Christmas Reflection: The Alarming Message of the Bethlehem Angels

The Alarming Message of the Bethlehem Angels

Luke tells us that on Christmas night an angel appeared to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep.  Don’t get sentimental about angels, imagining them to be sweet and unthreatening.  Instead, keep in mind that the typical reaction to the sudden manifestation of a higher being from another dimension is, quite properly, fear.  Indeed, the Christmas messenger says to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid,” which implies that they were!

The angel announces the Good News of Christ’s birth, and then we are told that “there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel praising God ….”  If one angel is terrifying, imagine what a multitude of them is like.  The Greek word that is translated as “host” is stratias, which means army.  Our words “strategy” and “strategic” are derived from it.  The most powerful man in the world at that time was Caesar Augustus, and his power was grounded in the fact that he had the biggest and best-trained army.  The rather subtle and subversive point that Saint Luke is making is this:  the newborn baby of Bethlehem has an even bigger and more frightening army.  Mind you, this angelic army doesn’t fight with the weapons of the world, but it can indeed overwhelm anything that is in the world.

–  Reverend Robert Barron

Bishop Robert Barron is the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles; he is the founder of Word on Fire (www.wordonfire.org).

Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds (1639), by Govert Flinck, Dutch painter of the Dutch Golden Age.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke (2:1-14)

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest/ and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds, Bernardino Luini (1480/1490-1532).

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Be not afraid! And may the peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones today and always.

Holy Family pray for us … Amen.

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Blessed Are We: Christ’s Mass is Christmas

Today, Christmas Eve, as we celebrate the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord, and look forward to the joys of Christmas Day, I offer Christmas wishes to my fellow Catholics: active, passive, and fallen-away:

Here’s hoping you’ll find time for Mass tonight – this celebration of Christ’s Mass (Christmas) – even and especially if you haven’t been in awhile.  I’m sure there’ll be a few options for your schedule; and never despair at returning to the God who loves you.  Know, as a member of God’s family, among the Communion of Saints, there are those praying for you more often than you’ll ever know.

Tonight, let the Christ-child, whom we celebrate in a very special way this season, and especially tonight, and Christmas Day, have a place in the Inn of your Heart.  Make room for the infant Jesus there.

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Saint Pope John Paul II called the Eucharist the “Source and Summit of the Christian faith.”  This is because the Eucharist refreshes the soul of everyone who thirsts for Him.  Through your baptismal (Catholic) faith you have a seat at this table in a very special way.  The Eucharist is food for the soul.  It is the Manna come down from Heaven – the food granted to God’s people for the Christian journey.

My prayer for you, Catholic brothers and sisters in the Christian faith, is that throughout your life, despite the noise of this Secular Age in which we live, you will hear Christ’s Eucharistic call for you – his loving invitation to let him journey with you each day of your life; to join him at his Communion table, to receive Him as food for your journey and, in this Eucharistic celebration at every Mass, you will invite the Christ-child to change and transform you, so, like St. Paul, it will no longer be I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Such is the transformative, sacramental power of the Eucharist.  And it this arrival of the baby born of a Virgin, born to be the King of Kings, the long-awaited Messiah foretold through the ages by the Jewish prophets, whom we celebrate on this Christmas Day.  It is He whom we celebrate at this Christ’s Mass and at every Mass celebrated every hour, of every day, on every nation of the Earth.

It is through our life’s journey that we are meant to truly discover who God has created us to be.  We are called for mission; and we, Catholics, are very fortunate, for we truly are blessed – we who have been called to the Supper of the Lamb.

Trust always in God’s plans for you.  Live out your mission in and through your baptismal faith.

Merry Christmas.  Peace be with you – always.

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For more information please visit https://www.catholicscomehome.org .

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Be not afraid! And may the peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones today and always.

Holy Family pray for us … Amen.

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Call No Man Father

The Catholic understanding of the Priesthood, where priests are called father, is scriptural and consistent with a biblical understanding of Christianity.  That view, however, is a source of confusion for some men and women of good will, especially for our Protestant brothers and sisters.  If pressed about the point even well-intentioned Catholics, lacking a clear understanding of the biblical evidence, have a hard time explaining why we call our parish priest by such a name.  In fact, Jesus’ words are quite clear, as found in Matthew’s Gospel account, when he says, “Call no one on earth your father …” (Mt 23:9).

So why is it that for over two millennia the Catholic Church has continued the practice, highlighting by name and title, that priests are appropriately called father?  The reason may surprise; and a deeper exploration of Holy Scripture reveals the answer to make one thing clear:  It’s scriptural and is deeply rooted in biblical religion.

The ancient Catholic custom of calling priests “father” can be traced all the way back to the Apostles.  Saint Paul’s own teaching on this issue includes an encouragement that Christians would imitate both his good personal example but also his example of referring to himself as their “father.”

I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.  For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.  For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  I urge you, then, be imitators of me (1 Cor 4:14-16).

You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our behavior to you believers; for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:10-12).

– Patrick Madrid, A Year With the Bible: Scriptural Wisdom for Daily Living

The Catholic Church has always recognized her priests – just as the early Christians recognized St. Paul – as “spiritual fathers.”  Through their ordination into the Priesthood, receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders, they’re recognized as having the authority given to them by our Heavenly Father.  When we read in Matthew 23:9, therefore, “Call no one on earth your father,” Catholics understand the verse means not to honor a man like (i.e. in the same way) you honor God.  The Catholic view understands Jesus didn’t instruct in the literal (or strictest sense of the meaning); that one couldn’t call your dad, or a priest, “father”.  As St. Paul wrote himself, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15); emphasis added.  Other references to father or fatherhood would include: Acts 7:2-5; Rom 4:16, 9:10; 1 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; Phlm 1:10.

In other words, Jesus’ statement, “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9: RSV) utilized the common Hebrew method of exaggeration or hyperbole (see Mt 19:24; 23:24; Lk 6:42; 14:26) to teach that God the Father is the ultimate source of all authority.  Interpreting this absolutely literally would prohibit all uses of the word father whatsoever; even biological fathers.  But Jesus Himself uses the term father many times (Mt 15:4-6; 19:5; 29; 21:31; Lk 16:24, 27, 30; Jn 8:56, etc.) … Thus, the objection to calling Catholic priests fathers must be discarded.

A related issue with some critics of Catholicism, is the address, “holy father” as applied to popes (it is claimed that only God could be called that).  All that remains, then, is to find “holy men” referred to in the Bible.  The writer of Hebrews calls the recipients of his epistle “holy brethren” (Revised Standard Version – RSV).  Peter refers to a “holy priesthood” (1 Pt 2:5: RSV and King James Version) and “holy women” such as Sarah (1 Pt 3:5) … John the Baptist is referred to as a “righteous and holy man” (Mk 6:20).  Jesus refers to a “righteous man” in Matthew 10:41. Therefore, men can be called “holy” in Scripture, and by extension, since “father” as an address for priests is perfectly biblical as well, the two could be put together for “holy father.”

– Dave Armstrong, Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths

While we should pray for them and pray for their priesthood, Catholic priests aren’t perfect.  This shouldn’t come as a shock or be a source of scandal.  Yet these men, by virtue of the sacraments they administer, perfect in each of us, and in themselves, the holiness we are each called to by our baptism, and as members of the Body of Christ.  Through the special authority granted to them by Christ himself when he established the Priesthood (to be covered in another blog post), Catholic priests administer the sacraments and, thereby, strengthen the Christian faithful for the journey.

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Catholic priests hold position within the Church – a special place of ordination – just as St. Paul and his fellow “spiritual fathers” did in the early first century.  Just as the bishops and presbyters did in the early days of the Church, our priests today minister to the Church throughout the world through their preaching and offering the sacraments.

In the Catholic Church, therefore, and for my fellow Catholics:   Every priest requires our respect – every priest, in spite of his weaknesses or sins … When a man fails in priesthood, we should pray for him, confront him privately with our concerns, confront him with other witnesses; and, if all other attempts fail, we should take our case to the bishop, all the while honoring the man, his priesthood, and his fatherhood.  This is what children do for their fathers (see Gen 9:22-27) – see Hahn pp. 147-8.

… Paul was a father not because he was married and reared a family; he did not.  He was a father because he was a priest: “a minister … in the priestly service of the gospel” (Rom 15:16).

St. Augustine looked the same way upon the episcopal office he had inherited from the apostles:  “The apostles were sent as fathers; to replace those apostles, sons were born to you who were constituted bishops … The Church calls them fathers, she who gave birth to them, who placed them in the sees of their fathers … Such is the Catholic Church.  She has given birth to sons who, through all the earth, continue the work of her first Fathers.”

That is the true biblical teaching.  Our priests are so much more than managers or functionaries.  They are fathers.  The sacramental priesthood is not so much a ceremonial function as it is a family relation … [A priest’s] fatherhood is not merely metaphorical.  True fatherhood involves the communication of life.  As a natural father, I have communicated biological human life – but, in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, a priest communicates divine life and the divine humanity of Jesus Christ.

– Dr. Scott Hahn, Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots

In future posts we will explore the heroes of the Priesthood and the many contributions these men have made throughout history in the sciences, art, literature and theology, to name a few.  For other references please visit Word on Fire (www.wordonfire.org) and search Heroic Priesthood.

The priest and the dying soldier, 1962

The priest and the dying soldier, 1962.

Navy chaplain Luis Padilla gives last rites to a soldier wounded by sniper fire during a revolt in Venezuela (1962). Braving the streets amid sniper fire, to offer last rites to the dying, the priest encountered a wounded soldier, who pulled himself up by clinging to the priest’s cassock, as bullets chewed up the concrete around them. The photo was taken on June 4, 1962 by Hector Rondon Lovera, photographer of Caracas, for the Venezuelan newspaper “La Republican”. It won the World Press Photo of the Year and the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. The original title of work is “Aid from The Padre”. (Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

May the Catholic Church continue to raise holy men to the Priesthood to minister to God’s people throughout the world.

Be not afraid! And may the peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones today and always.

Holy Family pray for us … Amen.

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Eucharist: Food for the Soul

There are many reasons to be a Catholic.  I’m certain there are just as many reasons people choose not to be Catholic.  Yet, for me, the most important reason for one to choose Catholicism is the Eucharist.

Today, in the Catholic liturgical celebration we call the Mass, the third reading was from John’s Gospel.  For the past few Sundays, in fact, as happens every three years, we’ve heard specifically from John’s sixth chapter. It is here that we encounter John’s Eucharistic Discourse (aka The Bread of Life Discourse). John’s telling of Jesus as the Bread of Life is a different depiction than in the Lord’s Supper accounts found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels, and Paul’s letters.  For comparison I encourage you to read all of John’s sixth chapter and some of the other readings shared below.  You can easily read John 6 all the way through in one sitting.

Similarly, earlier this year the Church celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi (The Body and Blood of Christ). As Catholics we were reminded then, as we are today on this Sunday, of the transformative sacramental power of the most holy Eucharist, which Saint Pope John Paul II called, “the Source and Summit of the Christian Faith.”

To my Catholic friends: I encourage you to standfast in your faith wherever you are in your spiritual journey, and I challenge you this year to go deeper in your understanding of the Eucharist, which is the “Mystery of Faith” and God’s greatest gift to humanity.

For my Catholic and non-Catholic friends I submit to you this:  To know Who is truly and substantially present in the Eucharist is to know God’s gift to you, and to each one of us, as we call to mind the familiar liturgical refrain, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are we who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.”

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Blessed are we indeed, for the Eucharist (from the Greek meaning “thanksgiving”) is not mere symbol; rather, it is food for the soul. And the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church spoken about in the Christian proclamation of faith – the Nicene Creed – has proclaimed and defended this truth for over 2,000 years.

Thanks be to God!

Such a mystery of faith cannot be explained by sight, of course. Yet we are strengthened by Christ’s exhortation to Saint Thomas (and to all of us), “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn 20:29). And, so, with confidence of over two millennia of Apostolic Tradition guided by the Holy Spirit let us approach the altar, that we may taste and see what goodness the Lord has prepared for us (Ps 34:9); that we may confidently exclaim with Saint Thomas, “My Lord and My God!” (Jn 20:28).

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Let our hearts, therefore, be open to such a reality! As the late Cardinal Francis George fondly encouraged, “If our hearts are open, the Lord can change and transform us so that one day we may speak with love about the One who is love.”

This Sunday at Mass, as during every Mass that’s offered for us every hour of every day, and in every nation around the globe, let us nourish our soul with the Bread come down from Heaven, and remain in Him who was sent for our salvation (Jn 6:47-51, 57).  And with an open heart, fed and nourished by this most holy Bread of the Angels, we can be changed and transformed, so that one day we may also live the words of Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

Holy Communion Saint Maximillian Kolbe

So, truly, there are many reasons to be Catholic.  I’ve even challenged my four young children to, one day soon, be able to articulate why they are Catholic.

As for me, when asked, “Why are you Catholic?”  The answer is simple, really:  I’m Catholic because I will never turn my back on Jesus in the Eucharist.

While many murmured, as is done still today, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  Let us, rather, accept with faith and dutifully follow Saint Peter’s wise counsel, when responding to Jesus, he answered, “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:60-69).

Be not afraid!  And may the peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones today and always.  Amen.
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For further reading about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, see:
Jn 6:35-71
Jn 1:29
Mt 26:26-28
Mk 14:22-24
Lk 22:19-20
1 Cor 10:16
1 Cor 11:23-30
1 Cor 5:7
1 Cor 2:14-3:4 – explains what “the flesh” means in *Jn 6:63
Ex 12:8, 46
Ps 14:4
Is 9:18-20; 49:26
Mic 3:3
2 Sm 23:15-17
Rv 17:6, 16