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No matter what the year in the liturgical cycle, the Gospel for this Sunday is always the narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  Some reflections from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. (There were no public Masses, therefore homilies, from these days each year, but there are Angelus reflections. On the second, third or fourth Sunday of Lent, the Pope would normally go out to a Roman parish or a youth detention center, so there will be homilies from those Sundays.)

2006:

The image of the desert is a very eloquent metaphor of the human condition. The Book of Exodus recounts the experience of the People of Israel who, after leaving Egypt, wandered through the desert of Sinai for 40 years before they reached the Promised Land.

During that long journey, the Jews experienced the full force and persistence of the tempter, who urged them to lose trust in the Lord and to turn back; but at the same time, thanks to Moses’ mediation, they learned to listen to God’s voice calling them to become his holy People.

In meditating on this biblical passage, we understand that to live life to the full in freedom we must overcome the test that this freedom entails, that is, temptation. Only if he is freed from the slavery of falsehood and sin can the human person, through the obedience of faith that opens him to the truth, find the full meaning of his life and attain peace, love and joy.

2007:

During these days of Lent, let us not distance our hearts from this mystery of profound humanity and lofty spirituality. Looking at Christ, we feel at the same time looked at by him. He whom we have pierced with our faults never tires of pouring out upon the world an inexhaustible torrent of merciful love.

2008:

It means not off-loading the problem of evil on to others, on to society or on to God but rather recognizing one’s own responsibility and assuming it with awareness. In this regard Jesus’ invitation to each one of us Christians to take up our “cross” and follow him with humility and trust (cf. Mt 16: 24) is particularly pressing. Although the “cross” may be heavy it is not synonymous with misfortune, with disgrace, to be avoided on all accounts; rather it is an opportunity to follow Jesus and thereby to acquire strength in the fight against sin and evil. Thus, entering Lent means renewing the personal and community decision to face evil together with Christ. The way of the Cross is in fact the only way that leads to the victory of love over hatred, of sharing over selfishness, of peace over violence. Seen in this light, Lent is truly an opportunity for a strong ascetic and spiritual commitment based on Christ’s grace.

2009:  (Same Gospel as this year)

Today is the First Sunday of Lent and the Gospel, in the sober and concise style of St Mark, introduces us into the atmosphere of this liturgical season: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mk 1: 12). In the Holy Land the Judean desert, which lies to the west of the River Jordan and the Oasis of Jericho, rises over stony valleys to reach an altitude of about 1,000 metres at Jerusalem. After receiving Baptism from John, Jesus entered that lonely place, led by the Holy Spirit himself who had settled upon him, consecrating him and revealing him as the Son of God. In the desert, a place of trial as the experience of the People of Israel shows, the dramatic reality of the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ who had stripped himself of the form of God (cf. Phil 2: 6-7), appears most vividly. He who never sinned and cannot sin submits to being tested and can therefore sympathize with our weaknesses (cf. Heb 4: 15). He lets himself be tempted by Satan, the enemy, who has been opposed to God’s saving plan for humankind from the outset.

In the succinct account, angels, luminous and mysterious figures, appear almost fleetingly before this dark, tenebrous figure who dares to tempt the Lord. Angels, the Gospel says, “ministered” to Jesus (Mk 1: 13); they are the antithesis of Satan. “Angel” means “messenger”. Throughout the Old Testament we find these figures who help and guide human beings on God’s behalf. It suffices to remember the Book of Tobit, in which the figure of the Angel Raphael appears and assists the protagonist in every vicissitude. The reassuring presence of the angel of the Lord accompanies the People of Israel in all of their experiences, good and bad. On the threshold of the New Testament, Gabriel is dispatched to announce to Zechariah and to Mary the joyful events at the beginning of our salvation; and an angel we are not told his name warns Joseph, guiding him in that moment of uncertainty. A choir of angels brings the shepherds the good news of the Saviour’s birth; and it was also to be angels who announced the joyful news of his Resurrection to the women. At the end of time, angels will accompany Jesus when he comes in his glory (cf. Mt 25: 31). Angels minister to Jesus, who is certainly superior to them. This dignity of his is clearly, if discreetly, proclaimed here in the Gospel. Indeed, even in the situation of extreme poverty and humility, when he is tempted by Satan he remains the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord.

2010

Christ came into the world to set us free from sin and from the ambiguous fascination of planning our life leaving God out. He did not do so with loud proclamations but rather by fighting the Tempter himself, until the Cross.

2011

The Devil opposed this definitive and universal plan of salvation with all his might, as is shown in particular in the Gospel of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness which is proclaimed every year on the First Sunday of Lent. In fact, entering this liturgical season means continuously taking Christ’s side against sin, facing — both as individuals and as Church — the spiritual fight against the spirit of evil each time

2012  (Again, like this year, Mark was the Gospel)

St Mark’s concise narrative lacks the details we read in the other two Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The wilderness referred to has various meanings. It can indicate the state of abandonment and loneliness, the “place” of human weakness, devoid of support and safety, where temptation grows stronger.

However, it can also indicate a place of refuge and shelter — as it was for the People of Israel who had escaped from slavery in Egypt — where it is possible to experience God’s presence in a special way. Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:13). St Leo the Great comments that “The Lord wanted to suffer the attack of the tempter in order to defend us with his help and to instruct us with his example (Tractatus XXXIX,3 De ieiunio quadragesimae: CCL 138/A, Turnholti 1973, 214-215).

What can this episode teach us? As we read in the book The Imitation of Christ, “There is no man wholly free from temptations so long as he lives… but by endurance and true humility we are made stronger than all our enemies” (Liber I, C. XIII, Vatican City 1982, 37), endurance and the humility of following the Lord every day, learning not to build our lives outside him or as though he did not exist, but in him and with him, for he is the source of true life.

The temptation to remove God, to arrange things within us and in the world by ourselves, relying on our own abilities, has always been present in human history.

Jesus proclaims that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15), he announces that in him something new happens: God turns to the human being in an unexpected way, with a unique, tangible closeness, full of love; God is incarnate and enters the human world to take sin upon himself, to conquer evil and usher men and women into the world of God.

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…or Candlemas:

Another great piece from Roseanne T. Sullivan in Dappled Things. 

On Candlemas, the prayers said by the priest as he blesses the candles with holy water and incense include the symbols of fire and light as metaphors for our faith and for Christ Himself. The choir sings the Nunc Dimittis or Canticle of Simeon with the antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel” (“Light to the revelation of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel”) after each verse. A solemn procession may be made into the church building by the clergy and the faithful carrying the newly blessed candles to reenact the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple.

From a sermon by Saint Sophronius, bishop in today’s Office of Readings.

In honour of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light.
  Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil candlemasand to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.
  The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.
  The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

I love the way Elena Maria Vidal puts it:

At Christmas, we adored Him with the shepherds at dawn; at Epiphany, we rejoiced in the brightness of His manifestations to the nations; at Candlemas, with the aged Simeon, we take Him into our arms. With the prophetic words of Simeon, the day also becomes a preparation for Lent and the Passion of Our Lord. We must offer ourselves with Jesus to the Father; we must embrace our own purification.

This feast day links Christmas with Lent, the joyful mysteries with the sorrowful mysteries.

From a 1951 book of family faith formation:

Finally on the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, we put the light of Christ into our children’s hands for them to carry still further into the world. The Church has never been reluctant to place her destiny in the hands of the rising generations. It was once the custom at Candlemas for her to give each of her members a blessed candle to hold high and bear forth to his home. It was a beautiful sign of our lay priesthood and its apostolate in action. Now the blessed candles seldom get beyond the altar boys who are wondering whether to turn right or left before they blow them out.

Because the ceremony has died of disuse in many places, because we want our family to appreciate the great gift of light as a sign of God’s presence, because we all must have continual encouragement to carry Christ’s light of revelation to the Gentiles on the feast of Hypapante (Candlemas), we meet God first at Mass and then we meet Him again in our home in the soft glow of candles relighted and carried far.

And now for some #B16 from 2011

This is the meeting point of the two Testaments, Old and New. Jesus enters the ancient temple; he who is the new Temple of God: he comes to visit his people, thus bringing to fulfilment obedience to the Law and ushering in the last times of salvation.

It is interesting to take a close look at this entrance of the Child Jesus into the solemnity of the temple, in the great comings and goings of many people, busy with their work: priests and Levites taking turns to be on duty, the numerous devout people and pilgrims anxious to encounter the Holy God of Israel. Yet none of them noticed anything. Jesus was a child like the others, a first-born son of very simple parents.

Even the priests proved incapable of recognizing the signs of the new and special presence of the Messiah and Saviour. Alone two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, discover this great newness. Led by the Holy Spirit, in this Child they find the fulfilment of their long waiting and watchfulness. They both contemplate the light of God that comes to illuminate the world and their prophetic gaze is opened to the future in the proclamation of the Messiah: “Lumen ad revelationem gentium!” (Lk 2:32). The prophetic attitude of the two elderly people contains the entire Old Covenant which expresses the joy of the encounter with the Redeemer. Upon seeing the Child, Simeon and Anna understood that he was the Awaited One.

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Well, here you go!

As you know, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave several series of General Audiences on the great men and women of the Church, beginning with the apostles.  Thomas Aquinas, not surprisingly, takes up three sessions:

June 2, 2010 – an Introduction.

In addition to study and teaching, Thomas also dedicated himself to preaching to the people. And the people too came willingly to hear him. I would say that it is truly a great grace when theologians are able to speak to the faithful with simplicity and fervour. The ministry of preaching, moreover, helps theology scholars themselves to have a healthy pastoral realism and enriches their research with lively incentives.

The last months of Thomas’ earthly life remain surrounded by a particular, I would say, mysterious atmosphere. In December 1273, he summoned his friend and secretary Reginald to inform him of his decision to discontinue all work because he had realized, during the celebration of Mass subsequent to a supernatural revelation, that everything he had written until then “was worthless”. This is a mysterious episode that helps us to understand not only Thomas’ personal humility, but 220px-Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_Bartolommeoalso the fact that, however lofty and pure it may be, all we manage to think and say about the faith is infinitely exceeded by God’s greatness and beauty which will be fully revealed to us in Heaven. A few months later, more and more absorbed in thoughtful meditation, Thomas died while on his way to Lyons to take part in the Ecumenical Council convoked by Pope Gregory X. He died in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, after receiving the Viaticum with deeply devout sentiments.

The life and teaching of St Thomas Aquinas could be summed up in an episode passed down by his ancient biographers. While, as was his wont, the Saint was praying before the Crucifix in the early morning in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, Domenico da Caserta, the church sacristan, overheard a conversation. Thomas was anxiously asking whether what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. And the Crucified One answered him: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What is your reward to be?”. And the answer Thomas gave him was what we too, friends and disciples of Jesus, always want to tell him: “Nothing but Yourself, Lord!” (ibid., p. 320).

June 16, 2010- Thomas’ theology and philosophical insights

To conclude, Thomas presents to us a broad and confident concept of human reason: broadbecause it is not limited to the spaces of the so-called “empirical-scientific” reason, but open to the whole being and thus also to the fundamental and inalienable questions of human life; and confident because human reason, especially if it accepts the inspirations of Christian faith, is a promoter of a civilization that recognizes the dignity of the person, the intangibility of his rights and the cogency of his or her duties. It is not surprising that the doctrine on the dignity of the person, fundamental for the recognition of the inviolability of human rights, developed in schools of thought that accepted the legacy of St Thomas Aquinas, who had a very lofty conception of the human creature. He defined it, with his rigorously philosophical language, as “what is most perfect to be found in all nature – that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature” (Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 29, a. 3).

The depth of St Thomas Aquinas’ thought let us never forget it flows from his living faith and fervent piety, which he expressed in inspired prayers such as this one in which he asks God: “Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you”

June 23, 2010 – what we can learn from Thomas

In presenting the prayer of the Our Father, St Thomas shows that it is perfect in itself, since it has all five of the characteristics that a well-made prayer must possess: trusting, calm abandonment; a fitting content because, St Thomas observes, “it is quite difficult to know exactly what it is appropriate and inappropriate to ask for, since choosing among our wishes puts us in difficulty”(ibid., p. 120); and then an appropriate order of requests, the fervour of love and the sincerity of humility.

Also – from Fr. Robert Barron, 10 of his own resources on St. Thomas Aquinas. 

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From Paul, servant of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ to bring those whom God has chosen to faith and to the knowledge of the truth that leads to true religion; and to give them the hope of the eternal life that was promised so long ago by God. He does not lie and so, at the appointed time, he revealed his decision, and, by the command of God our saviour, I have been commissioned to proclaim it. To Titus, true child of mine in the faith that we share, wishing you grace and peace from God the Father and from Christ Jesus our saviour.   - Paul to Titus

In 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of these missionary saints in his general audience (part of the series he did on the Apostles, gathered in this volume and other similar titles by different publishers. Study guide that I wrote here.).  After going over what Scripture and Tradition reveal to us about the two, he concluded:

To conclude, if we consider together the two figures of Timothy and Titus, we are aware of certain very significant facts. The most important one is that in carrying out his missions, Paul availed himself of collaborators. He certainly remains the Apostle par excellence, founder and pastor of many Churches.

"timothy and titus" January 26Yet it clearly appears that he did not do everything on his own but relied on trustworthy people who shared in his endeavours and responsibilities.

Another observation concerns the willingness of these collaborators. The sources concerning Timothy and Titus highlight their readiness to take on various offices that also often consisted in representing Paul in circumstances far from easy. In a word, they teach us to serve the Gospel with generosity, realizing that this also entails a service to the Church herself.

Lastly, let us follow the recommendation that the Apostle Paul makes to Titus in the Letter addressed to him: “I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men” (Ti 3: 8).

Through our commitment in practice we can and must discover the truth of these words, and precisely in this Season of Advent, we too can be rich in good deeds and thus open the doors of the world to Christ, our Saviour.

In case you missed it, Saturday was the memorial of St. Francis de Sales – and from today, here’s a good introductory post to that saint at the Word on Fire site from seminarian and blogger Joe Heschmeyer:

 It would have been easy for him to give up, but by the grace of God, he didn’t. His persistence paid off. Over the span of a few years, fruit began to sprout up. Ultimately, the mission was a huge success, with nearly every one of the 72,000 souls living in the Chablais returning to Catholicism. Mackey describes it this way: “At the end of four years the whole country was Catholic, the parishes organized, churches being restored and scarcely one hundred Calvinists remained.”
 

This legacy continues to the present day, in the form of a continual Catholic presence. For example, the great Church of Saint Hippolytus, built in the 12th century, became Calvinist in 1536. Under the influence of St. Francis de Sales, it returned to the Catholic Church in 1594, and remains Catholic today.

So what contributed to the success of St. Francis’ mission to the Chablais? Certainly, his natural talents play some role, but I would suggest that God made great use of his charity and his persistence.

He combined a solid orthodoxy with an intense pastoral devotion. On doctrine, he wouldn’t move an inch; pastorally, there was nothing he wouldn’t do. In fact, he coined the saying, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.” He lived out Matthew 18:12 in a radical way, going to extreme (sometimes life-threatening) ends to save even a few souls. He’s the Patron Saint of the Catholic press, because of the way that he used media (at the time, printed tracts and books) to evangelize when all of the other doors were shut, and to provide spiritual direction. He’s also the Patron Saint of the deaf, for an even more radical reason: in order to teach a deaf man about God, St. Francis invented a form of sign language.

 

After becoming Bishop of Geneva, he visited every one of his diocese’s 450 parishes, five abbeys, six conventual priories, four Carthusian monasteries, and five convents. Even those who disagreed with his theology couldn’t doubt his love for the people of God. Rightly has he been called the “Gentleman Saint,” and named the Doctor of Charity.

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Insights from past homilies of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

2006:

What happens in Baptism? What do we hope for from Baptism? You have given a response on the threshold of this Chapel:  We hope for eternal life for our children. This is the purpose of Baptism. But how can it be obtained? How can Baptism offer eternal life? What is eternal life?

In simpler words, we might say:  we hope for a good life, the true life, for these children of ours; and also for happiness in a future that is still unknown. We are unable to guarantee this gift for the entire span of the unknown future, so we turn to the Lord to obtain this gift from him.

We can give two replies to the question, “How will this happen?”. This is the first one: through Baptism each child is inserted into a gathering of friends who never abandon him in life or in death because these companions are God’s family, which in itself bears the promise of eternity.

This group of friends, this family of God, into which the child is now admitted, will always accompany him, even on days of suffering and in life’s dark nights; it will give him consolation, comfort and light.

This companionship, this family, will give him words of eternal life, words of light in response to the great challenges of life, and will point out to him the right path to take. This group will also offer the child consolation and comfort, and God’s love when death is at hand, in the dark valley of death. It will give him friendship, it will give him life. And these totally trustworthy companions will never disappear.

No one of us knows what will happen on our planet, on our European Continent, in the next 50, 60 or 70 years. But we can be sure of one thing:  God’s family will always be present and those who belong to this family will never be alone. They will always be able to fall back on the steadfast friendship of the One who is life.

2007

A washing of regeneration: Baptism is not only a word, it is not only something spiritual but also implies matter. All the realities of the earth are involved. Baptism does not only concern the soul. Human spirituality invests the totality of the person, body and soul. God’s action in Jesus Christ is an action of universal efficacy. Christ took flesh and this continues in the sacraments in which matter is taken on and becomes part of the divine action.

We can now ask precisely why water should be the sign of this totality. Water is the element of fertility. Without water there is no life. Thus, in all the great religions water is seen as the symbol of motherhood, of fruitfulness. For the Church Fathers, water became the symbol of the maternal womb of the Church.

2008

Yet it does not seem out of place if we immediately juxtapose the experience of life with the opposite experience, that is, the reality of death. Sooner or later everything that begins on earth comes to its end, like the meadow grass that springs up in the morning and by evening has wilted. In Baptism, however, the tiny human being receives a new life, the life of grace, which enables him or her to enter into a personal relationship with the Creator for ever, for the whole of eternity. Unfortunately, human beings are capable of extinguishing this new life with their sin, reducing themselves to being in a situation which Sacred Scripture describes as “second death”. Whereas for other creatures who are not called to eternity, death means solely the end of existence on earth, in us sin creates an abyss in which we risk being engulfed for ever unless the Father who is in Heaven stretches out his hand to us. This, dear brothers and sisters, is the mystery of Baptism: God desired to save us by going to the bottom of this abyss himself so that every person, even those who have fallen so low that they can no longer perceive Heaven, may find God’s hand to cling to and rise from the darkness to see once again the light for which he or she was made. We all feel, we all inwardly comprehend that our existence is a desire for life which invokes fullness and salvation. This fullness is given to us in Baptism.

2009

Dear friends, I am truly glad that this year too, on this Feast day, I have been granted the opportunity to baptize these children. God’s “favour” rests on them today. Ever since the Only-Begotten Son of the Father had himself baptized, the heavens are truly open and continue to open, and we may entrust every new life that begins into the hands of the One who is more powerful than the dark powers of evil. This effectively includes Baptism: we restore to God what came from him. The child is not the property of the parents but is entrusted to their responsibility by the Creator, freely and in a way that is ever new, in order that they may help him or her to be a free child of God.

2010

At the Jordan Jesus reveals himself with an extraordinary humility, reminiscent of the poverty and simplicity of the Child laid in the manger, and anticipates the sentiments with which, at the end of his days on earth, he will come to the point of washing the feet of the disciples and suffering the terrible humiliation of the Cross. The Son of God, the One who is without sin, puts himself among sinners, demonstrates God’s closeness to the process of the human being’s conversion. Jesus takes upon his shoulders the burden of sin of the whole of humanity, he begins his mission by putting himself in our place, in the place of sinners, in the perspective of the Cross.

2011

Dear parents, the Baptism, that you are asking for your children today, inserts them into this exchange of reciprocal love that is in God between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; through this act that I am about to carry out, God’s love is poured out upon them, showering them with his gifts. Your children, cleansed by the water, are inserted into the very life of Jesus who died on the Cross to free us from sin and in rising, conquered death

2012

And what are “the springs of salvation”? They are the Word of God and the sacraments. Adults are the first who should nourish themselves at these sources, so as to be able to guide those who are younger in their development. Parents must give much, but in order to give they need in turn to receive, otherwise they are drained, they dry up. Parents are not the spring, just as we priests are not the spring. Rather, we are like channels through which the life-giving sap of God’s love must flow. If we cut ourselves off from his spring, we ourselves are the first to feel the negative effects and are no longer able to educate others. For this reason we have committed ourselves by saying: We will “draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation”.

2013

It is not easy to express what one believes in openly and without compromises. This is especially true in the context in which we live, in the face of a society that all too often considers those who live by faith in Jesus as out of fashion and out of time.

On the crest of this mentality, Christians too can risk seeing the relationship with Jesus as restrictive, something that humiliates one’s fulfilment; “God is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself” (The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth)

But this is not how it is! This vision shows that it has not understood the relationship with God at all, for as we gradually proceed on our journey of faith, we realize that Jesus exercises on us the liberating action of God’s love which brings us out of our selfishness, our withdrawal into ourselves, to lead us to a full life in communion with God and open to others.

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Monsignor Charles Pope had a good column on the history of this feast back in 2009:

Mary is Mother of God because Jesus is God. This title was given to Mary at the Council of Ephesus in 431 in defense of Christ’s divinity. The Greek form of this title is Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) translated more literally as “God Bearer.”

Evidence for the celebration of this feast goes back in the Roman Church all the way to the 7th Century. Prior to that there is evidence of this feast being celebrated in other parts of Europe but usually on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. By the 13th and 14th Centuries However the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord came to replace this feast, and the Feast of Mary Mother of God was eventually moved to October 11th and renamed the feast of the “Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Just after Vatican II The more ancient Feast of Mary Mother of God was restored to January 1st.

That said, and as much as I love the Blessed Mother and affirm her under this proper title, I regret the loss of the Feast of the Circumcision. I generally prefer to stick as close to the Biblical narrative as possible. In this case Scripture is clear, on the eighth day (i.e. January 1st for us), Jesus was Circumcised and his name given. Three important truths and events are celebrated here. First that Jesus was born under the law and submitted himself to it so that he might fulfill it. Secondly there is the first shedding of blood, and this refers to the passion. Thirdly his name is announced: Jesus, a name which means “God saves.” There is no other name given to men by which we are to be saved, there is no other blood that can atone for our sins than the blood of Jesus and there is no one who can fulfill the Law as Jesus does. It seems a bit of a loss not to explicitly celebrate these events in Jesus life and these truth about him on the very day (the eighth day) they happened.

Pope Benedict back in 2008:

Our thoughts now turn spontaneously to Our Lady, whom we invoke today as the Mother of God. It was Pope Paul VI who moved to 1 January the Feast of the Divine Motherhood of Mary, which was formerly celebrated on 11 October. Indeed, even before the liturgical reform that followed the Second Vatican Council, the memorial of the circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day after his birth – as a sign of submission to the law, his official insertion in the Chosen People – used to be celebrated on the first day of the year and the Feast of the Name of Jesus was celebrated the following Sunday. We perceive a few traces of these celebrations in the Gospel passage that has just been proclaimed, in which St Luke says that eight days after his birth the Child was circumcised and was given the name “Jesus”, “the name given by the Angel before he was conceived in [his Mother’s]… womb” (Lk 2: 21). Today’s feast, therefore, as well as being a particularly significant Marian feast, also preserves a strongly Christological content because, we might say, before the Mother, it concerns the Son, Jesus, true God and true Man.

If this feast inspires you to learn more about Mary, consider this free e-book version of Mary and the Christian Life. (pdf)

"amy welborn"

Also….perhaps pray the rosary?

amy_welborn_rosary

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From past Angelus addresses by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

2005:

Yesterday, after solemnly celebrating Christ’s Birth, today we are commemorating the birth in Heaven of St Stephen, the first martyr. A special bond links these two feasts and it is summed up well in the Ambrosian liturgy by this affirmation: “Yesterday, the Lord was born on earth, that Stephen might be born in Heaven” (At the breaking of the bread).

Just as Jesus on the Cross entrusted himself to the Father without reserve and pardoned those who killed him, at the moment of his death St Stephen prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”; and further: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (cf. Acts 7: 59-60). Stephen was a genuine disciple of Jesus and imitated him perfectly. With Stephen began that long series of martyrs who sealed their faith by offering their lives, proclaiming with their heroic witness that God became man to open the Kingdom of Heaven to humankind.

In the atmosphere of Christmas joy, the reference to the Martyr St Stephen does not seem out of place. Indeed, the shadow of the Cross was already extending over the manger in Bethlehem.
It was foretold by the poverty of the stable in which the infant wailed, the prophecy of Simeon concerning the sign that would be opposed and the sword destined to pierce the heart of the Virgin, and Herod’s persecution that would make necessary the flight to Egypt.

It should not come as a surprise that this Child, having grown to adulthood, would one day ask his disciples to follow him with total trust and faithfulness on the Way of the Cross.

2006

It is not by chance that Christmas iconography sometimes depicts the Divine Newborn carefully lain in a little sarcophagus in order to indicate that the Redeemer is born to die, is born to give his life in ransom for all.

St Stephen was the first to follow in the footsteps of Christ with his martyrdom. He died, like the divine Master, pardoning and praying for his killers (cf. Acts 7: 60).

amy-welborn5

Carlo Crivelli, 1476

In the first four centuries of Christianity, all the saints venerated by the Church were martyrs. They were a countless body that the liturgy calls “the white-robed army of martyrs”,martyrum candidatus exercitus. Their death did not rouse fear and sadness, but spiritual enthusiasm that gave rise to ever new Christians.

For believers the day of death, and even more the day of martyrdom, is not the end of all; rather, it is the “transit” towards immortal life. It is the day of definitive birth, in Latin, dies natalis. The link that exists then between the “dies natalis” of Christ and the dies natalis of St Stephen is understood.

2008

Dear brothers and sisters, in St Stephen we see materializing the first fruits of salvation that the Nativity of Christ brought to humanity: the victory of life over death, of love over hate, of the light of truth over the darkness of falsehood. Let us praise God, for this victory still enables many Christians today to respond to evil not with evil but with the power of truth and love.

2009

Stephen is also the Church’s first deacon. In becoming a servant of the poor for love of Christ, he gradually enters into full harmony with him and follows Christ to the point of making the supreme gift of himself. The witness borne by Stephen, like that of the Christian martyrs, shows our contemporaries, who are often distracted and uncertain, in whom they should place their trust in order to give meaning to their lives. The martyr, in fact, is one who dies knowing with certainty that he is loved by God, who puts nothing before love of Christ, knowing that he has chosen the better part. The martyr is configured fully to the death of Christ, aware of being a fertile seed of life and of opening up paths of peace and hope in the world. Today, in presenting the Deacon St Stephen to us as our model the Church likewise points out to us that welcoming and loving the poor is one of the privileged ways to live the Gospel and to witness credibly to human beings to the Kingdom of God that comes.

2011

This is why the Eastern Church sings in her hymns: “The stones became steps for you and ladders for the ascent to heaven… and you joyfully drew close to the festive gathering of the angels” (MHNAIA t. II, Rome 1889, 694, 695).

After the generation of the Apostles, martyrs acquired an important place in the esteem of the Christian community. At the height of their persecution, their hymns of praise fortified the faithful on their difficult journey and encouraged those in search of the truth to convert to the Lord. Therefore, by divine disposition, the Church venerates the relics of martyrs and honours them with epithets such as: “teachers of life”, “living witnesses”, “breathing trophies” and “silent exhortations” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 5: PG 36, 500 C).

Dear friends, the true imitation of Christ is love, which some Christian writers have called the “secret martyrdom”. Concerning this St Clement of Alexandria wrote: “those who perform the commandments of the Lord, in every action ‘testify’, by doing what he wishes, and consistently naming the Lord’s name; (Stromatum IV, 7,43,4: SC 463, Paris 2001, 130). Today too, as in antiquity, sincere adherence to the Gospel can require the sacrifice of life and many Christians in various parts of the world are exposed to persecution and sometimes martyrdom. However, the Lord reminds us: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22).

2012

On St Stephen’s Day we too are called to fix our eyes on the Son of God whom in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas we contemplate in the mystery of his Incarnation. Through Baptism and Confirmation, through the precious gift of faith nourished by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Jesus Christ has bound us to him and with the action of the Holy Spirit, wants to continue in us his work of salvation by which all things are redeemed, given value, uplifted and brought to completion. Letting ourselves be drawn by Christ, as St Stephen did, means opening our own life to the light that calls it, guides it and enables it to take the path of goodness, the path of a humanity according to God’s plan of love. Lastly, St Stephen is a model for all who wish to put themselves at the service of the new evangelization. He shows that the newness of the proclamation does not consist primarily in the use of original methods or techniques — which of course, have their usefulness — but rather in being filled with the Holy Spirit and letting ourselves be guided by him.

The newness of the proclamation lies in the depth of the believer’s immersion in the mystery of Christ and in assimilation of his word and of his presence in the Eucharist so that he himself, the living Jesus, may speak and act in his messengers. Essentially, evangelizers can bring Christ to others effectively when they themselves live in Christ, when the newness of the Gospel is reflected in their own life.

And then, two more, from other occasions.  The first from the General Audience of 1/10/2007, in which Benedict discusses Stephen as a part of the series he did on great figures in Christianity (collected in several books):

Stephen’s story tells us many things: for example, that charitable social commitment must never be separated from the courageous proclamation of the faith. He was one of the seven made responsible above all for charity. But it was impossible to separate charity and faith. Thus, with charity, he proclaimed the crucified Christ, to the point of accepting even martyrdom. This is the first lesson we can learn from the figure of St Stephen: charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand.

Above all, St Stephen speaks to us of Christ, of the Crucified and Risen Christ as the centre of history and our life. We can understand that the Cross remains forever the centre of the Church’s life and also of our life. In the history of the Church, there will always be passion and persecution. And it is persecution itself which, according to Tertullian’s famous words, becomes “the seed of Christians”, the source of mission for Christians to come.

I cite his words: “We multiply wherever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed…” (Apology 50, 13): Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis christianorum. But in our life too, the Cross that will never be absent, becomes a blessing.

And by accepting our cross, knowing that it becomes and is a blessing, we learn Christian joy even in moments of difficulty. The value of witness is irreplaceable, because the Gospel leads to it and the Church is nourished by it. St Stephen teaches us to treasure these lessons, he teaches us to love the Cross, because it is the path on which Christ comes among us ever anew.

And then from 2012, as he was discussing prayer in the General Audiences, and in particular the relationship between Scripture and prayer:

Dear brothers and sisters, St Stephen’s witness gives us several instructions for our prayers and for our lives. Let us ask ourselves: where did this first Christian martyr find the strength to face his persecutors and to go so far as to give himself? The answer is simple: from his relationship with God, from his communion with Christ, from meditation on the history of salvation, from perceiving God’s action which reached its crowning point in Jesus Christ. Our prayers, too, must be nourished by listening to the word of God, in communion with Jesus and his Church.

A second element: St Stephen sees the figure and mission of Jesus foretold in the history of the loving relationship between God and man. He — the Son of God — is the temple that is not “made with hands” in which the presence of God the Father became so close as to enter our human flesh to bring us to God, to open the gates of heaven. Our prayer, therefore, must be the contemplation of Jesus at the right hand of God, of Jesus as the Lord of our, or my, daily life. In him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we too can address God and be truly in touch with God, with the faith and abandonment of children who turn to a Father who loves them infinitely.

For more from Benedict XVI on saints, but for children, see my book Be Saints! 

Also, a piece I wrote for the National Review years ago on these feasts that fall after Christmas:

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