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Friday, January 31, 2020

A Pair of Turtledoves - The Presentation of the Lord

Luke 2:22-40 (22-24)
When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.


There is something strange about today’s feast ― the Presentation of the Lord. The reading says “Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem. In part, their purpose was “to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:22-23). This was a very old Jewish ritual. Forty days after the birth of a male child, its mother would bring to the priest … a lamb or, if she could not afford it, two turtle doves or two young pigeons (Lv 12:1-8). So they were simply following the Law. 

But that’s not what’s strange about it. We should also notice that the text says Mary “took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (Lk 2:22). Indeed, that’s where this feast gets its name: the Presentation of the Lord. Mary and Joseph are offering their child to God. But that’s a little odd, isn’t it? I mean, he is God? How can you offer God to God? What kind of offering is this? What’s going on here? To answer this, we need to reflect on what it means to even make an offering to God. And perhaps it’s best to look at the very first sacrifice that was ever made. 

Do you remember Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis? Do you remember why Cain killed Abel? Recall that Cain’s sacrifice was found unacceptable: “The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was angry… and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen 4).

There’s a question that very rarely gets asked about this story. That is: what was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice? Well, if you read closely, you’ll notice that Abel is said to have “brought the firstlings of his flock” for his offering (Gen 4:4). He did not wait until he had a larger and more secure flock to make his sacrifice. Cain, on the other hand, is vaguely said to have made his grain offering “in the course of time” (Gen 4:3). In short, Abel was willing to offer sacrifices even if he could lose much. Cain was not. 

This tells us something about what Mary and Joseph were up to the day they presented Jesus in the Temple. Indeed, here’s the interesting thing about that old Jewish ritual: when a new mother would go to the Temple forty days after the birth of her son, there was no need for her to bring the child along with her. The point was for the mother to make an offering: a lamb if she could afford it, two birds if she could not. But there was no need to present the child alongside the sacrifice.

That Mary and Joseph offered turtledoves indicates that they were poor. But that they presented Jesus along with their turtledoves indicates that they had something far more valuable to offer. And, like Abel, they wanted to offer “the firstling of their flock,” the most valuable thing they had: their son. Indeed, this son also happened to be God’s Son. They could offer God to God. 

In life, it is often the case that we are so sick, tired, broken, and poor that we can only offer God “a pair of turtledoves,” that we can only offer God our problems, our weaknesses, and our pain. But just when we think that all we have are two measly birds, Mary and Joseph show us that it is precisely in our pain and brokenness that we possess the most valuable thing of all: Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). It is by being poor in spirit that we come to possess Jesus, that we find ourselves able to offer him up in a Temple.

And so our two pathetic turtledoves are not so pathetic after all. They are precisely the thing that allow us to make a sacrifice like Abel’s or like Mary’s. Our poverty is what places us in contact with God. Our pain is what gives us something valuable to sacrifice. It’s what gives us Jesus. And so when we offer our measly turtledoves to God — when we offer him our weakness and our poverty, “the firstlings of our flock” — we find that we have actually offered to God something much more than turtledoves. We have actually offered our most intimate contact with God. We have actually offered something akin to Jesus himself.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

Friday, January 24, 2020

"They Were Fishermen" - 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 4:12-23

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,
he withdrew to Galilee.
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,
in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet
might be fulfilled:
Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.
From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,
Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew,
casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen.
He said to them,
“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
At once they left their nets and followed him.
He walked along from there and saw two other brothers,
James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets.
He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father
and followed him.
He went around all of Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and illness among the people.


Did you ever notice that Christianity has a thing with fishing? There are some pretty vivid examples in the Old Testament. The prophets, for instance, often threaten Israel’s enemies by insisting God will “put hooks in their jaws… and draw them up out of the midst of their streams… and cast them forth into the wilderness” (Ez 29:4-5). In the Book of Tobit, there’s a wild story about Sarah’s cousin who reels in a massive fish that, at the same time, is trying to swallow him whole, all while the Archangel Raphael cheers him on (Tob 6:1-5). They can’t all be winners, of course. Jonah was bested by a fish, gulped up by some mysterious creature of the sea (Jnh 1:17).
The Christian scriptures, too, are chock-full of references to fish and fishing. “What father among you,” Jesus said, “if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent” (Lk 11:11)? We should not be surprised, then, to find Peter and Andrew in today’s Gospel “casting a net into the sea” (Mt 4:18) and their friends James and John in a boat nearby. This is the Judeo-Christian thing. And Jesus stuck with the fishing metaphors throughout his ministry. He compared the kingdom of heaven to “a net thrown into the sea gathering fish of every kind” (Mt 13:47). He even told Peter once that he’d find a shekel for the Temple tax in the mouth of his first catch of the day (Mt 17:27). Clearly fishing was important to these people.

In his novel The River Why, David James Duncan joked about how the apostle John ― a fisherman by trade ― insists on telling us in his Gospel the precise number of fish the apostles caught the day they spotted Jesus, risen again from the dead, by the Sea of Tiberias: “Peter went and hauled the net full of fish ashore. There were one hundred and fifty three of them” (Jn 21:11). Mind you, he doesn’t say “a boatload” of fish, or “more than a hundred,” or “nearly a gross.” It’s precisely one hundred and fifty three fish. As Duncan jokes, in spite of all their excitement over Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles were not about to let their catch go uncounted: “one, two, three, four…” ― tossing fish from one pile to the next — all the way up to one hundred and fifty three. [1] This number must have been logged somewhere or so seared into John’s memory that ― some forty years later ― he could pull it out without problem for the composition of his Gospel: “One-hundred. Fifty. Three. Fish.” This statistic was that important to them. Today’s Gospel summarizes it perfectly: “they were fishermen” (Mt 4:18), plain and simple.

But think about that for a moment: the risen and glorified Jesus ― Lord of the Universe ― is standing on the shore with the apostles having just conquered death. And what are the apostles doing? They’re counting fish. “Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight.” The point is this: I don’t think Jesus was offended by it. In fact, I strongly suspect he helped them count. Today’s Gospel reveals that Jesus first called these men when they were out fishing. Indeed, Jesus draws near to people in their particular identities. God kneels down to count fish with men. 

This was the very sea where these apostles first heard their identities being called in a new direction. This is where Jesus told them “I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). And it’s here, on this exact same shore, that Jesus, now resurrected, is bringing this call to fulfillment. It’s here, tossing fish into wriggling piles, that he sends them again. 

“One hundred fifty two! One hundred fifty three!!” Did they all smile at each other, amazed? I’ve often wondered what Jesus said next. Perhaps he said it again? “Peter, Andrew, James, John. Now, you must be fishers of men.”



[1] David James Duncan, The River Why (New York: Back Way Books, 2016), 19-20.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. His columns are archived here.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Lion and the Lamb - 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

John 1:29-34
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.”
John testified further, saying,
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”


Why do we call Jesus a lamb? Why does John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus, shout to the crowd, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? How exactly is Jesus a lamb? And how do lambs take away sin?

For an answer, we need to go way back in time. Nearly 700 years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah recorded a series of poems about a mysterious figure called the “suffering servant of the Lord.” In the fourth and final poem, we read about how this servant will undergo agony and humiliation: “He was despised and rejected.... He was oppressed and he was afflicted.” Yet, because of this, the suffering servant will receive honor, prosperity, and life (Is 53).

What is interesting is that this “suffering servant” is strangely described as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, a sheep that before its shearers is dumb” (Is 53:7). On top of that, this lamb is supposed to “make himself an offering for sin.” Indeed he is supposed to “bear the sins of many” (Is 53:10-11). 

So when John the Baptist sees Jesus and shouts to the crowd: behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we now know the reference. John is recalling Isaiah’s suffering servant — the one who will be despised and rejected, oppressed and afflicted. The one who will bear the sins of many. 

That’s all fine and good. But is there something yet to learn from the image of the lamb itself? Why, of all things, a lamb

A lamb is nonviolent. A lamb is meek. They are followers, not leaders; hunted and never hunters. They do not defend their territory. They are silent when they feel pain. This is the exact opposite of another image the scriptures sometimes use to describe Jesus: the lion

In the last book of the Bible — the Book of Revelation — we see an extraordinary apocalyptic vision of heaven’s throne. We see people weeping because none of the angels are powerful enough to open a certain mysterious scroll. “Weep not!” a strange figure announces, the Lion of Judah has conquered so that he can open the scroll!” (Rev 5:5)

But when we finally see the scroll opened, it is not by a lion. It is opened, rather, by “a slain lamb.” At that moment, the text says there broke out in heaven “the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing’” (Rev 5:11-12).

The slain lamb, of course, is Jesus. He is also the lion. Indeed, Jesus is both lamb and lion. He is, like a lamb, hunted. He is hunted by our sins. He is oppressed and afflicted, bowed down and killed by them — “like a lamb led to the slaughter.” Instead of defending his territory, he “turns to them his other cheek also” (Mt 5:39). Like a lamb, he is silent through the pain. 

But it is precisely in this that he is also like a lion. Jesus once said, “my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). It’s one of the most startling things he ever said. “Although he was crucified through weakness,” St. Paul would go on to write, “[Jesus] lives by God’s power (2 Cor. 13:4). He was killed, yes, but he lives. He was raised. The lion-like strength of God is revealed most vividly in the places of human weakness. Indeed, Jesus was only raised by way of a human death. He was a lion by being a lamb. It is the same with us. The place in your life where you are most weak and broken is precisely the place where you are most in contact with God’s mercy, with God’s strength. “When I am weak,” Paul said, “then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

He is lamb and he is lion; he is death and he is resurrection. He cannot be resurrected unless he dies; he cannot be glorified unless he is humiliated. The lion needs the lamb. In the Book of Revelation, only the wounded lamb was powerful enough to open and read from the scroll of God. In life, how true it is that only the soul that’s been wounded can truly grasp what it means to live well, to love, to be merciful.

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Friday, January 10, 2020

"You are coming to ME?" - The Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan
to be baptized by him.
John tried to prevent him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you,
and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”


Why in the world does Jesus need to be baptized? One of the principal reasons for baptism is the cleansing of sin. We read that people came to John the Baptist and “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. It is described as a “baptism of repentance (Mk 1). But Jesus has no sins to confess. He has nothing from which to repent. This is why John is shocked by Jesus’ request. “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me? (Mt 3:14)

Jesus’ reply is extremely important, even if it’s a tad cryptic. He tells John to “allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (Mt 3:15). Fulfill all righteousness? What does that mean? The word Jesus uses for “righteousness,” in the original Greek, is dikaiosunē. It’s a word that would have stood out to the Jews listening nearby. It meant something specific. 

In the Jewish mind, dikaiosunē referred to God’s justice. God is “righteous”; God is “just”; God is dikaiosunē. These were all synonyms. But it meant more than that. God’s dikaiosunē also referred to the fact that he treated the Israelites with an over-the-top generosity. “I have drawn near to you with my dikaiosunē,” God told them in the Greek Old Testament. “I have taken you by the hand and I have kept you” (Is 42:6). Indeed, in the Jewish mind, part of what makes God “righteous,” is that, in spite of our failings, God still wants to draw near to us. He keeps us anyway. That is over-the-top generosity. That is dikaiosunē

But it’s still a little strange, isn’t it? Why does Jesus answer John the Baptist this way? How does it make sense that, when asked why he wants to be baptized, Jesus says it’s because of his dikaiosunē, because of his over-the-top generosity? How is it generous of him to get baptized?

In short, Jesus’ baptism reveals the over-the-top generosity of God because it reveals that he is human. Humans get baptized, not God. Humans have heads upon which we pour water. Humans have chests upon which we smear oil. God has neither. Until Jesus, that is. Jesus wants to be baptized because he wants to be like us. Jesus wants to be baptized because he wants to feel what you feel, to experience what you experience in the same way you experience it. 

This is more radical than you might be thinking. This is more than just water and oil. By his baptism, Jesus is affirming his desire to be like you in every way, to be like you in your pain, in your anxiety, in your sense of abandonment. Jesus has baptized himself into our condition, and our condition is radically broken. 

We should not be surprised, then, to read that John the Baptist actually tried to prevent [Jesus]” from entering the waters of the Jordan (Mt 3:14). We want to prevent him from these miseries. But this is a mistake. It is a mistake to imagine that God will not be generous to us. 

We do the same thing everyday. We prevent God from descending into the deeper waters of our life, from entering into our misery. Not necessarily because we have hard hearts, but sometimes because ― like John the Baptist ― we’re certain he won’t be that generous to us. “You are coming to me? we ask with John. Really? To me? The answer is “yes.” He has come to you. God has baptized himself into your life. He has poured your fears across his forehead and smeared your sins across his chest. It is a mistake to keep him standing upon the shore. It is a profound mistake to prevent him from entering even your muddiest waters.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh - The Epiphany of the Lord

Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.


"What can a child do with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?" Surely Mary was too polite to ask that of the magi, but more than a few people have wondered about it. These are not just curious gifts for a child. They are curious gifts to give God. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis ― a Trappist monk from Massachusetts ― makes the point that, if the magi knew Jesus was God, if they knew, as the text says, to “fall down and worship him” (Mt 2:11) then they also would have known that “there was nothing they could give him he did not already possess.” He’s God. What’s he going to do with a bit of gold? [1]

A similar situation occurred some years later when Martha’s sister poured out an entire pound of pure nard upon Jesus’ feet (Jn 12:1-8). Do you remember who complained? It was Judas. “Why was this ointment not sold and given to the poor?” Judas’ question is not far off from ours. What good is it to pour out expensive perfumes upon Jesus’ feet? What good is it to gift him treasures? Isn’t there a better use?

The Fathers of the Church understood these gifts symbolically. Jesus wasn’t supposed to do anything with the frankincense. On the contrary, it was meant to honor him. In the case of the magi, there was gold because he was a king; frankincense ― the fragrance burned during worship ― because he was God; and myrrh ― a resin used for burial ― because he was to die. 

The gifts of the magi were not meant to be used. They were meant, rather, to convey something that was happening within their hearts. Their gold, frankincense, and myrrh were meant to convey their devotion. It is the same for Martha’s sister, pouring out her prized perfume upon Jesus’ feet. When retelling this story, John remembers that “the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” He remembers that she even knelt down and “wiped [Jesus’] feet with her hair” (Jn 12:3). How gritty is that? Can she convey her devotion any more vividly? 

It is the same with our own gifts for Jesus. Probably you don’t have any myrrh for him. Probably you don’t have any nard ointment. That is not the point. Matthew’s text says that, upon seeing Jesus, the magi “opened their treasures” to reach for their gifts (Mt 2:11). That is the point. When the Christian encounters Jesus, their first move is to “open their treasures.” Their first move is to reach for their most cherished possessions and to pour them out upon the feet of Jesus, to dry it all up with their hair. 

What is your most cherished possession? Maybe it’s some material thing; maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s your family? A friendship? A memory? Some people cherish their things by guarding them. There are some things we keep hidden and buried, far away from even our own sight: past mistakes we’re not sure how to move forward from, broken relationships that don’t make sense, things we’re still angry at God about. In an odd way, these are things we treasure. These are things we can’t really look in the eye, but they are also things we refuse to let go of

Are there things you have buried away in the coffers of your heart? Things you don’t even let God see? These are precisely the things we find when, upon encountering Jesus, we “open our treasures.” These things are our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These are what we can lay at his feet, what we can give him to convey our devotion. It is, in the end, the most costly thing we can give him. It is all we really have if we want to give him something precious

Recall Jesus’ response to Judas’ complaint about the perfume that could have been sold for the poor: “Let her alone…. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Give your money to the poor. Give your time and your energy to the poor. They are always with you. But give your gold, your frankincense, and your myrrh to Jesus. Give what you treasure, what you cling to, and even what you fear to Jesus. What can this child do with your gold, frankincense, and myrrh? I don’t know. But I’m certain he’ll think of something.


[1] The opening question, too, is from the lectio of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, vol. 1 (Ignatius: San Francisco: 1996), 85.