For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for January 2014
St. John Bosco’s dream
Octave Day of the Nativity of the Lord
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – January 1, 2014
Purpose: The desire for peace is the strongest desire of every human heart, a desire which coincides with the desire for a full, happy, satisfied human life.
Readings: Nm 6:22-27; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21
If you ever have the chance to visit the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians in the northern Italian city of Turin, toward the back of the church you will find a painting depicting a famous dream of the basilica’s builder, St. John Bosco. At the center of the painting is a great flagship in the midst of a ferocious battle at sea. The ship is surrounded by a large enemy fleet bombarding it with cannon balls and incendiary bombs, and ramming their sharp prows into its side. A man dressed in white stands at the tip of the ship’s bow attempting to guide it safely to the shore. Separated by a distance equal to the width of the ship are two tall pillars through which the ship must pass to arrive at the shore. On the top of one of the pillars is an image of Mary with the words “Help of Christians” written below; on the top of the other is a large white communion host, with the words, “Salvation of the Faithful” beneath it. Each time an enemy ship succeeds in creating a gash in the side of the flagship a breeze arriving from the pillars patches up the hole. At one point, according to the text of the dream, the captain in white falls down wounded and dies, and the men in the enemy ships cheer and rejoice. Almost right away, however, the other men on the flagship elect a new captain, also dressed in white, who rises up immediately to continue to guide the ship to safety. The battle continues to rage fiercely, but the new captain succeeds in steering the ship between the two pillars, bringing it into port. As soon as it is anchored to the two columns all of the enemy ships that had fought against it flee away, colliding against each other and breaking to pieces. Suddenly, the waters are still and a great calm reigns over the sea.
Contained within this painting are images similar to those which the Church proposes today for our contemplation as we celebrate the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, which coincides with the World Day of Peace, and comes at the conclusion of the octave of Christmas. St. John Bosco, a man gifted with many prophetic dreams during his life, saw the scene depicted in this painting one night in May of 1862. He understood the flagship as an image of the Church, the captain in white as a symbol of the Holy Father, and the enemy ships as representative of enemies of the Church subjecting her to persecution. The two pillars and the images resting on them represent the protection and help that Jesus and Mary provide the pilgrim Church on earth. While maintaining the primacy of this interpretation, one could also make many comparisons between these images and the individual Christian’s experience of moving forward on his pilgrimage to eternity.
As is the custom in our culture, many of us today are probably setting forth resolutions for the new year which we hope will facilitate our arrival at some goals we have established for ourselves. If our ultimate goal is better health, maybe we have resolved to go to the gym more often or to quit smoking. If our goal is improved relationships, perhaps we have resolved to call or visit family and friends more frequently, and to spend less time at the office. While there may not seem to be much more to these goals than what meets the eye, what ultimately motivates each of them is really a deeper desire for peace. The desire for peace is the strongest desire of every human heart, a desire which coincides with the desire for a full, happy, satisfied human life. It is this promise of peace, announced by the angels, which drives the shepherds of today’s Gospel to Bethlehem, and it is this peace which the priests of the Israelites wished on their people as they blessed them with the prayer that we heard in the first reading, “The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!” On this World Day of Peace, as we take a critical look at our lives, and seek to establish our agenda for the upcoming year, let us acknowledge our fundamental desire to experience within the stillness of the waters and calm of the sea with which the prophetic dream of St. John Bosco comes to its conclusion. The desire for peace should be the starting point for any resolutions we make today.
As believers, we have the great privilege of knowing where this peace that we are all looking for is to be found. True peace is to be found in Jesus. True peace is to be found in accepting into our hearts – with all of the implications of that act of welcome – the baby whose birth we celebrated just over a week ago. In the Bible, we hear St. Paul say of Jesus, “He is our peace” (Eph 2:14). Elsewhere he prays, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col 3:15). In one of the more quoted lines from his pontificate, the soon to be canonized Pope John XXIII powerfully distinguished between those who accept Jesus into their hearts and have peace, and those who reject him and remain without it. Speaking at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, he said, “The great problem confronting the world after almost 2,000 years remains unchanged. Christ is … resplendent as the center of history and of life. Men are either with Him … and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him … and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of … wars.” 1 At the beginning of this new year, what better resolution to make than a resolution to deepen our relationship with Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in order to come closer to attaining that peace for which each of our hearts yearns?
Speaking of Jesus in today’s second reading, St. Paul also makes a reference to Mary when he says that the Son of God came in the fullness of time, “born of a woman.” Today, we celebrate Mary as theotokos, meaning “God-bearer,” one of the most ancient titles under which she has been honored throughout the centuries. Celebrating Mary’s maternity of the Son of God calls to mind her other maternal roles as mother of the Church, and spiritual mother of all humanity. As spiritual mother of all of humanity, Mary is our mother, and it is she who leads us to her Divine Son, constantly pointing the way to him. As our Holy Father Emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI, said a few years ago when preaching on this solemnity, “Mary continually offers her mediation to the People of God, on pilgrimage through history towards eternity, just as she once offered it to the shepherds of Bethlehem. She, who gave earthly life to the Son of God, continues to give human beings divine life, which is Jesus himself and his Holy Spirit.” 2 At the beginning of this year, we are invited to attend Mary’s school, to learn from her how to be faithful disciples of her Son and to open our hearts to the peace that he wants to give us.
In the dream of St. John Bosco so vividly depicted by that painting in the basilica of Turin, the ship under attack arrives on land only after passing through two pillars bearing symbols of Jesus and Mary. In our own Christian lives, the “enemy ships” of temptation, fear, anxiety, and doubt constantly threaten to prevent us from acquiring the peace for which we long. Ultimately, however, these enemy ships will not prevail if we continue to steer our lives between Our Lady and Our Lord. If, at the beginning of this year, we resolve to allow her to bring us to him, we will arrive at still waters and peace will reign over the sea of our hearts.
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord – January 5, 2014
Purpose: How are we to carry out this mission to bring Christ to the world? When we encounter Christ, as the magi did, our lives are definitively marked, changed, transformed.
Readings: Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2: 1-12
It would be an understatement to say that the world was surprised when, in 1982, British satirist and journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, was received into the Catholic Church. The son of agnostic parents, Muggeridge had been raised in the religion of socialist progress, and had inherited from his father the conviction that man was capable of building paradise on earth. Despite flirting briefly with Christianity during his studies at Cambridge, by the end of his university days his faith in socialism was far deeper than his faith in Christ or the Church. “I am a socialist,” he wrote, “because I believe that the right conditions help man to be good, and only collectivism creates such good conditions.” In 1927, Muggeridge married Kitty Dobbs, herself a convinced socialist and religious agnostic. They were proud to establish a marriage free of religious constraints, and their ultra-liberal attitudes towards sexuality would lead to many infidelities that caused much suffering for themselves and their children. In the early 1930s, his career as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian brought Muggeridge to the Soviet Union, where he was convinced that he would finally find a land free of exploitation and injustice. He was soon disabused of this fantasy as he witnessed first hand the true barbarism of the communism that was practiced in the USSR. Little by little, his disillusionment with the totalitarian system he found in the land from which he had hoped for so much, led him to disavow himself of the conviction that the answers to man’s longings and man’s problems lay in socialism.
Muggeridge began to read the great works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, to attend the occasional divine liturgy, and to toy hesitantly with the idea of entering the Catholic Church. However, almost 40 years would pass before Muggeridge would find the courage to take that step. While many different experiences converged to bring this well-known agnostic home to the Church, the deciding factor was his meeting with Mother Teresa, about whom he wrote the book, Something Beautiful for God. Mother Teresa was clearly a woman whose life had been transformed by Jesus Christ, and it was impossible for Muggeridge not to be attracted by the witness of faith, hope, and love which he saw in her. Mother Teresa, in all of her simplicty, radiated Jesus to such a degree that Muggeridge was compelled to embrace the Christian faith, becoming a devout Catholic, and one of the Church’s staunchest defenders. In their last years, Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge cultivated a deep love for the Blessed Sacrament, detached themselves from the world in prayer, and spent their days attending Mass, and preparing themselves to come face-to-face with their Savior.
In this account, we see Bl. Teresa of Calcutta engaging–perhaps without even trying consciously to do so–in an activity which is on everybody’s lips today: the new evangelization. Mother Teresa brought the Christain faith to a man from a traditionally Christian country, who had already known Christianity but who, for one reason or another, had distanced himself from his Christian roots, and found himself, for much of his life, without any religious faith at all. On this feast of the Epiphany, we are reminded of the call to mission which Mother Teresa lived so well, and we are shown how to most effectively live that mission.
Long before Mother Teresa won a convert, St. Paul had exhausted himself for the conversion of the Gentiles. He was driven to endure sufferings, to take risks, and to expose himself to ridicule in order to bring the Gospel to everyone who had yet to hear it, because he was convinced, as we heard in the second reading, that the Gentiles were “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” The same missionary fire must burn in us, whether we are charged with bringing Christ to those who have never heard of him before, or to those who, having once known him, have grown cold in their faith and no longer see its relevance to their lives.
How are we to carry out this mission to bring Christ to the world? Today’s Gospel gives us a clue. After describing the classic scene that we all know so well of the magi from the east, who follow the star to do homage to the newborn king, the evangelist tells us that the wise men “departed for their country by another way.” That is to say, the magi encounter Christ, and they do not walk away the same. In this seemingly insignificant observation of the Gospel account, we have the answer to the “how” of the evangelization ad gentes that Paul carried out in his day, as well as the “how” of the new evangelization that the Church is challenging us to in our day. When we encounter Christ as the magi did our lives are definitively marked, changed, transformed. And when we are radically transformed by our encounter with Christ, other people will be radically transformed by their encounter with us.
Mother Teresa had been profoundly changed by the same Jesus the she encountered every morning in her Eucharistic holy hour, the same Jesus that she received every day at Mass, the same Jesus upon whose life she meditated in the Gospels, and the same Jesus that she found in the poorest of the poor. It was because she had allowed herself to be transformed by her encounter with Jesus in this way that Malcolm Muggeridge was able to write of her:
Mother Teresa is, in herself, a living conversion; it is impossible to be with her, to listen to her, to observe what she is doing and how she is doing it, without being in some degree converted. Her total devotion to Christ, her conviction that everyone must be treated, helped, and loved as if he were Christ himself; her simple life lived according to the Gospel and her joy in receiving the sacraments–none of this can be ignored. There is no book I have read, no speech I have heard … there is no human relationship, or transcendental experience that has brought me closer to Christ, or made me more aware of what the Incarnation means, and what is demanded of us.
On this feast of the Epiphany, as we celebrate the encounter of the magi with the Christ child, whose birth we just celebrated two weeks ago, we would do well to ask ourselves whether our own encounter with Christ leads us back by a different road, and renders us instruments of the evangelization which St. Paul, Mother Teresa, and a thousand saints in between, have carried out so well. Once, when preaching the feast of the Epiphany, St. Augustine said, “Even we, recognizing Christ our King and Priest who died for us, have honored him as if we had offered him gold, incense, and myrhh. But what remains is for us to bear witness to him by taking a different road from that on which we came.” If we truly “bear witness to him by taking a different road” then we can hope firmly that what happened to Malcolm Muggeridge will happen to many through the Spirit working through us, enabling us to say confidently with the Psalmist today, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.”
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – January 12, 2014
Purpose: Of all that baptism confers upon us, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it makes us “adoptive sons of God.” The only reason why we can pray the Lord’s Prayer, addressing God on such familiar terms as “our father,” is because of our baptism.
Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17
Today, as is the custom every year, Pope Francis will baptize a number of newborn babies in the Sistine Chapel. Through this tradition, the Church uses the feast of Our Lord’s baptism to call attention to the tremendous grace we each receive at our own baptism. In order to enter into this feast, I’d like to ask you two questions.
The first question is this: What is the most difficult teaching of the Catholic Church for most people to accept? Certainly, it must be one of the Church’s counter-cultural teachings on God’s plan for human sexuality, right? Actually, I don’t think so. Well, then it must be one of the other hot-button issues so often spoken of in the press, such as the Church’s teachings on the dignity of human life, right? Well, I’m not so sure about that either. Perhaps, it’s one of those teachings on purgatory, or the veneration of the saints, or indulgences? Well for some, maybe, but I don’t think we’ve landed on the right answer yet. Now, while I don’t have any privileged view into the minds and hearts of all Catholics, I would bet that the hardest teaching of the Catholic Church to really believe deeply in the core of our being has little to do with the five or ten controversial topics about which we are so accustomed to hearing debate. Rather, I would argue that many of us find it hardest to believe something far more fundamental. In a nutshell, we find it hard to really believe, deep down, that we are children of God, unconditionally loved by him, and capable of calling him “Father.”
The second question is this: What is the most important day of your life? After a little reflection many of us might think of the day we made our big life commitment, such as our wedding day, or the day of our ordination, or final profession of vows. Those with children might say that the most important day of their life was the birth of one of their children. Others might think of an event in their lives that changed everything for the better, or for the worse, and point to that day as the most important day of their life. While these are all plausible answers to this question, none of them is precisely the correct answer. Hands down, the most important day of every person’s life is the day of his or her baptism. We are more changed by baptism than we are by any choice of a state in life, by the birth of any child, or by any experience we have, no matter how dramatic.
It shouldn’t be hard to see that the answers to these two questions are intimately linked to each other. To put it succinctly: the baptism we receive on the most important day of our life is the very event which makes faith in the most difficult teaching of the Church possible.
Listen to this statement from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The fruit of baptism, or baptismal grace, is a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ.” 3
Lest we be tempted to treat baptism as a simple rite of passage, a chance to get the family together after a baby’s birth and have a party, we would do well to reflect on the implications of this statement from the Catechism. By baptism we are grafted onto Christ. We are enabled to participate in the very life and love of God. We receive sanctifying grace in our souls and, thus, become temples of the Holy Spirit. Since baptism is the sacrament that gives us spiritual life, it is known as the “gateway” to all the other sacraments. And since baptism is necessary for salvation, it is by virtue of our baptism that we are admitted into heaven at our deaths. Does more of a case really need to be made to convince us that the day we receive this grace is really the most important day of our lives?
Of all that baptism confers upon us, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it makes us “adoptive sons of God.” The only reason why we can pray the Lord’s Prayer, addressing God on such familiar terms as “our father,” is because of our baptism. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are made by adoption what Christ is by nature: sons of the heavenly Father. Elsewhere in the Gospels, we hear Jesus say that he is ascending to “my father and your father” (Jn 20:17), a statement that would have been impossible for anyone before Jesus to make. If we really reflect on what it means to be loved children of the creator of the universe, we can’t help but be remain in awe.
This brings us to the end of today’s Gospel account. We hear from Matthew that, after John baptized Jesus, the heavens opened up, and Jesus “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” All that Jesus would do and accomplish after this beginning of his public ministry, in particular in his death and resurrection, would make it possible for these very same words to be spoken by God the Father about us. If we are baptized, then God truly looks at us saying, “This is my beloved son (or daughter), with whom I am well pleased.”
They say that the longest journey is the journey from the head to the heart. This is especially true in the case our belief about our identity as adopted sons of the Father. While intellectually we may believe it, or say we believe it, for many of us there is still a ways to go before this belief makes its way from our heads to our hearts, to the core of our being. As we pray today, this week, and in the future, we might consider repeatedly asking God for the particular grace to believe with every fiber of our being that we are loved by him as his sons and daughters. Only when we, who call ourselves believers really believe this, will the rest of the world be able to believe it as well, and when people truly believe in the love of a God who is Father, life is never the same again.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 19, 2014
Purpose: Everything about John the Baptist’s words and actions in this passage reveals that his entire existence revolves around his mission of leading others to Jesus Christ. John declares that the very reason for which he came was that Jesus “might be made known.” We could say that John the Baptist existed in order to evangelize. By our Baptism, we, too, are called to evangelize.
Readings: Is 49:3, 5-6; Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10; 1 Cor 1:1-3; Jn 1:29-34
In December of 2007, I spent my Christmas break in the West African country of Ghana. Among the many adventures and interesting experiences I had there, one of the most beautiful was a Mass I attended for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of one of the parishes in the southern part of the country. All the members of the parish were united in a tremendous spirit of joy, wearing bright blue shirts and dresses, and jubilantly dancing out their thanks to God for all of the graces he had shed on them in their 75 years as a community. After the Gospel was proclaimed, the bishop of the diocese gave a homily which I will never forget. He began by reminding all the parishioners gathered there of the sacrifices of the first missionaries who had brought the Christian faith to Ghana. In the course of three years, three missionaries had arrived from Europe, each of whom died within one year of his arrival. According to the bishop, each had come expecting that such would be his fate. The fruit of their brief but intense work as missionaries, and the sacrifice of their lives, was the flourishing of the Christian faith in Ghana. Having called to their memory the heroic efforts of the first people to evangelize their country, the bishop then exhorted the members of the parish not to sit back and enjoy the results of their forefathers’ work, but to get to work evangelizing their family members and friends who had yet to experience the joy of life with Christ. He finished his homily with a challenge that I have never forgotten, and which has “bothered” me at the end of every year since that Christmas break of 2007. “At the end of each year” he said, “you should be able to count at least four people whom you have helped to bring into, or bring back into, the Church. If you can’t count at least four people, you are probably not doing enough to contribute to the Church’s work of evangelization.”
Now, let me say right away that I would not actually recommend setting such a precise goal. The bishop in this account was saying something at a particular moment to the particular Church of which he was the head, and his point was more to emphasize the urgency of the mission than to actually provide a criterion by which to measure the authenticity of his people’s missionary labors. He would certainly admit that it is not we, but the Holy Spirit who converts, and often the Lord keeps us from seeing the fruit of our labor in order to keep us from pride. However, it is clear from his provocative challenge that this fine bishop understood something fundamental about what it means to be a Catholic: to be a Catholic means to have a heart for evangelization. In the words of Pope Paul VI, the “task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church … Evangelizing is, in fact, the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize….” 4
In the Gospel, we have just heard, we see the figure of John the Baptist doing just this, evangelizing, which means helping others to come to Jesus. The Baptist, seeing the Lord coming toward him, cries out for all to hear, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He tells us that he has “seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” Everything about John’s words and actions in this passage reveals that his entire existence revolves around his mission of leading others to Jesus Christ. John declares that the very reason for which he came was that Jesus “might be made known.” We could say that John the Baptist existed in order to evangelize.
Thinking back to that experience on Christmas break, it struck me that the audience to whom the African bishop was speaking about being contemporary imitators of John the Baptist was not comprised of priests, nor of sisters from a missionary order, but lay people. He was telling people who had families, jobs, and busy lives that they too were called to evangelize. He was telling them that, by the very fact of their baptism, they could say about themselves exactly what Paul says about himself in today’s reading from the Letter to the Corinthians when he declares that he is “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, strongly insisted on this point in his recent apostolic exhortation. His conviction that all Christians are called to contribute to the Church’s missionary effort could not be clearer as he writes:
In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization. 5
If we accept this vocation to be “agents of evangelization,” how is it that we are supposed to go about living out such a mission? Well, the first thing we must do is pray. There’s an old saying that goes, “You have to talk to Jesus about your friends before you talk to your friends about Jesus.” Praying – part of which includes offering up our pains and crosses to God for other people – is the most important step in evangelization, and it helps us to stay mindful of the fact that conversion is always a work of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, we must strive to live lives that are consistent with the Gospel, especially lives permeated by joy and love for others. How many people have been attracted to Christian faith after an encounter with someone who radiated a happiness that was obviously not of this world, or after having been loved by a Christian at a time when they were really down on life. As Ralph Waldo Emmerson put it, “Your actions scream so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Before we speak about Christ, we must proclaim him with every action and gesture of every day, and eventually people will be compelled to ask, “Why are you the way you are?” When this question arises, it’s time to make what is known as the “explicit proclamation” of our faith. Naturally and calmly, we explain what our friendship with Jesus means to us, and how our lives have been definitively changed by this relationship. This explicit proclamation will often require courage, and might not always be well-received, but someday in heaven, we will see what the Holy Spirit has done with all of the seeds planted by our well-timed words of witness. Through prayer, and the testimony of our lives and words, God can truly work miracles of conversion, in even the most hardened of hearts, and in those people who seem least likely to embrace Jesus and his Church.
We are still at the beginning of the new year, and there are many weeks and months to come before December 31st arrives. Whether or not you aim for the specific number of converts recommended by our African bishop, it would be worth asking yourself what you will do this year to try to bring your family and friends closer to Jesus. We belong to a Church that “exists in order to evangelize,” and that effort involves every single one of us.If we decide today to take Pope Francis’s words seriously, and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit as agents of evangelization like John the Baptist and Paul, we will be able to hear the words of the Lord in today’s first reading addressed directly to us: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 26, 2014
Purpose: As our Holy Father Emeritus Benedict wrote in his first encyclical, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The person of Jesus eagerly desires to have this encounter with us and to give our lives this decisive new direction.
Readings: Is 8:23-9:3; Ps 27:1, 4, 13-14; 1 Cor 1:10-13, 17; Mt. 4:12-17 (short version)
From 1939-1944, Israel Zolli served as the chief Rabbi of the synagogue of Rome. Zolli came from a long line of prominent rabbis, and after years of study and a position as rabbi in the Italian city of Trieste, he was offered the prestigious post of leader of Rome’s Jewish community. Devout and steepped in his tradition, Israel Zolli loved his God and loved being Jewish, suffering greatly with his people during the years of the Second World War. In 1945, he did something that surprised everyone: he converted to Catholicism. While it is true that a combination of factors led him to this decision, including years of studying the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus, there was one experience in particular that finally compelled him to embrace Christ. While in the synagogue leading the Yom Kippur service one evening in 1944, he suddenly had a mystical experience in which, as he recounts in his autobiography, “I saw Jesus Christ clad in a white mantle, and beyond his head the blue sky. I experienced the greatest interior peace.” 6 All of the sudden he heard the words, “You are here for the last time.” Zolli did not share what he had experienced with anyone and, thus, was surprised when that night, while preparing for bed, his wife told him that during the service she had seen a figure resembling Jesus with his hands on Zolli’s head as if to bless him. As if this weren’t enough of a confirmation, his daughter then shared with him that she had recently seen a figure that she recognized as Jesus Christ in a dream. Zolli knew that the time had come for him to become a Christian, and so, a few days later he resigned from his position as chief rabbi of Rome and sought out a priest for instructions in the Catholic Faith. On February 13, 1945, Israel Zolli and his wife were baptized Roman Catholics, followed a year later by their daughter.
The dynamic at work in the story of Isreal Zolli is one that has been repeated in the lives of countless Christians throughout the ages. While more often than not the life-altering encounter with Christ does not happen in such an extraordinary way, nonetheless when it does happen life is changed forever. Once we have fallen in love with Jesus, we live and choose differently, and life is never the same again.
In the first reading from Isaiah we hear it said that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” Our Gospel then cites this same phrase when Jesus moves to Capernaum, identifying the great light of Isaiah with the person of Jesus. All of us who have had a life-changing encounter with Christ can be said to be people who have seen a great light after having walked in darkness. That darkness might have been a total lack of faith, or a faith that was rather superficial, or a turning away from goodness to a life of sin. The great light might have been a sudden realization of God’s goodness and love, which moved us to a more radical love of him, or an enounter with committed Christians whose way of living the Gospel opened our hearts to a relationship with the Lord, or perhaps, an experience of suffering which convinced us that we could no longer live without Jesus at the center of our lives. If we have ever felt ourselves drawn by grace into a deeper, more personal relationship with Jesus, then we can identify ourselves with the people who, walking in darkness, have seen a great light.
At the end of the Gospel we hear the opening words of Jesus’s ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the words that, in some way, each of us hears after Christ breaks into our lives. We realize that following Jesus means that we can no longer live the way we once lived. For Isreal Zolli, the words that indicated this to him were simple: “You are here for the last time.” When Christ draws us into a deeper relationship with himself, he shines his light into the sinful, selfish, broken areas of our lives as if to say also to us, “You are here for the last time.” The repentance that follows, and which must continue for all of our lives, is not a repentance motived primarily by fear of eternal punishment, nor a desire for eternal reward, nor is it a repentance motived by a desire to follow rules and be ethical, but rather a repentance motived by love for another. Just as a young man who is in love with a girl acts differently because of a desire to please his beloved, so, too, the person in love with Christ acts differently because of a desire to please the one with whom he is in love. People who are in love act differently.
What if we have not yet had this experience of encountering Christ in such a definitive way? Well, all we need to do is open our hearts a little bit and invite him in. God will not reject the sincere prayer of anyone in whom he finds even a spark of the desire to know him more personally. He has already been pursuing us all of our lives, and wants nothing more than to help us move from being merely committed to our religion and going through the motions, to experiencing true intimacy with him. If we allow him in to do this, our lives will never be the same again. As our Holy Father Emeritus Benedict wrote in his first encyclical, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” 7 The person of Jesus eagerly desires to have this encounter with us, and to give our lives this decisive new direction.
I’d like to give the last words to the man who probably best expressed the type of “repentance” that happens when those who walk in darkness finally see the great light that is God. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, a 20th century superior general of the Society of Jesus, put it like this:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
- Pope John XXIII, Discourse for the Solemn Opening of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962. ↩
- Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, 1 January 2011. ↩
- §1279. ↩
- Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14 ↩
- Pope Franics, Evangelii Gaudium, 120 ↩
- Eugenio Zolli. Before the Dawn: Autobiographical Reflections by Eugenio Zolli, Former Chief Rabbi of Rome. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008. p. 190. ↩
- Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (25 December 2005), §1. ↩