Sunday, December 31, 2017

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            And over all these put on love,
            that is, the bond of perfection.

            And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,...


*Image by Melissa DeStefano

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).

Monday, December 25, 2017

Nativity of the Lord 2017


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).

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds
National Gallery, Washington

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.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Time is Here

                                    Fourth Sunday of Advent

It’s easy to imagine 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!).