Thursday, December 30, 2010

Come to the Light - The Epiphany of the Lord

Reflections on the Readings
The Epiphany of the Lord - January 2, 2011, Year A 
By Dennis S. Hankins

Come to the Light

Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."

Some things are meant to be felt, to be pondered.  Christmas is one of these.  But some grow tired of Christmas before the season even begins.  Maybe it's because we start too early.  Many believe that the season of Christmas begins on the day after Thanksgiving.  From black Friday forward, the stores are filled with early bird savings and shoppers dreaming of a less expensive Christmas.  And then there are all night extravaganzas for the serious bargain hunters.  By the time Christmas Day arrives, we need to hear Charlie Brown exclaim, "Doesn't anybody know what Christmas is about?"  And once again Linus takes center stage and tells us the story, the true story of Christmas.

This holy season invites us to ponder the great love story of Christmas; to feel its beauty and to absorb its mystery is worthy of every soul.  The light that shines in the sky leads an entourage of learned men from the ancient region of Persia to Bethlehem.  This nearly 1,200 mile trek is inspired by a star they say speaks of the birth of a King; namely, the King of the Jews.  You can imagine the enormous preparation required for such a journey through a mostly desert area.  Think about it.  A star appears in the East and beckons these men to leave comfort and routine so they might also bow down before the Light of the world.

It takes some effort to appreciate why these men from the East find this moment in history extraordinary.  Perhaps when Daniel served in the Babylonian court, under Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, and Cyrus the Great, he planted the Messianic hope in ancient Persia.  It is Daniel, a pious Jew, in captivity in Babylon who is called upon to interpret Nebuchadnezzar's dreams. It is Daniel along with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah who are chosen to be trained as royal pages.  They also are of the tribe of Judah; the tribe of King David and of Jesus our Lord.  Remarkable events during Daniel's captivity occurred which gave him positions of leadership and a platform to teach the faith of his fathers.  Perhaps this gives some explanation as to why these foreigners of the East have such an insight and expectation of a Messianic King.

Daniel would be aware of Balaam's prophecy: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.(Numbers 24:17)  Much like Philip helped the Ethopian eunuch understand the scriptures he read, Daniel may have conducted 'bible studies' for those in positions of influence in his day; helping them to understand his faith, his hope, and manner of life.  With the trust he had from the Kings he served, Daniel's influence was deeply felt among the most learned men of his time.  The wise men from the East just may be the fruit of Daniel's rigorous and faithful piety.

Sometimes we need the exuberance and faith and hope of someone else to make us aware of the nearness of God.  This is what the wise men do.  They startle and bewilder Herod the Great and all Jerusalem with him.  "Your light has come," they exclaim.  "And we have come to worship him."  That might get some attention.  What a great and long journey they embraced to be able to say in Jerusalem, the city of David, "Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!  Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you."  I know Isaiah says it, but its the wise men who get it.  And they bring their gold, frankincense, and myrrh as an offering for the new born King.  The chief priests confirm for Herod that indeed the holy book says a ruler will arise in the land of Judah, in the city of Bethlehem, a ruler to shepherd God's people, Israel. 

Encouraged to continue their journey to Bethlehem, Herod, under false pretense, instructs the wise men to bring him word when they find the new King.  "That I too may come and worship him," he says.  So they continue to follow the light that shines brightly in the direction of Bethlehem.  Five more miles and their faith will be confirmed.  Their eyes will behold the child and the love light in his eyes will move them to fall down and worship him.

I started this Reflection talking about the extraordinary things we all do to prepare for Christmas.  But compared to the mystery that moved the men of the East, does our busyness bring us to the same majesty and light that captured their imagination?  I hope so.  For that one born  in Bethlehem is the Light of the world.  And with all those who have ever known darkness and sin and rebellion, we too are invited, nudged along even, to come to the Light.  After the bows are tossed, and the tinsel is stored away, there remains on this Feast of the Epiphany, the Light that shines in darkness.  

And the wise men, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their country by another way.  Then Herod, feeling tricked by the wise men, unleashes his dark and furious rage, and seeks to kill Jesus by killing all the male children two years old and under in the region of Bethlehem.  These holy innocents, being the first martyrs of Christ, are forever the residents of that city of light where there is no more darkness, nor tyrants, nor death.  

As we come to Christ who is our light, may he shine on us and through us, for there is still much darkness to dispel.  Amen.   

Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN.  Prior to his uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. You can email him at 


Friday, December 24, 2010

The Love Light in His Eyes

A Christmas Thought

The Love Light in His Eyes

December 25, 2010

By Dennis S. Hankins

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 1 John 3:1

What love is bestowed upon us this Christmas morn. The purest of all love is wrapped first in swaddling cloths, and sleeps in a manger. This morning, we will try to replicate that love, and give one another gifts; gifts wrapped in the glorious colors of Christmas.

After two thousand years, it is hard to understand how it is the world may not know him. Yet it was into a cruel and dark world Jesus came on that first Christmas. In fact, a tyrant Roman King, tried to kill him at the outset. At age 33 he will be bruised for our sins and wounded for our transgressions. Yet like a sheep, he will not open his mouth; a thief will speak in his defense. A centurion will confess that he is the Son of God. And Mary and John will receive him from the cross and wrap him in a burial cloth.

The reason the world does not know us is because it did not know him. But this lack of perception does not nullify a simple yet profound truth: God's love has made us his children. What manner of love is this? It is a love that fills a dark world with imperishable light. But it is not a light of condemnation, rather the rays of this light draw us toward what is good and perfect. Some may resist its power, but in the end, God's light of love prevails. The greatest power in the world, is the love light that shines from that manger in Bethlehem.

And the same love light shines today. It shines through you and me to remind the world that there is something greater than sin; there is something more powerful than betrayal. It is even stronger than death. It is God's love light that shines today. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And the glory shone all around!

When the shepherds found him, they found him as the angel had said, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger. And looking down into that manger, their eyes looked into the face of God, and they saw the love light in his eyes. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mercy in a Manger - Midnight Christmas Mass - December 25, 2010

Reflections on the Readings
 The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas - December 25, 2010, Year A
By Dennis S. Hankins

Mercy in a Manger

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

There are signs everywhere reminding us to keep Christ in Christmas.  It is not possible to have Christmas without him, or without Mary and her husband Joseph.  But don't forget the shepherds and the Wise Men.  What is Christmas without all these who first came to adore him wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.  Each one is drawn that first Christmas to the majesty of the one sleeping in the manger.  

The heavens declare the wonderful birth; a rare and brilliant star appears to reveal by its light, the birth of a king.  Its rays pointed the way for the Wise men, as they journey from Persia, to pay homage to the light of mercy already shining brightly in a manger in Bethlehem.  

And the shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night, are filled with great fear, as the glory of the Lord shines on them.  But 'the angel of the Lord,' says to them "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."  The angel continues: "This will be a sign for you:  you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."  And suddenly, a multitude of the heavenly host join the 'angle of the Lord,' singing,  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."    

So you see, we observe, as we have for two thousand years, a very important time in human history.  We have before us tonight a glorious mystery; the greatest mystery that earth has ever seen.  It is the mystery of mercy.  For born this Christmas night, in the City of David, is a Savior; mercy in a manger. 

What the blessed Mother gave to us when she said 'yes,' and then wrapped so tenderly in swaddling clothes, is the gift of mercy.  It is a gift that keeps on giving, it never runs out.  Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) plumbs the depths of God's mercy.  Encompassing both love and grace, mercy is love that gives, that is more powerful than betrayal, and grace that is stronger than sin.  When Mary placed her child in the manger that night in Bethlehem, Joseph bent down and whispered in Mary's ear, "His name is Jesus; he will save his people from their sins."  Truly, Mercy came down and grace and love and forgiveness came into our world - Emmanuel, God is with us!

What will you give this Christmas?  I know that under the tree is wrapped in very special paper, presents concealed in the glorious colors of Christmas.  And yet, there is a greater mystery, a greater reason for this season.  In the season of Christmas, God reminds us that he is rich in mercy.  We meditate upon the baby Jesus in that manger and our hearts are strangely warmed by the infinite goodness and mercy of the Father's love for us.  Our Father, sparing not his Son, chose to give us the riches of his goodness and mercy through the Son of his love.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us, all the days of our lives.

Christmas teaches us to be more like our heavenly Father; to be merciful.  For blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Mary sang, when her soul magnified the Lord, "And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation."  We can begin today to bless the next generation by showing mercy to them now.  We can begin to 'pay it forward,' by accepting the gift of being restored to God and to each other through His infinite love and grace; forgiving and being forgiven.  This is the great meaning of Christmas.  

I'm reminded of the old and crusty Ebenezer Scrooge.  There's not much mercy in those old bones.  But by the visitation of the spirits of Christmas, past, present, and future, Scrooge encounters mercy.  It is in the final visitation of the ghost of the future that Ebenezer exclaims, "Hear me! I'm not the man I was! Why show me this, if I am past all hope?!  Tell me that I can change these dreadful shadows you've shown me by an altered life!  I'll honor Christmas in my heart! I'll - I'll try to keep it all the year." 

The unfinished work of mercy is our calling.  There are many simple tasks waiting to be done with great mercy and love.  In our families, let us give more place for mercy.  Turn down the volume and serve up more of the spirit of Christmas.  This Christmas, receive the gift of mercy portrayed in this nativity tonight.  And then purpose in your heart to keep the true meaning of Christmas; to honor Christmas in your heart all the year long.  For the mercy of the Lord endures forever.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Love Story

Reflections on the Readings

Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 19, 2010, Year A

By Dennis S. Hankins

Readings For This Sunday

A Love Story

...An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”

On this last Sunday of Advent, we sense that something really special is about to happen. Once again the world is reminded that things are not as they appear. For two thousand years ago, Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, visited a young maiden of Nazareth. No one would have predicted that God would soon be living in the womb of a virgin whose name is Mary.

We are not told exactly when Joseph became aware of Mary’s destiny. Luke explains that Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time of Gabriel’s visit. It is possible if not probable that Mary told him immediately. Today’s gospel reminds us that Joseph is considering how to best protect Mary. After all, he is a just man and unwilling to put Mary to shame. Joseph knows the applicable laws regarding infidelity which could implicate Mary and condemn her to death by stoning. Not only does Joseph believe Mary’s explanation, but he deliberates in his own way how to divorce her quietly.

Christmas is a story; a true story. I want to tell you Joseph’s story; a love story.

Taking Mary by the hand, Joseph looks deep into her eyes and knows in his heart Mary’s destiny.

“Mary,” Joseph speaks in a whisper, as the late winds of March whips the dust around them. “You said Elizabeth is also with child.”

“Yes.” Mary looks down at her garment bulging in the middle as the wind blows about her. “The angel of the Lord told me that she is now six months along,” she says as she looks again into Joseph’s anxious eyes.

“Ok. This is what you must do. No one will think anything of it. It’s been a long time since you’ve visited your kin folk in the hill country of Judea. You will be safe for the moment, and I will have a few days to think about all that is about to happen,” says Joseph.

Mary is no more than a few days into her pregnancy when she visits Elizabeth. But deep within her womb God is becoming flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone. Mary’s face still shows the late blushes of youth, only now her eyes suggest she is pondering in her heart a deep and growing mystery.

Agreeing with Joseph and trusting his judgment, Mary immediately prepares to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Providentially, a family in Nazareth is going to Judea, too. Mary will travel with them. It will take about four days to make the journey; Mary is happy to have some time away to pray. There is much to pray about.

In the meantime, Joseph spends more time before Jehovah.

“What must I do?” Joseph prays as he begs God for wisdom. “I have lived as Mary has lived. Following you and obeying you with my whole being is all I have ever done; it is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he continues. “Please, Almighty God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, hear my cry.”

Joseph knows in his heart what fate awaits Mary and maybe even him. Who would believe her? Who would believe him? A million questions invade his heart. Everyone of them have the same answer: death.

“I am of the house of David, the sweet singer and King of Israel,” as he reminds Jehovah of his credentials.

It is the spiritual equivalent of, “Hey, don’t you know who I am?”

Desperation drips from every word that falls from Joseph’s lips.

“Please tell me how to embrace this mystery. Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; I flood my bed with tears.”

Joseph descends into a deep sleep. But even here, the mystery is near; God is near.

The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream. God has heard Joseph’s prayers, and he sends his angel with this message: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bare a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph awakes from his sleep. The sun is peeking over the distant hills of Nazareth; the light of God’s love is already shining brightly in Joseph’s heart. The fear that once gripped him is now gone; he must tell Mary.

Quickly, Joseph packs his things including dry meat, figs, and some fruit. He leaves before the sun wakes up the rest of Nazareth. Along the way, Joseph rehearses the dream. He praises God for making real to him the mystery of salvation. “And you shall call his name Jesus,” the words of the angel echo in his heart. “He will save his people from their sins,” “Yeshua, God saves!” he says, talking to his beast of burden who seems to be listening.

Arriving in the community of Zechariah and Elizabeth, he asks someone for directions to their home. Mary and Elizabeth are outside basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Joseph quickens his step. His heart now beats with the promise that resides in Mary’s womb.


Looking up, Mary is blinded by the sun. She recognizes the voice, but she only sees an outline of the man walking toward her.

“Mary!” They embrace. No one can imagine the gift of love they possess for each other. Their love is mutual because of the gift of love growing in Mary’s womb.

“I know,” Joseph whispers in Mary’s ear. “I had a dream. The angel of the Lord appeared to me in a dream!”

Mary listens as if she already knows, but she does not interrupt.

“What did the angel say to you?” she asks, as if she doesn’t know.

Joseph wipes tears from his eyes. Elizabeth draws closer to hear. Mary’s face is now framed by the sun that is setting behind her. Joseph speaks slowly and deliberately. No longer sounding anxious or worried, he says: “The angel told me not to be afraid to be your husband. The angel said, ‘that which is conceived in you is of the Holy Spirit.’ ”

And Joseph did receive Mary and her baby into his heart and into his home, providing for them, loving them, and protecting them. But Joseph knew her not; fully satisfied to be known as the husband of Mary. With all of his heart he lived his calling as the foster father of the Son of God. Joseph and Mary raised the child that had brought them together. And together they watched him grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and with man.

So you see, the real season of Christmas is near. It brings to us a story of love that began in a little village called Nazareth. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? I’m glad you asked.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. It’s a love story...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Shades of Doubt

Reflections on the Readings

Third Sunday of Advent - December 12, 2010, Year A

By Dennis S. Hankins

Readings For This Sunday

Shades of Doubt

Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

We are not told exactly why John is asking this question. The fame of Christ has reached John in solitary confinement. The stories of the miracles done by Jesus are told to him perhaps by a sympathetic jailor. Through the thick walls he can hear the prisoners talking about Jesus. All alone, John muses on these wonderful works of Jesus while he contemplates his own life and his impending death.

Perhaps late at night, alone in his dark cell, shades of doubt haunt him. Not outright unbelief, mind you. For a man who has slept out under the midnight sky for several years, he asks the most important question in the world: “Are you the One?” It’s the last recorded words we have of this man who is on death row.

The most exalted understanding we have of Christ comes from John the Baptist. John himself gave testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is John who says, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” There are no doubts here.

John’s own conception and birth is the stuff of miracles. Zechariah was an old man and his wife, Elizabeth, was barren. There was not a chance that they could have a child. But while praying and burning incense in the Temple, Gabriel comes from God to give Zechariah the good news. He tells this faithful man that he and his wife will have a son. “Unbelievable,” says Zechariah. So Gabriel struck Zechariah with nine months of speechlessness. Not until Zechariah writes on a tablet at his son’s birth, “His name is John,” does his speech return. I’m sure that John was taught from his youth to trust God and to never doubt him.

Even when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, John leaps in his mother’s womb. It is in this meeting we hear Elizabeth, full of the Holy Spirit, declare to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” I would bet the bank that Elizabeth told young John about this day. It would not surprise me in the least that she and her husband often rehearsed all of these spiritual moments with their son, John. He was taught, no doubt, from day one to have faith in all of God’s ways.

But you know, sometimes it's a little harder to believe. Shades of doubt creep across the eyes of our heart and “poof,” it all seems a little remote. God seems distant. We cease praying instead of praying without ceasing. What once brought joy now brings questions. It's in these moments we ask, "Are you really the way, the truth, and the life?"

The reading from James today reminds us of the patience and perseverance of the farmer. He waits for the precious fruit of his labor. After the rain and sunshine, and more rain, and then some more sunshine, the seed will sprout and the harvest will come. I remember when I was about fifteen, planting my first garden. Mrs. Murray was on my paper route and she was past the age of life to be out in the hot sun taking care of a garden. She offered to get the garden ready if I wanted to try my hand at it. I could go out my back door and hang a right at the alley and be at Mrs. Murray’s house in about two minutes.

The biggest thing I remember about this experience is that I was not patient. I did not have any experience at planting a garden and it showed. To make sure the seed was still under the veil of dirt covering it, I remember scraping away some dirt to see how things were doing. Some of the most patient and faith filled people I’ve ever met have been farmers. My gardening has gotten better with age. But even now, shades of doubt can creep in.

Sometimes, and it will happen, we encounter shades of doubt like John the Baptist. We will ask in those times like he did, “Tell me one more time who you are.” As John’s disciples leave with the message Jesus gave them for John, Jesus commends his friend, John. He tells the people that he is a man firm in his convictions and faith. He’s not a reed shaken by the wind. Nor did he seek comfort in fine clothes and comfortable surroundings. He lived and ate in the desert. By day he preached about the mighty one to come and how everyone should get ready to meet him. And by night he mused on the Almighty in his heart and refreshed himself in God’s love.

But once in a while we all drop our head and wonder out loud, “Is it worth it? Is Jesus for real?” With John, let’s hear again the gracious report, a report long ago foretold by Isaiah, “The lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the gospel proclaimed to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

And then Jesus says of John, “Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” And of you and me, Jesus says, “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

About John, and about you and me, Jesus has no doubts.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Gift of New Eyes

In his homily today, my pastor, Fr. Boettner, described how things seen from an airplane look different; how differences and divisions dissolve when viewed from way up high in the sky. This is the view we get from Isaiah's 'holy mountain,' as we see in today's first reading.(Isaiah 11:1-10)

Father Boettner went on to share that our soul has two eyes. With one eye of our soul we look down. With the other eye of our soul we look up; we get God's vision of us and our world with this eye. We need the upward vision of this second eye to help the first eye we see each other with to see better. Without this upward vision our view of one another can be very blurred. We need the light of love that is from above to heal our blindness.

On the way home from Mass, I began thinking about a song written by Julie Gold titled From a Distance. The lines are poignant:
From a distance, you look like my friend,
Even though we are at war.
From a distance, I just can't comprehend,
What all this fighting is for.

From a distance, there is harmony,
And it echoes through the land.
It's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves;
It's the heart of every man.
It's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves;
This is the song of every man.

And God is watching us, God is watching us;
God is watching us from a distance.
And God is watching us, God is watching us;
Oh God is watching us from a distance.

On Christmas morning, we will remember the incarnation, when God came real close to us with skin of our skin and flesh of our flesh; yet without sin. Jesus comes to restore in us God's vision of us and of our world. We need a clearer vision of one another. For Christmas this year, let's ask God for the gift of new eyes. What a wonderful gift it would be if we could see each other through the eyes of God.