“Out of Egypt I called my son”

The angel of the Lord sent Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt for safety, and acting out of faith they did as the angel instructed. There’s a lesson for us all in Matthew 2:13-18.

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son“.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.”

What can we personally take away from this passage from Matthew? Perhaps it is to try to relate to how much a struggle this was for the Holy Family. We all have struggles. At many times in our lives, we are called on to do things that are contrary to our natural inclinations, yet we must cross a line and make a decision. For Joseph, it was to believe in his dream, in the command given him by the angel of the Lord to flee to Egypt. For Mary, it was to trust in her new husband and remember the assurances given her by the angel of the Lord about the future of her new son. For both, it was to trust God to protect them in this radical change of course, leaving all that they knew to escape persecution and protect their son.

We aren’t the Holy Family. We haven’t been visited by the angel of the Lord. But the Lord has assured us in the Gospels that we are in His care when we have faith. It’s sometimes hard to have faith, especially when we face horrible danger or difficulty. Perhaps what we can take from this passage is the example of faith and action shown by the Holy Family. They trusted God. Often in the Gospels Jesus cures or brings back to life people who have shown great faith or whose families have shown great faith. He also shows compassion for those sinners who show faith and repentance.

Life can seem like a journey, crossing borders we are sometimes reluctant to cross but are forced to by circumstance. It is by having faith – trusting God – that we find our way back across those borders to safety. God is compassionate and merciful, full of love. With that love, there is nothing we cannot accomplish. It just requires our faith. Then we, too, can be called back “out of Egypt.”

 

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“He gave power to become children of God”

On the Christmas we celebrate, God gave us the power to become the children of God, as explained in John 1:1-18.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.

But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation
nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision
but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
John testified to him and cried out, saying,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’”
From his fullness we have all received,
grace in place of grace,
because while the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.

Reflecting on this passage, two sections pop out at me. The second line of the second section, “he gave power to become children of God,” and the last three lines of the second section, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.”

God is not standoffish. He has always been there for His people. First, His chosen people, the Jews, and then for the rest of us who believe. Through His Son, the Father gave us the power to become children of God. We can choose to be His children. It says right there in the Gospel of John that we have the free will to choose. And I believe He works everyday to help us make that choice.

Those last three lines are so important, too. Moses didn’t see God, he saw a fiery bush. Elija didn’t see God, he heard him in a whisper. Zachariah, Joseph, and Mary didn’t see God, they saw and angel of the Lord. “No one has ever seen God,” says John in this passage. But the Son, Jesus the Christ,  “who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.” Mary and Joseph saw Jesus. The disciples and apostles saw Jesus. And we read about Jesus in the Gospels — we read His words, read about His works, hear His parables and lessons. And we hear Jesus speak of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Through His life, Jesus revealed God to us. In previous passages we know that Jesus said that to know the Father is to know Jesus and to know Jesus is to know the Father. And it is an intimate portrait of a God who loves us and who cares for us and heals us.

So often, God is portrayed as a lightning wielding, fear casting, vengeance seeking, angry patriarch that we’d better not cross. That is the God of the Old Testament. When we witness the God revealed by Jesus, we see a loving father caring for His children. Sure, the Father wants His children to behave, but more than that He wants them to be healthy and caring and compassionate, merciful and sharing, loving as He loves them and loving His other children. And so, rather that petulant tenants of the world God created, He gave us all the power, through His loving Son, to become His loving children. And isn’t that a wonderful gift to receive on the birthday of His Son?

“I proclaim to you good news of great joy”

Once again the angel of the Lord appears, this time announcing to shepherds the birth of the Christ Child, as we read in Luke 2:1-14.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Glory to God! A savior was born on that day in Bethlehem, a savior who is Christ and Lord. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. It is good news of great joy.  This is the day we celebrate today. Merry Christmas.

Peace be yours this day as you celebrate among those with whom you are blessed to be close. Joy be yours as you rejoice in your relationship with God, who is almighty and compassionate and merciful and loving. The love of Christ be yours, be yours to share.

“How can this be?”

What is your “tone of voice” when you respond to God? In Luke 1:26-38, we find what may have been the Blessed Virgin’s tone and how it pleased the Lord.

In the sixth month,
the angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
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,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mary said to the angel,
How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

Tone of voice is always so important in what someone says. The other day we read that Zachariah showed doubt in what the angel of the Lord told him about his wife, Elizabeth, becoming pregnant despite her advanced age. And the angel of the Lord punished him. Here, the Blessed Virgin asks, “How can this be?” when Gabriel announces the good news that she will bear the Christ Child, yet he doesn’t punish her. I imagine her tone of voice to be of innocence and wonder rather than disbelief.

Throughout the Gospel stories, Mary shows great faith in her relationship with God and with her son. She must have been a very special child when she was given this news and woman as she watched her son grow.

Faith can be trying and fickle. But Mary is always steadfast, even in the most trying of times. She always gives herself up to God, trusting God’s will. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done according to your word.” Such faith! Such trust. Such willingness to let God work through her and not worry about the consequences.

Mary can be a model for us. We don’t know what God’s plan is for us, what part God plans for us in His bigger picture of the world, but we need to be confident that we fit into it somehow. And like Mary, we need to be confident that whatever that plan is, if we just give ourselves to God and do His will, He will take care of us. For Mary, the reward was to be taken up body and soul (her assumption) into Heaven at the end of her life. For us, loving God and doing His will, following His teachings, means entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Mary as model means not resisting God’s will. It means learning what that will is and trusting Him in doing it.

Jesus talks in the Gospels about being in faith like children. Children are very trusting, very eager to please. I have a feeling that was how Mary’s faith was. And we should try to emulate that. Look up to God with childlike wonder, adoration, and love. Let that be our tone of voice when He asks of us or tells us something. Wonder and joy.

“How shall I know this?”

When God sends you a message, you listen. So we learn in Luke 1:5-25.

In the days of Herod, King of Judea,
there was a priest named Zechariah
of the priestly division of Abijah;
his wife was from the daughters of Aaron,
and her name was Elizabeth.
Both were righteous in the eyes of God,
observing all the commandments
and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren
and both were advanced in years.

Once when he was serving as priest
in his division’s turn before God,
according to the practice of the priestly service,
he was chosen by lot
to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense.
Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside
at the hour of the incense offering,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him,
standing at the right of the altar of incense.
Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,
because your prayer has been heard.
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
and you shall name him John.
And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
He will drink neither wine nor strong drink.
He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,
and he will turn many of the children of Israel
to the Lord their God.
He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah
to turn the hearts of fathers toward children
and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous,
to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

Then Zechariah said to the angel,
How shall I know this?
For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
And the angel said to him in reply,
“I am Gabriel, who stand before God.
I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk
until the day these things take place,
because you did not believe my words,
which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah
and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary.
But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them,
and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.
He was gesturing to them but remained mute.

Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home.

After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived,
and she went into seclusion for five months, saying,
“So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit
to take away my disgrace before others.”

Poor Zechariah. He shows a moment of doubt and Gabriel  rends him speechless and unable to talk. Fortunately, God fulfills Zechariah’s prayers anyway and John the Baptist is born.

What a contrast in stories between the faith of Joseph and Mary, and that of Zechariah. Both Joseph and Mary, who are visited by the angel of the Lord (Mary is visited by Gabriel; Joseph is visited in a dream by the angel of the Lord, although scripture doesn’t identify that angel specifically as Gabriel), show no lack of faith. They immediately believe the angel and give themselves unto to God’s will. Zechariah, on the other hand,  questions the angel, because of his age and that of his wife. Never look a gift-giver in the mouth, so to speak. Nothing is beyond the power of God to accomplish, yet Zechariah doubts Him.

Here is a lesson for us all. When we are visited by an angel, we need to listen. When we are given a gift by God, we need to accept it. And when we face the impossible, we need to accept it, for it is the will of God. Jesus tells us that with true faith we can move mountains. Zechariahs shows that with God’s will, the old and barren can produce children. Who knows what we are capable of if we but accept God’s gifts.

“How shall I know this?” Listen to God, for He will send you a message.

“God is with us”

The Holy Family unites to bring us Jesus, and so God is with us. So we learn in Matthew 1:18-24.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel
,

which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.

This is a beautiful story of the Holy Family’s beginning. Mary is betrothed to Joseph but is found to be with child. He is a good man, not wanting to shame Mary; while still not wanting to bring shame onto his family, he decides to divorce her quietly. Then the angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and explains her pregnancy and tells him not to be afraid to make Mary his wife. And being the man of faith that he is, Joseph takes Mary into his home.

A couple of things strike me about this passage of the Gospels. One is how faithful Joseph is, not unlike Mary. He is blessed by a visit from the angel of the Lord and he acts out of pure faith. The second is what a good man he is, not wanting to bring shame on Mary even before he knows the source of her pregnancy. Joseph is a good and decent man. God chose him wisely and he chose Mary wisely to be the parents of His Son.

We don’t know much about Joseph from the Gospels. At a warning from the angel of the Lord, he whisks Jesus and Mary off to Egypt because there is the danger that Herod will kill Jesus. He raises Jesus as his own son, teaching Him his own trade, carpentry. Joseph is worried right along with Mary when at the age of 12 Jesus is missing in the caravan returning from Jerusalem, and Joseph rushes back with Mary to find Him in the big city. But other than that, there are few details about the man God chose to be Jesus’ human dad.

Yet, here is the kernel of the story that begins for us in the story of Jesus (“God saves” or “God is salvation”), the story of a virgin who will bear a son and they shall call him Emmanuel (“God is with us”).

(Incidentally, I wondered why the angel told them to name him Jesus but scripture foretold that they would name him Emmanuel. Looking it up, in the latter, “they will name him” means the people will call him, in the same sense that people often ascribe a moniker to someone for what he or she has done or how he or she performs, like calling Babe Ruth “The King of Swat.”)

And there are two key messages to his “name” that are very important.

One is that Jesus is here to save us. Save us from what? From damnation, certainly. But also save us from ourselves, our tendency to do things our own way when God tells us to do it another. When we act against God’s will, we are being rebellious, we are not acting in faith with God. That’s being faithless. Time and again, Jesus tells those he cures, “It is your faith that has saved you.” God gives us laws by which to live. What are the most important laws? To love — to love God, to love one another.

The other is that in Jesus, God is with us. He came among us physically as the Son of God in the form of man, and He often refers to Himself as Son of Man. He lived as we live, suffered as we suffer, ate as we eat, feels as we feel, saw the sun shine, felt the rain pour, smelled the flowers bloom, tasted foods, probably got a little heady drinking wine, all as we do. He did all things that we do except sin. He became human and lived the human experience and then died the human experience for us.

Why? Jesus didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk. He put his money where his mouth was, to use two very common idioms. Because we can relate to His experience and better appreciate His sacrifice when it is so close to our own. He loved us enough to be like us and rather than simply come and go, He suffered a horrific death on the cross. Then He conquered death and returned to lead the way to resurrection that we might follow. Truly a gift of Biblical proportions.

And all this began when Mary and Joseph accepted their being chosen by God as Jesus’ human parents. And so, for the liturgical calendar, the story begins.

One final point. We believe as Christians that Jesus is with us in spirit. If you’re a Catholic, you also believe that Jesus is present in the Holy Eucharist and the wine made blood. Some Protestant faiths believe versions of that. Once Jesus is in our lives, He never leaves us. God is with us.

“Which of the two did his father’s will?”

Who is doing the Father’s will? In Matthew 21:28-32, we read Jesus’ lesson to the chief priests and elders of the people, once more reminding them – and us – what it means to do God’s will.

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
“What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’
The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’
but afterwards he changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.
Which of the two did his father’s will?
They answered, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the Kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

This is an existential question for the Church at large today: Who is actually doing the Father’s will? The person who quotes the laws and holds them above others, while falling short himself? Or the one who falls short of the laws, yet hears God’s word and seeks to live better? The one who condemns the least infraction, or the one who loves despite infractions? Who pleases God most, the one who displays himself as perfect in the eyes of God, or the one who humbles himself before God as a poor sinner?

Jesus has been pretty clear on these questions. In scripture, we see that God is not impressed with those who parade themselves around as pious and self-righteous. We see that He condemns not the sinner, but the impostor. And He saves His greatest condemnation for those who rail against others instead of loving them.

How do we treat one another? Not just those who believe as we do, not just those who live as we think they should live, not just those who look like we look or speak like we speak, but who are none the less the children of God? Jesus condemned those who put themselves above others, time after time, in example after example. And Jesus lived a life serving others, providing an example of how we are to treat others among us.

Some in the public eye parade around with signs proclaiming, “God hates” one group or another. I’m pretty sure Jesus never once used the word “hate.” In fact, just the opposite; he carefully used the word “love.” We are to love: God and one another. That is God’s will. Rather than judging one another, our job is to judge whether we are loving enough.