Friday, December 18, 2009

Prayers today: He who is to come will not delay; then there will be no fear in our hands, because he is our Saviour. (Heb 10:37)

Father, you show the world the splendour of your glory in the coming of Christ, born of the Virgin. Give to us true faith and love to celebrate the mystery of God made man. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,...

Blessed Pope Urban V (1310-1370)

In 1362, the man elected pope declined the office. When the cardinals could not find another person among them for that important office, they turned to a relative stranger: the holy person we honour today. The new Pope Urban V proved a wise choice. A Benedictine monk and canon lawyer, he was deeply spiritual and brilliant. He lived simply and modestly, which did not always earn him friends among clergymen who had become used to comfort and privilege. Still, he pressed for reform and saw to the restoration of churches and monasteries. Except for a brief period he spent most of his eight years as pope living away from Rome at Avignon, seat of the papacy from 1309 until shortly after his death. He came close but was not able to achieve one of his biggest goals — reuniting the Eastern and Western churches. As pope, Urban continued to follow the Benedictine Rule. Shortly before his death in 1370 he asked to be moved from the papal palace to the nearby home of his brother so he could say goodbye to the ordinary people he had so often helped.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (1.5-25)

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. And they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well on in years. Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Zechariah asked the angel, How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years. The angel answered, I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time. Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. The Lord has done this for me, she said. In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.

The Grandeur of the Ordinary
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

If we turn to the Gospel of St John, as soon as the eternal Word of God is introduced in the Prologue (1:1-5), so is John the Baptist (1: 6-8), and much of the first chapter is given over to his ministry. Our Gospel today is from St Luke. Having introduced his Gospel to the reader (1: 1-4), St Luke immediately brings forward the figure of St John the Baptist. A lengthy portion of his first chapter is devoted to the conception and birth of John the Baptist. In our Gospel today we are told how the Angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah the birth of his great son. But let us notice a detail explicitly mentioned by the Angel that is often overlooked. It is the role of Zechariah’s prayer. We read that “an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” Of course, the person and ministry of John was part and parcel of the preordained plan of God — indeed, our Lord said that he was the Elijah who would come again, and the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi. Nevertheless, the prayer of Elizabeth and Zechariah was an important part of the implementation of that divine plan. The angel implies that the birth of John is in response to Zechariah’s prayer: “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” It seems that the holy couple had been long praying for this favour, even despite their advanced years. They were excellent instances of Old Testament religion. St Luke tells us that “Both of them were upright (dikaioi — righteous, just) in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” The word “upright” is the same as that used of St Joseph the husband of the virgin Mary (dikaios — Matt 1:19). Yet despite their blameless life they had a life-long sorrow. They had no child, despite their prayers for offspring. But they remained faithful to God and continued with their prayer. As it turns out, their prayer and their fidelity were essential elements in the fulfilment of the saving plan of God.

Perhaps our minds turn back to another great prophet of the Old Testament, Samuel. We read at the beginning of the first book of Samuel that Hannah remained year after year without child and was profoundly grieved. In her heartfelt prayer she prayed for a male child, and her prayer is given in the first chapter. The Lord answered her prayer and she conceived, and gave birth to one who was great before the Lord. Samuel her son “grew up and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect. Thus all Israel from Dan to Beersheba came to know that Samuel was an accredited prophet of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:19-20). Hannah’s prayer, the prayer of one who was truly devoted to the Lord, had an important place in the implementation of the saving plan of God. Samuel was the greatest of Israel’s judges, and he anointed first Saul, and then David to be king. David, in turn, was the ancestor of the Messiah. This turn in salvation history may be said to have pivoted on the prayer of Hannah. So too, in a sense, the life and ministry of the John the Forerunner pivoted on the prayer of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer was heard and John began his existence. It is an indication that in the plan of God much depends on seeming little things, such as the persistent prayer for a particular favour, offered up by those who truly love God in obedience. Another little thing that was so crucial in salvation history was the consent given to the Angel soon after the event narrated in today’s Gospel. I refer to the consent of the Virgin Mary to the announcement by the Angel that in God’s plan she was to be the mother of the Messiah. “Be it done to me according to your word,” the Virgin replied. That simple reply, expressing such incomparable and never-failing obedience, was an essential pin that enabled the divine plan to proceed. Our Gospel today presents us with an otherwise obscure couple from among the chosen people, humbly living lives of obedience to God. As is revealed in the words of the angel, their prayer was very important indeed. Let that be a reminder of the importance of all the little things that make up the ordinary life. All have their dignity, all have their place in God’s plan.

Let us be filled with a sense of the gift of life and all that it has brought, with all its needs, its disappointments, its sorrows and its joys. In whatever situation we find ourselves, let us turn that situation into an occasion whereby God is honoured and glorified. Every need we have has its importance. Every prayer we pray has its importance. All our sufferings can be turned to God’s use. Let the example of Elizabeth and Zechariah remind us again of the grandeur of the ordinary life.

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