The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

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, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.

Christmas, by universal consent, is the season for family. It might also celebrate the birth of Christ or the winter solstice; it might be the time for office parties and benevolent distributions of food and clothing. Many exploit the sacred opportunity for another televised football game or consuming more alcohol. But Christmas is especially the season of family gatherings. “I’ll be home for Christmas – if only in my dreams” is sure to bring a tear to the sentimental and the lonely.
Memories of family, childhood, parents, brothers and sisters, games, quarrels, disappointments long-forgotten: all come flooding back as families gather. Some will remember the darkened church as they approached the Mass at midnight or dawn. Christmas, more than any other season, enfolds the past and present into its embrace with its hope for a peaceful future.
The Catholic Church overlays the Christmas season with a dense liturgical tradition; we will not let the Yuletide dissipate with the post-holiday rush to the shopping centers or desperate demands of business. Our sanctuaries are still festooned with evergreen trees, multicolored lights and, especially, the crèche. We sing now the ancient hymns we would not sing in Advent. We stretch the season as far as we can with the feasts of Saint Stephen, the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family, Mary the Mother of God, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.
So today we honor the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The Catholic Church, with a prophetic voice, reminds the world that human life begins not in the womb but in the family – with all its mystery, complexity and bewildering entanglement.
In today’s reading to the Colossians Saint Paul describes the virtues of the Christian church and family: heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.
Some people can dissimulate these virtues in public. To all the world they look like wonderful fathers and mothers, model husbands and wives. But the truth of their fakery inevitably governs the family. If the word of Christ does not dwell richly in that home, if the Holy Spirit finds no welcome under that sturdy roof and behind that garlanded front door, home can be a fearful place, best avoided and soon deserted. Many children prefer homelessness to such a trap.
But Saint Paul was neither romantic nor idealistic. He spoke from experience when he described the virtues of church and home. He described the life that comes to those who are governed and disciplined by the gratitude in their hearts.
And he knew very well the troubles that beset every family. The Roman word virtue assumes that human life is difficult and often overwhelming. Only the courageous maintain their integrity; most fall by the wayside. His litany of virtues invites us to examine our attitudes toward one another, to recognize our failings with neither shame nor reluctance, and to begin again – daily – the inspired life.
Many people set out to change the world; more often than not they abandon their families in the process. Inevitably their personal failures are shouted from the rooftop as their world-saving efforts crash and burn.
Charity begins at home. And that is why we need the inspiration of the Holy Family.

The Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 203

Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world. Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever.

The Divine Author of our first reading today, from the First Letter of Saint John, is concerned about sin:
I am writing to you, children, because your sins have been forgiven for his name's sake.
Let's parse that sentence: 1) the Author is concerned about his disciples and their appreciation of God's Gracious Mercy; 2) he wants them to know clearly that their sins have been forgiven; and 3) they should understand God has forgiven them "for his name's sake." 
There is an old, stale joke that runs like this: the child in a distant mission asks the missionary, "Let me get this straight. Before you came we couldn't attend Mass because you weren't here to say the Mass, and so we didn't commit sin by missing Mass. But since you have come, if we miss Mass it's a sin. Is that right?" 
"That's right!" says the slow-witted missionary.
"So why did you come?" asks the child. 
It would seem, for the missionary and his flock, the Good News is all about human sin and the punishment that awaits the sinner. The Joy, Freedom, Grace and Communion of the Gospel have disappeared somewhere; if the Gospel is "good news" it certainly doesn't feel like it. 
There is a stage of maturity when the child -- toddler, teen or young adult -- believes the parent is the "meanest parent who ever lived," because the parent said, "No." Although many people outgrow that stage as they come to honor their aging parents, they still believe the "Old Testament God" is the meanest God who ever lived. And, because they've not read either Testament, they think the "Jesus of the New Testament" is a nice god who lets them do as they please. (Somehow they overlooked the excoriating Matthew 25:41.)
It might be helpful to go back to the last four words of that brief sentence, "for his name's sake." You have been forgiven for his name's sake
At some point the child learns that he or she is not the center of the parent's universe. It's a hard lesson but necessary. 
Likewise, I am not the center of God's universe. While God has created me in the divine "image and likeness," and saved me by the death and resurrection of his "only begotten son," neither act was precisely for my glory. It was for His Name's Sake. 
So why does the missionary invite the villagers to come to Mass? To celebrate the Goodness and Beauty and Holiness and Wonder of Our Great Trinitarian God. 
There is no freedom, as the Greek dramatists knew so well, in hubris. Thinking "I'm so special" only alienates me from my family, friends, neighbors, enemies, God, the environment and, especially, myself. 
When we learn to say, "We have done only what was required of us!" or, with Saint Paul, "I am the least of his holy ones!" we begin to see the enormity of our sin and the Enormity of God's Gracious Mercy
The challenge of Christian life is to remain (consciously, mindfully, intentionally, with full awareness) in that swirling enigmatic eddy between the enormity of my sin and the Enormity of God's gracious mercy. I cannot lose sight of either truth. I am a saved sinner; a sinner who is saved by God's superabundant goodness, not for my sake but for the sake of His Name. 

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Lectionary: 202

"Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel."

As the year comes to a close the liturgy offers these words of the faithful Simeon who, like many of us, prayed often. 
In one of the parishes I served there was a gentleman who entered the church as soon as the door was opened and remained there until it was locked at night. I was told he wanted to die in church, although he was not elderly and, except for his mind, in good health. The pastor didn't mind this oddity because he saw everything that went on and, though quite defenseless, prevented vandalism by the neighborhood imps. 
Perhaps his fellows regarded Simeon with the same amused tolerance. He watched all the infant boys as they were brought to the temple by their young, happy parents. They surely knew the prophecy as well as Simeon but lacked his ardor. After a thousand years since Nathan's prophecy, what were the odds that the infant messiah might appear now? And who would know him, anyway? 
But, Saint Luke tells us, Simeon had been assured by the Holy Spirit that he would see and recognize the infant when he arrived. If no one else believed his private revelation, he kept faith with it.
So on that particular day another couple brought in another baby boy. The young woman carried the infant as the young man carried the offerings of the poor -- a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Perhaps they stood in line with dozens of other couples. There could be nothing unusual about their clothing or demeanor. Everyone assumed a reverential posture in the temple, especially young people in the presence of elders. Those who could afford to offer a lamb or shepherd were probably treated with some deference; the rest were riffraff, honored more by the Lord than by the guardians of the temple. There was no end of their kind. 
But when this particular couple entered something lit up within Simeon. "There he is!" his soul was shouting. With an old man's impetuosity Simeon ran at the couple. 
I am always astonished at what happened next. "He took the baby in his arms!" 
Imagine the shock that came over the young couple as this old fellow snatched the child from Mary. The watchers must have been aghast; the other elders murmured, "O Lord, now what's he doing?" 
But Mary with the same Inspiration surrendered the child and heard his prayer,
"Lord now you let your servant go in peace...." 

In our Night Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours ("Compline") we recite this passage daily. Every day we declare again, "...your word has been fulfilled." Whether the day was routine or extraordinary, pleasant or painful, reassuring or distressing, we declare again, "my own eyes have seen the salvation..."  
It came to us in our prayers and our works, in the kindness of friends, family and strangers, in the routine and the unusual. In the spirit of Job who said, "We accept good things from the Lord, and should we not accept evil?" we declare with the confidence of faith, "This is the day the Lord has made!" 
During this Christmas season, as 2017 draws to an end, we can sing again, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord...." 

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

Lectionary: 698

God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, "We have fellowship with him, while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth.

Mystical writers in the Catholic tradition like to remind us the Cross is entirely beautiful and entirely graceful. In the cross “there is no darkness at all.” Saint John echoes that sentiment throughout his Gospel and Letters, “the light shone in darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.”There is a raw courage in such statements because jaded and cynical critics of the Gospel can see only the horror of crucifixion. Given today’s feast of the Holy Innocents they must ask, “Is this child worth the massacre of baby boys in Bethlehem?”
There really is no answer to that question. Once it has been sounded the rational mind reels to find an explanation and none is forthcoming. The bible scholar’s suggestion that this incident, though plausible given King Herod’s reputation, is probably apocryphal – doesn’t mollify anyone. If the story is not historically true it is nonetheless true that tyranny has slain millions of innocent and defenseless persons. Does human life in all its splendor justify such atrocities? 
Nor does apostasy give any relief. Although some lose their faith in God after suffering trauma, their suffering is only compounded by the choice of atheism.
I return to that mysterious expression of the other day, that “you neither earned nor deserve this….” this blessing? this curse? Are they perhaps the same thing?
The mystic declares there is no shadow in the cross because, speaking only for herself, her wounds were flooded not with infection but with grace. I don’t suppose she arrived at that mystical insight in one night. Rather, it came to her like the dawn, gradually.
But the healing is so marvelous she hardly remembers her distress; as Jesus said,
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world.
Jesus honors the distress we feel as we reflect on the death of the Innocents, and especially on the horrors we still witness in the evening news,
So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. On that day you will not question me about anything. Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.
We have seen this mystery in the life of Mary. She did not ask to be the Mother of God and did not expect the death of her son but received both in the confidence that God is worthy of all her faith, hope and love.
Unearned blessings and undeserved curses, accepted gratefully and with an open heart, usher us into God’s presence. Impelled by the Holy Spirit and escorted by the Son we kneel before God the Father.

Feast of Saint John, Apostle and evangelist

...what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Saint John is represented with an eagle; Matthew, Mark and Luke are represented by a man, a lion, and an ox, respectively. While the synoptic gospels tread the earth, John soars in the lofty sky.
And yet this gospel is also deeply political; John's gospel reports on the closed meetings of the Sanhedrin, their
spies in Bethany, Jesus' prophetic "cleansing" of the temple and the official response, and the trial before Pilate. If the Gospel soars in the heavens its Jesus lives in this messy, mysterious, dangerous world.
But he is not of this world; he has come down from above and will re-ascend to the heavens. Jesus demonstrates an authority and freedom beyond anything his friends or enemies can comprehend. He is like a three dimensional person in a two dimensional world.
"Where do you come from?" Pilate asks because he hasn't a clue.
"We know where he comes from!" the crowds say of him, thinking he came from Nazareth.
"Where do you stay?" John's disciples ask.
His response -- to those prepared for it -- "Come and see."
No one should read the Gospel who is not prepared to go with the Lord. It is not written for non-believers; it is not written for the merely curious.
Saint John's Jesus often seems unreasonable. He demands faith but his explanations make no sense to those who do not live in his world; this gospel is not "apologetic."
But Jesus' reasoning is deeply, profoundly rational to those who live in the Truth.
Buddhism, arriving in America, has often challenged "western thinking." I remember one story of western psychologists who wanted to study what happens in Zen meditation. They put electrodes on the gentlemen's bare skulls, much to the amusement of the monks. "Why are you studying our skulls and not our entire bodies?" they asked. But the western scientist saw the brain as the home of the mind; the body, as the brains' suburbs. Buddhists showed the West the narrow limits of our "open-minded" scientists.
At the same time western post-modern philosophers have become aware of the "lens" through which people see the world. Conflicts can sometimes be resolved when the debaters realize they're looking at the situation with different lenses. When they agree on a particular lens they can sometimes find unexpected agreement. Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus; but they can agree to live together on Earth.
The Truth that Jesus reveals surpasses all human thought. In fact, it is virtually impossible for us to see or imagine his reality without his Revelation. Or to put it another way, without the Holy Spirit "God lives in unapproachable light."
And yet, when we have received and welcomed that Spirit, we say, "Of course! Why didn't I see that before? How could I be so foolish?"
The Gospel of Saint John must be read, pondered, discussed and celebrated endlessly; it is a bottomless well of inspiration and wisdom, a gift for the ages and a treasure for every believer.

Feast of Saint Stephen, first martyr

Brother will hand over brother to death,
and the father his child;
children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but whoever endures to the end will be saved."

When I was ordained, forty-some years ago, many people regarded martyrdom as an unfortunate legacy of the past. It seemed totally unwarranted. One priest told me nothing was worth the price of his life; one well-known religious author “proved” by her study of ancient texts that patriarchal church leaders had celebrated the virgin martyrs to enhance their own authority. Martyrdom, in the age of Individualism, was an anachronism.
There was tension in the United States in those early years after we pulled out of Vietnam and drove President Nixon out of office. But the general trend was toward somnolence. “Our long national nightmare is over!” said President Ford.  Let the Cold War play itself out in Afghanistan; let Communism collapse under its own criminality; let the Baby Boomers settle into the ticky-tack consumerism they had pretended to despise; let’s just get along with each other.
The times have changed. Oddly, it was an unorthodox sect of Islam that revived the word martyr. In defiance of the Koran and Muslim traditions, followers of Osama Ben Laden kill defenseless bystanders with suicide bombers and call the murderers “martyrs.” That was and remains a usage utterly alien to Christian doctrine and tradition. Martyrs die defenselessly; some, because they refuse to participate in warfare.
The feast of Saint Stephen, following hard upon Christmas, recalls the original meaning of martyrdom. It is about freedom; it is not about a way of life; it is about love; but not about the defense of one’s family or tribe; it is about personal integrity which is grounded in the Love of God rather than passing allegiances. Martyrdom is an unsought privilege given only to a few.
The word, from its Greek origin, means witness, and reminds believers that we are necessarily witnesses. Whether we are clergy or laity, contemplative monks or active religious, martyrs emphatically remind us of Saint Augustine’s teaching, “It always takes courage to tell the truth.”
It especially takes courage to speak and hear the truth in our polarized age. As tensions mount and voices sound louder and louder, the courageous witness ponders the deep truths of our faith. It is not enough to oppose abortion; we must reconsider consumerism, which is at the heart of many controversial issues. Conservatives and liberals agree more than they disagree: “I have the right to get what I want.” Pro-abortion and pro-gun factions want to purchase as much of what they want when they want it regardless of the consequences to anyone else. Abusers of alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription medicines sign onto the same creed. Even if a South American nation is overwhelmed by drug cartels, I must have my stuff!
Christian Witness begins with self-restraint. We don’t buy just because we want. Our life is anchored in God’s benevolence and not in any privileged or fictitious right.  With the Lord who might have commanded twelve legions of angels, we prefer weakness to power.
That is Saint Stephen's challenge to us during this Christmas Season. He encourages us to speak, live and be the truth by our presence and our absence, by our words and our silence. The world might not love us for it, but we knew that already.

The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

Readings for the Mass at Dawn

Christmas offers a cornucopia of collects and readings for four different Masses: the Vigil, Midnight, Dawn and During the Day. This year I've  chosen to reflect on the second reading of the Mass at Dawn, from Saint Paul's Letter to his disciple Titus.

When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

I have known people who contracted fatal lung cancer or heart disease who were never overweight, who never smoked, and lived in a clean, responsible manner. "How fair is that?" everyone asks.
I was rather distraught when I met one such friend, and I blurted out, "It's like grace; you didn't earn it; you don't deserve it." That odd expression came to me like a minor revelation. I share it only occasionally with Veterans in the VA hospital.
In this reading from Titus, Saint Paul insists that God has blessed us "not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy. In other words, it's like the fatal illness of my friend -- we have not earned this blessing, nor do we deserve it.
This doctrine of grace at the very heart of our religion continually challenges Christians. It is so astonishing that many people cannot imagine it's so important, or that any religion might promote such an idea.
This Grace is freely given, as in gratuitous. We should ponder this mystery hoping that its truth might discover and transform those dark, rebellious impulses in our hearts that shun the light.
This grace is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, a small offer or divine suggestion that, received, won't make much difference anyway.
As we consider this mystery, we stand amazed at its dimensions, that God would give his only begotten son for our salvation.
Because it's so unexpected, many people cannot hear it. They expect a god with demands, who says "You can do better!" but offers little help in that direction. In many cases their god is a misrepresented "old testament god" of arbitrary wrath, eager to punish and loathe to show favor.
Beyond its unexpectedness, this teaching seems somewhat too personal. It's like more help, more love, more "juicy, choice wine" than anyone should want.
Perhaps that's why the Lord comes to us as a baby. Which first-time parents, looking at their infant, are not astonished at the gift, and overwhelmed? This grace is unbearably beautiful, but equally terrifying in its vulnerable helplessness. "Is this our child?" they might ask. "Do we deserve such trust, such responsibility?"
The infant, totally helpless, will require all of their devotion and all of their love. There is no room for self between the parent and child, or between the infant's parents. And even as they give their all they will realize they have received more than they can possibly give. 
Human life, with its preference for normalcy and predictability, is sometimes shaken by tragedies undeserved and unearned, but it is also immeasurably blessed by the Child who has loved us. This infant, unearned and undeserved, is a  bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, richly poured out on us.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 11

"The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I 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. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever."

There are several references to King David in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Indeed, if you wanted Jesus' attention your best bet was to shout, "Son of David, have pity on me!" -- like the blind man of Jericho.
If the prophecies concerning the once and future king were to be fulfilled, the Messiah would be a direct descendent of Jesse's youngest and least promising son.
By any standards, David is a fascinating character. I doubt he'd past muster as a saint. A warrior, tactician, politician and philanderer; a father of twenty children by several wives, he loved the Lord who had chosen him from the sheepfolds to depose King Saul, rout the Philistines, unify the disparate Hebrew tribes and create a new kingdom. Fun-loving, handsome, loyal: David was as good a king as he was a shepherd, with the same courage and open-hearted affection.
Unfortunately, as he built his kingdom, David paid little attention to the conflicts among his several wives and their children. That oversight would erupt in civil war and the death of his preferred son, Absalom.

Nor was he to build a temple for the Lord; there was blood on his hands. That project was left to his son Solomon, a clever bureaucrat with a weakness for foreign affairs.
Whatever may be said against King David, he was charismatic; loved by his soldiers and his people -- who forgave him much. He did not forget his humble origins and could always be reminded that God had rejected Saul and elected him to lead God's chosen people.
Today's first reading recalls the gratuitous promise God made to David, a promise that seems almost impossible to keep:

Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever."
Forever is a long time; it must include a lot of history. David's historical "house" -- the dynasty that ruled in Jerusalem -- actually survived intact for more than four centuries. Though his kingdom split into two parts, his descendants ruled in Judah until the Babylonians demolished the capital Jerusalem in 586 bce.
By the time the Angel Gabriel arrived in Mary's house even more history had passed. Several empires had conquered Jerusalem and then collapsed. Oppressed under layers of Roman occupation, Herodian quislings, pompous Pharisees and sanctimonious Essenes, the anawim (the faithful poor) could only hope the "once and future king" -- the Son of David -- would appear.
When a certain young woman prayed, asking the Lord to send his Messiah, she could not have imagined that the Lord had heard her prayer or that she had found favor with God. ​But when the Angel told her "the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father..." she knew exactly what he meant.
These readings from Second Samuel and the Gospel of Luke remind us of who is coming -- the Son of David. That's not a title we often hear, but if we would welcome Jesus we should understand this name.
It invokes the historical dimension of all reality, and of our faith in particular; a history that remains even before those who ignore or deny it. Our historical faith means nothing to those who believe history began the day they were born; or that Christianity began the day they were baptized. Our historical faith means nothing to those who ignore the nineteen centuries between the first and twenty-first. They create a Jesus according to their own fancies without reference to his Davidic lineage or Jewish history. They dismiss the "organized religion" which has kept his memory, the communion which has survived only by the Holy Spirit. "Son of David" reminds us that Jesus, like every child born of woman, comes to us with baggage. He cannot be idealized to fit our theories of what or who the God-Man should be.
The name reminds us that everyone has baggage that cannot be shucked off because it's a bit unseemly. If we welcome that person in whatever form -- as entertainer, pro athlete, politician, lover, spouse -- we must come to terms with their past.
Jesus redeemed his ancient ancestor, the flawed King David. As we welcome the Son of David we invite him to redeem our past as well.

Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, bishops

Lectionary: 520/321

“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”

The critic will point out that the mustard seed is a low-lying bush; Jesus is using typical Hebraic exaggeration when he calls it "the largest of plants." 
Moving beyond that carping, let's notice how the "birds of the air can dwell in its shade." They hide in the bushes, invisible and out of reach to the prowling raptors. Backyard bird watchers are advised to place bird feeders close to dense bushes, lest the hawks and owls catch them in the open. 
"His eye is on the sparrow" and the Lord provides a necessary shelter for his little ones, those who "play my drum for him," and donate their small copper coins. 
I don't know if the mustard seed is a nuisance bush like many invasive species, especially the buckthorn in the United States. But I'll take a preacher's liberty and suppose the Kingdom of God is also like an invasive species. It creeps into overlooked places like prisons, nursing homes, military barracks and slums while political and economic "raptors" are looking elsewhere. They might rid the universities, government and major corporations of the Gospel but they can't be bothered with the hovels of the poor. When they notice its abundance they dismiss it as the worthless succor of the insignificant. 
The clever buckthorn spreads in two ways. Animals eat its succulent berries and distribute seeds throughout the neighborhood as the indigestible pits pass through them. And its roots spread through the ground, resurfacing at some distance from the mother plant. Ridding one's wooded copse of these plants takes years of persistent labor. 
Likewise, the Kingdom of God spreads through the people who welcome its message. Their peaceful, confident generosity invites the disheartened and the lonely to ask the reason for their hope.  They need only an invitation, "Come and see!" 
Pope Benedict optimistically saw how secularized Europe retains its Christian culture with thousands of churches, shrines and monasteries. Even the ruins speak of peace. Rooted in history and culture, the very stones announce the gospel to later generations. 
These seem like hard times for the Church and the Kingdom of God. Economic prosperity offered opportunities for secular and heretical "gospels." Many people believed they could have all this and heaven too!
But the Gospel has always thrived in hard times. It takes root and deepens through droughts, fires, and floods. Even as preying raptors soar aloft, praying sparrows find shelter in its thick, impenetrable branches. 

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 199

He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver
that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD.

In the Catholic imagination, Saint John the Baptist is often supplanted by two lesser scriptural persons, Mary and Joseph. There are solid theological reasons for Mary's preeminence; she is the sinless, immaculate Church who remains forever inspired, maternal and obedient. Joseph represents the heroic father who silently and without hesitation sacrifices everything for his wife and son. When marriage in the secular culture is replaced by "cohabitation with benefits and without children" we must celebrate Mary and Joseph. 
Unfortunately, there are also reasons to overlook the Baptist. He is the prophet who disturbs people, even as an infant. Elizabeth's family and friends complained, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." 
The Lord speaks to us as a reassuring father and comforting mother, and as a scolding prophet. John is the scold.
Historians describe how the Church lost its prophetic edge when it became the official religion of the (doomed) Roman Empire. When the decadent government fell under the pressures of internal corruption and external threat, bishops and priest stepped forward to govern. Saint Augustine's City of God lent credence to the notion that a theocracy should replace empire. 
At that point, historians say, the Holy Spirit drove men and women into the hinterlands beyond the cities where they could live in hermitages and monasteries. Scandalized by the compromises of a sacralized government they tried to live the Gospel in its purity, without the complexities of marriage, relatives and children.
That effort would bear much fruit, especially as the monasteries taught civility, preserved learning and gave birth to universities; but by the 16th century reforming Europeans were ready to take back the authority, wealth and land the monks had amassed. 
Finally, in the 20th century and the Second Vatican Council, the Church admitted we were improved by the loss of civil authority and the Papal States. Hopefully, after being relieved of these burdens the Church can resume its ministry of prophecy.
But challenges remain, especially given our history. We have supported warfare and blessed it with a "just war theory," as if wars need justification. (They happen anyway.) We have reluctantly admitted the state should not execute criminals, although bishops condemned "heretics" to death. Even in the United States where the Church could never declare war or execute prisoners we owned slaves and hesitated to evangelize non-European immigrants. We reluctantly opposed racism and environmental degradation. Even as the pastor complained about consumerism he knew many of his parishioners were merchants; they hoped for -- prayed for -- a bountiful Christmas. We found our prophetic voice in the abortion controversy but have been whipsawed by the "priest pedophilia scandal." Often we demand that the world show mercy to the needy; as often they scold our hypocrisy. 
And so John the Baptist still takes a back seat to Mary and Joseph, despite his preeminence in the four Gospels. During this Holy Season we hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness and we confess our sins. His complaints are justified. We acknowledge our guilt and celebrate the Birth of Jesus. For, as the Prodigal Father said, "We have to celebrate!

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Mary's Magnificat has been called the most revolutionary song in human history. The word revolution suggests a revolving wheel as the the powerful and wealthy are laid low while the disenfranchised and despised are raised up. 
But the revolution usually involves upheaval. The Church has seen much violence; both as victim and, sadly, as perpetrator. But our deepest desire is to avoid savagery and cruelty as the Kingdom of God descends like gentle dew on the earth. Mothers of young men dread the moment their sons are called to military service. The Veterans I meet are proud of the sons who have volunteered but wish it were not necessary. Many see little point to warfare of any kind. They wonder why we do it. 
I cannot believe that Mary sings of violence, anarchy or chaos as she anticipates her first born son. She is celebrating the justice which must surge like waters and righteousness like an unfailing stream.
She is eager for the day when Isaiah's prophecy will be fulfilled: 
Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above,
like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down.
Let the earth open and salvation bud forth;
let righteousness spring up with them!
The peace this world gives is laced with merciless brutality, often bordering on sadism. We confine miscreants in solitary confinement; we drain weaker nations of their natural resources; we strangle disagreeable nations with embargos of food and medical supplies. We promise relief if they will comply with our standards, but when they surrender our new legislators dismiss the old promises. 
Mary -- the Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son and Spouse of the Holy Spirit -- understands that peace begins with the fear of the Lord. Her willing, docile spirit listens for the subtle promptings of that ruah which formed the Earth from stardust and the human being from mud. Her actions, reactions and responses wait for the word of direction:
Yes, like the eyes of servants
on the hand of their masters,
Like the eyes of a maid
on the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes are on the LORD our God,
till we are shown favor. Psalm 123
 Her spirit rejoices in God her Savior.

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent

Thursday of the Third Week of AdventLectionary: 197

"O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely."

Artists have often used the technique called chiaroscuro to depict the Christmas stories. The word is Italian, combining chiaro, meaning light as in clarity, clear and Clare; and scuro, meaning darkness and obscurity. The effect is of brilliant light shining in deep darkness. The shepherds arrive in dark night at a brilliantly lit barn. The magi find a gleaming child in the darkness; their faces turned toward him are lit while dark shadows fall behind them.
Oddly, the Church places several dark stories like the martyrdom of Steven, the Holy Innocents and Saint Thomas Becket after Christmas. The whole season before and after Christmas is chiaroscuro. Today, the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice, is one of those brilliant days.
Today's first reading is lit by the imagination of young lovers who cannot suppose their married life might ever face darkness or difficulty. They have found perfect happiness in each other. As one fellow said, "Being in love is the happiest ten minutes of your life."
The happiness of those moments is so sweet, it is almost unendurable, pursued as it is by a relentless anxiety. "What if this doesn't last? What if I am mistaken? What if my lover betrays me? What if I am not worthy?"
But, despite our misgivings and crushing disappointments, we keep returning to our songs of love,

"O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely."

Christmas reminds us to be silent, to hush the voice and the mind and let the Infant sleep undisturbed in our arms. Christmas reminds us that our happiness is not so terribly important after all. What is important is this Baby who must sleep, suckle, and be protected; who must be spirited into Egypt in the middle of the night. We ask only that, when you awake, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and you are lovely.

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!

As you remember from this familiar passage, King Ahab refused Isaiah's command; he would not ask a sign from God. "I will not tempt the Lord." he piously declared as if he were a pious person. His hypocrisy reeked like King Herod's, many centuries later.
But the Lord will give a sign, beautiful, astonishing and unprecedented. A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.
Knowing the mysterious birth of Jesus, the Evangelist recognized this passage immediately; it was fulfilled in the life of Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection were indeed signs deep as the nether world and high as the sky!!
These signs were further confirmed by the Gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Without God's Spirit of Wisdom to enlighten our minds the most convincing signs and most obvious scriptural texts sail right over our heads.
Mary, the young woman of Galilee, inspired with Wisdom and uninhibited by ego, needed only a word of reassurance -- "Do not be afraid! -- and a word of explanation, 
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
We spend our lives pondering these words and wondering what they should mean to us. Mary knew and the future brought further explanations as she traveled with Joseph to Bethlehem, Egypt, Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum and Jerusalem. Grace upon grace revealed what it means to share life and communion with the Son of God. 
Even yet we ponder these mysterious words as they guide us through dark and confusing times. 

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

Lectionary: 195

But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard."

We are rapidly approaching Christmas and our gospel readings during these last days are taken from the "infancy narratives" of Saints Matthew's and Luke's gospels. The first readings are selected to remind us of the Old Testament promises fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.

Advent reminds us of our hope for salvation; current affairs remind us that we cannot save ourselves. Try as we will to right wrongs and distribute blessings we never quite manage to remove the self from our decisions. We might give, but only so much; we might allow for differences but only so far; we might trust but only within certain predetermined limits. We are not prepared to act selflessly, or surrender everything that the crisis requires.
But we do pray even from within our reservations and reluctance. We ask God for help. The Angel Gabriel arrives to assure us, "Your prayer has been heard."
God might not provide the help we expect or prefer. The Lord rarely acts as an aide or assistant, especially when our schemes are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. In fact we have a saying about that, "When the gods want to punish someone they answer their prayers."
Ours are the Lord's, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven..."
The movie Polar Express ended with a solidly Christian message, "Just Believe," though somewhat distorted by the image of Santa Claus.
We believe the Lord's Prayer cannot be disappointed and our prayer cannot be frustrated. We pray with Zechariah and with Mary for the Coming of the Messiah; and Gabriel comes to assure us, "Your prayer has been heard."

Monday of the Third Week of Advent

"Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."

How would our children react if Santa Claus came but brought no presents. "Here I am!" he might say, with his arms wide spread, his familiar white beard and beautiful smile.
Would they squeal with delight at his coming, or look around to see where he must be hiding the sack of toys?
The Lord gives us wonderful gifts but they're not always what we had in mind, not even remotely. Where we want prosperity, comfort, luxury and security he gives us courage, generosity, willingness and fidelity.
These are the presents that come with his presence for they abide in God. Without him we cannot have them. Sometimes the saints complain about his apparent absence until they realize they are still practicing charity despite their intrusive thoughts; still waiting despite their impatience; still hopeful despite their fears.
One troubled night, as Joseph pondered what he was supposed to do about the woman he loved, who was bearing a child not his own, he discovered that fearless, confident, generous spirit in his heart. "God is with us!" he heard in the darkness; and he knew the "us" included his beautiful espoused wife.
Whatever happens, whatever threats we face; whatever misgivings we suffer, God is with us. This is the promise and the joy of Christmas.