All posts for the month December, 2014

Sirach 3, 2-6, 12-14 + Psalm 128 + Colossians 3, 12-21 + Luke 2, 22-40

St Francis of Assisi Parish Castle Rock, CO

If you do not understand what Luke is doing with this story, there is a danger of thinking that this family who come to the temple are somehow different from us. This is not the case. These announcements by Simeon and Anna are a tool that the Biblical writer uses to lead us to a deeper meaning. It is the same kind of tool that Shakespeare uses to tell the audience what characters are thinking or what is about to happen. In literature class we called these, “soliloquies”. These are not part of the story for the characters, but they are inserted for the reader. Not understanding that removes Mary and Joseph from reality making their lives and their family so unique that they cannot possibly relate to our experiences. That is a loss.

At the time it is perfectly logical and likely that two old people found every day in the Temple were speaking to and blessing every couple that came to fulfill the law. It is as though they did not want to miss the Messiah they longed for, so they were there for every child. There is nothing in this text that suggests Mary and Joseph were the only couple they greeted. What is important is that Mary and Joseph went to the temple. It is a detail that Luke provides to refute rumors in the early church that they were not good Jews. There is care all through Luke’s Gospel to show that they observed all the laws and customs.

When Simeon announces that this child will be a light to the Gentiles, Luke is telling us about the faith future of gentiles. It is like those “teasers” that get our attention to watch the news: “Stay tuned, details at 10:00.” Simeon’s announcement that this child will face opposition keeps us tuned in to see what that is all about.

We must remember then that this couple were real parents. They had no idea what was coming, what this child was going to be like, and since he was their first born, they didn’t even have any practice at parenting. We get no details about their private lives except one occasion when they get separated from their son, and another occasion when his mother goes with family members to get him and take him away. It sounds more like an intervention than anything else. They thought he was going to get into trouble with the way he was talking and challenging the authorities.

Anyone here ever get separated from one of your children? Nothing special about that except that it scares you to death and when it is over you don’t know how to feel. This is a real family. This is where and how God chose to begin the work of salvation and redemption: in the context of a family. This is fundamental Incarnation. God with us, Immanuel, is revealed in a family, and not just once. God is still being revealed in your family and in mine. The hand of God, the presence of God, the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the tenderness of God, the mercy of God: it’s all there when you choose to look and see.

This feast reminds us to look within. It is not an occasion to look out and put Mary and Joseph on a pedestal suggesting that their home and their relationships and their experiences were not the same as our own. My own opinion is that there is no information about their private home family life because it was so ordinary and so real. No news there, nothing to report.

The sword in the heart is an important detail. A sword is something that divides, cuts in two. It is a startling image for what Jesus will accomplish and what salvation will require of us. A sword piercing someone’s heart refers to discerning what God is doing in someone’s life, and their willingness to follow through on the painful consequences that flow from such discernment and choices. A discerning person sees things others miss, and therefore does things other people refuse to do.

A sword in the heart causes people to make decisions many would rather not have been forced to make. Mary’s heart experienced the same sword we all experience. No one comes into contact with her son without having to decide one way or the other about their faith and lifestyle. Do we reject or accept? Only by the decisions we make are the “thoughts of one’s heart revealed.”

Throughout his Gospel, Luke affirms that Mary chose the correct side of the sword. He shows her to be the perfect Christian: someone who hears God’s word and carries it out. Yet, because of the way we often fail to understand these Biblical stories, we fail to appreciate that she, along with everyone else who encountered the historical Jesus, had to make faith decisions. She and Joseph would only receive the insights contained in the Gospel after their son’s resurrection, not before. Except for the unique mystery of how Jesus’ conception came about, they had to relate to their son along the lines most parents relate to their children. Only their later reflections would make sense out of earlier events. It is the same for all of us. After things settle down and time passes and heals do we often understand and see what it was all about, what God was doing, and how we all grow in wisdom and faith. It’s always a matter of seeing things other miss and doing things others refuse to do.

Isaiah 62, 11-12 + Psalm 97 + Titus 3, 4-7 + Matthew 1, 18-25

St Francis of  Assisi Parish, Castle Rock, CO

Those of you looking at missals or hymnals know that a different Gospel has been proclaimed from the one publishers expected. Since I am new to some of you, I have taken the liberty of doing something new by choosing the Gospel from the Vigil of Christmas since none of you were here for the Vigil of Christmas. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t one, so Matthew’s Gospel gets lost in the scheduling of our lives, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. When the church arranged the readings for this feast, the plan was for Matthew to start and John to finish. So, I want to take you to the beginning.

Because we know how the story turns out, we do not hear this story the way people did for whom Matthew is writing. They knew nothing about how it ends or what is being revealed. So every detail Matthew provides was something new, curious, and thought provoking. We fail to sense the anxiety, the fear, the conflict, and the possible consequences unfolding in this moment. Our romantic approach to these events and sometimes our piety overlooks troubling elements of the story that are part of the message. There is more being said here than what John’s Gospel says so starkly, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”

In the center of this story stands Joseph who having not been conceived without sin, having not been called “Blessed” by an angel is more like us than the Virgin Mary. I’ve always thought we ought to pay a lot more attention to Joseph than we have historically. Luke’s Gospel is the version that has captured the imagination of artists, poets, and songwriters. Luke’s Gospel has more to say about Mary than the other Gospels. The cast of characters in Matthew’s Gospel is more simple. Have you noticed that no one ever puts on a play or pageant using Matthew’s Gospel version? It would be very short. There is no music, no choir of angels, no sheep, no shepherds!

At the heart of this gospel we have “an upright man.” More literal translations call him a “righteous man.” At the heart of this Gospel there is a serious conflict and a powerful lesson. It is a conflict that weaves its way through the life of Jesus and his struggle with the Scribes and Pharisees. It is conflict found in our own lives. Joseph’s uneasy story about what to do is part of the message here. Joseph begins to redefine what it means to be “upright” or “righteous.”

Simply put, before Joseph being “upright” or “righteous” meant one thing: following the rules and obeying the laws. Nothing else mattered. The consequences of strictly following the rules were irrelevant. After Joseph, being “upright” and “righteous” means something else.

Joseph should have followed the law and put Mary away, meaning publically breaking off the engagement and leaving her to live with the consequence of having a child that was not his. What is he to say to people: “An angel told me what to do”? No one is going to believe in talking angels, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, who ever heard of that before? No way! If he did not follow the rules, he would have been cut off from everyone, no friends, no business for the shop, his reputation would have been ruined, and he would no longer be admired and respected as a lover and follower of the Torah. His whole life would have been trashed. His decision, his willingness to sacrifice everything by doing what is right rather than follow the rules is major part of this story.

Do you ever wonder why God waited and let Joseph struggle with all this stuff and then sends the angel? It would have been a lot easier if the angel had come first to explain everything and remove the anxiety. It is possible though that anxiety removal is not God’s number one goal. It is possible that in getting his world turned upside down, in having to struggle between what he thought he should (follow the rules) and what he ought to do (be merciful), God was leading him to a new understanding of what it means to be “upright” and “righteous.”

When Joseph was long dead and Jesus was a grown man, he taught in Matthew’s Gospel (5, 20) “Unless your righteousness passes that of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the law you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus must have been thinking that he had seen the better kind of righteousness firsthand in Joseph.

God had a reason for this odd, painful, lonely way to start a family. Perhaps God still calls people to be willing to die to reputation, status, and comfort for the sake of love. When Joseph decided to proceed to take Mary for his wife, he thought it was the end of his being known as a righteous man. He gave up concern about what other people would think, and realized that just following the rules is not always the right thing to do. He did not know fully that the child he would adopt would bring to the human race a new kind of righteousness. This is a big part of what we celebrate this Christmas.

2 Samuel 7, 1-5,8-11, 16 + Psalm 89 + Romans 16, 25-27 + Luke 1, 26-38

MS Eurodam & St Sebastian Parish, Ft Lauderdale

The last of Advent’s prophets is heard today. Samuel is responsible for crowning David as King, and so the book that bears his name describes Israel’s transition from the period of the “Judges” to the Monarchy under Saul and David. It is not a history, but simply a series of episodes centered on the principal characters of Samuel, Saul, and David. Our church listens to Samuel just before Christmas because it can lead us to anticipate and prepare for the coming of one who brings hope to fulfillment, history to term, and holiness to perfection, Christ, the son of David and promised Messiah.

So there is way more to this passage than just a story telling about David’s desire to build a Temple, a dwelling for God motivated by the fact that David is living in a palace. Behind the resistance that Samuel reveals is the fact that in some way, David’s wish will be a way of controlling and containing God. “If I put God in a house, I will know where God is.” For those interested, it also reflects a theological shift from the age of the Judges to the Monarchy. In the previous age, under the leadership of the “Judges” the presence of God was experienced in the corporate community, the People of Israel. Now the shift goes to the monarchy. Where the King is the sign of God’s rule and presence.

At a deeper level, this matter leads us and prepares us to ponder again the mystery of the Incarnation, Christmas. In sharp contrast to David’s plan comes God’s plan. Instead of a Golden Temple in Jerusalem, there is a stable in an out of the way little town called: Bethlehem. Instead or royal robes and a king’s armor for battle, there are swaddling clothes that upon a second look appear to be a shroud. This contrast of images leads us to wonder about the dwelling place of God, and the light of faith leads us to see the Word Made Flesh as God’s choice to dwell within and among us.

Before our ancestors built great churches, God had already made a choice of where to dwell. There are some who believe that the very beginning of the Christian community’s possession of land and buildings was the beginning of trouble, and there is evidence to support that thinking. Everywhere in the western world today, church buildings are becoming a burden, source of division and conflict as leaders begin to deal with the fact that they cannot be maintained by a handful of people, and that the real works of charity and service are challenged by the demands of leaky roofs and heating bills for enormous buildings used a few hours a week by a congregation half the size they were built for. Meanwhile people go without roofs or heat because there is nothing left for them. This is not to suggest that we  should have no place to meet, to pray, to worship, and be strengthened by God’s Word, but it is a reminder that what makes this place holy is the people who gather here in covenant. The Blessed Sacrament in that tabernacle could not be there without first assembling the faithful people in the presence of God to be fed by that sacrament.

What Samuel and David remind us of today is that the first dwelling place of God is in our hearts and in our lives. Understanding that truth and believing it changes the way we look at all of God’s people. The comfort we experience in a heated or cooled church with light and bathrooms and convenient parking should at once make us uncomfortable for those who have not, and in that way, these buildings serve a good and saving purpose. In thinking of this, I recalled something the late Cardinal Bernadine of Chicago is once said to have spoken at a dinner honoring wealthy donors. “The poor need you to help them, and you need the poor to keep you out of hell.”

We come into our churches in order to be sent out. That is the final instruction at the conclusion of every Mass. We come here hungry to be fed and are told to feed others. We cannot worship God in this place and hold in contempt or disrespect any of God’s children. This is the message we draw from David and Samuel. It is the earliest hint about what God has planned and will reveal in sending God’s only Son to live and die among us. As we look at the message of these readings, it seems we are being invited to savor the mystery. Through Nathan, God told David that it was not time to build a temple. God, not David, was building the future, and no temple should get in the way or try to circumscribe God’s initiatives. God cannot be walled in. As Nathan reminded David, God chooses to remain with us in our wanderings.

The familiar story of Mary’s experience must be ours as well. What we will soon celebrate is more than the birth of her child. It is mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s life and presence within us all still waiting to be born.

Isaiah 61, 1-2, 10-11 + Luke 1, 46-48, 49-50, 53-54 + 1 Thessalonians 5, 16-24 + John 1, 6-8, 19-28

MS Eurodam in the Caribbean

Again the words of a Prophet stir our hearts and minds in Advent’s third week. It is almost as though today’s text is the prophet’s response to last week’s command from God who said: “Do something” or “Comfort my people”. Instead of saying, “Who me? Get someone else” or “I don’t have time”, the true prophetic person pauses and reflects remembering whose command it is and responds: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” The comforting of last week is now described in detail, and with it comes the spirit of the message which must possess the heart of the messenger.

It has always struck me as strange and sad that so many look upon religion, and especially our own faith tradition as something guilt ridden, dark, and doom filled. I think this says more about the messenger than the message. This is never clearer to me than when I speak with parents about the possibility of a religious vocation for their children. I can’t count the times when I have been stunned to hear them respond seriously that they want their children to be happy implying that I am not. I have always taken that response as a reason to check my attitude and behavior. Perhaps somehow I have failed to convey and bear witness to the full and joyful life to which I have been called. It is not a burden to be celibate. It is not unpleasant to proclaim God’s forgiveness to the repentant. It is privilege and joy to sit with the dying as visible evidence of God’s presence, and it is humbling and wonderful to share the greatest moments of joy or of sadness with God’s people. These are the very ingredients of happiness.

We are not prophets of doom and destruction, punishment and death. Our faith and practice of it is no burden. It is a privilege. It is not a serious obligation nor a complicated set of rules. It is an invitation to Joy that comes from hope fulfilled living in the promise that a God of mercy loves us even when we are not loving ourselves.

Recently I was in Lourdes which is, to me, one of the most holy and joyful places on earth. People come there from all over the world sick and frail, troubled and depressed, lost and confused. Yet, in the midst of that, there is always joy. There are smiles and happiness, confidence and faith. These are a people who have the spirit of the Lord upon them. I walked in the procession one night alongside a young couple pushing a complicated wheelchair that held their child. My candle was blown out by the wind. The child who could barely speak from some unnamed malady shouted up at me and held out the light of his candle for me with smile bright enough to illuminate the heavens. I’m walking on two feet after seven decades of life, and this child who has never taken a step gives me a light and smile.

My friends, we have glad tidings, and we are the tidings. We have good news, and we are the news. If the God of our faith is not the God of joy this prophet speaks of something has gone wrong. We either have some idol like power for a god or we have no faith. In the midst of this season, at the darkest time of the year when nights are longer than days, we are all there is to brighten the night and bring on the day. The anointing of our Baptism and Confirmation is enough. If you are here and hear this Word of God, you are the ones “clothed with the robe of salvation” as the prophetic word said today.

Our witness to the joy that real faith sustains is more than just seasonal. It is more than a verse on a card or a wish in greeting. It is way of life that will bring liberty to captives, heal the broken hearted, and freedom to those held bound by ignorance, doubt, guilt, or even the injustice of poverty imposed upon them. Catholicism as we see it now in our Pope Frances is again about joy, smiles, laughter, patience, tolerance, wisdom and peace. This is who we are and what we are, and this world longs for the hope that joy can provide.

Isaiah 40, 1-5, 9-11 + Psalm 85 – 2 Peter 3, 8-14 + Mark 1, 1-8

Still at the center of Advent readings stands a prophet. This prophet receives a command strongly delivered and repeated twice emphatically. As I was sitting with this text in study, just as I was two weeks ago, a song came into my head. Handel’s treatment of this text in the “Messiah.” Artist that he was, Handel was certainly free to interpret the word as he might for its effect in the whole work, but that tiny little tenor voice that quietly sings “Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye” is not the best way to get the point. If Handel really wanted to interpret this text, this piece might have started with the entire chorus shouting in unison: DO SOMETHING with a big drum roll.

This is a command. It is not a wish. It is a command from God telling the prophet what must be done in order to find freedom from oppression, peace, and lasting joy. It is a command that provides instructions about how to restore what had been lost by the Babylonian conquest and enslavement of many Israelites. They know why it happened. Because they had ceased to care for one another, because they had ceased to observe the covenant, because they had cared for themselves before they cared for God and God’s little ones they lost everything. Earlier prophets in the same book list again and again the grievances and the conditions that resulted in the present misery. There was no justice. There was idolatry. They offered sacrifices in the Temple while “ignoring the orphan’s plea and the widow. (Isaiah 1, 16)”.

So, after a long silence, God speaks up. God gives a command to the prophet about how to restore what has been lost. That is true “comfort”, because real comfort is not just patting someone’s hand saying simply “Now, now, don’t feel too badly, things will get better.” The only real way to comfort someone in distress is to restore what has been lost. Whenever we need comfort it is because something or someone has been lost: a job, a loved one, a treasure of some kind. Real comfort only comes with restoration or the return of what or who was lost.

With the command given to the prophet comes also the plan for restoration and real comfort. Tenderness and forgiveness, a straightening of crooked ways, and a filling in of valleys. Poetic language here that insists that kindness is essential, and forgiveness to be received must be given. It is always about giving. The word itself says it all. Give it! When things are crooked and twisted, uneven and unfair, fix it. Straighten it out. Make it easier to care for one another, to be kind and forgive. Where there is inequality and a twisted convoluted access to justice it must fixed. This is only way to find comfort and the only way back to what God has promised.

My friends, we cannot listen to this text as spectators nor study it as though it was a document in the “Rare book” section of a library. This is the living Word of God, and proclaimed in this assembly it is even more alive and more emphatic than ever. We are the prophets. We are the ones called by God and the ones to whom God reveals God’s commands and will.

When God says: “Go up a high mountain and cry at the top of your voice” God is speaking to us. When God says: “Do not be afraid to cry out” we are the ones God is addressing. That straight and level way is how God will break through and restore with us the intimacy, peace, and joy God intended at the beginning. This is not something someone else must do. Our faith itself is the acknowledgment of our call. Our faith is not about what we get, but about what we shall be and what we shall do to become what we shall be. You see, it is always about comfort, about restoring. It is about restoring the innocence, the holiness, the respect, the peace, and ultimately the relationship human kind had with God before sin and the spoiling of paradise.

God wills us to have it back. God wants us to come home, to walk in the garden of life with God again. If we hear this call and command and do nothing, we have no one to blame for the condition of this world than ourselves. Blame is easy, but it is foolish. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed a snake. It got them nowhere but further from the truth.

The second week of Advent is call to listen. While this season is often considered a time of “waiting”, it is also a season that informs us about what to do while we wait. Do something! Comfort my people, says God. Kindness, forgiveness, and attention to those around us; Justice and faithfulness to God is the stuff of real comfort that beings an end to sadness. We have nothing to fear except the consequences of our own inaction, passivity, and blame. We are on the mountain. From here what we do and what we say can be seen by all. We must pray today that what is seen in us is the promise and glory of God.