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“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’
Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.
Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.
Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.
The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.
Twice in recent days I cam across a term which I found rather compelling. Both times I found it in writing by the pope: his address to the Curia (still featured in this blog’s top post) and his homily at the midnight Mass on Christmas eve (translation here).I am referring to the words ‘holy curiosity’, and I think this is a concept which may well have to play an important role in the ongoing Year of Faith and in the new evangelisation in general.
It speaks to the basic nature of man, the desire to know and understand. This drives people to act and speak, not only in religion and faith, but also in science, work, career, personal relations, and so on.
In the midnight Mass homily, Pope Benedict XVI gives one of the clearest examples of this holy curiosity: the shepherds who come to Bethlehem to find the newborn saviour. He writes, “A holy curiosity impelled them to see this child in a manger, who the angel had said was the Saviour, Christ the Lord. The great joy of which the angel spoke had touched their hearts and given them wings.” And later, “Why should we not also be moved by curiosity to see more closely and to know what God has said to us?”
Holy curiosity, as the wording implies, is more than mere curiosity. As the shepherds show, it is triggered by something. In their case it was the announcement of the angels, but other encounters can have the same effect. In the address to the Curia, the Holy Father said, “The word of proclamation is effective in situations where man is listening in readiness for God to draw near, where man is inwardly searching and thus on the way towards the Lord. His heart is touched when Jesus turns towards him, and then his encounter with the proclamation becomes a holy curiosity to come to know Jesus better.”
When Jesus turns to us, in whatever way or situation, His act may trigger in us this holy desire to draw nearer to the Lord. It is not magic, of course, and it requires an openness of heart, a willingness to hear. This is als illustrated in the first example from the Curial address. Pope Benedict speaks about the first encounter of the two disciples in the Gospel of John (1:35-42).
“In the account of the two disciples, the next stage is that of listening and following behind Jesus, which is not yet discipleship, but rather a holy curiosity, a movement of seeking. Both of them, after all, are seekers, men who live over and above everyday affairs in the expectation of God – in the expectation that he exists and will reveal himself. Stimulated by the proclamation, their seeking becomes concrete. They want to come to know better the man described as the Lamb of God by John the Baptist.”
Holy curiosity is a “movement of seeking” made “concrete” by the proclamation. This is also part of our task as Christians, most certainly so in the Year of Faith and in the context of the new evangelisation. If we don’t proclaim, others will not find their seeking being made concrete, their holy curiosity remaining aimless and open to distractions and false satisfactions.
I think that, as a convert, this holy curiosity certainly took place in myself. Only when I was opened to the proclamation (which can – must – be far more than mere words)did my seeking find direction. And here I am today.
Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 57 to 80:
The time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had lavished on her his faithful love, they shared her joy.
Now it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother spoke up. “No,” she said, “he is to be called John.”
They said to her, “But no one in your family has that name,” and made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called.
The father asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. At that instant his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God. All their neighbours were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judaea. All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts. “What will this child turn out to be?” they wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited his people, he has set them free,
and he has established for us a saving power in the House of his servant David,
just as he proclaimed, by the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient times,
that he would save us from our enemies and from the hands of all those who hate us,
and show faithful love to our ancestors, and so keep in mind his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham,
that he would grant us, free from fear, to be delivered from the hands of our enemies,
to serve him in holiness and uprightness in his presence, all our days.
And you, little child, you shall be called Prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare a way for him,
to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the faithful love of our God in which the rising Sun has come from on high to visit us,
to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow dark as death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Meanwhile the child grew up and his spirit grew strong. And he lived in the desert until the day he appeared openly to Israel.
Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 39 to 56
Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.
Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? Look, the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
And Mary said:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant.
Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed,
for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name,
and his faithful love extends age after age to those who fear him.
He has used the power of his arm, he has routed the arrogant of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.
He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his faithful love
— according to the promise he made to our ancestors — of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.
Mary stayed with her some three months and then went home.
In the home stretch towards Christmas, as faithful across the globe will gather for midnight Masses tonight, let’s return to the extraordinary narrative of tomorrow’s feast. Over the course of the day I will simply share passages from the Gospel of Luke. Read them think on them, and open your heart for the coming of the Son. Jesus Christ came not only those many centuries ago in Bethlehem, but every day in the hearts of those who welcome Him.
Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 5 to 25:
In the days of King Herod of Judaea there lived a priest called Zechariah who belonged to the Abijah section of the priesthood, and he had a wife, Elizabeth by name, who was a descendant of Aaron. Both were upright in the sight of God and impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord. But they were childless: Elizabeth was barren and they were both advanced in years.
Now it happened that it was the turn of his section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the priestly custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there.
And at the hour of incense all the people were outside, praying. Then there appeared to him the angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. The sight disturbed Zechariah and he was overcome with fear. But the angel said to him,
“Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, who stand in God’s presence, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. Look! Since you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were surprised that he stayed in the sanctuary so long. When he came out he could not speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. But he could only make signs to them and remained dumb. When his time of service came to an end he returned home.
Some time later his wife Elizabeth conceived and for five months she kept to herself, saying, “The Lord has done this for me, now that it has pleased him to take away the humiliation I suffered in public.”
Art credit: The Vision of Zacharias, James Tissot, 1886-1894
There are many saints. And by many, I do main a lot. Such a lot, in fact, that the Church has a hierarchy of saints to decide which saint’s feast day has precedence on any given day. Last Sunday, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist took precedence over everything else, for example.
At the Second Vatican Council, this hierarchy was adapted. Some saints had their feast days changed, and others lost theirs completely as their veneration was suppressed at various levels. Some saints, which in the past were venerated worldwide, are now only marked locally. Many early saints, who lived in the first centuries of Christianity, underwent this fate. Among them, many Dutch saints who had local importance, but had left no tangible mark in the larger scheme of things. One of these is Saint Oda.
The 8th-century saint, who lived as a hermit at what is now the village of Sint-Oedenrode in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, gives her name to the parish which was established in 2010, and as a consequence, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans has asked the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints to reinstate her feast on the liturgical calendar. That request has now been granted. Her reinstated feast day will be on the 27th of November.
As the notification reads, “once holy, always holy”, Saint Oda’s sanctity has never been abrogated, but her veneration merely limited. Those limitations have now been removed so that the faithful of St. Oda’s parish can now mark their patron saint’s feast day again. Whether or not her veneration has been returned to universal status is unknown, but, to be honest, unlikely. The request from the bishop has been of a local nature, so it would make sense that St. Oda’s veneration is now reinstated for the diocese alone.
Our first motivation to observe Lent is simply because Jesus did it before us. It’s very simple, but w should consider Jesus to be our teacher in everything He did. There are numerous examples in the Gospels of Jesus praying and giving alms, but He also fasted. The best known example of that is of course the forty days He spent in the desert, just before He began His public life.
In the Gospel reading from today’s Mass, St. Mark spends very few words on this undoubtedly important event in Jesus’ life.
“And at once the Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for forty days, and was put to the test by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels looked after him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the gospel from God saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.'”
Mark 1: 12-15
Four sentences to describe a number of very significant elements. St. Mark is nothing if not succinct. Let’s take a look at some of the elements in this text.
- “And at once the Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for forty days”. The Holy Spirit plays a part here. He caused Jesus to go into the desert. We don know if Jesus went willingly or not, but we can conclude that He was inspired to do so. The Holy Spirit inspires us as well, sometimes to do very concrete things. It is because of Him that we have faith, and we sometimes can’t adequately explain the things we do because of faith, although we do know they are the right things to do. And why the desert for forty days. It’s not difficult to be alone and to fast in the desert, and the number forty would indicate a lengthy time, comparable to the forty years that the Jews, led by Moses, wandered the desert. Fasting has no meaning if it is not just for a day and is hard to keep up if you are faced with distraction after distraction.
- “and was put to the test by Satan”. St. Mark does not elaborate here, and without referring to the other Gospels, which do tell us more, we may say that Jesus was tempted by evil. That is certainly not alien to us, and therefore it shouldn’t be for Jesus either. “For the high priest we have is not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus is a man just like us. He knows us, our strengths, but certainly also our weaknesses. We are put to the test by Satan, so He needed to have been as well in order to take our trespasses on His own shoulders.
- “He was with the wild animals, and the angels looked after him”. Jesus is God, so it makes sense that all creation, here on earth and in heaven, serves Him. But there’s also an interesting comparison to Adam, who was master of the animals in the garden (cf. Gen. 2:19). Jesus is the new Adam, who came to correct the sin of the first man.
- “Repent, and believe the gospel”. This, in fact, is what Lent is about. If we return to the Gospel, get to know it again, take it seriously and continuously apply it to our own lives, we will be following Christ to the salvation which He brought us. The topic of knowing and understanding the Gospel is a whole topic by itself, so I won’t be discussing that any further here.
Art credit: ’40 Days of Temptation; Jesus Alone’, by Daniel Bonnell
Behold the new coat of arms of Bishop Hans van den Hende that goes with his new appointment to the Diocese of Rotterdam.
The symbols on the new design include elements associated with both his new diocese and his former diocese, Breda. The white lily represent the Blessed Virgin, patron of the Diocese of Breda, and the grid on the top left is that of St. Lawrence, patron of Rotterdam. The green cross on white also comes from Rotterdam (and, perhaps coincidentally, it is the reverse of the colours associated with Groningen, the diocese where Bishop van den Hende was vicar general before he came to Breda).
The lamb of God is in the centre of the shield, and it has to do with the bishop’s own patron saint, St. John the Baptist, who directs us to Christ with the words, “Behold, the lamb of God” (John 1:29).
The motto remains unchanged. ‘Sine timore serviamus illi‘ comes from the Gospel of Luke (1:74), and means “that we may serve Him without fear”.
With Lent having begun this month, the top 10 of most-read posts has a distinct Lenten taste. Last year’s post about the Stations of the Cross is, fittingly for this time of year, at number 1. Japan ranks understandably also high, as do messages for Lent, and a post about Ash Wednesday.
The number of visitors for March was 4,939, the second-highest number since I began this blog. The total number of visitors is now 76,943.
1: The Stations of the Cross 247
2: A surprise to no one, a Dutch politician in favour of rampant secularisation 137
3: Pray for Japan 94
4: To rub or not to rub 93
5: Boodschap voor de Vastentijd 2011 64
6: Bootcamp program unfolds 53
7: Stille Omgang 2011, Dutch missionary bishop in the dock 52
8: Dutch bishops’ encouragement for Lent 49
9: Papal message for Lent 43
10: St. John the Baptist in Bulgaria? 40
Now how did he end up there? And is it even him?
Archaeologists working on an island just off the town of Sozopol, Bulgaria, announced earlier this week that they had found an ancient reliquary in the altar of an old church named for St. John the Baptist (the island, too, is named for the Baptist). The reliquary, shaped like an urn, was opened today and seems to contain bone fragments from an arm and a leg.
Of course, the mere presence of bone fragments is no proof at all that St. John the Baptist is involved. The fact that the church and the island are named for him constitute better proof – that there is some connection between location and saint. Such a connection often results in a special devotion to the saint in question. Age is another important element. The church that the archaeologists are digging around in dates from the 4th century or so, and Sozopol has a long Christian history. It was home to a Bishop Athanasius as early as 431. It clearly wasn’t just any Christian settlement.
The relics discovered could be those of St. John. It certainly is not unheard of that relics travel long distances after a saint’s death. The Baptist was beheaded not long after he baptised Jesus, so very early in the first century. His followers, who would later merge into the followers of Jesus, buried his body after it was released to them (Matthew 4:12). It is not inconceivable that they later took relics with them on their travels to spread the news of Christ. Sozopol, being on the coast of the Black Sea, would have been in easy reach of merchants from Greece and modern Turkey, and so it could have been an inviting location to introduce the Christian faith.
All elements that point at the possibility of the relics belonging to St. John the Baptist. But the fact is that we don’t know. Not yet, at least.