Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page


From time to time I find myself staring at the blank page like the proverbial deer in the headlights.  It is not with terror that I stare, but anxiously, wondering if the words will come.  The subject seems to be beyond words; the emotions too intense to risk being trivialized by misspeak.  Such was the case as I sat to the task of needing to comment on the recent horrific event in Newtown, Connecticut.  Would Erato whisper in my ear?  Would the Spirit inspire?

The faces of the 20 children and six adults gunned down in that senseless slaughter are etched in my memory.  Even now I can hear the emotional account of the teacher as she recalled huddling in terror the closet with her students in a dark closet, fearing that at any moment they would be gunned down, too.  She said she searched for the words to express her love to her students because she want thoughts of being loved to be their last if, indeed, they were about to be killed.  Love should enfold them, not the anguish of feeling abandoned to violence.

I couldn’t think about the horror that must have surged through the students in the moments before the bullets penetrated them and snuffed out their young lives.  And the courage of those teachers gave their lives in attempts to save the children.  And the silence when the last shot had been fired.  How long before the cries began to ascend, as they wondered if they would be delivered from the evil?

But others have written eloquently about this moment that will live indelibly etched in the public consciousness.  As have millions of others in this country and abroad, I want to express my solidarity with those who mourn even as I search for ways to affirm solidarity with and support for the people of Newtown.  Prayer does that, and so do charitable works.

In a moment I read two comments by pundits of the fundamentalist extremists who dared to say that the slaughter of those innocents was God’s judgment on the people, in one’s opinion, because God was taught in that public school, and in the other’s, because Connecticut legalized Same-Sex Marriage.  God became the executioner in their minds.  Oh, God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home, how dare they?  How dare they utter such blasphemy?

So I feel the compulsion to speak out against such blather and condemn it.  I don’t know their God.  Mine loves universally and always seeks to heal and raise up.  Mine loves the little children and hides them in the shelter of his wings.  Mine is the vindicator and reconciler.  My God brings peace.

It is normal for people to search for meaning when epic horrors happen.  That was true in the days following 9/11.  It is true in these days after Newtown.  Where is God in all this?  How can an all-powerful God of blessing allow such horrors to happen?  Pondering that mystery and failing to find an answer may break the faith of some who will be like Thomas when he was told of Christ’s resurrection.  He said he couldn’t believe unless he touched the wounds in the Risen One.  Some will say they cannot believe unless the impenetrable whys can be satisfactorily resolved.  I believe that it is in encountering the void that faith is found.  Peter and the Disciple Jesus loved believed when they encountered the empty tomb.

I used to quibble about the ready use of the word tragedy to describe every dark and difficult moment.  The word always spoke to me of ultimate defeat like that dramatized in the epic Greek plays.  In them the hero’s final moments are spent crying out in anguish, bemoaning the decision made that brought about his ruin and ultimate defeat.  Such is not possible for believers in Christ who has conquered sin, suffering, and death, and brought us God’s love and our eternal life.

The crumbling towers that took thousands of lives created horrific images of terror and destruction.  But out of the rubble came tales of valor and heroic deeds of self-giving for the neighbor.  Those weren’t stories of ultimate defeat, but of triumph of the human spirit.  That is why I refused to apply tragedy to that moment.  And the monument that transformed that gaping wound where the towers fell speaks of triumph, too.

An initial response for many people following the horrors unleashed in Newtown was to take down the Christmas decorations and in effect to cancel their celebration of Christmas this year.  Who can blame them?  But I would pray that eventually there will be heard a message that will speak to the Mystery rising out of the darkness.  The star shines in the depth of a night that threatens to envelop and extinguish hope.  God takes on the human condition with all its uncertainties and imperfections and the heavens rejoice.  We can pray that the intense and unimaginable grief that those parents and family members and their friends and neighbors experienced in these deep days of winter will yield to the healing comfort of God’s love for us all proclaimed by that star seen at its rising.

There is much to pray about, many to pray for.  We ought to pray also for the unfortunate and troubled young man whose rage spilled over and resulted in the slaughter of the innocents and for his mother.  We may never know what drove the Adam Lanza to do what he did.  The suspicion that he was schizophrenic speaks to the darkness that may have consumed him.  No one may ever know the struggles his mother went through to try to get him help.  Therefore, we can’t assign blame.  But we can commend them to God’s mercy and love.  To do so is not to ignore the evil nor to minimize it.  To pray for them is to yield to the belief in the universality of God’s love proclaimed in the incarnation and to the power of Christ’s dying and rising.




The Book of Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 3:12-21

The holy Gospel according to 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.  The feast is fraught with difficulties.  What is it that we celebrate?  Certainly there are challenges that we are supposed to meet.  The Assembly must be open to the conversion of heart that the Spirit empowers.

It would be easy to have a sentimental, albeit a maudlin time imagining romantic crèches with hovering angels and adoring shepherds and Magi.  We’re quick to meld Luke and Matthew’s traditions.  Depictions of the holy family are always serene, and sometimes ludicrous.  Once, while I was studying liturgical architecture, I visited a new church outside Chicago.  The space itself was quite remarkable and appropriate for the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy.  But a shrine near the altar area provoked laughter.  The scene was Joseph’s carpenter shop.  Mary, interrupted from drying dishes, gazed in from a doorway, with a whimsical smile on her face.  The mother and father watched their teenage son making crosses from discarded pieces of wood he took from the shop’s floor.  Imagine that, parents pleased to watch their child molding implements of execution.

If we pay attention to the readings, there is nothing sentimental in them.  Violence and rejection lurk in every line of the gospel while societal conventions are challenged in the other readings.  If we wallow in sentimentality, nothing will happen.  We won’t squirm.  We won’t hear the challenge for us to reform.  We’ll 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 and only look back.  The proclamations touch the now.  They are meant to confront our present situation and us.  In the end, this feast isn’t an opportunity to experience a day in the life of the Holy Family, but to hear how the powerful can oppress the little ones, the poor, the vulnerable, and to see this as a very real and present evil.  We are challenged to recognize that there is one family of which each of us is a part.  The poor and the vulnerable are our brothers and sisters.  God means us to live in community and love.

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 life, to the ones who nurtured her from birth to maturity?  All of this assumes right relationships.  The honor commanded is due 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, but the father and mother sometimes are the ones who adopt the child and raise him as their own and the ones who step in and make up for what birth parents might lack in parenting skills and interest.

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 ones, 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 Jesus does and not be embarrassed by their plight.  Compassion should be normative in a faith community when we accept them to be our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I read what I have written and wonder if I can do this.  I listen to the litany of virtues that Paul urges us to put on and I wonder if I can be that vulnerable.  Where will my defenses be?  Kind, humble, gentle, and patient – I think I can only 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 one another.  Apparently that was a frequent observation by those outside the early church as they observed the actions of the new sect of believers.  The desire to experience that love became the driving force for many who sought to become followers of the new way.  I wonder if the church today isn’t losing the reputation for being lavish in forgiveness in imitation of the Lord who lavishes forgiveness on the people.  Sometimes of late the message doesn’t seem to be that all are welcome here but the proclaiming of a litany of those who are not welcome and of those who are excluded from the Table.

Of course each of us can examine our consciences about being forgivers.  If we find ourselves wanting we might find the way to grow in that virtue by remembering that we are a community of sinners who have been forgiven.  We must not fear to be challenged to reflect our God who is lavish in mercy and forgiveness and so become more fully a people with the reputation for being good at forgiving and reconciling.  We will do a better job at that if we never forget the joy we feel in being forgiven and reconciled.

So then, what about 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 subordinate 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.  Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.  As I have done for you so ought you to do for one another.  That is not subordination.  That is mutuality of service.  In that context then, 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 at all, since the two have become one flesh in Christ?  Paul was acknowledging the attitudes of his day.  Women had not legal standing o their own in those days.  At least Paul urged love.  It would be wrong to use this text today as a justification for subservience.  Love is the challenge.

It’s a good thing the 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.  Nor should they use his preceding paragraph to justify the wife’s subordination to the husband.

It is good that we have the Feast of the Holy Family to celebrate each year.  We are given the opportunity to recognize that as we gather with our brothers and sisters around the Table, it is as equals that we gather, and as the forgiven that we celebrate and give thanks.



The photo soon went viral, as they say.  I wonder how many will use it as the picture on their Christmas cards.  It would seem fitting to me.

A New York policeman is seen kneeling by a street person who is bare-foot and underclothed for the winter temperatures.  The policeman has given the man a new pair of socks and, more importantly, a new pair of boots.  The man seems to be staring in disbelief at the good fortune that is befalling him.  The policeman appears to be caring and almost reverential as he tends to the man’s needs.

Later it was learned that a woman from Arizona had happened on the scene and was moved to take the picture with her cell phone.  Unbeknownst to the policeman, the woman forwarded the picture to the police station and lauded to the precinct what she had witnessed.  The policeman had had no intention of letting anyone else know what he had done.  Jesus’ words seemed to apply here.  Don’t let you left hand know what your right hand is doing.  In other words, don’t broadcast your good deeds. God will see you and bless you accordingly.

I thought his response was admirable when he was asked why he had bought the boots for the man.  “Why wouldn’t I?  He was obviously in need.  My grandfather taught me that that is what we are supposed to do.  And I believe him.”

The picture would be appropriate for a Christmas card, as I said.  Why?  Because it puts squarely before the recipient what Christmas celebrates.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Christmas proclaims that God so loves human kind that God took on the human condition, first in the flesh and blood that is Jesus, the Christ, and also through that incarnation, God became forever united to humanity.  God dwells in humanity, humbly and in vulnerability, as one who seeks to serve.  The challenge of faith is to recognize that indwelling and to respond with reverence and awe.  Look at that picture again, if you can.  The policeman’s reverence and compassion are palpable, and reminded me of the shepherds bowing in awe before the manger.

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 – except for faith’s transforming it.  Abject poverty 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 this isn’t really the most appropriate site for the birthing of a baby.

There is powerful symbolism in the manger that serves as the baby’s first crib.  The manger is a feed trough meant to hold the 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.  From there he will give 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 unschooled and uncouth.  They were an unpleasant lot for the most part; typical of those with whom Jesus would practice table-fellowship.  This man welcomes (tax-collectors and) sinners and eats with them.  The shepherds become the first proclaimers of the Mystery that happens in Bethlehem.

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 announced this day and meant to give us reason to hope.  We are meant to recognize our on transformation in this moment.  Everything in the Christmas-gospel narrative proclaims God’s infinite love for humanity, broken and sin-touched though we are.  God desires to embrace us and draw us into the community that is God, Father, Son, and Spirit.  God so loved the world that God sent the only begotten Son.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Then, this God is not distant, aloof nor 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 themselves, Christmas reminds us that God is there.  This is what God has taken upon himself in the union between the human and divine that is Jesus.  That union is forever.  There will always be reason to 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 socio-economic reforms pending in our country, and meant to renounce them.  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: You give them something to eat.  Share what you have with those who have not.  A loose translation would have Jesus say, it is your responsibility.  The command is to love.

Live now.  Love now.  Remember and make the whole Mystery and wonder present.

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 and will never let us be defeated forever.  God loves 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 – like the shoeless beggar on the New York City street.  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 and know 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.