A Sign of Mercy and Contradiction, December 29, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Southmont Conference Center, South Orange, NJ
Mass of December 29, Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas
Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Martyr
December 29, 2015
1 John 2:3-11, Ps 96, Lk 2:22-35


Today’s homily was not recorded.

The following points were pondered in the homily: 

  • At Christmas Midnight Mass, the Word of God began with the Prophet Isaiah’s jubilant decree, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” And then he went on to describe who would come what that light burst in the midst of darkness: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Strangely enough, however, when Simeon, moved by the Holy Spirit, speaks about Jesus in today’s Gospel, he describes that the reception of that light won’t be exactly as universal as Isaiah had seemed to prophesy.
  • Simeon called Jesus a “light to reveal you [God] to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” Jesus came as “light of the human race” (Jn 1:4), as the “refulgence of eternal light” (Wis 7:26) and the “refulgence of [God’s] glory” (Heb 1:3). This is indeed good news of great joy for all the people, but at the same time some treated this gift as bad news of great foreboding. As St. John would say, “The light came into the world but people preferred darkness to light” (Jn 3:19). The glory of God took on our flesh but people were seeking their own glory rather than God’s and God’s glory might get in the way. That’s why as soon as Simeon testified that his eyes has seen God’s salvation in the one named “God saves” (Jesus), as soon as he had said he was God’s light and glory, he turned to say to Mary, “This child is destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be contradicted… so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” The response to Jesus’ light and glory will unveil what’s in people’s hearts. Even though Jesus had come to save everyone, not everyone would accept that gift. Simeon said that rather than everyone’s echoing his word many would contradict what he said in words and in body language. He would become the cause of the “ruin” and the “resurrection” of many, depending upon their response to Jesus’ word, his light, his glory, his offer of salvation. And so it’s important for us to examine during this Christmas octave what the response of our heart is to Jesus.
  • St. John in the first reading helps us to do so concretely. As we looked at on his feast day on Saturday, St. John was writing to Christians in a culture rampant with the Docetist gnostic heresy that claimed that because they believed matter was evil — in contradiction to God’s pronouncing created matter “good” in Genesis — God would never have assumed evil matter to himself, and hence the Incarnation never happened, the Crucifixion never happened, Jesus’ giving us his Body and Blood never happened, etc. St. John testified, however, that he saw, heard, and touched Jesus, that Jesus was real, and he’ll go on to say that anyone who denies that Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh is the anti-Christ. The first aspect of the Christmas mystery his letter helps us to grasp is the reality of the incarnation of Jesus, that, contrary to the Docetist claims that Jesus was more or less a ghost, he was actually fully human with a human body and soul. The second aspect, however, is likewise important. Jesus came to dwell within us. He came, as we prayed on Christmas, assuming our humanity so that we could share in his divinity. He wants to unite us to himself in a one-flesh mystical marriage, so that we’ll take him into not just the human race but into our flesh, in a way similar to the means by which he assumed Mary’s humanity. To allow him to do so is our resurrection; to refuse is our ruin. He offers us the light of his mercy, but we need to leave the darkness of our slavery and proceed with him into that luminescence.
  • St. John describes three progressive stages of Jesus’ light-filled, merciful incarnation in us. At one level, they all say essentially the same thing about the type of communion Christ seeks to form with us; but on another, they go progressively deeper.
  • The first level has to do with God’s word, his commandments, his truth. St. John says, “The way we may be sure that we know Jesus  is to keep his commandments.  Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.” If we’ve become one with God, we’ll become one with his word, with his will, with the Truth he enfleshes. To know Jesus Christ is to become united with him in doing the will of God, which is fleshed out in the commandments, in the word of God, in what Jesus has taught, what the prophets taught in anticipation of him, what the apostles have taught in application of his life and lessons. Do we see God’s word, do we view the commandments as God’s light and glory, do we allow ourselves to experience Jesus’ resurrection through conforming our life to this truth, or do we contradict the teaching of the Lord conceptually by saying God is wrong or existentially by living according to some other principles than the ones given to us by God himself? That’s the first step in the Christian spiritual life, to receive God’s teaching as a gift and seek to live it. It’s one of the supreme gifts of God’s mercy.
  • St. John then goes on to the next stage. If we really are keeping his commandments, if the truth is in us, if his word dwells in us richly, if we’re bathing in his mercy, then the apostle says something else will happen: “This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.” The litmus test is that we’re actually following Jesus, that we’re living as he lived, that we’re going to the Father as he did, we’re going to the outcasts as he did, that we’re going to all the world as he commanded. If we truly know Jesus, we’re going to resemble Jesus, because this knowledge is not fundamentally an intellectual act but an existential union. I’d like to give an illustration of this from my family. You know that I’m an identical twin and I’m constantly getting confused, still to this day, with Scot, for obvious physical reasons. But what’s shocked me is how many people confuse Scot and me with our younger brother Greg whom I don’t think looks much like us at all. But dozens of people have told me over the years that if they met him in a crowded airport on the other side of the world they’d be able to spot Greg as a Landry. When I asked them why — since Greg has hair and its darker than Scot’s and mine ever was, since he’s taller, since he has lots of other traits that don’t resemble us — they’ve all said something a little startling: “We’d know he’s your brother because he walks just like you!” That still makes no sense to me because I think I walk like half the planet walks, but other people apparently not only think but notice that Scot and I walk with a particularly elegant gait and that Greg has apparently imitated the strides of his boyhood heroes… I use this as an illustration to make a point that the way we “walk” in life is supposed to be able to remind people of the way Jesus walked. We’re supposed to remind people of Jesus. If we are really keeping his commandments, living his truth, abiding in his word, receiving and sharing his mercy, St. John tells us that we will remind others of Jesus. Rather than having people the way we walk think that we’re a Landry, as happens to my younger brother, the way we walk is supposed to remind people that we’re a “little Christ,” literally a Christian. This is the second stage in allowing Christ to take on our flesh, of the resurrection he came to bring into the world.
  • But there’s a third stage that St. John alludes to today. If we’re walking the way Jesus walks, there’s a clear litmus test: we’re going to love others the way Jesus loves us and them. St. John says, “Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness.  Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.  Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” If we’re living in the light of the Lord, we love; if we’re hating, it means we’re living in the darkness. If we’ve genuinely received God’s mercy, then we will let that mercy overflow toward our brothers and sisters, even to our enemies. When we hear this point, many of us can say that as long as can’t recall hating anyone, then we must be living in the light, but in order for that to occur we really have to “love” our brother, and loving our brother doesn’t mean simply not hating him. It means laying down our life for our brother. It means sacrificing for him. It means not doing simply “random acts of kindness” but coming up with a real strategy, a real plan, to sacrifice for the sake of others. This is something many of us don’t do as much as God would want us to do. We don’t wake up and look at a given today as an opportunity to love our brothers and sisters. Most of us don’t plan an agenda the night before saying what people can I visit to bring them the joy of Christmas, what people can I call, what money of mine can I give away, to really help people in need. Most of us wait for a request to be brought to us. That’s not the type of love to which Jesus is calling us. Another common misconception is that loving our brother means loving our lovable brothers and sisters. St. John, for Jesus, is calling us to something more. He’s calling us to recognize that everyone is our brother, that the whole world is our neighborhood. Dorothy Day had a statement haunting in its truthfulness and capacity to help us examine our consciences. She said, “We love the Lord to the extent that we love the person we like the least.” We love the Lord to the extent that we love the least of his brothers and sisters, either objectively (in the poor, thirsty, hungry, naked, lame, strange, etc., Mt 25:31-46) but also subjectively, those who are least in our affection. We love the Lord the way we love that person we don’t like, the person we may not hate but the person whom we want totally to avoid. When Jesus has truly taken on our flesh and dwelling within us as King, then we begin to love even our persecutors, our adversaries like he loved, prayed for and died for those who made themselves his enemies.
  • One person who illustrates this progression in the assimilation of Christ is the great martyr we celebrate today. St. Thomas Becket was an ambitious, hard-working young man who eventually worked himself up the food chain in 12th century England to become a secretary for the Archbishop of Canterbury and Archdeacon. When the position of chancellor opened up, the Archbishop nominated him and King Henry II appointed him. He and Henry worked very well together and Thomas was thriving, rich, influential. When the Archbishop died, Henry wanted to appointed Thomas his chancellor so that he would essentially control the Church. Thomas didn’t want to accept it because he didn’t think he was holy enough for the position, but Henry insisted and Thomas was ordained a priest and then a bishop. But very soon as after his ordination, Henry realized that Thomas was going to be something totally different than a mitre-wearing puppet. He started to defend the rights of the Church against the King, insisting that he was in his position less because of the King of England’s will and more because of the King of King’s will and he was going to serve that greater King as the Archbishop of Canterbury should. There were many conflicts. Eventually, Henry quipped that he wished to be rid of this troublesome cleric and four people interpreted that as a desire for Thomas to be killed and they killed him during Vespers in the Cathedral 844 years ago today. St. Thomas Becket was one who sought to live faithfully by the Lord’s word, someone who sought to walk as the Lord walked, someone who loved his brother — including his brother the King of England — in a way that he was willing to die to pass on the truth and help him to live according to it. Because of his martyrdom, he has become, in Jesus, a light of revelation to the nations and a real glory to God’s people. He has become a witness of courageous fidelity, a sign of the resurrection precisely through his faithful witness in life and in death.
  • Today we come forward on his feast day asking his intercession to give that same witness, to keep God’s word, to walk in his ways, to love others as he has loved us first. This is the way others, in seeing our good deeds, will give glory to our heavenly Father. This is the way that we will become the light of the world, reflecting Jesus’ light. This is the way that our hearts will be revealed as hearts that seek and love the Lord and beat with his love for others. As we prepare to receive within the same Jesus whom Simeon held in his hands, we thank God for allowing our eyes to behold our salvation, for our ears to hear his words, and for our whole bodies to touch him and be transformed by him, as we renew our consecration to the Father within Jesus’ own on the altar.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 1 jn 2:3-11

The way we may be sure that we know Jesus
is to keep his commandments.
Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments
is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.
This is the way we may know that we are in union with him:
whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.
Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you
but an old commandment that you had from the beginning.
The old commandment is the word that you have heard.
And yet I do write a new commandment to you,
which holds true in him and among you,
for the darkness is passing away,
and the true light is already shining.
Whoever says he is in the light,
yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness.
Whoever loves his brother remains in the light,
and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.
Whoever hates his brother is in darkness;
he walks in darkness
and does not know where he is going
because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

Responsorial Psalm ps 96:1-2a, 2b-3, 5b-6

R. (11a) Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Sing to the LORD; bless his name.
R. Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
Announce his salvation, day after day.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R. Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!
The LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty go before him;
praise and grandeur are in his sanctuary.
R. Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!

Alleluia Lk 2:32

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
A light of revelation to the Gentiles
and glory for your people Israel.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel lk 2:22-35

When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:“Lord, now let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you prepared in the sight of every people,
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.”The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
(and you yourself a sword will pierce)
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”