Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Holy Family...



                                                                      

Holy Family
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT *


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.

Nevertheless, that was precisely the role that Joseph played in today's story of the flight into Egypt. Warned of the danger facing his little family, "Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt."  The danger was real. Although we skip over the passage in today's reading, Matthew tells us that the madman King Herod had every male child under two years of age in Bethlehem and its nearby towns put to death. We still call this the slaughter of the "Holy Innocents."

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. You 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, you could also say that Paul was dealing in this section 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 you 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 its 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. Matthew 2:12-15, 19-23 (flight into Egypt).

*Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nativity of the Lord






                                    Christmas
                                   

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).

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.

On Christmas the story begins. We'll hear the rest of the story in the weeks and months to come.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Signs


                                    4th Sunday of Advent
                                   

Annunciation
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


In one of his epistles St. Paul said that his brother Jews wanted or needed signs before they could believe. He, of course, had received a great sign himself when the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. We are no different from the Jews of the time of Christ. In fact, in today's world we probably require signs even more than they did. Unless something extraordinary happens, it is hard for us to believe.

On this last Sunday of Advent the first reading is about a sign. The ruler, Ahaz, is told by Isaiah, the prophet, to ask for a sign. When Ahaz refuses to make such a demand of the Lord, Isaiah gives him a sign anyway. It is the famous prophecy:

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

Although these prophetic words were spoken more than 600 years before the birth of our Lord, St. Matthew clearly sees their fulfillment in today's gospel. He even quotes the passage from Isaiah and tells us that the story involving Mary, and Joseph, and the Child was meant to fulfill the prophecy. However, instead of naming the Child, "Emmanuel" the angel who appeared to Joseph instructs him to name the child, Jesus or Jeshua.

What is the signifiacance of these names? 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. It is hard for us to imagine this attitude today, but if we think of the way in which we would hesitate to call a respected teacher by their first name, we can get a little sense of their feelings.

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 th 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

###

* Annunciation image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. Isaiah 7: 10-14
Reading II. Romans 1: 1-7
Gospel. Matthew 1:18-24 (the virgin shall conceive).


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gaudete Sunday


                                    
                                   



In earlier times the third Sunday in Advent was known as "Gaudete Sunday" because the entrance prayer or "Introit" began with the Latin words, "gaudete in domino semper." Translated the phrase means "rejoice in the Lord always." Today, as it has always done, the Church injects an element of joy  into the penitential season of Advent. In many churches the priest will put aside the purple vestments which signify sorrow and penance, and put on rose colored vestments, a symbol of joy. The Church is asking us to look ahead to the glory of the coming of the Savior on Christmas.

Certainly, the reading from the prophet Isaiah strikes an upbeat and exultant note. He sees the dry parched earth blooming with new life. He uses words like glory and splendor to describe the once barren land. Men will also be transformed by the Lord. Hands will be strengthened; and weak knees will become firm. To the fainthearted, he says, "Be strong, fear not! Then Isaiah proclaims the famous words which are echoed in today's gospel.
           
            Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
            the ears of the deaf be cleared;
            then will the lame leap like a stag,
            then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Isaiah and John the Baptist are the two great prophets associated with Advent. Last week we saw John in the midst of his mission to prepare the way of the Lord. John had said that, "the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals." These words were from chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel and were spoken at the beginning of our Lord's public life.

Since that time a lot has happened. By the time we get to today's reading from chapter 11 of Matthew's gospel, Jesus has himself been baptized by John, given the Sermon on the Mount, worked many miracles, and called His own disciples to His side. This is why Jesus, in answer to John's question, "are you the one who is to come?" repeats the words of Isaiah about the blind, the lame, the deaf and the poor.  By this time John is in prison, his mission over, and he is soon to be executed.

John had said that he wasn't worthy to carry our Lord's sandals, but Jesus claims that John is the greatest of all the prophets. In fact, our Lord says that "among those born of woman there has been none greater than John the Baptist."

It's common for religious artists to portray John as kind of a strangely dressed wild man shouting at people in the desert. Yet a little later in this chapter of Matthew's our Lord makes the startling claim that " it was toward John that all the prophecies of the prophets and the Law were leading, and he, if you will believe Me, is the Elijah who was to return." The Jews believed that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by the return of the great prophet, Elijah, who had been taken up into Heaven in a chariot of fire.

Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus takes time to reflect on John and his prophetic mission. After John's disciples had left to bring the good news back to him, Jesus "began to speak to the crowds about John." He asks them why they went out into the desert to see John. What did they expect to see. "A reed swayed by the wind?" "Someone dressed in fine clothing?" He asks them the same question that He asks all of us this Advent. "Then why did you go out." What are we looking for?

Here we are only two weeks before Christmas. What are we looking for this season? What do we want for ourselves and our loved ones this Christmas? Why are we going out to the malls and the shopping centers? Aren't we all trying to find happiness? Aren't we all trying to cast away fear and darkness and bring some joy and light into our lives? Look at the way we light up our houses, look at the music we hear coming over the radio.

I recall an article by a man who is a well known lecturer, TV personality, and author. He has a beautiful wife and son and is extremely successful. Yet he wrote, "I am almost 60. Time flies and it scares me. I don't want to die. I like being in good health. I don't want to be sick and have wires and tubes and scalpels in me. I like having enough money. I don't want to be old and poor. I sat in my car...shivering in fear. And then it struck me. I spend too darned much of my life in fear. I always have. You can't imagine how much of my life I have thrown away by being a slave to fear."

Today's second reading is an excerpt from the Letter of St. James. We rarely encounter the letter of St. James in our Sunday readings but this short epistle should be required reading for all of us this season. James calls upon us to put away fear. He echoes the words of Isaiah.

            Make your hearts firm,
            because the coming of the Lord is at hand.

He tells us to be patient, and not to complain. This is good advice in any season. We live in the richest society on the face of the earth; even our poor are better off than billions of people on the rest of the earth. Yet our newspapers and television tell us that there is so much unhappiness and complaining in our society. Today, however, let us look forward to the coming of our Lord on Christmas and put away our fears.

Gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord always.

###

Reading 1. Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10
Reading II. James 5: 7-10
Gospel. Matthew 11: 2-11 (none greater than John the Baptist).

Monday, December 9, 2013

Peaceable Kingdom


+                                     2nd Sunday of Advent
                                   




Today's first reading comes from the prophet Isaiah. In fact, all the Old Testament readings in Advent come from Isaiah. He along with John the Baptist are the voices of Advent. Today's reading contains perhaps the most colorful and famous passage found in all of the prophetic writings. It is the story of the "peaceable kingdom" where,

the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.            
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.

If we listen carefully, we can see that Isaiah is contrasting the rule of the future King with the actual state of things in his own time. He complains that people, especially those in authority, judge things solely by appearances and not by principle or justice. They make up their minds by hearsay. Neither the poor not the land's afflicted receive justice or mercy. The ruthless and the wicked prevail. If the future King will rule with justice and faithfulness, it is clear that the present rulers do just the opposite.

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. Matthew tells us that Isaiah's famous lines refer to John.

            A voice of one crying out in the desert,
            Prepare the way of the Lord,
            make straight his paths.

Like Isaiah, John is a critic of the leaders of his own time. Although people were coming from all over to be baptized in the Jordan, John lashes out at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the leaders of the Jews, for their hypocrisy. Archaeologists tell us how important ritual bathing or baptism was to the Jews at the time of Christ. The frequent washings were not just to cleanse the body, they were also meant to purify the soul.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John's baptism, he calls them a "brood of vipers" because they have no true repentance for the wrongs they have done. They think that it's enough to go through the ritual washing of the body without a thought to a subsequent change of their behavior. He tells them that their status as leaders of the community and descendants of Abraham means nothing unless they "produce good fruit as evidence of ... repentance."

What is good fruit? We can go back to Isaiah's list. We should not judge others merely by appearances. We should avoid deciding merely by hearsay. We should treat those less fortunate than ourselves with fairness and compassion, and not take advantage of them because of their circumstances. We should avoid ruthless and wicked behavior. Is our society any different than Isaiah's?

When John speaks of repentance, he is talking 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 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 reading from St. Paul's letter to the Romans he speaks of the quality of endurance. We are in this life for the long haul and must be prepared to go the distance.

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 11: 1-10
Reading II. Romans 15: 4-9
Gospel. Matthew 3: 1-12 (John the Baptist appeared).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent Adventure 2013



                                    1st Sunday of Advent
                                  




A few years ago three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic story, "The Lord of the Rings," enjoyed enormous critical and popular success. Issued in three successive years around Christmas time, they were a box office smash. The third in the series, entitled, "The Return of the King," won the Academy arard for "Best Picture." Most of us know by now that both the three volume book and the films tell the story of a great journey or adventure undertaken by a group of men, elves, dwarves, and the now famous hobbits.

The adventure begins however in a smaller book of Tolkien's called "The Hobbit." In that book this particular hobbit is woken out of a quiet peaceful afternoon nap by a violent knocking on his door. To his amazement he is told that he must rouse himself out of his comfort and complacency and embark on a dangerous adventure whose end is far from certain. In the course of the adventure he will find that there is more to life than he ever dreamed, and that there is more to himself than he ever dreamed.

Isn't it odd that the word "advent" is contained in the word, "adventure"? Advent is not just a time of preparation for Christmas, it is a time for all of us to consider how far we have progressed on the great adventure of life. Let's consider the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He sees whole nations and peoples climbing the Lord's mountain. In famous words he portrays a vision of a far off world completely different than the one we know.

            They shall beat their swords into plowshares
            and their spears into pruning hooks;
            one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
            nor shall they train for war again.

Before we reach this new world the old world must pass away.

This is the reason why Advent, the season which marks the beginning of the Church year, has traditionally begun with readings reminding us of the end of the world. In today's gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus refers to the people before the great flood. He says that like us they were going about their daily business without a clue of what was in store for them. Our Lord's advice whether it be the end of the whole world or just the end of our own little world is the same. "Stay awake." By "awake" He means be ready, be prepared to set out on your journey.

            So too, you also must be prepared,
            for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

Advent has always been regarded as a season of preparation. Why is it that we prepare for everything in life but often fail to prepare for the most important thing in life? What football team would go into the weekend's big game without practicing all week? What will they practice? Why, the very same formations and plays that they expect to use when they are put to the test. During the week they will also be in the weight room preparing their bodies for the blows to come. On game day they will put on their protective gear or armor. Only a fool would go into such combat improperly equipped.

In business it's much the same thing. Salesmen practice their presentations before facing their customers. They learn how to anticipate and overcome every objection. In politics look how even the presidential candidates go through rigorous prepping and role play before debating their opponents.

How should we prepare for life's great adventure? Let's see if we can come up with a list of things to do this Advent season they will help us on our way. First, let's take St. Paul's advice and avoid destructive behavior.

            let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
            not in orgies and drunkenness,
            not in promiscuity and lust,
            not in rivalry and jealously.

It was sad a few years ago to read in the paper that two of our local Catholic universities led the state of Connecticut in arrests for drunkenness. It was even sadder to read an article about a young woman at a midwestern university who drank herself to death while at a frat party. The paper reported that she was just one of many who would die a similar death every year. I know that television glamorizes this type of drinking but what is so glamorous about falling into an alcohol induced coma in a frat house or an office party?

We can all think of ways to "throw off the works of darkness," but St. Paul also urges us to "put on the armor of light." There is no better way to do so this season than by increasing our attendance at Mass. Certainly, in this season when we should all be looking forward to the coming of Christ, he comes to us in each and every Mass. Besides  Sunday Mass we will celebrate the great feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, a true Holy Day of Opportunity.

Finally, I can think of no better way to counter the stress and anxiety of this mad shopping season than to attend daily Mass during Advent. You will find a half hour of peace and tranquillity every day and encounter some of the most beautiful readings in the Missal. You will get an opportunity to reconcile yourself with God and your neighbor when you recite the Kyrie, the Confiteor, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei. You can offer the kiss of peace to your friends and family. You can offer thanks to God for all the good things that have been given you, and then you can approach the altar to receive the true gift of Christmas, the gift of God's only Son. 

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Reading 1. Isaiah 2: 1-5
Reading II. Romans 13: 11-14
Gospel. Matthew 24: 37-44 (stay awake!).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King


                                              
The Heavenly Throne*


Today's feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ.

The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year. Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading presents us with David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them. It says, "You shall shepherd my people Israel."
           
In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

Today's readings present us with Christ our King.  In St. Paul's letter to the Colossians we hear that God has "delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." He enabled us to enter the Kingdom "by the blood of His cross." We do have a shepherd king who was willing to lay down his life for us.

In today's gospel from St. Luke we see our King on this last Sunday of the Church year dying on the cross. The crowd is jeering at Him and the soldiers taunt, "If you are King of the Jews, save yourself." Even one of the criminals dying next to Him reviles Him. How fitting it is that our whole cycle of readings ends this year with the "good thief," who only asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

All year we have been reading St. Luke's account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem.   We've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles and healings. He asked us to take up our cross and follow Him and promised that if we would do so we would enter into His Kingdom. Actually, He said that His Kingdom would enter into us--that the Kingdom of God would be within us.

Let's end this Church year by visualizing the scene on the Cross. Let's imagine that we are one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus and that our own journey through life is coming to an end. Wouldn't we want to hear the last words in our gospel when the King turns to us and says,

            Amen, I say to you,
            today you will be with Me in Paradise.

*Stained Glass Window, Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Fairfield, CT (image by Melissa DeStefano)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meaning of Life


                        33nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


This Sunday marks the next to last Sunday in the Church’s liturgical year. As we get closer and closer to the end of the year the readings remind us not only of the of the end of the world but also ask us to consider our own personal end. The reading from the Prophet Malachi sets the tone.

            Lo, the day is coming blazing like an oven,
            When all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble…
            But for you who fear my name, there will arise
            The sun of justice with its healing rays.

Today’s gospel reading takes up most of the 21st chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. Immediately after this chapter we get into the story of the Passion and Death of Christ. However, to begin this chapter Luke tells the story of the poor widow who gave a small but to her a huge donation to the treasury of the Temple. Onlookers look down on her and point out how the temple “was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings.”

Jesus turns the tables on them and warns that all these costly adornments will not be worth anything on the day of salvation. He says, “the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” He had been teaching in the Temple and the onlookers ask, “when will this happen?” They also ask for warning signs and he foretells a time of a great persecution.

In the passage following our reading Jesus even seems to predict the fall and utter destruction of Jerusalem, which would take, place only 37 years after his death. He warns his followers that when they see an army surrounding the city, they should escape to the hills surrounding the city. We know for a fact that immediately before the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Christian community did leave the city while the rest of the Jewish nation stayed behind.

What are we to do today in our lives when we try to confront the dangers and evils that surround us both individually and as a nation? Although we are in no imminent danger of foreign invasion, our Nation has been at war for almost a decade and no end is in sight. At home the culture war goes on every day and has even invaded our homes through TV, the Internet, and sophisticated cell phones. What are we to do? How are we to act or respond?

In the distant past Christians left cities endangered by war or moral decay to enter monasteries secluded in mountains, deserts, and swamps. There they tried to build a new life based on spiritual renewal and hard work. Centuries later other religious orders appeared, like the Franciscans and the Dominicans, that sought spiritual renewal not by leaving the corrupt cities but by staying and reforming them. These new orders even created what were called “third orders,” laymen and women who would share in the work of renewal. Later, it would become more and more apparent that the work of reform was the work of all Christians, clerical or lay.

Whatever response we make, it is clear that one option is not open to us. It is ok to leave the corruption behind. We can throw out the TV and the computer and home school our children. On the other hand, we can work to make these important elements in our culture better. But we cannot give in and surrender to the enemy. We cannot accept and accommodate. To say that this corruption is ok, or that everyone does it, is not only wrong but also madness. Just look at the advice columns in our daily newspapers to see how messed up people’s lives have become in our society.

I remember a 70-year-old Catholic woman who once told me that after all her years she was still trying to figure out who she was. Maybe this is something we should all consider as we approach our own end of the world. A good place to find the answer is always in the letters of St. Paul.

In today’s letter to the Thessalonians he told them to honor their life of hard work.

            You know how one must imitate us.
            For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,…
            On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
            We worked, so as not to burden any of you.

He also warned them to mind their own business. Someone once said that when our own business is not worth minding, then we mind the business of others. In other words, a life spent in diligence or hard work, whether in a monastery or a convent, whether in the home, school, factory or office, will need no justification.

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Reading 1. Malachi 3: 19-20a
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12
Gospel. Luke 21: 5-19 (Nation...against nation).

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Death and Resurrection




                                    32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


The month of November is sometimes called the month of the dead. As we look around we see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun riding lower in the sky and setting earlier and earlier. Animals are preparing for the long cold winter. The Church year also follows the cycle of nature. We began this month with the great feast of All Saints, and then remembered all the departed on All Souls day. Throughout the month we will remember our beloved departed and at the end of the month we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King where we will come face to face with the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

But today rather than dwelling on death the Church presents us with the theme of resurrection from the dead. In the first reading from the Book of Maccabees, we have the terrible story of the cruel torture of the seven brothers, a story which reminds us of some of the atrocities we see in our headlines today. Despite their suffering the brothers remain true not only to their faith but also to their belief in another better life. One says to his torturer,

            You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life,
            but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.

The themes of persecution, death, and resurrection in this account of the seven brothers are repeated in today’s gospel account of the hypothetical case of the woman with seven husbands. It is a good idea to put St. Luke’s account in context. In the preceding chapter of his Gospel, he told of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus went to Jerusalem not only to endure persecution and death, but also to triumph over sin and death by his own resurrection.

Now in chapter 20 the persecution begins. At first the Scribes and Pharisees question His authority. When that didn’t work Luke tells us that they sent forth spies, “who should pretend to be just men” to question Jesus and trap him into making claims that would enable the authorities to arrest him.

First, they ask Him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. After his masterful answer puts them off, another group enters the picture. This time it’s the Sadducees, a group of wealthy priests who controlled the Jerusalem temple. They were a political and economic elite who were generally despised by the Jews because of their cooperation with the Roman rulers; their watering down of Judaism to conform with new and foreign ideas; and the resultant laxity of their own morals.

Unlike the heroic Maccabees, the Sadducees resembled most of our own political, economic, intellectual, and cultural leaders. The lived for the here and now and did not believe in the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection from the dead.

So their ridiculous question about the woman and her seven husbands is just a way to make Jesus play the fool. In much the same way modern atheists try to play the same tricks on believers. I recently heard of a teacher who advised one of his students that he would have to give up his belief in Jesus in order to study science.  How unscientific is that advice? Why would belief in Jesus inhibit anyone from studying botany or chemistry?

St. Paul in today’s reading from the second letter to the Thessalonians prayed for his friends. He prayed that God would give them “good hope through his grace,” but asked that they be “delivered from perverse and wicked people.”

I recall a public debate where a well-known atheist asked the audience to question everything; everything, that is, except his own infallible pronouncements. He offered no evidence to back up his criticisms of religion. It was only his ardent belief that God, even though He didn’t exist, was responsible for all that had gone wrong with the World, and for all the suffering that still continues today. Like the Sadducees he could not believe in the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the dead. He was full of anger and bitterness. The poor man has since died of cancer. I don’t believe that his illness was a punishment from God. Anyone can get cancer. But I feel sorry for anyone who has turned his back on Jesus and has to face death without any hope.

The Book of Maccabees was written less than two hundred years before the birth of Christ. It indicates that even at that time the idea of resurrection from the dead was taking root among the Jewish people. This idea of resurrection was competing with an earlier concept which supposed that all the dead--both good and bad--went to Sheol, a place of shadow and nothingness from which they would never emerge. By the time of Christ the new concept of a life after death was competing vigorously with the old traditional one. Jesus, however, brought the debate to a new level.

He answered the Sadducees by reminding them that God was the God of the living, and that all whom God loved would live forever. This was not mere theorizing. He backed up his words with His own Resurrection from the dead. Not just the Apostles but also hundreds of others saw Him after the Resurrection. Not only did they see Him, but most willingly gave up their own lives to cruel persecutors who insisted that they give up their belief. As St. Paul said before he was cruelly executed, ‘if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain.”

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Reading 1. 2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 2: 16--3:5
Gospel. Luke 20: 27-38 (seven brothers).

*Photgraphic image by Melissa DeStefano