Friday, December 30, 2011

Holy Family


                                 
                                    

Ordinarily the feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas but because Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, the feast was celebrated today on Dec. 30. 

It is appropriate that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas. Not only do we continue the narrative of the infancy of Christ but also at no time do families come closer together than at Christmas. However, there is a dark side. We all know that the Christmas season can strain and test family relationships.

Today's first reading from the Book of Sirach can be summed up in the great commandment to "honor thy father and mother." It would do us well to pay close attention to Sirach's words. He tells us that the authority of a father and mother come from God, and that it is ingrained in all of us. We would call it today a part of our genetic makeup. To depart from this practice violates our very nature and will only result in bitterness and unhappiness. 

In our time when so many of our parents can no longer take care of themselves, the words of Sirach are more important than ever.


            My son, take care of your father when he is old;
            grieve him not as long as he lives.
            Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
            revile him not all the days of his life.

In our culture the roles of father and mother have come increasingly under attack. Television and movies usually portray fathers as ignorant simpletons or as brutal abusers. This only reflects a culture where men casually urge their girl friends or wives to abort their own children. That men should act as guardians and protectors of their wives and children is now regarded as old fashioned and laughable.

In today’s gospel St. Luke tells the poignant and significant story of the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. Here Joseph and Mary fulfill their duty to “consecrate” their child to the Lord. Parents today do something similar when they bring their own newborn to church to be baptized. Maybe they don’t meet with such interesting characters or hear such puzzling prophecies, but they still should be amazed by what lies ahead of them and their child. The parents are taking on an awesome responsibility.


The role of father and mother is also the central theme of our passage today from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. How are we to understand this reading especially that controversial passage where St. Paul says, "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord."

We could say that Paul, like so many of his contemporaries, was a "sexist" who thought that women were second-class citizens. We could also say that since Paul never married, he knew nothing about the actual relationship of a man and a woman in marriage or the way they would arrange responsibility in a household even then.

However, we could also say that Paul was dealing in this passage with a very practical problem that had arisen in the early Christian churches, especially among the Gentiles. It would appear that the new faith was especially attractive to women. Scholars tell us that in pagan families it was often the woman who first converted to Christianity, and then subsequently brought their husbands and families into the fold. This is not unusual even in our time.

However, there were cases where the husband would not convert, and women in this situation wondered what to do. Should they stay with their pagan husbands or should they leave? Paul always urges them to remain faithful to their marriage vows. He knew that there was no social safety net for these women outside of marriage but he also argued that they would be better able to bring their husbands and families to believe by remaining married.

Finally, I think we could say that St. Paul is preaching a revolutionary new doctrine here. For a minute, let's concentrate on his advice to the men. "Husbands, love your wives." It is hard for us to realize that in the ancient world, love of a husband for his wife was not the ideal. Our idea of a young couple falling in love and dedicating their whole lives to one another was an alien idea in the ancient world. At that time and for centuries after marriages were arranged between families. A young woman or girl might only meet her future husband, often an older man, for the first time at their engagement. A woman was little more than a child-bearing machine. If she could not bear children, her husband was obligated to divorce her. As far as romantic feeling or sexual pleasure was concerned, a man usually found that outside of the bonds of matrimony.

Despite today's popular opinion, Christianity elevated the role of women not only in society but also in the eyes of her husband. St. Paul understands the teaching of Christ to mean that Christian men must give up their whole lives for their wives and families, a rare thing in any time. Look at the first part of today's reading. St. Paul is telling the Colossians and us to put on virtue in the same way we would put on a suit of clothes. The relationship in a family should consist of "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." A family built on these virtues won't have to worry about who's the boss.

Today's feast is not just about "The Holy Family" but it’s about making our families holy.

            And over all these put on love,
            that is, the bond of perfection.
            And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,...

    Reading 1. Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14
Reading II. Colossians 3: 12-21
Gospel. Luke 2: 22-40 (the child grew and became strong).       































































































           



























           















































           








           








           








           








           










Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas




            Adoration of the Shepherds by Giorgione.                      
                                  

There are four Masses that we could attend on Christmas. There is the Vigil Mass celebrated in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then there is the Midnight Mass. There is a Mass celebrated at dawn. Finally, there is the Mass for Christmas day. Each Mass has a different set of readings and so unless we get to church real early and read them all in the missalette, we will never hear the whole story.

All of the Masses begin with a joyful, exuberant reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading from the Midnight Mass is typical:

            The people who walked in darkness
            have seen a great light;
            upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
            a light has shone.

In the gospels we hear the story of the birth of Christ as told by St. Matthew and St. Luke. Little by little the characters in the Nativity scene are introduced. In the vigil Mass on Christmas eve, Matthew presents us with Mary and Joseph and tells us of Joseph's decision to take Mary into his house after finding her pregnant. In the Midnight Mass we find the stable and the manger, and the angels appear to the shepherds. At dawn, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem to find the child "lying in the manger." Finally, the gospel on Christmas Day is the famous beginning of the gospel of John, where John tries to explain the significance of the great event. 

            In the beginning was the Word,
            and the Word was with God,
            and the Word was God.

No matter what Mass we attend all the readings testify that something unique and earth shattering occurred 2000 years ago. From Isaiah to John we hear that at that moment the darkness was pierced by a shaft of light and that because this tiny shaft of light entered the world, the world would never be the same.

Years ago I remember reading a novel by a little known Russian author about a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration or prison camp. The book was written by a man who had himself spent 20 years in camps such as the one he described. He wrote the book secretly while in prison on little scraps of paper which had to be carefully hidden from the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The book was called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and its author was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would go on to become one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

When Solzhenitsyn's book first appeared, it was like a shaft of light cutting through the darkness of the vast Soviet empire. Until that time there were still those who defended that empire as a noble undertaking, or as the dawn of a new era in human history. Once the light appeared it exposed the rottenness, corruption, and brutality of that regime. The world would never be the same. Twenty years later the whole edifice came crumbling down.

Whatever Mass we attend today the readings all say the same--the light has come into the world and the world will never be the same. For each of us this Christmas it can be the same. A light can come into our hearts and we might never be the same. In the Vigil Mass we heard how Joseph after his dream, "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." For each of us who will take Mary and her child into their house this Christmas there is the possibility that our world will never be the same.

In today's Masses the story begins. We'll hear the rest of the story in the weeks and months to come.

 Christmas Vigil
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Gospel. Matthew 1:1-25 (Genealogy of Jesus Christ).

Christmas Midnight
Reading 1. Isaiah 9: 1-6
Reading II. Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel. Luke 2: 1-14 (she gave birth).

Christmas Dawn
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 11-12
Reading II. Titus 3: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 2: 15-20 (the shepherds).

Christmas Day
Reading 1. Isaiah 52: 7-10
Reading II. Hebrews 1: 1-6
Gospel. John 1: 1-18 (the Word was with God).





























































































           



























           















































           








           








           








           








           










Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Handmaid of the Lord


                                    4th Sunday of Advent




It’s easy to understand how King David felt in today’s first reading. He is settled in his palace and no longer has any reason to fear his enemies all of whom have been overcome. We can picture him sitting back in his lounger, watching the game of the week on TV, and being waited on by his many wives. Then, the thought comes to him: what about the Lord? Maybe I should throw an extra twenty into the collection basket, or maybe even make a contribution to the church renovation fund. Actually, David thinks of building a house for the Lord,

            Here I am living in a house of cedar,
            While the ark of God dwells in a tent!

We can understand David’s desire to give back after receiving so much from the Lord but he doesn’t really understand. The Lord replies bluntly. “Should you build me a house to live in?” It’s not just that the Creator of everything can’t be confined in a house or temple; it’s also David’s incredible chutzpah in thinking that the Lord needed anything from him. The Lord reminds the young King of all that he has received and of all that he will receive.

 I will raise up an heir after you, sprung from your loins,
And I will make His kingdom firm.

How different is the story in today’s gospel account of the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the virgin whose “name was Mary.” St. Luke is the only evangelist to give an account of the Annunciation.  Obviously, he was not present when the angel appeared to Mary, but Luke was a good historian. Where did he get his information? It’s possible that he was merely relating an account of what the early Church believed, but I like to think that Luke talked to the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son.

St. Luke is very careful with words and he especially likes to use proper names. Look at the first few lines of today’s gospel. We see Gabriel, Galilee, Nazareth, Joseph, David, and Mary. These names are all very important. In particular, scholars tell us that Mary or the Hebrew Miriam means “the exalted one.” The angel confirms Mary’s elevated status when he calls her “full of grace.” Scholars have pointed out that the angel’s greeting implies in its recipient “the attitude of being so open to God that all of His love can stream unhindered into one’s life.”

Indeed, no one else in the Bible receives such a stream of beautiful salutations as does Mary. “The angel’s praise, in fact, echoed St. John’s words about Christ: ‘full of grace and the abode of God’s glory.’” So we see that the Lord is not going to dwell in a tent or house or a temple. The Church had always regarded Mary as the dwelling place of the Lord, the true Ark of the Covenant. Gabriel says to her,

 Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
 And you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David.


What is the significance of the name, Jesus? We know that throughout their history the Jews have been reluctant to use the name of God. Whether this was due to reverence, awe, or fear is hard to say. Instead of naming God, they chose to refer to His activity in the world. Thus the word, "Jesus" literally means, as Matthew tells us, God saves. Similarly, the name, Emmanuel, means God is with us. The birth of the Child will mean that God has entered our world in a special way. He will become one of us and from that day forward we will be able to call Him by his real Name, and even call Him brother. He can no longer be viewed as distant or unapproachable. We cannot imagine Him as some angry old man in the skies waiting to throw lightning bolts at us when we step out of line. God is Love, and Love comes into the world at Christmas.

Just like the Jews of yesteryear we too need signs. Maybe there is nothing special about them. Maybe we just fail to recognize them. Maybe, we can just point to the signs expressed in Charley Brown's Christmas song.

                        Christmas time is here.
                        happiness and cheer,
                        fun for all that children
                        call their favorite time of year.

                        Snowflakes in the air,
                        carols everywhere,
                        olden times and ancient rhymes
                        and love and dreams to share.

                        Sleigh bells in the air,
                        beauty everywhere,
                        yuletide by the fireside
                        and joyful memories there.

                        Christmas time is here;
                        we'll be drawing near;
                        oh that we could always see
                        such spirit through the year,
                        such spirit through the year.

Merry Christmas.


Reading 1. 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Reading II. Romans 16: 25-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 26-38 (Hail, full of grace!). 



























































































           



























           















































           








           








           








           








           










Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception Window from Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Fairfield CT. The window dates from 1939 but the artist used the traditional image from the Book of Revelation of the Woman clothed with the Sun, with the stars in her crown, and the crescent Moon at her feet.***





On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Pope did not declare this doctrine out of the blue. It was promulgated only after years of study on his own part and on the part of learned scholars; centuries of debate among some of the greatest theologians in the Church; and almost a millennium of popular devotion to Mary on the part of the Church faithful.

Although immediately accepted by the faithful, the doctrine was a source of controversy in the time of Pius IX and today remains an obstacle to ecumenical efforts. Before we can discuss the doctrine and its meaning we have to clear up a basic misconception. The Immaculate Conception does not refer to either the conception of Jesus in Mary's womb or the subsequent birth and delivery of Jesus. In other words, it should not be confused with the virgin birth. Nor does it refer to Mary's own birth. She herself was begotten like any other child. Simply, the doctrine affirms the preservation or freedom of Mary from original sin from the first moment of her conception.

To understand the meaning of the doctrine we have to examine the concept of original sin even though in our time the notion of sin, especially original sin, has fallen into disfavor. Today the only sin our culture seems to recognize is smoking. Concurrently, the very notion of evil has fallen into disfavor. Until the September 11, 2001 tragedy
the only people we were likely to recognize as evil were Nazis or people who behaved like Nazis. For our purposes then let us use the word imperfect rather than sin or evil. Instead of calling ourselves sinful or evil, let's just think of ourselves as imperfect.

To say that we have not been preserved from original sin means that all of us are merely imperfect--something few of us would deny. Where did this notion come from? Theologians and philosophers throughout history have tried to deal with humankind's imperfection. Some have called it the problem of evil. You can pick up a newspaper on any given day and never fail to be shocked by the evil in the world. War, terrorism, murder, rape, sexual abuse, theft of all kinds, lying and deceit on every level of society, all confront us daily. Where does it come from? Who or what is responsible for the world's imperfection or evil?

It is safe to say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition the origins of evil were to be found in each of us. As Shakespeare said, the fault lies in us, not in our stars. In this tradition it is clearly understood that there is something wrong with our nature. Although created in a state of perfection or good (another word for perfect is good), mankind has fallen into a state of imperfection.

In the story of Adam and Eve we find an attempt to explain the problem of evil. God is good; God is perfect; and His creation had to be good. It had to be perfect. Yet, when the biblical authors composed the Book of Genesis they lived in a world as full of evil and imperfection as ours. And so we have the story of the temptation and fall of our first parents to explain how we have all inherited a fundamental flaw, a kind of genetic defect. It had to come from our first parents because it is observable in all of us.

Long before Sigmund Freud wrote of the "ego" and the "id" and the psychic warfare that goes on in all of us, biblical authors like St. Paul and St. James alluded to this "psychomachia" and called it the source of all evil. What are the effects of this psychic or spiritual warfare? Basically, we have a divided nature--we lack integrity in the true sense of the word. We have knowledge of both good and evil. We can admire Mother Teresa but at the same time know that we are capable of understanding and committing the worst crimes that we read of in the newspapers. There but for the grace of God go we!

What is the cure for our imperfection? How can we attain perfection? As the song says, "We've got to be taught.” We've got to be taught not to hate and fear but to love and trust. Our first teachers are our mothers and fathers; then our extended families; then our customs and traditions, chief of which is our religion with its guidelines or warnings
which we often mistake for rules and regulations; and then our governments and their laws that are supposed to keep us at peace with one another. This is why these institutions are so important and why when they become corrupted or perverted there is literally "hell to pay." Jesus always called himself teacher and promised that if we would follow Him, peace would be with us.

A few hundred years ago this Judeo-Christian tradition of original sin came under serious attack during the period known as the "Enlightenment" that immediately preceded the French Revolution. Philosophers during that period came to believe that human nature was perfect, that man had begun as a kind of "noble savage" who had become corrupted by human social institutions.

For the intellectuals and the revolutionaries who followed the teachings of the Enlightenment the source of evil was not in man but in institutions like motherhood, fatherhood, the family, religion, government, and the rule of law. In particular, they singled out the Catholic Church with its sacramental system, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass. They sought to destroy these institutions and build a new perfect society which they believed would be based on reason rather than on custom, superstition, and ignorance. Despite over two hundred years of horror and bloodshed these "enlightened" ideas live on today, and those institutions that are the sole protector and defender of mankind are still under attack by those who cannot accept the idea of original sin.

Ironically, those who do not believe in original sin unwittingly believe that they and the rest of mankind must have been conceived immaculate. The only person that they will not allow to have been immaculately conceived is Mary. On the other hand, for those who do believe in original sin and accept its corollary, the need to attain perfection or redemption, Mary is the Immaculate Conception.

If we view Mary in this way then her role takes on new meaning. The Church has always regarded her as the new Eve free from the knowledge of evil. We believe that through God's grace she was created without that fatal division in her being. She had integrity and she knew inner peace not war. This is why the angel at the Annunciation called her full of grace. This is why her assent at the Annunciation was so meaningful. She who through her nature could know no pain or suffering was asked to experience all the pain and suffering that a mother could know. At the Presentation Simeon said to her that this day "your soul a sword shall pierce." Since we've also forgotten the meaning of the word "soul" today, modern translations say that her "whole being" would be severed. Imagine a person created without flaw or imperfection living among us.

In the Gospels the Apostles represent us with all of our faults and failings. Some were silly, some were vain, some doubted and disbelieved, and even St. Peter denied the Lord three times. They were what we are. When the Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, however, it was saying that Mary is what we once were and could be again through the grace of her Son, Jesus.


***Photo by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent



Today's first reading comes from the prophet Isaiah. In fact, most of the Old Testament readings in Advent come from Isaiah. He along with John the Baptist are the voices of Advent. Today's reading from Isaiah has always been regarded as an introduction to the prophetic mission of John the Baptist.

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!


Now we usually think of the prophets as foretelling the future, and it is true that Isaiah presents us with a picture of a new world to come. However, the special talent of the Old Testament prophets was their ability to describe with brutal accuracy the wrongs of their own day and call for a day when things would be set right.

As a critic of his own times, Isaiah gives us an introduction to the great New Testament prophet, John the Baptist. In today's gospel, St. Mark quotes Isaiah's famous lines that refer to John.

Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
He will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.


In fact Mark’s gospel which we will use throughout this liturgical year begins with the mission of John the Baptist. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark omits the story of the nativity and infancy of Jesus and begins with the outset of his public life. In Mark’s gospel John is portrayed as a very popular figure whose proclamation of a baptism of repentance was attracting people from the whole Judean countyside. Nevertheless, he is an unusual public figure in that he minimizes his own importance and deflects attention from himself. He proclaims:

One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.


John is, of course, calling attention to Jesus. What he calls a baptism of repentance is a way for all of us to prepare for the coming of Jesus.

Repentance is about looking over our lives and taking stock of who we are and where we are going. Advent is a perfect time for us to do so. It is the beginning of a new year so to speak. For centuries the Church has advised us to examine our conscience. In particular, such a review might examine a dominant fault and work on ways to correct it, or it might consider a particular strength or virtue and consider ways to increase it.

Even though the phrase, “examination of conscience”, may sound strange to us today, the idea is not outmoded. At the end of each year business people are advised to look back on the past year and consider what worked and what didn't work. They spend hours examining their strengths and weaknesses. For the upcoming year they are urged to prepare a business plan where they will work on developing their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.

Athletes do the same thing. Every week coaches spend hours examining game films to see what they did right and what they did wrong. Whole practices are devoted to making the necessary corrections and incorporating them into next weeks game plan. Why do we spend so much time preparing for games but so little time preparing for the game of life?

When it comes to the most important things in our own lives we fail to examine our conscience? As the old saying goes, people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan. What did we do wrong last year? How did we hurt ourselves and our loved ones? Can we begin now to rid ourselves of bad or destructive habits?

On the positive side what strengths or virtues do we possess? What can we do to build spiritual muscle memory so that good behavior becomes easy and natural to us? The word virtue merely means a good habit, while a vice is a bad habit. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and concentrate on the good.

In today’s second reading, St. Peter asks, “what sort of persons ought you to be,” and urges us to “be eager to be found without spot or blemish.”

The biggest criticism against Christians today is that we are no different than anyone else. Rather than being a light to the nations, the darkness in our society seems to be overwhelming us. We don't have to go about wearing our religion on our sleeve but in our homes, our schools, and in our businesses we should be producing good fruit. We don't need laws and judges to bring Christ back into Christmas. All we need is for Christians to act like Christians.


Reading 1. Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
Reading II. 2 Peter 3: 8-14
Gospel. Mark 1: 1-8 (John the Baptist appeared)