Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)
When Christ was born in Bethlehem, the angel of the Lord appeared in the sky over the nearby fields and addressed the shepherds: “…behold, I bring you good news of a great joy…”
When the three wise men finally saw the star of Bethlehem settle over the place where Christ and His parents were staying, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”.
Three decades later, after the Last Supper and before they went to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus spoke in veiled terms about His quickly approaching death and subsequent resurrection. He gave his beloved disciples an image to help them understand: “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn 16.21).
So the joy of the Resurrection is described by Jesus as being like the joy of bringing a newborn baby into the world! Perhaps, His mother had described to Him the joy she experienced when He was born. Perhaps Mary had told Him too, about the joyful message of the angel at Bethlehem and the joy of the three wise men.
The birth of a baby is an extraordinary event, one that changes many parents forever in a spiritual way as a bond of union forms naturally (and supernaturally) between parent and child. We might say that spiritual joy is a sign accompanying each child into this world, for all to experience with awe.
So too, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ!
He would be a disciple of Jesus… “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24). Let us call him “the disciple of human struggle”, the disciple of our human weakness and striving. His words were spoken directly to Jesus in a moment of desperation.
God is All Good, we are good in small measures and irregularly. God is omniscient, we are ignorant and confused much of the time. God is omnipotent, we are consummate weakness. God is Love, we are self-centered much of the time, we like sometimes, we love imperfectly. But, “I believe Lord; help my unbelief!”
This is a cry of hope. “I hope Lord; help my hopelessness.” A cry for strength. “I have courage Lord, help my discouragement!”
And so, when a despondent, discouraged pregnant woman considers having her unborn child aborted, humanity senses her anguish though we have not walked in her steps. We sense her confusion and weakness. We sense too the prayer that she should try to make. “I believe Lord; help my unbelief! I am born Lord; but help my unborn!”
God help us to help her and in our world’s time of need to make this our prayer too. “We believe Lord; help our unbelief! We are born Lord; help our unborn!”
Filed under: Biblical Reflections
Let’s connect some Lenten dots by way of scriptural reflection and trace a sinister sequence of attempts to kill the Son of God, the Word of God – a connecting of black dots, each meant to end the sentence of the Word’s life on earth! Some spontaneous, others devilishly devised.
- First, and probably the most vicious of all - the crucifixion excepted – is Herod’s concerted effort to destroy the tiny newborn baby Jesus! We are all familiar with the story. The angel of the Lord warned Joseph: “…flee to Egypt …for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him” (Mt 2:13). Herod’s plans reach a rancid fruition just after Joseph flees by night with Mary and the newborn Jesus. Herod is “in a furious rage” and ordered the killing of “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Mt 2:16). These were the “Holy Innocents” killed in the very place of Jesus, because Herod suspected that each one of them might be the newborn King of the Jews. Each of these babies is an innocent martyr – a baby alter Christi. And there was mourning, the first attempt upon His life.
We know now that Herod helped inspire the paranoid “Planned Parenthood” mentality so common today, and that if he had had the opportunity to have Unborn Jesus aborted he would have done so instantly! Unborn Jesus, like any “unwanted” unborn baby, represents a threat to the status quo.
- We now fast forward about thirty years to the outset of our Lord’s public ministry. After Jesus was baptized by John, the Holy Spirit led Him out into the wilderness where He fasted for forty days. At the end of this period, the devil came to Him and tempted Jesus three times. The third deceitful temptation was a direct attempt upon the life of Jesus by the devil. They were on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and the devil challenged Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…” (Lk 4:9-12). Christ does not succumb and the devil leaves Him, but Luke observes “he departed from Him until an opportune time”. The second attempt upon His life.
- A little later Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth and went to the synagogue on the sabbath. He read a messianic prophesy from Isaiah and then explained that the text was being fulfilled in their midst. As he continued to speak the crowd became disenchanted: “…all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down headlong. But passing threw the midst of them He went away” (Lk 4:28-30). The third attempt upon His life.
- One day, during the third year of His public ministry, Jesus was in the Temple in Jerusalem teaching, when things grew controversial. Surprisingly, He got into a debate with “the Jews who had believed in Him” (Jn 8:31). Finally, Jesus says to them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” What did the Jews “who had believed in Him” do (along with others who didn’t believe in Him)? “So they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple” (Jn 8:57-59).The fourth attempt upon His life.
- Finally, it was wintertime, the feast of the Dedication and Jesus was in the Temple in Jerusalem at a spot called the portico of Solomon (Jn 10:22-23). He is challenged by the people and He gives a short answer, ending with: “I and the Father are one”. We read: “The Jews took up stones again to stone Him” (Jn 10:31, also 11:7-8), He speaks again, then they try to arrest Him but He “escaped from their hands” (10:39). The fifth attempt upon His life.
- We are all familiar with the sixth and final attempt upon our Lord’s life; His bloody Passion and crucifixion atop Golgotha! Jesus was targeted from infancy through adulthood. From the devil to His own countrymen, from political leaders to religious leaders, His innocence and authoritative teaching was difficult for sinners to bear. So too today, the innocence of the unborn baby and the “word” each would speak, is attacked by a self-absorbed hypocritical world that falsely champions human rights while daily plotting the deaths of the weakest among us.
Filed under: Biblical Reflections, Pro-life, Quotes from Great Christians, Saints
I recognize that not everyone will like this picture and I myself used it with some hesitancy. But it highlights a theme that quite a few saints and spiritual authors have written about which actually seems very relevant in our time (because of abortion), namely that Christ’s time in the womb was a time of suffering for our sins. Here are four quotes for our Lenten meditation:
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb… John Donne, The Annunciation
“The third characteristic then of the obedience of Christ is that it was tried by suffering and humiliations. To accomplish the Will of His heavenly Father, the Infant Christ, with the full use of every faculty, consented to be enclosed for nine months in the dark prison of His Mother’s womb. Other infants feel not this privation as they have not the use of reason, but Christ had the use of reason and must have dreaded the confinement in the narrow womb, even of her whom He had chosen to be His Mother.
Through obedience to His Father, and from the love He bore to man, He overcame this dread, and the Church says: ‘When Thou didst take upon Thee to deliver Man, Thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.’ Again, our dear Lord needed no small amount of patience and humility, to assume the manners and the weaknesses of a child, when He was not only wiser than Solomon, but was the Man ‘in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ ” St. Robert Bellarmine, The Seven Words on the Cross
“Consider the painful life that Jesus Christ led in the womb of his Mother, and the long‑confined and dark imprisonment that he suffered there for nine months. Other infants are indeed in the same state; but they do not feel the miseries of it, because they do not know them. But Jesus knew them well, because from the first moment of his life he had the perfect use of reason….The womb of Mary was therefore, to our Redeemer a voluntary prison, because it was a prison of love. But it was also not an unjust prison: he was indeed innocent himself, but he had offered himself to pay our debts and to satisfy for our crimes. It was therefore only reasonable for the divine justice to keep him thus imprisoned, and so begin to exact from him the due satisfaction.
Behold the state to which the Son of God reduces himself for the love of men, he deprives himself of his liberty and puts himself in chains, to deliver us from the chains of hell.” St. Alphonsus de Liguori,The Incarnation, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ
“He was filled with compassion for all the miseries of creation, and this never left Him henceforward; and most of all did He feel for sin, the greatest and the truest of our miseries, and He distinctly and separately pitied the sins of each one of us in particular.
…He surrendered Himself as a prisoner in His Mother s womb, for crime, for debt, and as a prisoner of war, as if He were a delinquent threefold by all those three liabilities. He only left His prison to suffer and to expiate, and it seems as though He loved it so, that He repeats His state of imprisonment in the Blessed Sacrament.” Father Faber, The Blessed Sacrament
When I think of Christ suffering in the womb for our sins it gives me great hope. Hope that He has obtained for us a special grace during His time of suffering in the womb – a grace that will enable us to overcome abortion in our time.
The Annunciation from the High Altar of St. Peter’s in Hamburg, the Grabower Altar, 1383 Master Bertram of Minden
The message of Psalm 85 is Messianic.
“Near indeed is salvation for the loyal…
Love and truth will meet;
justice and peace will kiss.
Truth will spring from the earth;
justice will look down from heaven.”
A note in the New Jerusalem Bible concerning these latter verses of the Psalm explains: ‘Personified attributes of God; these will inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth and in human hearts.’
Indeed, we can contemplate this verse in terms of the glorious Incarnation of Jesus Christ; in which the exquisite nobility of Heaven truly kisses our humble earth.
‘Truth will spring from the earth’, reminds us that Adam was created from the slime of the earth, but now in Mary – his descendant and a mere creature, yet immaculately conceived – ‘truth’ springs to life awaiting the salvation and justice of God. The love of God and the ‘truth’ of His creation (in the person of Mary) “will meet”.* And ‘justice’ will not only ‘look down from heaven’, but will send Gabriel down from heaven….and then the ‘Holy Spirit will come’ down from heaven and overshadow Mary. ‘Justice’, according to the Divine Plan of Salvation will come down from heaven.
In the very conception of Jesus Christ, at the very first cell of His earthly life as a human being, True God and true man; Love and Truth meet, Justice and Peace kiss.
* Yes, Christ is “The way, the truth and the life”. Mary as the ‘truth’ of creation, is but a humble reflection of the glorious Truth that is Jesus Christ, and she embraces His truth within her body (as Mother) and within her heart (as 1st believer), and even testifies to His awesome truth (as 1st disciple); “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Lk 1:46-47). Mary as ‘truth’ in creation magnifies the Eternal and glorious Truth of our Creator!