Weekly Challenge: Shifting into High Gear!
For the last three summers I have been privileged to participate in the Fides et Ratio Seminars. These weeklong reading/seminar marathons bring together people from faculties across the nation (and the globe) to celebrate our great Catholic Intellectual Tradition. We each read a small library of books before we arrive (or stay up all night each night catching up on what we've missed) and spend the day in deep discussion about each classic work. The works include theology, philosophy, Sacred Scripture, fiction, speeches, poetry, etc. I've made some incredible friends through this program, and I would like to introduce one of them to you today: Father Nikola Derpich! So put on your best rose and light that third candle, it's Weekly Challenge time! Here's a reflection for EACH DAY of this week!
On December 17th Advent shifts into overdrive: the liturgy is now measured in days, not weeks. It’s time to shift into high gear. Just like the days of an Advent calendar each day’s Gospel is a window into understanding the mysteries of God that we celebrate in these days:
17th: The Messiah has arrived (John 1:6–8, 19–28).
On the Third Sunday of Advent we see John the Baptist telling the priests, Levites, and Pharisees grilling him that he is not the Messiah, but that the Messiah has arrived. The prophet Malachi said someone would come prepare the way for the Lord (see Malachi 3:1). That someone would encourage his listeners to make straight the way of the Lord (see Isaiah 40:3): John the Baptist. Unlike the prophets before him, he was telling them the Messiah was already “among” them. The Messiah was not coming; he is here. In Advent we remember that the Messiah has been with us for nine months in Mary’s womb.
18th: The gift of family (Matthew 1:18–25).
Mary can marry into the tribe of Judah, the Messiah’s tribe, thanks to Joseph. Suddenly Mary reveals she is pregnant before the wedding. Joseph realizes the stakes involved. He is torn. He was “was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame.” The Law was very harsh on adultery, and Mary seemed guilty of it. But Joseph was a just man who didn’t want to unleash the full cruelty of the Law on anyone, not even Mary. So the angel told him what was going on, and Joseph took Mary and Jesus into his home. The Holy Family was complete, a reminder of what a gift it is to have a family.
19th: “Quiet time” breathes life into a tired faith (Luke 1:5–25).
Israel had a long wait before any novelties in salvation history; after the last prophets in the Old Testament it was centuries before the angel Gabriel was sent to John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, and announced that John would be the prophet heralding the Messiah. Zechariah was an observant Jew, but after hoping for so long, apparently in vain, for a child his faith was tired. When Gabriel came and made the big announcement he responded with a tired and insufficient faith: how could an old man beget a son? Zechariah needed some Angel-imposed “quiet time” to breathe some life into his faith again. We’ve lived many Advents, many Christmases, which is why we need “quiet time” too and process the incredible mysteries of God unfolding in these days: God the Son is born a baby to save us.
20th: The Annunciation. Mary’s fiat (Luke 1:26–38).
Mary is the epitome of contemplative prayer, which is not reciting written prayers, but meditating on the mysteries of God and speaking with him from the heart. In more than one passage of the Gospel an evangelist reminds us that Mary pondered things in her heart. It is not every day an angel appears to you, much less greets you and says, “perfect job!” Mary pondered that greeting in her heart. When the angel pops the question: will she be the Mother of God, the Mother of the Messiah? It reminds us that sometimes God asks of us things we don’t completely understand. There is nothing wrong with asking questions to understand God better, but we can get in trouble when we simply question God (Lord! Why this? Why now?). Mary could have said that so many times on the way to Bethlehem…then to Egypt…then to Nazareth…then to the foot of the cross at Calvary. How many unexpected things happen at Christmas. Sometimes we want something to happen at Christmas, and it doesn’t work out, and we ask ourselves, “Why?” It is an opportunity to live the same poverty the Holy Family did on that night. Whatever happens just find a quiet corner somewhere to be alone with God and say fiat. Whatever the Lord wants.
21st: The Visitation. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you … would be fulfilled (Luke 1:39–45).
When Mary learned she was pregnant her first thoughts were about others: her cousin, Elizabeth, was pregnant “in her old age.” Mary went with haste to see and help her cousin. Elizabeth was elderly and six months pregnant; Mary knew she needed help. The second trimester is the “happy hormones” trimester (ask your Mom), and that was over. Elizabeth was entering the home stretch, and Mary started her first trimester, morning sickness and all, helping her cousin.
Mary was surely excited for Elizabeth too, but when Mary arrives Elizabeth is focused on the her, “the mother of my Lord.” It is the first meeting between Jesus the zygote (consult your embryologist—life begins at conception) and John the Baptist. John is leaping in his mother’s womb. We have to make the joy of others our joy, because it is in helping others find their joy and rejoicing with them that we find our own.
22nd: The Magnificat (Luke 1:46–56).
When Mary is praised by Elizabeth she directs it all to God. We must always give credit where credit is due. Mary is excited about being chosen to have a special role in God’s saving plan. She sees it as a sign of God’s favor and that he is always faithful to his promises. Mary rejoiced that the Lord had looked down on her lowliness. She wanted the credit to go where credit was due. At Christmastime we should have the same attitude. An attitude of gratitude. So many gifts and special things during Christmas are in store. It should be a time filled with gratitude and making everyone simply seek to outdo one another in generosity.
23rd: John is born and Zechariah’s “quiet time” ends (Luke 1:57–66).
The Gospel account of Zechariah’s “quiet time” and last-minute conversion comes almost right before Christmas Eve. Chronologically it should start the week, but it’s fitting on this day because it reminds us that diehard skeptics hold out to the end, and we have to pray for them (or us, if we are them). At this point in Zechariah’s life he must have been a pretty grumpy person: righteous and blameless for years, and no children. He and Elizabeth knew that Abraham and Sarah had their first child when Abraham was a hundred years old: twenty‑five years after God had promised Abraham an heir. How many people had that degree of patience?
When we shut ourselves up in skepticism we become mute spectators to God’s plan moving forward. God wants to carry out his plan with us, but, in some cases, especially when the stakes are high, he will carry out the plan despite us and invite us to opt in. Zechariah opted in after nine months: his relatives were giving Elizabeth a hard time about naming the newborn baby “John,” and Zechariah confirmed her wishes, opting back into to the plan of God. God laughs at man’s plans, but he constantly invites us to opt in to his (or back into his).
24th: Zechariah sings the Benedictus (Luke 1:67–79).
Since this year we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent on the 24th, and it has the same Gospel as December 20th, for Christmas Eve we can consider the Gospel normally used in the morning on Christmas Eve. When Zechariah regained his voice, he began to prophesy. To conclude this week of meditation his prophecy, now called the Benedictus and prayed every morning as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, reflects beautifully the attitude we should have on Christmas Eve: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people…”
Father Nikola Derpich divides his time between teaching theology at the Pontifical University "Regina Apostolorum" in Rome, Italy and helping as an associate pastor at St. Brendan the Navigator parish in Cumming, GA. He has a doctorate in Theology and Bachelor's degrees in Computer Science, Creative Writing, and Philosophy. You can read more of his reflections at fathernikola.org or follow him on Twitter @FrNikola.