The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 204

A Moment Passes by with Every Breath

A moment passes by with every breath
And the future, channeled through this gap of now
Gives way to a backlog of opportunities
Lost, never reclaimed or rediscovered
Even as an infinity of futurities unimaginable
Eagerly pile up behind this narrow strait.

Dear Aging Heart, we have walked an older street
With anguished time forgot and labored breath,
Navigating cycles of years with imagined
Pleasures that seemed so real then, but now
They reel like errant importunities.
Can memories unlimited discover

In rude stories unrued, undiscovered
Airs or gusts of goodness? The straight
Path on which I set out despite the portents
Was fair enough, I think; and yet I breathe
Worrisome belabored stories and I know
That no one – or few – can imagine

The troubles I have caused. But doesn’t Imagination
Work with Grace and Bliss to cover
The past in future glory? And the now
Has a mystic, magic madness that straightens
Twisted, tortured traumas until their breath
Comes easily and their importance

Resounds like blessed opportunities.
No one on this side of the grave imagines
The endless openings that curl and wreath
Even yet around each unrecovered
Moment of the past. An amazing now,
Bending under futures’ pressures straightens

And heals even that most regretted traitor’s
Kiss. It harrows hell and finds unfortunates
Who could not imagine or dream a knowing
Happiness. Their lives lost and unmanaged,
Unremembered shall be recovered
And they will rise up breathing.

Breathe now, my heart, and
let these opportunities discover
Streets beyond all imagining.

          Fr Ken Bartsch, OFM Conv

The Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 203

She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

Now that Christmas has passed and our neighbors have taken down the decorations and showed the door to the Christmas tree, we can return to our regular programing – “worshipping God day and night with fasting and prayer.”

In his stories about the birth of Jesus, Saint Luke tells us of “all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” They are represented by Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth; Joseph and Mary; the shepherds; the old man Simeon and the old woman Anna; and the elders in the temple whom Jesus queried.

The devout -- those who pray daily -- should not claim to be the only saved souls. It’s simply not given to them to make such absurd statements. But they do serve a purpose in the Church. They keep the doors open; they keep the silence, the prayers and the tradition; they provide an anchor to those adrift.

I hear about such devout people often in the VA hospital. “My mother never missed a Sunday mass in her life.” “My grandmother said the rosary all the time.” “As he lay dying he fingered the I-V tube as if it were the rosary.”  

The devout always seem to be the last generation; when they’re gone the devotions will end. But they never disappear. We’ve all heard of the babushkas Lenin would not bar from the churches. He said they’d die out soon enough and killing old mothers would cost too much political capital. Seventy years later, Communism fell; they toppled the statues of Lenin; and the babushkas kept fingering their beads.

The devout “speak about the Child” to anyone who will listen. They keep the tradition because the Holy Spirit raises in every age a new generation of devout people. If necessary, “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” Praise God.

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Lectionary: 17

Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

Most priests, I venture to say, come from two parent families. Their parents were married only once and remained married until one of them died. In many cases the priests are members of a large family and, very often, they are first-born sons. 

That is certainly my story. We bring a certain bias to our notions of family. Eventually we have come to understand that, though our "family of origin" was not ideal, it was better than that -- it was real. Grace flowed into those real situations. It revealed itself by many healings, reconciliations and human satisfaction.

Catholic speak of the "real presence" of Jesus in the Eucharist. We should understand that our ideals become real in all the sacraments, including the Sacrament of Marriage. Outside of that covenant our expectations of commitment and promises of mutual sacrifice, are only notions, unbinding, agreements without substance. 

I have to confess, also, that I am impatient with other definitions of family. I don't believe an unmarried couple should call themselves a family. I think they do a severe disservice to their children. A child has a right to live in the home of his biological parents, who love one another and have made a public commitment to one another and their children. 

There is so much in life that is unreliable; every child learns that soon enough. He should be able to take his parents' love for granted. 

Couples who adopt children and love them as their own do heroic service. We should give them constant support. With God's grace they heal the child's abandonment; their reassuring love witnesses marriage which is founded not on human desire or human choice but on the Word of God

On Father's Day we honor all the men who are fathers of children. I do not want to be congratulated as one of them. I am not a father; I have no children. Let's not be silly when we honor those who have been given the vocation of parents. Mothers Day and Fathers Day belong to those who have earned the title. 

This Sunday between Christmas and New Years celebrates the web of human family in which God enmeshed himself. He would have a father and mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. They would treat him as one of their own and if he ever forgot his human nature they were quick to remind him of it. 

He learned to respect his elders and to watch out for his juniors. He was probably told whom to trust and whom not to trust; as an adult he would make his own decisions about those people but as a child he believed what he was told. Human beings are naturally suspicious of strangers and some people give us the creeps. His family encouraged those instincts. 

God wanted to see human beings with the eyes of a child, of a boy, of a teenager and of an adult. He wanted to love us with bonds of human affection as a son, grandson, nephew, neighbor and friend. He was not satisfied with the security of a lofty throne and the fond attention of angels. He had to know the rough and tumble of human life, with its innumerable misunderstandings and its habitual betrayals. He had to feel hunger and thirst, loneliness and fear -- torture and death. How could he love us without deep knowledge of such things? 

From his heavenly throne he might have given us advice, he might have enacted laws. They would be useless to us. God had to learn there is nothing ideal about human except its potential. 

We celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family in gratitude that God came to hide himself among us, to know what it is to be human, and to give himself totally to us in love without reserve. 

Jesus is the marriage of human and divine nature, uncompromising, sure, and beautiful. 

Gwendolyn Brooks has a wonderful poem reflecting on this mystery. 

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

Lectionary: 698

Had not the LORD been with us—
When men rose up against us,
then would they have swallowed us alive,
When their fury was inflamed against us.

In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov the "Grand Inquisitor" demands an explanation of the Lord, "Why do innocent children suffer?" 

This question has plagued our consciousness, especially since the First World War, which began in 1914, one hundred years ago. 

The Book of Job concerns the suffering of innocent people. We often hear the complaints of those who insist upon their innocence and think they deserve better treatment, The suffering of children is another thing. If not exactly innocent, they are defenseless and without guile. They should have every protection that families, neighbors, churches and governments can provide. 

But children often suffer precisely because they are defenseless. Their vulnerability seems to the vicious to invite harm. In the past few years we have heard much about "bullies" and wondered what makes them act that way. Is there anything we can do to protect children from bullying care givers, teachers, coaches and other children? 

I suppose bullying is common throughout the world, but we might begin by asking, "What in our culture encourages bullying?" Do our fixations on security, power and competition encourage humiliation of the weak and vulnerable. 

Bullying among adults gets less attention but is no less common. Nurses have raised the alarm in their own profession against "collateral violence." Adult bullying may not be physical; most of us have learned ways to insinuate, insist or throw our weight around to get what we want. If we treat other adults -- who are technically our peers -- in this way, should we be surprised that children are abused? 

On December 28 the Church remembers the "holocaust" of the Holy Innocents. They were the human sacrifices made by King Herod to insure his dominance in Jerusalem. 

Perhaps it's significant that Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" asks why do children suffer. He is, after all, the supreme bully whose insinuating questions trouble the devout believer. His question is disingenuous; he is not seeking Truth. 

It is tempting to answer him with reasons. We might say "God has a plan!" The biblical exegete might say this story simply compares Jesus to Moses, whose death was also heralded by a slaughter of baby boys. The historian could add, "This incident is not verified by historical fact!" as if the slaughter of children and the massacre of adults don't happen frequently in human affairs. They suggest we should think no more about it. As if we could dismiss such horror.

Our presumptuous bully might even demand of Mary, "Is your child worth the death of so many children? " 

The Munch Tree
at MSF
We know how any mother might answer the question; Mary must say the same: "I will not surrender my baby!" and we must stand with her.

If we cannot answer the cynic, neither can we ignore this story in the Infancy Narrative of Saint Matthew. It is a "true story" in the deepest sense of the word; it belongs in the narrative. In fact, the Church adds to the story by naming the children innocent, and calling them holy. We honor them as martyrs and grieve with their stricken families. Their spirits hover unseen and silent around every crèche even as the blood of Abel cried out from the earth.  

Joseph and Mary fled from Bethlehem impelled by the Holy Spirit. Jesus survived the massacre because "His hour had not yet come" but it would come soon enough.

That same Spirit will lead us from Bethlehem as disciples of Mary's Son to Jerusalem, Calvary and Easter. We must go with them -- in silence.

Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Lectionary: 697

Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed. 

The Church celebrates the Fourth Gospel on the third day of Christmas because this Gospel insists "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." 

Matthew, Mark and Luke are equally aware of Jesus' body, his very real presence and I am reluctant to say that Saint John says it better than any one of them; but we cannot let Christmas go by without reflecting on the "sarx" of Jesus, that flesh in which he appeared. 

Sarx is the Greek word for flesh, as in sarcasm, sarcoma and sarcophagas.  The word applies to both animal and human flesh. When Saint John tells us in the fourteenth verse of his first chapter, the prologue of the Gospel, "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" he leaves no possibility that the Son of God moving among us might have been an apparition or a specter. He was flesh and blood, bone and marrow. 

We have celebrated his birth of a Virgin in the last few days and, hopefully, our imagery has reminded us of his real presence among us. The manger and stable, the sheep and shepherds, Caesar Augustus' census, King Herod's ominous presence: these things don't belong in fairyland or Middle-earth. They are very familiar to us.

The Holy Spirit and the Church have continually tried to impress upon us this mystery of Incarnation. Saint Francis felt the urgency of Jesus' fleshy presence when he organized a Christmas midnight mass in Greccio. The earliest accounts of this story describe only straw, an ox and an ass but the people were overwhelmed by the experience. Could God be born as the smells of warm, familiar cowplop floated around his Virgin Mother?  

The young artist Giotto caught the spirit of Incarnation when he painted frescoes in the basilica of Assisi. On one side of the church he created frescoes describing the life of Jesus; on the other, scenes from the life of Francis. On both sides there were olive trees as might be seen in any part of the Mediterranean world. On Francis' side the visitor saw pictures of "the saint" walking amid the familiar buildings of Assisi. There he is walking right in front of the Roman "Temple of Minerva," which remains in Assisi to this day. 

The obvious lesson was, "If a saint could live in our town, the Lord God of heaven and earth could live in it too." 

If this doctrine doesn't astonish you, stop and think about it. It's really important that we "get it." Without the doctrine of the Incarnation, Christianity is only another silly religion, built on fantasies and myths:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

If we don't believe that "the word became flesh and dwelt among us" then nothing else we say or do can make a difference. Jesus makes no difference if he is only a story like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. 

If God has actually been born of Mary, lived in Galilee, died on Calvary and been raised up again, then the world can be saved after all. 

Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr

Lectionary: 696

…people from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.

In search of a quip attributed to Adlai Stevenson, I came across this appropriate quote,
Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty — so, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.

(I was looking for this story: When a woman called out to Presidential Candidate Adlai Stevenson, "Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!" he replied, “That's not enough, madam, we need a majority!”)

As we celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, we remember the wisdom and spirit which animated the first followers of Jesus. His disciples were well prepared to tell his story among the intellectual elite of the Greco-Roman world and in the slave quarters of the poor. What they said made sense to rich and poor alike, and they said it with great conviction!
If the story of God's becoming a human being, dying on a cross and raised up again seemed preposterous at first, when pitted against the challenge of redemption it made perfect sense. We could not be saved by any other act, divine or human.

Saint Paul, in his letter to the slaves of Corinth, showed how God’s wisdom astounded and overwhelmed human wisdom:
…we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (I Cor 2: 7-8)
He also spoke of God’s spirit, which is not like the human spirit,

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. (I Cor 2:12)
It would be easy to interpret the story of Saint Stephen as an example of enthusiasm. He seemed to be carried away by the Holy Spirit. That might lead one, in turn, to justify foolishness. We have all seen downright stupidity justified by Christian sincerity and enthusiasm. That witness does no service to the Church or the Lord. 

We have also seen "orthodox wisdom" lacking Spirit. It has all the animation of a busted balloon. 
Stephen was Wise in the Spirit and that is why his opponents could not dismiss him as another madman. He made perfect sense! They had to agree with him or kill him.

Our religious/political world is no less complex today than it was in Stephen’s day. It needs and deserves our wisdom and our spirit as we demand a fair hearing of the truth, and justice for all – born and unborn.

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

Mass during the Day

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
When he had accomplished purification from sins,
he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
as far superior to the angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Pope Francis recently described proselytizing as "pious nonsense." It sounded to many like a thunderclap on a cloudless day. As a Jesuit, the Holy Father understands with amazing clarity the mysterious ways of conversion. One human being cannot change another; no human being should attempt it. If we are sent to announce Good News that does not mean we can tell every human being what that Good News means to him or her. That they must discover within themselves, as the Light searches out the dark places and fills them with Life. 

This is how the Lord saves us: by his complete surrender to his helplessness as a human being. There was nothing he could do to change us. His preaching and healing and exemplary behavior may have excited some and inspired others but they did not effect change. His walking on water and calming the storm demonstrated his authority and awed his disciples but could not command their obedience. His feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread impressed everyone but, as Moses found when the Pharaoh’s magicians matched his signs with their own, nothing changed.

“What does it take to change these people?” he might have wondered, as we all do. From the manger, from Egypt, from his home in Nazareth and from the cross: Jesus saw everything that is unfinished, out-of-joint and wicked about human life. In the end, with his hands and feet securely fastened he could only watch and die. Jesus surrendered everything in a supreme act of faith. Despite every act of cruelty he had suffered and had seen, he believed in God who is Justice, Mercy and Goodness. His absolute love of every human being and the sacrifice of himself made all the
difference. He could do no more. 

When he had accomplished purification from sins,
he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
as far superior to the angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

On Christmas Day we celebrate the total surrender of God to human life. He has become like us in all things but sin. Nothing human is alien to God; even our helplessness is holy, beautiful and very good – as God intended from the beginning.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said: “Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Should you build me a house to dwell in?”

Our first reading today, from the Second Book of Samuel, tells how the Lord God blessed King David by the promise of an eternal rule. His descendants would always reign in Jerusalem. David might have supposed God was rewarding his fidelity but, in fact, God had plans far beyond David’s feeble imagination.

Christmas is almost upon us now and you can be sure millions of people are still frantically preparing for it. They have a thousand details to take care of, from shopping for that perfect Christmas gift to basting the Christmas turkey. The Lord might say to them, “Should you prepare a house for me to dwell in?”

The LORD… reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you

If David was as wise as he is reputed, he wanted most of all that God’s will be done. He had thought his capital city should have a world famous temple to honor the Lord of Heaven and Earth. It should be the envy of all nations, like the Tower of Babel. Everyone would want to see it, and those seeing it would want to worship its God. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do; bring everyone in and make them worship our God? That’s good, isn’t it?  

We are often so caught up in what we think is good we fail to notice God’s plans. When the Lord’s word finally breaks into our consciousness, sometimes with a mighty shout, we realize how absurdly small our great dreams were. We might as well light a candle to emulate the sun. Not even a hydrogen bomb can outshine the sun.  

“Should you build me a house to dwell in?” On Christmas Eve we realize it is time to stop, wait, listen and watch for what the Lord will do. We can extinguish our candles now, the sun is rising.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent

Lectionary: 199

Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me; And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek, And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire. Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

Shortly before I moved to Louisiana in 1988 I attended a workshop in Minneapolis. It was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and featured a well-known priest. He lived in Washington DC and lobbied the Senate and House about the Catholic Church's position on various topics.

On that occasion he spoke of the impending crisis of nuclear war. The United States and the Soviet Union were armed to the teeth and prepared to annihilate one another and the entire planet at a moment's notice. It was obvious to many people that the Communist Empire was crumbling under its own absurd ideals. There were no true believers any more; only the criminals remained to feather their own nests and oppress the peoples of eastern Europe and Asia. 

In the US there was a movement to unilaterally disarm our nuclear weapons. It struggled against a culture with a huge investment in, and a passionate love of, weapons of every sort.

As I drove home that afternoon I wept aloud. I had lived under the nuclear threat all my life. Even as a child we practiced bomb drills, hiding under our desks -- as if that would save us from anything. My folks talked about developing a fallout shelter in the basement of our house. On that pleasant spring day I believed we would never see the twenty-first century. I knew the United States would never allow itself to become a second-rate power so long as we had nuclear weapons. I supposed the Soviets had the same attitude. 

Then, suddenly, it was over. The Soviet Union collapsed. The bloc split apart, each nation going its own way. There was no World War III. True, there were wars in south-eastern Europe, the long delayed end of World War II but the world was spared a universal conflagration. 

Lake MSF
I did not think that history is capable of sudden, peaceful transformations. I had not heeded the prophecies from Medjugorge predicting a sign the whole world might see. I was proven wrong, thank God. 
And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 10

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Isaac of Stella said of Mary and the Church:  

In the inspired Scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the virgin mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary, and what is said in a particular sense of the virgin mother Mary is rightly understood in a general sense of the virgin mother, the Church. When either is spoken of, the meaning can be understood of both, almost without qualification. (complete text) 
This is a great challenge when many people claim fellowship with Jesus but want nothing to do with his Church. They are like the Charles Schultz's philosophical Linus Van Pelt,who said, "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand." 

In today's gospel we hear the story of Joseph taking Mary his wife into his home. To the young romantic this may sound wonderful, but we know it was for Joseph the beginning of a world of trouble. Not only was there a shadow cast upon her integrity, he would have to flee with her into Egypt, abandoning his livelihood, family and home for a long forced exile. 

Joining the Church can also be less than intoxicating. If it is pleasant at first there will certainly come a moment when we realize "the honeymoon is over." The Church is, after all, just people. The best of us are only somewhat better than the worst. There are naifs among us, but few innocents. 

A Christian should not entertain the notion that anyone can be saved, happy, content or satisfied in isolation. True, everyone should learn to enjoy the pleasure of one's own company. Fr. Juniper Cummings told me years ago, "You should be able to go to a movie, park or restaurant alone and enjoy it." 

But that privilege is only part of the fullness of human life. We need others. There would be no humans on this earth at all if we did not support each other. 

Mary welcomes each of us into the company of Jesus. She is the pure heart of the Church. Each of us will get to know him personally and each will have singular stories to tell about that relationship; but no one outside the Church will appreciate those stories. Without Mary there is no knowledge of Jesus. Her son is Our Savior. 

As Joseph took her into his home he might have sang our refrain, "Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory!" for he knew she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 

Joseph teaches us to love not the idea of "God" or "Jesus" or "Church;" but the real people with whom we live each day. 

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 197

Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come!
“For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.

We celebrate Christmas in the dead of winter, in proximity of the winter solstice, which is today. From now until June we will watch the Light of the World slowly, majestically return to its high throne in the sky. Perhaps this is why we hear today a reading from the Song of Songs, celebrating Spring. 

Christmas could be a vernal celebration. Saint Luke tells us the shepherds were keeping watch over their sheep in the fields when the angelic choir appeared to them. I understand they were out there, rather than in the village corrals, because the ewes give birth in the spring of the year. The corral, perhaps, was too crowded and chaotic for the ewes in their peril. Jesus is the Lamb of God; his birth in the spring would also be apt. 

Our first reading today from the Song of Songs celebrates the coming of God in the springtime, and the song of the lover, 
The winter has passed, the rains are over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!
We also find the springtime theme of rejuvenation and new life in last Sunday's first reading, from Isaiah 35:

The wilderness and the parched land will exult; the Arabah will rejoice and bloom; Like the crocus it shall bloom abundantly, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen hands that are feeble, make firm knees that are weak, Say to the fearful of heart: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall see, and the ears of the deaf be opened; Then the lame shall leap like a stag, and the mute tongue sing for joy. For waters will burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the Arabah. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water; The abode where jackals crouch will be a marsh for the reed and papyrus.

I often read this passage to the Veterans in the hospital as I administer the Sacrament of the Sick, especially during the Christmas Season. Isaiah's promise of restored vitality includes healing for human beings. We are part of God's creation and when God blesses us he blesses the land as well. There is no separating us from our earth. 

On the Winter Solstice the Church encourages us to hope in new, spring-like vitality for our land, our bodies and our spirits. We will feel not simply better, as if we might be willing to live another day. The coming of the Lord will restore the spring in our step, the sap in our veins and the zest of our love life. 

Friday of Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 196

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

I understand many new books about the Blessed Mother are being written, and there are many theological studies -- in Protestant circles. Worship of a man born in the ancient world must lead to fascination with his mother, and what little we know about her. 

Historical research gives us only a few clues. She would have known poverty and hard work; she would have seen and survived violence. Everyone in that place at that time saw violence. 

Recently, as the world buried Nelson Mandela, we have considered how violence usually breeds more violence -- and sometimes witnesses the birth of truly peaceful persons. 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph were such people. 

This is the work of God. No rational person can suppose that war must lead to peace. If the end of the Civil War bound warring states into The United States, it could not suppress racism, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, and linchings. The war still lingers in "second amendment rights" and its cost in human lives. 

God's goodness -- pure and beautiful and freely given -- finds willing persons and blesses them with peace. Such a woman was Mary. She could not imagine the trials she would suffer and the horror she would see, but she did not hesitate to accept the prophetic mission God gave her. 

She hurried from Nazareth to announce the Gospel to Elizabeth. Giving birth to the Word of God, she eagerly shared him with Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, and the faithful in Jerusalem. 

Historians can tell us very little about Mary. There is little "hard data." But theologians, poring over the Word of God as we find it in Scripture, tell us much. She is the Queen of Peace. She is the Mother of Mercy. She is theotokos, the Mother of God. 

Even without the infancy narratives of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, Christians would have to say, 
“Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.”

Thursday of Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 195

Then Zechariah said to the angel,
“How shall I know this?
For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Recently a woman, advanced in years, told me of the confusion and distress she has felt since beginning a Bible study.

I have read the Bible all my life, plus books and articles about the Bible, and several histories of Israel. Daily I celebrate the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours, which is 90% scripture. I can't say "I understand the Bible" but I found it hard to understand why Bible study should be so distressing.  

She explained she was trained in her Catholic faith in the 1940’s – a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In those days, despite two World Wars and uneasy memories of a Civil War, the Catholic Church seemed impervious to change. I could only assure the lady that our Catholic faith – our liturgy, prayers, traditions and doctrines – is solidly grounded in the Bible. Everything we believe and do flows organically from the scriptures; and, in fact, little has changed about it in the past half century. Except for some window dressing, the Worship of the Church has not changed at all! 
Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we live in changing times. Since I was born in 1948 the known universe has expanded exponentially; the known past has advanced by tens of thousands of years; technological abilities have stretched beyond my imagination. We have more knowledge and more access to knowledge than anyone could imagine 65 years ago. Meanwhile, species of plants and animals are disappearing as the earth warms. What is going on? 
The births of John the Baptist and Jesus signaled enormous changes in the religious universe for Zechariah and Elizabeth. The Evangelists document the signs of change: angels appear in dreams, sanctuaries and the heavens, to individuals and to groups of people; an elderly barren woman bears a son; and an unmarried virgin is pregnant. An old man cannot speak; a new star appears in the firmament; and children are given unexpected names. Eventually the blind will see, the deaf will hear, cripples will walk; the possessed will be freed and the dead will rise. What is going on? 
The truth be told, most of the Bible was written during times of uncertainty and change. Situated as they were in the middle of the Fertile Crescent, God's people were subject to one pillaging army after another -- on the way from Mesopotamia to Egypt and back again. Only the Word of God could survive such drama. 
The Bible knows change. Most of it was written for the sole purpose of preserving the religious customs, songs, stories and memories in the face of catastrophic change. In doing so it kept the memories of the patriarchs, bondage in Egypt, tribal alliances in Palestine, the independent Kingdom of David, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the Babylonian Captivity, the return to Palestine, and the Maccabean Revolt. 
Christmas teaches us to expect the unexpected; it teaches us openness to surprise, courage under adversity and hope for unimaginable blessings. Christmas reminds us the Earth has been turning for billions of years and solstices swept the land before the first human being was born. Christmas remembers when Jesus was born and the solstice was renamed. Everything changes; much remains the same; the Word of God endures forever. 

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 194

As king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah shall be saved,
Israel shall dwell in security.
This is the name they give him:
“The LORD our justice.”

The Christian tradition has always regarded this passage from Jeremiah as a very specific prophecy about Jesus Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians Saint Paul does not hesitate to give to Jesus God’s ancient title, The Lord our Justice (in Hebrew Adonai Tsidkenu.)
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the Righteousness of God in him. 2 Corinthians 5: 21

Jeremiah had prophesied that a man, the king of Jerusalem, would have that title, but no succeeding king had ever appeared to deserve it. The city fell to the Babylonian army as Jeremiah had foreseen. It was leveled by the conquering army, then rebuilt under Persian governors. Centuries passed. There was no king in Jerusalem.
There were only families who claimed descent from King David, as there are families in Hawaii today who claim royal lineage. Several Herods might claim the title but they were only puppets appointed and supported by Rome. The more feeble their claim, the more ruthless they became.
The apostles, recalling Jesus’ enthronement on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns and hailed as king by his tormentors, recognized that he is truly Adonai Tsidkenu.

Jeremiah's prophecy continues, 
Therefore, the days will come, says the LORD, when they shall no longer say, “As the LORD lives, who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt”; but rather, "As the LORD lives,who brought the descendants of the house of Israel up from the land of the north”– and from all the lands to which I banished them; they shall again live on their own land.
This passage has been interpreted as a foundation of Israeli irredentism, that the Jews should always return to Jerusalem and its environs as their native home on earth. You might recall The Exodus Song in the early 1960's:
This land is mine / God gave this land to me / This brave and ancient land to me
 / And when the morning sun Reveals her hills and plains Then I see a land Where children can run free
Christians may attach this prophecy to any place they like from North America to the South Pole, but Jesus made no such claim.
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

Our home is the Kingdom of God; our freedom is obedience to God's will; we are but sojourners in this world. If we are irredentists, it's of the spiritual sort. The Earth is our home and we should live anywhere God sends us. (Perhaps you saw the story on 60 Minutes this past weekend, of the Copts who have lived in Egypt since long before their hostile Muslim neighbors.) 

Today's gospel story, the first part of Saint Matthew's account of Jesus birth, reminds us of Jesus' homelessness. Despite Joseph's claim to Bethlehem as his native city and the house he apparently owned there, he would have to flee with his wife and child into Egypt.
The Royal Son of King David found no welcome in his native land or among his native people: 
He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.  (John 1:10-11)

Friars at Assembly
This is a terrible, beautiful irony, (which is one of the most important tools to our reading of scripture). We recognize our God by the welcome he did not receive in this world. Religious, political, economic, military and intellectual authorities did not bow down before him despite his manifest authority.

Rather, he was honored by poor shepherds and meek magi; he was protected by a defenseless Virgin and a homeless carpenter. Behold your God