Day 16: God will use everything to show his way!
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way. Psalm 25
Today’s readings and today’s feast have a slew of fascinating elements, from talking donkeys, to God apparently “changing his mind,” to a Roman maiden having her eyes gouged out at the behest of her would-be suitor, and then appearing a millennium later to rescue a people starving from famine.
But we could say that one common theme running through all of this is a line from Psalm 25: Good and upright is the LORD; thus he shows sinners the way.
Let’s start with the the talking donkey. We are not given this part of the story of Balaam in today’s first reading. You can read it in Numbers 22-24. Balaam is a non-Israelite seer who, nevertheless, receives the word of the Lord. He is called by a foreign king to curse the people of Israel, who are encamped outside his territory and ready to take over. Balaam agrees to go to the king, eventually with God’s permission, but says that he will only say what God allows him to say. As Balaam sets off, it seems that God “changes his mind,” though biblical interpreters consider that God becomes “upset” with Balaam not for going to the king, but for doing it merely because he was eager for the reward. In the New Testament, St. Peter will make reference to Balaam, saying that he “loved payment for wrongdoing.” On his way to the foreign king, God sends an angel three times, and three times, it is only Balaam’s donkey who sees him, leading eventually to the donkey itself reproaching its master, with a protest, “Why do you beat me?”
As wonderful as this story is, what we’re presented with for our Advent liturgy is the third oracle that Balaam makes to the foreign king, which we can easily see points to Christ.
I see him, though not now;
I behold him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel.
But let us look at the story of Balaam in light of our verse from Psalm 25. God is so intent on showing him the way to walk that he even opens the mouth of his donkey!
Now let us speak for a moment about Lucy.
I discovered the beautiful Swedish tradition surrounding St. Lucy because of the American Girl dolls. The American Girl “Kirsten” is a Swedish immigrant to America, and she continues to love her home country’s tradition on St Lucy Day. In that traditional celebration, the oldest girl of the family dresses in a white robe with a red sash, and carries a wreath with lit candles on her head. She distributes special foods for the day to all the family, and there are processions and festivities with the girls of the communities all dressed in their St. Lucy day robe. (I was eager to get these little outfits and minuscule wreaths with candles for my girls’ dolls so that we could enjoy the Catholic feast presented by this popular toy.)
But why is Sweden, a country that was a stronghold of the Protestant Reformation, and now home to one of the world’s most secular populations, a place of devotion to St. Lucy? There is a tradition that St. Lucy appeared in Sweden in the Middle Ages, standing on the helm of a ship surrounded by an unearthly light. She distributed bags of wheat that lasted through the winter.
While the Swedes don’t spend much time on the religious or spiritual, still the feast of St. Lucy is a part of their beloved heritage.
Can we see in this God’s spirit reaching out to his people, much as he reached out to Balaam and, especially, as he reaches out to us in his Only Son?
Our Lord is intent on reaching his people, and won’t hesitate to make a donkey talk, or send a martyr, so that he can show his love. And this is true, even if we’re intent on turning off his path. He won’t stop making his appeals to come back.
The Gospel account of the obstinacy shown by the chief priests and elders reminds us that God will respect our freedom. But even when we choose to reject his signs (as they rejected John), he’ll keep trying. Good and upright is the LORD; he shows sinners the way.
May the glorious intercession
of the Virgin and Martyr Lucy
give us new heart, we pray, O Lord,
so that we may celebrate her heavenly birthday
in this present age
and so behold things eternal.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.