Tag Archives: Christmas season

Remembering the Baptism of Jesus

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem  a high tower (above) was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives where this picture was taken is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.

The tower attests the importance of  the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism and in his life.

In the Jordan River,  God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.

As we touch Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, we remember the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

John the Baptist: I am not the Christ

 In the days before Christmas, Luke’s gospel linked the birth of John the Baptist closely to the birth of Jesus. Luke carefully notes the superiority of Jesus to John; at the same he indicates that John will play a privileged role announcing him as the Messiah.  Only Luke mentions that John and Jesus are related.

In the day’s after Christmas John’s gospel offers the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus. “I am not the Christ,” John responds to the Jewish leaders who question him about his ministry as he baptizes at the Jordan River. “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

The lower Jordan valley where the river flows into the Dead Sea, where John preached and baptized, was a place hallowed by heroic events and figures of the Jewish past.

After the death of Moses in the desert, Joshua led the Israelites over a river ford of the Jordan to conquer the city of Jericho and enter the “land flowing with milk and honey.”

Later in the 8th century B.C., the prophet Elijah began preaching reform here when Israel turned to worship the false gods of the wicked Queen Jezebel. God sent ravens to the Wadi Cerith near the Jordan to feed Elijah in a terrible drought as he began his preaching. Returning to the lower Jordan at the end of his life, Elijah disappeared mysteriously on a mountain nearby.

Later Jewish tradition said that Elijah would return – most likely to the same river area – to announce the Day of the Lord, God’s final coming. And so, when John came dressed in a rough camel hair cloak, like Elijah of old, and preached with great power at this memorable spot, people wondered: “Has Elijah returned?”

Jews saw the Judean wilderness as a place to  recapture the ancient faith of their forebears. The desert air was purer and life more simpler in the hard, memorable land that seemed to belong to God alone.

Strongly religious people, like the communities of Qumran, preferred living in the desert to Jerusalem, rejecting what they saw as the compromise and spiritual lukewarmness of mainstream Judaism. Living there, they hoped for a Messiah and Teacher to bring renewal to their people.

Besides the communities of Qumran, Jewish revolutionaries were also associated with the Judean wilderness. In 6 A.D. after the failure of a bloody revolt led by Judas the Galilean against the Romans and their puppet rulers, bands of his followers waged a guerrilla campaign for Jewish independence from these barren hills.

And so, the Roman authorities and their local allies kept a wary eye on anyone like John the Baptist coming from the desert, a place so significant, a major pilgrim road to Jerusalem.

Pilgrims came from Galilee that way especially. As John’s Gospel points out, Jesus himself and some of his followers were among them. I suspect the authorities who watched John the Baptist also associated Jesus and his followers with him. They needed to be watched too.

The Adaptable Word:December 31


Mary Garden, Jamaica, New York

On last day of the year we read from the 1st chapter of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” In our Mary Garden, Mary holds in her arms the “Silent Word” blessing creation. The responsorial psalm for today calls the heavens to sing and the earth to rejoice.

Creation today needs the blessing of the Word, doesn’t it?

St. Bridget of Sweden influenced 15th century artists, like the one below, with her vision of the Nativity. Mary places her Child on the earth outside the stable so that the earth –all creation– might receive his blessing along with Joseph and the shepherds.

The Word, who made all things, became flesh to bring blessings to all that came to be.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Giorgone , National Gallery

Listen to Maximus, the Confessor, speak about the marvelous adaptability of the Word made flesh:

“The Word of God, born once in the flesh (such is his kindness and his goodness), is always willing to be born spiritually in those who desire him. In them he is born as an infant as he fashions himself in them by means of their virtues. He reveals himself to the extent that he knows someone is capable of receiving him. He diminishes the revelation of his glory not out of selfishness but because he recognizes the capacity and resources of those who desire to see him. Yet, in the transcendence of mystery, he always remains invisible to all.

For this reason the apostle Paul, reflecting on the power of the mystery, said: Jesus Christ, yesterday and today: he remains the same for ever. For he understood the mystery as ever new, never growing old through our understanding of it.”

An adaptable, respectful love. That’s the way God loves us and that’s the way to love all creation.

Feast of St. John:December 27

John evangelist

The Feast of St.John the Apostle (December 27) follows the birth of Jesus because John in his writings– the 4th gospel and letters– answers the great question: Who is Jesus, the child born of Mary in Bethlehem, who lived in Nazareth, preached in Galilee and Judea, died and rose again in Jerusalem?

John uniquely answers that question, and for this reason his feast is placed where it is, two days after celebrating Jesus’ birth. John was one of his first disciples whom he called at the Sea of Galilee to follow him. He knew where Jesus came from, Nazareth, and he knew his family. John was with Jesus in his ministry in Galilee and went with him on his journey to Jerusalem. John sat beside him at the Last Supper; he went into the Garden of Gethsemane with him, then stood beside his cross with Mary, his mother. John witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The Gospel of John and later traditions say John was close to Jesus’ mother, Mary.

The gospel reading for his feast reminds us that John saw the empty tomb and recognized Jesus risen from the dead. “‘It is the Lord,’ he said to Peter” on the Lake of Galilee as the Risen Christ appears. (John 21, 7) John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” had a special relationship with Jesus, human and divine. 

The 1st Letter of John, read in the liturgy after Christmas, tells us to know Jesus Christ through his humanity, just as the apostles did. Like them, we are called to know the One we know in his humanity as the Word of God who is God.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard,

what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon

and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life —

for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it

and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—

what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you.” 1 John 1-4

It’s so easy to get trapped into politics today, world politics and church politics. We need to keep our eyes on mysteries that are above politics. The Word has become visible and lived among us.

God, our Father, you have revealed the mysteries of your Word through John the apostle. By prayer and reflection may we come to understand the wisdom he taught. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,  One God, forever and ever.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is an important figure in Advent and Christmas Time. She’s known mostly from events of this time, in  fact. The angel visits her at Nazareth, she visits  her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the coming of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple, the finding of the Child Jesus in the temple after his loss for three days. All these events are  recorded in Luke and Matthew’s gospels.

We remember them especially on the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. (January 1st)

The gospels offer only a sketchy profile of Mary because they focus on Jesus, her Son. She’s a witness to his humanity and divinity. “For us and our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” (Creed)

The Christmas liturgy reminds us that through her, Jesus took “a body truly like our own.” (Collect, Monday of Christmas Time) Jesus “accepted from Mary the frailty of our flesh.” (Collect, Monday of Christmas Time) She’s the way the Word became flesh. The First Letter of John, read in Christmas Time, warns against the denial of this fundamental truth of faith.

By taking a body “truly like our own” and accepting “from Mary the frailty of our flesh,” Jesus humbled himself, assuming the limitations that come from being human. Mary is his way, giving him birth, nursing him as a infant and raising him as a child.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” For 30 years Jesus led a hidden life in the silence of that small town in Galilee. Mary was his companion. “I confess I did not recognize him,” John the Baptist says twice when Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized. (John 1,29-34) His own in Nazareth did not recognize him either.

He went unrecognized, and so did Mary, who shared his hidden life. She performed no miracles, did not publically teach; no angel came again after the first announcement to her.

We can pass over the Hidden Life that Jesus embraced too quickly, I think, even though the Christmas mystery tells us of it. We forget that to be transformed into glory means accepting “the frailty of our flesh,” which  Jesus accepted it to raise it up.

“…though invisible in his divine nature, he has appeared visibly in ours;
and begotten before all ages, he has begun to exist in time;
so that, raising up in himself all that was cast down,
he might restore unity to all creation
and call straying humanity back to the heavenly kingdom.”
(Preface II of the Nativity)

St. Mary Major is the main church in Rome dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. You can visit it in the video above. It’s also called “Bethlehem in Rome” because many of the Christmas mysteries were first celebrated there and relics from Bethlehem were brought to it after the Moslem invasion in the 8th century.

SuperStock_1788-1275[1]The great mosaic of Mary in heaven crowned by Jesus, her Son, stands over the altar in the church as its focal point. She was his companion in his hidden life; he raised her up through the mystery of his resurrection.

The Long Christmas Season

1 Jn 5:5-13
Lk 5:12-16

The Christmas season closes with the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus on Sunday. The season’s already ended for most people, however. The decorations are away. Valentine’s Day is coming up.

But it takes time to celebrate mysteries of God; more than a day or an hour or two. It takes time for the mysteries of God to sink in. And so we prepare for the celebration through the days of Advent. Then on Christmas Day the poor shepherds come from the dark hills to see the Child announced by the angels. A Savior is born for us, a Child is given to us. Yet, as the ancient carol says, “We scarce can take it in.”

The Feast of the Epiphany is a further reminder that the Child is the savior of all nations. He came, not just for one people, but for all. The Magi represent people far away and they bring him their greetings and gifts. Then, they leave to bring back the good news of his birth. That colorful story isn’t over; it’s still unfolding.

The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus may seem like a poor way to end the Christmas season, so far removed from the days and events of Jesus’ birth as it is. But baptism is about birth too, a birth that conquers death.

Jesus Christ “came through water and Blood,” St. John says in his First Letter today. His Spirit is given to us. It’s not enough to just look upon the mystery of the Incarnation. We’re meant to share his life, and baptism is a sign of our union with him.

We need time to understand all this, however. So the Christmas season is a long season. And we’ll celebrate again next year.

Christmas: A Call to Baptism

Matthew’s gospel was the gospel most used for catechesis in the early church. It also plays an important role in the creation of our Christmas season. It gives us the Feast of the Epiphany, for example. Jesus Christ came for the gentiles as well as for the Jews.

I think Matthew’s gospel is also an important source for our upcoming Feast of the Baptism of Jesus which closes the Christmas season. Matthew sees baptism as a way of repentance. That’s how John the Baptist describes it in Matthew’s gospel: “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming: ‘Repent, the kingdom of God is near.’” (Mt 3,1-2)

When Pharisee and Sadducees come for baptism, John calls them “a brood of vipers” because they presume they are saved as “children of Abraham.” “God is able to raise up from these stones children of Abraham, “ John says to them.

Baptism is not an entitlement. Baptism is a commitment to repentance. That’s important for us to realize too.

But repentance is a difficult path. Can we do it alone?  John continues in Matthew’s gospel with the promise that one more powerful than he is coming. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” When we are baptized into Christ, we are given the Holy Spirit and his fire to continue on the path of repentance.

Christmas is not just for looking at the Child in a manger; it’s a call  to enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ.