Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH – December 29, 2013

From the Book of Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14

From the Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians 3:12-21

The holy Gospel according to Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The Liturgy of the Word for the Sunday that falls on the Sunday after Christmas is dedicated to the celebration of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  If we listen carefully, the readings are fraught with difficulties.  What is it that we celebrate on this feast?  The Liturgy of the Word is always supposed to challenge the hearers, inviting us to deeper conversion.  What is the change of heart the Spirit wants to achieve in the Assembly?

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 combine Matthew’s tradition with Luke’s.  Depictions of the Holy Family even after the days of the child’s infancy are always serene.  I remember laughing at one bronze rendering of the Family I saw in a church.  There was Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, with Mary, the Mother, looking in from the doorway.  There is rapture on their faces as they gaze on their teen-aged son as he makes crosses from pieces of wood he takes from the floor of the shop.  Somehow I couldn’t imagine parents being pleased to watch their child molding implements of execution.

If we pay attention, there is nothing sentimental in the readings.  Violence and rejection lurk in every line and turn of the Gospel.  The other readings challenge societal conventions.  If we wallow in sentimentality we won’t change.  We won’t squirm in discomfort.  We won’t hear the call to reform.  Above all, we will miss the social Gospel being proclaimed, the Gospel that is both society’s challenge and hope.

Remember, the Scriptures are the living Word of God.  We make a mistake if we listen and only look back, as if we are observing events from centuries past.  The proclamations touch the now.  They are meant to confront our present situation and where we are now.  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, and the vulnerable. It happened then.  It happens today.  A challenge is to recognize that there is one family of which we all are a part.  The oppressed, the poor and the vulnerable are our sisters and brothers.  God means us to live in community and to love one another.  The reforms Pope Francis is urging upon the Church put flesh and bone on these readings and make them applicable and practical.  Some rejoice at his teachings.  Some sneer.  There is nothing new about that.

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 her/him from birth to maturity?  In order for this to happen there must be right relationships.  The honor commanded is due for more than simple engendering.  Everyone deserves basic respect.  The commanded reverence and honor is for more than giving birth.  After all, it may not always be the birth parents that are the nurturers.  The father and the mother are the ones who may have adopted the child and raised 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.

By today’s standards 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 beyond that, the reading is a directive for those in the faith community that is church.  Paul also urges relationships with our sisters and brothers at large.  We must, as God’s beloved ones, put on compassion.  That means that in the Spirit, we are called to suffer with the suffering the way Christ does and not be embarrassed by their plight.  (Here again, Pope Francis lives this challenge.)  Compassion must be normative in a faith community.  Those in the church are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  That’s a result of our Baptism.

There is nothing wrong with wondering if you can do this.  Listen to the litany of virtues that Paul urges us to put on.  It is okay to wonder if you can be that vulnerable.  Taking all this on, where will your defenses be?  Kind, humble, and patient – most are likely to think they can live those for others.  That’s true if they, if we are able to admit our own sins, shortcomings, and weaknesses and admit all that in humility.  It is then that the realization dawns that there is need for kindness, gentleness and patience from our brothers and sisters in Christ.  In that realization we just might find ourselves asking them to bear with us.

See how these Christians love one another.  It is said that that was a frequent observation by those outside the early church.  The desire to experience that love was the driving force for many who sought to become followers of Christ.  For some time now the church has been lacking in the reputation for being lavish in forgiving and reconciling.  Yet that remains the challenge.  We might do a better job if we never forget the joy felt in being forgiven and reconciled.

So, there are challenges in this Feast’s Liturgy of the Word.  Still, there are problems with the second reading.  Certainly we can agree 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 I have is 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.  Christ 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.  It is mutuality of service.  To the degree that wives are subordinate to their husbands, husbands ought to be subordinate to their wives.  Or better, there is no room for subordination if the two have become one flesh in Christ.  Paul obviously was acknowledging the attitudes of his day.  Women had no legal standing on their own then.  At least Paul tempered the subordination by urging husbands to love their wives.  But it is wrong to use this text today as a justification for subservience.  Love is the challenge.

It is a good thing the reading stops where it does today.  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 this feast of the Holy Family each year.  We are helped 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 to God through the Son’s dying and rising in Bread and wine.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST – 2013

 

God rest ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!  Remember, Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.  The carol might rankle some today because of its sexist language.  Too bad there is no mention of merry gentlewomen.  Aside from that, the first time I hear the carol during the pre-Christmas season, I pause and reflect and wonder if people listen to the lyrics and get the message.  Once, I was stopped, waiting for the light to turn from red to green when the carol sounded from my car radio.  A disabled person in a powered wheelchair crossed the street in front of me.  As he passed in front of my car he paused, smiled, and waved at me before continuing on his way.  I waved back as I heard the words: Let nothing you dismay.  Nothing will, my friend, I thought, if you and the rest of us remember and believe as you obviously do.

Think about the word dismay.  According to my dictionary, the transitive voice of the verb means to cause courage or resolution from alarm or fear.  As has been the case for quite some time now, the news has been filled with stories that could fill with dismay even the stoutest heart.  The financial situation is improving, but many in this country continue to live below the poverty level.  Will the 7% still unemployed find work next year?  In theory, the recession has ended, but many people have yet to experience any positive effects that might convince them.  The upper 1% might be convinced, but not that many from the 98% plus of the rest of us are.

The war in Iraq is over and the military is set to be out of Afghanistan by this coming August, but tension and violence continue to reign over much of the Middle East.  More saber rattling goes on as hostile gunfire and suicide bombers kill innocents, women and children among them.  Add your own global concerns to this list.  Even the strongest among us might be tempted to sigh in dismay.  And we haven’t mentioned the horrific stories of domestic violence and the numbers of children being tortured and killed by their parents and others who should be protecting them.

Yet, the carol urges us to rest in God, be merry, and to banish dismay.

There are those who think that the evening news and newspapers in general should be avoided during the weeks prior to Christmas and definitely during the Christmas Season.  After all, negative stories kill the Christmas spirit.  Perhaps.  However, I think that pretending that everything is fine while ignoring the plight of many of our brothers and sisters will not bring us into the real spirit of Christmas either.  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.

Using the Gospel imagery, we hear that 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 birthing a baby.

There is great symbolism attached to the manger that is the Baby’s 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 this Baby, when he reaches adulthood, will hang in crucifixion having given himself over to be consumed body and blood to 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 the bottom rung of society, their company to be avoided, even shunned.  They were an unpleasant lot for the most part; yet typical of those with whom Jesus would come to practice table fellowship.  An accusation against the adult Jesus will be: This man welcomes (tax collectors, shepherds and) sinners and eats with them.  The shepherds, having followed the directions of the heavenly visitors and found the baby and Mary and Joseph, will look at the child and believe.  They will go out rejoicing and announcing the Good News that now there is hope even for the likes of them.

What is the point of this demythologizing?  The romantic pastel scenes may well 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 us 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.  Our God is not distant, aloof nor remote contrary to what those who emphasize God’s transcendence practically to the exclusion of God’s immanence would have the faithful believe.  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 them and us that this is what God has taken upon himself in the union between the human and divine that is Jesus.  The Second Person of the Trinity took on flesh.  The union between the Divine and the human 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 will prevail.  The infant in the manger challenges us all to be sharers, to be willing to give 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 the proposed socio-economic reforms Pope Francis is asking the people of God to embrace.  He calls for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  He challenges the shepherds in the church to walk in the mud and be among the flock, knowing them and their needs.  He challenges them to be like the Good Shepherd and go out in search of those abandoned and made to feel unwelcome at the Table.  The pope urges all of us to recognize that we are one family, sisters and brothers in this family of God.

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 5,000 could be fed, remember, Jesus challenged the apostles: You give them something to eat.  A loose translation would have Jesus saying:  It is your responsibility.  You do something about the problem.  You give them something to eat, even from the little that you have.  The command is to love.

Do not miss, then, that there are Eucharistic implications for the manger being the Baby’s first resting place.

It is traditional for us to wish each other Peace at Christmas.  A definition of peace that I cling to is this: 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 Christ now as if each of us were the only being in the universe.  God 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.  Better yet, consider yourself one of them.  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.

Know that it will happen.  It is in Christ that 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.

Do not be dismayed.  Ever.  I wish you peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – A – December 22, 2013

 

From the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 7:10-14

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Roman’s 1:1-7

From the holy Gospel according to Matthew 1:18-24

We draw near to the end of another Advent.  What was our Advent journey supposed to be about?  These days are meant to foster a spirit of pregnant longing for and eager expectation of God’s definitive action among human kind.  Perhaps because we are living in difficult times, people will not allow themselves to enter into the darkness so that they can yearn for the light.  Hopelessness enmeshes.  Once we become entangled in it, standing on the brink of despair, it is difficult to look up and believe that there is reason to hope.  When wars rage and death counts are tolled, how do we believe there will be peace?  Is it any wonder that Ahaz dared not ask God for a sign even though God longed to give that sign and comfort him with a reminder of God’s love and fidelity?  The enemy surrounded Ahaz and threatened his kingdom.  That was the reality for him.  What could God possibly do to alter that?

On the other side of that coin, so to speak, have you noticed that in our times many people are attuned to expecting instant gratification?  Why should material satisfaction be put off when you can have it now?  People don’t diet and exercise to maintain physical fitness; they have liposuction and plastic surgery to give the illusion of fitness.  There was a time when young couples began their married life in a rental house as they looked forward to the time when they could make a down payment on a starter home.  Today those starter homes have a three-car garage and a swimming pool.  At least that is true for some that the desperate ones read about.  Should we be surprised that by and large people do not have the emotional energy for Advent?  Living in hope doesn’t resonate with them.  I want it and I want it now!

So, instead of starkness and the four-week experience of darkness looking forward to a great dawn with light’s return, well before the Advent Season even begins, the signs of Christmas, its lights and carols, are everywhere.  Not that many years ago, people waited for Thanksgiving Day before the lights went up and the carols began.  Now we’re lucky if Halloween is over before all that begins.  Is it any wonder that by the time Christmas Day arrives all the trappings and trimmings look tired.  Everyone is sick of hearing about dreaming of a white Christmas.  Who in the world could stand The Twelve Days of Christmas?  On the second day of Christmas not a sign of the feast remains.

I can remember when Christmas began in our home the way it did in church – on Christmas morning.  Sometime during the night, after my siblings and I were in bed, a tree was put up and decorated and wrapped presents were placed beneath it.  We came down the stairs rubbing sleep from our eyes to be dazzled by the lights, the presents, and the fire on the hearth.  We were told that each gift was a reminder of God’s great gift of Love who was born this day.  We knew right from the start that this celebration was all about the Lord and the peace and love Christ brings.

We need to experience Advent’s darkness rather than fear it.  We can benefit from entering silence, not dreading it.  How else will we know Advent’s longing and Advent’s hope?  In the darkness and silence our defenses are down.  The events of our days can enter our consciousness and we can contemplate them.  We can look at the horror of war and be confronted by the bodies and hear the wailing of those who mourn and enter their suffering the way Christ does.  With our defenses down we might see those classes of people that otherwise we might be tempted to ignore – the poor and disenfranchised, the people of other races than ours, those of a different gender from ours, and of different orientations, and have to admit that we are all family, God’s family.

We would have to ponder the telling of the statistics – the millions worldwide dying from AIDS, the unconscionable portion of the world’s goods consumed by a small number of people living in first world countries in comparison with the world’s impoverished population.  We would have to wonder about the exploitation of the Earth and its resources for profit’s sake, the percentage of the goods we buy that are produced by what is tantamount to slave labor, again for profits sake.  On and on we could go.  We stand in the midst of cacophonous din that seeks to lure us and prevent us from noticing.

Advent is meant to be a time for silence.  In the silence we can come to understand that the horrors in each day’s news are, in the reality that faith brings, aspects of Christ’s passion.  If we allow ourselves to be brought to the foot of the cross, dare we ask ourselves about our participation in the crucifixion?  But that is the stuff of conversion.  Christmas celebrates Incarnation – God’s taking on human flesh, sealing the union between God and humans forever.  It is the celebration of God’s love for human kind and the invitation to all to live in love and hope.  Remember.  The Gospel does not end in death.  Neither will our story.  As horrible as the contemporary story might be, the vision that dawns with Christmas is not overcome by the evil.  Love conquers.  God is faithful and will raise us up.

The messages to the universal church emanating from Pope Francis, his calls to conversion, thrill many.  He wants to see a poorer church ministering to the poor.  He wants the dignity of the poor upheld.  He is speaking out against unbridled capitalism and its so-called trickle down theory even as he calls for an equitable distribution of the world’s goods.  Many thrill at his messages and see hope for the church’s conversion and the return of many Catholics that have left the fold for various reasons, chief among them the hollowness of the preaching.  Others decry this pope.  Some of the wealthy denounce him and his message as Communism, Marxism.  Obviously they don’t recognize the diagram for such socialism in the Acts of the Apostles.

The bishops and priests must hear Pope Francis’s challenge to get rid of their refinery, live a poorer lifestyle, and be among the people, getting to know how they smell, getting their shoes dirty as they walk among the poor.  The Church is to stand as a beacon of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  For many those are not the first things that come to mind as they consider the Church.  The ordained must hear the ecstatic voice of the severely disfigured man who before thousands was embraced by the pope during a papal audience.  He wept as he declared that the pope was the only other person besides his mother who had ever said, “I love you,” to him.  Can they imagine themselves acting in similar fashion?

Ahaz was challenged to ask for a sign that would give him reason not to yield to despair.  He couldn’t find the courage to ask.  But the sign was given anyway – a child born would be called Immanuel – God with us.  In Christmas we recognize that sign, God with us, in the Child born in Bethlehem.  If we listen in the night we just might hear Christ’s challenge to be that sign, God with us, today and so help the human family recognize its connectedness and together live in hope because of the love that surrounds us.

The story doesn’t end in defeat.  It can’t.  God won’t let it.  That’s the Good News Christ proclaimed in being born among us.

Sincerely,

Didymus