Merry Christmas!!! Hope all of you readers are enjoying this wonderful season. For all Catholics you'll have noticed that gone are the purple linens and this morning (or last night) you saw white linens at Mass. It is now time to celebrate the birth of the Savior and look forward to his glorious return (this also applies to any Protestants). What better way to focus on Jesus to contemplate a piece of the Birth Narrative in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and meditate on His Second Coming as prophesied and written by John in the Apocalypse or Revelation. One last thing before we begin, I will be using the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible–based off of the St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate–during the entirety of this post. Now, let's contemplate a part of Matthew's telling of the Birth of Our Savior.
So Matthew begins his account of Jesus' birth with the genealogy from Adam on, but as it's a bunch of names, both interesting with all those pronunciations and monotonous, I will be skipping those verses. But here's a visual if you really are sad about them not being included in the reflection:
"Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with Child, of the Holy Ghost./ Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. / But when he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost./ And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people form their sins./ Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet saying: /
Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God is with us. / And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife. / And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus"(1:18-25).
These verses pack a punch on many levels. They show the virtue of Joseph who models true masculinity in a difficult situation. To consider the position God the Father put Joseph in is one that no other human man (or woman for that matter) probably can imagine. Well let's try for a minute. Your betrothed who has been gone for three months–or you been with three months–visiting her cousin whose heavily pregnant and ultimately gives birth comes home pregnant herself. Then here comes the kicker who impregnated her...the Holy Ghost (the Holy Spirit). As we can see this was quite difficult for Joseph to believe and at least he initially didn't believe it. In first century Judaism a woman who was found in adultery (pregnancy is an obvious sign) would be stoned. This situation of a woman caught in adultery (though Mary was not actually an adulterous but at the beginning of the Nativity Joseph can't comprehend the Holy Ghost impregnated her) comes up in Jesus' ministry–but that story is for another time. Not wanting to see her stoned, Joseph shows his masculine nature and chooses "to put [Mary] away privately" (Matt. 1:19) or in more bluntly he chose to divorce her. Joseph protects Mary which perfectly reflects the masculine desire to protect especially when it comes to women. While divorce will most likely scandalize many Christians, it was a form of protection from stoning. Not only that but it protected her family from disgrace as certainly a daughter caught in adultery would reflect on Sts. Anne and Joachim, Mary's parents. It may be seen as reflective of their success as parents and their effectiveness of raising a virtuous daughter. Despite this, it must have been a devastating choice to make– by this very decision Joseph loved (in the true sense) the Blessed Virgin– for Joseph would certainly be asked why he separated from Mary though he perhaps would have responded with a "none of your business." Now this is where God intervenes knowing his plan for salvation.
God chose to communicate his message both in a dream and through the words of an angel. I through God's use of a dream shows me that dreams can be messages from God. However, not every dream is necessarily a message from God, so for all practical purposes, I would be wise to ignore dreams as a rule. If indeed a dream is a message from God as was Joseph, God will reach out and show me (probably). Joseph's dream of the angel changes his approach totally to the situation at hand. He immediately responds God's message and messenger and takes Mary into his home. Now verse 25 is a bit controversial because of the phrase "Knew her not until" which some interpret to mean that Mary and Joseph had sex and Mary had other children other than Jesus therefore making the doctrine of Mary's perpetually virginity in the Catholic Church null and void. However, a note on this phrase in the Douay-Rheims translation explains the following (the quote is copied form DRBO.org:
" "Till she brought forth her firstborn son": From these words Helvidius and other heretics most impiously inferred that the blessed Virgin Mary had other children besides Christ; but St. Jerome shews, by divers examples, that this expression of the Evangelist was a manner of speaking usual among the Hebrews, to denote by the word until, only what is done, without any regard to the future. Thus it is said, Genesis 8. 6 and 7, that Noe sent forth a raven, which went forth, and did not return till the waters were dried up on the earth. That is, did not return any more. Also Isaias 46. 4, God says: I am till you grow old. Who dare infer that God should then cease to be: Also in the first book of Machabees 5. 54, And they went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, and offered holocausts, because not one of them was slain till they had returned in peace. That is, not one was slain before or after they had returned. God saith to his divine Son: Sit on my right hand till I make thy enemies thy footstool. Shall he sit no longer after his enemies are subdued? Yea and for all eternity. St. Jerome also proves by Scripture examples, that an only begotten son, was also called firstborn, or first begotten: because according to the law, the firstborn males were to be consecrated to God; Sanctify unto me, saith the Lord, every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, etc. Ex. 13. 2."
I find this to be a rather good explanation of the phrase...but this post is about Christmas not discussing if Christ had biological brothers and sisters (hmm topic of another post maybe). That tangent is now complete. Let's get on with Matthew's telling of the Nativity. Joseph's dream which allowed him to see the truth of what Mary said as to the means by which she became pregnant would not be the last time in which God spoke to Joseph through an angel in a dream. Joseph has another dream in Ch. 2 of Matthew before I dive into Joseph's second dream let me set the context in which it occurred.
As most are probably aware Matthew Chapter 2 tells the story of the Magi (aka the Wisemen). The Magi first arrive in Jerusalem seeking the newborn king of the Jews. When they approach King Herod asking for direction to find this "newborn king" Herod consults with the Jewish leaders (priests and scribes) to help him figure out the location of this new king. Herod would see this newborn king who is Jesus as competitor to the throne wanting this newborn king to be gone. As Matthew does relate that Herod told the Magi to report to him where they found this new king so he may show the new king due respect, however Herod's true intentions are not what he says. The Magi do in fact find the place where this new king, Jesus is . They give Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts after which God warns them in a dream to "not return to Herod" (Matt. 2:12). They follow this instruction taking a different path back to the East. At this juncture God sends Joseph an angel in a dream again to communicate an important (and this time dire) message.
"And after [the Magi] had departed, behold the angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him./ Who Arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod:/ That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: out of Egypt have I called my son (13-15).
Here again Joseph receives God's message and directly acts. Joseph fulfills the duty of father and husband to protect the family for the dream revealed Herod's true intention in sending the Magi to ascertain Jesus' location so as to come and kill him. For all involved, it was a difficult journey. The Seven Sorrows Rosary reflects on this journey from Mary's perspective in its second mystery. The Catholic company Hallow has this meditation on their blog for this mystery:
"Beloved Mother, who has suffered so much, give to us your courageous heart. Please pray for us to have strength so that we can be brave like you and accept with love the suffering God sends our way. Help us to also accept all the suffering we inflict upon ourselves and the suffering inflicted upon us by others. Heavenly Mother, you, in union with Jesus, purify our suffering so that we may give glory to God and save our souls (Hallow.com)."
While the Companions of the Cross include this meditation for the mystery in their pamphlet on the Seven Sorrows Rosary:
"O Mother of Sorrows, what pain filled your heart as you fled your home and country knowing that the tyrant Herod was intent on murdering your little Child whom you loved above all else. The hardships of travel, the long journey, and life as a refugee was nothing compared to the torment of such demonic malice directed toward Jesus. Through this bitter sword of sorrow obtain for us the grace never to risk the life of Jesus in our souls through deliberate sin" (stlb.org).
Hallow's meditation is complete petition it does recognize that the flight to Egypt caused Mary great suffering yet she accepted this suffering willingly and humbly. What exactly Mary's suffering was like–though I may never fully grasp this–comes out in the meditation given by the Companions of the Cross with "the hardships of travel, long journey, and life as a refugee." However, these as the meditation properly points out did not hold a candle to the suffering Mary endured as a result of the "demonic malice directed toward Jesus" via "the tyrant Herod [who] was intent on murdering" Jesus. I can appreciate that Mary felt this suffering to a greater degree than any pain of suffering I have experienced , especially not being a mother, for she was immaculately conceived and never sinned. Her pain in the flight to Egypt must have been excruciating in the truest sense. I therefore will always feel confident in turning to her in times of pain. While Joseph does not have a similar prayer (that I am aware of) dedicated to him, I also take a lot from his example in this situation. Joseph's actions portray the type of man I want to be the father of my children. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus away from the familiar because it is best, but I wonder if that was difficult to do as he also had to take his family to the place where their ancestors were enslaved for 400 years. No father would likely want to take his family to such a place, but Joseph does exactly this promptly as an act of obedience to God the Father. This doing the difficult because it is what is best is exactly what I want any man to do for the family I would have for him. God should be the one he follows daily not any other person or thing. I see in this part of the Nativity Joseph not shirking the duty of fatherhood even for a son who is not actually his (though this child's father is more important than any earthly father) and see that masculinity when properly ordered and acted upon is inspiring and good (not toxic as some today would try to tell us). I hope that Joseph's example inspires all men and boys learning how to be men to embrace authentic masculinity which doesn't shy away from duty or difficulty
After the relating of the Holy Family's flight, Matthew shares the sad event which is the slaughter of the holy innocents. These infants from 0-2 were slaughtered as Herod searched in vain for Jesus, his true target. These mothers and fathers surely experienced great terror, pain, and suffering. The trauma of this event must have made this time of the year a struggle for the rest of their lives. Many may feel the same as these unknown mothers, fathers, and families who lost a son, brother, nephew, and grandson. The Christmas season even though a celebration of Jesus' birth and anticipatory of his future return may not be one of joy for many. Any number of situations could make this season a time of immense suffering for people. No amount of reassurance that this is a time of great rejoicing will take away the pain of this time of year for some. I know I will keep all of these unknown souls in my prayers for healing will come and I hope that someday this season for anyone who finds suffering in this season will turn to one of abiding comfort and joy (unintentionally quoted God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, lol).
After some time God does call the Holy Family out of Egypt with another dream to Joseph. The angel this time tell Joseph to return to "the Land of Israel" because Jesus' life is no longer in danger. However, after hearing that Herod's son had taken the throne, Joseph chooses to take Mary and Jesus to Nazareth fulfilling a prophecy of "the prophets". No name is given for this prophecy breaking with the pattern seen thus far of giving the name of the prophet whom spoke the prophecy that is being fulfilled. Regardless, Joseph demonstrates the masculine virtue of protection of family. Although, Joseph makes an independent choice to not return from where the Holy Family departed, and in doing so seemingly breaks God's command to return from whence they came, Joseph's action shows great caution perhaps Herod's son would too seek Jesus' life. It was prudent of Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Nazareth in order to protect Jesus from a potential threat. He may have appeared to depart from God's wishes, but certainly God the Father does not despise a man for taking caution to protect a child (especially when this child happens to be God the Son). No more of Jesus childhood is related in Matthew so I will now pivot to the Holy Gospel according to Luke.
Luke's Nativity begins his Gospel with the relation of the announcement of the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist. Of course when Zachariah first hears that his barren wife will conceive he distrusts the messenger. The angel proclaims Zachariah will be silent until the birth of John because of this unbelief. Luke then writes:
"And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth./ To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary./ And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail full of grace, the Lord is with the: blessed art thou among women./ Who having heard, wast troubled at his saying, and thought with herself, what manner of salutation this should be./ And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God./ Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus./ He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of his father Jacob forever./And of his kingdom there shall be no end./And Mary said to the angel: How can this be done, because I know not man?/ And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee,. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God./ And
behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren:/ Because no words shall be impossible with God./ And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to they word. And the angel departed from her" (26-38).
Luke's gospel focus' on Mary in the beginning of the Nativity. It must have been well-known in the first century (and prior) that Mary was espoused (engaged) to Joseph prior to the Annunciation which is told here, for both Mathew and Luke state that it was so. I find Mary's response to Gabriel quite rational and understandable. Gabriel's greetings sounds like a riddle what does it mean to be "Full of Grace" or "blessed among women." Mary's lack of a verbal reaction represents that there isn't much that can be said in response to Gabriel's greeting. How can one find the proper words to respond to such a greeting? Here Luke also highlights Mary's contemplative nature which will continue throughout this Gospel (and arguably the rest of the Bible). Mary sets an example for all including me in not responding for it shows that prudence in speech is always necessary. Even though this greeting was strange Mary could have responded saying "go away" or "thank you" (awkwardly of course) or with some other words, but she responds with silence. I have over the years neglected to cultivate this very virtue of silence and witnessing Mary's silence towards Gabriel's greeting reminds me words are not always best. I would like strive throughout this coming year (liturgical and secular) to grow in silence as to imitate my heavenly mother. As Mary does not respond Gabriel continues revealing the meaning of his greeting. Which is astounding in and of itself. I find great mystery in it (as I should), but also great love in it.
Gabriel expounds his greeting and unveils the purpose of the Son Mary will bear. However, Mary having an obvious understanding on how pregnancy works asks the rational question of how this could possibly occur as she has never had intercourse with any man. Then Gabriel reveals that the third person of the Trinity will be the actor in conceiving the Son of God, Jesus in Mary's womb. Just as the cloud in Exodus covered the Ark of the (Old) Covenant in the Old Testament in the New Testament the Holy Spirit comes and overshadows the Ark of the New Covenant bringing forth the Son of God and savior of the world. Gabriel follows his answer to Mary's question with a message to Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, "who was called barren" (Lk 1:35), has indeed conceived and will herself have a son. Then Mary giver her fiat and consent to her role in God's plan for the salvation of the world. What a strong young woman!
Tradition tells us that Mary was most likely fourteen or fifteen at the time of the conception (and nativity) of Jesus. Mary shows great trust and faith in the Lord for someone so young. I cannot imagine at fourteen or fifteen and consenting to such a remarkable task–bringing into the world the Son of God and savior. Mary's fiat reminds me that the Lord's plans aren't always the same as mine. I must out of love submit to the Father's plans even if I don't fully understand them. Mary's words "Behold the handmaid of the Lord" (Lk 1:36) make me reflect on the truth that I am not my own (the theme of my first college retreat), the truth that I belong to God. I may not always reflect this in my life but Mary's words inspire me to do better to truly be a handmaid of the Lord.
Luke tells me and all readers that after the angel left Mary she immediately picked herself up and went to Elizabeth. Like Joseph in Matthew's account of the Nativity, Mary doesn't wait to act she leaves (maybe not directly after the angel leave) as soon as she hears Elizabeth has conceived which implies she may need help. Luke may not expound upon the journey to Elizabeth but Mary does make it safely to Elizabeth and Zachariah's
"And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:/ And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb./ And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should. come to me?/ For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leapt for joy./ And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord"(41-45).
The witness of Elizabeth and John shines forth in this passage. Here I see the great influence of the Holy Spirit. For even in utero, the Holy Spirit I would argue caused John to leap in Elizabeth's womb at Mary's hello. Here I can see that by John's leaping, the dignity of the unborn human being so often ignored today. The first human to respond, in joy, to the savior of mankind was a fetus, a baby, the savior's cousin, John. Again Mary is referred to as blessed. What a wonderful gift to Elizabeth that the Mother of God should come and visit her and she acknowledges this. She praises God for this privilege and rightly wonders at why her. I wonder if this beautiful visitation happened to emphasize that salvation was soon at hand for the world. John, the prophet who prepares the way and Jesus, the savior of the world, meet in utero as way to point to the beauty of the mystery of Incarnation and of John's birth as well. She praises Mary's faith in the message Mary received and confirms that all that Mary was told will come to pass. I love how this whole event becomes one big praise and thanksgiving to God. I admire how lowly Elizabeth acts towards Mary, but then how Mary turns around and responds not boasting of her position but praising God for his gifts. This prayer that Mary responds with is called the Magnificat which I will delve into on January 1st, 2022, when the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Mary the Mother of God. Mary returns to Nazareth after three months. Then Luke relates how Jesus' birth took place.
The story continues with the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus calling a census which takes Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph could find no rooms available in the local inns in Bethlehem and end up in a stable. Finally the time comes for the savior to make his entrance into human history as Luke writes: "And [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the in" (Lk. 2:7). Now, Luke tells about how nearby shepherds kept watch over their sheep. These shepherds were to get quite the shock this night as an angel appears to them. However, while at first they fear the angel this fear turns into great joy. Luke writes:
"And the angle said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people:/ For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David./ And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger./ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly army praising God, saying:/ Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will./ And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed unto us./ And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger./ And seeing, the understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child./ And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds./ But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart./ The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them" (10-20).
This visit of the shepherds makes me ponder how I myself approach those who are poor or outcast in society. I wonder did God choose to have the first people who visited Jesus, the Son of God be shepherds as a sign to the world that this baby came for everyone. I see in the visit of the shepherds God exalting these poor herders who were shunned by society at the time. This makes me think that I should not turn a blind eye to the poor, yet I should be prudent I can not donate all my money away nor can I simply treat the poor as some people who always readily help themselves giving no money at all. At this time while I'm in college If I feel that I have not the funds to donate to charities and other organizations to help the poor I need to seek other ways to extend a hand to the poor. This reading inspires me to take the idea of going to a soup kitchen and make it a reality. Noteworthy as well in this passage is that Mary exhibits the virtue of silence again as she "ponder[s the shepherds' words] in her heart" (Lk. 2:19). Mary's constant inner reflection shows the importance of contemplation. To a certain degree in Mary's nonverbal response to the shepherds emphasizes the mystery of this birth of Jesus and models for myself and all Christians how the Nativity should be approached with an attitude of reflection and contemplation in which the shocking reality of a God condescending to call back his people to him displays itself. Now, Luke concludes the overall narrative of Jesus' Nativity with Jesus' presentation in the temple. Here the prophet, Simeon and Prophetess, Anna are seen. Simeon plays a larger part in the story giving Mary a prophecy about the her fate in relation to her son. I will go into more detail about this prophecy in my Jan. 1 post. For now, I want to say that this prophecy found in Lk. 2: 34-35 demonstrates the degree to which Mary and Jesus were united spiritually though of course this wouldn't be fully seen until Calvary and Jesus' Passion to which this prophecy points.
Now that I have addressed the first coming of Christ, I would like to turn my attention to the Second Coming of Christ. Christmas should be a time where hearts are raised to and reminded that Christ will come again even if none know the exact moment of his return. This return will be triumphant and the time of .the final judgement. Before Christ's return all the forces of Satan will rear their heads causing havoc and persecuting those who believe in the truth. Christ will come in his Glory to cast Satan and the Anti-Christ (Satan's protege during the End Times) into Hell for all eternity. John recounts this vision in his Apocalypse writing:
"And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; And he that sat upon him was called faithful and true, and with justice doth he judge and fight./ And his eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many diadems, and he had a name written, which no man knoweth but himself./ And he was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood; and his is called, The Word of God,./ And the armies that are in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean./ And out of his mouth proceedeth a sharp two edged sword; that with it he may strike the nations. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness of the wrath of God the Almighty./ And he hath on his garment, and on this thigh written: King of Kings, and Lord of Lords./ And I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the birds that did fly through the midst of heaven: Come, gather yourselves together to the great supper of God:/ That you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of tribunes, and the flesh of might men, and the flesh of horse, and of them sit on them, and the flesh of all freemen and bondmen and of little and of great./ And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered together to make war with him that sat upon the horse, and with his army./ And the beast was taken, and with the false prophet, who wrought signs before him, wherewith he seduced them who received the character of the beast, and who adored his image. These two were cast alive into the pool of fire, burning with brimstone/ And the rest were slain by the sword of him that sitteth upon the horse, which proceedeth out his mouth, and all the birds were filled with their flesh" (11-21).
In this passage, I perceive the outcome of the final battle between Christ and Satan. Christ wins this battle. He comes as conqueror and just judge. Satan and the Antichrist both deserve the eternal fire of hell and that is what they receive at the end of this passage. It is apt that the first title for "he who sitteth upon the horse" (21), who is Christ, is The Word of God. I think of how John's Gospel begins when I see this title listed first. Jesus is the Word of God, the Word that speaks the eternal truth of salvation and justice. The beginning of this passage reminds me of how Gandalf rides in on Shadowfax (a white horse) in The Lord of the Rings to save some of the company from harm. I wonder if Tolkien kept this in his final manuscript because it was implicit reference to the Bible and to Catholicism–he removed all overt references to religion since it is set 4000yrs before Christ. I see that the term "eat the flesh of" appears and it makes me recall John 6. Why John 6? Well, Jesus uses a first person version of this phrase when he says to "eat his flesh and drink his blood". However, in context these phrases mean two different things. In John 6, Christ is speaking literally as this is a reference to the Holy Eucharist (which was instituted later at the Last Supper). While in this passage of John's Apocalypse, it appears to take the figurative meaning that would have been common at the time, which meant to utterly annihilate someone in battle. Christ has done this with the Cross and will do so at the end of time when Satan is cast into Hell for eternity. Though the final judgement causes some fear in me for I will see the true state of wretchedness in my soul, it also brings me great hope for if I stay steadfast to the Christ and his teachings then I hope to see heaven in all its splendor. So, while I may celebrate today the birth of Christ and the redemption of the world from sin, I also look towards the day he will come again in glory and usher in eternity. May Christ guide your way today and always. Merry Christmas!!!