Sunday, December 28, 2014

Feast of the Holy Family…


                                    The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
                                  

Holy Family 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.

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.

Presentation in the Temple
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


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).

* Images by Melissa DeStefano

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Nativity of the Lord



                                    Christmas 2014
                                   

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds.


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.

###

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).
    



        

           








           
         









Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hail, Full of Grace!

                                    Fourth Sunday of Advent
                                    
Annunciation Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


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 the 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!).

* Assumption window image by Melissa DeStefano, Click on image to enlarge.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Gaudete Sunday



                                    3rd Sunday of Advent
                                



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.

In this liturgical year the first reading for each of the Sundays in Advent is taken from the prophet Isaiah.  It is common for us to think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future but usually the Hebrew prophets just talk about their own time, especially its problems. Today, however, Isaiah sings a different tune for the reading is all about joy.

            I rejoice heartily in the Lord,
            In my God is the joy of my soul;

The reason for the joy is that the Lord has heard the cry of the poor and the brokenhearted, and has sent his anointed one to teach and heal. That someone is clothed in a “robe of salvation” and wrapped in “a mantle of justice.” Just as the earth bears fruit, the Lord will make “justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”

In today’s gospel, John the Baptist, the last of the Hebrew prophets, is trying to convince the people of his time that the Lord’s anointed is coming into their midst. He says,

            I baptize with water,
But there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
The one who is coming after me,
Whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.

One thing that I have always liked about John the Baptist is that he never claimed anything for himself. He insisted that he was not worthy to even untie the sandal strap of the anointed one. He only claims to be a voice preparing the way. But what does John’s call for repentance have to do with rejoicing?

To rejoice means to bring joy back into our lives. To rejoice means to recover or regain the joy that we once knew or had. Maybe it means to find the joy we once dreamed of as children, especially at Christmastime. It is hard to read the papers, watch the TV, or just surf the Web and not see that joy has gone out of so many people’s lives. In some cases it is not our own fault. Bad things happen to even good people.
But in many cases it is our own fault and often we can find ourselves carrying an enormous load of guilt on our shoulders. How do we get rid of it and free ourselves to experience joy again. Repentance is the answer. Like the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we must come to our senses, take responsibility for our own failings, and seek forgiveness.

Modern science and medicine, for all the good they have accomplished, can never give us forgiveness. St. Augustine believed that the mere recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was sufficient to forgive all small or venial sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the celebration of the Eucharist itself is “a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.” For mortal or serious sins, the Church provides the great Sacrament of Penance as the primary means to repentance and rejoicing.

 The crowds ask John what they should do to prepare for his coming. His words could profit all of us this Advent. John’s advice for preparation is not radical or impossible. Jesus himself constantly forgave sins but never made impossible demands on those he healed. We do not have to give up all that we have in order to find joy. We have to realize that many of the things in our lives to not really provide true comfort and joy.

Every Christmas I’m reminded of an article I read by a man who was a well known lecturer, TV personality, and author. He had a beautiful wife and son and was 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."

In today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians he says, “Rejoice always.”  He gives a simple set of instructions for rejoicing: pray without ceasing, give thanks, do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophetic utterances, retain what is good, and refrain from every kind of evil. He ended with this blessing that is especially appropriate for this season:

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
And may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
Be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

###

Reading 1. Isaiah 61: 1-2a
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Gospel. John 1: 6-8, 19-28 (Rejoice Always)


Sunday, December 7, 2014

John the Baptist

+                                     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)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent Adventure


                                    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 award 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 one 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. Many of us might feel today like the people in today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is a story of people who have turned their backs on God and have lost their way.

Why do you let us wander, O lord, from your ways,
And harden our hearts so that we fear you not?

The result is loneliness, isolation, and unhappiness.                       

            We have all withered like leaves,
            And our guilt carries us away like the wind.

Despite the apparent joys of the Christmas season, it can be a very depressing time of year. Many of us will feel out of touch not just with God but also with friends and family; maybe even estranged from them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even though it is a time of penitence the season of Advent is also a time of hope. Advent marks the beginning of a new year for the Church, and it can also mark a new beginning for all of us. Interestingly, today’s gospel reading does not come from the beginning of St. Mark’s account but almost from the end. The Evangelist repeats the words of Jesus right before He enters upon His Passion.

Jesus is talking to his disciples. We must remember that since Holy Scripture is the inspired word of God, whenever Jesus talks to His disciples, he is talking to each one of us. He tells them,

            Be watchful! Be alert!
            You do not know when the time will come.

What is He talking about? The next verse gives the clue. When He refers to the man who goes away, He is talking about Himself right before His death. We are the servants whom He places in charge, each with our own work to do. He is telling us to act as if everyday will be our last and not waste the time we have left.

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.

There is no better way to prepare 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. We will find a half hour of peace and tranquility every day and encounter some of the most beautiful readings in the Missal. We will get an opportunity to reconcile ourselves with God and our neighbor when we recite the Kyrie Eleison, the Confiteor, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei. We can offer the kiss of peace to our friends and family. We can offer thanks to God for all the good things that have been given us, and then we can approach the altar to receive the true gift of Christmas, the gift of God's only Son.

We will not be alone on our adventure. As St. Paul says,

            God is faithful,
            And by Him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
            Jesus Christ our Lord.


###

Reading 1. Isaiah 63: 16b-17, 19b; 64: 2b-7
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Gospel. Mark 13: 33-37 (Be watchful! Be alert!).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King

                                                Our Lord Jesus Christ the King


Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*


The 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 re-emphasized 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 from the prophet Ezekiel compares the role of a leader to that of a shepherd. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

            Thus says the Lord God,
            I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
           
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 gospel reading from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew is one of the most famous in all of scripture. Here we have the image of our Lord in His glory, surrounded by angels, and sitting on His throne at the final or last judgement. He says:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father,
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
From the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
A stranger and you welcomed me,
Naked and you clothed me,
Ill and you cared for me,
In prison and you visited me.

We know the response. When the blessed ask when they did all these things, the King replies, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What a King! He does not ask us to sacrifice ourselves for Him but only to follow His example and give our lives for others. Continually in the gospels Jesus diverts our attention from Himself and tells us that we must care for others. We can only come into His kingdom if we see Him in our neighbor.

Today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians seems to be all about death but it is really about life. St. Paul believed that originally we were not meant to die, that we had been created, every single one of us, to live forever in Paradise. But then sin entered the world and death followed sin. This is why St. Paul thought the Resurrection of our Lord was the central event in History. Our King has defeated death and because of that we can follow Him to everlasting life. We merely have to feed and cloth and visit all those who have been entrusted to our care.

The scene of the Last Judgement where the sheep are separated from the goats has been immortalized by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Even before that time innumerable churches had put this image high up in their beautiful west windows.  Usually in the back of the church, the west faced the setting sun which was identified with the end of the world or the final judgement. As they left the church the congregation could look up and see the Lamb of God in the center surrounded by Apostles and Prophets representing all the blessed. 

On this last Sunday of the Church year we can also look up at the Risen Lamb and think of the words from the Book of Revelation.

            The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them,
            And will guide them to the fountains of the waters of life,
            And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*

    ###      


Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Reading II: 1 Corinthians15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Inherit the Kingdom).

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Parable of the Talents

                                    33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                  


           
Today’s first reading is from the last section of the Book of Proverbs and is taken from a poem which some have called the “Poem of a Perfect Wife.” Our reading calls her a “worthy wife” from the famous opening:

            When one finds a worthy wife,
            Her value is far beyond pearls.

Most historians would agree that sexism was part and parcel of the ancient world. Whether we’re talking about Greeks, Romans, Arabs, or Jews it was all the same, a world dominated by men. The male had absolute authority in his own household and this power extended into all of their communities whether clans, tribes, or cities.

In today’s reading, however, we get a chance to peek behind the scenes and see what actually went on in an ancient household. The picture that emerges, especially if we read the whole poem and not just the excerpts in our missal, is of a wife as business manager or chief executive. What are her duties? She gets up while it is still dark and gets the whole household moving. She feeds her employees and gives them their work for the day. She herself labors well into the night. With the household running smoothly she turns her attention to other matters of concern. For example,

            She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it;
            With what her hands have earned she plants a vineyard.

She doesn’t seem to need her husband’s advice or permission even when she deals in such business matters:

            She weaves linen sheets and sells them,
            She supplies the merchant with sashes.

Finally, at the end of the day with her household and business prosperous and in good order, she can enjoy the fruit of her hard work:

            She is clothed in strength and dignity,
            She can laugh at the days to come.

It is very interesting that the Church uses this account of a hard-working woman to introduce today’s gospel account of our Lord’s parable of the three servants and the talents. Anyone who reads of the works and teaching of Jesus has to realize that there is no hint of sexism there. St.Paul realized as much when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. We are all one in Christ.


How many times in the Gospels does our Lord refer to Himself as a servant and insist that we must be good and faithful servants? In other words, the role of the woman in the Book of Proverbs is now the work of all of us. After all, who benefitted from the hard work of the woman in the Book of Proverbs? It wasn’t just her husband, her children, and her entire household. She also benefitted for she found peace, prosperity, dignity and honor.

Isn’t it strange that Jesus called us to be servants even though God has no need of our service? Jesus asked us to use our talents in the service of others. The servants in the Gospel parable were all given talents and asked to grow them. Don’t we admire the athletes who work the hardest to develop their God-given skills? Isn’t it a shame when we see people who bury their gifts in the ground and waste their lives in trivial pursuits?

People in business attend seminars where they learn how to treat or serve their clients. They learn how to provide good “service” not only by doing their job well but by giving recognition and rewards, especially to their best clients. If only we could apply these techniques in our own families. What if husbands and wives were to regard each other as their best clients or customers?

It is so sad when people, especially young people, take the easy way out. So many of our children refuse to take advantage of the education offered to them today. They often brag about skipping class or not doing assignments Some even get through college without ever reading a book.

Even if we have not been given the same gifts, it is still important for us to work with what we have been given. Wouldn’t our lives be happier and better if we worked hard to develop our God-given talents? Also, let’s not waste our time by wishing we had someone else’s gifts or underrating our own? It says in today’s Gospel that each servant was given an amount “according to his ability.”

If we work hard and spend our lives in the service of others, we will be able, like the worthy woman in Proverbs, to rest easy at night and laugh at the days to come. In today’s second reading St. Paul commended the Christians of Thessalonica for avoiding the “darkness” and being “children of the light.” Still, he urged them and us to keep up the good work:

            Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
            But let us stay alert and sober.


###

Reading 1. Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6
Gospel. Matthew 25: 14-30 (to each according to his ability).