Archive for Christmas

Christmas: The coming of the Poor, Refugee, Prince of Peace

Posted in Homilies, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 24, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

flight-to-egypt-iconThere is often a lot of attention given to the “reason for the season” or the admonition to “keep Christ in Christmas,” but far-too-little attention is paid to who this Christ is and what it means for us.

Pope Francis, in his Christmas night homily, explains that we live in a world that is oversaturated with the self-centeredness that comes with an over-busy lifestyle and a way of being in the world that leaves us “drunk” with the need to acquire more without thought about the cost, without concern for others. Pope Francis explains:

In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this Child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential. In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we need to cultivate a strong sense of justice, to discern and to do God’s will.

I believe that the way we come to this strong sense of justice, mercy, and discernment of God’s will is by remembering the one whose birth we celebrate today. The Christ who enters our world as one of us is a poor, refugee, prince of peace!

Christ is poor. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we are reminded of whose birth it is we celebrate on Christmas day — the birth of the God who empties God’s self to become like us. God surrenders at every turn all that comes with being divine, all-powerful, all-anything to be a vulnerable, humble, child. As we hear in tonight’s Gospel, Christ is born to an unwed young women, a peasant teen whose life was nothing of luxury or comfort. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Christ’s poverty was, in a cosmic sense, voluntary. But in a contextual sense, we was nonetheless born into a world that had no room for him.

Christ’s poverty should call us to remember the suffering of those who likewise are born into this world without the support and care, the resources and privileges that so many of us can give thanks for having. Christ is the one who stands by them. Christ is the one who calls us to do likewise.

Christ is a Refugee. How quickly we forget what we read in the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. In Chapter Two we read about the magi’s visitation and Herod’s call for the slaughter of children (the event we commemorate in just three days, December 28th). Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus seek refuge in Egypt, crossing the border into an unknown land, fleeing the violence and terror of their homeland. Christ is not only a refugee who fled violence, but was also a Cosmic refugee who, as we read in the Prologue to John’s Gospel, was rejected by his own. Elsewhere in the Gospels we hear how Jesus is abandoned, rejected, and dismissed by his fellows including family, friends, and disciples.

Christ’s status as and experience of being a refugee should call us to be mindful of those who, like the infant Jesus, flee violence and terror in our world today. Christ enters the world unwelcome and stands in solidarity with those who are abandoned, rejected, and dismissed. We must welcome those refugees seeking protection and safety in our world today. In a time when political rhetoric in this country has ramped up fear and xenophobia, we should stand as Christians who celebrate the Christ who is himself a refugee and welcome refugees.

Christ is the Prince of Peace. He came into the world bringing, as we pray in the Eucharistic prayer, peace — a peace that the world neither knows nor can give. In the face of violence and fear, Christ always proclaims a message calling the world to “be not afraid,” to “turn the other cheek,” to “love one’s enemies.”  The message of the Christ who enters our world as the Prince of Peace is one that condemns violence and retaliation, who calls us to turn swords into plowshares, who surrenders his life for the sake of others.

Christ who is the Prince of Peace calls us to resist the violent rhetoric we hear in the world today. As politicians and commentators stoke the fire of fear and terror, the message of the Prince of Peace is one that calls us to respond to threats with love, to surrender our thirst for power and control, to be more like Christ who sought only to do God’s will in terms of reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.

This Christmas is a time not only to celebrate with family and friends, but a time to remember whose birth it is that we celebrate and what it means for us to call ourselves “Christians” in turn.

May you have a blessed Christmas and celebrate the coming of the poor, refugee, prince of peace by your words and actions!

Photo: File

 

Preaching at All Saints Church in Pasadena

Posted in Advent, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 20, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 3.40.02 PMThis is the written text from the guest homily I preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA, on Sunday December 20, 2015. Below you can watch a video of the sermon preached.

“We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration. The primordial blessing, ‘increase and multiply,’ has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror. We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.”[1]

These are the words of the great spiritual writer and Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, in an essay he wrote on Christmas. His words reflect for me the chaos and confusion that typically accompanies this time of year, especially the last week of Advent.

The pressures of the season, the social demands of our work and families, the overwhelming reality of so much that must be done and, ostensibly, so little time to do it, we find ourselves not in the midst of the season of joyful hope, of great anticipation, but rather in the midst of the chaos of our lives.

There’s always one more gift to buy, one more cookie to decorate, one more activity that we have neither the strength nor the stomach to face. Indeed, as Merton says, this time is a time of no time, a time of the end.

When we find ourselves in such a state, harried and hurried, exhausted and seeking excuse, we have left no energy to contemplate the mystery that calls us forth, we have – as Merton says – no space; no space to consider who it is that is this mystery that calls us forth. And this, I believe leads us to a crisis of identity.

The identity crisis is not immediately our own, although that surely follows. The identity crisis about which I’m speaking has to do with God. Or, better yet, it has to do with our inability to remember who God is (which, as Merton wisely reminds us elsewhere, means that we are then unable to truly know ourselves).

When we find ourselves in the time of no room, the time of no time, the time of no space, confusion sets in that leads us to forget the difference between what St. Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians calls the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God, to forget the difference between the proliferation of opinion and the truth of divine revelation.

To put it technically, what troubles me is that we have forgotten the difference between what the ancient Greeks called doxography and the doxology we are called to profess in faith. Let me explain… Doxography is the term used to refer to the act of referencing preceding opinions, to either affirm or refute them in a philosophical argument. Doxology, on the other hand, is the prayerful expression of the church in praise of God the Creator.

It seems to me that one of the more common problems in our modern, American culture, if I can put it so simplistically, is that today everything seems to have been reduced to an opinion. As a result, people find it easy to dismiss one another with lines like, “well, that’s just your opinion.”

All views, factual or otherwise, are treated as if they were merely differing perspectives and this has sadly bled over into our experience of Christianity and our vision of God.

No longer does sacred scripture necessarily unsettle us with the challenge of right living as presented to us in the biblical covenant and the Gospel proclamation. Instead, like the insecure and self-conscious representatives of the human family in the garden of Eden, we reject what God has assured us is sufficient and good – very good, in fact – and instead set out to cast our own images to worship. Though God created us in God’s image and likeness, out of fear and anxiety we return the favor creating gods in our own image and likeness, according to our own comforts and preferences.

This is how God can be associated with the violence that exists around the world and, as Merton and others remind us, so often even in our own hearts. This idol, the god we create in our own image and likeness is a god who, “helps those who help themselves;”… Is a god who, “blesses America, and yet seemingly disregards the majority of the world’s population;”… Is a god who, “can be on the lips and written in the tweets of lawmakers who ‘pray for victims of gun violence,’ yet deny any responsibility for the conditions that make such tragedies possible, who fill their campaign coffers with funds from the industry that promotes the sale of guns at all costs.”

This is the god of doxography, the god of our opinions, the god of comfort and familiarity, the god of convenience, and this god exists because the one, true God – the God of Jesus Christ – is unwittingly dismissed by so many because the God who is revealed to us doesn’t always fit our agenda or outlook.

What we hear in the Magnificat, that great hymn of Mary proclaimed as our first lesson this morning, is true doxology, the glorification of the true God.

The God Mary praises is the God who brings good news to the poor and suffering, yet dismisses the rich and powerful.

The God Mary praises is the God who raises the lowly and weak, yet deposes the mighty and the proud.

The God Mary praises is the God who has, as we read in the Book of Exodus in that great theophany to Moses, been there for our ancestors, is there for us now, and will be there for us into the future.

The God Mary praises is the God of Jesus Christ, the Creator whose true identity is love and mercy.

Whether consciously or not, this God Mary praises is too often pushed aside and dismissed in our time – the time of no time, the time of the end. In addition to the truth that God not only disapproves of the power and politics of acquisition and individual comfort over the collective needs of the common good, God actually favors and sides with the poor, the abused, the marginalized, the victims, and those treated unjustly.

The God Mary praises is the God who takes the side of the unwed, pregnant teenager, who nevertheless rejoices in her distress, in her anxiety, in the fear that must have overtaken her, because she recognizes that God has done great things for her, and the love and mercy of the Almighty will prevail.

The moral theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written about the stories we tell ourselves and the gods we construct, especially in the United States. And he reminds the church that, “Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.”

Mary understood this, finding herself in a desperate set of circumstances, faced with what seems like an impossible task, she recalls in her song of praise the history of salvation that has unfolded. She remembers the narrative of faith into which she has been incorporated. And She proclaims the truth of the story not of her making, but the true story of who God is and who we are.

In addition to the reminder of who God really is, today our lessons from scripture also unveil another frequently overlooked dimension of our story. That is the centrality and importance of women in the history of salvation.

Some communities have become better than others at remembering this, but we see in the Gospel proclamation a subtle reminder of the patriarchy that was both pervasive in the culture of Mary’s time and yet remains all-too-present in our own.

Mary’s own recognition of her so-called lowliness, her littleness and vulnerability reiterates the dire conditions of her reality. To whom could she turn? Who would come to her aid?

As my colleague John Martens, the scripture columnist at America Magazine, recently wrote, “Women knew the reality of childbirth and the vulnerability of womanhood, so Mary does not run to priests, scribes or scholars, to tell of her encounter with God but to her relative Elizabeth.”

Furthermore, John reminds us that, “God came into the world as an infant; and the Incarnation was entrusted to women, who would not only bring the child to us but care for him among us. They were willing to see and embrace the smallness of us all in light of God’s mighty work. They were open to the love necessary and due to any child and open to God’s saving power in their midst. The Messiah was entrusted to the natural processes of human life, in the most vulnerable of hands, in the most vulnerable of ways, so that God’s glory and salvation would not overwhelm us, but accompany us in solidarity with the suffering of all of us small and little people, in order to teach us the value of human life and the greatness of each of life. By each of her actions, Mary is telling us: Prepare to adore him.”

But a world in which women are still forced into positions of lowliness in the forms of subjugation, human trafficking, sexual abuse, among so many other crimes against humanity, it is difficult to heed Mary’s call to adore the coming Prince of Peace.

Indeed, even in our own society, the United States of America, which despite its numerous doxographical gods, dares to imagine itself as a “Christian nation,” still disadvantages women in systemic and institutional ways. One need only look at the wage gap that persists, where on average women make 79 cents on the dollar when compared to men in the same position.

In these last days of the our season of anticipation, may we examine ourselves, examine our faith, examine our hearts to see who it is we are celebrating this Friday. Is the God we worship the god of our own making, the god who endorses the story of our own choosing? Or is the God we worship the God who reveals God’s Self to us in the song of Mary and in the truth of divine revelation, the God who identifies with the weak and the lost, the voiceless and the oppressed throughout history?

If, indeed, we have the courage enough to embrace the God of Jesus Christ, who then must we think about this Christmas and in the days that follow?

I believe that Merton offers us a glimpse at this question’s answer in his essay, observing that, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination.”[2]

            [1] Merton, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” Raids on the Unspeakable.

            [2] Merton, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” Raids on the Unspeakable.

O Root of Jesse: The New Family of Christ

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Family_Portrait_O Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

My maternal grandfather was a big fan of genealogical research. I remember being a boy and going with him and my grandmother to libraries all over Central New York where he would read through hundreds of old newspapers on large microfilm machines, looking at obituaries and news articles for information about this or that person or potential relation. When he finally got a computer, one of the first programs he installed was family tree software and my brothers, my cousins, and I would often serve as his tech-advisors. While I loved that he loved this hobby so much and I learned a lot from it, family trees and genealogical research never interested me in themselves. What I loved was spending time with my grandparents and, as my work and ministry in academia has since reflected back to me, I think I loved being in the library and the process of research.

Such has been the case with the genealogies at the beginning of both Matthews’s and Luke’s Gospels — I find them to be rather boring, at least on the surface. Their points, although emphasized differently, are understandable and I don’t begrudge the evangelical redactors for the inclusion of these family lines, but I think I’ve always been much more interested in what follows in the Gospels about Jesus’s family than what opens them respectively.

No offense to Micah and Isaiah, who prophesied that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David, the son of Jesse. But Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection establish a new family, one that transcends these earthly limitations and linear structures. And the new family of Christ helps to redefine how we understand the human family and the kinship of Christianity.

We begin to see this, for example, in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus has this famous encounter:

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:46-50).

The key is not the blood or biological or genealogical relationship, but the relationship established by doing the Will of God, which announces the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Reign of God.

We also get a glimpse of this new vision of family when Jesus, dying on the Cross, turns to his friend and to his mother and confirms another form of familiar relationship, a community of faith that stands for support, love, care, challenge, and embrace.

The Body of Christ, which is the church, is the new family of Christ, the lineage and inheritance of the Root of Jesse. It is not so much from whom you came as much as for whom you live! Are we part of this family tree? Do we do the will of God? Do we announce the in-breaking of the Kingdom?

Photo: Stock
Originally published in 2013

Christmas Has Only Just Begun!

Posted in Huffington Post, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 25, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

christmas-nativity

Christmas is much more than a one-day event.

While many people are familiar with the multi-week length of liturgical seasons throughout the Christian calendar — Ordinary Time, Advent and Lent, for example — few realize that Christmas is not just the celebration of the Nativity on Dec. 25 each year. Christmas is a full liturgical season that spans from Christmas Eve through Epiphany and ends, at least in the Roman Catholic Church, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 13 this year).

During the Christmas Season (sometimes called “Christmastide”) several other important feast days are celebrated, including the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), the Feast of the Holy Family (Dec. 30 this year), the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (Jan. 6 this year), and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In some churches, the celebration of the Christmas season can extend to as late as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2, which brings the season to a full 40 days! Each of these moments marks an important event in the Christian narrative and in the life of the church.

It is interesting that our consumer culture has seen an opportunity to extend Christmas with an exceptionally early start to the marketing of Christmas-related products, decorations, candy and music. However, this move — “beginning Christmas” as early as October — is both redundant and a reversal of the proper season. Christmas is already long enough, but it requires that we celebrate the patient yet attentive waiting of the Advent Season first.

For those who think Christmas is anticlimactic after the months of shopping, prepping and holiday anxiety, the real good news of Christmas extends beyond the birth of the Savior to include an appropriately joyful and reflective season dedicated to pondering these mysteries.

On Dec. 21, 1962 the renowned German theologian Karl Rahner wrote a guest editorial in the weekly paper, Die Zeit, in which he offered some reflections on the celebration of Christmas and the season that bears its name. After observing that Christmas can oftentimes feel like a disappointment after such cultural buildup, Rahner wrote:

Yet the mystery still permeates our existence and repeatedly forces us to look at it: in the joy that is no longer aware of its cause; in fear, which dissolves our ability to comprehend our existence; in the love that knows itself as unconditional and everlasting; in the question that frightens us with its unconditional nature and boundless vastness.

He continued:

The seemingly superficial and conventional Christmas hoopla is blessed in the end with truth and depth. What looks like a sham in light of all the holiday activity, then, is not the complete truth, for in the background stands the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.

As Dec. 25 comes and goes, and the temptation to begin taking down the Christmas decorations quickly arises, consider the possibility of taking this year’s celebration of Christmas as an opportunity for something different.

Whereas in Christmases of the past, the day came and went amid gift giving, caroling and holiday parties, each rushed to be included before December’s end, perhaps this year might be the occasion to slow down and ponder more quietly that which stands in the background of this otherwise hectic time of year; what Rahner calls “the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.”

This year, especially in light of our all-too-painful awareness of violence and suffering in our world, time set aside to welcome the Prince of Peace is greatly needed.

May the remaining days of Christmas be a time of peace, prayer and joy, that what began on Christmas Eve may carry you through into a new calendar year more aware of the continued presence of the one who is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Merry Christmas … still!

Photo: Stock

This reflection originally appeared in The Huffington Post on Christmas Eve 2012.

O Root of Jesse: The New Family of Christ

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Family_Portrait_O Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

My maternal grandfather was a big fan of genealogical research. I remember being a boy and going with him and my grandmother to libraries all over Central New York where he would read through hundreds of old newspapers on large microfilm machines, looking at obituaries and news articles for information about this or that person or potential relation. When he finally got a computer, one of the first programs he installed was family tree software and my brothers, my cousins, and I would often serve as his tech-advisors. While I loved that he loved this hobby so much and I learned a lot from it, family trees and genealogical research never interested me in themselves. What I loved was spending time with my grandparents and, as my work and ministry in academia has since reflected back to me, I think I loved being in the library and the process of research.

Such has been the case with the genealogies at the beginning of both Matthews’s and Luke’s Gospels — I find them to be rather boring, at least on the surface. Their points, although emphasized differently, are understandable and I don’t begrudge the evangelical redactors for the inclusion of these family lines, but I think I’ve always been much more interested in what follows in the Gospels about Jesus’s family than what opens them respectively.

No offense to Micah and Isaiah, who prophesied that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David, the son of Jesse. But Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection establish a new family, one that transcends these earthly limitations and linear structures. And the new family of Christ helps to redefine how we understand the human family and the kinship of Christianity.

We begin to see this, for example, in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus has this famous encounter:

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:46-50).

The key is not the blood or biological or genealogical relationship, but the relationship established by doing the Will of God, which announces the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Reign of God.

We also get a glimpse of this new vision of family when Jesus, dying on the Cross, turns to his friend and to his mother and confirms another form of familiar relationship, a community of faith that stands for support, love, care, challenge, and embrace.

The Body of Christ, which is the church, is the new family of Christ, the lineage and inheritance of the Root of Jesse. It is not so much from whom you came as much as for whom you live! Are we part of this family tree? Do we do the will of God? Do we announce the in-breaking of the Kingdom?

Photo: Stock

The Advent or ‘Invention’ of Christ?

Posted in Advent, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

advent-wreathAdvent. It’s a new church year, a new liturgical season, and the beginning of the month-long countdown until Christmas.

Few people realize that with the beginning of Advent the church celebrates a new year, which includes a switch over to a new synoptic Gospel (this year it’s Matthew) that will guide the selections throughout the liturgical year. While Christmas far-too-often overshadows the Season of Advent in the social and even ecclesial imagination, those who do recognize the independence and importance of the Season of Advent nevertheless do not usually pay much attention to the word we so closely associate with this time of year: Advent.

I don’t think that the word Advent, at least as it is understood classically, is the best word for this season. And our readings this Sunday make that abundantly clear!

The origin of Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which literally means “arrival” or “coming.” And so, in one sense, it’s a logical term to describe the liturgical season in terms of the coming or arrival of Christ. This is, I presume, how it was adopted and intended. But the way in which adventus was used in the past should give us some pause and raise some questions about what it is we celebrate and why.

The word adventus was used in the Roman Empire when the emperor was officially welcomed into the city, usually after a military conquest or victory (typically when the Emperor would return to Rome after some military success). The emperor’s staff would send an envoy in advance and let the city, village, or town know that the victorious ruler was coming or would arrive soon — the “head’s up” was used to signal the loyal citizens to ready the welcome of the emperor, roll out the proverbial red carpet, and greet the leader appropriately with ceremony and pomp. They knew he was coming and they, we can presume, knew what to expect.

This arrival, this Advent, has classically meant two things in this original sense: (a) There was a celebratory, powerful, triumphant and, at times, violent dimension to the term Adventus, centered as it was on the military actions and royal reception of the Roman Emperor; and, (b) The use of the term Adventus always bore a sense of anticipation, expectation, and foresight – those in the city knew the emperor was coming – otherwise, they would not be able to roll out the “red carpet” and line the streets in a formal celebration.

While this might not seem like a big deal, I actually think that the term Advent does not serve us well when we begin to reflect on the profound truth of the type of coming or arrival we mark with this liturgical season.

It is really a historical and theological irony that the word “Advent” has come to describe the time that is dedicated for us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and ready ourselves for Christmas.

One the one hand: Many people were indeed expecting a messianic figure not unlike an emperor to come from God.  There was a sense in which a military and political leader was to arise from the Jewish people. But what the world got was a tiny, totally vulnerable baby. The baby would grow up, not to be a powerful political leader, but – in many ways – a simple man who had no “place to lay his head” and was constantly on the move. He and his followers were poor, itinerant, and the closest thing you could have to the opposite of military and political might. There was no one to “roll out the red carpet” for the coming of the Christ. There wasn’t even, as we are so familiar with recounting this time of year, “room at the Inn.”

On the other hand: There was utter surprise and confusion, which was hardly the well-planned and advanced notion of “Advent” that Adventus originally meant. While now we can look back at the Prophet Isaiah, for example, and understand that there were in fact sorts of “forerunners” to the Coming of Christ, the real truth was that few actually understood what Jesus was all about. Even his family and followers were confused and mislead – they were at times indignant, embarrassed, uncertain, doubtful, betraying, and abandoning… It’s very difficult to imagine a “true Adventus” in which the citizens of Rome did not fulfill the civic expectation to celebrate the return of their victorious leader.

What God had in store was something that nobody could really anticipate, nobody could be completely ready or plan for this in-coming of Christ, therefore there really could – in the most literal sense – not be a true Adventus, a true “Advent.” It should be obvious how “Advent” as a word could be seen as problematic, even if we don’t consciously associate the word with the politics and violence it originally meant.

I’m not saying we should “do away” with the word “Advent” (plus, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon), but I do think it might serve us well to think about the word, to think about the season, and to think about what it is we’re really supposed to celebrate during this time of year.

What we do celebrate is a coming, an arrival. But what kind?

I believe the word “invention” makes more sense. The word, “invention” actually makes more sense in terms of the Christmas event — not because it is “made up” as in “that story is quite an invention,” but in the literal origin of the word “invention” itself.

It has the same root as the word adventus in Latin (venire), but unlike adventus,the word inventus means “found” or “discovered.” The root of invention has to do with “coming upon” rather than fabricating. This is true with inventors too, think of the movie Back to the Future when Doc Brown slips and hits his head on the toilet and has that “a ha” moment… the Invention of the time machine is a spark of insight seemingly from nowhere.

Christ entered our world seemingly from a place of nowhere, certainly in a surprise unlike that which the people might ordinarily expect.  It’s like a golf ball hit toward your head and somebody shouting “IN COMING!”  It’s a surprise that shocks us into reality, a mystery out of the blue. The word invention taken apart, can also be understood as in-coming (or in the French, á venire). Interestingly enough, the in-coming, the á-venir in French, actually means future, which is precisely a description of the mystery of God that we presently await during the Season of Advent.

Our readings this Sunday on the First Week of Advent also support our thinking about this season less like an adventus and more in terms of an inventus or á-venir. 

Our First Reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (2:1-5), taken from the beginning of the text, bears a lot of the meaning latent in understanding what the Season of Advent is all about in terms of inventus.

In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”

But what is most interesting here is that this anticipation, this awareness of what is to come is not the adventus of a Roman Emperor or powerful figure. It is not the victorious coming of a violent God who has triumphed in the way human beings imagine. It is the coming or arrival of the end of such a reality.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

This is hardly reflective of the original meaning of adventus. No violence, no weapons, no military victory. Instead, we cannot imagine or conceptualize of what God has in store for us with the in-coming, the invention of Christ into our lives!

Likewise, this Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 24:37-44) unsettles the Roman meaning of adventus in yet another key way. Jesus warns us in the Gospel according to Matthew:

Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.

We do not know when the Lord will come. There is no red carpet, there is no planning, there is no trumpet blast alerting us to the arrival or coming of the Lord. In fact, the opposite is the case. People will simply be doing their normal, everyday activities:

In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.

Like the flood, the invention, the in-coming of Christ will be a surprise.

Some can and do read this passage with fright, but it seems rather hopeful and comforting if we listen carefully to the Gospel. We should not fear, but live our everyday lives according to the model Christ has laid out for us. Then we need not worry.

Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation this week, Evangelii Gaudium, lays out a beautiful and challenging roadmap to live the Gospel today such that we can be read for the invention, the in-coming of Christ. If we just do what we are called to do in light of our baptism, we will have no fear. Those, meanwhile, who are waiting for an adventus, with triumph, grandeur, violence, and rapture, well… they will be disappointed. They’ve been missing what the season of Advent and the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas is all about.

It is with great hope that we pause to consider what this season is all about. On the one hand we ready ourselves to celebrate what God has done, yet on the other hand we continue to await the future, the in-coming, the á venir, the in-vention of Christ in our lives!

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What Does the Baptism of Jesus Really Mean?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 12, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

jesus[As the Christmas Season comes to an end with the celebration of the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord this Sunday, I thought readers of DatingGod.org might be interested in a brief theological summary of what Jesus’s baptism by John is really all about. What follows in this post is a little technical — aka: “boring” for many — but it offers a succinct overview of some of the important themes surrounding the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus. This short reflection is part of a response I wrote in 2009 in a graduate course on the Sacrament of Baptism to the question of the theological meaning of the Lord’s Baptism. Pardon the many footnotes, hopefully they are instructive and helpful. Enjoy!]

The existence of narratives depicting or implying Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist in all of the synoptic Gospels naturally raises questions concerning the purpose of such an act.[1]  In order to provide a sufficient answer to the question of “why” Jesus was baptized, it is necessary to explore the manner in which the baptismal practice of John compares to Jewish proselyte baptism.  Through the elucidation of John’s baptismal practice we are able to glean a clearer understanding of the potential sources of this action, thereby illuminating the significance of Jesus’s request for baptism from John.  Additionally, such an analysis provides an opportunity to examine the content and form of John’s baptism as it stands in relation to Jesus of Nazareth.  Finally, a very brief textual study of the New Testament will allow us to investigate the significance of this act for the New Testament authors, better enabling us to characterize the theological implications present in the baptismal narratives.

John’s Baptism in Contradistinction to Jewish Proselyte Baptism

Drawing on the reconstructed Q (Quelle) source, the four canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the writing of Josephus,[2] Adela Yarbro Collins outlines an overview of John’s baptism that allows us to focus on the particular practice in question.[3]  The origin of John’s baptism is widely disputed, allowing for several theories to be posited over the years.  The first theory is that it was modeled after the ritual ablutions of the Essene community at Qumran.  While there are clear similarities between the two forms of water bath, these characteristics are not unique.[4]  Having set aside the possibility of the Qumran community as source, next we consider the Jewish proselyte baptism.  This seems a more likely possibility if the practice of proselyte baptism existed prior to John’s ritual.  Contingent on the antecedent quality of Jewish proselyte baptism, John’s baptism could be viewed as a “reinterpretation” of the prior practice.[5]  However, there exists little certainty or consensus with regard to the dating of the origins of Jewish proselyte baptism.  Therefore, it is also possible that the ritual developed after John’s form of baptism.[6]

The likelihood that John’s baptism finds its origin in Jewish proselyte baptism is minimal, if not completely unlikely.  There are shared features, not unlike (the non-unique) similarities found between John’s baptism and the Qumran practice.  For instance, both John’s baptism and Jewish proselyte baptism were viewed as once-in-a-lifetime events.  Additionally, both required water immersion.  However, the purposes of these two practices are markedly different.  By virtue of its title, Jewish proselyte baptism was understood as an incorporative practice, whereas John’s emphasis focuses “upon prophetic expectations of the divine cleansing to be consummated by the work of the promised Messiah in a time of greatly heightened eschatological hope.”[7]  Additionally, there were elements of the Jewish proselyte water bath that were in no way emblematic of John’s practice.  For example, its association with male circumcision and purificatory form of baptism in preparation for sacrifice were both distinct from John’s practice.  John was not interested in making Gentiles into Jewish converts.  Reginald Fuller notes that, “John’s baptism was riveted to his eschatology in a way that these other baptismal practices were not.  John’s baptism was a singular conversion event carrying with it the promise of eschatological salvation.”[8]  There was a prophetic symbolism inherent in the baptism of John that pointed toward “God’s approach as purifier before the promised judgment and transformation.”[9]  As to the precise relationship between Jewish proselyte baptism and John’s baptism, Maxwell Johnson offers a possible correlation noting that it is “likely the case that both Jewish proselyte baptism and the baptism of John are parallel developments stemming from a common source or context.”[10]  Instead of John’s version following in likeness and format, thereby modeling an alleged precedent Jewish practice, Johnson’s theory suggests a concurrent genesis that better reflects the widespread shifts in society and culture of the time.[11]

The Content and Form of John’s Baptism in Relation to Jesus

Having examined the ways that John’s baptism is related to similar practices of the day, we can move to specifically identify the relationship between Jesus and the particular content and form of John’s baptism.  Aidan Kavanagh highlights the particularity and distinctiveness of John’s baptism, noting that, in addition to standing apart from other parallel washing rituals of the day, John’s baptizing of Jesus transforms the Baptizer’s practice into the “prototype” of subsequent Christian practice.[12]  According to Kavanagh, Jesus submitted himself to both the content and the form of John’s baptism.  The content, as evidenced by the Baptizer’s preaching, demanded “conversion of life as precondition as well as its continuing outcome” in addition to remission of sins.[13]  Jesus clearly did not need remission of sins, but his submission to the content – concomitant with John’s preaching – demonstrated Jesus’s newly established solidarity with those who were in need for conversion and the remission of sins.  This was made manifest in Jesus’s concurrent submission to the ritual form of the water bath.[14]  The significance of Jesus’s baptism by John is also expressed in the apparent acceptance of the prophetic-eschatological meaning present in the act.[15]  In the act of acceptance of the prophetic-eschatological implications of John’s baptism, we can see the relationship between this submission and the subsequent preaching of Jesus announcing the reign of God is at hand.

New Testament Views of Jesus’s Baptism vis-á-vis Christian Baptism

There are divergent opinions about the meaning of Jesus’s baptism by John even within the New Testament canon.[16]  As Collins keenly notes, the eschatological interpretation operating in the early Christian community varied significantly from that “eschatological schema” embodied in the message and action of John the Baptist.[17]  It is necessary to note the clear distinction between Jesus’s baptism by John and Christian baptism.  The New Testament authors will, time and again, highlight the uniqueness of Jesus’s baptism by John.[18]  What is also important to recall while considering the New Testament views of the importance of Jesus’s baptism by John is the post-paschal hermeneutic operating throughout the composition of the nascent Christian texts.  Certain meaning was naturally ascribed to the baptism of Jesus in retrospect.  Additionally, this baptism became paradigmatic for the first followers of Jesus and the early communities, even if the subsequent Christian baptism remained different from the original.  While we are certainly confident in dismissing any initiatory dimensions potentially ascribed to Jesus’s baptism by John in se, the early Christian communities – very early on – developed an understanding of baptism as an initiation ritual.  This theological view is found in writings including the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline letters and the Shepherd of Hermas.[19]  One can also see intimations of this theological perspective in Matthew 28:18-20.

Given the post-paschal interpretation of baptism by the New Testament authors, we can see emerge from the canon a theology of “baptism as death and resurrection.”  Here we see an adjudicated shift in theological signification from John’s baptism, which symbolized cleansing that inaugurated a new life of purity and sanctity, to a “Christian baptism” that denoted death that leads to new life.[20]  This idea of “new beginnings” or “new life” might even be understood as latent in the chronological location of Jesus’s baptism by John in the scriptural narratives in proximity to his mission.[21]  Connecting the beginnings of Jesus’s public ministry closely to Christian baptism only emphasizes the view of “Christian initiation as new birth through water and the Holy Spirit.”[22]  Furthermore, the New Testament authors saw “Christian initiation as being united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.”[23]  It is these understandings of the meaning of Christian baptism that remain central to any elaborated or modified interpretations found elsewhere in the New Testament canon and the early Christian communities.[24]

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NOTES:


            [1] The respective versions can be found at: Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17 and Luke 3:21-22.  For more on these passages, see John Donahue and Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 59-70; Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 61-65; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 68-72; and Joel Marcus, “Jesus’ Baptismal Vision,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 512-521.

It should be noted that the Gospel of John does not make any mention of Jesus being baptized by John.  Instead, the ministries of Jesus and John are depicted as concurrently taking place.  For more on the significance of this, see Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, rev. ed. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 17-23.  Adela Yarbro Collins, however, makes a generalized suggestion through the inclusion of John with the synoptics that the Fourth Gospel also includes a narration of Jesus’s baptism (see p. 35 of n.3 source below).  See John 3:22-23.

            [2] See Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews.  For a critical English translation, see Josephus: The Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 30-650.

            [3] Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995), esp. 35-39.

            [4] This is first explicated by Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 40-41; and elaborated by Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 7-9.

            [5] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 41.

            [6] See Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 41-46; and Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1978), 6-11.

            [7] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 11; and Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 46-47.  Kavanagh further explains: “John’s baptism of repentance is preparatory for messianic work.  It is not a means for making gentiles Jews, as was proselyte baptism, nor is it wholly bound by the bathing ablutions of the Essene ascetics or Qumran” (10).

            [8] Reginald Fuller, “Christian Initiation in the New Testament,” in Made Not Born: New Perspectives on Christian Initiation and the Catechumenate, ed. Aidan Kavanagh (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 9.

            [9] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 47.

            [10] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 10.  This is also explored in Fuller, “Christian Initiation in the New Testament,” 8-9.

            [11] This is perhaps best captured in the seeming reliance of both types of baptism on the ritual washings of Leviticus.  For more see Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 56-57.

            [12] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 10.

            [13] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11.

            [14] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11.

            [15] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 47.

            [16] It is clear that very early on there existed a set of teachings on baptism in the New Testament.  For more on the manifestations of this theology, see Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11-12.

            [17] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 52.

            [18] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 13.

            [19] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 53.

            [20] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 54.

            [21] Here I am drawing on the work of Johnson who notes, in Luke for example, that Jesus’s baptism by John is understood as a beginning.  This interpretation is further supported in the book of the Acts, where we read that Jesus’s mission of spreading the message of the reign of God and performing the healing works took place “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced” (see Acts 10:36-38).  See Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 12-16.

            [22] John 3:5ff and Titus 3:5: see Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 38.

            [23] Romans 6:3-11: Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 38.

            [24] Some of the other interpretation of Christian initiation in the New Testament include: Forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), putting off the old self and putting on the new, i.e. being clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27, Col 3:9-10), enlightenment (Heb 6:4 & 10:32, 1 Pet 2:9), being anointed and or sealed by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:21-22, 1 John 2:20), being sealed or marked as belonging to God and God’s people (2 Cor 1:21-22, Eph 1:13-14, Rev 7:3) and so on.  See Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 37ff.

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