EASTER MESSAGE 2017

EASTER - Jesus (from THE BIBLE movie

[Based in very large part on the article by Russ Ramsey [“Easter Week in Real Time,” The Gospel Coalition, April 10, 2017], with some additional discussion and personal commentary added] – Diane Rufino, April 16, 2017.

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”  — N.T. Wright

How many of us have stopped to ponder the difference between “redemption” and “sacrifice”?

Redemption – The King James version of the Bible defines the verb “to redeem” as follows:  To purchase back; to ransom; to liberate or rescue from captivity or bondage, or from any obligation or liability to suffer or to be forfeited, by paying an equivalent; as, to redeem prisoners or captured goods; to redeem a pledge.

Sacrifice –  The King James version of the Bible defines “sacrifice” as follows: To offer to God in homage or worship, by killing and consuming, as victims on an altar; to immolate, either as an atonement for sin, or to procure favor, or to express thankfulness; as, to sacrifice an ox or a lamb.

On Palm Sunday, my pastor was talking about Jesus as “The Lamb of God” and how that phrase indicated that Jesus was a pure (without sin) sacrifice. He went on to emphasize the significance of the young donkey that our Lord asked his disciples to fetch for him to ride into Jerusalem – something I had never been given reason to consider.

In Biblical times, a donkey was a fairly common domestic animal. But it was regarded as ‘unclean’ (See Leviticus).  As such it could not be either eaten or offered in sacrifice; it could only be retained by an owner for his use.  But if an owner wished to keep the baby donkey for his use, he could only do so after first offering a “clean” or “pure” sacrifice for it.  And so, in those days, a lamb would be sacrificed, or killed.  It, however, could not be killed in the usual manner reserved for a true sacrifice; that is, there could be no spilling of blood. It would have to be sacrificed by breaking its neck.  In truth, the lamb was not offered as a sacrifice but rather, the donkey was “redeemed” by the lamb.

To understand why the title “Lamb of God” is used for Christ, we must first appreciate the celebration of Passover.  Recall that at about 1250 BC, the Israelites were slaves of Egypt.  Almighty God heard the cry of His people:  Exodus 2:24 stated, “He heard their groaning and was mindful of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  God sent Moses to deliver His people from their bondage.  After Moses had performed nine signs, Pharaoh’s heart was still unmoved.  Finally, God told Moses to have each family take a one-year-old, male, unblemished lamb; slaughter the lamb; and paint the door posts and lintel of every house with its blood. Inside, the Israelites would eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  That night, the Angel of Death would “pass over” the homes protected by the blood, but take the lives of the firs- born children unprotected by the blood of the lamb. Because of that blood sacrifice, Pharaoh let the Israelites go. They were freed from bondage. They went from slavery to freedom, from a land of sin to the Promised land, and from death to new life.  [The New Testament would teach of the new covenant – the “new and everlasting covenant.” It would explain how God’s people could be freed from a different kind of bondage… the bondage of sin].

The prophets used this image of the lamb to describe the Messiah.  Isaiah prophesied, “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearer, he was silent and opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).  However, the image is twofold:  the Messiah would be both the sacrificial lamb to atone for sin and the suffering servant.  Interestingly, when speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading this exact passage from Isaiah, St. Philip told how it referred to Christ and how He fulfilled it. (Acts 8:26).

Nevertheless, in the Gospels, Jesus is specifically identified as “the Lamb of God” in the sense of both the sacrificial offering for sin and the suffering servant.  As John the Baptist was proclaiming the coming of the Messiah at the River Jordan, he saw Jesus approaching him and proclaimed, “Look!  There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  After foretelling His passion, death, and resurrection for the third time, Jesus asserted, “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.  Such is the case of the Son of Man who has come, not to be served by others, but to serve, to give His own life as a ransom for the many.” (Matthew 20:26-28).

The imagery of “Lamb of God” becomes clear in the Passion Narratives of the Gospels.  In St. John’s gospel, Pilate condemned Jesus to death on the preparation day for Passover at noon (John 18:28, 19:14), the hour when the priests began to slaughter Passover lambs in the temple.  After the crucifixion, the Gospel recorded that they did not break any of Jesus’ bones in fulfillment of Scripture (John 19:36); this reference corresponds to Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12 where none of the Passover lamb’s bones were to be broken.  After our Lord’s death, the soldier thrust forward his lance, piercing the heart of our Lord; out flowed blood and water (John 19:34), always interpreted as signs of the life-giving sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Baptism.

Ponder the depth of what Christ endured in his passion.  At the crucifixion, Jesus, the innocent and sinless victim, takes all of our sins unto Himself.  He though does not just bear our sins and suffer the punishment for us that is due for them; no, Jesus Himself expiates the sins.  He as Priest offers Himself on the altar of the cross.  Through His blood He washes away sin.  However, unlike the Passover lamb that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten, our Lord rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death.  He has truly delivered us from the slavery of sin, shown us the path of salvation, and given us the promise of everlasting life.  He has made a new, perfect, and everlasting covenant with His own blood.  Therefore St. Peter exhorted, “Realize that you were delivered from the futile way of life your fathers handed on to you, not by any diminishable sum of silver or gold, but by Christ’s blood beyond all price, the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb…” (I Peter 1:19).

Easter is about sacrifice and redemption —

Let’s begin with a look at Easter week, the holiest of the series of holidays we celebrate:

Palm Sunday —

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem perched on a colt, it was the first time since raising Lazarus from the dead that he’d shown his face in the city. The story of Lazarus’s resurrection had circulated so that many regarded Jesus as a celebrity. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse. They went out to meet him and received him like a King, because they heard he had done this (John 12:18).

Jesus said Lazarus’s death would end in the faith of many, and in the “glory of God—that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). But the glory he had in mind was even more glorious than his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In fact, he wasn’t referring to the glory these people gave him at all. Lazarus’s resurrection would steel the resolve of the religious leaders to hand Jesus over to a death he would embrace—a death he would conquer. That was the glory he meant. As he rode into Jerusalem, the people cried, “Your King is coming!” They praised his victory over Lazarus’s death. But the irony was that he wasn’t coming to claim his crown on account of Lazarus’s death and resurrection, but on account of his own.

[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, John 12:9–19].

Monday —       

If Jerusalem was a beehive, with his triumphal entry Jesus had hit it with a stick. You could hear the buzz grow as the anger within got organized. His kingly arrival was a strong declaration about his authority over all the conventions of man.

On Monday, Jesus returns for more—this time to declare the failure of God’s people to live up to their covenant mandate to be a blessing to the world. Much of what the Gospels tell us about Monday centers on the theme of Jesus’s authority—both over the created world and his right to judge it. Everything Jesus did, he did with authority. So when he awoke his disciples Monday saying he wanted to go back into Jerusalem to teach, as risky as it sounded it wasn’t surprising. Everyone sensed something stirring, as if Jesus had rounded a corner and his end was coming fast. He was a marked man.

[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 21:12–22, Mark 11:12–19, Luke 19:45–48].

Tuesday —      

If Monday’s arrival in the temple was an all-inclusive, living parable of cleansing God’s house, Tuesday’s entrance is a direct, verbal confrontation with the appointed leadership. After Jesus clarifies he doesn’t regard these leaders as having any authority over him, he spends the rest of the day right there in the temple to teach the people God’s Word. But Tuesday afternoon is the last time Jesus publicly teaches in the temple as a free man. His words on this day are his closing argument, his manifesto.

When Jesus leaves the temple on Tuesday, the chief priests and scribes are “seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (Mark 14:1). But they can’t take his life from him solely on the strength of the charges they plan to bring—not if he defends himself. But he won’t. Instead, by his silence, he’ll offer up his life for a world of blasphemers and traitors and liars. This was what he has come to do, and as he exits the temple that Tuesday afternoon, he knows he will do it soon.

[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 21:23–26:5, Mark 11:27–14:2, Luke 20:1–22:2, John 12:37–50].

Wednesday —

The past several days have been a rush of tension and anger for Jesus’s opponents—and of unflinching resolve for Jesus. Words have been his currency, and he’s spent piles of them. But on the Wednesday before his death, Jesus is still.

He is in the home of Simon the Leper, a man known by what’s wrong with him. During their meal together, Mary of Bethany—Lazarus’s sister (John 12:3)—comes to Jesus with an alabaster flask of perfume. She’s been saving this perfume, worth a year’s wages, for this exact occasion (John 12:7). She begins pouring it on Jesus’s head and feet, which requires breaking open its container (Mark 14:3). Like popping the cork on a $20,000 bottle of champagne, this was a deliberate act. She is offering Jesus everything she has. By giving her most valuable possession to him, she is expressing her knowledge that what he’s about to give of himself is for her.

What Mary does is beautiful, and Jesus wants everyone to know it. She is preparing him for burial. There is honor and kindness in her gesture. Jesus returns the honor by saying history will never forget her act of beauty. And we haven’t.

[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 26:6–16, Mark 14:3–11, Luke 22:3–6].

Thursday —

The Thursday prior to Jesus’s crucifixion fills many pages in Scripture. It begins with John and Peter securing the upper room. There, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, explaining he is there to make them clean.

As they begin to eat, Jesus announces one of them is about to betray him. Each wonders if he means them. Then he dispatches Judas to do what he intends.

During this last supper, Jesus sets apart the Passover bread and cup and reassigns—or better, perfects—their meaning. The bread is his body. The cup, his blood. This meal will no longer remind them of God’s deliverance primarily from the external tyranny of Pharaoh, but from the internal tyranny of their own guilt and sin against God.

Jesus prays for his friends and those who will come to know him through them—that his Father would make them one (John 17). Then Jesus and his friends leave for the Mount of Olives to pray (Mark 14:33). But he isn’t there only to pray. He is also there to wait. Soon a line of torches snake their way toward him in the darkness. This is what he has been waiting for.

[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 26:17–75, Mark 14:12–72, Luke 22:7–71, John 13:1–18:27].

Good Friday —

On Thursday night in Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested—betrayed by one of his disciples and abandoned by the others. The chief priests and the Sanhedrin called for secret trials in the dead of night, and the verdict handed down was that Jesus would be crucified. This is something the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, has to execute. And reluctantly, he does.

After a severe beating, Jesus is nailed to a cross where he remains for six hours until dead. Never before or since has more been lost and gained at the same time. The world gained the atoning sacrifice of Christ. In the dying moments on the cross, Christ gives us the greatest display of love and the greatest illustration of forgiveness possible.

But for those present, either the significance of the moment is lost on them or their hearts break as the One they thought to be the Savior of the world dies at the hands of Rome. They can’t stop it, and they don’t realize it’s for them. They hoped in him, and though he’d told them he would suffer many things and rise three days later (Mark 8:31), how could they have possibly known this was what he meant?

[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 27:1–61, Mark 15:1–47, Luke 23:1–56, John 18:28–19:42].

Saturday — The Forgotten Day    

Less is written about the Saturday following Jesus’s crucifixion than any other in the scope of this week. Yet what makes it unique is that this is the only full day in history where the body of Christ lies buried in a cave.

Yesterday, he was crucified. Tomorrow, he rises from the grave. But what about today? Though we may not make much of this day, when we look at the few verses the Gospels give us about it, we find it was by no means forgotten by the chief priests who had handed Jesus over to death. During his earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly said he would die in Jerusalem at the hands of the chief priests, yet on the third day rise again (e.g., Matt. 12:40; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34).

Of course, the chief priests scoffed. But they didn’t forget it. On the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus’s prediction preoccupies their thoughts such that they simply can’t leave it alone. Matthew 27:62–66 tells the strange story of how they can’t dismiss out of hand the possibility that Jesus might know something they don’t.

[For a full account of the events of this day as found in the Gospels, see Matthew 27:62–66].

Resurrection Sunday —

Early Sunday morning, some of Jesus’s friends set out for his grave to anoint the body of their friend and teacher. When they arrive, however, they are greeted by what one Gospel writer calls “a man dressed in lightning.” He tells them Jesus is not there, as he said. He is risen.

In the week leading up to his death, the Good Shepherd went out to meet the wolves of judgment, sin, and death—and he did so with all authority. One might wonder, what good has it ever done anyone to die for some cause? This is the glorious beauty of the gospel. Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for a cause. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was never at the mercy of anyone. He lived, died, and was buried because he meant to be.

No one took his life from him. He laid it down. For his flock, his people. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, here will never be any trial too great any burden too heavy, or any temptation too strong. The same power that raised up Jesus is available to all who believe.

And he laid it down only to take it up again (John 10:18). The point of the cross was not just to die, but to die and rise again, defeating the condemnation of sin, eternal separation from God, and death itself.  The crucifix represents a dead Christ hanging languid on a cross of shame – an example of a zealot, a rabble-rouser, an enemy of the Roman empire. But our religion is not focused on a dead Christ but rather on a living Christ. He lives exalted at God’s right hand, and he “saves to the uttermost all who come to God by Him.”

[For a full account of the events of this day, see Matthew 28:1–20, Mark 16:1–8, Luke 24:1–53, John 20:1–21:25].

***  Sections “Palm Sunday” through “Resurrection Sunday” are taken almost exactly, , an intact, from Mr. Ramsey’s article in the Gospel Coalition.

The Foundation of His Church —

A person who believes in a Christ who was not raised believes in a powerless Christ, a dead Christ. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then no redemption was accomplished at the cross and “your faith is worthless,” Paul said. “You are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)

Easter reminds us that the Church begins with witness: lives changed by an encounter with the Risen Lord; men and women who then transform others by the power of their testimony and the authority of their example. The Gospels are remarkably candid about the difficulty the first Christian witnesses had in grasping just what they had experienced. In John’s gospel, Mary confuses the Risen One with a gardener. In Luke’s resurrection account, two disciples walk a considerable distance on the Emmaus Road without recognizing their risen and glorified companion. In the Johannine epilogue, seven apostles on the Sea of Tiberias take a while to grasp that it’s the Risen Lord who’s cooking breakfast on the seashore.

This candor about initial incomprehension bears its own witness to the historicity of the Resurrection. For what happened on the first Easter Sunday was so completely unprecedented, and yet so completely real, that it exploded the expectations of pious Jews about history, the Messiah, and the fulfillment of God’s promises, even as it transformed hitherto timid followers of the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth into zealous evangelists who set off from the edges of the Roman Empire to convert, over the next 250 years, perhaps half the Mediterranean world.

The witness of radically converted lives has been the lifeblood of Christianity ever since, for at the bottom of the bottom line of Christian faith is the encounter with a person, the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Christianity is also about creed, doctrine, morals, worship, and all the rest — but it is fundamentally about friendship with Jesus Christ and the transformation that engenders, and when it ceases to be that, it becomes the lifeless husk we see in too much of Western Europe. Where Christianity lives today, against all cultural odds, it’s because of witnesses like those initially confused souls in Judea and Galilee whose conversion began with life-shattering and life-changing encounters with the Risen One.

Christ is the New and Everlasting Covenant –

Jesus Christ came in fulfillment of scripture as the new and everlasting covenant. In simple terms, a covenant is an agreement between two parties. It can be an agreement between a husband and wife, a friendship pact between two people, an alliance between two nations, or an agreement between God and humans. The new covenant is an agreement between God and humans. God sets the terms, he makes the offer, and we respond to it with either cooperation or resistance.

The new covenant is, to use another nutshell, the gospel of salvation. It describes how we have been saved from sin and death so we can live forever in a loving relationship with God through the saving work of Jesus Christ for us. We always keep coming back to the center-point, Jesus Christ. He is God himself, who has offered himself to us. If we want eternal life with God, it must be through Jesus Christ. At its core, the new covenant is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The new covenant was established in Christ’s own blood (Luke 22:20). This type of covenant was something dramatically new. Never before had God made a covenant using human blood. The previous covenants had used animal blood. God did not allow human sacrifices. Jesus was not announcing a renewal of the old covenant, or a slight revision. Instead, it was a completely new covenant, made in a way forbidden by the old covenant. Simply in making the new covenant, Jesus was announcing the fact that the old covenant no longer applied.

The new covenant has different blood, a different basis, and it presents a different basis of relationship between God and humans. The new basis is Jesus himself and his blood. Jesus did what we could not do, and he sacrificed himself for us as a gift, as grace. To enjoy the new covenant, we admit that we can’t earn our way into God’s presence; because we will never be good enough, we must rely on his mercy.

In a financial metaphor, Christ has paid for our sins. This is the “benefit” of the covenant, as there is a benefit in all “agreements.” There is no more debt. We have been forgiven. Our works cannot add anything to it. God has in Christ acted unilaterally, reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20).

Jesus embodies everything the new covenant is. He is the Word of God and the Son of God, made human for us. He is the Message of God, the Mind of God, the Meaning of God, made flesh for us to see and know and love. In himself, he enables us to be friends with God. In Jesus Christ, God has given us a new basis for our relationship with God. This is the covenant God has given; we respond to Christ with either yes or no.

You might ask, ‘How can Jesus, a person, be an agreement?’  In a prophecy about Christ, Isaiah 42:6 says that the Messiah, or Christ, would be made a covenant. The Bible calls Jesus a mediator, a go-between. A mediator’s purpose is to get two parties to relate positively to each other. His work is what causes the barriers to come down and the relationship to bear positive fruit. Jesus was the greatest diplomat, the brilliant negotiator of the greatest covenant, or agreement, in human history. Jesus could do that because he was both God and human. He was not only able to represent both parties, he was able to be both parties. As God, he did what only God could do: forgive us. As a human, he did what humanity was supposed to do: respond perfectly. Just as his death counts for all humanity, so does his perfect response.

How does Jesus accomplish this?  We find the answer in Romans chapter 5.  Romans 5:8-10.  puts it like this: Christ died for us, and because of his death we are now justified before God, saved from any fears of punishment and reconciled to God as one of his dearly loved children. Through the death and life of Christ, God has provided the one and only means by which we can be the faithful and loving friends and children he created us to be.

Our Response –

First, we must realize what is foundational in Christ’s death and resurrection. The gospel tells us that we can live forever with God – NOT because of good things we have done, but because of what Jesus Christ did for us. God gives offers us forgiveness and sets us right with the Father. And as such, we can have everlasting life. This is why we emphasize faith and grace. That is why we emphasize the new covenant, the gospel and eternal life. All these are bound up with each other.

This is why we emphasize Jesus Christ. This is why we celebrate Easter.

So how should we respond to what Jesus has done?  We should turn away from self-reliance and put our confidence completely in Christ to wash us clean of sin, clothe us with righteousness and bring us into the family, the household, the kingdom of God. One way to describe it is that we quit doing things the devil’s way (relying on self) and do things God’s way. We stop building our own kingdom and accept the kingdom he has built for us. We accept the covenant-promise he has given us. That is how we can be in harmony and allegiance with him.

The kingdom is not good news unless we can be part of it. The gospel is a message about how humans receive intimate loving fellowship with God, how they enter his kingdom—something that is made possible only by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We should be “living sacrifices to God,” as Paul preached.

But what does it mean to be a “living sacrifice?” In Romans 12:1, Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service.” Paul’s admonition to the believers in Rome was to sacrifice themselves to God, not as a sacrifice on the altar, as the Mosaic Law required the sacrifice of animals, but as a living sacrifice. The dictionary defines sacrifice as “anything consecrated and offered to God.” As believers, how do we consecrate and offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice?

Under the Old Covenant, God accepted the sacrifices of animals. But these were just a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Because of His death and resurrection, his once-for-all-time sacrifice on the cross, the Old Testament sacrifices became obsolete and are no longer of any effect (Hebrews 9:11-12). For those who are in Christ by virtue of saving faith, the only acceptable worship is to offer ourselves completely to the Lord – to honor his laws and to serve him in as many ways as we can. Under God’s control, the believer’s yet-unredeemed body can and must be yielded to Him as an instrument of righteousness (Romans 6:12-13; 8:11-13). Our honor and service are “reasonable” because of Christ’s sacrifice.

“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”   (John 11:25-26)

References:

Russ Ramsey, “Easter Week in Real Time,” The Gospel Coalition, April 10, 2017.  Referenced at:  https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/easter-week-in-real-time

The New Covenant in a Nutshell.  Referenced at:  https://www.gci.org/law/nutshell

“Why is Jesus Called ‘The Lamb of God’,” Catholic Straight Answers.  Referenced at:  http://catholicstraightanswers.com/why-is-jesus-called-the-lamb-of-god/

Time to put Christ back in Christmas

christmas-manger-scene

by Diane Rufino, December 24, 2016

In the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court was asked to consider if the First Amendment prohibited the municipality of Pawtucket, Rhode Island from including a Nativity scene, in its annual Christmas display. The display included a plastic reindeer, a Santa Clause, and a Christmas tree. The Court concluded that the Nativity scene could remain, explaining: “We are satisfied that the city has a secular purpose for including the creche, that the city has not impermissibly advanced religion.” According to the court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, erecting a nativity scene in the public square doesn’t encourage any religious belief and therefore doesn’t erode the Wall of Separation that the government must respect. Noting that the display was erected at a location and at a time corresponding to the start of the holiday “commercial” season, the Court reasoned that the two centuries of use has changed the meaning of the Nativity scene from a religious symbol to a commercial item. “The crèche (Nativity scene) has a legitimate secular purpose within a larger holiday display to celebrate the season and the origins of Christmas which has long been a part of Western culture.” And writing for the dissenting opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote: “The crèche has been relegated to the role of a neutral harbinger of the holiday season, useful for commercial purposes but devoid of any inherent meaning and incapable of enhancing the religious tenor of a display of which it is an integral part.”

The Nativity scene, the symbol of Christmas, has become more of a commercial symbol than a religious system. That was the conclusion of the highest court of the land – back in 1984. It got me thinking of the holiday in general and what it really means. Have we succeeded in divorcing its true meaning? Has the Christmas tree taken the place of the alter? Can it be said that what man has to sell has become more important than what God has given? When the holiday is over, do we act like the merchant who rids his store of Christmas in a day. Or do we keep Christmas in our hearts?

When I was young, my Mom and I spent a lot of time in church. We attended regular weekly and Sunday services at the Methodist Church across the street (Carlton Hill Methodist Church) and additional services at the Catholic Church (St. Joseph’s Church) at the other end of town. There was always a Christmas Eve mass at Carlton Hill and a midnight mass at St. Joe’s. We went to sleep on Christmas Eve reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas and awakening the next morning to celebrate the holiday with our families.

When I finished college and went out on my own, Christmas became the time of year when I could look forward to traveling back home and seeing my family. Christmas mass continued to be a treasured family tradition. Then I started a family of my own. For years, it was work, then law school, being pregnant, having four children and suffering a few miscarriages. Life couldn’t be anymore hectic. Christmas became less of a holiday for me and more of a holiday for my young children. I wanted the holiday to be magical for them, and looking back, unfortunately, that meant “commercial.” I decorated the house with colorful lights and shiny objects and piled presents under the tree to delight them on Christmas Day. I cared more that they got everything their hearts could desire than whether or not they understood the meaning of Christmas. Because of all the last-minute shopping to be done, I rarely made Christmas Eve mass, and because of all the cooking I had to do for Christmas Day dinner, there were no more of the midnight masses that I once loved so much.

I guess what I am saying is that over the years, the Christmas season has become less of a time of rejoicing and more of a test of endurance. And I’m quite sure the fault is mine.

For most people, especially the younger generation, Christmas is the time of year to get new toys, fancy gadgets, the latest in technology, jewelry and new clothes, and in some cases, extra cash. It’s not about a child born to a virgin, spending its first hours of life in a manger and in the humblest of settings… a child born to save us from our sinful nature so that we stand a chance at eternity with our Heavenly Father. It’s a week off from school, time off from work, a convenient time for a winter break, a chance to get away for a vacation, an opportunity to get things, a perfect time to get engaged to a sweetheart, a time to spend lots of money on gifts for family and friends, a time to visit family that you only see once a year. It can be fun. It can be stressful. But I’m sure most people would not describe the Christmas holiday as “religious” and “reflective.”

This year, as I ponder what it is I hope to enjoy during the Christmas holiday, I know I want to start believing in the true magic of Christmas again. As my parents and other family members wish to retreat from the hectic family gatherings and the lavish dinners and parties, I understand that the holiday has perhaps become too overwhelming in many ways. When I was a college student and when I was single, living on my own, I didn’t look forward to traveling back home to see my Mom and Dad because I was excited to see what Christmas gifts they got me. I could have cared less if there was a single gift for me under the tree. I just wanted to spend time with them and be together as a family at that special time of year. I just wanted to have dinner together, be reminded of what it was like to live in the same house again, and wake up, have breakfast together and start the days together. And yes, I looked forward to going to Christmas mass together. I loved to hear the Christmas story. And I couldn’t wait to sing Christmas carols.

Christmas should be about giving and not getting. When we ask our children and even our spouses ‘What do you want for Christmas?’, we are asking a question that breeds selfishness. What we should be asking (in order to breed selflessness) is this: “What are you going to give?” After all, isn’t Christmas the celebration of God’s great gift-giving? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” (John 3:16)

Christmas should be a simple holiday. It shouldn’t be the commercial nightmare it has become. How many times have we racked our brains trying to figure out what to get someone? How many times have we traveled from store to store simply because we want to find something the recipient doesn’t already have? How many times do we concede that the gift isn’t really all that good and they probably won’t care for it, but hey, at least we got them something? How many times have we just given up and put cash in a card? And how many times do we end up going over budget and then fight with our spouses or stress out because too much money was put on credit cards?

Christmas is not so much about enjoying time off from school and work as it is spending time with family. Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as it is opening our hearts. It’s not as much about giving gifts as it is giving of ourselves.

In 1949, President Harry Truman gave these remarks during the tree-lighting ceremony at the White House: “We miss the purport of Christ’s birth if we do not accept it as a living link which joins us together in spirit as children of the ever-living and true God. In love alone – the love of God and the love of man – will be found the solution of all the ills which afflict the world today. Slowly, sometimes painfully, but always with increasing purpose, emerges the great message of Christianity — love of our fellowmen. In such a dedication, we shall find the message of the Child of Bethlehem, the real meaning of Christmas.”

Just as when we partake of the Eucharist, we acknowledge the sacrifice and the promise of Jesus’ crucifixion, Christmas should be a time for us to rededicate ourselves to the principles he taught.

Because He came to earth, we have a perfect example to follow. As we strive to become more like Him, we will have joy and happiness in our lives and peace each day of the year. It is His example which, if followed, stirs within us more kindness and love, more respect and concern for others.

Because He came, there is meaning to our mortal existence.

Because He came, we know how to reach out to those in trouble or distress, wherever they may be.

Because He came, death has lost its sting, the grave its victory. We will live again because He came.

Because He came and paid for our sins, we have the opportunity to gain eternal life.

Because He came, we are gathered tonight to worship Him, in bonds of brotherhood and love.

We miss the spirit of Christmas if we consider the birth of baby Jesus as a age-old, far-off event unrelated to our spiritual health and also to the problems we suffer in our communities, in our country, and in the world in general. We miss the spirit of Christmas if we do not spend time loving our family and receiving their love so that we know how to love others.

Even if a person lacks faith, the Christmas birth can still hold a special message of love and goodness. While believers ultimately celebrate that Jesus came into the world, in fulfillment of scripture, to save us of our sin, the simple truth is that we honor the birth of Jesus because of what he would become and what he would sacrifice on our behalf. His lowly birth should remind us of the potential in each newborn baby. We can’t know of each child’s potential, but as the birth of Jesus reminds us, the potential is there. We also can’t know to what degree a child’s love will affect us, but again, we know that the love between parents and children is amongst the strongest and unconditioned. We need to love and nurture our children. All children are special; they are gifts from God. The love we give is returned to us many-fold. Nothing in life is more important than investing in our children, showing them love, and giving them a sense of worth.

I hope this Christmas that you have taken time to read the Christmas story and to appreciate it. “Christmas is a gift of love wrapped in human flesh and tied securely with the strong promises of God. It is more than words can tell, for it is a matter for the heart to receive, believe and understand.”

Here is the Christmas Story, as told by Matthew and Luke:

Matthew 1: 1-17: This is the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

Luke 1: 5-80: There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. They had no child, because that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

It came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, his job was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord, according to the custom of the priest’s office. While the whole multitude of the people were praying while he burned the incense, there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar. When Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him: “Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. Thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall turn to the Lord their God. He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zacharias said unto the angel: “Whereby shall I know this, for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years?”

And the angel answered unto him, saying: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. Behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.”

And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak unto them and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.

And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. Soon after, his wife Elizabeth conceived, and hid herself for five months, saying: “The Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came in unto her, and said: “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” When she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

The angel said unto her: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest. The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Then said Mary unto the angel: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? The angel answered and said unto her: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. The holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age. This is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Mary said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.

And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda. She entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary, the babe leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. She spoke, with a loud voice, saying: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as I heard your voice, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”

And Mary said: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior, for he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden… For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. His mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.”

And Mary abode with her about three months, and then returned to her own house. Elizabeth then went into labor and she brought forth a son. Her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her and they rejoiced with her.

It came to pass, that on the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. But his mother answered and said: “No; he shall be called John.” They said unto her: “There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.”

Then fear came on all that dwelt round about them, for all throughout all the hill country of Judaea, there were rumors. They asked: “What manner of child shall this be?” For they heard the hand of the Lord was with him.

His father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. He has spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us. He will remember his holy covenant, that oath which he swore to our father Abraham, and perform the mercy promised to our fathers. He will grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, and in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our life. The child shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for he shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God.’

Matthew 1: 18-24: Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth.

Luke 2: 1-22: It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (This taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.). And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. So it was, that while they were there, she went into labor. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Shepherds in the field kept watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. The angel said unto them: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”

They came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known everything that was told to them by the shepherds concerning the child. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord….

Matthew 2: 1-21: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

MERRY CHRISTMAS !! And HAPPY NEW YEAR !

Without Easter

EASTER - tomb

by  Diane Rufino

Have you ever thought of what it would be like if Jesus hadn’t been born, hadn’t assembled a group of loyal disciples and followers, hadn’t taught his lessons of love and forgiveness and charity, hadn’t been executed on the cross, and hadn’t risen? When he traveled and taught, he was the Son of Man. He belonged to the People, as their teacher. But when he rose from the dead, he was the Son of God. He was the new and everlasting covenant with the Father, forever and ever.

Without Easter, we would have no hope of heaven. We would have no hope of sharing in God’s kingdom. We could only hope for a righteous and blessed life here on Earth, for whatever that life and fate happens to deal us.

Without the hope of heaven, there would be no repentance, no personal transformation, no inherent obligation to love and help one another, and no attempt to follow biblical principles. We would miss out on the true meaning of life which is the love and fullness that other human beings bring to our existence.

Without Easter, we would lose our way in this world of sin, temptation, chaos, and darkness. Jesus’ death and resurrection. One mistake, one moment of weakness, would condemn us to eternal damnation and a permanent separation from God our Father. Feeling that permanent separation would send us on a downward spiral, for we would believe our Father had already condemned and turned His back on us. Believing that he have lost His love would strip away our moral compass.

But because of Easter, we can be reborn. We have a reason to live better, to do better, to love stronger, and to reflect His shining light into the shadows and minimize the darkness. We can live the life that God intended — as humble witnesses to his love. We can do all these things because even though we are sinners by nature, immersed in an increasingly sinful and tempting world, we are forgiven of our misdeeds because God wants the relationship to continue and to flourish. A person can’t help but be humbled by a love that is so great and unconditional.

Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice not only that we who believe will have an eternal relationship with God but also that we may be encouraged to live our lives to the fullest – to be better, to do better, and to love stronger. Remember, in Jesus’ eyes, ALL LIVES MATTER !

HAPPY EASTER, Everyone. May you feel the love today and every day.

EASTER - Jesus (from THE BIBLE movie