Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Zephaniah and God's Judgment

I had to search through my Bible a bit to find the book of Zephaniah. He’s not one of the prophets that I can say I know much about, and the book of his prophecy is only three chapters long. Wanting to justify my unfamiliarity, I did a quick search of the Lectionary, expecting to find that today was the only day that his book is referenced. I was wrong. I found entries not only for Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Advent, but also December 21, the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Cycle C), the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A), and the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on May 31. I have no excuse.

Zephaniah’s prophecies, we are told at the beginning of the book, were delivered during the reign of King Josiah, the last good king of Judah. Josiah’s great-grandfather, Hezekiah, was king of Judah during the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. Hezekiah was faithful to the Lord, but grew proud. Hezekiah’s son and Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh, was wicked. He repented and was forgiven, but it was Manasseh’s reign that sealed the doom of Judah (2 Kings 21:10-15). Josiah turned back to God and instituted reforms throughout Judah, but God had already decided Judah’s fate, and Zephaniah’s prophecy seems to bear this out.

What piqued my curiosity was that, although Judah’s fate was decided during Manasseh’s reign, God’s hand was stayed during the reign of Josiah. It took two generations before God’s judgment was made manifest, first through Neco of Egypt and then through Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. That would be like America today suffering for the sins of the Johnson or Nixon administrations.

Lest you think the comparison is far-fetched, consider that we’ve been living for 39 years with a legal framework that makes abortion-on-demand a constitutional right. Marriage is under attack and the traditional two parent family is becoming the exception rather than the norm. Vague spiritualities are displacing doctrinal Christianity. Nevertheless, there are signs of light. They have stayed the hand of God all these years, and they are not going to vanish quietly into the night.

I cannot help but wonder, in my darker moments, whether the fate of our land has already been decided. America has had its moments as a shining city on a hill, conceived in liberty and blessed by the Almighty, but then so did Judah and Israel. It’s a nice country we’ve got here; it would be terrible if something bad were to happen to it.

I don’t mean to suggest that God is extorting us. What I mean to suggest it that the fate of our country is in our hands. We are in a continuing state of crisis, and the only thing that will stay the hand of God’s judgment is our fidelity. God promised Abraham that Sodom would be spared if only ten righteous men could be found there. Sodom was destroyed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent Confirmation

It’s been over a week now since my oldest child was confirmed. Our retired archbishop came up from Cincinnati to celebrate the rite. For the last several years, ever since the last auxiliary bishop fell ill, our parish’s sophomores have been confirmed by the local dean, which makes it a bit awkward for those catechists who have taught that the ordinary minister is a bishop.

It just so happens that the maiden name of the archbishop’s mother was the same as my surname. However, in one of those ironies that is all too common in this neck of the woods, he is more closely related (through his mother) to my wife than to me. Before my wife and I could be married, I had to trace back the family tree to establish that I was fifth cousins with my future mother-in-law.

Although alternate readings that emphasize the effects of the sacrament are approved for use during the Confirmation liturgy, the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent were used. The gospel was not entirely inappropriate for the occasion, including as it did this line from Matthew 3:11: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

The archbishop delivered one of his canned Confirmation homilies, in which he examines the candidates by asking questions, but provides the answers himself in a catechetical style. The archbishop has a subdued delivery. It’s not a monotone, but five minutes after he’s spoken, you have a hard time recalling what it was that he said. I would be surprised if any of the confirmandi was inspired by his words to take up sword and shield (metaphorically speaking) as a soldier of Christ.

I suspect that, for my sixteen year old son, the memory of the day has already begun to fade, just as my memory of my own Confirmation is foggy at best. Nevertheless, he is sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He has been claimed, and he allowed himself to be. That is something that I have no intention of letting him forget.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Surprised by Faith

It's easy to think of Him as more than human, especially if you already subscribe to a high Christology. In one class that I took, another student admitted to thinking of Him as a kind of superman. First, of course, there are the miracles. Then there are the confrontations with the Pharisees, in which He seems to know what their thinking, like a comic book hero with telepathic powers. Padre Pio was said to have been able to read souls, and it's not unreasonable to assume that any spiritual gifts possessed by human saints would also be present, par excellence, in the incarnate Word.

It is also possible, however, that he came by this knowledge in a human way, through observation and deduction. Maybe Jesus "knew" what the Pharisees were thinking in the same way that a really good Republican strategist "knows" what a Democrat partisan thinks.

We are confronted by this human limitation, present in the human nature of Christ, in Matthew 8:10. In the middle of the account of the encounter between Jesus and the centurion is the statement that Jesus "marveled" (RSV), "was amazed" (NAB), or "was astonished" (NIV). The centurion's statement of faith was, apparently, not what Jesus expected.

The Church selected this gospel passage for us to hear on the first Monday of Advent, the day after we heard Isaiah proclaim that all nations would stream toward the mountain of the Lord's house. In the centurion, a gentile official of an occupying power, Jesus found a faith that was lacking in the tribes of Israel. Perhaps this was a sign to Him that the age of the Old Covenant was drawing to a close, and the time had come to initiate the New Covenant.