Saturday, December 21, 2013


Pope Innocent VI was bishop of Rome in the mid-decades of the 14th Century. He was a good hymnologist as well. He authored the beautiful but very brief eucharistic hymn known by its Latin title – "Ave Verum Corpus". It was later put to music by the incomparable Mozart. It goes as follows:

Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria virgine,
Vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine,
Cujus latus perforatum vero fluxit sanguine,
Esto nobis praegustatum mortis in examine.
O clemens, o pie,
O dulcis Jesu, fili Mariae.

Hail true body that was born of Mary, the
Virgin, that truly suffered and was offered in
sacrifice on the cross for man and that gave
forth true blood from its pierced side. Be to us
a foretaste of heaven when we are in death’s
agony, kind, loving and gentle Jesus, son of Mary.

The hymn celebrates the truth of things about our Catholic faith, the realities of faith we celebrate throughout the liturgical year. The first line celebrates the reality of the mystery of the Incarnation – "Hail true Body born of the Virgin Mary". The second line celebrates the mystery of the cross – "Hail true Body, truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind”. The third line continues the theme of the Passion – “Hail true Body whose pierced side flowed with water and blood”. The fourth and final line directly reflects the Eucharist – “Let it be for us a foretaste of heaven when we are in death’s agony”. Jesus whom we call the Christ is no mythical figure. Neither is his heavenly Father who mysteriously identified himself to the prophet Moses in the words "I AM". Neither is his earthly mother who said to Gabriel, "I am the handmaid of the Lord." The Lord Jesus is for real – real in his birth, real in his dying and rising, real in the Eucharist we receive, foreshadowing God’s gift of eternal life. The "Ave Verum Corpus" celebrates these realities.

For an Advent meditation, I would call your attention to the prayer that opened our liturgy on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We said to God our Father – "Fill our hearts with your love, and as you revealed to us the coming of your Son as man, so lead us through his suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection". Any welcoming of the Lord at Christmas carries with it the acceptance of Christ’s cross.

This prayer like the Gospels themselves should be read backwards, that is, we start with the paschal mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection, then move backwards to the Lord’s public ministry and his birth at Christmas time. We should note our second reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul begins his Letter with these words: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” This passage from St. Paul raises an interesting question. Our Jewish brothers and sisters for centuries have read the ancient prophets. The Church from its very beginning has continued to read the ancient prophets. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do not recognize Jesus in the ancient prophets. We, the Church, recognize Jesus in the writing of the prophets. Jesus himself knew the prophets well; he identified himself as descending from Adam, Abraham and David. He identified himself with the suffering servant as pictured in the prophecy of Isaiah. Why is it that there is what we could call the failure of our Jewish brothers and sisters to find the Lord Jesus in the prophets? Pope Benedict had a wonderful passage in this regard. He writes: “The starting point for Christology in the New Testament – that is, the study of the story of Jesus – is the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is God’s way of publicly taking the side of Jesus in the trials organized by the Jews and Gentiles against him. Through the resurrection, God’s defense of Jesus confirms first of all the interpretation of the Old Testament which the Lord Jesus had given to his disciples and confirmed as well Jesus’ claim to divinity.” This is why some disciples came to Jesus from John and asked the question – “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” We read the Gospels backwards starting with the resurrection. That is why in our prayer life in Advent we read backwards the prayer we have just cited which began our liturgy for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We begin with the resurrection. This highlights the law of the cross. The law of the cross is expressed by Jesus in his public ministry of love and forgiveness and thus leads to the feast of Christmas which we are preparing to celebrate. This confirms once again what we have already said – any invitation of the Lord at Christmas carries with it the acceptance of the cross.

Let us reflect for a moment on what we can call the law of the cross. What does this mean? In shorthand, it goes something like this – All of human history, everybody’s human history, is a story of progress and decline. Because of sin, decline, disorder, evil become the conquerors. Justice comes along to try to right the wrongs, but the enmities, the rivalries, the hostilities that come from sin continue to conqueror. Just look at the front pages of our newspapers. Better still, look in the mirror and try to examine the human heart. Where justice fails, only love can prevail, only love can wipe the slate clean of sin. This is what we mean by the law of the cross. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God wipes the slate clean, for Christ is the true Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. In other words, God has introduced into human history a process of reversal. The consequences of our sins become the very means of our salvation. The prime instance is Jesus. By willingly accepting the consequences of our sins, though sinless himself, he passed through suffering and death, and God’s power at work in Jesus made this the passageway to resurrection and life. St. Paul puts it this way – God showed his love for us in this that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. The law of the cross works something like this – Two persons have a quarrel. As long as each party returns evil for evil, the quarrel escalates, the situation worsens, no fresh start is possible. Only a process of reversal will bring peace. Only when one party is willing to love one’s enemies and to pray for one’s persecutors, only then will the decline of evil be checked, only then will redemption be effected, only then will our own human history make progress towards God’s kingdom.

This is what happened in Jesus. This is what he wills to effect in us. This is what Christmas is all about. We cooperate with God’s redeeming power by returning good for evil, thus transforming the evil that surrounds us into the cross through which alone we are saved. This was a scandal to some of the Jews of Jesus’ time. This was all folly to the Greeks. To those who believed, Jew or Greek, this was the power of God and the wisdom of God. The law of the cross is still folly for so many in our day. The philosopher Nietzsche would reject Christian humility and self-giving love as the religion of slaves who are really envious of the rich and the powerful. Karl Marx would reject Christian patience and the doctrine of the cross as ideological invention to facilitate the enriching of the rich and the enslaving of the poor who are thus deceived by Christian teaching and drugged by the empty hope of abundant life beyond the grave.
The feast of Christmas makes an affirmation and asks a question. The affirmation is this – Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners. In other words, God out of love wipes our slates clean. The question is this – Are we willing to do the same for our brothers and sisters? Only those who understand the law of the cross can truly say – Merry Christmas.

(Readers who are familiar with the wonderful work of Bernard Lonergan, who was my mentor in graduate school, will recognize what has been said above about the Law of the Cross.)


Thoughtful folks ask three questions:

a) What can I know? – the knowledge question.
b) What ought I to do? – the ethical question.
c) In what, in whom can I put my trust?

John the Baptist is front and center in our Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent. Those who heard John preaching were moved to ask – What are we to do? John is the bridge from the Old Testament of promise to the New Testament of fulfillment. His response to the question – What should we do? – represents a not unfamiliar response to all of us – that’s what the Ten Commandments are all about. But John points to the Advent of Christ. The Lord Jesus is now the way, the truth and the light. His way presumes the Ten Commandments and builds on them. This means for us Matthew’s Beatitudes, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, Christ’s Law of Love, Christ’s Law of Forgiveness. In answer to the above question – What ought I to do? – the answer would seem to be – Do what the Lord asks of us in the New Testament.

Listen to how St. Paul summarizes the New Testament teaching: “Let love be sincere; hate what is evil; hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, bless those who persecute you and do not curse them, do not repay evil with evil; if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if your enemy is thirsty, give him drink, do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

On the Second Sunday of Advent, we focused our Advent attention on the mystery of the Incarnation, which means “becoming flesh”, “taking on our humanity”. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other words, Christ Jesus, Son of God from all eternity, equal in divinity to the Father and Holy Spirit, took on our humanity and without ceasing to be his divine self, he became like us in all things except sin. Way back in the 11th Century, Anselm of Canterbury, bishop, theologian, man of God, wrote a treatise which he entitled: “Why Did God Become Man?” He did so to fulfill the Father’s plan for human salvation. He came among us to bear witness to the truth, he came among us to take away our sins, he came among us to show us the way to God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Intimately associated with Anselm’s question – Why did God become man? – is the somewhat foreboding question – Why the cross for Jesus, why the cross for those who follow Jesus, why the cross for those who do not follow Jesus? From our earliest days, have we not lived under the sign of the cross? At holy Baptism the celebrant called each one by name and said to us – “The Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ the Savior by the sign of the cross.” From our earliest days with the Catechism, we began to realize that the Lord Jesus was handed over to death according to the definitive plan of God the Father; that Jesus came to die for our sins so that we might become the righteousness of God. We cannot appreciate Christmas unless we look beyond Christmas to the mysteries of Holy Week. We cannot rejoice with the angels and shepherds unless we can first learn to hail the cross as Christ’s victory over sin and death, our vey source of hope.

The English author G. K. Chesterton once wrote – “According to many philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it by his commandments. That’s ridiculous, of course. God in making the world set it free. God has written not so much a poem, but a play, a drama, which he has planned as a perfect drama but, which necessarily, had to be left to human actors and stage managers who have since made a great mess of it.” Chesterton concludes – “We welcome our Savior at Christmastime because we know in faith that the Incarnation and the cross are God’s loving answers to the great mess we humans have made of things at the beginning and down the centuries.”

One writer has made an interesting suggestion. The author writes – “While doing theological studies over ten years ago, after having studied and taught philosophy for several years, I decided to sit down and read the Gospels as if they were really true.” “Of course”, he said, “I was a believing and faithful Catholic in the notional sense of faith. I thought I had better have more than a notional sense of the Gospels if I were going to preach about them. By the time I reached the end of Matthew, I was undergoing a life-forming experience.” What will we find if we follow this suggestion? We will find the revolutionary “Sermon on the Mount”, starting with the Beatitudes in Matthew’s 5th Chapter, which is so stunning, this author tells us, that most of us are tempted to act as though it couldn’t be true. Then there is the “Lord’s Prayer” in Chapter 6 telling us about God’s forgiveness of ourselves and reminding us that we are to be forgiving of others, seventy times seven. Matthew tells us to control our anger, not to lust after another, be careful about storing up treasures for ourselves, and we must not judge. Mindful of the words the disciples of John posed to Jesus – “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” – if all this from Matthew’s Gospel is true, if under the grace of the Holy Spirit we can give not just notional assent but real assent to what Matthew is telling us, then that is good, that gives us a good understanding of what Christmas demands. If we cannot give such assent, perhaps we ought to go elsewhere and begin to look for someone else.


Great joy, much excitement, radiate from the Advent Liturgies. Jeremiah tells us – “Nations, hear the message of the Lord, and make it known to the ends of the earth: Our Savior is coming; have no more fear.” Zechariah tells us – “See, the Lord is coming and with him all his saints. Then there will be endless day.” Isaiah tells us – “Sound the trumpets, summon the nations, tell them the Good News – Our God and Savior is coming.” The Advent message is missionary – “Proclaim the Good News, tell it to everyone, shout it aloud – Our God is coming.” We, the Church, have Good News to tell. You and I are evangelizers, carriers of the Good News for our times and no matter what our problems and crosses may be, no matter how heavy our hearts at this time, Advent is always the reminder that we are the privileged recipients of God’s good news. This is what the Church is all about – to communicate a sense of the Good News, to communicate a much needed expression of Christian hope. The Church exists to evangelize, to tell the world that God has first loved us and that we ought to love God in return.

Recently I read an interesting comment on evangelization. An African Cardinal from Ghana, while visiting London, gave a talk entitled “How Africa Can Help Europe”. He said with regard to evangelization, and every pastor would say the same thing – There is a great disparity between what parish baptismal and confirmation records have to say and the vast number of those who have not persevered in the joyful practice of the faith. This has to do – the Cardinal said – with the whole issue of evangelization. It is wrong, he suggests, to make catechesis, rather than evangelization, the point of entry into the Church. What does this mean in our American context? I suggest that it means that Catholic colleges are offering theology courses to undergraduate students who in large numbers have not been properly catechized – but this is mission impossible. Every parish is offering catechism classes for many young people who have never become properly evangelized. This also is mission impossible. Evangelization comes first, that is, falling in love with the risen Christ whom we encounter primarily in the liturgy and in the sacraments. The Advent liturgies – I suggest – are expressions of evangelization. They make present what they contain – that is – a falling in love with God. A class in catechesis cannot help an unevangelized unbeliever.

The English word “incarnation” means becoming flesh, taking on our humanity. And so we read in John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word become flesh and dwelt among us”. Christ Jesus, the very Son of God from all eternity, equal in divinity to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, at a particular moment in human history, took on our humanity without ceasing to be his divine self and became like us in all things except sin. As we reflect on this mystery of faith, we praise God, and we ask the question – Why the Incarnation? Why did God the Son take on our humanity and enter truly into our troubled history? Three answers come to mind:
1. The Lord Jesus came among us to bear witness to the truth. He himself tells us – “I was born for this, I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth.”
2. The Lord Jesus came among us to free us from our sins. Do not the Gospels tell us that the Son of Man came to search for and save what was lost? The Lord Jesus is the Lamb who takes away our sins.
3. The Lord Jesus came among us to show us the way that leads us to God our Father. As St. Paul reminds us – Through Christ Jesus we have access in the Holy Spirit to God the Father. This is what the season of Advent is all about. This is what the great teachers of the faith have done down through history, asking the big questions of faith – Why did God become Man? Why did the Lord Jesus suffer death on the cross? Why did God create the world in the first place? There is but one answer to these questions, and that answer is God’s love. God cannot create out of self-interest, but only for what is good for us. For to love means to give; to love means to will the good of the one who is loved. This is why St. John tells us that God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son. This is why St. Paul tells us – The Lord Jesus so loved the Father and us that he gave himself in sacrifice on the cross for us.

Christ Jesus came into our world to bear witness to the truth. St. Augustine writes in his Confessions that he had lost all faith and was in deep despair of ever finding the truth. He examined all the philosophers he could find and God enabled him to realize that the philosophers at times may have been quite helpful in some respects but knew nothing about the Lord Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life. Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, spent her life in philosophy but without faith. The grace of the Church’s proclamation ultimately overcame her and she began to realize that truth had a name – Jesus the Christ. God gives each human being two wings, faith and reason, which we may activate in cooperation with the Holy Spirit so as to rise to the contemplation of the truth. God places in our hearts a desire to know the truth, to know and love God who is our heart’s desire to know the truth, to know and love God who is truth and love, and by knowing and loving God we will come to know the truth about ourselves. The Advent Liturgies tell us that Christ is the truth.