Advent Devotionals – Week Three
Saturday, December 12th and Sunday, December 13thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Zechariah 2:14-17; Judith 13:18-19; Luke 1:26-38 or 39-47; and, Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121220.cfm and https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121320.cfm)
Reflection: Liturgically, this is a busy weekend for the Church. Saturday is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and the “Empress of the Americas.” In 1531, Our Lady made an appearance that left us with one of the most famous Marian images and one of the most frequently visited sites of Catholic pilgrimage. Then, Sunday is the Third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete Sunday. The theme of both these celebrations, as well as the Scripture readings for this weekend, is joy (the meaning of the Latin word gaudete), specifically the joy of God unexpectedly coming to us to save us and change the very course of our lives.
Let us rejoice, therefore, with the Church this weekend, and in so doing, reflect upon joy. 2020 has hardly been a year that most would characterize as joyful. In the midst of these dark, difficult, and uncertain times, do you remember the last time you felt true joy? What is the time in your life where you have felt the most joyful? What was it that made you feel this way? How does the source of your joy compare to the source of the Church’s joy this weekend? Has going to church ever made you feel pure joy? What about a religious or faith experience? What is it that you think has led billions of people from every culture and corner of the world to find joy in God, in Christ, in Mary, and in the Church? What kind of joy is the Church inviting us to, and how can we get it?
Monday, December 14thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17a; Psalm 25:4-9; Matthew 21:23-27. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121420.cfm)
Reflection: Matthew’s Gospel today finds Jesus teaching in the temple. He is confronted there by the chief priests and elders, who ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23). Jesus is encroaching on the turf of the religious authorities of his day, and they want to know just who the heck he thinks he is and how he has the nerve to do the things he is doing. Jesus responds to this confrontation with a question, which the priests of his day refuse to answer based on a political calculation. They, like many of our leaders still today, could not have cared less about the truth. They cared only about their own power, about how they were regarded in public opinion, and about the optics of the situation. In turn, Jesus refuses to answer their question, since they did not answer his. Jesus recognizes a no-win situation when he sees it, and he deftly turns this no-win situation back around on those who seek to entrap him.
For all their corruption, self-interest, pride, and blindness to what God was doing right in front of their eyes, the political and religious leaders of Jesus’s time did raise an interesting question. Perhaps if we ask it in good faith, rather than as an attack, we might find an answer. How is it that Jesus is able to do the things he does? All of the accounts of Jesus’s life agree that he was both a brilliant teacher, who taught with a level of authority never before seen, and a worker of miracles, the extent to which had also never before been seen. What kind of person could do such things? What kind of person could even get a reputation for being able to do these kinds of things, apart from actually being able to do them? What kind of person could, or would people even claim could, raise the dead, control the weather with his voice, walk on water, cure every kind of disease, cast out demons, forgive sins, or feed thousands of people with a couple of fish sandwiches? The early Church could only come up with one answer. The only way that Christ could have done what he did was if he was, “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16), which is to say, if he was the second person of the Trinity incarnate. If you met someone and witnessed them firsthand curing the blind and raising the dead, how would you explain it? Who would you say that he is? Would you listen to what he had to say?
Tuesday, December 15thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13; Psalm 34:2-3, 6-7, 17-19, 23; Matthew 21:28-32. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121520.cfm)
Reflection: Today’s Scripture readings are about changing our mind, specifically, about being willing to admit when we are wrong, to change our course, and to start doing what is right. Jesus asks the chief priests, who just finished challenging his authority, “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” The priests and elders correctly answer that the first son did the will of the father. At this point, one can only imagine that Jesus facepalmed, sighed audibly, shook his head, and said, “Well, why don’t you morons do the same thing?? Admit when you have been wrong, change your mind, and do what is right. Gah!”
This is one of those moral principles that is deceptively easy in theory, but decidedly hard in practice. It is easy to think you are loving. It is easy to think you are a nice person who is easy to get along with. It is easy to think warm thoughts about forgiving other people and admitting when you are wrong. It is hard to do any of these things. It is especially hard when we have to love someone who is particularly unlovable, forgive someone who did something particularly bad to us, or admit an error that we are really sure was not wrong, was not an error, or was at least not entirely our fault. There is a reason the Christian tradition holds faith and repentance to be among the most important virtues for the spiritual life. These are the virtues of teachability. God can work wonders in the lives of those who can admit and turn from their shortcomings, failings, and blind spots. God can take the worst sinners and transform them into the greatest saints, if they are only willing to change and trust where God wants to lead them. God will do nothing, however, with those who refuse God’s help, or who resist God’s grace.
How can we be more teachable today? How can we have the intellectual humility to acknowledge what we do not know, or what we might be mistaken about? How can we trust that those who are trying to lead and guide us really have our best interests at heart? Where do you need to admit fault in your life? To whom do you need to apologize? How can you be more open to changing your mind?
Wednesday, December 16thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25; Psalm 85:9-14; Luke 7:18b-23. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121620.cfm)
Reflection: Isaiah, chapter 45, contains a beautiful reflection on God’s will and God’s creation. Isaiah says that God designed, made, and established the world not in vain, not to be meaningless, not to be wasted, but, “to be lived in,” (Isaiah 45:18) as a home and a blessing to all creatures. Isaiah thinks that God’s will for the world flows from this purpose. God proclaims, “Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice spring up!” (Isaiah 45:8).
May we reflect today on what it would look like for justice to rain down from the heavens and spring up from the Earth. May we reflect upon what it means that God designed the world to be lived in by us all. Given that our world is supposed to be a safe and comfortable home for all people, how good of a job are we doing at managing the household? Given that the Earth is the common home of the human family, how well is the family doing? Are we living in our common home in peace and justice? Are all of our brothers and sisters safe, cared for, and flourishing? Or, do we have a dysfunctional home?
Have we gotten in childish arguments and drawn lines down the middle of our rooms in order to divide one side from the other? Have the biggest, strongest, and oldest of our brothers and sisters taken the best provisions for themselves, while leaving the weaker, younger, brothers and sisters to fight over bunk beds in the basement? Have we locked some of our family members out of the house and left them to sleep in the barn? Have we tried to kick some people out of the family altogether?
Why is it so difficult for us to think of everyone as our brothers and sisters? Why is it so hard for us all to get along, even many times with our biological brothers and sisters? Why do we run the world like it is a competition among enemies rather than the home of a family? Why do we think some have a right to claim a bigger share of a gift that was given to everyone? Should families be meritocracies? Should the most talented and hard-working siblings in a healthy household be valued more highly than others? In the words of Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, what can we do to better recognize and treat others like we are brothers and sisters, all (Fratelli Tutti)?
Thursday, December 17thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Genesis 49:2, 8-10; Psalm 72:1-8, 17; Matthew 1:1-17. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121720.cfm)
Reflection: Both the reading from Genesis and the reading from the Gospel of Matthew today have to do with Christ’s lineage. The early Church read Genesis 49:8-10 as a messianic prophesy specifying that God’s chosen one would be from the tribe of Judah. Matthew, accordingly, in the opening words of his Gospel, takes great care to list the genealogy of Christ. He points out that Christ is a descendant of Abraham, Judah, and David, along with such other Old Testament figures such as Rahab, Ruth, Jesse, Solomon, Hezekiah, Amos, and Josiah. Matthew also carefully explains that there were precisely 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and 14 generations from the Babylonian exile to Christ (Matthew 1:17).
Aside from establishing the pedigree of Christ’s lineage, and demonstrating the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises to the faithful throughout the ages, Matthew’s account of Jesus’s ancestry must also have been awe-inspiring to the readers of his day due to the way in which it evinces God’s precision, planning, and work in the events of history. Jesus was not just some guy given a mission or message by God. God did not wake up on a random Tuesday and decide it was as good a time as any to become incarnate. Rather, Matthew presents Christ’s coming as something meticulously planned and precisely prepared by God from before the foundation of the world. Everything that has happened throughout the ages has been accounted for and incorporated into God’s plan of salvation, including human sinfulness (like Rahab being a prostitute and David committing adultery with Bathsheba), and including the great disasters of history (like the collapse of kingdoms and the Babylonian exile).
The readings today, therefore, offer us a message of great consolation, especially in the midst of difficult times. Scripture reassures us that everything, from the great happenings of history, to the smallest mundane moral choice, is a part of God’s plan. A great many things, like sin, politics, and pandemics, may go against God’s good desires for us, but none of these things is able to derail even the slightest detail of God’s ultimate intentions.
How can we begin to recognize in our own lives that everything, even our mistakes and the hardships we face, is going according to plan? Can we begin to see the ways in which God works in history to bring good out of evil, and salvation out of sinfulness? Does it change our lives if we are able to reconceive tragedies, not as meaningless events of suffering, but as hardships necessary to bring about the greater good? Can Matthew’s genealogy help us recognize that God works in history, not by controlling people like puppets or setting the future in stone, but in and through humans’ choices, finitude, and failures? How can you be open to letting God work to bring about salvation through you today?
Friday, December 18thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8; Psalm 72:12, 12-13, 18-19; Matthew 1:18-25. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121820.cfm)
Reflection: Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew’s focuses on Joseph and his experience of Jesus’s birth. We find out that Joseph, identified by the text as a righteous man, was betrothed to Mary, who “was found with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). Joseph’s initial plan was to divorce Mary quietly, but he had a dream that advised him otherwise. An angel in the dream tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21). When Joseph woke up, he did exactly as he was commanded.
As with the story of the Annunciation to Mary, the Biblical text provides very few details about Joseph’s exact experience of Jesus’s birth. The majority of Joseph’s life is described with a few sentences. We are left only to imagine the range of emotions he went through related to these events. Based on today’s text, Joseph must certainly have felt deeply hurt, betrayed, and probably pretty angry, when he mistakenly thought that his fiancée had cheated on him. It must have been terrifying to dream of an angel, and incredibly confusing when he tried to wrap his mind around what it might mean for someone to be “with child through the Holy Spirit.” Joseph was surely skeptical about whether his dream was real, and he surely had questions about what it might mean for Mary’s child to “save his people from their sins.”
However, precisely because he experienced such difficulties, yet still followed God’s commands, Joseph, just like Mary, provides us with an excellent example of what it looks like to be a person of faith, to follow God’s will, and to be open to God working through us. Joseph shows us faith and righteousness. Can you imagine if you thought your significant other was cheating on you that your first response would be for his or her wellbeing, or to preserve that person from feeling shame about their actions? Can you imagine going against the norms of your society based on nothing more than a dream? Can you imagine believing and acting upon something that should be totally impossible?
It may well be the case that none of us will ever see angels or be involved in virgin births, but are there ways we can be just as faithful as Joseph? Can we go through uncertain times and remain faithful? Can we be hurt and angry with people, yet still be concerned for their wellbeing? Can we keep God’s commandments even when the whole world thinks we are crazy? Can we do what we know is right even when we have justifiable doubts?