Archive for December, 2006|Monthly archive page

Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: #2 (Bonus Article)

Dear Jesus,

There is a nostalgic irony for me as I celebrate the feast of the Holy Family this year. The feast day coincides with the first anniversary of my mother’s death. You can imagine how my mind leapfrogs through the years and revels in etched memories of how fortunate I was to be born into the family that was mine. It is there that I was formed into the believer that I am today. Mother and Father introduced me to you and told me that God loved me. In the panic of asthma attacks that filled nights with dread, I was held and rocked to assured that you were with me and that God held me too.

Childhood memories seem appropriate for this feast. But I wonder if they do not soften the mystery that should be proclaimed. So often the Gospel’s challenge is muted by accommodation and sentimentality. They protect me and shield me from the Gospel’s harsh demands. Surely I am not being called to poverty and challenged to literally take up the cross daily, am I? I don’t exactly want to ignore the challenge regarding my neighbor that incarnational feasts imply. Do I really have a responsibility for my brothers and sisters who share my common humanity?

Those thoughts have plagued my prayer these days. I remember my parents joking once on this feast that the make-up of the Holy Family was unique, never to be repeated. And we didn’t exactly fill the bill as duplicates. God bless them, they were right. But I wonder if in another way those types of excuses also help us miss the point you would like your disciples to get.

At the heart of Christmas celebrations and this feast in particular is the proclamation that you leapt through the darkness that engulfed humankind and took on our flesh wedding forever the human and the divine. For some, you were a scandal because there was so little about you that spoke of the power expected in the longed for Messiah. Born in a stable? Wrapped in swaddling clothes imitative of those strips that would enfold you in death? In a manger where animals feed as you would offer your body as food and your blood as drink? Joseph and Mary stored up these images to ponder and pray over and so find comfort and grace. And we do the same today. We ponder. We pray. We look for comfort and hope for grace.

Some demand that Christians look at the world’s condition and find there a denial of what is our core belief. There is no evidence of the Messianic Age. Swords are far from plows and spears from pruning hooks. Wars rage and some use God as war’s justification. Famine saps the strength of millions. Children die daily. AIDS and malaria kill. People continue to do violence to each other. Where are the Peace that you were supposed to bring, and the security?

What do you want me to find in this feast of the Holy Family? I think you want me to see the poverty and vulnerability. I think you want me to recognize the violence that surrounded your entry into this world. Children died because of the threat to temporal power that you posed. And I think you want me to recognize your solidarity with all things human and with the things of this earth. All are grace touched through your coming. And all relationships are transformed.

This feast is not just an opportunity for your followers to ponder three unique people as my parents might have thought. Rather I wonder if you do not want us to recognize that the bonds that unite the holy three are the very bonds that unite all people and make us all family? I have Islamic, Jewish, and every other designation of people as brothers and sisters. Through you God lives in human flesh. Humankind have been divinized in that forever wedding. And I think you want us in the midst of our celebration, as we gather around the family table and break the Bread and share the Cup, I think you want us to go with the Eucharist we celebrate and be that for others. If we understand the mystery we have to be willing to be broken and poured out. We must be vulnerable servants as you are.

I stand in awe of these implications. How can I be comfortable in the warmth and security of my home as I sit to a heavily-laden table, how can I feast while my brothers and sisters are ravaged, while they starve? How can I exploit natural resources and gloat in the excess while my brothers and sisters can barely eke out survival? It is not enough to stand in awe. I think you want me to adore the Presence and assume responsibility for the family.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – C: Dec. 31, 2006

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
1 John 3:1-2, 21-24
Luke 2:41-52

Dear Jesus,

This is my first time to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family as an orphan. My mother and father have both gone to be with you in your Father’s House. There is a poignancy that I feel as I write to you in these after days of Christmas. Everything changes when you no longer have parents living in this world. The feast gives me reason to pause, to remember, and to give thanks.

Is it strange that when I think of my parents I do not recall their last days of failing health as they prepared to breathe their last? The final vigils are blurs that recede to be replaced by memories of times when they were the care-givers, when they taught the basic lessons of life and our responsibility for each other that extended beyond our immediate family. We prayed at table so we could thank God for the gifts we were about to eat. It was humble fare, I realize in retrospect, even as I realize that we were poor. Mother’s ingenuity made wonders out of tuna fish and noodles and macaroni and cheese. And I remember the wonder the word steak held for me since I had no idea what that reality was. All these gifts were signs of God’s love for us, so there was no reason to be afraid. And that was why there was always room for one more at the table. All were welcome there, any of our school friends who happened in, a neighbor might come needing comfort.

Responsibility went beyond our duty to care for each other. We learned about people in China and Africa and in our own town who would be hungry that night. So we couldn’t waste even as we learned to care for these extended members of our family. Hell had no fury to equal my father’s if we dared use a racial slur or find humor in another’s disability. You don’t treat members of the family that way – God’s family.

Money and the things it could buy held a fascination for me. I don’t know why I was so aware of what others had, but I was. That persisted to adulthood. I would pine for things I could not have to which my father reminded me that if I wanted to be wealthy I should have chosen a different profession. Besides, wealth doesn’t bring happiness. Love, loving relationships and service bring fulfillment and peace. I believe that. How often growing up did I hear: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of the soul?”

Neither of my parents was educated beyond high school. I don’t know when I became ashamed of that and found myself changing the subject with others if ever the topic came up. My generation was the first in our extended family to go to college or university. My parents in their turn had to go to work upon completing high school to support their younger siblings and keep their families together. I learned early on what the Great Depression meant. Many of those who lived through its severity never got over it or their anxiety that there would be enough to have some kind of financial security. The possibility of another Crash always lurked in the wings.

We went to church on Sunday mornings. There wasn’t a question about it. And only serious illness held sway as an excuse for not going. That’s how we were raised. That’s just the way it was. Those great milestone days are etched in my memory – my baptism (yes, I remember it), my first Holy Communion and my anxiety prior to it over the possibility of swallowing a bit of water and thus break my fast and not be able to receive. In those days we fasted from everything, even water, from midnight the night before. I felt my parents’ pride as they brought me for these significant events. They reminded me that each of the sacraments was a sign of God’s love that we experienced now. These were important steps on our journey in life because someday we would be going to be with God in heaven. And of course every Saturday afternoon we went to Confession. Yes, that’s just the way it was.

Those are distant memories now. Decades separate us from those simpler times. But I think it takes decades to learn the lessons taught more by example than any other way. Perhaps we don’t completely learn any of them, their importance, significance, and meaning, until we stand in that Light that is to come. In spite of contrary signs and negative experiences, we cling to those imbibed truths. I give thanks for these two who ran the race to its conclusion, who kept their eyes fixed on the goal, and who prodded me when I flagged that I might pick myself up and continue on.

I stood by their graves not long ago on the adjacent plot that will one day be my own. I paused and prayed and thanked them for awakening me to the wonder that is this family of God to which we belong. I thanked them for teaching me the wonder of Eucharist even as I was challenged to do it and to be it with the people among whom I moved. Life in this family is about being blessed, broken, and distributed. And it will always be that way until you come again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

Christmas Greetings

Dear Readers of the Didymus letters,

There is a temptation to wax sentimental at Christmas time. Sentiment is a good thing, especially when so many work so hard at denying their feelings and burying them. I do want to express mine even as I strive to avoid the maudlin and the merely sentimental.

We celebrate a great and wonderful mystery that every gift proffered ought to emulate. Faith must be supported. As we exchange gifts and greeting cards that say merry Christmas, we invite each other to marvel at God’s great gift that is the occasion of our feast. But God’s gift is not a moment but the beginning of an altered reality that will persist through Eternity. A chasm has been bridged. Two natures have been united. Human kind will never be the same.

In the prolog to St. John’s Gospel we read: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. John proclaims the perpetual bond and unity between the Word and God. The Word was God and everything that came to be came to be through him. And in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I believe that one could spend a lifetime meditating on the mystery in those words and never exhaust the implications and demands contained there. The Divine and the human estranged in Genesis are united and never to be separated again. To coin a word, flesh has been divinized. We were at the beginning of our race made in the image and likeness of God. Now the divine dwells in the human. Where is God? Not out there, not distant nor remote, but God is immanent living in the hearts of the very ones who seek God. God bestowed on humankind a dignity unimaginable when the Word leapt from heaven and took on flesh.

It would be at least a twice-told tale to speak of ways through which that dignity is denied. War does that. Poverty, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that separate and divide us deny that dignity and speak against humanity’s worth. That dignity does not depend on age or strength, on wealth or power, or race or creed or country of origin, but belongs to each and every one of us, even those who are developmentally disabled and those in the throes of dementia.

My prayer this Christmas is that you will know and claim that God-given dignity that is yours, and celebrate it as part of the assembly that gathers around the Table to do and renew Eucharist. Bread and Wine become Flesh and Blood in another imitation of the Great Gift. Take and eat. Take and drink. But don’t miss the significance of the breaking and the pouring out that precede those actions. Doing Eucharist re-enters Christ’s dying and rising and banishes forever despair, but at a price.

If the world is to be renewed, if war is to cease, if poverty, racism, and sexism are to be banished as the Kingdom comes, those who eat and drink, those who do Eucharist must be willing to be broken and poured out that the estranged and downtrodden may be fed and have their thirst slaked. That’s how God’s reign will come about and how the promised Messianic Kingdom will be realized.

Tears come to my eyes as I remember a moment I experienced in Kenya several years ago. I spoke from a bulkhead to a throng of children gathered below to greet these visitors from the fabled land called America. It was a joy to tell them that they were loved by God and by believers in the land from where we had come. At the end of my few words translated by another into their native tongue, I reached down to touch a little hand stretched out to me. In an instant, a stampede ensued as the children lurched forward to touch me as if touching would affirm my message. In turn and in the process they nearly trampled the one whose gesture began it all. It was a terrifying moment that spoke of the terrible longing in the hearts of those youngsters. As I retreated, I wept feeling full force my inadequacy to meet this task.

The experiences in Kenya and Uganda are becoming distant memories for me. I shudder when I remember the rashness of my promise to those children and to other gatherings one day to return. That is not likely to happen. But I pray this Christmas that others will do what I cannot. And I pray that in the light of the Christmas message we will see clearly the blessed dignity of little ones in that distant land and of others close to home and not be afraid to reach out and touch them. May our love be practical as we imitate the Eucharist we celebrate and are broken and poured out. Remember, Christmas banished despair. No situation is hopeless. When the Word takes on flesh, what comes with that divine union is the means to meet every human need and bridge every chasm that divide one person from another.

There is a temptation to wax sentimental at Christmas time. Dare I express what is in my heart? Please know that I love you and pray for all of you who honor me by reading my words. If my thoughts, expressed through Didymus, my alter ego, move you, then thanks be to God for that and the inspiration of the Spirit. If they inspire your own on-going dialog with Jesus then know that they will always result in his deepening his call and pressing his challenge to take up his cross and follow him. And as you whisper your yes, if You will help me, you will know God’s love for you, the same love God has for Jesus. And we can live in hope.

Sincerely,

Didymus