Sunday, January 30, 2011

Long haul

This photo was taken by my aunt, Carol Wagner of Deshler, Ohio, who was here last week with many other relatives and friends from northwest Ohio to celebrate my solemn profession. Pictured are two other guests, Jim and Bette Gerschutz of Custar, Ohio. Jim, otherwise known as "Chicken Man" (he has perfected a hilarious impression of a strutting, clucking chicken, culminating in a rooster crow that could shake the rats out of the rafters two states away), is the cousin of my late father and his brothers and sisters.

Jim and Bette have been married a long time, and have raised a fine family. They have seen their share of heartache and pain, but are still truckin'. Carol, married to my father's brother Joe, took this photo the morning of my vows. She says:
To me it signifies true devotion to your spouse and partner—and we couldn’t have gotten there without them.
Well put. I would add that the image could also serve as a metaphor for the monastic life--or any other lifelong commitment, for that matter. It's for the long haul, and we don't get there without the grace of God and the support of one another.

Carol, incidentally, is a romance novelist (she says she is retired, but I don't quite believe it). For many years, she and her sister Marian Franz have written romance novels (for Harlequin and several other publishers) under the pen names Marisa Carroll, Joellyn Carrol, Jo Bremer, and Malissa Carroll.

I'll bet there aren't too many other Benedictine monks who can boast an aunt who writes romance novels and a cousin who can dance his way around a rooster. To top it off, my Uncle Joe makes a mean bowl of chili! And I haven't even mentioned my Uncle Kenny, who's in a league of his own!

Muchas gracias

Many thanks to all for your well wishes, kindnesses, and prayers, whether delivered personally, electronically, or spiritually. They are very much appreciated, and we remain united in Spirit.

My special prayer intention during Mass today was for all who have offered this little one a cup of cold water to drink (Mt 10:42). May God bless you abundantly one and all.

Br. Francis

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sleeper, awake!

Fr. Guerric, the subprior and novice-master at the monastery here, is fond of relating how, just a couple hours before he was to make his solemn profession in 1984, Fr. Raban Hathorn died suddenly in the calefactory of a heart attack. The reality of that moment added a measure of unexpected intensity to the profession ceremony, during which the one making solemn vows lays prostrate near the Paschal candle, and is covered with a funeral pall while the church bell tolls as it does at the death of a monk. The newly professed then “rises” to his new and radical life consecrated to God while the cantor sings the words from Ephesians 5:14, “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

In his Rule, St. Benedict encourages his monks to “keep death daily before your eyes.” This is not a macabre admonition or an invitation to be perpetually morose. Quite the opposite, as the preceding sentence in the passage from the Rule demonstrates: “Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire.”

Like the ancient Israelites, we are sojourners under the watchful and protecting gaze of our compassionate God as we travel to the Promised Land of everlasting life through the love of Christ. The world as we know it is not the be-all and end-all. Something—or, more precisely Someone—infinitely better await us, and the joy of this knowledge, derived through faith, fills us with that holy desire needed to live radically here and now so that, as St. Benedict says, Christ may bring us all together to everlasting life.

This is the hope that fills us with joy without denying our deep sorrow. It is what makes us Christian. When things go terribly wrong, when failure and hardship seem to frame our days, and when people die, what we are really lamenting is the brokenness of Creation. We should feel sorrow, because the life God created for us was not originally meant to be that way. However, we should also embrace the joy of knowing that in Christ, God has restored all things, and rightly ordered them as they are meant to be.

No, we cannot fully perceive that right ordering with our limited perspective. In Christ, however, the act has already been completed, but is still growing to fulfillment. Similarly, when we take antibiotics to fight an infection, it takes a number of days to work through the body, but its work has begun. The Incarnation continues to this very moment as the Body of Christ grows to maturity. It is good to recall the words of 2Peter 3:8, “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

Unexpectedly, but appropriately, I have reflected on all this before, during, and after making my solemn vows on Tuesday. There are two reasons. First, my journey to the monastery essentially began on May 18, 2003, the day my father died unexpectedly at age 65 (or perhaps, that’s simply when the trajectory of my vocation began coming into view). The story of my conversion and discernment of a religious vocation over the subsequent few years is a long one, but that day, I think, is when I started to “get real.” Although I didn’t have the Benedictine vocabulary at my disposal at that time, it’s when I began to keep death daily before my eyes, and my life began slowly changing in remarkable ways. I began yearning for everlasting life with holy desire, and increasingly discovered a joy—without denying life’s sorrows—that I never knew was possible.

Secondly, on Monday of this past week (the feast of my patron, St. Francis de Sales, and the eve of my solemn profession), my father’s brother died unexpectedly. My Uncle Tom was only 57 (it should also be noted that of all my father’s four brothers and five sisters, Tom was the one who most resembled my father). Needless to say, this cast a new light on everything. Where joy had been building, sadness crept in, and there was no choice but to let them dwell together.

I was edified that most of my family planning to attend solemn vows still came under the circumstances. It must have been quite an emotional roller-coaster ride for them to learn of Uncle Tom’s death, and a few hours later come to Saint Meinrad to celebrate my solemn profession, and then head back up to northwest Ohio for the funeral.

It meant a great deal to me to have them here, and along with my confreres in this monastic community, we had a great time celebrating and visiting after my profession. There is no doubt in my mind that the sorrow my family felt over Uncle Tom’s death helped fuel our joy, and I know that my own joy was poured into my sorrow over his passing.

As I lay prostrate and covered with the funeral pall during the profession ceremony (with my father’s old Army dog-tags in the pocket of my habit), I listened to all my confreres, family members, relatives, and friends pray for my perseverance and growth in the monastic way of life. I cannot begin to fully describe what came over me. Many things in my life seemed to come full circle, and I thought of Uncle Tom, my father, and all those who have gone before us. I was alone but surrounded by a great multitude. There was deep sorrow, but arising from it an intense joy that simply could not be contained. It was a moment, it seemed, made in heaven.

Yes, I needed a hankie!

Just as with Fr. Guerric nearly 30 years ago, the reality of the present circumstances contributed a measure of unexpected intensity to my solemn profession. With death before our eyes, I found myself surrounded by faithful monks, family, and friends, all yearning for everlasting life with holy desire. This life-giving hope filled us with joy without denying our deep sorrow.

With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day, but the pall will be lifted one day as we hear the words: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

May he may bring us all together to everlasting life.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Clothed in my right mind

"When a man makes his monastic profession, he responds in gratitude to the gift of grace. Conversion is at the heart of monastic life, not a flashy conversion, but a commitment for the long haul to seek God through a life of obedience, stability in the monastic community, and the daily fidelity to the monastic way of life. The cuculla with which [Br. Francis] will be clothed symbolizes that right mind of obedience through which he returns to Christ from whom he had departed through the sloth of disobedience." 
Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B.
Homily during Solemn Profession Mass
of Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.
January 25, 2011
Singing the formula of profession.

"Uphold me, O Lord ..."

"... and do not confound me in my expectation."

In front: Mom, brother, brother-in-law, and sister.

Mystical Burial, echoing baptism and monastic funerals.

"Now I am dead, for my life is hidden with Christ in God."
(This is where it got a little emotional.)

Clothing with the cuculla.

Greeting of Peace.

A Beginner under God's Protection.

Photos by Mary Jeanne Schumacher and John Farless,
Saint Meinrad Archabbey Communications Department

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Officially ...

... below is the link to the news item released by the Saint Meinrad Archabbey communications department regarding my solemn profession:

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B., professes solemn monastic vows

Unofficially, I promise to write more very soon about the day's blessedness.

In the meantime, I THANK YOU all for your greetings, well wishes, and especially your prayers. Be assured of mine for you.

Right now, very happy but soooooo tired ........

Brother Elijah

A few days before I made solemn vows (Thursday, to be precise), our Novice Michael professed his temporary vows of three years. He has been assigned the religious name of Brother Elijah. He is the youngest member of our community at age 22. Originally from Louisville, he grew up in California and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Azusa Pacific University in 2009 before coming to the monastery.

Congratulations Brother Elijah, and may God bless your continued disernment and monastic formation in peace!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vow chart

My vow chart from which I sang today at my solemn profession. After today, it is filed away in the monastery archives. The next time it comes out is at my funeral, when it will be placed on my casket.

Br. Martin is responsible for the beautiful artwork. I did the calligraphy--but not freehand. I traced over a guide. As they say, whatever works.

I will post more later about the experience. For now, I have more celebrating to do with my family members, friends, and relatives. It is a happy day!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On retreat ...

Photos taken in chapter room of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

"At St. Meinrad we regard as our primary task the direct worship of God in his heavenly sanctuary, through which we draw down the heavenly dew to refresh the missionary's wide field of work, not merely in our district or diocese, but throughout all the land, as far as the strength and fervor of love is able to enrich. We believe that the liturgy is the first and most blessed duty of Benedictine missionaries, and to this end we desire to build, at St. Meinrad, a place of prayer."
-- Martin Marty, O.S.B., 1868
First Abbot of Saint Meinrad

Guiding Light

Saint Meinrad monastery, church, and town, 1862.
Southwest view, drawn by Frater Benedict Brunet, O.S.B.
Illustration from Abbey of Einsiedeln Archives.

Traveling to Saint Meinrad Archabbey for the very first time in August 2005, I turned off Interstate 64 West at Exit 72, turned left onto State Highway 145, and then made a quick right onto State Highway 62. I was eager to see the place, recommended to me by a spiritual director as a good one to make a retreat for a few days.

At that point, I had been in the process of discerning a possible religious vocation for a couple years, and I had reached the stage where I really needed to actively engage the process if it was going to happen. I was nearing 40, and every attempt I had made to turn away from, ignore, or compromise the mysterious pull within me—God’s guiding hand, as it turns out—had brought me right back around to where I had started.

I needed to come and see what this was all about, although at that time I had no particular interest in Saint Meinrad. I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know what a monastery was. I only knew that God was calling me to something special, and I was coming here to pray and reflect on what that might be. It hadn’t even entered my mind that Saint Meinrad itself might be the call.

Highway 62 between I-64 and Saint Meinrad is eight miles of lightly-traveled road winding through sparsely populated pastures, woodland, and hills. As soon as my truck turned onto Highway 62, time immediately seemed to slow down—like I had entered another world altogether. I rolled down the window, breathed in the fresh air, and listened to nothing but sweet silence. Deep within, something stirred. It seemed like a voice, though no one had said anything. I was alone on that road. The voice said: “Welcome home.”

I had absolutely no idea what any of this meant, or what would happen next. Mile after mile unfolded, and a profound sense of peace enveloped me. The highway has a number of sharp curves, and ahead of each one, I virtually leaned into the steering wheel to see what was just around the bend. And each time I finally rounded the curve, more of the same spread out in front of me. I remember thinking, “This has got to be the longest and most captivating road I have ever taken.”

Finally, there was a very sharp curve to the right. Just ahead, a majestic sight arose—two sandstone spires on a hilltop. Gold-plated crosses on each one gleamed in the late summer sun—sending out rays, it seemed, in every direction. A little thrill went through my entire being. To this day, anytime I see those spires and gleaming crosses from a distance after having been away—whether it’s been an hour or a week—the same sensation comes over me.

Then, I knew what the voice within me meant. It was my first visit, and I hadn’t even stepped inside, but I was home.

More than five years later, I am about to perpetually and solemnly profess vows of stability, obedience, and conversatio as a Benedictine monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. I could never have imagined when this journey began where it might lead, or even now, where it might go. It is not an easy life, but it is a good one.

Looking back, my memory of that initial eight-mile trip along Highway 62 has become a metaphor for my monastic journey. What I stated above in literal terms also applies now in a figurative sense:
I have absolutely no idea what any of this means, or what will happen next. Mile after mile unfolds, and a profound sense of peace envelops me. The road has a number of sharp curves, and ahead of each one, I lean forward to see what is just around the bend. Each time I round the curve, more of the same spreads out in front of me. I think to myself, “This has got to be the longest and most captivating road I have ever taken.”
Likewise, who could have foreseen the long and captivating journey when two Swiss monks from the Abbey of Einsiedeln first arrived here in 1854? Today, those two sandstone spires with gleaming gold crosses anchor a sprawling complex of buildings and grounds occupied by monks, students, employees and visitors who for generations have shared their experience of Saint Meinrad with the broader Church and world. But in 1854, it was just two Swiss monks and a three-room cabin.

Mile after mile, year after year, one curve after another, by the light of God's guiding hand, we all keep pressing forward to catch a glimpse of the Light and send it out in every direction.

Tomorrow I begin my retreat in preparation for solemn profession next Tuesday, the 25th. In the last several weeks, I have spent a considerable amount of time moving into my new cell (solemnly professed monks live on the upper levels of the monastery; juniors and novices on the lower level), divesting myself of any remaining assets, and making arrangements for family members, relatives, and friends who will come to celebrate with me next week.

Now, it is time to be alone with God before giving myself completely and always to him and this community in the monastic way of life. I will not be posting during this next week, but hope to review things here at least partially after the fact.

A lot will be occurring around here these next few days. On Thursday evening at Vespers, Novice Michael will make his first profession, and on Friday we will celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Meinrad, our patron. Monday is the feast day of my patron saint, Francis de Sales. I will make my solemn profession during Mass on Tuesday, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

Please pray for me, and for Saint Meinrad Achabbey, its monks, students, alumni, employees, guests, and benefactors. Our Lady of Einsiedeln, pray for us.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I am reading a very interesting novel--Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. It takes an unusual form--a long letter written by a dying man to his very young son so that the son may know who he is when he comes of age. (Don't worry, I won't spoil it for you; I'm only two-thirds of the way through it myself).

Ostensibly, the letter writer desires to convey to his child what he would say to him during their time together if he had lived. Inevitably, though, it becomes a revelation of the spiritual battles still raging within the father's heart as he prepares to meet God face to face. Beautifully written, glowingly poignant, and quietly humorous and human, the book in many respects is a modern-day Confessions of St. Augustine. Earnestly contemplative, the father's letter to his son becomes an article of faith through which he slowly comes to grips with his own need to forgive and let go of what has deeply wounded him.

Incidentally, the father is a Congregationalist pastor.

At a number of points, the novel overtakes the reader very simply and suprisingly to the point where it has become necessary for me to pause and think about how what has just been written applies to my own life. There aren't many novels that could be read for lectio; I think this is one. It is that powerful.

Following is one passage that struck me as a universal struggle for us all. I thought it was worth sharing and praying over:
When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?

If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights.You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person.

He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.

I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own great failure to live up to it ....

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Big chance

Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time—A

Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
John 1:29-34

It is too little for us, as the Lord tells Isaiah in today’s first reading, to be merely servants of God. We are called to be holy, St. Paul reminds us. The Holy Spirit that came down from heaven and settled on Jesus, he in turn gives to us. We have risen with Christ from the waters of baptism to share in the light of salvation that is offered to everyone everywhere.

John the Baptist was the first to point to Jesus and witness to this light: “He is the Son of God.”

It is not enough to simply serve God from a sense of duty. His light must radiate out from within us for the entire world to see and hear. If our lives truly belong to God, we witness to Christ daily through all we do and say.

John the Baptist and St. Paul gave their lives to allow God’s glory to shine more brightly. What are we willing to give?

Let's take a chance!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The delicate task of disillusionment

This morning I read a thought-provoking article in the December 2010 issue of American Benedictine Review by Abbot Martin Werlen, O.S.B., of the Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland (the motherhouse of Saint Meinrad Archabbey). It is a very sharp, insightful, and even humorous look at how our illusions unwittingly control us while disillusionment can actually be a grace.

Abbot Martin Werlen
I had not approached the issue from quite that angle before, and it's been playing in my mind all day. It is worth sharing, so below are a couple excerpts from the article defining Abbot Martin's point. If you are somehow able to get hold of a copy, I highly recommend reading the entire article because what I have hacked out of it and copied below is admittedly extracted from its context and points of illustration. Still, it is enough to meditate on, and that is enough for anyone.
All of us fall prey to illusions time and again, and so we don't perceive reality correctly. We generally notice this only at each disappointment, when an illusion collapses. This is a moment of grace in a way,for it brings us a little closer to the truth. But it can also be very painful. For in such a situation we are confronted by the fact that we have lived an illusion.

The tragedy in every illusion is that it prevents us from responding appropriately to reality. We always respond to reality the way we imagine it to be, which means that we often react to illusions. ... We have a rather ambiguous attitude towards disappointments. Quite spontaneously, we tend to avoid them. ... Yet, what a pity to stop there! All of us, all fairly healthy human beings, want to come closer to the truth. Every disappointment and disillusionment brings us a little closer to the truth. We can be disillusioned only because we have been living in an illusion. How else could we be disillusioned?

The frequent disillusionments which we experience keep reminding us how deeply we are stuck in illusions: the illusion of omnipotence, the illusion of being infallible, the illusion of being in control, the illusion of knowing better, but also the illusion of being forsaken, the illusion of perishing. Quite often an illusion is noted when we say, "Yes, but." The greatest illusion we can fall into is the absence of God.

... Illusions cannot be controlled. They come unbidden. And they confuse us, the more certain we have been in our illusion. Disillusionments are like scales dropping from our eyes so that we can see and experience clearly what was hidden from us before. We might feel like the disciples at Emmaus.

... Illusions diminish the quality of our life because they prevent us from responding appropriately to reality. Disillusionments thus are an opportunity for coming closer to the truth. For this delicate task of disillusionment to succeed, we need readiness to let go of illusions, to be humble and respectful, but also frank and sincere.
American Benedictine Review 61:4, December 2010, pp. 416-426;
trans. Matilda Handl, O.S.B., Monastische Informationen, Nr 136, 22. December 2008, pp. 21-28.

Perfect grace

O, may I learn to love that passion-seeded joy
That is the hinted pleasure of the soul's wild grace
In brilliant paradises of diviner joy
Than earthly tenderness received: where no bright pain
At our imperfect love's desire for perfect grace
Darkens the ecstasy of love's celestial heart!

James Kirkup

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Perfect love

In all humility, toward the end of his Rule for monks, St. Benedict defers to Scripture, the Church Fathers, and to his predecessors in the monastic way of life as even more excellent "tools of virtue." Mastery of his own Rule, he maintains, is only the beginning of perfection.

That is a humbling notion, because few, if any, monks can claim even that. Still, we must all--monks and non-monks alike--set our sights on the Perfection that is God alone and strive to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," as Jesus himself tells us (Matthew 5:48). If this seems impossible, it is heartening to recall that "all things are possible for God" (Matthew 19:26).

The key, as always, is love, for "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). This, too, St. Benedict emphasizes in his chapter of the Rule on humility (7): "Through this love, all that [the monk, or Christian] once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit, and delight in virtue."

This ability, and the desire that precedes it, is innate to us. Since we are made in the image of God, it is implanted in our souls at the moment we come into existence. Sin, of course, can obscure and distort all this, but even then, we each have a stronger, unnamed desire deep within ourselves to love and be loved perfectly. This is from God, for God is Love.

But what is sin? To answer this, I heed the advice of St. Benedict and turn to a passage from St. Basil the Great and his Detailed Rules for Monks (which Benedict implicitly refers to in his Rule):

"As soon as we come to be, a power of reason is implanted in us like a seed, containing within it the ability and the need to love. We have already received from God the ability to fulfill all his commands. We have then no reason to resent them, as if something beyond our capacity were being asked of us. We have no reason either to be angry, as if we had to pay back more than we had received. When we use this ability in a right and fitting way, we lead a life of virtue and holiness. But if we misuse it, we fall into sin.

"This is the definition of sin: the misue of powers given us by God for doing good, a use contrary to God's commandments. On the other hand, the virtue that God asks of us is the use of the same powers based on a good conscience in accordance with God's command.

"Since this is so, we can say the same about love. Since we received a command to love God, we possess from the first moment of our existence an innate power and ability to love. The proof of this is not to be sought outside ourselves, but each one can learn this from himself and in himself."

May your love be upon us, O Lord,
as we place all our hope in you.
Psalm 33:22

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Out of the depths

Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011
Baptism of the Lord—A
(First Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

As we emerge from the Christmas season and embark on ordinary time, the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord evokes a Christian sense of a New Year’s resolution. We are reminded that our faith should grow year-round, year by year, and that this faith involves salvation through Christ in solidarity and service.

A few remarkable parallels in today’s first reading and Gospel signify this. Isaiah depicts the ideal servant of God as one whose only purpose is to bring freedom and justice to all through self-sacrifice. The voice from the heavens in Matthew echoes that of Isaiah’s prophecy as Jesus’ mission is manifested at His baptism: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is the Servant sent into the world to redeem God’s people.

Although He is without sin, Jesus is baptized to signify his solidarity with sinful humanity. Again, Isaiah and Matthew use similar terms. Isaiah speaks of God’s servant freeing people “from the dungeon,” while Matthew says Jesus “came up from the water.” In the ancient Hebrew worldview, suffering evoked sin, and water, death. Sheol lurked below the seas, which sprung from the Abyss.

Scripture tells us, though, that God has power and authority over the waters, and therefore over sin and death. “In the beginning … the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen 1:1-3). As the Israelites fled from the pursuing Egyptians, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land” (Ex 14:21). Moses led God’s people through the sea safely, and the waters returned to swallow up their enemies.

Psalm 107 offers thanksgiving to God for deliverance from trials, and verses 23-32 recount the joy of those whose lives were spared from the stormy waters: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed” (Ps 107:28-29). Many of the Psalms are filled with such images, and the Gospels shed new light on them by recounting Jesus’ ability to walk on water and calm stormy seas. Jesus, as Son and Servant of God, conquers and transforms death and sin. He makes “the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over” (Isa 51:10).

So, when Jesus is baptized, He is immersed in the depths of our darkness—filled with its sin, failure, disordered desire, pain, sorrow, and death. Then he arises, “the heavens were opened for him,” and a voice from the heavens claims Him as his beloved Son. This, of course, prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection, and signifies God’s plan of salvation. Jesus demonstrates His solidarity with us by entering into the Abyss with us and His service by bringing us into the Light with Him.

But if we are saved with Him, we must also serve with Him. So, we are also reminded of our baptismal call as Christians—to bring freedom and justice to all through self-sacrifice.

That is by far the best New Year’s resolution we can make.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Nations shall walk by your light

Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord—A

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Too often, it seems, Christianity is drawn into the political arena, where it becomes a sparring partner in the daily round of partisan debates. There, it takes a beating, but also is just as capable of delivering stinging blows (sometimes self-inflicted).

Today’s readings and celebration of Epiphany invite us to step back for a moment to reassess who we truly are, what the Church is truly about, and which battles are worth fighting. Three themes come to mind:
  • The Church is UNIVERSAL. God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ belongs to all people of every race, nation, and age. It is not an exclusive club bestowing privilege on the few; rather, it is the Body of Christ whose responsibility it is to draw all humankind into God’s embrace. All three of today’s readings point to this truth. Isaiah tells us that “Nations shall walk by your light,” while Paul emphasizes that the Gentiles (the “outsiders” in the early days of Christianity) are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Finally, the magi in Matthew’s Gospel are foreigners, the first “Gentiles” to see and follow the light of Christ.
  • We are a PILGRIM Church, journeying like the magi in this world in search of a personal encounter with our Savior, to whom we offer our gifts of public praise. The magi experienced the newborn Savior, but they had yet to experience the crucified and risen Christ. We, too, journey in stages toward the promise of Christ, and we do so as a community of believers. As Isaiah prophesies, “All gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.”
  • We are meant to be a SIGN to the world of God’s offer of salvation through a personal encounter with Christ. Epiphany means “manifestation,” and our mission as the Church is to make visible the redeeming work of Christ as expressed by the Gospel. We are stewards of God’s grace. We are that shining star by whose light others should be drawn into the wonderful mystery of Christ. Sometimes, yes, shining brightly means a willingness to step into the ring and fight for what is true. But let us also not forget what makes Christians unique, and that is daily living governed by:
    The Ten Commandments
    The Eight Beatitudes
    The Three Theological Virtues
    The Four Cardinal Virtues
    The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
    The 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit
    The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy
    The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy
    And, of course, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving
Scripture, tradition, and the sacramental life of the Church as the worshipping Body of Christ infuse us with that light that must be seen by others. If it cannot be seen, what is the point? And, I would propose that the ray of light most capable of penetrating deeply into the heart of another is Christian JOY, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. As the Gospel tells us, the magi were “overjoyed at seeing the star.”

Let us pray together and for one another, then, at this dawn of a new year, that our joy may shine brightly throughout the world, drawing all humankind into God’s embrace as we journey toward the Savior and manifest His grace as the Body of Christ. In the words of Isaiah, “Raise your eyes and look about. You shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow.”

Joy to the world. Amen.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ponder this

The shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this,
they made known what had been told them about this child;
and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:16-19, NRSV

Saturday, January 1, 2011
Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

It is interesting that when God becomes man, and the Savior of the world is born to reconcile and redeem humankind, it is a group of shepherds that first tells the world about the Christ. Meanwhile, Mary, the Mother of God, says nothing. Rather, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Mary was silent as she considered the fruit of creation, the great mystery of God that is too great for words to express.

God’s promise of salvation had been revealed in Jesus and was at that very moment growing to fulfillment—as it later did through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, and as it does now through His body the Church that is anointed by the Holy Spirit. Silently, it grows, though we know not how. This is the mystery Mary treasured and pondered in her heart the night the Eternal Word sprouted from her womb. The same treasure is ours, if we listen as Mary did to the voice of the Lord, which is written in our hearts.

Most of Mary’s life was hidden and unremarkable. She lived day to day, fulfilling her duties, but with faith in the promise that had been announced to her and Joseph. Although she had said yes to this promise and had placed her hope in it, she did not fully understand. She was left to silently ponder each thing that occurred during her daily life as it slowly unfolded.

The Greek word for ponder means “to piece together.” This is what Mary did, storing up all these events in her heart, constantly reflecting on them, wondering about them, trusting in them. It is in our trust that we praise God, not in complete understanding.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this pondering in his homily three years ago on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God:
“By learning from Mary,” he said, “we can understand with our hearts what our eyes and minds do not manage to perceive or contain on their own. Indeed, this is such a great gift that only through faith are we granted to accept it, while not entirely understanding it. And it is precisely on this journey of faith that Mary comes to meet us as our support and guide. … In her heart Mary continued to treasure, to ‘piece together’ ” the events of her life with Jesus. “… It is only by pondering in the heart, in other words, by piecing together and finding unity in all we experience that, following Mary, we can penetrate the mystery of a God who was made man out of love and who calls us to follow him on that path of love; a love to be expressed daily by generous service” to our brothers and sisters.
Ultimately, this path of love leads to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is where Mary was able finally to put it all together, and where we are called as the Body of Christ. It is not easy. It is sometimes painful. Exhausting. Sorrow-ridden. But beyond the horizon of our vision, the awesome Love of God flowers and conquers all—the same Love whom God sent in His Son, born of a woman. With Him, in Him, and through Him, we are God’s children.

So, on this first day of 2011 and World Day of Peace, let us be still and ponder and treasure God’s loving presence. Let us pray that we listen for and remain receptive to the seed of God’s word sown in our own hearts so that it may grow, spread, and bear fruit for the Kingdom of God—though we know not how.

And when our strength fails us, let us always turn to Mary our Mother, who embraces in her arms the Body of Christ—whether as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes or an adult stripped of all dignity, bruised and beaten on Calvary.

With Mary’s faithfulness, we are assured of grasping the last piece of the puzzle—that what is broken emerges whole and transformed from an empty tomb—in the ponderable silence of the dawn.

[Significant portions of this reflection are excerpted from an article I wrote for The Priest magazine in May 2010 titled, "Mary, Our Lady of Silence."]