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THE FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH: December 28, 2014


A reading from the Book of Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians 3:12-21
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke: 2: 22-40

The Sunday that occurs between the feasts of Christmas and New Year’s is dedicated to the celebration of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  There are difficulties in observing this feast.  What is it that we are celebrating?  What are the challenges facing us?  What is the conversion that the Liturgy of the Word is meant to provoke in the hearts of the Assembly?

The natural instinct might be to have a sentimental, albeit, a maudlin time imagining romantic 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.   Once, while I was studying Liturgical art and architecture in Chicago, I visited a newly built church.  It proved to be a vivid example of what not to do.  There to the right of the altar space was a bronze depiction of a day in the life of the Holy Family.  Mary stood in the doorway, apron clad, looking into her husband’s carpentry shop and smiling as she did so.  Joseph was turned from his workbench to look at his teenage son as he fashioned crosses from pieces of wood he took from the floor.  Really?  What parents would be pleased to watch their child fashioning implements of execution?

If we are open before the Readings this day, we will hear nothing sentimental.  Violence and rejection lurk in every line of the Gospel.  Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself (Mary) a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.  Societal conventions are challenged in the other readings.  If the Assembly wallows in sentimentality no heart will change.  We won’t squirm.  We won’t hear the Spirit calling us to change our lives.  We will miss the Social Gospel that is being proclaimed, the Gospel that is society’s challenge and hope.

Remember Scripture is the living word of God.  We make a mistake if we listen and only look back.  These proclamations in the Liturgy of the Word 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.  We are 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 to recognize that there is one family of which we all are a part.  The poor and the vulnerable, all ethnicities and races, regardless of orientation, are our sisters and brothers.  God means us to live in community and to 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 ones who do not have innate gratitude and respect for the ones who are the source of their lives, for the ones who nurtured them from birth to maturity?  Of course all this assumes right relationships.  The honor commanded is due for more than simple engendering.  Everyone deserves basic respect.  But the commanded reverence and honor are for more than giving birth.  It may not always be the birth parents that are the nurturers; but the father and mother are the ones who adopt the child and raise the child 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.

There are problems with the second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.  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.  Here, also is a guide for living in relationships in the faith community that is church.  Beyond that, we have a guide for living in relationship with our brothers and sisters at large.

We are urged as God’s beloved ones, to put on compassion.  The word means to suffer with.  We are called to enter into others’ sufferings the way that Christ did and refuse to be embarrassed by their plight.  Compassion should be normative in a faith community.  If you flinch as you read these words, that’s all right.  The call is to conversion of heart, never an easy process.   Listen to the litany of virtues that Paul urges us to put on.  I wonder if I can be that vulnerable.  Where will my defenses be?  Kind, humble, gentle, and patient – I can only be all these for others if I am able to admit my own sins, shortcomings, and weaknesses, and admit them in all humility.  Then I come to see that I 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 watched the Christians support and encourage each other in their martyrdoms.  The desire to experience that love was the driving force for many who in turn sought to become converts.  Pope Francis is calling the faithful to live that kind of love today.  Does the church today have the reputation for being lavish in forgiveness?  The numbers of those who have left the fold might say otherwise.  Am I a good forgiver?  Are you?  We will be, I will be, if we remember that we are a community of sinners who have been forgiven.  We are called to reflect our God who is lavish in mercy and forgiveness by having the reputation for being good at forgiving and reconciling.  That unforgettable image of Pope Francis washing the feet of young prisoners, not all of them Catholic, not all of them males, shocked some.  Let’s pray that it woke others.

Some will have problems with the second reading and proclaim an abbreviated form.  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 will rise with Paul’s urging wives to be subordinate to their husbands.  Subordination is wrong wherever 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.  But 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, it should be recognized that there is no room for subordination in either since 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 urged love.  But it would be wrong to use this text today as a justification for subservience.  Love is the challenge.

On another front, I am in awe of the demonstrations occurring all across this land, calling for a change in police practices that seem to indicate racial profiling.  There have been some destructive violence, but for the most part the demonstrations have been peaceful, calling for the recognition of racial equality and an end to ethnic violence.  In the process some are beginning to call for a reformation of the penal system in our land and the racial inequality that is evident among the incarcerated.  The Spirit is moving and motivating change.

We need to be reminded of the basics of our Baptismal vocation, our call to exercise the Priesthood of the Baptized.  May the Lord help us to recognize that as we gather with our sisters and brothers around the Table, it is as equals that we gather, and as the forgiven that we celebrate and give thanks.

 

CHRISTMAS – 2014

God rest ye, merry gentlemen.  Let nothing you dismay!  Remember, Christ, our Savior, was born on Christmas day.  I heard that carol on my car radio a few minutes ago as I returned home after completing some chores.  As I waited at a traffic light, a disabled person in a powered wheelchair crossed in the walk in front of my car.  Yes, Let nothing you dismay, I thought.  And nothing will, if you and I remember and believe.

Dismay is an interesting word.  According to my dictionary, the transitive form of the word means to cause to lose courage or resolution from alarm or fear.  This year, as have the last several, has been filled with news stories that could dismay even the stoutest heart.  World wide, the wars continue and hostages lose their lives in beheadings.  Ebola kills people in Africa.  23 million people may be dying from AIDS on that continent as well.  In our country, demonstrations across the land cry out against seeming racially motivated violence at the hands of policemen.  A 12-year-old boy was shot and killed as he played with a pellet gun purchased in a toy store.  And there are the stories of domestic violence and children being abused by their parents and others who should be protecting and caring for them.  Yet the carol urges us to rest in God and be merry.

A friend told me recently that he thought stories like those listed above should be banished from the evening news during the holiday season.  They just kill the spirit of the season.  He said he wasn’t going to watch the news until the New Year begins.  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 message of Christmas is a call of defiance 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 we celebrate, but that would have been all that was right about it.  Abject poverty forced Mary and Joseph 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 really isn’t the most appropriate site for the birthing of a baby.  There is great symbolic meaning in the manger that is used for the Baby’s first crib.  The feed trough is meant to hold the food to be consumed by the animals.  This child’s body and blood in Eucharist form and will be bread broken and cup poured out until all have been fed and know his presence.  The wood of the manger reminds us of the wood from which the adult will hang in crucifixion as the innocent one gives himself over to the Father for the remission of sins.  The shepherds idealized by Rembrandt and other artists ought to encourage the lowliest among us when it is remembered that the shepherds 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.  This man welcomes (tax collectors and) sinners and eats with them.

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, no matter how lowly we are.  As an aside, I am fascinated with Pope Francis’s continuing call for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  He wants the shepherds to stand in the midst of their flock and smell like them.  There are those that gnash their teeth at what he is saying even as many who wandered away disillusioned are returning to the church.  A reminder that it was the poor who first listened to Jesus and responded to the Gospel.

Everything in the Christmas Gospel narrative proclaims God’s infinite love for human kind, broken and sin-touched though we are.  God longs 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.  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, for those who are shunned, exiled, or ignored, Christmas reminds us that these conditions are what God has taken upon himself in this 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 will prevail.

The Infant in the manger challenges us all to be sharers and to be willing to give of what we have so that all might have something of the essentials of life.  We are challenged to recognize the dignity and the worth of all our sisters and brothers, regardless of race, religion, or orientation.  The word Socialism has been cast about with abandon as a criticism of some of the socio-economic reforms proposed in our country.  Isn’t it interesting that that is another criticism hurled at Pope Francis?  There is a Social Gospel proclaimed by the church and widely ignored.  Sad that some of the prominent Catholic politicians seem deaf to that Gospel.  It seems to me that for the believer, there are implications to be realized in the pending Immigration Reform.

The Infant confronts people of Christian faith.  In accepting Christ’s birth we must accept the reality of community and communal responsibility.  Before the 5,000 were fed, remember Jesus challenged the Apostles: You give them something to eat.  A loose translation would have Jesus saying: It is your responsibility.  Again, as Francis continually reminds us, 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 in the 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 vulnerable ones 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, even as we know 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 Christ.  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 

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – B – DECEMBER 21, 2014

A reading from the second Book of Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 16:25-27

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 1:26-38

This is not the first generation to forget who is in charge.  In the first reading this Sunday, David hasn’t forgotten God’s omnipotence, but he is giving himself a great deal of credit for all that has happened and for the resulting splendor of his palace that surrounds him.  He is amazed at what he has accomplished.  Perhaps he was having his before dinner martini as he sat and gazed into the fireplace that it dawned on David that while he lived in cedar-walled magnificence, God dwelled in a tent.  How unseemly that seemed to God’s anointed one.  What will the foreign tribes think?  So it is that he declares to the Prophet Nathan that he will build God a proper dwelling and so end this embarrassment.

At first the idea sounds good to Nathan and he encourages David in his plan.  But then God reminds Nathan who is the builder.  Think of the wonderful hymn that states: Abba, Abba Father, you are the potter, we are the clay.  God chose the people of Israel.  God selected the unseemly David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, to be king.  David may have been the commander of the armies, but God was the real warrior who mowed down the enemies and established David in his present glorious position.

Nathan returns to David and squelches David’s plan.  God will continue to see to the spread of David’s reputation and allow the Israelites to live in peace.  God will build a house for David that will come to be after David has gone to rest with his ancestors.  That house will be a people.  From among David’s descendants God will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm.  I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me.  God puts perpetuity into this.  The kingdom will endure.  The throne shall stand firm forever.

We are three days away from the Feast of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of the fulfillment of the promise that has to do with presence.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters are recipients of the promise as God chooses to dwell among the chosen people.  I will be your God.  You will be my people.  Christians celebrate the fulfillment of the promise in the Word becoming Flesh, i.e., God’s taking on human flesh in the birth of Jesus.  One promise flows from the other.  One does not end as the other begins.

We are reminded of the continuation during most Liturgical celebrations.  While there are some exceptions, on most Sundays, the first reading in the Liturgy of the Word is from Hebrew Scripture.  In the second reading today from St. Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, Paul reminds us that the Mystery we will celebrate on Christmas Day is the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the revelation of the mystery begun ages ago, kept secret for a long time, and manifested through the writings of the Prophets.  In the birth of Christ, we see the realization of God’s will and the birth of the possibility that all nations, that is, even Gentiles, will come to faith in the only God through Jesus Christ.  God is glorified forever through Jesus Christ and through those believers in Christ.

Our God is an awesome God, sings the hymn.  When the Gospel is proclaimed on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear that the fulfillment of God’s plan depended on the cooperation of a young woman.  In order for the Word to become flesh, Mary has to say: Let it be.  She is engaged to marry Joseph, of the House of David.  God sent the angel Gabriel to proclaim God’s invitation.  The opening words are important.  Scripture scholars say that everything we believe about Mary, the total reason for her veneration, is contained in Gabriel’s salutation.  Hail full of grace.  Full of grace.  Highly favored of God.  Nothing of sin in her.  Yes is her perpetual posture before God.

Gabriel spells out God’s proposal.  Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus.  We’re used to hearing the message.  We imagine the scene clearly in our minds because we have seen so many icons recreating the moment.  Notice how serene it always is.  I wonder.  This is a young girl, at most a 13-year-old.  To this point she thinks her life will imitate the countless generations of women who have gone before her.  She will be a wife and a mother and will be faithful to God’s will.  But this?  Far from serene, what the Gospel proclaims is a message that totally upends this girl’s world.  There should have been a wind, similar to the one of Pentecost.  Why else would Mary’s first word of response be, How?  After all, while we are used to the scene and it’s conclusion, what we are witnessing is something completely knew for this young girl.  The like hasn’t happened before.  No wonder she asked, How?

The wind?  The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  The conception will begin with the outpouring of the Spirit.  The Spirit will be with the Son the woman will name Jesus from the first moment as a conceptus and through every day of his life.  Mary as if this is God’s will.  Hence, she asks for a sign.  That sign will convince her that nothing is impossible with God.  The sign?  One thought to be barren and now of advanced years is pregnant.  Amazing grace.  Mary says, Let it be.  And so it begins.

Do we get the magnitude of this moment?  Do we understand what God has begun?  Remember God’s promise to David that God will be the house builder.  One of Mary’s titles is, Ark of the Covenant.  She is the promised house, if you will.  In perpetuity she will bring forth Christ, present Christ to the world in every age.  In being the Mother of Christ, she is also the Mother of the Church, the perfect replica of the Church, the sign of everything the Church is to do and to be.

The Church is born when the Spirit is poured out on Mary.  The Church is the People of God, each one born to it when the Spirit rushes on in Baptism.  Individually and collectively, everything we say about the Mystery of the Incarnation, the Word’s taking on of flesh, applies.  As a baptized person, your heart is Christ’s dwelling place.  Where Christ is, so too are the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity dwells in you.

You are God’s house.  Of course, as did Mary, you have to say, Let it be.  That union with Christ is not for you alone.  No graced gift is for the recipient alone.  You are called by name and asked to serve.  Your roll is to do what the Church must do, and what Mary does, constantly bring forth Christ.  How?  By doing what Christ does.  Adopt Christ’s will that is always to do the will of the Father.  That will?  Be such palpable lovers of the unlovable that God is the only possible explanation for how you live and what you do.

In this Advent Season we must hear Pope Francis’s challenge.  Over and over again, he calls us to be a servant people, tending to the needs of the poor.  He is saying that if we live lives in imitation of Christ’s loving service, the world will find the message attractive and faith will thrive again.  That is his invitation to Women Religious.  That is his invitation to the whole Church.  It’s not about power, splendor, or elitism.  It is abut Love.  We are witnessing a new age of hope dawning in the Church.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, see why the Eucharist must be at the center of our lives.  There is a word that explains the mystery of Eucharist.  The word is Epiclesis.  The word means the outpouring of the Spirit effecting the change in the elements prepared and placed on the table, as they become the sacramental presence of Christ.  Epiclesis happens also to those gathered around the table effecting their change into the Body of Christ.  The Spirit’s work is ongoing.  So must be our cooperation.  All that remains is the sending.  And God in Christ will continue to work through us until all are drawn into Mystery.  All we have to say is, Let it be done according to your word.

Now, I think we are ready to celebrate Christmas.  My sisters and brothers in Christ, let the celebration begin!

Sincerely,

Didymus