THE NOW WORD ON MASS READINGS
for December 20th, 2013
Liturgical texts here
SAME angel. Same news: beyond all possible odds, a baby is going to be born. In yesterday’s Gospel, it would be John the Baptist; in today’s, it is Jesus Christ. But how Zechariah and the Virgin Mary responded to the news was completely different.
When Zechariah was told his wife would conceive, he replied:
How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years. (Luke 1:18)
The angel Gabriel chided Zechariah for doubting. Mary, on the other hand, replied:
How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?
Mary did not doubt. Rather, unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth who were having relations, she wasn’t, and so her inquiry was justified. When told the answer, she did not respond: “What? The Holy Spirit? That’s impossible! Besides, why not with Joseph, my beloved spouse? Why not…. etc.” Instead, she replied:
Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.
What incredible faith! Presented with these two Gospels one day after another, we are forced to see the comparison. We should be compelled to ask, which response is more like my own?
You see, Zechariah was a good man, a high priest, faithful to his duties. But in that moment, he revealed a character flaw many good, well-meaning Christians have: a tendency to an unhealthy introspection. And this usually takes one of three forms.
The first is the most obvious. It takes the form of narcissism, a grandiose view of oneself, one’s talents, looks, etc. What this introspective soul lacks is the humility of Mary.
The second form is less obvious, and the one that Zechariah adopted that day—that of self-pity. It comes with a litany of excuses: “I am too old; too sick; too tired; too untalented; too this, too that…” Such a soul does not look up long enough to hear the Angel Gabriel say to them as well: “With God, all things are possible.” In Christ, we are a new creation. We have been given in Him “every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” cf. Eph 1:3 Thus, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Phil 4:13 What this intropsective soul lacks is faith in God’s power.
The third form, also subtle, is perhaps the most dangerous of all. It is the soul who looks within and says: “I am nothing but sin. I am a wretch, miserable, weak, good for nothing. I will never be holy, never be a saint, only misery incarnate, etc.” This form of unhealthy introspection is the most dangerous because it is based mostly in truth. But it carries a profound and potentially lethal flaw: a lack of trust, disguised in false modesty, in God’s goodness.
I have often said that, if the truth sets us free, the very first truth is who I am, and who I’m not. There has to be an honest self-examination of where one stands before God, others, and oneself. And yes, it is painful to walk in that light. But this is the first step of moving out of self-love into true love. We have to keep moving from repentance into receiving…. receiving God’s love.
Truly, Jesus, I become frightened when I look at my own misery, but at the same time I am reassured by Your unfathomable mercy, which exceeds my misery by the measure of all eternity. This disposition of soul clothes me in Your power. O joy that flows from the knowledge of one’s self!—Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary, n. 56
The danger is to remain fixated on our misery becoming melancholy, depressed, impotent, and eventually, worldly.
Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ. —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 2
And really, I think God gets tired of our excuses, like he was of Ahaz in the first reading. The Lord actually invites Ahaz to ask for a visible sign! But Ahaz tries to mask his doubt, replying: “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” With that, Heaven sighs:
Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God?
How many times have we said, “God won’t bless me. He doesn’t hear my prayers. What’s the use…”
My child, all your sins have not wounded My Heart as painfully as your present lack of trust does that after so many efforts of My love and mercy, you should still doubt My goodness. —Jesus to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary, n. 1486
In yesterday’s Gospel, you can almost hear the Lord’s hurt at Zechariah’s response!
I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless… because you did not believe my words. (Lk 1:19-20)
O, my beloved brothers and sisters—God is waiting to lavish you with love! God wants you to encounter him, but it cannot be on the shifting sands of self-love, in the blinding winds of unhealthy introspection, the collapsing walls of self-pity. Rather, it must be on rock, the rock of faith and truth. Mary wasn’t feigning modesty when she burst out in song proclaiming: “He has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness.” cf. Lk. 1:48
Yes, spiritual poverty—that is the meeting place of God with His people. He looks for the lost sheep caught in the brambles of their fallen humanity; He dines with the tax collectors and prostitutes at their tables; He hangs upon the Cross alongside criminals and thieves.
Be at peace, My daughter, it is precisely through such misery that I want to show the power of My mercy… the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy. —Jesus to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary, n. 133, 1182
So we must get over ourselves and say, “God is here—Emmanuel—God is with us! If God is for us, of whom should I be afraid?” Otherwise, the sheep stays hidden, Zacchaeus remains in his tree, and the thief dies in despair.
Jesus does not want gold, frankincense, and myrrh this Christmas. He wants you to leave your sins, misery, and weakness at His feet. Leave them there for good, and then look up into His tiny face… a baby whose gaze s
I did not come to condemn you, but to give you life in abundance. See? I come to you as a baby. Do not be afraid any longer. It pleases the Father to give you the Kingdom. Pick Me up—yes, pick Me up in your arms and hold me. And if you cannot think of Me as a baby, then think of me as a man when my Mother held my bleeding lifeless body beneath the Cross. Even then, when men completely failed to love me, deserving only justice… yes, even then did I let myself be handled by wicked soldiers, carried by Joseph of Arimathea, wept upon by Mary Magdalene, and wrapped in a burial cloth. So my child, “do not argue with Me about your wretchedness. You will give me pleasure if you hand over to me all your troubles and griefs. I shall heap upon you the treasures of My grace.” Your sins are like a drop in the ocean of my mercy. When you trust in me, I make you holy; I make you righteous; I make you beautiful; I make you acceptable… when you trust in Me.
Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD? Or who may stand in his holy place? He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain. He shall receive a blessing from the LORD, a reward from God his savior. (Today’s Psalm, 24)
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