Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Nativity of the Lord



                                    Christmas
                                   

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds
National Gallery, Washington* (see note)


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.

###

*
In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds.**


The Postal Service probably picked Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” because it was one of the most prized possessions of the National Gallery. The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its real meaning.


This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.


Merry Christmas to all.




** M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic Digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.

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, 2016

The Virgin shall conceive

                                    4th Sunday of Advent
                                    




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.

###

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Reed Swayed by the Wind?

                                    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.

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).