Circular Letter: Advent 2009

The Apostles and the Priesthood (3 of 4)

In the cold of winter and the darkness of night, the Incarnate Word descended from heaven and lay in a manger, so that we could see and hear and touch the love of the invisible God. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—the Life was made manifest, and we saw It, and testify to It, and proclaim to you the Eternal Life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1 Jn 1:1-3). Every Advent we turn our focus to the manger with love and longing for the coming of the Child Jesus. He is Emmanuel, “God-among-us”, He is Jesus, “God saves”. In the darkness and sadness of this world, we look for the light, the love, peace and hope that can be found not in political utopias nor in human comforts, but only in the consoling presence of Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God.

In this Year for Priests, the season of Advent takes on a very special character, for we remember that it is the priest who makes Jesus present every day anew on our altars and in our tabernacles. Beyond His presence in the Holy Eucharist, however, Jesus also becomes visible or “incarnate” for us in the priest himself who speaks to us words of forgiveness and absolution, who counsels and consoles us in our troubles, who encourages us with words of faith and light, and gives himself selflessly for the needs of the flock. In his last >Letter for Priests  for Holy Thursday, 2005, the great Pope John Paul II said, “The people have a right to turn to priests in the hope of ‘seeing’ Christ in them (cf. Jn 12:21)”.

The Apostles were the first priests to prolong the presence of Jesus in the world after His Ascension into Heaven. Like Jesus who loved His own “until the end” (cf. Jn 13:1), so too all the Apostles gave themselves entirely and to the end for the foundation of the new born Church in the world. “Their journey with Jesus was not only a physical journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, but an interior journey during which they learned faith in Jesus Christ, not without difficulty, for they were people like us. But for this very reason, because they…learned faith on a journey that was far from easy, they are also guides for us, who help us to know Jesus Christ, to love Him and to have faith in Him” (Pope Benedict XVI, Apostles, p. 79). And so during the Advent season we continue our meditation on the individual Apostles with this special perspective of how they allowed Jesus to enter into their lives and transform them, that He might become present to the Church through their life and ministry.

St. Matthew, the Publican

St. John Chrysostom relates of Jewish culture in the time of Christ that “there was nothing more despicable than the tax collector and nothing more common than fishing” (Hom. on Matt. PL 57, 363). Yet Christ chose His closest collaborators in the work of Redemption from among their ranks. St. Matthew, of Hebrew descent, was sitting at his post as tax collector when Jesus approached him with the invitation, “Follow Me!” (Mt 9:9). Tax collectors, or “publicans” as they were called, were particularly  hated by the Jews because they were considered traitors. The Roman conquerors appointed tax collectors from among the Jews themselves, but did not care how or how much they collected from their confreres, so long as they sent the required amount to the government. The publican would therefore use his position to drain the people for his own profit. They were so hated that they were barred from even eating or praying with other Jews, and no self-respecting Jew would marry into the family of a tax collector. But it was Matthew, the publican, whom Jesus called to His inmost circle of friends. And quite simply, “he rose and followed Him” (Mt 9:9).

Called to Conversion of Heart

The call of St. Matthew brings to mind the account of the Pharisee and the tax collector who entered the Temple to pray. The tax collector would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’” (Lk 18:13). While the self-righteous Pharisee exalted himself, it was the humble supplication of the sinner which drew down grace and mercy from God: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). Jesus came “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:17) to repentance and conversion of heart.

Matthew, which means “gift of God”, accepted this offer with joy and became a “model for the acceptance of God’s mercy”, immediately demonstrating his understanding of the meaning of the call by a change in life. He knew he could not draw near to Jesus without abandoning sin. So he rose and left everything, his money bags, his dishonest security, everything that he had once considered so important—in fact, it was formerly so important that he was willing to become an outcast in society, a lonely, miserly “Scrooge”. But “in this ‘he rose’ it is legitimate to read detachment from a sinful situation and at the same time a conscious attachment to a new, upright life in communion with Jesus” (Pope Benedict XVI, Apostles, p. 92). Jesus was offering to Matthew a life of love and communion with the best of friends, and for this he was willing to begin a process of detachment and transformation that would ultimately lead him to the most intimate friendship with Christ. God would now become the center and guiding force of his life.

Through the Church in this season of Advent, Jesus continues to invite each of us, whatever our situation, to turn and follow Him more closely, purifying our hearts through the Sacrament of Confession. St. Matthew shows us that even those who seem furthest from holiness can, by acceptance of God’s mercy, reach the greatest heights of sanctity and divine intimacy. The holy angels can help us to renew our focus on what is essential, making God again the center of our lives, through simplicity of life and detachment. So let us use this time of grace to abandon our selfish pursuits and remove any obstacles from our lives—be it a sinful relationship or just a disordered attachment to television, food, conversation, internet, etc.—to leave all behind that we may follow Him ever more closely and faithfully. Like the shepherds, the angels are calling us as well to the manger, to renew our friendship with Jesus, to live the poverty and simplicity of the divine Child and generous love of neighbor. In this way, the loneliness and alienation of sin will be replaced by the fullness of joyful communion with God and neighbor. Like St. Matthew, let us rise up right away and follow the little Child!

St. Philip and St. Bartholomew

Like Peter and Andrew, Philip was from the town of Bethsaida and was called shortly after them to follow Jesus. Philip immediately brought this news to Nathanael, who is traditionally identified with St. Bartholomew. (Bartholomew in Aramaic simply means “son of Talmay”.) Very little is known of Nathanael beyond what we learn from his encounters with Philip and Jesus in the Gospels. After being called, “Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’” (Jn 1:45). Nathanael demonstrates a certain prejudice saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Philip is persistent in his witness to Christ. He had a natural sense that Jesus could not be understood by mere words, so he invites Nathanael saying, “Come and see!” (Jn 1:46). Faith depends upon a personal encounter with Jesus. Pope Benedict comments, “Someone else’s testimony is of course important, for normally the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation handed down to us by one or more witnesses. However, we ourselves must then be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus” (Apostles, p.108). We cannot simply listen to a sermon or read a book about Jesus, though this is a good beginning. We need to encounter Him in prayer; silent, personal, meditative prayer. We need to give Jesus time, to go out to meet Him and allow Him to touch our hearts, to amaze us with His love.

The Importance of the Personal Encounter with Jesus

So it was with Nathanael: only when he made the effort to go out and meet Jesus was he moved to believe in Him. As he approaches, Jesus said to him, “Behold, a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile.” Nathanael wonders, “How do you know me?” And Jesus answers, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” It is not clear what occurred beneath the fig tree, but it is clear that it was something extremely personal which Nathanael had not revealed to anyone. And so he exclaims in amazement, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are King of Israel!” (cf. Jn 1:47-49) This first confession indicates the beginnings of a twofold faith and trustful surrender to Jesus. It is a confession of His identity as Son of God, and of His relation to the people of Israel as King.

We must always remember both of these dimensions of Jesus. For if we look only to His divinity, then He can become for us a distant, abstract concept. But one main purpose of the Incarnation was for God to draw near to us, to reveal Himself to us in a humanly understandable way, as a Person we can see and hear, as someone we can love and trust, and to whom we can surrender ourselves without fear. If, on the other hand, we look only to the humanity of Jesus, then we can easily lose sight of His divine authority, His central place in our lives and sovereign rule over every aspect of our being. God is the source and the goal of our lives. Jesus came to show us the way and is Himself the Way. We must trust Him precisely because He is God, all-wise, all-powerful, all-seeing, and most especially, all-loving. Though we do not know much about the life of St. Bartholomew, we can learn from Him this trustful surrender to Jesus, to accept His divine presence and holy will even in the unexpected, and to offer Him the ordinary deeds of our daily life with love.

From the Gospel we can see a little into the personality of St. Philip. He seemed to be a very practical, matter-of-fact sort of man who is almost surprised by the mystery of Jesus. Jesus, however, took his good will and gradually tried to broaden his vision, that he might learn to see with the eyes of faith. Perhaps with this intention, “in order to test him” as St. John relates, Jesus addressed Himself specifically to Philip in the desert and asked him how they were to feed such a crowd of five thousand men, not counting women and children. Philip, in his typically practical way, only thinks on the cost, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little!” (Jn 6:7). Jesus makes no response, but answers Philip by His actions, multiplying the loaves in super-abundance. God is not limited by our human resources, but with a little faith, He can multiply our good works in super-abundance. We need only trust.

On another occasion, when Jesus was in Jerusalem before His Passion, some Greeks asked Philip if they might see Jesus. Philip and Andrew then bring their request to Jesus, acting as intermediaries. This is an important point for every Christian. We need “to be ready to accept questions and requests, wherever they come from, and to direct them to the Lord, the only One who can fully satisfy them” (Apostles, p. 97). It is not us whom men seek, but the Lord! We, and especially priests, are to be transparent intermediaries for the message and Person of Jesus. Pope Benedict comments, “Know that the petitions of those who approach us are not ultimately addressed to us, but to the Lord: it is to Him that we must direct anyone in need. So it is that each one of us must be an open road towards Him!” (Apostles, p. 98).

Jesus, the Revelation of the Father

Finally, when taking leave of the Apostles during the Last Supper, Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; henceforth you know Him and have seen Him” (Jn 14:6-7). But Philip, our pragmatic, was not quite satisfied with this veiled language and asked Jesus to be plain about the matter, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (14:8). Disappointed again with his all too human vision, Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in Me?” (Jn 14:9-10). While in one way a gentle rebuke, at the same time this sublime revelation is a great reward for the ingenuousness of Philip. Jesus Himself is the revelation of the Father! “Jesus refers to His own Person as such, letting it be understood that it is possible to understand Him not just through His words, but rather, simply through what He is” (Apostles, p. 98).

With the Incarnation, “God gave Himself a human face, the Face of Jesus. Consequently, from now on, if we truly want to know the Face of God, all we have to do is contemplate the Face of Jesus! In His Face we truly see who God is” (cf. Apostles, p. 99). And moreover, the more we lovingly contemplate the Face of Jesus and allow ourselves to be transformed by Him, the more we will reflect His Face before others. As we approach the mystery of Christmas, let us therefore seek more and more the Face of Christ. The holy angels will lead us to Him in the mysteries of the Rosary, in reading the Bible, and in silently watching and waiting for Him in prayer. And especially in this Year for Priests, let us pray for all priests, that they may become ever more radiant reflections of the Face of Jesus in their pastoral duties and daily life.

St. John the Apostle

The Apostle John is traditionally held to be “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, the one who laid his head on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper. In the Eastern Churches he is characterized as a man of silence and contemplation, “the Theo-logian” or the one who can speak in comprehen-sible terms of divine things. “Indeed,” Pope Benedict writes, “without sufficient recollection it is impossible to approach the supreme mystery of God and of His revelation” (Apostles, 79). St. John’s Gospel is symbolized by the Eagle, representing his sharp vision into the things of God. It contains some of the loftiest and most direct revelations of the Incarnation, as he strives to make the invisible visible for us: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father. …No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (Jn 1:14, 18). In this season of Advent, we want to avoid the bustle of shopping and parties and, like the holy angels, enter into the silence and recollection of John, to learn in his school how God draws near to us and reveals Himself to us in the form of a little Child, lying in the manger.

The Source of Love

The predominant theme in St. John’s writings is love: “God is Love; he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). Pope Benedict outlines for us three moments in the dynamic of love which can be found in the writings of St. John. First of all he points to the Source of love: God is Love. John does not simply describe God’s actions as loving, nor merely state that God loves, but identifies God as the very Source of love: “God is Love”, love is His very essence. One would be hard put to find a statement of this sort in any other religion. “By so [defining God], John wants to say that the essential constituent of God is love and hence, that all God’s activity is born from love and impressed with love: all that God does, He does out of love and with love, even if we are not always immediately able to understand that this is love, true love” (Apostles, p. 81).

The second moment in the dynamic of love is that God concretely demonstrates His love by the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of His divine Son, Jesus Christ. God’s love is not abstract nor expressed only in words. “True love, in fact, can never be purely speculative but makes a direct, concrete and even verifiable reference to real persons…. [God] demonstrates His love by entering human history through the Person of Jesus Christ, incarnate, dead and risen for us” (Apostles, p. 80-81). God’s love for us, therefore, becomes concrete and is manifested in the love of Jesus for us. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son” (Jn 3:16) to die on the Cross for us. He did not make merely promises of love, but in Jesus God “truly committed Himself and ‘paid’ in the first person” (Apostles, p. 81). “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). “By virtue of this oblative and total love we are radically ransomed from sin…. This is how Jesus’ love reaches us: by the pouring out of His own Blood for our salvation” (Apostles, p. 82).

The Response of Love

In contemplating this total love of Christ for us, every Christian should be moved to ask, how can I love in return? And this leads to the third moment in the dynamic of love, the response of love. “From being recipients of a love that precedes and surpasses us, we are called to the commitment of an active response which, to be adequate, can only be a response of love” (Apostles, p. 82). In the Old Testament and in the synoptic Gospels we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. But St. John records for us the “New Commandment” of Jesus, that we love one another “as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). While in the Old Testament, man is the measure of our love (“as yourself”), in the New Testament, God is the measure of our love, “as I have loved you.” In other words, we are to love with the measure of Jesus, that is, to love without measure. Though this seems impossible being only finite creatures, nevertheless, this is truly Christian love, “both in the sense that it must be directed to all without distinction, and above all since it must be carried through to its extreme consequences [“to the end”], having no other bounds than being boundless” (Apostles, p. 83). We can never attain to a love equal to the love of God, but we are called to always strive towards it, to continually grow in love until we have surrendered ourselves wholly, even to the point of offering our lives for love.

Thomas of Kempis, in his Imitation of Christ, describes for us this continual ascent of love: “The love of Jesus is noble and generous: it spurs us on to do great things, and excites us to desire always that which is most perfect. Love will tend upwards and is not to be detained by things beneath. Love will be at liberty and free from all worldly affections...for love proceeds from God and cannot rest but in God above all things created” (Bk 3 ch 5). We are all called to live this generous love of Jesus, which seeks to give ever more and sacrifice ourselves for others.

In the Apocalypse, St. John portrays Jesus as the Lamb who was slain and yet remains standing (cf. Rev 5:6). The Lamb is apparently weak, but It remains standing even when violently killed! By offering Himself freely on the Cross out of love as the divine Victim for sin, Jesus triumphed over sin and death and became King and Lord of history. Through love, He rises victorious! If we live, therefore, this same love of Christ, we need not fear the persecutions of our times, the hostility and mis-understandings that the Church suffers today. If we live love faithfully to the end, though we may lose in the eyes of the world,  we are guaranteed the final victory. So we look also in this season of Advent to the Second Coming of Christ, when the definitive victory of life over death, of love over hate, of goodness over evil will be realized. We ask the holy angels to strengthen especially our Bishops, that they have the courage to lead us in the ways of truth in these times of seduction and error, the courage to speak out in a society plunged in spiritual blindness. And especially during this Advent we pray with St. John, “Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). Come and transform the world! Come definitively as victor! But also, come now into our hearts this Christmas with Your grace and Your love, come with Your angels, come daily in the Holy Eucharist and stay with us forever!

In this Year for Priests, we want to remember that priests are called in a special way to imitate Christ’s selfless love more closely and perfectly. Jesus’ culminating moment of self-giving was realized on the Cross, which is made sacramentally present in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The priest who celebrates in persona Christi is called to conform his life ever more perfectly to that same Sacrifice which he offers daily upon the altar. “In a certain sense, when he says the words: ‘take and eat’, the priest must learn to apply them also to himself…. If he is able to offer himself as a gift, placing himself at the disposal of the community and at the service of anyone in need, his life takes on its true meaning” (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Priests, 2005). Like St. John who was given to Mary beneath the Cross, so in this year we want to entrust every priest to the maternal care of the Blessed Virgin and to the protection of the angels, that they may live their vocation— the vocation to love as Christ loved us—to the full and become for us true Apostles of our times, other Christ’s living in the world today.

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