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THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH – December 31, 2017

A reading from the Book of Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 3:12-17
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 2:22-40

Dear Reader,

What do we celebrate on this Feast of the Holy Family?  Certainly and most obviously, we celebrate the family that is Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.  Each is a person of profound faith, called by God to trust God’s call and to live out the implications of that call.  The family is an icon before which we sit to be drawn into the mystery and so be transformed.  Icons tend to be placid depictions of extraordinary beings rapt in prayer and seeming to be totally other.  That is, until we look deeper.  So it is here.

Responding to God’s will involved struggle for Joseph who had to let go of what he had planned for his future and to trust when the young woman to whom he was engaged was found to be pregnant.  Breaking the relationship was his first inclination.  The angel told him to trust that what was happening was God’s will.  So he took Mary into is house.  Because he was of the House of David, Caesar’s mandatory world census set them on the road to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy, caused him the humiliation of not being able to provide a decent place for the birth of the child, and then, when it seemed that the child was in danger, he had to leave hearth and home and flee to Egypt.

Mary.  At most she was thirteen when Gabriel said to her: Hail, Full of Grace.  She too struggled to find God’s will in the angel’s invitation, needing assurance, needing a sign so that she could know that nothing is impossible with God.  Simeon says to her in today’s Gospel: And your heart a sword shall pierce.  She will have to struggle to understand who the son she bore is.  The sword is the word of God.  Her heart is where she thinks, prays, and ponders that word.

Jesus, too, struggles as he comes to understand that his work is to do the will of the one who sent me.  And following that will will take him to Calvary and the brink of despair as darkness threatens to envelop him in abandonment.  My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

As extraordinary as the three individuals who make up the Holy Family are, the icon they become in this feast is meant not only to inspire but also to challenge us to do what they do and be family as they are.  Really?  I think so.  It is a sad fact of contemporary living that many families are fractured.  Single parent homes are not uncommon.  Ideally parents and children live in a community of life and love.  The guiding ethic Sirach puts before us spells out how that reality is to be lived.  The mutuality of parents’ authority is one thing.  The responsibility of the children to be guided by that authority is another.  The obligation to care for each other, especially children for parents as they age and their faculties fail, all these come together as something pleasing to God and merit being with God forever.  God hears the cry of the just.  The grace that animates all this merits sin’s forgiveness.

Single parents.  Widows.  Widowers.  Single people.  What about these?  The icon of the holy Family is something that each one may enter and thereby be transformed.  Openness to God’s love and grace is the calling of every person of faith.  Trust in times of difficulty rises out of that faith.  Respect for each other enfleshes that faith and helps the other to experience God’s love through the acts of kindness and respect.

There is more.  What about the parish?  What about the Church?  Doesn’t the icon apply there too?  Should not the parish be family?  Should not the Church as the People of God inspire each member to love, honor, and respect every other member and to live with the desire to put into practice the unity that is ours in Eucharist, the unity that is ours as the Body of Christ?  We are family.  There is mutuality among God’s people who are loved by God as God loves Christ.  That is one of the effects of the Incarnation and our being drawn into the community that is God.

One of the catch phrases that came out of Vatican Council II was the call to all the faithful to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  That means that one’s being a passive spectator, if you will, at Sunday Mass does not fulfill the obligation.  Nor is the obligation fulfilled if one becomes totally self absorbed in private devotions, the rosary and the like, thereby effectively being walled off from the rest of the community gathered at the Table.  The Eucharist is action and all are part of it.  Then, having eaten and drunk, all are sent to continue the action of Eucharist where ever we go in the market place until all are fed and have drunk.

Paul writes to the church at Colossus.  Listen to what he says as he speaks to a community broader than the individual family.  The community at large is called to put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another…. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly…. And 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.

In other words, it seems to me, the feast we celebrate today is meant to put before us a model of every coming together of people.  The Holy Family is a model for how the human family is to live.  In these times of hatred and division, of racism and sexism, of resurgent white supremacy and neo-Nazis, if that profound respect, that sense of responsibility for each other were to captivate the human imagination and motivate us to recognize that all are members of the one family of God, what differences would soon become apparent.  Sure, it is idealistic.  But what if that is God’s will for us?

What does heartfelt compassion mean?  To be compassionate is to suffer with.  Heartfelt compassion goes even deeper.  The suffering of the other is our own.  It that embrace we find Christ.

We have been blessed with beacons of compassionate response.  We call them saints.  Dorothy Day.  Thomas Merton.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  They tend to prick the human conscience and make us marvel all the while wondering how anyone could live so selflessly.  We shudder to think that their call is our own.  Put on heartfelt compassion.  That is not a suggestion.  That is a directive.  That is an easier word to accept than command.  There is only one way.  Christ.

I beg your indulgence and hope I do not test your patience as I close this reflection with a quote from another beacon of compassionate response who gave his life in testimony to this cause, Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed while he celebrated Eucharist.

Christ marveled, says the Gospel, and he said, “Truly I have not found such faith in Israel.”

I say:

Christ will also say of this church: outside the limits of Catholicism perhaps there is more faith, more holiness.

So we must not extinguish the Spirit.  The Spirit is not the monopoly of a movement, even of a Christian movement, of a hierarchy, or priesthood, or religious congregation.  

The Spirit is free, and he wants men and women, wherever they are, to realize their vocation to find Christ, who became flesh to save all human flesh.

Yes, to save all, dear brothers and sisters.  I know that some people come to the cathedral who have even lost the faith or are non-Christians.  Let them be welcome.

And if this message is saying something to them, I ask them to reflect in their inner consciousness, for, like Christ, I can tell them: The kingdom of God is not far from you, God’s kingdom is within your heart.  Seek it and you will find it.

Imagine what would happen if we really believed we were all family, God’s family, the world peopled with our brothers and sisters.  Imagine as tomorrow we being a New Year.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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A CHRISTMAS GREETING – DECEMBER 25, 2017

Dear Reader,

God rest ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!  Remember, Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.  That carol played on my car radio a few minutes ago as I returned home after finishing some chores.  I had stopped at a traffic light and a disabled person in a powered wheelchair crossed the street in the walk in front of my car.  Let nothing you dismay, I thought.  And nothing will, if we remember and believe.

That is 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.  The year we finish, as has been the case for the last several, has been filled with stories that could dismay even the stoutest heart.  How many mass killings have happened as evidence of the anger and frustration that divide us as a people?  White Supremacists and Neo Nazis marched and shouted racial slurs.  Seemingly endless wars rage in the East and thousands of refugees flee in search of shelter, food, water and safety.  Horrendous natural disasters have taken many lives and left survivors in dreadful conditions.  Countries in Africa brace for revolutions in the face of what amounts to genocide in some conflicts.

These by no means exhaust the list of those happenings that are daunting enough to cause dismay for even the strongest among us.  I didn’t mention the stories of domestic violence.  Yet, the carol urges us to rest in God and be merry.

A friend told me recently that she thought stories like those listed above should be banished from the evening news during the Christmas season.  They just kill the spirit.  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 is not 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 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, the same one who 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 if 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.  This man welcomes (tax collectors, prostitutes and) sinners and eats with them.

What is the point of this demythologizing?  The romantic pastel scenes 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 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.  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 whatever difficult situations people might find themselves, Christmas reminds us that this is what God has taken upon himself in the union of the human and divine that is Jesus Christ.  That union is forever.  There will always be 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 sought 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 5000 were fed, remember, Jesus challenged the apostles: You 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 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.  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 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.  All things warped by humankind’s inhumanity to their own kind will be restored and made right again.

I wish you peace.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – B – December 24, 2017

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

Dear Reader,

We are not the first generation to forget who is in charge.  In the first reading today, it isn’t exactly that David forgot the omnipotence of YHWH; but he was giving himself a great deal of credit for all that had happened as he looked about and saw the splendor of his palace.  He was amazed at what he had accomplished.  Was if after a pre-prandial as he gazed into the fireplace that it dawned on David that while he lived in cedar-walled magnificence, YHWH dwelled in a tent?  How unseemly must that have seemed to YHWH’s anointed one.  What would the foreign tribes think?  Hence his declaration to the Prophet Nathan that David would build god a proper dwelling and put an end to this embarrassment.

At first the idea sounded good to Nathan and he encouraged David in his plan.  Then YHWH reminded Nathan who was the builder.  Remember the wonderful hymn?  Abba, Abba Father, you are the potter, we are the clay.  YHWH chose the people of Israel.  YHWH selected the unseemly David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, to be king.  David may have been the commander of the armies, but YHWH was the real warrior who mowed down the enemies and established David where he was then.

Comes the promise.  YHWH will see to the spread of David’s reputation and allow the Israelites to live in peace.  Wonder of wonders, YHWH 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 YHWH 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.  And YHWH puts perpetuity into this.  The kingdom will endure.  The throe shall stand forever.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve this year.  Many may decide to skip Advent Sunday Mass and celebrate the Vigil of Christmas Mass instead.  Those who do will miss these rich proclamations that lead us into the Feast and the celebration of the birth that is the fulfillment of the promise that has to do with presence.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters received the promise as YHWH chooses to dwell among the chosen people.  I will be your God and 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 flows from the other.  One does not end as the other begins.

We are reminded of the continuation during most Liturgical celebrations.  Most Sundays, there are exceptions, the first reading is from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Today is a case in point.  In the second reading, today from 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 eons ago, kept secret for long ages, 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 the obedience of faith in the only wise God, through Jesus Christ.  God is glorified forever through Jesus Christ and those believers in Christ.

Our God is an awesome God, the hymn sings.  When the Gospel is proclaimed on this 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.  Hear that God sent the angel Gabriel to do God’s bidding.  There are those who 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 are used to hearing the message.  We imagine the scene clearly in our minds because we have seen so many paintings and stained-glass windows depicting the moment.  Notice how serene it always is.  I wonder.  The young girl is at most 13 years old.  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 call.  But this?  Far from serene, what the Gospel proclaims is the total upending of this girl’s world.  Surely a wind blew through similar to the one of Pentecost.  Do you agree?  Why else would her first word be, How?  After all, while we are used to the scene and its outcome, what we are witnessing in reality is something completely new.  The like has not happened before.  How?

The Wind.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  The conception will begin with the outpouring of the Spirit.  And the Spirit will be with the Son the woman will name Jesus from his first moment as a conceptus and every day of his life.  She wants to know, is this God’s will?  She needs a sign.  The sign that is given will convince her that nothing is impossible with God.  Her cousin Elizabeth, thought to be barren, is also pregnant.  Amazing grace.  Let it be, she says.  And it begins.

Do we get the magnitude of this moment?  Do we understand what God has begun?  Remember YHWH’s promise to David to 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, presenting 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.

Follow me.  The Church is born when the Spirit is poured out on her.  The Church is the People of God, each one born to it when the Spirit rushes on in Baptism.  So, individually and collectively, everything we say about the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word’s taking on of flesh, applies.  As a baptized person, Christ dwells in your heart.  Where Christ is, so too are the other two persons of the Trinity.  You are God’s house.  Of course, as did Mary, you also have to say, let it be.

That union with Christ is not for you alone.  You are called by name and asked to serve.  Your role 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.  What is that will?  Be such palpable lovers of the least in society, the inners and the shunned, that God is the only possible explanation for how you live and what you do.

On this last day of Advent, see why the Eucharist must be at the center of your life.  There is a word that explains the mystery of Eucharist.  That 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 your cooperation.  All that remains is the sending.  God in Christ will continue to work through you until all are drawn into Mystery.

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

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus