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THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH – December 30, 2018

 

A reading from the first Book of Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28
or
A reading from the Book of Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
A reading from the first Letter of Saint John 3:1-2, 21-24
or
A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians 3:12-21
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 2:41-52

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

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.  It is a feast with many difficulties.  What, exactly, are we celebrating?  What is the challenge that we are supposed to recognize and accept?  What is the conversion that the hearts of the Assembly are to experience?

It would be easy to have a sentimental, albeit a maudlin time imagining romantic family moments in Luke and Matthew’s traditions.  Depictions of the Holy Family are always serene.  I laughed at one rendering in bronze I saw in a church in Chicago.  There was Joseph in the carpenter’s shop.  Mary looked in from the doorway as a teenaged Jesus made crosses from pieces of wood he took from the floor.  What parents would be pleased to watch as their child molded implements of execution?

If we pay attention, there is nothing sentimental in the readings for the feast.  Violence and fear of loss lurk in every line of the gospel.  Societal conventions are challenged in the other readings.  If we wallow in sentimentality, nothing will happen.  We will not squirm.  We will not hear the call 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 we listen and only look back.  The proclamations we sit or stand under touch the now.  They are meant to confront our present situation and us.  In the end, this feast is not 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, and the vulnerable and then to recognize a very real and present evil.  And we are to recognize that thee is one family of which we all are 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/her life, the ones who nurtured her/him from birth to maturity?  All of this assumes 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.  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 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.

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 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 are to be willing to suffer with the suffering the way that Jesus did and not be embarrassed by their plight.  Compassion is to be normative in a faith community.  Those in the church are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Can we do this?  Listen to the litany of virtues that Paul urges us to put on.  Can we be that vulnerable?  Where will our defenses be?  Kind, humble, gentle, and patient – we can only be all these for others if we are able to admit our own sins, shortcomings, and weaknesses and admit that in all humility.  Then we will need the kindness, gentleness and patience of our brothers and sisters in Christ as we ask them to bear with us.

See how these Christians love one another.  That was a frequent observation by those outside the early church.  The desire to experience that love became a driving force for many who sought to become converts to the New Way.  Does the church today 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.  We are challenged to reflect our God who is lavish in mercy and forgiveness by having the reputation for being good at forgiving and reconciling.  We will do a better job at that if we never forget the joy felt in being reconciled and forgiven.

All the above challenges us.  Then why are thee problems with the 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 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.  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, where is there room for subordination at all 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.

It is a good thing the reading stops where it does.  Otherwise, how would we deal with the seeming endorsement of slavery?  I do not 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.

Remember what was an ultimate charge brought against Jesus that called for his crucifixion.  This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Can that be said about our faith communities today?  My prayer is that the church hierarchy and laity alike will hear Pope Francis as he calls for a poorer church that serves the needs of the poor.  Hear his challenge to the shepherds to shepherd in the midst of the sheep, not over them.  

And if we all are one family in Christ, what does that say to us about the plight of the refugees, our brothers and sisters and their children at the Mexican border?

Let there be peace on earth/ a peace that was meant to be.  With God as our Father/ we are family. /  Let us walk with each other/ in peace and harmony.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

 

    

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THE FEAST OF CHRISTMAS – 2018

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

God rest ye, Merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!  Remember, Christ, our Savior, was born on Christmas day.  Every time I hear that carol, I reflect on the wisdom it contains, and the challenge to our faith.  What do we believe about this feast?  Recently I was 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.  Nothing will, if we 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 has been filled with stories that could cause dismay in even the strongest heart.  It seems to me that hatred and division surge in tidal waves across our country.  Black Lives Matter.  #MeToo.  Shootings in schools and churches and synagogues.  Desperate refugees seeking to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.  Wars continue in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.  US troops are killed.  Innocent children are killed, trapped in rubble, or gassed.  We have seen terrible pictures of little ones starving to death.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of those things that are daunting enough to cause dismay in even the strongest among us.  Yet, the carol urges us to rest in God and be merry.

A friend told me yesterday 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 I think that 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 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 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 and 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 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.  Lepers and even prostitutes didn’t embarrass him.  He touched them, defying the ritual impurity that made them untouchable to the observant.

You might wonder 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.  Everything in the Christmas gospel narrative proclaims God’s infinite love for human kind, broken and sin-touched as 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.  This God is not distant, aloof, nor remote.  It is not in earthly splendor that the Word comes, but as a vulnerable child, meek and humble.  In other words, in whatever difficult situation people might find themselves, Christmas reminds us that this is what God has entered in the union between the human and divine that is Christ.  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.  What a powerful witness to that the late George H. W. Bush gave in his final moments when he said he was ready for heaven and the reunion with his wife of 73 years, and his young daughter.

The word Socialism has been cast about with abandon as criticism of some of the proposed socio-economic reforms needed in our country.  The Infant confronts people of Christian faith.  In accepting Christ’s birth we accept the reality of community and communal responsibility that Christ brings.  Those refugees at he border are our brothers and sisters.  So are those poor among us.  Before the 5,000 were fed, remember that Jesus challenged the apostles: You give them something to eat.  A loose translation would have Jesus say, “It is your responsibility.  Give of your own supply.”  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 Christ.  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 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 easily marginalized.  When you do you will know God and the One who God has sent, Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate and whose coming again we eagerly await.  Know it will happen.  It is in Christ that we will rise.  And all things warped by humankind’s inhumanity to their own kind will be restored and made right and whole again.

I wish you peace.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – C – December 23, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Micah 5:1-4a
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 10:5-10
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 1:30-45

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Remembering in faith is not an invitation to look back.  Rather, it is the challenge to make present and so be inspired to look forward with confidence.  In the Eucharistic Prayer, in the words of institution, Jesus says to the Assembly: Do this in memory of me.  That should translate for the Assembly as, do this and the whole mystery and I are present.  The dying and rising are renewed and the Assembly is in the midst of the event that will not be complete until the end of time.  It is appropriate that our response then is a form of: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  We celebrate the full span of the mystery and are strengthened in the hope of the Second Coming.

What has been your focus during these Advent days?  By now there are not a few who are tired of all that goes on during the holiday season, that is, the way these days are played out in the world, all the pressures and demands and even the parties.  It is almost as though we are like the dancers in The Masque of the Red Death who think if they dance frenetically enough they will be able to ignore the plague that is ravaging their neighbors beyond the doors of the ballroom.  If we party enough and shop hard enough and laugh enough and do not give ourselves too much time to listen and reflect, we will be spared the direness of these times.  We will be spared having to think about the wars abroad and the divisions in our country.  We won’t have to think of the refugees at our southern borders, our brothers and sisters.  We will be able to forget about the 23 million people in Africa afflicted with AIDS, and the others suffering from malaria and sleeping sickness.  We will not have to think about those children in the war-torn countries in the Middle East starving to death and being crushed in the rubble of war.  

All the more reason we need Sunday Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist, this gathering of Church, so that we can put all of that suffering in context and find reason to hope, and even to find peace.

The Prophet Micah, in the only reading we hear of his in the Sunday Lectionary, proclaims a message of hope.  From a backwoods town of little significance, except for the fact that David was born there, will come the Messiah who will shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord (and) he shall be peace.  What might be missed in this joyful prophecy is this little phrase: Therefore the Lord will give them up.  Micah, who lived in post-Davidic times, saw a terrible invasion of foreigners who threatened to destroy the Kingdom.  What he saw to be at stake were God’s promise and the people’s need to hope in its fulfillment.  So, in effect, Micah said, in spite of the havoc and destruction that you are witnessing, God is faithful and from a young woman in Bethlehem a child will be born who will be the Messiah whose greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.  There may be nothing you are experiencing now to support the truth of this proclamation, but it is God’s promise and God who is faithful will not disappoint.

Many rejected Jesus as Messiah precisely because the longed-for Messianic Age did not follow.  When Jesus was crucified, all the disciples fled in horror except Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple.  The hopes of the disciples were dashed by the event that spoke only of defeat.  And, in the ages since that event, where has been that promised era of peace that should have reached to the ends of the earth?  The talk of Resurrection has not outweighed the sufferings that seem to deny Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, if we listen carefully, might help support our flagging faith in these difficult times.  Holocausts and sin offerings, i.e., offerings of atonement, were regular parts of Hebrew worship.  The lifeblood of animals was poured out and the carcasses were burned as signs of repentance and sorrow for sin.  The Writer proclaims that those kids of sacrifices no longer work before God.  Christ has come into the world to exhibit the response God longs for from God’s people: Sacrifice and offering (God) did not desire, but a body (God) prepared for me…Then (Christ) said, as is written of (Christ) in the scroll (Torah), behold I come to do your will.  In that declaration is our salvation.  In Christ’s will offering of himself and our Baptism into Christ we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The words take away the scandal of the Cross.  What the world sees as defeat is proclaimed to us as a victory.  At last there is the perfect response, the desire to do always God’s will.  That is the one sacrifice for all.  Do you remember that Jesus’ great challenge to those who would be his disciples, besides loving one another as he loves, was to take up the cross every day.  That is not an invitation to complacency, an excuse for ignoring the terrible things that happen in these times.  Rather it is a command to those who walk with Christ on the Way to enter into the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Christ and to work for the alleviation of those who suffer, all the while believing that the ultimate victory and vindication will be the sharing in Christ’s resurrection when he comes again.  

We are to work for the ends of wars.  We are to search for cures of the diseases that ravage the millions and make those medicines available.  We who have are to share with those who do not have so that the obscenity of poverty may be eased.  In all of this, we are to pour out our lives in service as Christ does.  Then we enter into the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Finally, in the gospel reading from Luke, we come to imagery that speaks of what we would rather hear during these Advent Liturgies, the coming birth of Christ.  Isn’t that what Christmas is really about?  Perhaps.  But there is more to the feast than that.  Were it solely that, we would be looking back.  Remember, in faith do not do that.

The pregnant Mary comes into the presence of her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth.  Mary, the young maiden, greets Elizabeth who was thought to be long past childbearing years. Nothing is impossible with God.  Mary, with the Angel’s words of Annunciation reverberating in her heart, comes to see the sign that will validate the message and assure her that it is God who is acting in her life.  When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the fetal John the Baptist leaps in her womb.  It is like a victory dance that someone does when s/he sinks a hole-in-one.  Elizabeth exults at the affirmation of her own faith, marveling that God has seen fit to bless her with this amazing grace.  But above all, it is Elizabeth’s moment to praise the one who believed that what was spoken to (her) by the Lord would be fulfilled.

Bear with me.  There is something more that I think we need to understand from this reading and about the coming feast.  If we believe that Mary is an image of and the mother of the Church, then shouldn’t we recognize the challenge the way Mary did?  The Holy Spirit came upon her and she conceived.  The Holy Spirit has come upon us, individually and collectively, and so do we conceive Christ in us.  The wonder of this feast breaks forth when we realize that God is inviting us each day to give birth to Christ in our times and situations.  Through the Eucharist we are transformed just as the bread and wine are into the Body and Blood of Christ.  We share the Meal and are sent to be Christ’s presence in the world.  The actions that we do in, with, and through Christ bring Christ forth to all we meet and serve.  The charity of our lives that has no other explanation than the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, strengthens the faith of the broken and down-trodden, and helps us all to believe that God’s promises will be fulfilled. For now (God’s) greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; (Christ) shall be peace.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus