Today, in Mercy, Samuel anoints Saul King of Israel.
Then, from a flask he had with him, Samuel poured oil on Saul’s head; he also kissed him, saying: “The LORD anoints you commander over his heritage. You are to govern the LORD’s people Israel, and to save them from the grasp of their enemies.
Throughout Scripture, the act of anointing signifies being blessed, commissioned by grace. The sacred oil heals and strengthens the anointed to do the work of God.
We share in the grace of anointing through the sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick. We may not think about the power these rituals give us to live our lives in the pattern of Christ. But it is an amazing power which creates saints out of ordinary human beings like you and me!
In a less formal way, we can anoint one another by our acts of generosity, honesty, justice and love. Think of the woman who anointed Jesus with nard from her alabaster jar. How that act strengthened him for the suffering he had to face!
There are so many chaffed and sore places in our world awaiting the oil of mercy!
We can also “anoint” our own life by gratefully remembering God’s presence in our lives: the blessings we have received, the challenges we have gracefully met, the love we have both given and received – all that strengthened us to do the work of God over our lifetime.
Picture the scene. It is a beautiful morning in the Judean Valley where the Jordan Riven runs fresh and sparkling. Most scholars place the Baptism of Jesus sometime in January, which means the weather would have been relatively cool. But perhaps, like our own weather, an unusually warm day may have snuck in.
Rustic, fiery preacher John is baptizing in the Jordan River. Crowds have come to hear what he has to say. Some are convinced and dive into the cool water under his hand.
Others rim the hillside, not so sure John isn’t one of the many who have glorious visions but few facts.
Then, out from the pines on the far side of the river, comes Jesus, flanked by some of the Twelve. While his companions chat away to Jesus, his eyes are focused on John. In an instant, Jesus realizes that this is the moment for his revelation. In that same instant, all Creation realizes the same thing.
As Jesus walks slowly toward John, the birds and little animals speak to him, “My Lord and my God…”.Wind whistling through the trees becomes an Oratorio praising him. All the surrounding colors deepen, breaking forth in unimaginable light.
John is stunned by the cosmic change he senses but cannot describe. Heart trembling, he looks into Jesus’s eyes and catches a glimpse of heaven. “I need to be baptized by you”, John says,”and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus smiles at his cousin, replying,
“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then John consented.
Perhaps those in the crowd, schooled in the ancient scriptures, heard Isaiah’s voice in the charged atmosphere:
Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
Matthew tells us:
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.
Can you see him light-heartedly splashing John as he shakes his dark curls free of the chilly water? Can you see his transfigured face as he hears his Father speak Love over him?
At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
What a beautiful moment in time! Don’t we wish we might have been there in the blessed and awe-struck crowd? We can. Let your prayer of imagination take you there.
Today, in Mercy, we celebrate Mary, Mother of Jesus.
I begin my prayer today by asking a question posed by distinguished theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ:
What would be a theologically sound, spiritually empowering and ethically challenging theology of Mary, mother of Jesus the Christ, for the 21st century? This question has no simple answer, for the first-century Jewish woman Miriam of Nazareth, also held in faith to be Theotokos, the God-bearer, is arguably the most celebrated woman in the Christian tradition. One could almost drown surveying the ways different eras have honored her in painting, sculpture, icons, architecture, music and poetry; venerated her with titles, liturgies, prayers and feasts; and taught about her in spiritual writings, theology and official doctrine.
In my own prayer today, though, I am not reaching for a deeper theological understanding of Mary. I simply want to talk with her as my Mother, my older Sister, my Friend. I want to seek her guidance and her inspiration. I want to thank her for her continual willingness to bear Christ into the world, and into my life.
How significant it is that the Church begins the year inviting us all to Mary’s Light! Our first reading blesses us in a way that Mary might bless us:
The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!
Mary was all about giving us the LORD, not giving us herself. We see Mary best when we see her holding Christ toward us – the “God-bearer” or “Theotokos”.
This title, used especially in Eastern Christianity, originated in the 3rd century Syriac tradition. It affirms Mary as the Mother of Jesus, Who was both human and divine in nature.
Our reading from Galatians assures us that we too, by our Baptism, are the daughters and sons of God – thus becoming Mary’s own. She is our Mother too by the power of this sacrament.
Our Gospel reveals the spirituality of Mary who “pondered” all the mysterious workings of God deep in her heart. This Mary is my revered sister, guiding me as I meet the unfolding of God in my own life.
Today, let us pray with Mary, our Mother, our Sister, Bearer of God. Let us pray for the whole Church, the whole world – all of whom she tenderly loves.
Music: Two selections today.
A Peaceful Hymn to the Theotokos – Nuns of the Carmazani Monastery in Romania
Today, in. Mercy, we celebrate one of the many feasts honoring Mary, Mother of Jesus.
Today’s feast can be confusing to people. It is sometimes mixed up with the Virgin Birth – the moment when Jesus was born. What we celebrate today, however, is the moment Mary was conceived by her parents, Anna and Joachim.
From a young age, I have had a tender devotion to Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception. Some of my local readers will be familiar with the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Established in 1915, the Shrine promotes this devotion through its well-known novena and other means.
My Mom and Dad said that novena every day. Most Monday evenings, Mom and I would walk to our parish church where the community gathered to pray the novena together, celebrate Benediction, and sing the rousing hymn to Mary entitled, “O Mary, Conceived Without Sin”. ( I know some of my old friends are humming the tune right now🤗) When I received my First Communion, I was given my first Miraculous Medal which I treasured.
( A little reminiscence about that coming later today. Hope you enjoy it.)
These remembered devotions were the foundation on which the legacy of faith was planted in our young hearts. But as with any good foundation, a rich garden of understanding has grown from that early soil. Over the intervening years, many graced theologians have helped me grow in understanding of, and relationship with Mary.
One powerful impetus for this growth has come from Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, a Sister of St. Joseph and Professor Emerita at Fordham University. Her magnificent work Truly Our Sister opens with this sentence:
“ This book proposes that one fruitful approach to the theology of Mary, historically the mother of Jesus, called in faith the Theotokos or God-bearer, is to envision her as a concrete woman of our history who walked with the Spirit.”
Reading Johnson and others has let me see Mary more fully, allowing Mary to move from an isolated perfectionism to a womanly humanity transformed by the Holy Spirit. Johnson says:
“ I am proposing that one fruitful way to work out a liberating feminist theology of Mary is to locate her in the communion of saints and there to remember her, dangerously and consolingly, as a woman with her own particular history among her contemporaries and before God. At first glance placing Mary in the company of the saints may seem strange to those accustomed to more traditional Catholic practice, even though the title ‘Saint Mary’ adorns many churches, schools, and other institutions. It may even seem a diminishment of the honor that is her due as the Theotokos, or bearer of God. But at root it grants her the greatest honor the Christian tradition acknowledges for a human being, namely, the core dignity of being created in the divine image and likeness and gifted, in community with others, with a graced relationship to the living God.”
Today, as we pray with our many images, devotions and understandings of Mary, may we open our hearts to be inspired by her singular witness to God’s desire to be among us.
Music: The Magnificat – Mary’s radical prayer for justice and mercy, sung here in Latin by the Daughters of Mary (English below)
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seat s and has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich he has sent empty away. Remembering his mercy, he has helped his servant Israel as he promised to our forefathers Abraham, and his posterity forever.
(Following in a second post will be John Dryden’s A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687)
Today, in Mercy, we celebrate the feast of St. Cecilia who is the patron of musicians. A Christian martyr of the 2nd century, she is one of seven women in addition to the Blessed Virgin mentioned by name in the Canon of the Mass. Her deep spirituality led to a sacred intimacy with God which gave her the faith and courage to endure martyrdom.
Both readings today speak about the Temple. After the victory of Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish people restore their Temple with exuberant celebration, recognizing it as a symbol of God’s Presence with them.
In today’s Gospel. Jesus also “restores” the Temple by driving out the merchants who have diverted the Temple’s purpose as representative of God’s Presence.
Our bodies too are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians tells us:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.
Through our Baptism into the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Spirit dwells in us. We are called to be transformed by this Indwelling. As in any relationship, this transformation is accomplished through transparency, communication, listening and acting on behalf of the Beloved.
Geoffrey Brown, a deeply spiritual poet, offers us this imaginative image of waiting for and welcoming, as Cecilia did, the transformative Presence of God in our lives:
I must remember to go down to the heart cave
And sweep it clean, make it warm, with fire on the hearth
And candles in their niches
The pictures on the walls glowing with quiet lights
I must remember to go down to the heart cave
And make the bed with the quilt from home
Strew rushes on the floor
And hang lavender and sage from the corners
I must remember to go down to the heart cave
And be there when you come.
Music:Marc-Antoine Charpentier – Caecilia Virgo et Martyr
Charpentier’s Histoires Sacrées, or sacred histories, are in reality, dramatic religious scenes taken from the bible or the lives of the saints and set to music.
Cæcilia, virgo et martyr octo vocibus dates from around 1677. This tells the story of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians, and an early Christian martyr. Cecilia’s husband and brother are executed for converting to Christianity, with Cecilia following shortly afterwards. Perhaps the highpoint of this piece is the final Guay – Nolite flere fideles where firstly the angels claim that Cecilia has been ‘crowned by them’, before the rest of the chorus sing ‘Come, then, let us sing and exult in Cecilia’s victory.’ Quite wonderful in the way it incorporates Cecilia’s position among musicians. (Stuart Sillitoe)
Today, in Mercy, our Gospel tells us that our life is about getting to know God ever more intimately. Otherwise, when we come to our final moments, we may not be recognized by our Lord and Master.
Could this be possible? Could God not recognize the work of his own hands, the one made in God’s own image?
Probably not. But what I think the Gospel suggests is that if, throughout our whole lives, we have never prayed or drawn closer to God, God’s own image in us may be quite obscured after that disconnected lifetime.
Sometimes we might hear a person say that they don’t know how to get started talking with God in prayer. They seem to feel it’s kind of like a blind date where you end up realizing you have nothing in common with each other.
St. Paul says no, wait a minute. God is already within you simply by the nature of your creaturehood . You are made of the very stuff of God. In fact, the Spirit of God deep within our souls is like the fiery magma from a volcano. It erupts from our love and prays for us to the Creator – if we will only let it.
Let us give the Spirit the space, time and invitation to rise up in our hearts, praying with us and through us. In the deep love of that relationship, we will know ourselves to be recognized and loved. We can trust that all things are working together for our good.
Music: Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty – by Janet Erskine Stuart, interpreted here by the Daughters of St. Paul (Lyrics below)
Spirit seeking light and beauty,
Heart still longing for your rest
In your search for understanding,
Only thus can you be blest,
Through the vastness of creation, Though your restless thought may roam,
God is all that you can long for,
God is all creation’s home.
Taste and see God, feel and hear God,
Hope and grasp the unseen hand;
Though the darkness seem to hide you,
Faith and love can understand.
Loving Wisdom, guiding Spirit,
All our hearts are made anew.
Lead us through the land of shadows
‘Til we come to rest in you.
Today, in Mercy, our scripture readings are a little heavy. I had to dig to get my inspiration. But there are gems in these dense words!
It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.
This is a spiritually freeing passage. It assures us that God is with us through our faith, not through the perfection with which we keep laws and rules.
Our Gospel reinforces the message:
Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven
The passage is a little scary when first read, because we all hope we haven’t done anything to offend the Holy Spirit. But what Jesus is telling his listeners is this:
If a person criticizes or rejects my life and teaching, forgiveness is still possible when they come to their senses and repent. It’s like cutting the bad spot out of an otherwise good apple.
But if a person chooses to live a life which blasphemes (mocks, dismisses) the Spirit of life, love, mercy and peace, that person can never be forgiven — because they can never repent. They will be rotten to the core.
So the advice of Paul and Jesus boils down to this, I think. Befriend the Holy Spirit by your life of faithful choices. Listen to Her inspiration. Help others to do the same. And do not worry. when you make a few mistakes. God stands by the promise to be with us always.
Today, in Mercy, we celebrate the feast of the great Saint Teresa of Avila.
Teresawas a Spanish noblewoman who became a Carmelite nun, mystic, religious reformer, author, theologian, and one of the 36 Doctors of the Church.
(Until 1970, no woman had been named a Doctor in the Church, but since then four women have been designated: Saints Teresa of Àvila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of the Child Jesus, and Hildegard of Bingen)
Our reading today from Romans is a good one for Teresa’s feast. In it, Paul expresses his complete trust in and devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By this, Paul means more than the written words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He means the entire gift of the Incarnation, Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection, continuing among us in the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Teresa understood and lived this same trust and devotion. She said:
Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world.
Like Paul, Teresa was not ashamed to proclaim and live the Gospel. May these two strong and amazing saints help us to do the same.
Music: Christ Has No Body Now But Yours – David Ogden
Today, in Mercy, the Church links three readings which, at first glance, seem unrelated.
Our first reading from Wisdom reminds us of God’s infinite wisdom, incomprehensible to our human minds.
Paul, in his letter to Philemon, begs for the loving inclusion of Onesimus, an enslaved person, into the Colossian community.
In today’s Gospel, Jesusmakes the harsh pronouncement:
If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
How might we interpret these disparate passages to find a message of wholeness for our prayer?
Let’s start with Jesus. In no uncertain terms, he challenges his disciples to move out of their small worlds into God’s big world. That Godly world is not defined by family, nor by any condition other than our common Creaturehood in God … not by:
Jesus says the sacred community is defined only by shared and irrevocable commitment to the Gospel of love and mercy.
Paul knows and loves Onesimus, the slave, as a brother in this community. In his letter, Paul encourages Philemon to do the same.
Sometimes as human beings, filled with all kinds of insecurities, we tend to build enclaves that make us feel safe. We like to be with “our kind”. We invent borders to filter out those whose differences we don’t understand. We allow fear to grow out of that lack of understanding. Within the enclosure of our self-protectionism, we eventually forget that we are all one, equal, precious, beautiful and beloved by God.
Such toxic attitudes are the soil for slavery, war, ethnic cleansing, racial supremacy, human trafficking, destructive nationalism, and all the other sacrileges committed by humans against the human family.
Wisdom reminds us that only God can open the tight circle of our fears, judgments and isolations – only God whose infinite love encompasses all. Jesus tells us that we find that love only by lifting up the cross and following him.
Wisdom tells us to put it in God’s hands, and to respond to God’s challenge in the preaching of Jesus Christ.
Who can know your way of thinking, O God … except you give us wisdom and send your Holy Spirit from on high thus stretching the hearts of those on earth
Today I pray, may God do this for me, and for all our tight, convoluted and troubled world.
Music: Who Has Known (an Advent hymn, but perfect I think for today’s readings)
Today, in Mercy, we begin eight days of Thessalonians, coupled with the final section of Matthew’s Gospel before the Passion, Death and Resurrection narrative.
First Thessalonians is a love note, a thank you note. In it, Paul speaks to the community with great affection and gratitude because they have caught fire with the Gospel he shared with them.
Paul’s words carry the loving, grateful voice of God to us who also try, with all our hearts, to give ourselves to the Gospel.
In today’s Gospel, Matthew gives us the sad counterpoint to Paul’s joy. Jesus thunders woe over the Pharisees who, unlike the Thessalonians, smother the ardent message he offers them.
They bind. They control. They peddle a religion rooted in parsimonious law rather than generous freedom. They promote a system that sustains their privilege.
Jesus tells us that Pharisaical religion sucks the soul from people, binding them in a self-serving, spiritless law – where power and material prosperity supersede truth, loving community, and sincere worship.
In Paul’s words, God blesses and thanks us for our true faith which – by generosity, hope, love, sacrifice and hopeful endurance – builds the Community of God.
Throughout history, some people have used the scripture to justify the kind of pharisaical selfishness bewailed in today’s Gospel. They isolate and demonize other human beings by the deceitful turning of the holy Word. They are clever and convincing. They appeal to our rationality rather than our souls.
Today’s readings remind us to take great care in discerning the Spirit. We will never find Her where there is no love, mercy, kindness, freedom, forgiveness, and joy.
Music: one of my favorite hymns. Though from Ephesians, it carries the same message as our reading from Thessalonians today. I pray this prayer for all of you, dear friends.
Ephesians 1 – by Suzanne Toolan, RSM
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In him we were chosen to live through love in his light.
That is why I never cease to give thanks to God for you.
And pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ
will grant you the Spirit of wisdom
and knowledge of himself
that you may glory, glory in his goodness.