Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

THE OCTAVE DAY OF THE NATIVITY: MARY, THE MOTHER OF GOD JANUARY 1, 2012


The Book of Numbers 6:22-27

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 4:4-7

The Gospel according to Luke: 2:16-21

 

The feast we celebrate on this Sunday that also happens to be the first day of the New Year, 2012, has had several titles.  Some might remember when January 1st was the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, so called because Jewish Law prescribed that male babies undergo the operation eight days after their birth.  It was also the day they were named.  Then January 1st could be celebrated as the Word Day of Peace, or as we call it now, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of the Lord.  All three titles are appropriate.  The Liturgy of the Word puts all three ideas before us for our contemplation.  Hearing the Word should bring us comfort in these troubled times and strengthen our hope.

The first reading from the Book of Numbers is an ancient prayer of blessing.  Most Jews would know the blessing by heart having heard it invoked so often in the synagogue services.  Fathers would bless their families with these words and perhaps conclude each day with the blessing.  Jesus, as he grew in age and grace and wisdom, heard the blessing that three times invoked the Holy One with reverence and awe and asked that the Lord wrap those blessed in God’s presence with love, sustain them in the splendid countenance of God’s gaze, and fill them with serenity and peace.  To so bless is to fulfill God’s will when the Lord commanded Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons how they were to bless the Israelites.  The point is that God wants the Israelites to be conscious of the presence and the love that should see them through good times and difficult times, sustaining them in the worst of times with the knowledge that nothing will separate them from God’s enveloping love.  Jesus grew in the consciousness that he lived always in the Father’s presence and sent by God, his desire always was to do his Father’s will.  With his last breath in this world Jesus would commend his spirit into the Father’s hands.  That is the fulfillment of the blessing.

It was the consciousness of the blessing’s meaning that gave Mary the strength to say “yes” to Gabriel’s announcement.  And God took on human form in her womb.

Think about committing the blessing to memory and then you will be able to use it in various situations with those you love.  What a wonderful way to pray over your children as you put them to bed at day’s end.  What a wonderful way to pray over you son or daughter as your child leaves home for university or military service.  What a wonderful way to pray over someone as you keep the final vigil and usher your loved one into glory.

Now let Paul’s words that summarize our core beliefs wash over you.  What a magnificent reading that reminds us of the transformation of creation that has happened because of Jesus Christ born of Mary.  Jesus came into the world in the fullness of time as a result of God’s sending and was born into the human condition, subject to the Law and destined to redeem those under the Law.  That is the meaning of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.  In turn Jesus breathed his Spirit on us in our Baptisms and transformed us through our adoption as sons and daughters of God.  Sin caused the breach.  The Incarnation reconciled and united God and humans.  Notice the word Paul said we should use in “crying out to God.”  Abba.  The text translates Abba as Father.  More literally, it should be translated, “Daddy.”  Less formal than Father, Daddy inspires the confidence that a little one has in reaching out to father, unable as yet to use the word, Father.  And, implied is the fact that God responds in kind.  In Christ we are no longer slaves.  We are sons and daughters and therefore heirs to the Kingdom.

When we were baptized we entered the waters described both as tomb and womb.  When the waters were poured over us or we were immersed in the waters we died there to all that was of sin and opposed to God.  We came out of the waters, born to a new life, clothed in Christ.  The white robe we were clothed in then symbolized that rebirth.  Abba!  God is our Father, our Daddy, our Papa.    Embraced by our Papa forever, what is there to fear?

And so we come to the gospel.  The shepherds have made haste to see the sign spoken of by the angels that would confirm the good news of great joy, the birth of the one who is Christ the Lord.  The sign?  “An infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”  The shepherds take in the sign, translate it, and rejoice at what has begun.  Mary stores all that is happening in her heart where she will be able to process and reflect on the marvels God is accomplishing because she said, “Yes.”

Mary is the ark of the New Covenant.  She carried in her womb the Living Word made flesh.  The Son born of her and lying in the manger will bring about the new and eternal Covenant with God.  She is the Mother of the Church, the Body of Christ.  On this day we gather with the shepherds and honor Mary, singing her praises, rejoicing because she is our mother as well.

The Blood of the Lamb will save Mary in the same way that every member of the human race that achieves salvation is saved.  The church proclaims that Mary, who bore in her womb the word Incarnate, was preserved from sin from the first moment of her existence.  Death and sin have an inextricable link.  Mary will not have to die because she never knew sin.  We call that mystery, the Immaculate Conception.  When her life runs its course, Mary will repose in dormition and she will transition into glory.  She will experience the full consequences of her son’s redemptive act and of her having said yes to God’s will in her life.  We rejoice and celebrate because there is hope in the mystery for all of us who have died with Christ in baptism and been raised to live in union with Christ.  Our bodies may die for a time.  We believe that at the end of time, our bodies will be raised and body and spirit, we, too, like Mary, shall live with Christ in glory.

Mary is the model of discipleship.  We who believe in Christ are called to live the will of the Lord in our lives, to learn from Mary’s example, to learn through our desire to imitate Christ, and so always say yes the way Mary did and the way Jesus did.  “My desire is to do the will of (the Father) who sent me.”

There is a lot for us to ponder on this first day of the New Year.  We won’t exhaust the implications before we transition from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  But conscious that Mary’s son lives in and unites us, we ought to be prepared to let go and enter into Mystery.  As co-celebrants of the Eucharist we will experience the sacramental presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine just as we experience that presence uniting us as the Body of Christ.  Humbled by the magnitude of God’s love and the wonder of the invitation, we will take and eat; we will take and drink.  And we will be sent.  Strengthened by the meal we have shared, we will continue to find ways to minister, to serve the little ones, to bring peace to the anxious, and comfort to the dying.  With Mary we will say yes to God’s will working in our lives.

Abba embraces us in love now and lives among us.  Imagine what it will be like when the full glory is revealed provided we have loved even as we are loved.

Amen.  May it be so.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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CALLED BY NAME

“You have a saying, don’t you, about not judging a book by its cover?” Zacchaeus asked.

We sat together on the shore of the lake watching the red and waning light from the late-afternoon sun dance on the expanse of water before us.  I had come to the lake weighed down with a problem that I had not been able to solve through the course of the day.  My thought had been that dusk would provide the silent arena in which an answer would come to me.  Strange.  At this point I don’t remember what my problem had been.  I remember only the irritation I felt as I became aware of the odd little man’s voice intruding on my reverie.  At first I thought he was chattering to himself and paid no attention to what he was saying.  It was just noise that was prompting me to get up and move to a quieter place.  Then I thought that if I could just ignore him he would grow weary from the lack of response and move on to pester someone more receptive than I.

He continued talking and it became increasingly obvious that he was talking to me.  My conscience wouldn’t let me continue ignoring him.  So, with a deep sigh, I turned toward him with a begrudging smile.  My fate was sealed as I acknowledged him.

Physically, there was nothing imposing about him, nothing pleasing about his visage.  Scarcely five foot tall, the voice went with the stature – thin and raspy – another source of irritation to me.  I remember thinking that a crow’s caw would be an improvement.

I am embarrassed to say that initially I found it difficult to hide my contempt for him.  Yet as I began to pay attention to his tale, he fascinated me and I found myself warming to him and his sincerity as his tale ensnared me.  It was clear.  He had a story to tell to anyone who would listen, a story he never tired of telling.

“Can you imagine,” he said, “what it’s like to be held in contempt by all your neighbors?  It’s been that way most of my life.  From my early years people laughed at me when it became obvious that I would always be a runt.  But having them laugh at my height paled in comparison to the pain I felt from their contempt of me because of my occupation.

“You probably would think that because I am wealthy, I shouldn’t have cared what other people thought.  But, you see, I always cared about others and had innate sympathy for them and their troubles.  They made assumptions about me because I am a tax collector, employed by the foreigners that occupy our land.  They gossiped and accused me of being greedy and dishonest, a collaborator with Roman rule.  My family suffered from those assumptions and they ached for me.

“How could I tell those people that I was scrupulously honest in my accounting and did not take part in the accepted practice of defrauding, as others in my profession did?  I never knew how to plead with those who should have been my friends, akin in faith as we are, and urge them to recognize that I was not like others.  Of course they did not know how I shared my wealth with the poor, because I did that anonymously.  I believed the Scriptures and would willingly follow their prescriptions for those who are fraudulent in their dealings.  I would pay back fourfold willingly if I defrauded anyone.

“As a young man, I got caught up in the messianic movement that swept through my people as we longed for the one who would come and drive away foreign rule and establish the Kingdom.  I went to Temple daily and prayed that the Messiah would come.

“When I first began to hear about Jesus and what people were saying about him, what he taught and the amazing deeds at his hands, I wondered.  Could he be the one?

“Then that day, I heard that Jesus would be coming to our area, passing through our neighborhood.  I knew I had to see him with my own eyes.

“I thought I had left my home in plenty of time.  But many others had gathered before my arrival lining both sides of the road.  I ran back and forth trying to find a break in the crowd.  Then, ignoring what people might think of my antics, I climbed a sycamore and perched on a branch over their heads.

“I felt the most exquisite pain burn through me.  In a shock of emotion I realized that our eyes had locked across the span for so long that the crowd had turned from him and, stupefied, were gazing up the tree at me, my arms clinging to the trunk and my feet dangling below the branch on which I sat.  A few began to laugh.  One or two barbed comments came flying at me.  But he called me by name and said, ‘Zacchaeus, pure and innocent one, come down and let me have dinner with you tonight.’

“Then I knew.”  He swallowed heavily as he brought his hands to both sides of his face.  He paused as if to catch his breath.

His voice had softened and his face, glazed by the sun’s red rays, had turned toward the lake.  Small waves lapped at the sand not that far in front of us.  And a gull or two bobbed along, looking for their final morsel for the day.  The fading light glinted in the tears that rimmed his eyes.  I was fascinated and wanted to hear more.  I certainly didn’t want to say anything that would interrupt his chain of thought.  Whatever my problem had been, it had vanished from my consciousness.

“Yes,” he said, “then I knew.  Amid the growing murmurs as I scaled down awkwardly from my roost, he reached out and took me by the hand and accepted me as if we were tried and true friends.  He wasn’t ashamed to be seen with me.  It was as if we were the only two on the road as he talked with me.

“With my neighbors’ accusations and slurs stuck in my craw, I began to babble protesting my innocence and promising that if I had wronged anyone I would atone fourfold.

“Do you know what he said to me next?  He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, this is what you have long been praying for.  I tell you, God has heard you and today God’s Kingdom resides in your heart and in the hearts of your family.’

“As we broke bread together at my table and I offered him the finest wine from my cellar, I knew what peace meant.  My longing was satisfied.  I looked at my wife and my children reclining around the table with us.  What a blessing!  I thought, even if no one outside this gathering accepted my family and me, God did.  And I could live in peace, knowing that I would never be the same.”

He turned back to me and put his hand on my arm.  “We’re almost there.  Be patient with me.”

I assured him I was fine and fascinated by the story he was telling.

“He broke a piece of bread and reached it over to me.  ‘I want you to go out from this table and tell others what you found here tonight.’  I took the bread and ate it.”

I followed his gaze into the night sky and saw the slivered arc of the new moon rising.  A multitude of stars speckled the canopy over us.  And a cooling breeze embraced us.

CHRISTMAS – 2011

It seems to me that defiance ought to be one of the dominant themes of Christmas.  Look where the feast is placed on the yearly calendar.  December 25 for us in the northern hemisphere is just a few days beyond the shortest day and longest night of the year.  I’ve never checked to see how many more minutes of light there on that day, but I would wager there are only a few.  Only those craving the light will notice that the days have finally begun to lengthen.  Just when we might have been tempted to think that night would prevail and winter, too, the defiant sun plots its return and with it will come spring.

God rest ye, Merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!  Remember, Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.  Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.  That carol has become one of my favorites because it seems to me to invite us to defy the prophets of doom and gloom.  Let nothing you dismay.  The transitive form of the word means to cause to lose courage or resolution from alarm or fear.  The carol challenges us to remember Christmas and rise up and be defiant in the face of anything that might seem capable of overwhelming and defeating us.

The year that is drawing to a close has had more than its share of difficult, even catastrophic events that could cause even the most dauntless to tremble.  These are hard times for many who through the financial downturn have lost their jobs, their savings, their homes, indeed everything that might have given them a sense of security.  Last year at this time the word was that the recession had ended and recovery would begin.  Most have yet to experience any positive effects to support that.  The troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this month.  But wars continue in other parts of the world, as do threats of wars.  The earthquake and tsunami in Japan literally sent shockwaves around the world.  Images of the destruction numbed us all.  Nature rampaged across the United States as one violent storm followed another.  Floods destroyed many crops and sent the price of vegetables upward.  But you are already familiar with all of this and more.  And just when you might have thought you had heard the worst of humankind’s inhumanity to their own kind, you read a story that made you think surely that was the worst.  Now hear the defiance in the carol.  Let nothing you dismay.

A woman in front of me in the checkout line at the market was reading one of those sensational magazines that tell all – whether real or imagined.  She told me she thought such stories should be banned from the magazines and the news shows during the Christmas season.  They just kill the spirit.  I thought of telling her she shouldn’t read the trashy magazines, and she could turn off the news if she wanted.  But I left that unsaid and was content to nod and smile.  But pretending that everything is fine and ignoring the plight of many of our brothers and sisters won’t bring us into the real spirit of Christmas.  The true spirit of Christmas is a defiant one that refuses to allow even the darkest night to overcome those who believe.  We must not forget that it may have been a starry night that we celebrate, but that would have been all that was right about it.  Abject poverty and over-crowded conditions forced the young couple to take up temporary residence in a cave not meant for human habitation.  The ox and ass that are part of crèches should serve to remind the onlooker that the cave wasn’t the most appropriate site for the birthing of a baby.

There is great symbolism for us to ponder as we gaze on the manger that is used for the baby’s first crib.  It remains a feed trough holding food to be consumed by the animals.  The wood of the manger reminds us of the wood from which the adult now in infant form will hang in crucifixion as he gives himself over to be consumed body and blood by those who gather at his table.  The shepherds idealized by Rembrandt and other artists ought to encourage the lowliest among us when we remember that they were in fact considered to be on the bottom rung of society and their company to be avoided.  They were an unpleasant lot for the most part typical of those with whom Jesus would practice table-fellowship.  These were the first recipients and heralds of the Good News.

What is the point of this demythologizing?  The romantic pastel scenes just might get in the way of the power of the message meant to be proclaimed this day and meant to give us reason to hope.  Everything in the Christmas-gospel narrative proclaims God’s infinite love for human kind, broken and sin-touched though we are.  God desires to embrace humanity and draw all into the community that is God.  God so loved the world that God sent the only begotten son.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  This God is not distant, aloof, nor remote.  It is not in earthly splendor that God comes among us but as a vulnerable child, meek and humble.  In other words, in whatever difficult situation people might find themselves, Christmas reminds them and us that this is what God has taken upon himself in the union between the human and divine that is Jesus, the Christ.  That union is forever.  Because of that, there will always be hope.

Christ’s coming into the world is a source of consolation for those who feel lost and abandoned, for the off scouring and shunned of society.  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 socio-economic reforms in our country.  The Infant confronts people of Christian faith.  In accepting Christ’s birth we must accept the reality of community and communal responsibility that Christ brings.  Before the 5,000, not counting the women and children, were fed, remember Jesus challenged the apostles to give them something to eat.  A loose translation would have Jesus saying: It is your responsibility.  The command is to love.

Live now.  Love now.  Remember and enter the Mystery and wonder of it all.

It is traditional for us to wish each other Peace at Christmas.  Peace is the confident assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  In the midst of great suffering and turmoil there can still be peace if we remember that Christ has conquered all that threatens us.  Christ will never let us be defeated forever.  God loves us in the now as if each of us were the only being in the universe and will love us for all eternity in that forever now that is the face-to-face vision of God.  That is the way God loves Christ.  That is the way God loves us in Christ.  As you are loved, love the little ones that others might not notice – the poor, the insignificant, the disabled, the aged and all other classes of those vulnerable and easily marginalized.  When you do you will know God and him whom God has sent, Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate and whose coming again in Glory we eagerly await knowing that it will happen.  It is in Christ that we live and move and have our being.  Our peace comes from knowing that on the last day we will rise with him.  And all things warped by humankind’s inhumanity to their own kind will be restored and made right again.

I wish you peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus