Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

THE FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

Colossians 3:12-17

Luke 2:22-40

 

 

What are we celebrating on this Feast of the Holy Family?  Certainly and most obviously, we celebrate the family that is Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.  Each is a person of profound faith, called by God to trust God’s call and to live out the implications of that call.  The Family is an icon before which we sit to be drawn into the mystery and so be transformed.  Icons tend to be placid depictions of extraordinary beings rapt in prayer and seeming to be totally other.  That is, until we look deeper.  So is it here.

Responding to God’s will involved struggle for Joseph who had to let go of what he had planned for his future, to trust when the young woman to whom he was engaged was found to be pregnant.  Breaking the relationship was his first inclination.  The angel told him to trust hat what was happening was God’s will.  So he took Mary into his house.  Because he was of the House of David, Caesar’s mandatory world census set them on the road to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy, caused him the humiliation of not being able to provide a decent place of the birth of the child, and the, when it seemed that the child was in danger, he had to leave hearth and home and flee to Egypt.  The magnitude of Joseph’s faith mirrors Abram’s in the first reading.  Abram had to believe and trust in God’s promise to him with nothing tangible to support that faith.  And so he became Abraham, the father of many nations.

Mary.  At most she was thirteen when Gabriel said to her: Hail, Full of Grace.  She too struggled to find God’s will in the Angel’s invitation, needing assurance, needing a sign so that she could know that nothing is impossible with God.  Simeon says to her in today’s gospel: And your own heart a sword shall pierce.  She will have to struggle to understand who the son she bore is.  The sword is the word of God.  Her heart is where she thinks, prays, and ponders that word.

Jesus, too, struggles as he comes to understand that his work is to do the will of the one who sent me.  And following that will will take him to Calvary and the brink of despair as darkness threatens to envelop him in abandonment.  My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

As extraordinary as the three individuals who make up the Holy Family are, the icon they become on this feast is meant not only to inspire but also to challenge us to do what they do and be family as they are.  Really?  I think so.  It is a sad fact of contemporary living that many families are fractured.  Single parent homes are not uncommon.  Ideally, husband, wife, and child(ren) live in a community of life and love.  The guiding ethic Sirach puts before us spells out how that reality is to be lived.  The mutuality of mother and father’s authority is one thing.  The responsibility of the children to be guided by that authority is another.  The obligation to care for each other, especially children for parents as parents’ faculties fail, all these come together as something pleasing to God and meriting being with God forever.  God hears the cry of the just.  And the grace that animates all this merits sins’ forgiveness.

Single parents.  Widows.  Widowers.  Single people.  What about these?  The icon of the Holy Family is something that each one may enter and thereby be transformed.  Openness to God’s love and grace is the calling of every person of faith.  Trust in times of difficulty rises out of that faith.  Respect for each other enfleshes that faith and helps the other to experience God’s love through the acts of kindness and respect.

There is more.  What about the parish?  What about the Church?  Doesn’t the icon apply there too?  Oughtn’t the parish be family?  Shouldn’t the Church as the people of God inspire each member to love, honor, and respect every other member and to live with the desire to put into practice the unity that is ours in Eucharist, the unity that is ours as the Body of Christ?  We are family.  There is mutuality among God’s people who are loved by God as God loves Christ.  That’s one of the effects of Baptism and our being drawn into the community that is God.  One of the catch phrases that came out of Vatican Council II was the call to all the faithful to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  That meant that one’s being a passive spectator, if you will, at Sunday Mass did not fulfill the obligation.  Nor is the obligation fulfilled if one becomes totally self absorbed in private devotions, the rosary and the like, thereby effectively being walled off from the rest of the community gathered at the Table.  The Eucharist is action and all are to be part of it.  Then, having eaten and drunk, they are to be sent to continue the action of Eucharist where ever they go in the market place until all are fed and have drunk.

Paul writes to the church at Colossus.  Listen to what he says as he speaks to a community broader than the individual family.  The community at large is called to put on, as god’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.  …Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.  …And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 In other words, it seems to me, the feast we celebrate today is meant to put before us a model of every coming together of people.  The Holy Family is a model for how the human family is to live.  If that profound respect, that sense of responsibility for each other were to captivate the human imagination and motivate us, what differences would soon become apparent.  Sure it is idealistic.  But what if that is God’s will for us?

What does heartfelt compassion mean?  To be compassionate is to suffer with.  Heartfelt compassion goes even deeper.  The suffering of the other is your own.  In that embrace you find Christ.

We have been blessed with beacons of compassionate response.  We call them saints.  Dorothy Day.  Thomas Merton.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  They tend to prick the human conscience and make us marvel all the while wondering how anyone could live so selflessly.  We shudder to think that their call might be our own.  Put on heartfelt compassion.  That is not a suggestion.  That is a directive.  That’s an easier word to accept than command.  There is only one way.  Christ.  Accept the implications of Baptism and live the priesthood of the baptized.  That’s all.

But imagine what would happen if we really believed we were all family, God’s family, the world peopled with our brothers and sisters.  Imagine.

Sincerely,

Didymus   

 

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CHRISTMAS – 2008

Readings for Christmas 

 

“I’m glad that’s over,” he said.

At first I thought he referred to the mass of Christmas that we had just celebrated.  Perhaps he didn’t appreciate the carols selected for the Liturgy.  Or, he thought the homily had gone on too long.  Or, the church was more crowded than he would like.

Rather than indulge my first inclination and become defensive and confrontational, I said, “Tell me more.”  What followed was a litany of woes of a man who had been pressed beyond the limits of his endurance to meet others’ expectations for what was essential for a merry Christmas.  He was tired, drained, and in no mood for what would follow for the rest of his Christmas day.  I am afraid he was not alone.  Many limp into Christmas like marathoners exhausted by the race they have run.  And in the process of preparing, sight is lost of what the feast is all about.

I don’t mean to place a damper of anyone’s feast.  Merry Christmas is not a bad greeting.  Think of the carol that sings: “God rest you, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!”  Aside from the sexist language, that is not a bad sentiment.  The year that is drawing to a close has been difficult for many.  The news has been filled with stories of financial troubles, rising unemployment, housing foreclosures. Are we in a time of recession?  Or is it depression?  Violence in our streets seems to be escalating.  And there is the on-going horror of war.  I wonder if, rather than trying to escape for these realities and bury our heads like ostriches in the sand, we ought to look at them squarely in the face, so to speak, and there find the true meaning of the feast that we celebrate.

Maybe it will help if we take a renewed slant on the symbols that are part of the Christmas proclamation.  Christmas cards and crèches do a disservice.  Again, do not misunderstand; I am not opposed to either.  But unfortunately most cards and cribs support the illusion that that first Christmas encapsulated bliss.  A night bejeweled with diamonds sparkling in the sky.  Angels.  Shepherds.  Magi.  All are visitors to the elegantly clad parents of the newborn lying in a manger.  What could be more splendid?

Look a little closer.  It may have been a starry night, but that would have been all that was right about it.  It is abject poverty that forces the young couple to take up temporary residence in a cave not meant for human habitation.  The ox and ass that are part of crib scenes, remind the onlooker that unpleasant reminders of animals remain after they have gone on their way, and among them lice and fleas, to say nothing of the odors.  There is great symbolic meaning in the manger that becomes the baby’s first bassinette.  But do not forget, it remains a feed trough meant to hold the food to be consumed by the animals.  It is a symbol of the wood from which the adult now in infant form will hang giving himself over to be consumed body and blood by those who believe in him.  The shepherds idealized by Rembrandt and other artists were in fact considered to be on the bottom rung of society, their company avoided, an unpleasant lot for the most part.

What is the point of this demythologizing?  The romantic pastel scene gets in the way of the power of the message.  Everything in the Christmas-gospel narrative proclaims God’s infinite love for human kind, broken and sin-touched though they be and God’s desire to embrace humanity in the community that is God.  “God so loved that world that he sent his only begotten son.”  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  This God is not distant, aloof or remote.    It is not in earthly splendor that God comes, but as a vulnerable child, meek and humble.  In other words, in whatever difficult situation people might find them selves Christmas reminds us that this is what God has taken upon himself in the union between the human and divine that is Jesus.  That union is forever.  And so there is hope.

Christ’s coming into the world is a source of consolation for those who feel lost and abandoned.  The dying and rising of Jesus that we renew in every Christmas Liturgy reminds those who mourn and those nearing death that death has been conquered and life prevails.  The Infant in the manger challenges us all to be sharers, to be willing to give of what we have so that all might have something of the essentials of life.  The word Socialism has been cast about with abandon as a criticism of some of the proposed social-economic reforms.  The Infant confronts people of Christian faith.  In accepting Christ we must accept the reality of community and communal responsibility that Christ brings.  When the 5,000 were fed, remember, Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.”  In other words, Jesus was saying, “It is your responsibility.”

My friend who told me on his way out for Mass that he was glad that was over had every reason to voice that sentiment, if by that he meant the excesses, the commercialism, and the impossibility of meeting the desires of those grounded in the latest fads or signs of temporal success and power.  Now that that is over he can take the time to rest, to enter into mystery and be embraced in love.  And once embraced he can set about living that love and recognizing the Christ in the least ones who are Christ in flesh and blood.  Accepting forgiveness, he can be an ambassador of forgiveness in a world that all too often seeks only revenge.

May every Christ blessing be yours, especially the peace that abides when Christ dwells in you.  Remember, Christ took on your flesh.  His resurrection is your hope.

Sincerely,

Didymus 

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – B

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

Romans 16:25-27

Luke 1:26-38

 

We are not the first generation to forget who is in charge.  In the first reading today, it isn’t exactly that David forgot the omnipotence of God.  But he was giving himself a great deal of credit for all that had happened as he looked about him and saw the splendor of his palace.  Amazing what he had accomplished.  Was it after a pre-prandial drink as he gazed into the fireplace that it dawned on David that while he lived in cedar-walled magnificence God dwelled in a tent?  How unseemly must that have seemed to God’s anointed one.  What will the foreign tribes think?  Hence his declaration to the prophet Nathan that he would build God a proper dwelling and put an end to this embarrassment.  At first, the idea sounded good to Nathan who encouraged David in his plan.  But then God reminded Nathan who was the builder.  Remember the wonderful hymn?  Abba, Abba Father, you are the potter, we are the clay.  God chose the people of Israel.  God selected the unseemly David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, to be king.  David may have been the commander of the armies but God was the real warrior who mowed down the enemies and established David where he was then.

Comes the promise.  God will see to the spread of David’s reputation and allow the Israelites to live in peace.  Wonder of wonders, God will build a house for David that will come to be after David has gone to rest with his ancestors.  That house will be a people.  From among David’s descendents God will  raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm.  I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me. And God puts perpetuity into this.  The kingdom will endure.  The throne shall stand firm forever.

We are four days away from Christmas and the celebration of the birth of the fulfillment of the promise that has to do with presence.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters are recipients of the promise as God chooses to dwell among the chosen people.  I will be your God.  You will be my people.  Christians celebrate the fulfillment of the promise in the Word becoming Flesh, i.e., God’s taking on human flesh in the birth of Jesus.  One flows from the other.  One does not end as the other begins.

We are reminded of the continuance during most Liturgical celebrations.  Most Sundays, there are exceptions, the first reading is from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Today is a case in point.  And in the second reading today from Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, Paul reminds us that the mystery we will celebrate on Christmas Day is the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the revelation of the mystery begun eons ago, kept secret for long ages, manifested through the writings of the prophets.  In the birth of Christ, we see the realization of God’s will and the birth of the possibility that all nations, that is, even Gentiles will come to faith in the only wise God, through Jesus Christ.  God is glorified forever through Jesus Christ and those believers in Christ.

Our God is an awesome God, the hymn sings.  When the gospel is proclaimed on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear that the fulfillment of God’s plan depended on the cooperation of a young woman.  In order for the Word to become flesh, Mary has to say: Let it be.  She is engaged to marry Joseph, of the house of David.  Hear that God sent the angel Gabriel to do God’s bidding.  There are those who say that everything we believe about Mary, the total reason for her veneration, is contained in Gabriel’s salutation.  Hail, full of grace.  Full of grace.  Highly favored of God.  Nothing of sin in her.  Yes, her perpetual posture before God.

Gabriel spells out the God’s proposal.  Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.  We’re used to hearing the message.  We imagine the scene clearly in our minds because we have seen so many paintings recreating the moment.  And notice how serene it always is.  I wonder.  The young girl is at most 13 years old.  She thinks her life will imitate the countless generations of women who have gone before her.  She’ll be a wife and a mother and will be faithful to God’s call.  But this?  Far from serene, what the gospel proclaims is the total upending of this girl’s world.  Surely a wind blew through similar to the one of Pentecost.  Don’t you think?  Why else would her first word be, How?  After all, while we are used to the scene and it’s outcome, what we are witnessing is something completely new.  The like hasn’t happened before.  How?

The Wind.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  The conception will begin with the outpouring of the Spirit.  And the Spirit will be with the son the woman will name Jesus from his first moment as a conceptus and every day of his life.  Is this God’s will, she wants to know.  She needs a sign.  That sign will convince her that nothing is impossible with God.  Even one thought to be barren is also pregnant.  Amazing grace.  Let it be, she says.  And it begins.

Do we get the magnitude of his moment?  Do we understand what God has begun.  Remember God’s promise to David to be the house-builder?  One of Mary’s titles is Ark of the Covenant.  She is the promised house, if you will.  And in perpetuity she will bring forth Christ, presenting Christ to the world in every age.  In being the mother of Christ, she is also the Mother of the Church, the perfect replica of the Church, the sign of everything the Church is to do and to be. 

Follow me.  The Church is born when the Spirit is poured out on her.  The Church is the People of God, each one born to it when the Spirit rushes on in Baptism.  And so, individually and collectively, everything we say about the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word’s taking on of flesh, applies.  As a baptized person, Christ dwells in your heart.  And where Christ is so too are the other two persons of the Trinity.  You are God’s house.  Of course, as did Mary, you have to say, Let it be.  That union with Christ is not for you alone.  No graced gift is for the recipient alone.  You are called by name and asked to serve.  Your roll is to do what the Church must do, and what Mary does, constantly bring forth Christ.  How?  By doing what Christ does.  Adopt Christ’s will that is always to do the will of the Father.  That will?  Be such palpable lovers of the unlovable, that God is the only possible explanation for how you live and what you do.

On this last Sunday of Advent see why the Eucharist must be at the center of your life.  There is a word that explains the mystery of Eucharist.  That word is Epiclesis.  The word means the outpouring of the Spirit effecting the change in the elements prepared and placed on the table as they become the sacramental presence of Christ.  Epiclesis happens also to those gathered around the table effecting their change into the Body of Christ.  The Spirit’s work is ongoing.  So, must be your cooperation.  All that remains is the sending.  And God in Christ will continue to work through you until all are drawn into Mystery.

Now, I think you are ready to celebrate Christmas.  My sisters and brothers in Christ, let the celebration begin!

Sincerely, Didymus