Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Prayers for today: A little child is born for us, and he shall be called the mighty God; every race on earth shall be blessed in him. (Is 9:6; Ps 71:17)

Father, we contemplate the birth of your Son. He was born of the Virgin Mary and came to live among us. May we receive forgiveness and mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

St. John of Kanty (1390?-1473)

John was a country lad who made good in the big city and the big university of Kraków, Poland. After brilliant studies he was ordained a priest and became a professor of theology. The inevitable opposition which saints encounter led to his being ousted by rivals and sent to be a parish priest at Olkusz. An extremely humble man, he did his best, but his best was not to the liking of his parishioners. Besides, he was afraid of the responsibilities of his position. But in the end he won his people’s hearts. After some time he returned to Kraków and taught Scripture for the remainder of his life. He was a serious man, and humble, but known to all the poor of Kraków for his kindness. His goods and his money were always at their disposal, and time and again they took advantage of him. He kept only the money and clothes absolutely needed to support himself. He slept little, and then on the floor, ate sparingly, and took no meat. He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, hoping to be martyred by the Turks. He made four pilgrimages to Rome, carrying his luggage on his back. When he was warned to look after his health, he was quick to point out that, for all their austerity, the fathers of the desert lived remarkably long lives.

John of Kanty is a typical saint: He was kind, humble and generous, he suffered opposition and led an austere, penitential life. Most Christians in an affluent society can understand all the ingredients except the last: Anything more than mild self-discipline seems reserved for athletes and ballet dancers. Christmas is a good time at least to reject self-indulgence.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (1.57-66)

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, No! He is to be called John. They said to her, There is no-one among your relatives who has that name. Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, His name is John. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbours were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, What then is this child going to be? For the Lord's hand was with him.

The hand of the Lord
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

In their Gospels, St Mark and St John begin with the inauguration of the public ministry of our Lord and his prophetic sanction by John the Baptist. The first two chapters of St Luke’s Gospel provide, we might say, the backdrop for this entry of Christ into the public sphere. The circumstances of the birth of both Christ and John are described in detail and some details are given of their youth. It is a providential harbinger of what is to come. Our Gospel today is of a piece with this, and it is made clear that from the first, John was chosen as a prophet of the Most High. Abraham was called at the time of his manhood, as was Moses. Samuel was called as a child, and David as a youth. St Luke is at pains to show that the hand of the Lord was with John from before his birth. It was evident to those close to the family that God had marked this child with special favour, and, they began to surmise, with a special mission. Signs had been given of this special marking — Zechariah had returned home from Temple service, now dumb. The parents, beyond childbearing, now had a son. Inexplicably, they separately wanted their child called by a name unprecedented in the family. And lo! At the very point of Zechariah’s announcement of the child’s name, he begins to speak, and he praises God. The attention of all is drawn to the new-born child. God is pointing to him as one whom he has chosen — but for what? What will this child be? What is he to do? It is clear to the circle of friends and relatives that there is here a child of destiny and the wonderment gradually spreads “throughout the hill country of Judea”. Perhaps a rumour spread more widely and people remembered. “All who heard about this wondered.” The child grew, and became strong in spirit. We are simply told that “he lived in the desert until the day when he made his appearance in Israel.” It seems that he left his family home and village — perhaps when his parents died — and lived “in the wilderness.” Some have thought he may have joined the Essenes. We do not know. But from the first God was forming the child for his work.

One of the distinctive features of a genuine religious faith is belief in a particular providence. That is to say, an indicator that a person’s belief in God is real is the belief that he is caring for me, me! — and not just for the world or for people in general. It is generally accepted that the prevailing (religious) philosophical position of the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth century was what has been called Deism. At times Deism is understood to mean that God was regarded as beginning the world, but as rarely if ever involved in its processes. It would be more correct to say that Deism held that belief in a Creator (and religious truth in general) can be determined using reason and observation of the natural world alone, without a need for either faith or organized religion. It tended to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that is not altered either by his intervening in the affairs of human life or by suspending the natural laws of the universe. Revealed religion was discounted and one result was a loss of a sense that God is caring in a special way for me. The course of my life and the circumstances that shape it tended to be seen as simply the upshot of the laws of the world — all of which, of course, were admitted to be in the hands of God. But what was said of John in our Gospel passage today is not what the deist would think is in any way typical: that the hand of the Lord was upon him. But on the contrary, this indeed is typical: the hand of the Lord is upon each of us. This is not expressed in miraculous circumstances as it was in the case of John and Christ in the first chapter of St Luke, but it is the case nevertheless. The hand of the Lord is upon each of us in all the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. And in fact, even in the life of John, Mary, Joseph and Christ himself, the hand of the Lord was upon them precisely in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. Miraculous circumstances were uncommon. The ordinary life was the norm — and it was in this arena that the hand of the Lord was upon them.

In all the difficulties of life, in all the sadness and frustration and the joys, let us learn to see the hand of the Lord upon us. The saints were able to see that, in both the good times and the bad, God was caring for them. As St Paul writes in one of his Letters, all things come together for the good of those who love God. God’s providence is very particular — his care for us is particular to each of us. It is not just a care for the human race in general. God loves me! As St Paul writes, Christ loved me and gave himself up for me. The hand of the Lord is truly upon each of us.

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