Archive for December, 2015|Monthly archive page

COME, ALL WHO ARE WEARY

“Do you ever get over this?” he asked, as he stirred the cup of coffee in front of him.  He had called and asked me to meet him for a cup and conversation.  His was a voice from the past.  He didn’t think the rectory would do as a meeting place.  Too many memories, many of them happy, but some of them sad, would surface.

“You baptized me, you know.  Not that I remember that, being a baby and all.  But I’ve seen the pictures of my parents holding me, and you standing nearby.  We were a happy family then, and for some years afterward.”

Some of his story I remembered.  His was a typical family – regular at church; children in the parish school – when it disintegrated with the revelation of his father’s extramarital affair.  My tablemate had been sunny and outgoing in the third grade.  His disposition changed to dark and angry.  A bright child, school became tedious for him and the discipline, controlling.

He would go into the empty church to hide from classmates during recreation.  His teacher knew the boy would be found sitting in the same spot, staring at the life-sized crucifix that dominated the church’s front wall.

Most mornings before his school day began, he came to Mass.  I remember that glowering visage.  He sat alone in the front pew, morning after morning.  Then, as suddenly as his attendance had begun, it stopped.  And time went on.

“I haven’t been to church for a long time,” my 23-year-old friend said as he sipped from his cup.  He eyed me to catch my reaction; when none was forthcoming, he said, “I loved Jesus then.  I thought he understood my pain when my father left and our family fortunes changed.  Then I decided that was wishful thinking on my part.

He flung some photographs on the table, snapshots dog-eared and faded.  “Do you notice anything strange about these pictures?”

My friend, ten years younger, stared out from one.  His father and mother smiled from others.  I studied the pictures for a long moment before I looked back to him for the answer that eluded me.  “Do you see anything of my father in me?”  I said that I did not.  He definitely favored his mother.  That’s not unusual, I said, that a child favor one parent more than the other.

“I don’t favor him, as you say, because he isn’t my father.”

I drank from my cup and said nothing.  We sat in silence for so long that I became aware of conversations near by and the sounds of silverware meeting dishes.

“You don’t look shocked,” he said.  “Doesn’t anything shock you?”

“Nothing human,” I said.  “Things sadden me, but they don’t shock me.”

“I’ve been alone and angry for a long time.”  He stared out the window and watched the people passing by.  His gaze drifted upward.  He caught sight of a gull drifting on the freshening breeze.  “Most people have somebody.  But not me.  I’ve cut myself out of my family.  I don’t go to church.  I just wander from one thing to another to make enough to pay my rent and put food on my table.”

He signaled the waiter, asking for a refill of coffee.  He added sugar and stirred and stared at the coffee swirling in his cup.

“Why did you call me?”

“Your picture at my Baptism.  I remember you from my grade school days.  More a name than any happening between us.  Except you told me about Jesus once when I was sitting in the church, staring at the crucifix and escaping recess.  You said, ‘Jesus has your answers.’  I can still hear you saying that.

“Everywhere I have gone and through all the mistakes I have made, I keep hearing you say, ‘Jesus has your answer.’”

I didn’t tell him that I had no recollection of that conversation.  I’m not sure that I would ever have said that, especially to a boy that young.  Seeing him now made it difficult to remember the little boy that had been, who looked so lost as he sat beneath the cross in the expanse of the church.

I should have asked him, as he stared at the crucifix in the church, if, in his pain, he saw himself nailed to that cross.  Would that have been the time to bring up what Jesus commanded those who would be his disciples?  “Unless you take up your cross every day, you cannot be my disciple.”  Would he have been able to see the cross in the crushing blow that had shut him down as a person?  Somehow that didn’t seem to be the appropriate question for me to ask then.

My hope was that this shared coffee would not be our only conversation.  With the passage of time, trust could be re-established.  Then we might talk about the meaning of the cross.  Then I would let him know that I thought recognizing the cross in some difficult moments wouldn’t make the burden light.  But it would mean that he would not be shouldering the burden alone.  But, as I said, I thought that was the stuff for a later conversation.

“It’s not easy for me to trust anybody,” he said.  “I don’t get into close relationships.  I’m too tired to be angry anymore.  Or maybe I am angrier than I am comfortable admitting.  One thing is for sure.  I just have this empty yearning in my gut.  I want to look at Jesus again and see….”

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THE FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH, December 27, 2015

(There are several options for the readings for this Feast)

Dear Jesus,

As you know, the Sunday that falls between the feasts of Christmas and the octave day of that Feast is dedicated to the celebration of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  It is a feast fraught with difficulties, isn’t it?  Sometimes I wonder what it is that we are celebrating.  What are the challenges that we are supposed to meet?  What is the conversion that you want the hearts of the Assembly to experience?

It would be easy to have a sentimental, albeit, even a maudlin time imagining romantic crèches with hovering angels and adoring shepherds and Magi.  We are quick to combine Luke’s tradition and Matthew’s.  Depictions of the Holy Family are always serene.  I remember laughing at one rendering of the Family in bronze that I came upon in a church.  There was Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, your mother, looking in from the doorway, at you, as a teenager.  The parents smiled while you made crosses from pieces of wood you took from the floor.  What parents would be pleased to watch their son forming implements of execution?

I am certain you would tell us that if we pay attention, there is nothing sentimental in the readings for the Feast.  Violence and rejection lurk in every line of the Gospel.  Societal conventions are challenged in the other readings.  If we wallow in sentimentality, nothing will happen.  We won’t squirm.  We won’t hear you calling us 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 as we listen we 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 your family.  We are to be confronted by how the powerful can oppress the little ones, the poor, and the vulnerable.  You want us to see these as very real and present evils.  You want us to recognize that there is one family of which we are all a part.  The poor and the vulnerable are our brothers and sisters.  Alas, so are the oppressors.  God means for us to live in community and love.  That’s the message of this Year of Mercy that pope Francis has proclaimed.

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, for the ones who nurtured her from birth to maturity?  Of course all this assumes right relationships, doesn’t it?  Am I correct in thinking that 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 mother may be the ones who adopt the child and raise him as their own.  They step in and make up for what birth parents might lack in parenting skills and those who are not able to keep their little ones.

There are problems with the second reading that often chosen 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 to relationships in the faith community that is church; and beyond that to include relationships with our sisters and brothers at large?  We are urged as God’s beloved ones, to put on compassion.  Doesn’t that mean that we are called to be willing to suffer with the suffering, the way you did, and not be embarrassed by their plight?  Shouldn’t compassion be normative in a faith community?  These in the church are our brothers and sisters in you.

I read what I have written to you and wonder if I can do this.  I listen to the litany of virtues that Paul urges me 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.  I would have to admit that in all humility I would need the kindness, gentleness and patience of my sisters and brothers in Christ as I ask them to bear with me.  Then there is the possibility of imitating you in this way and then winding up on the cross the way you did.

See how these Christians love one another.  That is supposed to be a frequent observation made by those outside the early church.  Is it true that the desire to experience that love was the driving force compelling many who sought to become converts?  Does today’s church have the reputation for being lavish in forgiveness?  Am I a good forgiver?  We will be, I will be, if we remember that we are a community of sinners who have been forgiven.

Shouldn’t we be challenged to reflect our God who is lavish in mercy and forgiveness and so have the reputation for being good at forgiving and reconciling?  Maybe I will do a better job at that if I never forget the joy I feel in being reconciled and forgiven.

All I have written above challenges me.  I look to you for support.  Then, you might ask why I said there were problems with this second reading.  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 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.  Pope Francis said that he serves next to, not over others.  You modeled service for us.  I stand in your midst as one who serves.  You washed your disciples’ feet.  As I have done for you, so ought you do for one another.

But that is not subordination.  It is mutuality of service.  Is it true, then, that to the degree that wives are subordinate to their husbands, husbands ought to be subordinate to their wives?  Or better, where is their room for subordination at all, since the two have become one flesh in you?  Paul was obviously acknowledging the attitudes of his day.  Women had no legal standing on their own then.  At least Paul urged love.  Wouldn’t it be wrong to use this text today as a justification for keeping women in their place?  Love is the challenge and the standard.

Come to think of it, it is 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 that text to support that horrid institution.  Neither 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.  Help me to recognize that as I gather with my sisters and brothers around your table, that it is as equals and co-celebrants that we gather.  It is as the forgiven that we celebrate and give thanks.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FEAST OF CHRISTMAS – 2015

 

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 as I returned home from completing a hospice visit to a dying patient.  A traffic light stopped me and a disabled person in a powered wheelchair crossed the street in the walk that passed in front of my car.  Let nothing you dismay, I thought.  And nothing will dismay if you and we remember and believe.

An interesting word, dismay.  According to my dictionary, the transitive form of the word means to cause to lose courage or resolution from alarm or fear.  This year has been, as have the last several, a year filled with stories that could dismay even the stoutest of heart.  The war with ISIS and the plight of the fleeing refugees should be heartbreaking.  The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and other places erode any feeling of safety that people have as they gather for concerts, or sidewalk evening meals, or honoring banquets.  Black lives matter proclaim the banners of the demonstrators as they demand reform and accountability from police departments.  You may well have other stories that can fill you with dismay.

And the carol urges us to rest in God and be merry.

A friend told me that she thought stories like those listed above should be banished from the evening news during the Christmas season.  She no longer watches it, preferring to view recordings of old TV series.  Those stories of war and domestic violence and rioting in the streets kill the spirit of the Christmas season.  Perhaps.  But pretending that everything is fine and 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.  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 great symbolic meaning in the manger that is used for the Baby’s first crib.  It remains a feeding 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.  This is the One who 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 the shepherds were in fact considered to be on the bottom rung of society.  Their company was to be avoided.  They were an unpleasant lot for the most part and typical of those with whom Jesus would practice table-fellowship.  This man welcomes (tax collectors, prostitutes, 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.

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 negative criticism of some of the prosed 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.  These realities gave rise to the Catholic Social Justice theories that Pope Francis referred to when he spoke before the United Nations and before the United States Congress.  Remember that before the 5,000 were fed, Jesus challenged the Apostles: You give them something to eat.  A loose translation would have Jesus saying, it is your responsibility.  Francis echoed Jesus when he said, “The command is to love.”

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

The 25th of December probably wasn’t the actual date of Jesus’ birth.  The church chose the date precisely to proclaim hope.  The days preceding Christmas are short and darkness seems to reign.  But by December 25th the light begins to return.  The days are just a bit longer and darkness has begun to recede.  Christ our Light comes to rescue us from the darkness of despair.

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.  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.  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.  In faith, 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 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