Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD

Isaiah 60:1-6

Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6

Matthew 2:1-12

 

There is a Christmas carol that sings about the need for Christmas, just a little Christmas.  Who could argue that observation?  But this year, I think a case could be made for the need to celebrate the older Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.  If we take our lead from the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, you’ll see what I mean. The glorious opening sets the tone for us.  Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!  Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. Splendor.  Glory.  Thrilling words that should conjure lush images in the hearer’s imagination.  Then comes the proclamation that Jerusalem’s splendor will be so radiant and their riches so magnificent that foreigners from the East will come with their gifts and praise the Lord.

There is a challenge if we hear the message in its historical context.  It is true that the exile, the Babylonian Captivity, has come to an end.  Cyrus has allowed the Jews to return to their beloved Jerusalem.  Ah, but what have they found when they arrived home?  Destruction and ruin, the aftereffects of war and pillage.  Even the Temple is destroyed.  Imagine the tears and the wailing.  The situation looks hopeless.  How can Jerusalem rise again out of this rubble?  Hear Isaiah’s prophecy in that setting.  How would your heart respond?

We need a little Epiphany, just a little Epiphany this year because these are difficult times in which we live: for some they are desperate times.  Tough economic news fills people with terror and dread.  Who isn’t stunned when the tolls are told of the many who are jobless, the many who have lost their homes to foreclosure?  The memory of recent natural disasters is fresh in our minds.  Think of Zimbabwe’s people dying from cholera and famine.  The Haitians are in similar straits.  And there is the war.  You may be carrying the burden of poor health, advancing age, or the loss of a loved one.  Hear Isaiah’s words and believe – which is another way of saying, hope in the Lord.  Epiphany is about hope and the revelation of God’s love for us in the One who is born among us.

No one ever said that living in faith would be easy.  Jesus always said that those who would follow him would have to dispossess themselves and carry the Cross.  I think some of us might have concluded that we could choose the cross and temper the dispossession.  These times and personal experience prove otherwise.

The word Epiphany means: manifestation, or, showing forth.  For us, in the celebration of this feast, Epiphany means recognizing the glory of the Lord in the one who has come and chosen to dwell among us, the One who brings God’s love to embrace all people.  Because of Jesus, the walls that separate and divide people have been torn down.  Racial and gender differences have been bridged and healed – at least they should have been.  In Christ the human and the divine have been united and all have come to know the love of God to be the source of their dignity and worth.  That is what Paul tells us in the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians.  The Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. John said it another way.  Beloved, we are God’s children now.  What we shall become remains to be seen.

Do you see evidence of Epiphany’s reality around you?  Please God, yes, especially when you gather for Eucharist.  Please God then you experience the unity that is yours in the one Bread and the one Cup.  Please God you recognize the wonder as you celebrate the Mystery.

Epiphany is rife with challenge.  The word means manifestation, something that is plainly seen and recognizable, remember?  Who will do the manifesting?  Ah, could that be the rub?

Hear the gospel reading for today.  The first thing to note is that those who should have been most informed because of their studying of the Scriptures are the ones who should have rejoiced at the star’s rising and been the first to understand its significance.  But that is not the case.  Foreigners, nonbelievers, astrologers recognized the sign and immediately set out to follow where it led.  There is nothing in Matthew’s Gospel that identifies the travelers as kings, much less that they were three in number.  Matthew does say that they were astrologers; that means they studied the heavens and read the implications in stars’ configurations.  And recognizing the implications, they came to adore and give gifts, dispossess themselves of gold, a gift for a king, frankincense, a gift for a god, and myrrh, the ointment of preparation for one who would die.

Isn’t it curious that when the Magi seek information from Herod’s court that will be specific in helping the strangers locate the newborn King of the Jews, Herod asks the chief priests and the scribes what they think.  They know just where to go in the Scriptures and are able to determine that you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel. The Gospel is not always good news to those who do not want to take its message to heart and change their lives accordingly.  Herod was quite happy being king of the Jews and did not relish the idea of another taking his place on the throne.  The chief priests and scribes were quite comfortable beholden to him and did not want to rock the boat, so to speak.  This king they knew.  They had no idea what having a new king would mean for them, even if that king, that shepherd, were sent by God.

Herod sends the Magi off with instructions to return once they have found the newborn one so that he can go and likewise adore.  No.  So that he can go after them and annihilate the threat to his reign.  Lest you curse Herod, remember that he is a figurehead, a symbol for all of those who will recognize Christ’s significance but not want to dispossess themselves, pick up their crosses, and follow him.

This takes us back to the feast we celebrate today, Epiphany.  We make a mistake if we think we are meant to be passive spectators of the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist.  We must be actively engaged so that we can be transformed by both and then be sent.

The Epiphany happens, the manifestation or showing forth happens through the transformed lives of service of those who have seen and have believed.  This cannot be clung to for selfish purposes only.  Certainly there is comfort and consolation in the hearing and the Eucharist, but having been nourished we are then sent to make a difference in the world, to be the star seen at its rising, that is, to live lives that make no sense except for Jesus whose other self we are.  That can only be seen through the works that we do.

I was very touched by 17-year-old Jourdan Urbach’s story.   He is a brilliant violinist, a prodigy who as a 10-year-old gave a little performance in the wards of a children’s hospital.  He was touched by what he saw.  And so the child founded Children Helping Children (CHC). He would give a portion of his earnings to the support of these ill youngsters for whom he had played and invite other children to do the same.  To date he and his organization have raised in excess of 2 million dollars.

I don’t know what his faith is, if he is Christian or a non-believer.  But he is an Epiphany, one whose actions show forth the love of God revealing the hope that is ours in Jesus.

Next week the Epiphany continues in the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Are you ready for that?

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE STUFF OF WHICH MARTYRS ARE MADE

Dear Jesus,

Late in A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More attempts to comfort his wife, Alice, who fears impending doom for her husband the executioner’s looming axe.  He pinches some flesh on his chest and, with wry humor says, “Alice, this is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”  But of course, in the end, it proved to be the stuff as More leaned over the block presenting his neck for the blade that would send him to God.

Several years ago it was my privilege to play Thomas More on the stage.  I remember that during each performance when we came to that moment in the play I felt at one with that line, able to deliver it with conviction.  I don’t think I am the stuff either.

Things are always so clear for you. You speak with utter conviction about things I don’t even want to think about.  You must go up to Jerusalem and suffer greatly. Your disciples must deny themselves and take up their crosses and begin to follow you.  Am I not a disciple if I cringe when I read your words?  I’ve loved you for many years now and have tried to walk with you along the way.  A voice inside me resonates with Peter’s words to you when you talked about the inevitability of the path to Calvary.  God forbid that such a thing should happen to you. What I can’t imagine happening to myself, I can’t conceive of happening to you.  Do you reject me because I am afraid?

Perhaps I would feel different if I could see more clearly that what I endure in my daily life is my share in that cross you command me to carry.  I’ve seen news pictures of what I think are religious eccentrics – fundamentalists even – walking down busy streets carrying a wooden cross.  Sometimes they’re in jeans and sweatshirts.  Sometimes they have donned robes girded with a rope sash and the walk in sandals.  That’s too easy, I think, even as I can’t imagine myself making that kind of spectacle.  Criminals in this country aren’t crucified today.  We execute much more humanely.  Of course death is the result, the final product of the gas, the electric jolt, the cocktail injected into the veins.  But I wonder if it isn’t more than death that you are calling me to, and fascination with an instrument of execution.

Often, when I am feeling dejected, even caught up in a situation that seems hopeless, I find myself reflecting on your words, and I study the cross.  Why do people wear the cross on chains around their necks or have them affixed to the walls of their homes?  Why do we always celebrate Eucharist in the presence of the cross?  I believe that is because you have transformed that symbol of execution.  Now the cross denies the power of death because you did not end there.

If I am to take up my cross every day and follow you, that means I am to live denying the power of death and refusing to embrace a culture of death.  That’s what you are saying, isn’t it?  If I am to take up my cross every day, my life has to witness against death’s grip on others who are poor, disenfranchised, abandoned, suffering, and discarded, those who stand at death’s door.  If I am to take up my cross every day, I have to deny death’s power in my own life and point to the power of your Resurrection.

That is hard to do in a society such as ours that embraces death at every turn.  Abortion.  Capital punishment.  Euthanasia.  War.  More and more, people are accepting these as acceptable facts of contemporary life, expedient and efficient ways to solve dilemmas.  But you say no to all of this.  You have made it impossible for people to kill anyone in your name.  That just can’t be done.  Not ever. Not by any means.  To embrace the cross means I have to become committed to being countercultural.  That is difficult to do and be.

While I played Thomas More many times, I continue to wonder if I could ever calmly put my head on the block and joke with the executioner, admonishing him to be careful of my beard since it had no part in the treason.  Could I ask him to help me mount the stairs to the block?  Can I imagine myself saying, as for the way down, I’ll fend for myself? More said that – not in the play, but in real life.

When I think of people being executed for their faith, accepting the full consequences of carrying your cross, I remember the Ugandan martyrs.  How was it possible for those young men to sing your praises while they were being slowly burned to death?  Not one of them was heard to cry out in anguish and pain.  Not one cursed those who set the torches to the reeds.  How is that possible?  I pinch my own flesh and wonder.

I wish I were more heroic and less afraid.  I would like to embrace the poor and the outcasts.  I want to be able to recognize you in all those who suffer and are rejected by society.  Intellectually I can say you have told me you are there.  I accept your word.  But will I ever see you clearly there?  Or will I have to tell myself always that you have said it and it must be so?

Bear with me.  There is something else that bothers me.  You tell me that I must pick up my cross every day and follow you.  I know there are people with chronic pain and those who are confined to wheelchairs or to bed.  Their situation is not likely to change.  I am humbled by the humor and resolution with which some of these carry their crosses every day.  It occurs to me that accepting those things in my daily life that I can do nothing about and not crying out in rage against them or cursing those who inflict them might be what you are talking about as the cross.  Does carrying the cross mean that I not only have to accept the limitations but forgive those who inflicted them?  Is it true that only then can I begin the daily carrying of the cross?

I do love you, Lord.  But I am also frail.  It is not always easy to do what you ask.  So, if from time to time I write and ask for help, will you always respond?  Will you support me and shoulder the cross with me?  I mean, what if someday I have to be the stuff of which martyrs are made?

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

Colossians 3:12-21

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The Sunday that falls between the feasts of Christmas and New Year’s is dedicated to the celebration of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  This year that Sunday is the day after Christmas and may well be missed by many otherwise observant Catholics.  Maybe that is just as well, because the feast puts many difficult concepts before us.  It might be difficult to figure out what we are celebrating, what challenge it is we are supposed to meet.  The Liturgy of the Word is always a call to conversion, to allow our hearts to be transformed as we experience the presence of Christ in the Word, and the Church to be more closely configured to Christ.  What is the conversion to which we are called as we enter into the mystery of this feast?

It would be easy to have a sentimental, albeit a maudlin time imagining pastel crèches with hovering angels and adoring shepherds and Magi.  We’re quick to combine Luke’s tradition and Matthew’s.  Depictions of the Holy Family are always serene and ignore the tension obvious in the texts.  I had to stifle a laugh as I encountered one rendering of the Family, in this creation, now back in Nazareth.  My friend had driven me an hour out of our way because, he said, I had to see this astonishing work.  You know as well as I do that there are several definitions of the word astonishing. What I saw was astonishing, to be sure, but not in the same sense that my friend used the word.  These were nearly life-size figures in bronze.  There was Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, Mary, looking in from the doorway, and the roughly-teenaged Jesus making crosses from pieces of wood, scraps that he had picked up from the floor.  What parents would be pleased to watch their child fashioning implements of execution?  The work for me was the epitome of schmaltz.

If we pay attention, there is nothing sentimental in these readings.  Violence and rejection lurk in every line of the gospel and societal conventions are challenged in the other readings.  If we wallow in sentimentality we may be moved, but not in the way I believe the Spirit would have us be moved.  We won’t squirm.  We won’t hear the call to reform.  We will miss the social gospel that is being proclaimed, the Gospel that is society’s challenge and hope.

The Scriptures are the living Word of God.  We make a mistake if we listen as we would to an ancient and familiar story that for us only recounts past events.  The proclamations touch the now.  They are meant to confront our present situation.  They speak to today.  In the end, this feast isn’t an opportunity to experience a day in the life of the Family, but to hear how the powerful can oppress the little ones, the poor, the vulnerable, and recognize the suffering ones as members of the family of which we are all a part.  Our brothers and sisters are falling under these very real and present evils.  And God means us to live in the community and loving there, work to bring about reform.

The fourth commandment of the Decalogue demands that children honor their parents.  Shouldn’t that be a matter of doing what comes naturally?  Will a commandment make a difference to one who does not have innate gratitude and respect for the ones who are the source of his/her life, for the ones who nurtured him/her from birth to maturity?  All this assumes right relationships.  The honor that is due is for more than simple engendering.  Everyone deserves basic respect.  But the commanded reverence and honor is for more than giving birth.  It may not always be the birth parents that are the nurturers.  The father and mother are the ones who adopt the child and raise him/her as their own.  They are the ones who step in and make up for what birth parents might lack in parenting skills and/or interest.

In today’s speak, there are problems with the second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.  Dare I say that the first part of the reading is fine and ought to be proclaimed often as a guide for how people ought to live in relationships including familial but also beyond that, in relationships in the faith community that is church; and beyond that, in relationships with our brothers and sisters at large?  We are urged as God’s beloved ones, to put on compassion.  That means that we ought to be willing to suffer with the suffering the way Christ did and not be embarrassed by their plight.  Compassion should be normative in a faith community.  They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I read the last paragraph and as I do I wonder if I can do this.  Can I adopt the litany of virtues Paul urges on me and be that vulnerable?  Where will my defenses be?  Kind, humble, gentle, and patient – I think I only can be all these for others if I am able to admit my own sins, shortcomings, and weaknesses and admit that in all humility I will need the kindness, gentleness and patience of my brothers and sisters in Christ as I ask them to bear with me.

See how these Christians love on another. Apparently that was a frequent observation by those looking on from outside the early church.  The desire to experience that love was a driving force for many who came to seek Baptism.  The Church today needs to foster the reputation for being lavish in forgiveness even as we ask ourselves if we are good forgivers.  We will be if we remember that we are a community of sinners who have been forgiven.  Shouldn’t we be driven to reflect our God who is lavish in mercy and forgiveness by having the reputation for being good at forgiving and reconciling?  We will be better caretakers of that grace if we never forget the joy felt in being reconciled and forgiven.

All the above is challenging and we haven’t dealt with the problems with the second reading.  Certainly the problem is not with Paul’s admonition: 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. The problem comes with Paul’s urging wives to be submissive subordinates to their husbands.  Subordination is wrong where ever it occurs.  There is no place for it in the Church.  Jesus modeled service for us.  I stand in your midst as one who serves. He washed the disciples’ feet in spite of their protests of embarrassment.  And he said: As I have done for you so ought you to do for one another. That is not subordination.  That is mutuality of service.  It must be accepted that to the degree that wives are subordinate to their husbands, husbands ought to be subordinate to their wives.  Or, better, where is there room for subordination since wife and husband have become one flesh in Christ.  Paul obviously was acknowledging the attitudes of his day.  Women had no legal standing on their own and were completely dependent on their husbands.  At least Paul urged love.  I believe it would be wrong to use this text today as a justification for subservience.  Love remains the challenge.

It is a good thing that the second reading stops where it does.  Otherwise, how would we deal with the seeming endorsement of slavery?  I don’t think many use the text to support that horrid institution.  Neither should the preceding paragraph be used to justify a wife’s subordination to the husband.

It is good that we have this feast of the Holy Family each year.  May the Spirit help us to recognize that as we gather with our brothers and sisters around the Table of the Lord, it is as equals that we gather, called there to love one another in Christ.  It is as the forgiven and reconciled that gather and celebrate and give thanks.

Sincerely,

Didymus