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FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH – A December 29, 2019

A reading from the Book of Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 3:12-21
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Dear Friends in Christ,

The Sunday that falls between the feast of Christmas and New Year’s Day is dedicated to the celebration of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  It is a feast fraught with difficulties.  What are we celebrating?  What is the challenge that we are supposed to meet?  What is the conversion that the hearts of the Assembly should experience?

It would be easy to have a sentimental, albeit, a maudlin time imagining romantic creches with hovering angels and adoring shepherds and Magi.  We are quick to combining Luke’s tradition and Matthew’s.  Depictions of the Holy Family are always serene.  I will never forget an experience I had visiting a church when I was studying Liturgical Art and Architecture.   At the front of the church near the altar was a bronze rendering of the Holy Family.  There was Joseph at work in the carpenter’s shop.  Mary looked in from the doorway.  Both parents smiled as they watched their teenage son making crosses from pieces of wood taken from the floor.  What parents would be pleased to watch their child molding implements of execution?

If we listen, there is nothing sentimental in these readings.  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 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 err if we listen and only look back.  The proclamations 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, but to hear how the powerful can oppress the little ones, the poor, the vulnerable, and see this as a very real and present evil.  Recognize that there is one family of which we are all a part.  The poor and the vulnerable are our sisters and brothers.  God means us to live in community and love.  Do we recognize the Holy Family among those families seeking refuge at our boarders?  Do we see the boy Jesus in the cage with the other children separated from their families; in that 16-year-old boy who died of the flu, whose body lay on the floor of the cage?

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, to the ones who nurtured from birth to maturity?  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 is for more than giving birth.  It may not always be the birth parents who are the nurturers.  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 when the birth parents are not able to do the parenting.

There are problems with the second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.  The first part of the reading is not problematic 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.  Doesn’t that mean that we ought to be willing to suffer with the suffering the way Jesus does, and not be embarrassed by their plight?  Should not compassion be normative in a faith community?  Those in the Church are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  I read what I have written 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 can only be all these for others if I am able to admit my own sins, shortcomings, and weaknesses, and admit that in all humility I will need the kindness, gentleness and patience of my sisters and brothers in Christ as I ask them to bear with me.

See how these Christians love one another.  That is said to have been 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 disciples.  

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.  Shouldn’t we be challenged to reflect our God who is lavish in mercy and forgiveness, by having the reputation for being good at forgiving and reconciling?  We might do a better job at that if we never forget the joy we feel in being reconciled and forgiven.

All I have written above challenges us.  Why did I say there were problems with the second reading?  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 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.  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 their room for subordination at all, since the two have become on flesh in Christ?  

Paul 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?  The text should not be used to support that horrid institution.  Nor should the preceding paragraph be used to justify the wife’s subordination to the husband.

It is good that we have the Feast of the Holy Family each year.  May the Holy Spirit help us to recognize that as we gather with our brothers and sisters around the Table, it is as equals that we gather, as family and as the forgiven , we celebrate and give thanks.  Then we are sent to proclaim love to all we meet.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

CHRISTMAS, THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD – December 25, 2019

Dear Friends in Christ,

God rest ye, Merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!  Remember, Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.  Recently, I saw an interview with Alec.  He is the severely disabled young man who is the spokesman for the Shriners’ Children’s Hospital.  Alec was born with a serious and life-threatening disability.  He has a rare fragile bone disease.  He is confined to a wheelchair.  He looks to be much younger than his 17 years.  He spoke with astounding maturity and wisdom in his interview.  Yes, he said, he has a short term life expectancy; but he feels privileged to be the spokesperson for other children who, like him, receive care from the Shriners’ Hospital.  He spoke of the blessings of his life, his love for his parents and siblings.  He thanks God for each day.  Let nothing you dismay, I thought.  And nothing will if we remember and believe what we celebrate in the Feast of Christmas.

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, as have the last several, has been filled with stories that could dismay even the stoutest heart.  There have been mass shootings practically every week, some of them taking place in mosques, synagogues and churches.  White Supremacists are vocal in their antisemitism.  Homeless people are living in tents and parked vans in many cities where prices of homes and high price of rentals put residences out of their reach.  Almost every day there are reports of domestic violence and violence in the streets.  Horrendous natural disasters have taken many lives and left survivors in dreadful conditions.

How long will the violence in the streets of Hong Kong continue?  People are fleeing their impoverished countries seeking a better life for their families.  Wars continue in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Children die of starvation while their helpless parents look on in grief.  There are children separated from their parents encaged at our boarders. 

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 of Christmas.  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 over come 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 creches should serve to remind the onlooker that this is not the most appropriate site for the birthing of a baby.  

There is powerful 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.  He 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 when we remember that 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, prostitutes and) sinners and eats with them.

What is the point of this demythologizing?  It is not meant to be a Bah Humbug a la Ebenezer Scrooge.  The romantic pastel scenes typical of the season get in the way of the power of the message meant to be proclaimed this day, a message meant to give us reason to hope.  Everything in the Christmas gospel narrative proclaims God’s infinite love for humankind, broken and sin-touched as we are.  God desires to embrace humanity and draw us into the community that is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  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 and 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, 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.  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 in our country.  The Infant confronts people of Christian faith.  In accepting Christ’s birth, in accepting that Christ dwells in us, we must accept the reality of community and communal responsibility that Christ brings.  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.  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, 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, those in dementia, 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.  And 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 – A – December 22, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 7:10-14
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 1:1-7
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 1:18-24

Dear Friends in Christ,

As we near the end of the Advent season, dare I ask you to consider what the season is supposed to be about?  And more to the point, has that been your experience?  Advent is meant to foster a spirit of pregnant longing for and eager expectation of God’s definitive action among humankind.  Perhaps because these times for many are dire, you will not allow yourself to enter into the darkness so that you 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 Ahaz, in our first reading, dared not to 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 tangible reality for him.  What could God do to alter that reality?

Have you noticed that in our times people are attuned to expecting instant gratification?  Why should material satisfaction be put off when it can be had now?  Some people do not diet and exercise to maintain physical fitness.  They have liposuction and plastic surgery to do it now.  

I remember the time when young couples began their married life in a rental, and looked forward to the time when they could make a down payment on a starter home.  Today those starter homes can have a three-car garage and a swimming pool.  

Should we be surprised that people do not have the emotional energy for Advent.  Living in hope does not resonate with them.  I want it and I want it now.

Instead of starkness and the four-week experience of darkness that looks forward to a great dawn with light’s return, well before the Advent Season begins, the signs of Christmas, its lights and carols, are everywhere.  It wasn’t that long ago that people waited for Thanksgiving before the lights went up and the carols began.  Now we are lucky if Halloween is over before it all begins.  No wonder that by the time the Day arrives, all the trappings look tired.  Who in these times could stand The Twelve Days of Christmas?  On the second day of Christmas, not a sign of the rest remains.

Would you believe that I can remember when Christmas began in our home the way it did in the church – on Christmas morning?  Sometime during the night, a tree was put up and decorated.  Wrapped presents were placed beneath the tree before my brother, sister, and I 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  reminder of God’s great gift of Love born this day.  In other words, we knew right from the start that this celebration was all about Jesus Christ and the peace and love he brings.

We need to experience Advent’s darkness and not fear it.  We need to experience silence and not dead it.  How else will we know Advent’s longing and hope?  In that darkness and silence, our defenses are down.  The events of these days can enter our consciousness where 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. Our guards down, we would see those classes of people that otherwise we might be tempted to ignore – the poor and disenfranchised, people of other races than ours, and of a different gender from ours, and have to admit that we are family.  We would have to ponder the telling of the statistics – the millions worldwide dying from starvation, the unconscionable portion of the worlds food and goods consumed by the small number of people living in this country in comparison to the world’s population, 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 profit’s sake, and on and on, all cries that the cacophonous din that regularly surrounds us and seeks to lure us might prevent us from noticing.

Advent is a time for silence.  In the silence we might recognize that the horrors in each day’s news are in the reality that faith brings – aspects of Christ’s passion.  Remember St. Francis’s realization as he kissed the leper?  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 and sealing the union forever.  It is the celebration of God’s love for humankind and the invitation to all to live in love and so find hope.

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.

Ahaz was challenged to ask for a sign that would give him reason not to yield to despair.  He could not do that.  But the sign was given anyway – a child who would be called Immanuel – God with us.  In Christmas we recognize that sign, God with us, Christ dwelling in us.  As we celebrate Eucharist this Christmas, if we listen, we will hear Christ challenge us to be that sign, God with us, today and so help the human family live in hope because of the love that surrounds us.

The story does not end in defeat.  It can’t God will not let it.  Isn’t that the Good News Jesus proclaimed?

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus