Spirituality Matters 2017: December 14th - December 20th

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(December 14, 2017: Thursday, First Week of Advent)
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“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger, and of great kindness…”

Anger is defined as “a strong feeling of being upset or annoyed because of something wrong or bad; the feeling that makes someone want to hurt other people, to shout, etc.; the feeling of being angry”. (From the Middle English, affliction, anger, from Old Norse angr grief; akin to Old English enge narrow, Latin angere to strangle, Greek anchein.) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anger

Regardless of how we define it, we know anger when we see it. We know anger when we hear it and when we feel it. It is, after all, part of the experience of being human.

But as Scripture tells us, anger is also part of being divine. How many times do we hear references to God’s anger, God’s wrath and God’s fury? But note the qualification made in today’s responsorial psalm: God is slow to anger – almost as if to suggest that God only grows angry as a last resort. Even then, the same Scriptures tell us that God’s anger does not endure because divine anger always gives way to the even greater power of divine mercy, divine compassion and divine forgiveness.

What a contrast with human anger! How often are we quick to anger! How frequently is anger the first emotion for which we reach! How long we remain angry! How often our anger takes on a life of its own! In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales counseled:

“I say to you: this life is an earthly journey to the happy life to come. We must not be angry with one another along the way; rather, we must march on as a band of brothers and companions united in meekness, peace and love. I state absolutely and make no exception: do not be angry at all if that is at all possible. Do not accept any pretext whatever for opening your heart’s door to anger. St. James tells us positively and without reservation that ‘the anger of man does not work the justice of God.’” ( IDL, Part III, Chapter 3, pp 146 – 147)

Just today, let us do our level best to live without anger. Should we become angry, let it be the last to arrive and the first to depart. In the event that anger comes our way, may it give way to meekness, peace and love.

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(December 15, 2017: Friday, Second Week of Advent)
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“You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.”

That pretty much sums up the message in today’s Gospel selection from Matthew. John the Baptizer got criticized for his being aloof and austere; Jesus got criticized for being a down-to-earth man of the people.

As we know, there’s just no pleasing some people.

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:

“Does anyone fail to see that the world is an unjust judge, gracious and well-disposed to its own children but rigorous towards the children of God? We can never please the world unless we lose ourselves together with it. It is so demanding that it can’t be satisfied. ‘John came neither eating or drinking, says the Savior, and you say, ‘He has a devil.’ ‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking,’ and you say he is ‘a Samaritan.’ If we are ready to laugh, play cards or dance with the world in order to please it, it will be scandalized at us, and if we don’t, it will accuse us of hypocrisy or melancholy…” (IDL IV, Ch. 1, p. 236)

There’s an old saying germane to this experience: if you attempt to be all things to people, you end up becoming nothing to nobody. On any given day, follow the example of both John and Jesus: “be who you are, and be that as best as you can”.

Come what may!

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(December 16, 2017: Saturday, Second Week of Advent)
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“You were destined…to put an end to wrath…to turn back the hearts of fathers toward their sons.”

Advent is the season during which we are challenged “to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks”. (Isaiah 2:4) In this season we are challenged to lay down our arms and to let bygones be bygones.

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales wrote:

“When your mind is tranquil and without any cause for anger, build up a stock of meekness and mildness. Speak all your words and do all your actions – whether little or great –in the mildest way you can: not merely with strangers but also among your own family and neighbors. As soon as you recognize that you are guilty of a wrathful deed, correct it as soon as possible by an act of meekness toward the person with whom you were angry.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 8, p. 149)

This season of peace – which is unlike any other season – reminds us of our relationships in which peace is lacking. We are reminded of fences that need to be mended, hatchets that need to be buried and wounds that need to be healed with fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors, co-workers and friends.

During this Advent season to whom do our hearts need to turn?

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(December 17, 2017: Third Sunday of Advent)
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“He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

In today’s Gospel we hear again a clear, certain and firm statement over and over again that he is not the Messiah and that he gives testimony to the light but he is not the light.

John the Baptist renounces the titles of Messiah, Elijah and the prophets. He defers to Christ. This theme is present in the servant song in the first reading from Isaiah which has richly influenced the Christology of the New Testament and the ministry of Jesus.

Francis de Sales considers John the Baptist to be one of the greatest saints because his life and mission were not to draw the attention of people to himself but to point to another. In his Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, the Doctor of Love - in speaking of John the Baptist - states, “He did not want to draw disciples to himself, but only to his Teacher, to whose school he now sends them so that they might be instructed personally by Him.” ( The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Advent and Christmas, edited by Lewis S. Fiorelli OSFS)

Jane de Chantal also comments on the example of humility we find in John the Baptist.

“I would say that St. John never spoke in a more admirable manner than when he was asked who he was, for he always relied by a humble negative; and when he was obliged to answer positively, he said that he was only a voice, as much as to say that he was nothing; word in truth, well worthy of a prophet and of the great among them […].” (“Exhortation XV”, St. Jane Frances Frèmyot De Chantal: Her Exhortations, Conferences and Instructions, Translated by Katherine Brègy)

In this holy season of Hope and Expectation, we can focus our attention on the model of John the Baptist who pointed the way to Christ. On our daily “earthly pilgrimage” to the fullness of the Kingdom, our lives and witness to Christ should not draw attention to ourselves, but lead others to come to know and to encounter Christ. Like John, we are His messengers and ambassadors.

Today, in a spirit of humility, may we recognize that God uses each of us as His instruments to proclaim the Good News to others.

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(December 18, 2017: Monday, Third Week of Advent)
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“He shall reign and govern wisely; he shall do what is just and right in the land…the Lord our justice.”

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales wrote:

“Be just and equitable in all your actions. Always put yourself in your neighbor’s place and your neighbor in yours, and then you will judge rightly. Imagine yourself the seller when you buy and the buyer when you sell and you will sell and buy justly…A man loses nothing by living generously, nobly and courteously with a royal, just and reasonable heart. Resolve to examine your heart often to see if it acts toward your neighbor as you would like your neighbor to act toward you were you in your neighbor’s place. This is the touchstone of true reason.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 36, p. 217)

Today, how can we imitate “the Lord our justice”? Let us start by examining our hearts. How well are we doing “what is just and right in the land”? Are we doing what is right, just and reasonable in our relationships with others?

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(December 19, 2017: Tuesday, Third Week of Advent)
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“Now you will be speechless and unable to talk…because you did not believe my words.”

Poor Zechariah!!! You can hardly blame him for having a follow-up question for Gabriel in the wake of the latter’s pronouncement that Zechariah and his wife will have a son, and not just any old son at that, but one who will embody the spirit and power of Elijah! All Zechariah wanted to know was how this is supposed to happen to a couple who are apparently pretty advanced in years.

For raising the question, Gabriel renders Zechariah mute until his pronouncement comes to pass.

Meanwhile, earlier in the same Gospel – the same chapter of the same Gospel, for that matter – when Mary asks a question of Gabriel concerning his prediction that she will be the mother of the Messiah, Mary receives no rebuke.

Look at the parallels - the angel Gabriel appears to both Mary and Zechariah; both Mary and Zechariah are troubled by their respective annunciations; both ask for some clarification around the annunciation (i.e., “How will this happen?”); both receive additional information and assurances, but it is only Zechariah who seems to incur the angel’s displeasure, and he suffers accordingly. (Of course, all this changes later when Zechariah indicates that his son is to be named “John.”)

The difference seems to be indicated by Gabriel himself. He criticizes Zechariah not for questioning him, but for not believing him! In the case of Zechariah, it appears that his question was less a question and more a statement of disbelief, whereas Mary’s question was an expression of overwhelming wonderment and awe.

In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:

“When God gives us faith, God enters into our soul and speaks to our mind. He does this not by way of discussion but by inspiration. So pleasantly does God propose to the intellect what it must believe that the will thereby receives such great complacence that it incites the intellect to the truth and acquiesce in it without any doubt or opposition whatsoever…” (TLG, Book II, Chapter 14, p. 138.)

In the end, things worked out well for both Mary and Zechariah: each acquiesced to the manifestation of God’s will in their lives, albeit at a different pace and with a different pattern! Each played pivotal roles in God’s plan of salvation. While both questions and disbelief can serve as means of increasing our faith in their own unique ways, perhaps Gabriel’s underlying message is simply this: don’t allow your legitimate questions to rob you of your faith and trust in God’s love for you…or your ability to say “yes” to that love with trust and with faith.

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(December 20, 2017: Wednesday, Third Week of Advent)
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“Ask for a sign from the Lord your God…”

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance of making such a request of God? Who wouldn’t say “yes” to the opportunity for God to display His power for us and/or for someone whom we love? Yet, in today’s selection from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Ahaz balks when given the opportunity of a lifetime: he takes a pass. He backs away, saying, “I will not tempt the Lord”.

Why do you think he backed away? Perhaps Ahaz’s reluctance is rooted in his intuition that signs from the Lord often require changes in the one who asks for the sign in the first place! Under those circumstances, his circumspection makes a whole lot more sense. Remember the admonition? “Be careful what you pray for…”

In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:

“Devout discussions and arguments, miracles and other helps in Christ’s religion do indeed make it supremely credible and knowable, but faith alone makes it believed and known. It brings us to love the beauty of its truth and to believe the truth of its beauty by the sweetness it diffuses throughout our will and the certitude it gives to our intellect. The Jews saw our Lord’s miracles (signs) and heard his marvelous doctrines, but since they were not disposed to accept the faith, that is, since their wills were not susceptible to the sweet and gentle faith because of the bitterness and malice with which they were filled, they remained in their infidelity. They saw the force of the proof but they did not relish its sweet conclusion…” (TLG, II, Chapter 14, pp. 139 – 140)

As people of faith, we should feel free enough to ask God for signs. However, we must be prepared to consider - and follow - the directions in which those signs may challenge us to go.