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What’s Happening !

 Fulfillment of Prophecy

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December 22, 2019

4th Sunday of Advent (A)
(Is 7:10-14; Mt 1:18-24)

When Matthew explains the extraordinary circumstances of the birth of Jesus Christ, he appeals to one of the greatest, if not the greatest, prophecies of the Old Testament: Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

There are hundreds of prophecies in the Old Testament that describe and prepare for the Messiah, but none quite like this one. Isaiah himself prefaces it in a very explicit way, as we heard in the first reading. He goes to the king at the time, Ahaz, and challenges him to ask God for a sign, to perform a miracle. “And let this miracle,” he says, “be high as the heavens and deep as sheol.” In other words, let this miracle be the greatest thing possible, something greater than the whole cosmos.

The king defers. But what, in retrospect, could he ask for? How can any man know what such a miracle would be? Anything man could conceive would still be limited by his concept of the universe. (For that matter, such a miracle is even beyond the ability of the highest angel in heaven or hell to conceive). Isaiah is challenging Ahaz to rise to the level of God, or perhaps humbling him for daring to think too much of himself.

Isaiah tells him not to worry, because God himself will give this sign, and then he proceeds to articulate the prophecy, word for word as he has received it from the mouth of the Lord: “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

That a virgin should conceive a son would certainly be a great miracle (presuming this prophecy is being spoken literally, but many people would interpret “virgin” to simply mean a young woman about to be married). But even if the prophecy referred to a miracle of nature by which a child is conceived through a special power of God, it is still not clear how that would be something higher than the highest heavens, and deeper than Sheol. It is still a miracle very much within the universe, and within nature. Perhaps it is the second part that makes it something outstanding: the child to be born will be called “Emmanuel,” a Hebrew name which means, as St. Matthew explains to his Greek audience, “God is with us.” Here too, however, it remains ambiguous, because many prophets and holy men received names that referred to God in some way (Isai-Jah, Jeremi-Jah, Ezeki-El, Dani-El, etc.). The exact meaning of this prophecy, and how it is the greatest possible miracle God can accomplish, will remain to be revealed only when it is actually fulfilled.

Thus it is that prophecy is both direct and clear, and at the same time hidden and obscure. Thus it is that its fulfillment confirms the prophecy by actually revealing its full meaning, unveiling and completing it. Only with the coming of the Messiah, does the Old Testament become clear.

What God prophesied through Isaiah he fulfilled in Mary, in a literal way. Exactly what Isaiah said, happened: a virgin conceived. Mary and Joseph were the first to encounter the great sign prophesied by Isaiah, and each of them required the visit of an Archangel to appreciate how this child was not conceived in the ordinary course of nature, but by the Holy Spirit. God was intervening to accomplish something higher than nature.

And what God prophesied through Isaiah he also fulfilled in a literal way, when he said the child to be born would be “Emmanuel,” God-with-us. Here is something greater than the heavens, deeper than the abyss. Here is something no man or angel, not even the highest angel in heaven or hell, could begin to conceive or comprehend: God who made the world, entered the world; God who created man in His image, became man, born as a baby.

Everything God said through Isaiah was true and exact. Yet until the Messiah actually was born and revealed to be Son of God by his miracles, death, and Resurrection, those words of Isaiah would remain obscure, and unintelligible. Now they are seen in their full splendor, and all creation is indeed humbled.

Two thousand years later we continue to marvel. It is not possible to understand how God could become man, how the one “through whom all things were made” can be born as a helpless baby. There is no created mind that can comprehend. This is a sign that confounds the haughty and proud, but brings joy to the humble. Christmas is an invitation to contemplate, marvel, and be in awe of the greatness of God. There is nothing greater or more profound than what we behold, with Mary and Joseph, in the crib at Bethlehem.

With them to lead and guide us, let us too, come and behold him. And though we do not pretend or presume to offer explanation, let us invite others to see something that God has done, a sign higher than the heavens, and deeper than the earth.

Rev. Glen Mullan

What’s Happening !

In Prison

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December 15, 2019

3rd Sunday of Advent (A)
(Mt 11:2-11)

While in prison, John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. John the Baptist was the one who first recognized the Messiah, when the Holy Spirit came on Jesus in his baptism. Is John now doubting?

This is unlikely, and John asks the question more for his followers than for himself, so that they might come to see what he already knows: Jesus is the Messiah, and through him the signs of the Kingdom are being revealed. John is helping his own disciples recognize that he is passing away, while Jesus whom they must now follow, is increasing.

Nevertheless, even though John does not doubt the Lord, the news from Jesus is a consolation and confirmation for him in his time of trial. Shortly after the baptism of Jesus, John was arrested for having spoken against king Herod’s unlawful marriage to Herodias, his sister-in-law. At the very high point of his life’s mission, which is to “prepare the way of the Lord,” John is taken away from his mission. At the very moment of welcoming the groom for the wedding, he the best man cannot participate in the celebration, due to his arrest. The suffering of this imprisonment must have been profound; the darkness, the sadness, the regret.

The message sent to him by Jesus is a confirmation of his life, and a source of profound peace that enables John to accept his situation as part of God’s plan. He who witnessed publicly to thousands of people through fiery preaching now witnesses in obscurity, in silent pain and suffering.

In our parish [and every parish] there are a large number of homebound parishioners, who due to the debilitation of old age or sickness are not able to get out and go to church. Many of these parishioners were here every Sunday, they were once very active, serving in many capacities. Now they are almost forgotten, and their contact with the outside world is increasingly limited. They are imprisoned, like John.

Like John, they undergo the trial of questioning the meaning of this isolation, and strive to accept it humbly according to God’s will. It is incumbent on the church to visit these imprisoned, with the Advent message of hope; to let them know that the Kingdom of God flourishes, and that their silent witness contributes to that flourishing. That in fact, their prayer and sacrifice is the indispensible source of the fruitfulness of parish life. God sees the hidden witness and character of those who suffer in this way, and accepts their martyrdom as a pleasing gift.

Rev. Glen Mullan

What’s Happening !

Make Straight His Paths

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December 8, 2019

2nd Sunday of Advent (A)
(Mt 3:1-12)

In elementary school we had workbooks without lines. As we needed to do exercises, practicing words and letters, we had to manually draw the lines on the paper. And this required a ruler, because it was impossible to draw a straight line by ourselves.

In the task of preparing for the Lord’s coming, the spiritual exercises likewise require a ruler, and this is John the Baptist. It is his role, as Isaiah prophesies, to “make straight the paths of the Lord” (Mt 3:3). The role of John the Baptist is an important one, and it continues in our lives today through the authority of the Church. By means of God’s law, teaching, and discipline, the Church helps us to rule, or order our lives correctly, a task we could not accomplish by ourselves.

Left to our own efforts, we inevitably live crooked, disordered lives. We veer off course, we constantly fail to avoid the pitfalls of vices and achieve the balance of virtue.

Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas, a time to straighten our paths, and straighten up our lives. As John the Baptist did 2000 years ago, so we must do today.

First, we must make confession of our sins and repent, renewing the grace of baptism that first made us children of God and upright in His sight. This is what John did by his “pre-sacrament” of baptism in the Jordan after confessing sin. We must make every effort to go to confession this Advent, and look to this sacrament as a means of straightening what is crooked in us.

Second, we must dedicate ourselves to a time away from distractions. John made the people come out to him in the desert, leaving the towns and villages. There he could lead them in prayer and reflection on their lives, so that their baptism would be a real conversion. He was severely critical of the Pharisees, who though they were extremely religious, were perfunctory in their prayer and worship. Sin creeps into our lives when we become lazy and fall into habits of merely “going through the motions.”

Advent requires real renewal of our prayer, and a true examination of our life on the spiritual level. Therefore we must find the time to avoid distractions, and escape the hectic frenzy of activity which seems to characterize this time of year.

To “make straight his paths” will likely require some exterior changes in our schedule and behavior, to remove obstacles which keep us from God, and God from ourselves. For instance, adjusting our lifestyle so that prayer and worship are not compromised or pressured by other activities. And it will likely require some interior changes, such as dealing with impatience or anger.

Straightening the paths between ourselves and God will go hand in hand with straightening the paths with others, with family, “my neighbor.” Love of God and fellow man are inseparable. The primary guide for our Advent spiritual tasks is the harmony that needs to be achieved with the other people in my life. As Isaiah says in the first reading, “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, and the cow and the bear shall be neighbors” (Is 11:6-9).

The role of John the Baptist continues today through the work of the Church: the ministry of clergy, the preaching of Scripture, the teaching of sacred doctrine, the celebration of sacraments. Let us rule our lives accordingly, ordering them by God’s law, and opening up the direct path for God to come and dwell within us, among us.

Rev. Glen Mullan