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Thursday, second week of Advent

December 11, 2008

Blessed St. Damasus’ day! (look for his story in the “saints of Advent” category)

Almighty Father, give us the joy of Your love
to prepare the way for Christ our Lord.
Help us to serve You and one another.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Opening Prayer from today’s Mass)

Readings:
Isaiah 41:13-20 (God will save His helpless people)
Psalm 145:1, 9-13 “The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger, and rich in compassion”
+ Matthew 11:11-15 (the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist)

It’s been a critical question since the beginning of time: “Where will my help come from?”

And from the beginning, we’ve gotten it wrong.

Adam and Eve turned to the serpent’s advice and to their own ambition for help in becoming “like God”. At the tower of Babel, men turned to a collective building project for help in making a name for themselves. Israel turned to a golden calf for help when Moses disappeared on Mt. Sinai. King Ahaz turned to Assyria for military help (2 Chronicles 28:16-20) even after Isaiah had challenged him to trust in God (Isaiah 7:3-16). On and on it goes. We rely on our own strength, on the strength of other people, on money, on horoscopes or other superstitions–on anything but God–until everything has failed us (as it must).

When it comes to dealing with this deadly disease of ours, God minces no words: “Fear not, O worm Jacob, O maggot Israel; I will help you, says the Lord; your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 41:14, emphasis added).

Once we’ve finally figured out that we’re helpless, that we’re about as powerful as a worm squirming on the sidewalk after a thunderstorm, then God can finally step in and do for us what He’s wanted to do all along: save us!

“I was helpless, so He saved me” -Psalm 116:6

Jesus’ mother models this for us. When the archangel Gabriel declares her “blessed among women”, Mary calls herself God’s slave (Luke 1:28, 38). When Elizabeth repeats the angelic praise, Mary sings that God has done great things for her precisely because of her lowliness (Luke 1:48). He has raised the down-trodden to high places, casting down the mighty (Luke 1:52). She was not counting on herself for anything, even though she was perfectly sinless.

John the Baptist is another good example. Even though he came in the spirit and power of the mighty Elijah (Luke 1:17), even though there had never been anyone greater in all of history, John the Baptist knew that he was not even worthy to loosen Jesus’ sandal strap (Matthew 11:11, Luke 3:16). He too, relied on God for everything.

This dependence, however, doesn’t mean that we sit on the sidelines watching God do all the work. We are His instruments. “I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new and double-edged, to thresh the mountains and crush them, to make the hills like chaff” (Isaiah 41:15). There’s back-breaking work to be done, and we’re going to be in the middle of it. Nor does it mean that life will be comfortable. John was imprisoned and beheaded in God’s service. Mary suffered the public condemnation, torture and death of her only Son.

What kind of salvation is that?

It’s salvation through suffering. That’s been our downfall all along (and still is, really). We thought that salvation should save us from suffering, so we turned to things we thought would make us comfortable.
***
Is it not true that all the rivals of Christianity fail just here? All the religious philosophies of antiquity, it seems to me, shrink, in the last resort, from grasping the nettle of suffering quite firmly. They all want to make us invulnerable, somehow. There must be a back-door of escape if the ills of life become too overpowering. Either defiant resistance, or suicide, or complete detachment, is recommended. By some means or other, the man himself must be rescued from circumstance, he must provide himself with a magic impenetrable armour. And therefore, the sting of pain is never drawn. The good news of Christianity is that suffering is in itself divine. It is not foreign to the experience of God himself. ‘In all their affliction he was afflicted.’ ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.’ ‘If thou be the Son of God,’ said his enemies, ‘come down from the Cross.’ No: not while any man remains unredeemed. The divine suffering is not an episode, but a revelation. It is the necessary form which love takes, when it is brought into contact with evil. To overcome evil with good means to suffer unjustly and willingly. -Dean Inge
***

This is the secret to the suffering of John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
***
A man can suffer like a pagan, like the damned, or like a saint. If he wishes to suffer with Christ, he must try to suffer like a saint. For then, suffering is of benefit to our own souls, and applies the merits of the Passion to those of others: “I fill up those things that are still wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church.” [Col 1:24] And St. Augustine, commenting on this text, says: “The sufferings were filled up, but in the Head only, there was wanting still the sufferings of Christ in His members. Christ went before as the Head, and follows after in His body.” – The Soul of the Apostolate, by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard
***

John the Baptist and Mary suffered like saints by virtue of God’s salvation.

When Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence and that the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12), He was referring to this salvation. The word translated “suffers violence” is “biazetai”, from “bios” (as in “biology”), the Greek word for “life”. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by the force of life, vitality, divine life, the grace that God grants us through the waters of Baptism. It’s no accident that God follows up His promise of help by saying that He will open up rivers on the bare heights and fountains in the broad valleys. He will turn the desert into a marshland and the dry ground into springs of water (Isaiah 41:18). His life within us will empower us to stand fast in the midst of suffering, and to overcome it.

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