The Holy Family

Today’s readings

HolyFamily2My spiritual director in seminary used to say that family could be the source of our greatest joys and deepest sorrows. Sometimes all in the same day. That’s just how families are. Our closeness, at least by blood relation, doesn’t always assure that we will be well-functioning.

There are all sorts of families out there: families broken by divorce or separation, families marked by emotional or physical abuse, families fractured by living a great distance apart, families grieving the loss of loved ones or agonizing over the illness of one of the members, families of great means and those touched by poverty, homelessness and hunger, families divided by immigration issues, families torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts. There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in their history.

Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges. An unexpected – and almost inexplicable – pregnancy marked the days before the couple was officially wed; news of the child’s birth touched chords of jealousy and hatred in the hearts of the nation’s leaders and caused the young family to have to flee for their lives and safety. Even this Holy Family was saddened by an extremely rocky beginning.

The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing. We know this. God knows this. Yet it was into this flawed structure that the God of all the earth chose to come into our world. Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and sanctify the whole world by his most merciful coming.

St. Paul exhorts us all to be marked by holiness, part of the family of God. We do this, he tells us, by showing one another “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” Living in a family, living the Christian life, requires sacrifice. Some days we don’t feel very compassionate, but we are still called to be that way. We might not feel like showing someone kindness, or patience, or being humble. But that’s what disciples do. But the real sticking point is that whole forgiveness thing. Because all of us are going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another. So just as the Lord has forgiven us, so many times and of so many things, so must we forgive one another. We live our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this.

St. Paul then gives us the recipe for family harmony – at least in the first century near east. Bear with me on this one, because I know that the words can irritate our modern sensibilities. He says: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” We have to understand that this was the model of family harmony in that time and place. Not so much here and now. But there is a truth in these words of Sacred Scripture that we need to pull out of today’s reading.

Wives being subordinate to their husbands in that time and place was the proper balance in the family. We might not agree with that, but that was true then. Husbands loving their wives was something that didn’t even happen very often. So the real correction here was being given to the husbands, who were called upon to forego their traditional macho indifference and to show love to their wives in the same way Christ showed love to the Church.

Today, the challenge here is one of equality. Of husband and wife being called upon to build up each other’s faith lives at the same time they are raising a family and making a home – together. The challenge is to love the children while still teaching them respect for authority and providing loving discipline so that they can become children worthy of the kingdom of God. The correction we might be hearing from St. Paul today is to put aside the whole heresy of entitlement and humble ourselves, whatever is our role in the family, so that member of the family might grow in faith, hope and love.

Some days, that will be extremely difficult. Given the culture in which we live – a culture which certainly does not share a concern for faith, hope and love – the challenge to live as a family in good times and bad is one that is almost insurmountable. Maybe today, more so than ever, families face fierce struggles in trying to live healthy, faithful lives in this callous, dark and unforgiving world. Today more than ever we need a Savior to be born in our families so that the weakness of our flesh and the brittleness of our relationships can be transfigured by the amazing gift of God’s love into something they could never be on their own.

As I said, even the Holy Family was not perfect. I don’t think perfection is what we are supposed to be seeing in them on this, their feast day. Instead maybe we should see faithfulness. A faithfulness that absorbed the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world.

I am aware, however, that even as I pull that theme of faithfulness out of today’s Scriptures, that can still seem insurmountable. Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger? That’s a hard one to address, but we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful. Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please know that this Church family supports you with prayer and love as you do that.

Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters. And every single one of our families is called to be holy. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. Some days we will be quite far from it. But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect. It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship. It means we will love when loving is hard to do. Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die. What we see in the model of the Holy Family for us is not perfection, but faithfulness and holiness.

That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Our church still has the Nativity scene on display; we are still celebrating Christmas. But today’s Gospel reading reminds us that our faith in the Incarnation does mean everything is going to be perfect in this life. We will have to sacrifice, and will have to suffer from many of the imperfections of our families and our world. But we can count on the grace of Christ, born here among us, in our families, to transfigure us all to a holiness we cannot even begin to imagine.

The Holy Innocents

Today’s readings

holyinnocentsgiottodibondoneRight here in the middle of the joy of the Christmas Octave, we have the feast of what seems to be an incredibly horrible event. All of the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem two years old and younger are murdered by the jealous and, quite frankly, rather pathetic Herod. But not only are his plans to kill the Christ Child (and thus remove any threat to his reign) thwarted by the providence of God, but also the horror of this event is transfigured into something rather glorious in terms of the Kingdom of God.

As I said, in some ways, this is a horrible feast. But the Church, in recognizing the contribution of the Holy Innocents to the kingdom, asserts that this is just the beginning of the world’s seeing the glory of Jesus Christ. As disgusting and repugnant as Herod’s actions are to our sensibilities, yet these innocent children bear witness to the Child Jesus. St. Quodvoltdeus, an African bishop of the fifth century writes of them:

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Christ child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

I think the key to making sense of all this is in the first reading. The line that really catches me, because it seems almost erroneous in light of the horrible event we remember today, is “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” We can see all kinds of darkness in an event like the murder of these innocent children. Yet only God could turn something that horrible around to his glory. They may have lived extremely short lives on earth, yet their lives in eternity were secured forever. They become some of the first to participate in the kingdom that Christ would bring about through his Paschal Mystery.

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings | Today’s saint

StJohnBig“He saw and believed.” The “other” disciple, often called the “beloved” disciple or the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” is St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, the one we celebrate today. St. John had a very special relationship with Christ. He wasn’t as zealous and boisterous as Peter could be, but he had a faith as strong as Peter’s in his own way. His was a faith that observed and processed and believed. His was a faith that grew quietly, as he made connections between what Jesus prophesied and what came to pass. It’s no wonder that when he stood at the tomb, “he saw and believed.”

In John’s writings, the theme of love is almost overwhelming. We hear that in today’s first reading, from John’s first letter. That love is bound up in the whole theme of fleshly existence. John proclaims that because God loved the world so much, he could not bear to be apart from us or aloof from our nature. Instead, he took on our fleshly existence, this body that can so often fail us, can so often turn to sin and degradation, can so often lead us in the wrong direction. Taking on that flawed human flesh, God proclaims once and for all that we have been created good, that we have been created in love, and that nothing can ever stand in the way of the love God has for us.

John’s preaching of love and the goodness of our created bodies is a preaching that has a very special place in the celebration of Christmas. It was because of that love that God had for us, a love that encompasses our bodies and our souls, that he came to live among us and take flesh in our world. His most merciful coming was completely part of his loving plan for our salvation. That’s the message St. John brings us on his feast day today, and throughout this celebration of Christmas.

The Nativity of the Lord

Various readings for Mass

christmas-nativityThe older I get, the more I become convinced that every Christmas has its own flavor, and every Christmas comes with its own gifts. Not the kinds of gifts you wrap and put under the tree, but the kinds of gifts that fill your heart and give you the grace to move into the year ahead.

When I was little, my Christmas enthusiasm could hardly be contained. I kept Advent by opening a door each day on a little cardboard calendar, to see what was underneath. But the picture on the calendar probably wasn’t as important to me as the days passing by. The eagerness of my anticipation was for that moment on Christmas morning, when I’d wake up way earlier than I would on any other day, wake my sisters and parents and go down to open gifts. We would spend those opening moments of the day together, and there was a warmth that came from the love we had for each other. The gift of those Christmases was one of eagerness, they joyfulness of anticipation being fulfilled, and the sharing of love with those who loved me back.

As a teen, I knew a little more about what Christmas meant. Some of our family traditions came to mean more to me: the cookies we baked, visits to family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, going to Mass as a family. There was still a sense of anticipation but it was a little different now. I anticipated time off from school – whether I was in high school or college – and I looked forward to seeing loved ones I hadn’t seen in a while. The gift of those Christmases was singing one more Christmas Carol because Grandma’s new oven wasn’t cooking the turkey as fast as the old one, of enjoying old and new family traditions, and the joy of days spent without papers due or tests to study for.

As a young adult, my faith became more important to me. I was involved in my church and spent many hours practicing music and preparing to celebrate music with the choir I was in. For several of those years, I wrote the mini lessons and carols service that we did before Mass began. There was a busyness of that time and a growing anticipation of being able to celebrate my faith with a community that knew that same faith. It was a time to pull out all the stops and celebrate the Mass with a bit more solemnity and joy. Even at work, there was talk of our traditions both family and religious, and the sharing of belief that Christ was present even in the mundane day-to-dayness of our work. The gift of those Christmases was one of renewed faith, and the joy of celebrating the wonder of the Incarnation – the birth of our God into our world – with people who helped me to grow in that faith.

When I went to seminary, things changed a lot. The anticipation of Advent was held in an environment that was slowly teaching me how to preside in it. I learned more about the traditions of our faith, the vibrancy of Scripture, the poetry and hymnody that made me long to be filled with Christ in new ways. Going to Christmas Mass became a strange, but not unpleasant experience: wondering what it was going to be like to celebrate Christmas as a priest. The gift of those Christmases was a personal growth that helped me to see who I was as God’s son, and who he was calling me to be.

Last year, my first year as a priest, I got to experience the joy of being a priest at Christmas. The days of Advent anticipation were filled with hearing confessions and school programs, and the many things that go on here in the parish. I got to go to not just one Christmas Mass, but three or four! My role had changed not only at Church, but also in my family, and I attended my family Christmas gatherings with, well, exhaustion! The gift of last Christmas was being able to celebrate Christmas by celebrating the Eucharist as a priest.

This year, things are a little different for me. Dad died in May, and so I think the anticipation of Christmas for me has been a little bit weird. I approach this holy day with a little heaviness of heart, with a sense of loss. I never put up the Manger Dad and Mom gave me last year. I didn’t because one of the pieces – the angel – was broken, and Dad was going to help me fix it. We never got around to it, and I didn’t want to open the box and see the missing piece, which for me represents the missing piece of my family this Christmas. I’m not sure what the gift will be this Christmas. I guess none of us can know what the gift will be for us just yet. I’d be tempted to think there won’t be a gift, but only sadness, except that’s not who I am, and certainly that’s not who Dad was. I do have a certain sense of anticipation, and it’s anticipation of the hope that waits for us all.

What kinds of Christmases have you celebrated? You might find some of them are like some of mine, or maybe that you have others. The gifts, I am sure, differ from year to year. Maybe your Christmases have been happy, and maybe you have had the occasional sad one. But there’s always a gift. More specifically, there’s always the gift: Jesus Christ, born into our world, God with us, God our salvation, has come to give us everlasting life.

Pope Benedict says in his encyclical, Spe Salvi that “God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 31).

God’s love reaches us every time we come to this holy place and celebrate the Eucharist. The hope that we have in Christ is the only hope worth waiting for, the only hope that can bring to fruition the desires of our hearts and the anticipation of our souls. And so this Christmas, whatever flavor of Christmas we’re having, the gift – the real gift – is as it has always been, the presence of Christ among us, the eternal life he brings us, and the love that he pours out on us. Perhaps that gift will give us the ability to forge ahead in the year to come and bring the presence of Christ, the light of Christ, to a dark and lonely world.

Because we don’t just celebrate (tonight / today) something that happened two thousand years ago; we celebrate the fact that God is born into our lives and into our world every time we open ourselves up to his forgiveness and renewal, cling to the hope he brings us, and allow him to make us his holy people. When we stand up for the rights of the unborn, the powerless, and the disenfranchised, Christ is born among us and warms up our cold and heartless world. When we reach out to others who are needy or lonely or oppressed, Christ is born among us and gives light to our darkness. When we introduce someone to the Church or witness to our faith by being people of integrity, Christ is born among us and revitalizes a world grown listless in despair. When we receive our Lord in the Eucharist and go forth from this place to love and serve the Lord, Christ is born into a world that desperately needs his presence. Christ is born in every moment when his people allow him to be present through their lives.

On this Christmas, a watching world looks to all of us who call ourselves Christian. Can we make the hope of all the nations present by our living the Gospel? When the world sees that happen, when enough people take notice, maybe all the earth can take part in our singing:

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!

On behalf of Fr. Ted and me, Deacon Chuck and Deacon Tom, and all the parish staff, may God bless you and your families this Christmas. May you find Christ in every moment of the coming year

O Come, Let Us Adore Him

O Come, All Ye Faithful
Adeste Fideles, John Wade

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;

Refrain

O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;

Refrain

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;

Refrain

See how the shepherds, summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;

Refrain

Lo! star led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring,
Offer Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ Child bring our hearts’ oblations.

Refrain

Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger,
We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly?

Refrain

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

Refrain

Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Emmanuel

Today’s readings

O 7emmanuelHow often have you wondered why God allows this or that calamity to happen, or why God hasn’t put an end to one injustice or another? When you’re in the thick of frustration, or even sorrow, do you question why a loving God wouldn’t put an end to all of that? Do you question whether God really loves you at all? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t wondered about that kind of thing at one time or another in their lives. On Friday, we had the funeral of a man who died suddenly, at a relatively early age, this close to Christmas. I have no idea how that kind of thing gets to be part of God’s plan. I really don’t. Making sense of the frustration, tragedy, and sadness in our lives is a gift that I’m not sure anyone really has. Some people can handle difficult times better than others, but the real understanding of pain is something that I think is in some ways beyond us.

So what keeps us going day after day? Pope Benedict gives us a hint at what’s needed in his encyclical, Spe Salvi: “Let us say once again:” he tells us, “we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 31). The greater and lesser hopes to which he refers are the things we think of when we are grasping for hope. A smile from a four-year old, a hug from a friend, getting a project finished, a word of encouragement from a coworker, that kind of thing. Those might be what he calls “lesser” hopes, they are the kind of thing for which my grandmother used to say, “Thank God for small favors!”

The “greater” hopes he’s talking about might be the knowledge that something we worked long and hard on made a difference to a person, or to a community, or even to those we work with. Maybe it’s the favorable diagnosis, or the resolution of a problem. It could even be reconciliation with a loved one. But Pope Benedict acknowledges that sometimes even these are not enough and only one kind of hope can ever be enough to bring us into the kingdom. He says, “But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain” (Spe Salvi, 31).

This is the kind of hope that Ahaz needed in our first reading. In that day, Jerusalem was being attacked by Rezah and Pekah, kings of neighboring nations. They were not successful, but the feeling was it would only be a matter of time before Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, fell to their oppressors. Isaiah, in our reading today, is trying to calm Ahaz with the knowledge that God is in control. He invites Ahaz to ask God for anything his heart desires. But Ahaz refuses. Rather than open himself up to the peace that God has in store for him, and cling to the hope God offers, he prefers to cloak himself in false humility and take care of things on his own.

But this is not to be. Frustrated, Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign: a virgin would conceive and bear a son who was to be named Emmanuel, a name that the Gospels tell us means “God is with us.” Which is incredibly good news for Ahaz, because with all that Jerusalem was going through, it had to seem like they were on their own. But that was never the case, God was with them and promised them salvation from their enemies. Now that’s the kind of great hope that Pope Benedict is talking about.

In these later days of Advent, we are given the many names of our Savior. Today we hear that he is to be named Jesus. And the original hearers of this story would have realized what that meant. But for us who don’t speak Hebrew, Scripture scholars tell us that the name “Jesus” means “The LORD is Salvation.” Jesus, our Emmanuel, our God with us, is the one for whom we have longed from the beginning of the world, into Isaiah and Ahaz’s time, even up to our own day.

There’s a wonderful tradition in the Church that in the latest days of Advent, we meditate on what’s called the “O Antiphons.” There is one of these “O Antiphons” for each day starting on the 17th of December. The antiphons are prayed at Vespers, or Evening Prayer each day, and they are part also of the great hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that we will sing at the Offertory today. When we sing it, I invite you to meditate on the words and hear in them the many ways in which Jesus is our Salvation.

On Monday, the antiphon was “O Wisdom,” and we reflected on the fact that it is only through God’s wisdom that we could come to salvation. Tuesday was “O Sacred Lord,” and we heard that our Lord once appeared to Moses in the burning bush, extending his hand to bring his people salvation. Wednesday was “O Root of Jesse,” which called on the Lord to extend his roots into the depths of hell and the grave to bring his people everlasting life. Thursday was “O Key of David,” the one who could unlock the many barriers that are between us and God. Friday was “O Radiant Dawn,” the coming of the One who brings light to our darkness. Yesterday was “O King of all the Nations,” because our Lord is the fulfillment of every need and desire universally. Today is the last of these “O Antiphons” and today we sing “O Emmanuel” – God with us – be present to us now and give us your grace and courage.

So, will Emmanuel take away all of our frustrations, sadness and pain? Well maybe not now. But one day, when the time is right, and everything is brought back to the One who made it in the first place. Until then, we may have suffering, but we will also and always have hope in Jesus our Emmanuel, our God with us, in good times and in bad, in this day and every day to come. We can cling to this hope because our God is not just any god as Pope Benedict points out, but “the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect” (Spe Salvi, 31).

So we can let our hopes be outrageous, deep as the netherworld and high as the sky. Because we have our Jesus, our God who is salvation, our Emmanuel, God with us, who longs to reach out to us and bring our greatest hopes to fulfillment. “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God” (Vespers, December 23).

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent: O King of all the Nations

Today’s readings

O 6kingWe hear a similar song from Hannah and Mary today. In fact, many Biblical scholars suggest that the song of Mary we heard in today’s Gospel is a restatement of the song of Hannah that we have in today’s psalm. Whether or not that is true, it is clear that both women give birth to a child by the grace of God, and both women’s sons are destined for greatness. Samuel’s strength is a foreshadowing of the strength of Jesus Christ who will overcome sin and death.

Samuel becomes a great king, but it is Jesus who becomes King of all the Nations, which is the title of Jesus we celebrate in the “O Antiphons” today. The verse from vespers prays,

O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you formed from the dust.

And our verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” sings:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Today we anxiously await the strength of Christ, King of all the Nations, the only joy of every human heart. He alone can save us from our sins. He alone can unify the hearts of all humankind, putting to an end, once and for all, the sad divisions that keep us from the communion we were always meant to have with one another. Lord Jesus, King of Peace, King of all the Nations, come quickly and do not delay!