception to that.
Very often, a quiet word from a mother can have a remarkable impact on their child. It can produce a big change in behavior when all manner of alternatives has failed. And it can turn lukewarm interest or indifference on the part of the child into something approaching enthusiasm. Indeed, it’s not unknown for shrewd judges of human nature to approach a son’s mother in order to get her to persuade the son to do something for them. But if that is the case for even the most obstinate son, how much more effective will a mother’s word be in the case of a perfect son?
And that’s exactly what we find in the relationship between Christ and his mother Mary. Christ is the perfect son and Mary is his mother. And like any mother we can expect Mary to have a big influence on Christ her son. So today when we celebrate the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, the Church affords us a good opportunity to think about that relationship and to give thanks to God for it. But here it gets a little more complicated because Christ is not just only human as we are, Christ is divine also, he is God: Christ is divine and human. And that is effective in the way Mary influences her son Christ.
But what difference? We have to be careful here. Being divine and human does not make Christ any less human than we are, it does not make Christ any less Mary’s son, and it does not make Mary any less Christ’s mother.
Being human is about being a person who possesses human nature; Christ is a person who possesses human nature, therefore Christ is human. Similarly, being a mother is about giving birth to a person who is human, Mary gave birth to a person who is human, therefore Mary is a mother. What distinguishes Christ from us is that from eternity Christ existed as a divine person while we do not. However, in time, through the Incarnation, Christ became human: so, Christ was a divine person who was human. But a divine person who is human, is a person who is human and as such a full and true human being, one who had a mother and was a son to her.
So how does Christ’s being divine and human make a difference in the way Mary influences her son? Well, when a mother tries to influence her son, it is quite likely that the son does not know how things will work out. Indeed, perhaps he does not even care how things will work out. And regardless of whether he cares or not, it is quite likely he can be persuaded to act one way or another. But that does not work in Christ’s case. Christ, as we saw, is divine and human. Christ is God and as such he cannot lack any knowledge and must know how things will work out.
However, God knows all, and God also governs creation providentially and there are no gaps in that destiny. So, we cannot say that God does not care how some things will turn out or is open to persuasion, pleading or any other such thing that we can think about. And thus, it is for God, so it is also for Christ.
But if that’s the case, what role is left for Mary to influence Christ her son? Not much it seems. Thankfully that is not the end of the story. In his wisdom God does bring some things about through our intercession. It’s not that he leaves a gap in his wisdom for us to have our free will. Rather we come to desire what God wants in particular situations, we ask for it and God brings it about.
However, for most of us what God brings about through our intercession is quite small, because we do not play a crucial role in salvation history. Mary on the other hand does play a crucial role in salvation history and so God in his providence does bring about many things through Mary’s intercession.
Hence a prayer offered to God through the intercession of his mother Mary stands a much better chance of being answered than one which is not offered through the intercession of Mary. And that is the way Mary can influence her son, just as we would expect a mother to be able to do.
SOLEMNITY OF THE HOLY FAMILY~The Rev. Dcn. Igor Kalinski, OPI
Dominican Hermitage & Oratory of St’s Sebastian and Peregrine at Gevgelija town, Republic of Macedonia, Europe
Oh how happy and joyful energy God have created within me, to have that joy of the children in the Advent and Christmastide, and especially the role model for Christian families the role of the silent and humble St Joseph, my personal defender, my private revelations touch since my early vocational discernment long long go , about 35 years ago.
And now, in the circles of the liturgical year, the Divine Providence, and the influence of my beloved foster father of our Redeemer Jesus, his father on this earth, Joseph, who also spoke with angel, he had dreams, he followed the commands of what was important to be done, he have done so so much, such as taking care of a little girl Mary , than 16, with her pregnancy and infant baby Jesus, he even gave him from is property, divided to each equally as we read from the Tradition of the Holy Mother the Church.
This example, of working his job that he is teached and experienced, a carpenter, faithful to God, so deeply trusting to Him, been refugees to Egypt, even when we pray sometimes depends on the 7 sorrows of our Lady, in those mysteries we can encounter and unite with Joseph.
Jesus’ holy family, his silent deeply devoted faithful mother, and his foster father, example of chastity, example of sincere and true faith.
Today, lets pray for the broken families, for the families that are not recognized as such, for the children that need parental protection, to pray for better environment for the children, you dear beloved parents who struggle to fulfill your daily duty, you who silently work the job, not for the earthly master or owner, but for the God, you mothers in raising your children in faith, always teaching them about GOD, FOR God, consecrate your home duties, and especially the needs for better Christian raising of the children.
As God have plans for each and every one of us, protecting our free will, we are not robots, as we read in the Gospel according John 3:13-18, that He personally have a plan for us, we are created for a reason, as we read in Jeremiah 29:11 future and hope and in Hebrews 12:1-13 we are not illegitimate kids, but partakers of His holiness.
In Nehemiah 8:10 Do not sorrow for the joy of the Lord is your strength. In Hebrews again 11:6 Rewarded of those who diligently seek Him.
To seek Him as Joseph, Mary and Jesus, as in 1Samoil 15:22-23 to obey is better than sacrifice, to be in obedience just as we see how Joseph, followed the plans and task that th angel spoke to him in dream and in personal revelation.
Because God have promises for the humble in Collossians 3:18-25, been humble as Joseph and our Virgin Mary, our Lady, like Jesus, we have grantee in Proverbs 9:10-11 and promise in Psalm 16:11, to knowledge God as in John 17:3, but lets first come back to what we have in the gospels about Jospeh and Mary, their obedience, deep true faith, trusting God, because our first home church is our family, start the devotions in your secret inner room, recite rosary at home, teach your children of example of prayer, that’s how JESUS start at home with his parents., who is Father and Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents~Br. Milan Komadina
From time to time when you talk with people who are not Christians or who claim to be atheists (having no faith in God) if we ask them why that is they would say the sentence:” If there is God why innocent people suffer or why there are wars, diseases, children suffering hunger and thirst all over the world?” And it is really hard to deny all that because they are saying the truth when claiming that the world is full of injustice, full of people suffering and full of many adults and children who are unhappy (for various reasons) and they are truly innocent and do not deserve the things that are happening to them.
In the history of the church there are many stories about innocent people who were victims of this cruel world. Also there are many stories about martyrs who were even killed and they were innocent. One of those stories we could also find in today`s story from Matthew 2:13-18:
”13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
As we see Herod have ordered to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. If we take a look at the recent history, we know that there were many people like Herod. For example during World War Second there was Hitler and according to Wikipedia around 1.500.000 children were killed by Nazis. In NATO bombing 1999 Bill Clinton killed more than 90 children in my native country Serbia. Also today, a modern Hitler from Russia named Vladimir Putin has killed 424 innocent children in Ukraine (online data source). When we become aware of the fact that the Earth is full of evil and injustice it is natural to start questioning “Where is God?” Seems that we quite often forget about the fact that there is not only God as someone who is invisible and who controls the things happening on the Earth. Christians know that there is also the devil.
God did not save his own son from being murdered on the cross. He himself was suffering until he died. But he also gave promise that we will not bear the cross bigger than the one which we could hold. But He also gave us the hope of everlasting life in resurrection. With his resurrection He presented that the evil might temporarily win and the dark might temporarily seem to be very strong but the light will overcome the darkness and the light is eternal. As it is written in 1 John 1:5:
”5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”
We are getting closer to the understanding the answer on questioning why God allows evil and unjust things happening on the Earth and in our everyday life. This is because this world is also affected by devil, the fallen angel named Satan and his other fallen angels, also known as demons. God created man with some limitations. We have limited life expectancy, limited health, and limited beauty and also limited abilities of various type. One of them is the limitation in understanding. We cannot understand everything, we cannot know everything and we cannot know why sometimes bad things are happening especially to children, innocents or to people who seem to be living in accordance with God`s word. But trust in God could be enough for us because we know God is always good. He had known that Bethlehem boys under the age of 2 would be killed by Herod and He also knew that His Son was going to be killed on the cross. But those things we should understand through the knowledge that there is also Satan who wants to cause evil and more evil. We should not blame God when we see injustice happening because God surely gets hurt even more than we do while witnessing the injustice of any type. But God knows why he allows some things to happen. May prayer for today is that all of us have more faith in God and rely on His wisdom and perfect knowledge of the time (past, present, future) and his perfect knowledge about the eternity. Remember today that there were many small innocent children who were killed and become martyrs. God knows why this should happen and make sure that those children are God`s saints that will be dwelling in eternal life with the Lord.
The Feast of St. Stephen the Martyr~The Very Rev. Lady Sherwood, OPI
Reading 1:’ACTS 6:8-10; 7:54-59
Responsorial Psalm: PS 31:3CD-4, 6 AND 8AB, 16BC AND 17
Alleluia: PS 118:26A, 27A
Gospel: MT 10:17-22
Liturgical colour: Red.
Feast of St Stephen, The First Martyr
Today, the day after all the joy, and celebration of the birth of Our Lord and Saviour, and after all the traditional enjoyment and pomp of the traditional festive food and of gift giving, we come to the stark contrast, to the Feast of St. Stephen the first Martyr.
Throughout the Old Testament we see faithful Christians persecuted and often even killed by those who are faithless. But it’s not just an Old Testament phenomenon. This is what humans can do in their natural and unredeemed state. We don’t like our sins to be pointed out to us. We manage to convince ourselves that we’re really not all that bad. We work hard to justify our own sins. We find the really, really sinful people in history—men like Nero or Stalin—and we compare ourselves to them and actually start to feel pretty good about our own standing before God. And that’s when one of God’s faithful workers comes along—someone who, while by no means perfect, is living a life renewed by grace and who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit—and suddenly all the illusions we’ve built up about our own goodness dissolve and we get angry. Like Cain, instead of acknowledging our sins and instead of repenting, we torment, persecute, and sometimes even kill God’s people when they show us up.
My brothers and sisters, Our Lord and Saviour has told us:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are we when others revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on his account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before us.
He prepares us for the fact that as we joyfully follow him, as we joyfully do the work of his kingdom, and as we witness the great Christmas joy we’ve found in the manger and at the cross—as we live a life of joy before our King—we will face the persecution of the world. To submit ourselves to that seems nonsensical. How can we find joy in persecution? We find it there, because when we make Christ our Lord, he gives us that eternal perspective we’ve been hearing about through Advent. Suddenly the things of the world are so much less important. Our focus is on Jesus and on building his kingdom. Our focus is on being witnesses of his new life and taking his Good News to the world. And that change in perspective means that if we can effectively communicate the Gospel to someone while being tormented or even killed, well then, so be it. Our joy in living in and sharing Christ is greater than our joy in the things of this world—even in life itself, because we know that our share in eternal life is so much greater. But it’s not just about joy. It’s about love too. That’s another theme that carried through Advent. We saw Love Incarnate in the manger yesterday. And now because God has so changed our perspective by loving us, we start loving as he did—we can’t help it! And it’s not just that we love God’s Church or that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, but that we even love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. That’s the hardest command of all for us to obey, but the reason it’s so hard is because we haven’t been perfect in love ourselves. The closer we grow to Christ, the better able we’ll be to live it. But it’s also true that the better we live it, the closer we will be to Christ!
Living that way is hard. We so often get bogged down in the world. We focus more on life here than we do on life in the New Jerusalem. We fall back into living in fear instead of living in faith. The witness of St. Stephen should focus our eyes on our Lord and Saviour and on living the life he has given us. No one knows for sure why this feast falls on the day after Christmas, but one thing I’ve realised is that it’s easy to be excited about grace and to live as Christmas people on Christmas Day. But friends, we’re incredibly fickle, and the next day we forget about being Christmas people and go back to living in fear and faithlessness. We forget our witness. How often do you come to worship God on a Sunday morning, getting excited about grace, and yet even as you drive home someone on the road does something that makes you angry and you forget all about grace; or you get bad service while you’re out having lunch, and you forget all about grace; or you get a bad news the next morning about your job, and you forget all about grace. The Church reminds us today that being Christmas people requires real commitment on our part and that as much as it’s joyful work, it’s hard work and work that requires real faith in the promises of God.
The story of Stephen actually begins in Chapter 6. He was among the group of seven men appointed the first deacons by the apostles. They were the servant-ministers of the Church in Jerusalem. Stephen was excited about his work. Acts 6:8 tells us:
Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
He was doing what he was supposed to do as a Christmas person and he attracted attention. The problem was that he attracted the attention of Jews who didn’t like what he was doing. Now, I say “the problem”. That just shows how our perspective isn’t fully where it should be. We see it as a “problem” when we face persecution. We forget that God is sovereign and that he’s working everything out for the good of his people and the spread of his kingdom. Persecution is hard and painful, but it’s still “good”. Remember, Jesus tells us that we find blessing in it. So it was a “problem” that the Jews were upset by what Stephen was doing, but it wasn’t really a problem. God was still in control. We need to keep that in mind in our own lives: Christians don’t have “problems”, we have “opportunities” to exercise our faith.
And Stephen knew that, even as these angry men dragged him before the Sanhedrin and produced all sorts of false witnesses who attested that he was as a blasphemer. He was on trial and it wasn’t going in his favour. And yet even as these men told lies about him, St. Luke tells us that Stephen sat there with the face of an angel—he was peaceful even in the face of condemnation. The one other place in Scripture we hear a description like this is of the face of Moses after he had been with God. Stephen was close to his Saviour and was experiencing the “peace of the Lord”.
In fact, when the high priest gave Stephen a chance to defend himself, what did Stephen do? He didn’t try to explain away the things he had said and done that he got him into trouble in the first place. No. He took the opportunity to preach the Gospel to the whole Sanhedrin! He addressed them and started with Abraham and told the story of redemption down through Joseph and Moses. He told them the stories of their fathers who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and then again how God cared for them in the wilderness and drove out their enemies in Canaan to give them a home—and he stressed how all these things were made possible by God and were his gifts. And as he told the story, he noted how over and over the people rejected God—gladly claiming the great things he gave them, but never truly receiving God himself. And with that Stephen brings them right down to Jesus and he says:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. (Acts 7:51-53)
He doesn’t pull any punches. He tells them that in rejecting Christ, they’re doing the same things that their fathers had done before them in rejecting the grace of God and in being disobedient. We don’t have time this morning to read Stephen’s full sermon, but I urge you to read through it—Acts 7—sometime this next week. This was a man who was full of passion for his Lord. He was full of passion to share the Good News, even when he was in the lion’s den. What strikes me is how what Stephen does here runs counter to so much of what the Church today tells us to do in terms of evangelism. We’re told today not to be confrontational; we’re told not to talk too much about sin—or not to talk about it all—because that might turn people off; we’re told to focus on the positive; we’re told to witness the Gospel with our lives and that we might get into trouble sharing it with our mouths. Look at what Stephen does! Not only does he live the Gospel, but he speaks it out loud and clear! He confronts these men right for being the religious hypocrites they are. Stephen didn’t just sit there, quietly and say to himself: “I’m not going to bother with these guys. I’d just be casting my pearls before swine.” No, he shared the Good News with them and he did it peacefully and joyfully. And he did it because he was living in the grace and love of Christmas. He knew that these men might never come to know the Saviour but for his witness, but he also knew that if they were truly reprobate, their rejection of his Gospel sermon would simply confirm to them and to the world their rejection of the Saviour, and God would have greater glory in their condemnation. God’s Word never returns void. Stephen knew that.
St. Luke continues the story and tells us their response:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
We might read that story and think, “Wow. Stephen certainly had a bad day!” Our eyes are blind to God at his work. Stephen took a faithful stand for his Lord, and even as they got ready to drag him out to be stoned, God granted him a vision of his own glory and of Jesus enthroned beside him. Stephen’s “bad day” was a good day for the Church, because on that day God set Stephen before the rest of us as a witness—a lesson as to what it means to be Christmas people—people of his grace and his love and his power. He showed himself to Stephen so that Stephen could show himself and his faith in Christ to the rest of us.
But Stephen’s story does more than just encourage us to share the Good News and to stand firm in our faith. He reminds us what it means to witness the Gospel in our deeds. Stephen had that vision of the Lord Jesus before his eyes, and so even as these evil men started hurling stones at him, he responded with Christlike love. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, do you remember what he prayed? He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.” To the last Jesus was concerned with the souls and with the eternal state of the people around him—even his enemies. He was an evangelist to the end, even when there were no more words to say to his persecutors and murderers, he was praying for them. And Stephen, with his eyes on Jesus, does the same. There was nothing left to say to these men and there was nothing left for him to do, and so he prayed for them: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Luke tells us that St. Paul was there that day. He was holding coats so that people could do a better job throwing rocks at Stephen. Of course, this is when he was known as Saul—before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and had his life changed forever. The next verse, 8:1, tells us that Paul approved of Stephen’s execution. What we don’t know is what impact Stephen’s loving and gracious response had on Paul’s future conversion. But Luke certainly included this detail for a reason.
Brothers and sisters, Stephen reminds us that we need to be living as Christmas people, not just on Christmas, but every day. But he also shows us very dramatically what it means to live in the life and grace of Christmas—especially in light of St. Luke’s note that Paul was there that day. We never know who is witnessing us and how those around us may, or may not, be impacted for the Gospel by what we say and what we do and by how we deal with the circumstances of life. Who would have thought on that day that Saul of Tarsus—Hebrew of Hebrews and member of the Sanhedrin, the man who hunted down Christians and brought them to trial before the Jewish authorities—who would have thought that Stephen’s witness of love and grace that day might change the whole course of Church history as Saul later became Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.
And lastly, Stephen teaches us something about the extreme nature of grace and love and forgiveness. These men were more than just run-of-the-mill enemies. These weren’t just men who didn’t like him or were just angry with him. These were men who saw him as a threat to their existence and wanted to kill him—who did kill him. Stephen didn’t reciprocate their anger. No, he saw them as Jesus saw them: sinful men whom he loved and who would face eternal damnation without the Gospel of love and grace. Stephen knew the love that overcomes a multitude of sins and he knew it because he had experienced it himself through Jesus Christ. St. John reminds us that anyone who claims to love God, but hates his brother is a liar—that you can’t have experienced the redeeming love of God and still hold grudges and hate in your heart against those who have wronged you. Friends, to hold a grudge, to resent the sins of others, to fail to show a forgiving spirit, is to be self-righteous—it’s to ignore what God had done for you! Stephen could look on these angry men with love, precisely because he had himself experienced the love of Christ and God’s forgiveness—and he knew that there was nothing these men could do to him that was as bad as even his own smallest offences against God. God had forgiven him so much—and he realise that so well—that it was a “small” thing for him to forgive these men and to show them love. Lest we think that Jesus and John are just speaking in hyperbole when they tell us to love our enemies, St. Stephen shows us how the love of Christ really does work out in our lives—or at least how it should, if we truly claim to love God and to have experienced his grace and forgiveness.
So remember today: We are a Christmas people, living in the grace and love of God. But remember too that God calls us to be Christmas people every day. The joy of Christmas is something that should permeate every aspect of our lives that we might be witnesses, even to our enemies and even to those who would kill us, of the love and grace that God has shown us through his Son. And so we pray, “Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings for the testimony of your truth we may look up steadfastly to heaven and see by faith the glory that is to be revealed and, filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and pray for our persecutors as St. Stephen your first martyr prayed for his murderers to you, blessed Jesus, where you stand at the right hand of God to help all who suffer for you, our only mediator and advocate. Amen.”
Just a Shepherd~The Rt. Rev. Michael Beckett, OPI
8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. Luke 2:8-20 King James Version (KJV)
After 2000 years of Christmas sermons, in hundreds of languages, in different countries throughout the world, and by way of innumerable faith traditions, is there anything new or original left to be said about Christmas, and what it means, that hasn’t been said before? Perhaps not. However, like re-reading that favorite book for the 17th time, or watching that favorite movie or television show for the 358th time, even when you know exactly what comes next, what the very next word is going to be, often we find a new meaning or a new slant on something that is as tried and true as Christmas itself.
And so it is with me this year. The Gospel reading for today recalls the story of the angels bringing the news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Now, we all know that story. We’ve heard it many times over, and those of us who cherish “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will always, in some ways, hear Linus quoting from Luke, no matter who is reading that passage of the Bible to us. We know the story. We SEE the story in every Nativity scene we pass by. There is almost always a shepherd near the manger carrying a lamb on his shoulders and another lamb or sheep to be seen somewhere hanging around. It’s always seemed to me that the sheep and the shepherds were just THERE, minor players in a Christmas play, the “extras” assigned to the kids who didn’t quite measure up to the roles of Mary or Joseph; they enter stage left, ooh and aah over the baby, and exit stage right, singing “Go tell it on the mountain”, singularly unimportant and taking secondary roles to the more illustrious wise men (who in reality weren’t there at all) and most definitely playing supporting roles to the Holy Family, or just standing around as so much scenery, contributing to the mood and filling up the bare spots in the Nativity scene. I overheard a conversation recently that made me really think about the shepherds. While visiting some friends, their cat jumped into the midst of the family crèche and knocked over the obligatory shepherd. It was chipped. The younger daughter of the family was somewhat distressed, and to make the little girl feel better, the mother said to her, “Don’t worry about it, Honey. It’s just the shepherd. He’s not all that important.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but when reading the Scripture appointed for today, it struck me. Not all that important? But weren’t they? Who WERE these shepherds? Why were they there in the first place? Why did THEY get the news of Christ’s birth in such a spectacular way? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement?
In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them. When the twelve tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered a lifestyle foreign to them. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops. Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. The first murder in history erupted from a farmer’s resentment of a shepherd. Smug religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folk. Shepherds were officially labeled “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people.
Into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, God’s Son stepped forth. How surprising and significant that God the Father handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to be the first to hear the joyous news: “It’s a boy, and He’s the Messiah!” What an affront to the religious leaders who were so conspicuously absent from the divine mailing list. Even from birth, Christ moved among the lowly. It was the sinners, not the self-righteous, He came to save. So is it really all that surprising that the first announcement of Christ’s birth was to the lowly shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides?
Consider the events leading up to Christ’s birth. Mary was barely 15. Christ was born to an unwed mother, Mary, a servant girl; Mary the young woman who delivered while only betrothed to Joseph. He was born in a stable, a cave! A holy God being born to a couple no different than immigrants, far from home and in a strange city, in a place where animals were kept. A couple who couldn’t even find a place to stay, turned out of every inn! It’s all too bizarre.
Yet this is the God we experience. This is our claim; This is the meaning of his very name: Immanuel, meaning “God with us” — with us not just in nice times, but most especially in the times of our lives when we are in the caves, and stables of our lives, when we are turned out of the places we’d like to be, when we are at the lowest of low points, when we are out in the dark, and in the cold like the shepherds.
Our God, the God who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, is the God of the oppressed, the repressed, the depressed; the God of the sad, the grieving, the sorrowful; the God of the lonely, the lowly, the poor, the God of the Shepherds; the God of the despised, the destitute, the dejected. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who stood with the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, who led them out of Egypt to a promised land of freedom. Our God is the God of widows and orphans and stranded travelers. Our God is the God who doesn’t stay neat and tidy and spotless, but comes and stands beside us in our times of deepest need, who comes among us as the child in the dirty manger and the God of the shepherds on the hillside. The God we’re speaking of dares to join the unsuccessful, the failures, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden; the God of the Shepherds.
Wherever there is suffering, our God is there. He stands with Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, and with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. He is with us when we face cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. He is with us when we face amputations, operations, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, or even death itself. The God of the manger and the Shepherd is Immanuel, God with us. At our deepest times of loss and need, in the dirtiest and most embarrassing parts of our lives, God is with us, His rod and His staff, they comfort us. It is God who glues us back together when we become, like that figure in my friends’ Nativity scene, chipped, flawed, and much less than perfect.
And it is up to us, to demonstrate the love of God, the God of the lowly, the downtrodden, to the world. We, like the shepherds in the Christmas story, are to be the ones who are to proclaim the good news “which shall be to all people” to all the people of the world. It is our responsibility as Christians to be the instruments through which God can work in this world. As was most famously stated more than four centuries ago by Saint Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
My very favorite Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” includes the lines, “What, then, shall I bring him, empty as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part. What can I give Him? I can give Him my heart.”
Won’t you, this Christmas, give Him your heart? Won’t you, like the shepherds in the children’s plays of the Christmas story, be one to “go tell it on the mountain, over the fields and everywhere” that Jesus Christ is born? Amen.
Say Yes!~The Rev. Frank Bellino, OPI
Although it is God who makes the first move, he never forces himself on us and always allows us to answer for ourselves. In response to his invitations to us we can answer yes, or no. God allows that. But our responses are rarely, if ever, quite that straightforward. And so, God also allows us to answer with a combination of yes and no. After all, we are complicated creatures; and even when we say yes with our lips, this so often comes with at least a touch of no.
In the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Advent we find God yet again making the first move, this time coming into Joseph’s life and inviting him to play a role in the history of salvation. Of course, Joseph does not know the significance of what he is being asked to take part in. From his perspective he is in a dilemma. He cares for Mary, his betrothed, but she is with child. This is very difficult for him, and he is facing a serious embarrassment both for himself and for Mary.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Joseph was preparing to do what most men of his time and place would do, but to do this in as kind a way as possible. He would divorce Mary quietly. Then God intervenes and sends his angel to Joseph in a dream, revealing to him something of what marvelous things were taking place, that Mary had conceived a son by the Holy Spirit and that he was to be called Jesus. Nowhere is it documented what Joseph’s words were in response to this, or even if he said anything at all about it. But we know that his response was very much a yes. For Joseph went and did what the Lord commanded him. He took Mary into his home.
It’s worth comparing this with the account of the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1.26-38). In many ways the two accounts are similar, but there are some important differences. Mary is also visited by an angel and the angel tells her about the son she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and who would be called Jesus. And at the end of the angel’s message Mary says, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ Unlike Joseph, her words are recorded. But like Joseph her response to God was yes.
Catholics believe that Mary was conceived free from Original Sin and so lived a fully redeemed life. Because of this, Mary was granted the special privilege that all her responses to God were yes to God, and not only yes to God, but pure, unalloyed by sin, by negativity, by resistance. And here we have perhaps another difference regarding what we can say about the responses of Joseph and of Mary. I do not claim to have an inside scoop to what graces were present in Joseph when he did what the Lord commanded him, but I suspect that even the very positive response of so a great saint as Joseph was touched at least to some extent by the same sorts of complexities as are found in your responses to God and in my responses to God.
Now, even though this is to speak of human complexity and imperfection, Joseph’s story is, I think, deeply encouraging for all of us. Sometimes people think that for our responses to be meaningful they need to be perfect. The trouble with this is that if we insist upon perfection in ourselves and in others, for pure motives in ourselves and in others, then we will have to wait a very long time. Instead, we need to acknowledge the imperfection in ourselves and in others and come to see that God can do truly marvelous things, even with our highly imperfect responses.
There is an old joke about a person in an isolated spot asking for directions. The reply given is: ‘Well, I can show you the way, but if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’ The joke is that we always start from whatever place is here. There is no other place we can start from. And the same is true of our relationships with God, our relationships with others and our relationships with ourselves. We always start from where we are.
God works with us where we are but can bring us to where we ought to be. But he starts with where are. God came into the life of Joseph, a righteous man, and brought him to great sanctity. But God works with people far more flawed than Joseph and does marvelous things with them. We see this in the lives of the saints, some of whom were great sinners, but who were brought to lives of great sanctity. God did not demand a perfect response from them, but God helped shape their ongoing responses as they journeyed with him.
After all, God continues to make the first move even after we say yes.
Gaudete! ~ The Rev. Frank Bellino, OPI
We have reached the midpoint in the Advent season. Today in our Advent liturgy, we light the pink candle in our Advent wreath, as a symbol of celebration. This is called Gaudete Sunday which means that we rejoice with joyful expectancy that the coming of the Lord is nearby.
In Isaiah 35:1-6,10, we are encouraged to rejoice and bloom in the wilderness. What kind of wildernesses are we facing these days? We are living in a consumerist society where everything is centered on me, myself and I. We want things that we don’t need. We yearn for things that do not give us lasting joy because they are not life-giving. Our experience of wildernesses may consist of hate, power, fear, anxiety, deprivation, greed, and so many other types of darkness that we find it hard to be joyful. Yet through all our materialistic vices, there is hope that God is coming to save us. God is coming to give us new life in our wilderness. No more shall the blind be blind, or the deaf remain deaf. God is offering us life that we are unable to fathom, a life that will make us exuberant with everlasting joy!
In the Second Reading, James teaches us to be patient as we await the Lord’s coming. As the rancher waits patiently for the autumn and spring rains to fall in order to produce a great crop, so it is with the coming of Christ. He will water the soil of our hearts and it will produce good crops of goodness, kindness and joyfulness.
In Matthew’s Gospel today, we hear of John the Baptist in prison, who has heard of what Jesus was doing through curing the sick, healing the lame, giving sight to the blind and preaching the Kingdom of God and raising the dead. John sends messengers to Jesus to ask if He was “the one who is to come.” John is shown in another Gospel calling his disciples to “prepare the way of the Lord, make His path straight.” John seems confused or doubtful about Jesus. Jesus does not answer his question but tells John’s messengers “not [to] lose faith in me, for the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Jesus, here, does not proclaim Himself as the Messiah, but proclaims the Kingdom of God. Isaiah had prophesied before (Is. 26:19) “that the dead will live.” This has happened, because Jesus, the Messiah has brought the dead to life. By asking John’s disciples three questions about John, Jesus enlightens them – that they have gone to the wilderness to see a prophet. But He conveys that John is “more than a prophet”. He is the Messenger sent by God to “prepare the way of the Lord. We read in Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’…” Indeed, John is presented as the greatest of human beings. John himself, however, proclaims, “There is one greater than I, and I am not worthy to undo the strap of His sandal.” In the Gospel, (Mt 11:11), Jesus speaks of His disciples (including us) when He declares that “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist”.
So, as children of Mary, the new Eve, we are called like her to proclaim the Good News of salvation right where we are. We are called to re-think our lives, to repent of our old ways and to live straight paths for God. How do we do this? By aligning our ministry with Jesus’s, by caring for one another, by being His true disciples and by bringing hope and joy.
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