Fourth Sunday of Advent at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24

Joseph is “a just man.” In Hebrew that means he is a good and faithful servant of God who fulfills the will of God and is charitable to his neighbor. Yet this gospel is not about him being a nice guy. Joseph is a Jew, an Israelite. Today’s story is preceded by his credentials, his genealogy as an Israelite. He is a member of a people whose whole meaning of life is taken from the saving event of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. This saving was experienced by them as an incredible act of love. Order was brought out of chaos. Distinctions were made that set them apart as the people of this creator God who in the beginning brought order out of chaos, and brought light into darkness. Joseph’s people knew God’s loving providence through events. Joseph’s dream was yet another event.

The Jewish history with God was one of bondage, liberation, and covenant. So Joseph knows what it is to be saved. Joseph follows the directions to name the child Jesus (In Jewish law if a man names a child it becomes legally his child). He names the child Jesus because He is to be a savior. Here is a problem:For the next two thousand years that name will embarrass people.

 It will embarrass themmuch more than Buddha or Mohammed or Moses. Mention it in a secular gathering—especially with the educated—and it will drop with a thud. The temperature will go down…or up. (It never stays the same.) Christians and non-Christians alike will become visibly ill-at-ease.

 Why is “Jesus” the most non-neutral name in the world?

 It is because Jesus is a sword; He divides. One cannot be neutral about Him. One either accepts Him or makes a deliberate decision to thrust something away… something in the heart. That “something” is the way, the truth, and the life.Why would anyone do that?

It is precisely because He is a savior…and we must admit the need for saving. This issue of being saved is a matter of the heart. Our hearts are made with two aims: to unite with what is loved and to avoid a break… to avoid the upsetting. Avoidance is stronger. And so we have a will to control. We prefer to save ourselves. We want to decide what we will be saved from and what we will be saved for.   

The primary reason Jesus is the most non-neutral and embarrassing name is that He is still alive today and truly present in every heart. No heart can fail to react, and react intensely, to that name.

God entered human history when He brought the Israelites out of Egypt and revealed Himself as a saving, loving, and faithful God. He revealed Himself through events.

All of history centers on the event of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is the fulfillment of a promise. The spirit of the bible is summed up in the word “Promise.” The events show us that His promise can be trusted because God is faithful to Himself. And so when we react to our experience of His saving—to the key events of our lives—it is essential that we be faithful to ourselves as the ones saved.   

Joseph is the patron of the Church because of his faithful obedience. But the greatest reason why he is the patron of the Church is because, as an Israelite, he and we must fulfill the essential condition for liberation: we must acknowledge and accept our bondage.Everything the child Jesus grows up to teach will be addressed to the heart. It is addressed to the heart because, as St. Augustine says, it is restless.

A restless heart is the second best thing in life. On Saturday, we’ll find out why.



Fourth Sunday of Advent at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: 2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-11, 16; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-38]

Who hasn't struggled at times to know God's will? How wonderful it would be to have a messenger clearly manifest exactly what God wants us to do, to free us from uncertainty! Mary's encounter with the angel did exactly that. But instead of making her life easier, that's when her life became really hard. Her acceptance of God's call required a great leap of faith into the darkness where her vocation would cost her dearly. Knowing God's will is both desirable and dreadful for what it may demand of us.

Mark Twain once said, “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand, but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” A story may help us grasp just how much knowing God's will demanded of Mary.

During WWII not only Jews but also disabled persons and gypsies were terribly persecuted by the Nazis. One gypsy family was part of a traveling circus in Poland. At the end of each performance the petite young teenage daughter would jump from a high wire with no net below and her father would catch her. One day early in the war, when she and her father were staying overnight in an apartment building, he went out to get some food, but did not return. She began to worry. Later a stranger came to the door with a message from her father. The Nazis had arrived. Their lives were in danger. They had to escape. It was too risky for her father to return by daylight, so he wanted her to lock the door, stay perfectly quiet, and let no one in. He would come under cover of darkness that night at 2:00 AM, and stand underneath the window of their third story apartment. She should jump and he would be there to catch her. The young girl was terrified. She didn't know the messenger. She was afraid and yet she believed. As the hours ticked by, her father did not return. Peeking outside she saw that the Nazis had indeed come to town. So, at 2:00 AM she quietly opened the window but couldn't see anything in the moonless night. She whispered, “Father…,” and then jumped into the silent darkness, and he caught her.1

The Annunciation was the beginning of Mary's problems. The announcement of her unique vocation in life raised more questions than it answered, and frightened her. A poem by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke may shed light on Mary's experience, described by St. Luke as “greatly troubled” and “afraid.” He writes:

     “Not that an angel entered scared her …
     just as others would not startle if a ray of sunlight …
     busied itself in the room,

     but that he was so utterly present,
     the angel bearing a young man's face,
     and turned to her,

     that his gaze and her raised eyes collided….
     Just she and he;

     looking and looked at,

     eye and feast for the eyes,….
     Behold, this frightens.

     And they were both frightened.”

When the angel drew near, as angels often do unseen, Mary saw and was utterly astonished, terribly afraid by this intimacy, as was he, that she might not believe, or might refuse the request. The message was unbelievable, and yet she was asked to believe and consent to become pregnant as Mother of the Savior, the Messiah, who would rule on the throne of King David forever. In Donatello's beautiful sculpture of the Annunciation, Mary draws back in surprise and fear, placing her hand across her breast as if to gasp, “Who me?” Like the little flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady, who is called to play the part of a refined Lady of wealthy means, Mary could say, “I'm just an ordinary woman, a little backwoods girl.” Not only that, but she was also a virgin who “knows not man.” The anxious angel's reply that the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High, would come upon her and therefore child would be called holy, the Son of God, stretched and pushed her faith beyond anything anyone had ever experienced. If the Child is the Son of God, to consent will make her the Mother of God. No gypsy girl, no human being, ever had to make an act of faith as extreme as this one.

St. Bernard, after centuries of Christianity, dramatizes the moment, writing, “We also, O Lady, await from your lips the sentence of mercy and compassion, we who are so miserably groaning under the sentence of condemnation. O Virgin, delay not to answer, … Say the word, why do you hesitate, make haste to open to Him.” It sounds so easy, but she must have known the harsh Jewish law of death by stoning for conceiving a child illegitimately. Why should they believe her? Could she expect them to believe that this ordinary woman, this little backwoods girl, conceived a Child divinely, and that he would be Savior of the world, whose rule would never end? Knowing God's will did not make Mary's life easier, but much harder. Without understanding anything clearly, she accepted everything completely, and leapt from the window of her heart into the darkness, into the arms of an unseen Father. But between her leap at the Annunciation and the time she was caught up in the Assumption, Mary's life was increasingly costly, culminating in a martyrdom of the heart at Jesus' crucifixion. Yes, knowing what God wants does not make life easier, but harder. Like bearing a child instead of aborting.

One of the essentials of greatness is the ability to make life-decisions in the present based on faith and prudence, and then to plunge into the darkness of the future consequences of those decisions without reserve, without regret, without recall. Mary is the model, the archetype, of courageous decision-making that consents to God's costly desires and plunges into His will. The sense of falling out of control is terribly frightful, but how sweet it will be to land in the arms of our Father!

Fourth Sunday of Advent at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Micah 5:2-5, Heb 10:5-10, Lk 1:39-45 ]

Father Stephen

Last month a television crew from Korea — Shin Seongwook, Shim Seunghyun, Lee Kyungsu, and Doo Seokgu — came to New Melleray to do a program about our monastic way of life to show on Christmas Eve. Although most Koreans are not Christians, Christmas Eve is a special night for them. For more than thirty years after the Korean War no one was allowed on the streets after midnight, except on Christmas Eve.

When Korea was divided, the first president of South Korea was a Christian. He made Christmas a national holiday even though Korea was predominately Buddhist. He also lifted the curfew on Christmas Eve, allowing the small Catholic population to celebrate Midnight Mass. But for most Koreans, not being Christians, it was a night for loud parties and drinking, a night to forget about the threat of invasion from the North. They could be out late and they did not have to work the next day. So, they celebrated by having noisy parties all night long.

The producers of the Sunday Special television program about New Melleray wanted to present our quiet, unhurried, prayerful life as a contrast to the competition and speed that is so widespread in Korea, especially in contrast to the superficiality of raucous Christmas Eve parties.

Yet, Christmas is a time for parties, for the fullest, deepest joy of which we are capable, because Christ came to save us from a danger much greater than war, the danger of losing our heavenly homeland and being separated from God forever. The announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary set her heart on fire with wonder and joy: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. Of his kingdom their will be no end.”

Mary, the first missionary, set out for a distant place — the hill country of Judah, a four day’s journey from Nazareth, to share the Good News with her cousin. She wanted to tell it upon the mountains, over the hills, and everywhere. When Elizabeth, the first person to be evangelized, heard Mary’s greeting she cried out with a great shout of joy. There was leaping, and dancing, and songs of praise: the first Christmas party. From this small beginning of a young teenager with an elderly woman, the story of the wonderful works of God in Jesus Christ began to transform the world.

An early gathering of Korean Catholics [click to enlarge]The people of Korea are a unique example of the transforming power of the Christmas Story. Most are not Christians, but they are like good soil, very receptive to the Word of God when it is planted in their hearts. Missionaries could not bring the Good News to Korea, as Mary did to Elizabeth, because its borders were closed to foreigners for several hundred years. Instead, like the Magi, wise men from Korea, in 1777, went to the nearest Bethlehem, Peking, China, where they found the Christ Child wrapped in the linen sheets of books written by Jesuit missionaries. We do not know what happened to the original Magi, but these modern wise men from the little “hermit kingdom” carried the Word of God home with them to study Christianity. Christ was born in their hearts by reading and prayer. Over the next 15 years this small community grew to 4,000 members before the first priest was able to enter Korea secretly from China.

And then the slaughter of the Innocents began. For almost a hundred years they endured wave after wave of persecution. Nothing reveals the seriousness of Christianity in contrast to the frivolity of the world as much as martyrdom. When the child in Elizabeth’s womb grew up, Herod cut off his head. When the child in Mary’s womb grew up, he was crucified. When the Church in Korea grew to 23,000, over 8,000 were put to death, one out of every three persons. The Church in Korea continued to grow: 50,000 by 1900, 150,000 by 1950. Almost three million by 1990. And in the last ten years another million Koreans have become Catholics.

Last month men again came from the East. Their journey half way around the world to the hill country along the Mississippi valley took two days — not by camels, but by flying through the air. Their Bethlehem was New Melleray, a house of bread entirely sweetened by the honey of Christ’s presence. They found the Christ child in human mangers, the hearts of monks. And today they told the story to millions.

Mary’s response to the angel changed the world. The way a handful of Korean wise men responded to the story of Christ they found in China has changed the lives of millions of Koreans today. And that is how it will always be. The way each of us responds to the Good News may influence the lives of thousands, and sometimes millions of people over the centuries. The consequences or our personal responses to Christ can become a great grace for the world. Now that is worth celebrating with a Christmas party! And the best celebration of all is our Eucharist.