I am not the greatest!

john the baptist
Christ and John the Baptist, 9th C mosaic from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

In this week’s gospel readings we meet John the Baptist, known far and wide as a great prophet. Yet, John rejected the accolades of greatness while pointing to the one who was greater than he; one whose sandals he was unworthy to untie. (John 1)

What John did was something so basic; acknowledge the greatness in another. Acknowledge that others are greater than you. Acknowledge that you are not the greatest! This is not only basic human wisdom, but a basic truth of life.

We use the term “greatest” to describe someone who is truly at the top of their field. Yet, greatness is as fleeting as the present moment. World champions and records are replaced with new champions and new records. Past heroes are overshadowed by new stars. Also, being talented or great at what one does does not guarantee greatness in all aspects of life.

We begin 2018 still reeling from 2017. We fear the damage, already experienced and potentially to come, of a person who has been handed enormous power and responsibility while believing that they, and they alone, are the greatest.

Trump’s delusional rants about his greatness expose him as the fool he is. His claims are easily debunked and become fodder for political satire. We laugh at his audacity, but his overblown ego is dangerous.

Do you remember learning that pride is the greatest sin? Pride really does lead to numerous other evils. When “I am the greatest”, then…

  • All others are lesser than me. Their lives have little or no value.
  • The role of others is to serve me and my interests.
  • I am accountable to no one.
  • I do not need to seek the wisdom of others, for I know all.
  • Flexibility or change of thought is a sign of weakness.
  • All who challenge my greatness are my enemies.
  • I am the sole possessor of truth. All others are liars.

The old adage states that pride comes before the fall. Mary sings the praises of a just and loving God in her Magnificat. She sings of a God who cares for and rewards the poor and humble. My prayer for 2018 is that we will be blessed with the necessary wisdom, energy and hope to make her words come true.

He has scattered the proud in their conceit. 

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.

(Luke 1:51-53)

 

the annunciation and the angelus

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the gospel story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). The encounter between the Angel Gabriel and Mary is one of the most familiar scenes in Christian art. The picture above is a wood-inlaid beauty from India, given to us by a Marianist Brother and friend. It hangs by our front door as a gentle reminder of Mary`s role in salvation, and her presence in our lives.

The Catholic prayer, The Angelus, is grounded in the Annunciation story. Traditionally, it was prayed three times a day; at 6:00 am, noon and 6:00pm. In monasteries and villages, bells would summon all to pause in their work to pray.

"The Angelus," by Jean-Francois Millet, 1857 Louvre, Paris

As a child, I loved the back and forth rhythm of this prayer. The words from the gospel and the Hail Mary were simple, familiar and comforting.  But, I always stumbled on the closing prayer. If the truth be known, I still do to this day. (Mea culpa!) Interestingly, the New Roman Missal is re-introducing this closing prayer into the `Collect` or Opening Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It will be a comforting memory for many who grew up with the Angelus. This simple mind still prefers the simplicity of the gospel words.

Here is the traditional version of  The Angelus…

The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary: And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of
our death. Amen. 

Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done unto me according to Thy word.

Hail Mary . . . 

And the Word was made Flesh: And dwelt among us. 

Hail Mary . . . 

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. 

Let us pray:

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord.

Amen.

our lady of guadalupe – patroness of the americas

Catholic heritage and culture is filled with stories of miraculous appearances of Mary around the world. December 12th is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.

The story is lovely. In 1531, Our Lady appeared to an Aztec indigenous peasant named Juan Diego. She asked him to build a church where they were standing. When he repeated the request to the bishop, the bishop asked for proof. So, Juan Diego returned to the spot.

The woman then instructed him to climb to the top of the mountain, normally a barren place. There, he found a bush of roses in full bloom. He filled his tilma and returned to the bishop. When he opened his tilma in the bishop’s presence, an imprint of the Blessed Virgin appeared. The image is displayed in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico, and is a popular pilgrimage destination.

Technically, belief in any apparitions or visions is optional for Catholics. And, the church takes great care investigating the probability of their legitimacy; and probability is all that it can provide. Wisely, the church plays the role of the sceptic. False visionaries abound, and many people are desperate for divine or heavenly signs. For example, the church still refuses to approve modern day apparitions at Medugorje, and investigations continue.

So what does it all mean? Is it just another example of Catholic superstition and hocus-pocus?

Mary plays an important role in our Catholic faith. No, we do not worship her. She is our sister in prayer; praying with us and for us. She is a strong woman of faith and action. Her courageous Yes to God’s call made her the first disciple. And, she is the compassionate and protective mother. In her Magnificat prayer, she speaks of humbling the powerful and raising the lowly. The more popular apparitions of Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima all have Mary appearing to either a peasant or peasant children.

The beauty of Marian apparitions and miracles, authenticity aside, is the power of the story. Through these stories, Mary breaks into cultures around the world. She becomes one with those who love her and look to her for protection and prayers. Her image becomes global; her skin reflecting the skin of local peoples, her clothes mirroring their clothes. She becomes one of them. She becomes one of us.