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HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH


Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

1 John 3:1-2, 21-24

Luke 2:41-52

I don’t know what Pope Leo XIII had in mind when he established the Feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth to be celebrated on the Sunday between the Feast of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.  I’ve not read the decree.  Chances are the feast is meant to be an opportunity to hold up the members of the Holy Family and their attitudes and values to be the models for all Christian families to follow.  I would endorse that, I suppose, but with reservations.  It has to be admitted that the makeup of the Holy Family is unique.  Certainly their faith in God and trust in God and their love for one another can be extolled for each member of an ordinary family to follow.  No one can argue with the right-ordered relationships exemplified.

I remember the question a man asked me several years ago on this feast.  What does this feast have to do with me?  I live alone.  I don’t have a family other than this parish.  Is there anything for me to take from today? His observation that he considered the parish to be the only family he had got me thinking.  I prayed with his words in mind and wondered if this feast might be an opportunity for us to reflect on what it means to be church, what it means to be parish, and what our attitudes ought to be that govern our relationships with one another.  After all, we do believe that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus.

Sirach’s observations about the honor due a father and the authority of a mother really come down to the respect that is due all people.  It is a sad fact that young people’s respect for elders today seems to be in short supply.  When I was a child, we didn’t speak to our elders without using their proper titles, Mr. or Mrs., Aunt or Uncle.  It goes without saying that we never called Mom or Dad by their first name.  That just wasn’t done.  I remember not long ago being surprised as I listened to a conversation between a youngster and his father and the child called his dad by his first name.  It’s possible to make too much out of that, I suppose.  Still, something of respect seems to be lost there.

When Sirach speaks of the attitude children should have toward their aging parents, shouldn’t that apply to all out attitudes toward seniors, especially our frail elders?  With youth being the most idealized age today and all the efforts made to camouflage any signs of aging by hair dyes and plastic surgeries, elders can be an embarrassment.  They can be shunned and their company avoided.  That can be the same way the disabled among us can be treated and avoided.  Could it be that those attitudes are expressions of fear and recognition, fear of getting older and therefore weaker and dependent, and recognition of one’s own weaknesses and insecurities?

I was impressed by an experience in a parish recently.  It was quite obvious that the elders were honored and infirm elders were assisted so that they could enter into worship and feel a vital part of the assembly.  No one seemed embarrassed by the disabled, even by those who made loud, hiccupping sounds during the readings and those who staggered wildly when they walked.  And would you believe that one of the Eucharistic Ministers struggled to walk with crutches and one of the Greeters had Down syndrome?  Of course the point Sirach makes is that it is a source of blessing for children to take care of their parents when they become dependent.  Wouldn’t that apply also to parishioners were they to feel that responsibility for the elders and the disabled in their community?  Should we live long enough, we will become one of those elders.  Should we suffer a stroke or a maiming accident, we could become one of those disabled.  Are we ready to accept the consequences of what we sow, that we will receive?

The second reading from John’s First Letter puts these questions in proper perspective and gives us motive for hope and, where necessary, change of attitude.  Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.  And so we are. Remember the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught us?  Jesus said, When you pray, say, Our Father… If we are God’s children now, if God is our Father, doesn’t that make us brothers and sisters in the Lord and therefore give us a responsibility for each other?  First, believing that God is our Father gives us a context within which to live our lives.  That context is God’s love for us.  There is no question that there are many conditions and situations that can fill people with anxiety.  Who knows what tomorrow may bring?  God’s love is undying and unconditional.  Even if the worst should happen, God’s love remains.  Add to that that John says we have confidence in God and receive from God whatever we ask, because we keep God’s commandments and do what pleases God and we have the source of the Spirit that ought to animate every parish and support us in every time of trial.

The challenge is for us to live what we believe.  That means that first we strive to imitate Jesus in seeking always to do God’s will through virtuous living.  Second, it means we should believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ and strive to keep his commandment to love one another as Christ loves us.  It is all about love, a love that inspires forgiveness and reconciliation, a love that inspires a pouring out of self in loving service of each other, and a love that gives us a profound sense of responsibility for each other.  We must not forget that this command to love means that we must love those who offend us, those deemed unlovable by the rest of society and are therefore shunned, the enemy, those of a race other than our own, those of a different religion or even unbelievers, a love that embraces all the people who have resulted from God’s creative love. That is the love that acknowledges that we are family in Christ.  Those who keep Christ’s commandments remain in Christ, and Christ in them.

The gospel reading concludes Luke’s Infancy Narrative.  The boy Jesus is on his way to manhood as he brings his parents to understand that he must be in his Father’s house and about his Father’s business.  The parents do not understand what he means.  And Mary stores up the event in her heart to ponder and find meaning.  Jesus’ attitude challenges our own.  As church or parish, we are called to imitate him in seeking always to do God’s will and to live in God’s presence.  Once we say yes to God, we do not know where that will lead us.  How, as parish, will we respond?  How will we express that fidelity as we respond to the issues of our times?

We are called to be a people of prayer.  We must do what Mary did.  We sit under the Word.  That Word is sharper than any two-edged sword, or so we say.  Then we have to let it penetrate to our core and change us.  That means we must store up the Word in our hearts, ponder it, and let it change us and lead us even where, perhaps, we otherwise would not go.

The family meal is an essential part of family life.  Studies have shown the damage done when families do not break bread together.  Much is lost including some essential bonding that makes families cohesive.  Our parish’s family meal, the Eucharist, is essential to our faith life, too.  The ought to be an urgency about us that says that nothing will get in the way of our being there to gather with the family about the Table of the Lord.  Nothing is more important than our being there because it is then that the Spirit overshadows us and transforms us into the Body of Christ, strengthens our unity with Christ and one another, and empowers us to go forth and bring God’s love to all we meet.  That’s the call to family that is ours.  If we live it, imagine what tomorrow could bring!

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – C


Micah 5:1-4a

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:30-45

Remembering, in faith, is not an invitation to look back.  Rather, it is the challenge to make present and so be inspired to look forward with confidence.  In the Eucharistic prayer, in the words of institution, Jesus says to the Assembly: Do this in my memory. That ought to translate for the Assembly as, do this and the whole mystery and I are present.  The dying and rising are renewed and the Assembly is in the midst of the event that won’t be complete until the end of time.  It’s apt that our response then is: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. We celebrate the full span of the mystery and are firmed in the hope of the second coming.

What has been your focus during these Advent days?  By now there are not a few who are tired of all that goes on during the holiday season, that is, the way these days are observed in the world, all the pressures and demands and even the parties.  It is almost as though we are like the dancers in The Masque of the Red Death who think if they dance frenetically enough they will be able to ignore the plague that is ravaging their neighbors beyond the doors of their ballroom.  If we party enough and shop hard enough and laugh enough and don’t give ourselves too much time to listen and reflect, we will be spared the direness of these times.  We will be spared having to think about the wars and the harshness of the economy.  We won’t have to think about the number of the unemployed and how many homes are being foreclosed upon, much less the possibility of our own fortunes being compromised.  We will be able to forget about the 23 millions of people in Africa afflicted with AIDS, and the others suffering from malaria, and sleeping sickness, to say nothing of the millions starving to death.  All the more reason we need Sunday mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist, this gathering of church so that we can put all of this in context and find reason to hope and even to find peace.

Micah, in the only reading we hear of his in the Sunday Lectionary, proclaims a message of hope.  From a backwoods town of little significance, except for the fact that David was born there, will come the Messiah who will shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord (and) he shall be peace. What might be missed in this joyful prophecy is this little phrase: Therefore the Lord will give them up. Micah, who lived in post Davidic times, saw a terrible invasion of foreigners that threatened to destroy the Kingdom.  What he saw to be at stake are God’s promise and the people’s need to hope in its fulfillment.  So, in effect, Micah is saying, in spite of the havoc and destruction that you are witnessing God is faithful and from a young woman in Bethlehem a child will be born who will be the Messiah whose greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace. There may be nothing you are experiencing now to support the truth of this proclamation, but it is God’s promise and God who is faithful will not disappoint.

Many rejected Jesus as Messiah precisely because the longed-for messianic age did not follow.  When Jesus was crucified all the disciples fled in horror except Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple.  The hopes of the disciples were dashed by the event that spoke only of defeat.  And, in the ages since that event, where has been that promised era of peace that should have reached to the ends of the earth?  The talk of Resurrection hasn’t outweighed the sufferings that seem to deny Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, if we listen carefully, might help support our flagging faith in these difficult times.  Holocausts and sin offerings, i.e., offerings of atonement, were regular parts of Hebrew worship.  The lifeblood of animals was poured out and the carcasses were burned as signs of repentance and sorrow for sin.  The Writer proclaims that those kinds of sacrifices no longer work before God.  Christ has come into the world to exhibit the response God longs for from God’s people: Sacrifice and offering (God) did not desire, but a body (God) prepared for me…Then (Christ) said, as is written of (Christ) in the scroll (Torah), behold I come to do your will. In that declaration is our salvation.  In Christ’s will offering of himself and our baptism into Christ we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The words take away the scandal of the Cross.  What the world sees as defeat is proclaimed to us a victory.  At last there is the perfect response, the desire to do always God’s will.  That is the one sacrifice for all.  Do you remember that Christ’s great challenge to those who would be his disciples, besides loving one another as he loves, was to take up the cross every day.  That is not an invitation to complacency, an excuse for ignoring the terrible things that happen in these times.  Rather, it is a command to those who walk with Christ on the Way to enter into the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Christ and to work for the alleviation of those who suffer, all the while believing that the ultimate victory and vindication will be the sharing in Christ’s resurrection when he comes again.  We are to work for the end of wars.  We are to search for cures of the diseases that ravage the millions and make those medicines available.  We who have are to share with those who do not have so that the obscenity of poverty may be eased.  In all of this we are to pour out our lives in service as Christ does.  Then we enter into the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Finally in the gospel reading from Luke, we come to imagery that speaks of what we would rather hear during these Advent Liturgies, the coming birth of Christ.  Isn’t that what Christmas is really about?  Perhaps.  But there is more to the feast than that.  Were it solely that, we would be looking back.  Remember, in faith we don’t do that.

The pregnant Mary comes into the presence of her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth.  Mary, the young maiden, greets Elizabeth who was thought to be long past childbearing years.  Nothing is impossible with God.  Mary, with the Angel’s words of Annunciation reverberating in her heart, comes to see the sign that will validate the message and assure her that it is God who is acting in her life.  When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the fetal John the Baptist leaps in her womb.  It’s like a victory dance that someone does when s/he sinks a hole-in-one.  Elizabeth exults at the affirmation of her own faith, marveling that God has seen fit to bless her with this amazing grace.  But above all it is Elizabeth’s moment to praise the one who believed that what was spoken to (her) by the Lord would be fulfilled.

Bear with me.  There is something more that I think we need to understand from this reading and about the coming feast.  If we believe that Mary is an image of and the mother of the church, then oughtn’t we recognize the challenge the way Mary did?  The Holy Spirit came upon her and she conceived.  The Holy Spirit has come upon us, individually and collectively, and so do we conceive Christ in us.  The wonder of this feast breaks forth when we realize that God is inviting us each day to give birth to Christ in our times and situations.  Through the Eucharist we are transformed just as the bread and wine are into the Body and Blood of Christ.  We share the Meal and are sent to be Christ’s presence in the world.  The actions that we do in, with, and through Christ, bring him forth to all we meet and serve.  And the charity of our lives that has no other explanation than the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, strengthens the faith of the broken and down-trodden, and helps us all to believe that God’s promises will be fulfilled.   For now (God’s) greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; (Christ) shall be peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT – C


Zephaniah 3:14-18a

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:10-18

You will notice the difference as soon as the Liturgy begins.  Gone will be the purple vestments that connote somberness and can hint of penitence, and in their place the priest and deacon will be clad in rose colored vestments.  The entrance hymn ought to be joyful urging that response from us as we enter into worship.  The church seems to be encouraging the faithful to hang on.  The dark days won’t last forever.  We’re half way there.  The anticipated feast is nearer than when we entered the Advent Season.  The celebration of the Lord’s birth is near.  And so is the Day of the Lord closer than when we first believed.

In former times, when the Liturgy was in Latin, this Third Sunday of Advent was called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for rejoice. Zephaniah’s opening words in the first reading are: Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! / Sing joyfully, O Israel. Paul, in the second reading will urge us: Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again: rejoice! It might not be as obvious, but John the Baptist has the same theme in Luke’s Gospel.  It may not be obvious, but it will become apparent as we consider the implications of his message.

We don’t hear from the prophet Zephaniah very often – only twice in the cycle of Sunday readings.  Historically, he precedes Jeremiah and prophesies to a Jerusalem in which many of the Jews have given themselves over to pagan practices and have wandered from the strict monotheism announced by Moses.  The majority of his writing is harsh and foretells dire consequences for the people’s infidelity.  God’s wrath will surely follow.  Today’s reading comes from near the end of the short book.  What do you make of it?  With some knowledge of what came before these lines we must infer that Zephaniah is proclaiming God’s love for the people and the desire to forgive and restore that goes beyond the ability of the people to repent.  God forgives even before sorrow for sin is expressed.  No one is able to plumb the depths of that love.  No one can comprehend the love that is unconditional and eternal.  But struggling to grasp the wonder and accept that it applies to us, how can we not rejoice?

A sage once said that we ought to work as though everything depended upon us and pray as though we knew that it all depended upon God.  Who can argue with that?  Paul seems to be saying something akin to that in the second reading to the Philippians as he urges us to rejoice in the Lord always.  Having urged us to love one another with a love that gives testimony to our faith in Christ last week, he now tells us that the kindness with which we deal with others should redound when people think of us.  That is a pretty tall order.  Some of us may wonder if we have the strength and the fortitude to live out the faith-life that Paul envisions us doing.  What’s the secret to success?  Remember that the Lord is near.  Perhaps Paul is reminding us of the Lord’s promise: Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. It is that presence we celebrate in the Liturgy of the Word.  It is that presence we celebrate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  In Baptism, we put on Christ and from that moment live in Christ.  We need to remember.

If we focus too much on our weaknesses and ourselves when we consider the tasks before us as we walk in The Way, don’t we become anxious?   And anxiety paralyzes.   Focusing on the negative does the same thing.  And we haven’t even mentioned worrying about the world’s ending in 2012.  Hear Paul’s advice.  Doesn’t he say in effect, turn it all over to God?  If we believe that God has enveloped us in the love that comes to us in Christ, if we believe that we have been redeemed in Christ’s blood, then we ought to be able to let go, as they say, and let God.  In that letting go there is peace.  You remember the definition of peace, don’t you?  Peace is the confident assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us through Christ Jesus.  That’s probably what the martyrs remembered as they prepared for the axe’s fall.  Certainly something of that must have been at work in those heroic acts of service and sacrifice carried out by many of those in the collapsing towers in New York.  Didn’t you wonder as you heard the stories where people find that kind of courage?  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. That’s where they find the courage.

The figure of John the Baptist is a dominant one in the season of Advent.  Last week we met the Voice crying in the wilderness urging all to make straight the way of the Lord.  As a result of his preaching a gospel of repentance, people came in huge crowds to receive his baptism of repentance.  This week people ask about the practical implications of what they have done.  A casual listening might delude us into thinking that John is saying that people should just try to be good.  But a more accurate hearing tells us that John is calling for conversion of life.  There is no room for selfishness here. Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. Those who have food are obliged to feed the hungry.  Notice what he tells the hated tax collectors who ask John what they should do.  He doesn’t tell them to stop being tax collectors.  He tells them not to add to the tax bill.  That sounds easy enough until you realize that it is from the addition to the bills that the collector makes his living.

Did you notice that even some pagans came to hear John’s message and were won over by it.  The soldiers that ask him what they should do would be Romans, not Jews.  And John tells them to continue as soldiers but do so with integrity.  No extortion.  No false arrests.  Be satisfied with you wages.  What we are to learn from all of this is that people of faith can make their livelihood in many worldly occupations.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as they work with honesty and fidelity to their calling in faith.

The final part of John’s message today is somewhat problematic, it seems to me.  Notice the imagery he uses in describing the One who is coming after him, the One whose sandals he is unworthy to untie.  That sounds like one who is coming in majesty to be served by his subjects.  John’s baptism will be replaced by a baptism of the Spirit and of fire.  His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. John is preaching the coming of the mighty Messiah, the one who will set up Israel as an invincible kingdom, the one who will drive out the Romans and all other foreigners that would dominate the Jews.  This would be a source of great conflict of John after he is arrested and put into prison.  There was no evidence of that kind of Messiah in the stories John heard about Jesus’ message and ministry.  He will send delegates to ask Jesus: Are you he who is to come?  Or, should we look for another?

We shouldn’t be scandalized by these thoughts.  John was a man of faith who was faithful to God’s call.  But, as is true for everyone who begins to believe, the rest of the faith walk involves the ongoing realization that the mystery is constantly unfolding and almost never what you thought it was when you began to believe.  John had to let go of his preconceptions regarding the Messiah and accept as Lord the Suffering Servant, who restored sight to the blind, enabled the lame to walk, cleansed the lepers, and preached the Good news to the poor.

If we are going to rejoice in the Lord always, to what preconceptions will we have to die?  What changes in attitude will have to become evident in our parish if all are to recognize the kindness that we practice?  How will our lives have to change in order to give evidence that we are convinced that the Incarnation has happened and that the Day of the Lord is near?

Sincerely,

Didymus