Teresa Linda, ocds: the holy innocents

Matthew 2:13-18
13 After they had left, suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’
14 So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt,
15 where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt.
16 Herod was furious on realising that he had been fooled by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or less, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men.
17 Then were fulfilled the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly: it is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.

by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Wiki Commons)

During a recent retreat, I met a woman who was a parishioner in the church that welcomed and walked my whole family back to the Catholic Church. It was a non-silent retreat, so over lunch, I shared my experiences of the Holy Land, and she spoke to me about a trip she and her husband had taken to the Middle East.

Before the Syrian War had started in 2012, she asked a reluctant cabbie to drive them from Lebanon through the desert, to a monument in Syria along the Euphrates River, which marked the Armenian genocide by Turkish forces. The monument, as with many other Syrian institutions, has since been destroyed by ISIS and military conflict.

And as she recounted how the Armenian mothers, rather than have their daughters succumb to the enemy, would throw their daughters into the Euphrates, more than one-hundred years ago, we looked into each other’s eyes knowingly.

Such agonizing separations were more than likely still happening today due to the sectarian conflicts in the region. It is easy to look at the darkness of such atrocities with despair, but the birth of Jesus has already won the victory over death, for “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).

The gospel accounts focus on the Holy Family’s narrow escape from Herod. After having received a vision from an angel in the middle of the night, Joseph immediately gathers the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, to begin a journey of over 400 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt, mostly on foot.

There is only a brief mention of the suffering of the families in the surrounding districts of Jerusalem when all the male children two years and under were put to death, and only through the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, written around 600 BC, before the 586 BC Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem: “A voice is heard in Ramah [Ramallah today, near Bethlehem] lamenting and weeping bitterly: it is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.”

Zechariah, written around 500 BC, after both the Babylonian captivity and the Israelites’ return to Jerusalem through the Great King Cyrus  of Greece (538 BC), foretells this same event.

Zechariah 12: 8-14. On that day the LORD will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the weakest among them will be like David on that day; and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the LORD before them.

9 On that day I will seek the destruction of all nations that come against Jerusalem 10 I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of mercy and supplication, so that when they look on him whom they have thrust through, they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and they will grieve for him as one grieves over a firstborn.

11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 And the land shall mourn, each family apart: the family of the house of David, and their women; the family of the house of Nathan, and their women; 13 the family of the house of Levi, and their women; the family of Shimei, and their women; 14 and all the rest of the families, each family apart, and the women apart.

The prophet Zechariah vividly captures the intense pain that the families must suffer alone, particularly the mothers of the children who have been massacred, for the mourning in Jerusalem happens ‘each family apart, and the women apart.’ I could not help but think about the countless mothers today, who must grieve in the silence of their hearts, the children they have lost through violence.

Yet hope comes in the most unlikely form.

Through Zechariah’s prophesy, the Lord promises that ‘the weakest among them will be like David.’ How could it be, that the most feeble could be as powerful as one of the greatest Kings of Judah? History bears out that the drops of blood shed by the most helpless, the innocent infants of Jerusalem, would be the seeds to the flourishing kingdom of Christ.

Zechariah also points to the connection between Jesus as among the children in the ‘House of David…who will be like God’ and Jesus, ‘the firstborn’ and ‘only child’ whom Jerusalem will recognize as ‘him whom they have thrust through.’ The great I am, the Word made flesh is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins – and all forms of captivity  – of the world.

This recognition of faith and love does not happen automatically. It requires the human willingness of heart, a prayer of desire and ‘supplication,’ on our part to recognize who we are without God’s grace – coupled with the ‘mercy’ of God, who is always God with us – which results in genuine repentance and the healing of all wounds: war, death, scandal, evil, addictions, pain.

I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of mercy and supplication.

Father Robert Elias, OCD: An Advent Prayer

The Virgin of Lebanon (Chapel of St. Charbel, Lebanon 2018)

Stir up your power, we pray oh Lord and come to set us free by the fire of Your Spirit. Come by the fire of the spirit You sent deep within us, Lord Jesus. You came,You were born in the world to set us free from every form of enslavement, by the grace of your compassion from on high that we may possess true freedom.

Lord, Advent is a special time that you’ve given us to prepare for Christmas. The very name, the very word – Advent – means ‘come,’ – inviting You to come into our hearts; inviting You to be born again into the world in the Bethlehem of our inmost being.

And when You were born in Bethlehem, You chose not the perfect palace but You chose unexpected poverty. You wanted to be born in the most unexpected conditions – dire poverty. What to Mary and to Joseph must have seemed like a total inconvenience, what must have seemed like an entire setback, as if God the Father had sent them on this course and left them hanging – that setback was actually a set-up for a new way in which You wanted them to be blessed.

It was a set-up for those shepherds, for the poor people to come from the pastures; to come after hearing the message of the Angels; to give glory to God on high.

It was a set-up for those three wise men who came from far distant countries, having been kings of their own respective lands. They possessed everything the world ccould offer but they recognized that there was still something essentially missing. It was empty and they were inspired to seek a star that would lead them to the King of the cosmos, the sovereign Lord who would become an innocent infant.

You who are the infinite God became a vulnerable infant, Lord. As St. Therese says, you became a child, you became so small, so tiny, so helpless in order for us to not be afraid to approach you. Because there is nothing that can most attract our affection,that can most inspire tenderness than the beauty of a newborn infant.

You became that infant, Lord, that we may not be afraid to approach You as the eternal God; that we may not be afraid to take you into our arms, into our hands, into our lives and hearts. And You were born in the world Lord, in order to give Your life for us. You were born and placed in the wood of the crib in order to give Your life for us on of the wood of the cross.

You who are the sovereign Lord became a little baby, a little lamb and you voluntarily allowed yourself to be slaughtered, that every evil thing in our life may be slain and that we may have victory over anything and everything that could possibly try to steal our purpose for happiness.

You came to heal our wounds, to heal the brokenhearted. Your heart was moved with pity as You saw your people troubled and abandoned, and You gave your own followers, Your disciples power and authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness.

We present ourselves to Your love, Your heart, in the Blessed Sacrament in which is invisibly present, the grace of Your cross, Your life-giving cross; in which is present the radiance of your resurrection. Your divine mercy Jesus is present to us as the heart of who You are, the core of the gospel, the essence of Your message and mission, the power of God’s transforming love that is stronger than anything that can possibly ever harm us.

In the Eucharist, You are with us, as You promised You would be to the end. In the Eucharist, we can cling – as to an anchor- to Your victory over every evil. Your victory helps us to have the courage and strength to become the best version of ourselves; to not be afraid of conversion; to not be afraid to allow You to crush in us what whatever wall is getting in your way; to crush in us whatever hardheartedness is keeping You out; to crush in us whatever mountains of pride we’ve set up for ourselves in our false securities; and to raise up and exalt our valleys.

Lord Jesus, Your mercy is a medicine of immortality, an oasis of grace that heals our hearts’ deepest needs, a source of peace that overcomes the chaos, and a wellspring of serenity that gives birth to new life. We submit to your righteousness Jesus, to Your mission, to the riches of your grace and love.

Teresa Linda, ocds: my mother from Palestine

Photo credit: Lorelei Low, ocds (Jordan 2018)

When I got home from our Holy Land pilgrimage, one of the first things I did was call Asima, a seventy-something year old Arab who was once one of my best friends.  I meant to call her before the pilgrimage to let her know that I would be visiting her homeland, but for some reason, I didn’t. I was hoping that calling her soon after the trip would suffice.

“So what is the news?” she asked, since I had rarely spoken to her since she moved out of the neighborhood five years ago.

“Asima, I visited Jordan!” I replied with excitement.

But rather than responding with joy, she asked with hurt in her voice, “Why didn’t you tell me?! Hmm?…I lived in Jordan. My daughter lives in Jordan. Hmm…Did you forget? Did you forget?!”

Asima was born in Jaffa Tel Aviv when it was called Palestine, but in 1948, when Israel was established as a state, she and her family, along with countless Palestinians, were forced to leave their homes and lands behind, and they moved to Jordan. She eventually came to the United States with her two unmarried sons due to the persecution of Christians.

We had a hidden friendship, one that was shared and experienced by just the two of us, and it began when she started taking care of my three-year old daughter. I belonged to an inter-denominational Women’s Bible Study that met weekly with the goal of going through all the books of the Old Testament in seven years.

About four years into our study, I could feel the exhaustion of motherhood and being away from my extended family weighing on me, and I turned to Asima for help. She led the Evening Women’s Bible Study for a small group of Arab women, but during the day, she took care of her grandson and helped with childcare at the church.  Providentially, she also lived in an apartment just two blocks from our house and the grandson she was taking care of was the same age as my daughter.

I would try to simply drop off my daughter, but true to Arabian hospitality, Asima would not let me leave unless I sat down with her and had tea and anise cookies, or pita and hummus sprinkled with olive oil.

(“We are a people of the desert,” our tour guide from Jordan once said. “You cannot enter a home without being offered everything that we are able to give you. That is our way.”)

And we could not sit down at the kitchen table without Asima talking about the way of Jesus and the Prophets, as they moved through her homeland, a terrain that was so unimaginable to me, but one that Asima knew through the many generations of blood and family before her who lived there.

Soon, she was also giving me extemporaneous Bible Study lessons when she passed by my house and found that I was home.

I would come along on her leisurely walk around the block and together we would talk about scripture, rescue lemons fallen from bushes, and pick apricots from the tree on the side of my yard. In early spring, she would come with scissors to cut the young grape leaves off our terrace.

In exchange for the harvest from our yard, Asima would return a few days later with dolmas made of grape leaves, tabouli sprinkled generously with lemon juice, or a small jar of apricot jam.

“Asima, I didn’t forget you. I thought about you the whole time I was in the Holy Land,” I tried to explain to her. Every bite of hummus, the scent of anise and sesame seeds, and parsley and lemon that pervaded the places we ate in –constantly reminded me of her.

And everywhere we went, I heard her voice, telling different stories from both the Old and New Testament.

Photo credit: Lorelei Low, ocds (Petra Jordan 2018)

When we walked through Petra, the majestic city built in the red stone cliffs of Jordan by the Edomites, I heard Asima speaking. “Did you read the book of Obadiah? It’s only one chapter from the Old Testament. Obadiah spoke about Petra. The people who live in Petra, they were very proud because they are living inside the high mountains, and when the enemy comes, they must walk the narrow way. When the people of Petra see men coming to fight, what do they do?  They attack from the top of the mountains.

‘And who lived there before? Esau’s children. His brother is Jacob. Jacob used to live on the Palestine side, and Esau lived in the Jordan side. When the enemy comes to fight Jacob’s children, they asked Esau’s children if they can come around to their side, but they refused. They started to laugh. For this reason, Esau’s children do not get blessed by God.’

“Go to Obadiah verses two and eighteen. Read it.” I would then leaf through the Bible and find the scripture passage as fast as I could, while Asima would almost immediately open to the page. While I read, she ran her finger from right to left on her bible’s Arabic script.

Now I make you least among the nations; you are utterly contemptible. The pride of your heart has deceived you – you who dwell in mountain crevices, in your lofty home…The house of Jacob will be a fire, the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau a stubble…none will survive of the house of Esau, for the Lord has spoken,” I would read.

“You see,” she would exclaim. “To this day, Petra is empty except for tourists.”

Photo credit: The Speakroom (2018)

She would then share modern-day stories, those shared by word of mouth from one friend to another about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; the stories sounded too barbaric and unreal to me then, but they have today, become an accepted part of the news.

“But God is perfect and knows all. Jesus was born at exactly the right time. Go to Galatians, chapter 4, starting at verse three. What does Paul say?”

I would read, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba! Father!”

“Why does Paul say ‘the fullness of time?’ After the Greek empire, the Romans came. And after the Romans came, they couldn’t change the language. The Greek language  spread. And what did the Romans do? They fixed the roads. ‘All roads go to Rome!’

‘Now look how God prepared the way. One language, and Paul knows the language. He speaks Greek, and he’s educated. He has a Roman passport, and the roads are open. Yanni, it helps Paul to go every place to talk about Jesus. For this reason, it says ‘the fullness of time.’”

Asima was one of the first people to visit me when my youngest child was born. She would smile at the baby in her arms, and fondly say, “Habibi!” Then she would sing to him, “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do!”

Our times together dwindled when I had to return to work to support my husband through graduate school and my children through several private schools. The endless weekends of grading papers and prepping, and all the demands of being a mother of four children while working full-time, made times with Asima less possible, and it began to seem that the friendship was really not so important.

But everything about Asima and the intimacy of our friendship came rushing back at me when we visited the Holy Lands.  It wasn’t just the smells, the landscape, and the sound of her voice telling a story behind every holy site – our tour guide in Israel even ended up being part of her extended family!

(“Oh, I know Asima,” he nonchalantly told me. Then he pulled up a photo of a relative Asima introduced me to fifteen years ago, and his baby).

The Holy Spirit was constantly prompting me to remember because He didn’t want me to forget who Asima was to me — for Asima reminded me of who I was before the Lord.

“You are like my other daughter,” she would often tell me with gleam in her eyes. “And you are also God’s daughter.  For this reason, always, you are beautiful. He loves you so much  — He knows the number of the hairs on your head.”

I didn’t so much forget Asima, as much as I had forgotten who I was.

ADVENT PRAYER

O Mary, my Mother, be my model during this holy season. Christ was alive within thee during the first Advent. We want Him to be more alive within us than ever during this Advent. May we not merely possess our precious Catholic Faith-rather, may It take complete possession of us, so that wherever we go, whatever we do or say, it will be the Christ Child that inspires us.

Father Robert Elias, OCD: Moses and Abba, our Father

ADVENT PRAYER (from Catholic Online Prayers)

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a wonder at the wisdom and power of Your Father and ours.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a hunger for peace: peace in the world, peace in my home, peace in myself.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a joy responsive to the Father’s joy. I seek His will so I can serve with gladness, singing and love.

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me the joy and love and peace it is right to bring to the manger of my Lord. Raise in me, too, sober reverence for the God who acted there, hearty gratitude for the life begun there, and spirited resolution to serve the Father and Son.

I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, whose advent I hail. Amen.

EXODUS 3:1-14 Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock beyond the wilderness, he came to the mountain of God, Horeb. 2There the angel of the LORD appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. 3S Moses decided, “I must turn aside to look at this remarkable sight. Why does the bush not burn up?” 4When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called out to him from the bush: Moses! Moses! He answered, “Here I am.” 5God said: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.b 6I am the God of your father,* he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.c Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

  9Now indeed the outcry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10Now, go! I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.

11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12God answered: I will be with you; and this will be your sign that I have sent you. When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will serve God at this mountain. 13“But,” said Moses to God, “if I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what do I tell them?” 14God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you

Homily at Memorial Church of Moses, Mount Nebo  (Madaba, Jordan) – loose transcription below

Moses was chosen by Adonai, our Holy God to be the mediator of the communion between his holiness and his people. He was a beloved of God and was chosen for a mission of liberation.

In the first reading, we heard about this emancipation from slavery to freedom and new life when God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush.

This was a process that took a long time. When we ask for God’s intervention, we expect results immediately, but his plan for his people’s happiness took a long, long time. And what prolonged the blessings to be received? – the disposition and attitude of his people, their wayward thinking; their deceiving and their negative speaking put up roadblocks and prolonged their arrival to the Promised Land.

Moses represents the holiness of God amidst of his people. He is a prophet of God’s presence, who hears the cries of the poor, knows their afflictions, and desires our liberation. God wants us to be happy just as any parent desires for their children.

Mount Sinai is is a place of Moses’ extraordinary experience of God and Mount Nebo is where he saw the fulfillment of the promise of Sinai from a distance:

Deuteronomy 34:1-6 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo,a the peak of Pisgah which faces Jericho, and the LORD showed him all the land—Gilead, and as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3the Negeb, the plain (the valley of Jericho, the City of Palms), and as far as Zoar. 4The LORD then said to him, This is the land about which I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over. 5So there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the LORD, died as the LORD had said.

Moses was a prophet of liberation and freedom. His encounter with God gave him the strength and endurance to journey for forty years. It is from Mount Sinai, where God manifested himself as a bush and revealed himself as ‘I am who am,’ a mystical expression of his identity. It was so holy that his name couldn’t even be pronounced or expressed in a single name.

There are countless names that reveal God’s majesty, but the greatest name that Jesus revealed to us is Abba – Father. God doesn’t want us to be afraid to come near him and know his majesty and merciful love, which is expressed through a filial love, so that we know his majesty with a heart-felt affection.

The same access of love that Jesus has for the father is our birthright. We have rights to God’s heart as our father. We have to know our real father. And Jesus wants to set us free from that which causes fear and intimidation. He is the new Moses who brings about the ultimate revolution of new life – and the cost was Himself.

 

And as Moses lifted up the serpent so that anyone who looked at it would be healed, we too have to face our fears. The Israelites were bit by the snake of their own complaining, which created a bitterness that was killing them from the inside out. In order to be freed from the sickness of their heart, they had to face their fears by looking at what they feared the most.

John Paul II said that the first thing we should do to discover our own exodus is to be not afraid; open wide the gates of your heart to Christ. The truth is that he will not hold back anything; there is no price he will not pay for our reconciliation.

The cross saves. This sacrifice saves us, but to enter into that sacrifice, we must embrace the cross of our own lives. Only by doing so can you be healed from it. In that cross is the wisdom and power. But you must face the enemy to experience the emancipation and liberation of the crossing of the Red Sea.

God wants us to have our own salvation history. And Jesus is the new Moses who brings about this new-found liberty.