Sunday, December 27, 2015

Living as the Family of Jesus

The Holy Family with a Little Bird (c. 1650), Bartolom√© Esteban Murillo

For the first time ever, more than 100 million Americans are traveling during the holidays this year, making it the busiest travel schedule on record, according to AAA. If you think about it, that makes for a lot of family dinners and get-togethers, lots of gift-giving and holiday toasts and happy hearts. For many of us, the best gift of Christmas is simply having the chance to spend it with family.

Of course, sometimes, when gathered with family, the less desirable sides of our human nature make an appearance. We end up sharing with them – and they with us – things less desirable than Christmas cookies and egg nog; things like old grudges, family disagreements, personal weaknesses, squabbles about politics or religion or any number of things. I remember someone telling me once that they never looked forward to the Feast of Holy Family, coming so shortly after Christmas, because they ended feeling as if their own family fell short in comparison.

The Holy Family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – certainly should be a model and inspiration holiness for us. The saints tell us that contemplating the inner life of the family of Nazareth, we can learn in our own families how to be kinder, more loving, more holy. But they also were a family that lived the same human reality that we do; though Mary and Jesus were without sin and Joseph a righteous man, they surely had moments of challenge, weariness, difficulty, just as all families do.

In the Gospel reading today, we hear about one such episode. For three days Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus in the large city of Jerusalem, their hearts no doubt as anxious as the hearts of any parent who has lost a child for just a few moments in a crowded public place. And when they finally find him, Jesus responds with this strange answer – that they should have known he would be in his Father’s house. Jesus, of course, is not being willfully insolent, as we might be at twelve years old. Instead, he is already helping his mother and foster father to understand something very important – that his Father has sent him for a mission, and that he is intent to fulfill that mission in its entirety. The purpose of the Incarnation, the Son of God becoming man, is that he might fulfill the will of the Father in restoring humanity back to holiness.

God could have chosen to save us from our sins in any number of ways, and yet he chose to become one of us to share our reality. And Jesus could have shared our human reality in any number of ways – as a great king or a conquering general – and yet he chose to come as a humble child, born into a family, living a domestic life that to outside appearances would not have seemed remarkable. And yet, the Holy Family shows us that the most important measure for any family is not the things we so often preoccupy ourselves with – the accomplishments of children, contentedness of the father and mother, security and achievement. Rather, it is in the daily living out of faith and hope and love – in short, in holiness – that any and every family lives out what God desires it to be.

This is why we as Catholics are so strong in our promotion of the family as the key to society. It's why we need good, holy marriages, which are open to life, and families that take time to pray together and attend Sunday Mass together. We need parents who will raise their children to understand why their Catholic faith is important, children who respect their parents as God’s guardians over them, spouses and siblings who look for opportunities to show sacrificial love to each other each day. The great English saint Thomas More once wrote that, “The ordinary acts we practice every day at home,” – that is, in our families – “are of more importance to our soul than their simplicity might suggest.” Never doubt that the daily routine of living as part of a human family, just as Jesus did, is a very important part of your path to heaven.

Even more important, I think, is the reminder today that Jesus has not just come as part of a Holy Family but to create a new family, one that we share in. Through Jesus we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church, we are intimately connected to the family life of Jesus – we too can call God our Father, we too look to Mary as Mother, we too honor with Joseph the Christ Child who has been born for us. Families today are so varied and diverse, and so often these things can be sources of division and alienation. But in the Holy Family, by being in a sense part of the Holy Family, by striving to live out the life of the Holy Family in our own families, we share more deeply in the peace and harmony that the Christ Child has come to bring. If you know that you or your family is not living out the life of a holy family in the best way, don’t feel bad – but turn to Jesus so that he may help you be the holy family he has called you to be.

My friends, the celebration of the Holy Family today is not intended as a comparison to our own families, as if to point out our own imperfections. Rather, we are reminded that no matter what our family situation may be – whether it’s relatively wonderful, our relatively difficult, or even if we have no human family to speak of – Jesus has made us part of his family. By opening ourselves, and helping our families to be open as well, to the grace of God, then we are lifted from imperfections and raised to something much greater, indeed, something everlasting. Let us strive to live as members of holy families now that we might one day rejoice to join the eternal Holy Family of Jesus in heaven.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Beyond Any Expectation: The Nativity of Jesus

Baroque silver relief of the Nativity of Christ, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium

Everyone has certain expectations about Christmas, and how it should be. Maybe we expect to have the house decorated just so, or the Christmas dinner to be prepared in just the right way. Children certainly await with great anticipation the gifts that Santa has brought, and parents can expect that they’ll be ready for a nap before it’s even time to go to church.

Even at Mass, we have certain expectations about how things should be. We expect the church interior to look a certain way. We expect to sing certain songs. But, of course, the problem with expectations is that they are not always met. Maybe we don’t get the gift we really wanted; maybe our favorite Christmas dish is in the oven too long and is inedible; maybe the church choir doesn’t sing our favorite Christmas hymn. When we set ourselves up expecting something, and it doesn’t happen the way we want, we’re left with disappointment.

Sometimes, however, unmet expectations can help us in a very important way. One of the most fascinating books of the Bible, in my opinion, is the Letter to the Hebrews, from which our second reading comes today. Who wrote the letter is unknown – some say it was St. Paul while others say it was someone much closer to Jesus, maybe even a relative of his. Whoever it was, it’s clear from the letter that the author originally did not believe in Jesus; he did not accept him as the Jewish Messiah. He had a very clear expectation of what the Savior would be like, and to that expectation, Jesus was a disappointment.

And yet, in the midst of this unmet expectation, something unexpected happens – the author comes to a new realization. As he writes, “in times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son…” The author writing to the Hebrews realizes that the Messiah he had expected was never the one God wished to send – instead, God had always desired to send his own very Son to fully reveal his love. The disappointment of the writer’s expectation gave way to a profound awe in the power of God’s action.

We hear something similar in the Gospel reading. Now, you would be forgiven if – on Christmas morning – you had expected to hear a Gospel story about the angel encouraging Joseph to keep Mary in his home and not be afraid to welcome Jesus with her, or about the angel announcing the birth of the newborn king to the shepherds, or about the shepherds making haste to see the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem. All of these would seem very appropriate for Christmas morning.

Instead, we get this beautiful if strange text from the Gospel of John, which isn’t about a baby at all but about the Word of God becoming flesh. John was likely an old man when he composed this text, perhaps nearly 100 years old, and by this time, after his life of preaching and writing and prayer, he wasn’t focused on shepherds and angels and manger scenes. What was far more important to him was what it all meant – that “the Word of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us; and from his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John’s desire for his listeners is to understand who Jesus really is – not just the Savior, not just the Messiah, but God himself become man.

This is one of those truths of our faith that we repeat so often that it perhaps loses its power to affect us. But underneath all of the exteriors of the Christmas season – the celebrations and the merry-making – and even underneath our church observances and stories of long ago, at the heart of what we celebrate is something which utterly defeats the imagination, something which only God himself could have thought or have done: namely, that the Logos, the Word, who is with God and who is God, through whom all things have been created, became himself one with his creation. The Son of God – infinite in power and eternal in being – “worked,” in the words of the Second Vatican Council, “with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved.” It’s so essential to let ourselves be struck dumb by this fact: that God himself, the true God, Creator of all things, entered our human reality – to share it, to show us how to live it well, and ultimately to redeem it and raise it to eternal dwelling with himself.

Several years ago now I had the opportunity to visit the Basilica of the Nativity, the church in Bethlehem that is built over the spot where tradition holds that Jesus was born. I remember being very excited to see this particular church – it was virtually the last stop on a journey through the Holy Land, ten days of amazing pilgrimage and prayer. My understanding of my faith has never been the same since that trip. But I remember being very disappointed by the trip to Bethlehem. Unlike most of the previous sights we had seen, in Galilee and in Jerusalem, the city of Bethlehem is in Palestinian-controlled territory, in the West Bank. We had to pass through two armed check points to get into the town, which itself was dingy and dusty, much poorer than what we had seen while in Israel. The basilica itself was in a state of disrepair, and the spot where the birth of Jesus occurred – the Grotto of the Nativity – was marked by only a simple piece of glass, covering the rock below. We spent a few moments in prayer, and then passed on, and before too long, were making our way back across the border.

"Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary," Grotto of the Natvity, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.

That was an experience where my expectation was not at all met – but with time, I realized that I had experienced something far greater than what I had expected. Because when you get down to it – when you take away all the trappings and traditions of Christmas – all the gifts, all the songs, all the meals (one of my favorite parts), when you take away all the expectations and heightened anticipation – what do you have left? Just that cold stone floor, with the simple piece of glass covering the rock below. And yet, there it is – it is real. It really happened. If you comprehend as I did what that simple spot means – then it is enough, it is more than enough – it is everything and more. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

My friends, expectations can be disappointed but they can also be surpassed, exceeded, transcended. God always desires to do that for us – just as he did for the author to the Hebrews and for St. John, just as he did for me in contemplating the bareness of that spot on the stone floor. Whatever this Christmas might bring for you – whether all of your exterior expectations go fulfilled or unfulfilled – remember that God himself has met, indeed surpassed our greatest interior desire. Let us be glad and rejoice, for Emmanuel, God-with-us, has come, and so it will always be.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Rejoicing Before Dawn

Would you say you are ready for Christmas? The calendar says that we’re now less than two weeks away from the big day. If you’re like me, there’s still many things to be done between now and then – preparations to make and gifts to buy and plans to arrange. And our students know that we’re even closer to the end of the semester – only a few days now, perhaps just a few exams or papers, between now and Christmas break.

When we are waiting for something – waiting for Christmas to arrive, waiting for the academic semester to end – it can be good to remind ourselves what we’re waiting for. Today, on the Third Sunday of Advent, the Church asks us to stop for a moment from the preparations of Advent to remember what we’re waiting for, indeed, who we’re preparing for. There is a joyful tone to today’s liturgy. We lit the rose candle in the Advent wreath and I’m wearing rose (not pink, rose!) vestments – it’s all symbolic that we are drawing closer to a brightness that awaits us. It’s not here yet, but it’s certainly coming, and coming soon.

In the Gospel today, the people ask John the Baptist how they are to behave in advance of the Savior’s coming. He gives them a variety of answers – share your clothing and your food, don’t take advantage of others, be satisfied with what you have. In other words, work for peace and for justice and be ready for the One who comes to bring you salvation.

That’s good advice, advice that we should heed now. But notice that it is advice for those who have not yet seen the Savior. St. Paul, in the second reading, also gives advice, perhaps advice much more appropriate for us who already know Jesus. Listen again to what he says: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice! Your kindness shall be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Those are some of the most comforting words of the New Testament, probably written very shortly before Paul himself was executed. How can a man who was imprisoned, probably tortured, far from his own native land, waiting for his own execution, compose such powerful words? The answer of course is that he knew Jesus! He was putting his faith and hope in something, someone, greater than his own life and security – something truly wonderful to come.

St. Paul in Prison (1627), Rembrandt van Rijn

Sometimes, in our lives as Christians, we tend to let everything that’s still imperfect dominate our viewpoint. We focus on our sins and weaknesses, on what is wrong and unfair and unjust, on what causes us pain and discord and difficulty. Those things are not unimportant – but the whole point of our faith in Jesus is that they are not the whole story. You and I are called to live this Christian life primarily with a spirit of joy – something, I think, that is not so much about feelings as it is a particular mindset. No matter what our present circumstances – no matter how terrible, even if we were to be awaiting death in a prison cell, like Paul – our hearts can be focused on the knowledge that victory has been achieved. The Lord who is coming, and coming very soon, has already won the battle over sin and darkness.

Let me share with you an experience that happened to me several years ago that has stayed with me and symbolizes perhaps what I’m talking about.

After college some friends and I made a trip to Peru, and during our time there we had the chance to visit the ruins of the Incan city Machu Picchu. Allow me to set the scene for you: Early in the morning, you leave your lodging in the town in the valley below, and with dozens of other people, you board a bus that takes you up a winding road to the entrance of the park. There, in the cold and the pitch dark, you blindly stumble up a steep trail and clamber over large stones in order to finally situate yourself in the middle of the ruins, near a place called the the Temple of the Sun. And then, you wait. The ruins are high on a ridge surrounded by mountains. At first, you can’t see anything but the stars above and the shadowy rocks around you. Then, when dawn arrives, the faintest hints of light begin to brighten your surroundings. You don’t see the sun yet – it is blocked by a large mountain to the east – but soon the darkness softens to shades of gray. The mountain mist dissipates, shadows fade, and you can see the long journey that you have made to be in that spot. You are surrounded by stunning stonework and architecture, a city built on a mountain surrounded by higher mountains. You marvel with your friends at the amazing, dream-like place you find yourself in. And, finally, after great anticipation and long waiting, the sun breaks out brilliantly over the top of the mountain in the distance, and you and your friends and the whole city is flooded with intense light. 

Sunrise at Machu Picchu, July 2006

My friends, the best way to be ready for Christmas is not through a bunch of external preparations – parties, gifts, and festivities. The best way is to allow yourself to rejoice: to feel the real joy that comes from knowing that there is a Savior, that he has come and is coming again, and that when he does, the light that he brings will break forth through the darkness, dissipating the shadows and mists of night and shine upon us all. The full dawning of his sunrise has not yet come – and yet, if we look with eyes of faith, we can see that the shadows are softening around us, the darkness is fading, and perhaps we can begin to see how things really are.

Be joyful, then, today, not just with your feelings, but in your heart, with your will – for the Lord himself is near. May he find us ready to welcome him like the morning sun, filled with the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Prophecy of Hope

St. John the Baptist in the Desert (c. 1670), Philippe de Champaigne

How do you feel about the world today? If you’ve been reading the news lately, it’s hard not to feel pretty depressed. From attacks against defenseless citizens at home and abroad, to political gridlock and endless arguing, to the demands of secular uniformity and ideology, it feels like a really dark time. It feels, in the words of a celebrity who wrote an op-ed this week, as if “the world is breaking.”

But are things worse now than they have been in the past? At first glance, they sure seem to be.  But history is full of dark times, long eras of tragedy and discord – in fact, you can look to just about any period of history and you'll discover there something terrible. And in just about any era of history you can find prophets of doom – people who wring their hands or stand on street corners or who write op-eds in newspapers – who warn us that the world is swiftly drawing to a close.

In the Gospel today, we hear about a prophet – not of doom, however, but of repentance. John the Baptist is called by God and sent to preach repentance in the midst of some very terrible circumstances, created by some very bad men. Luke names them for us – Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas and Caiaphas. We are not familiar with these names, but the original audience of Luke certainly would have been. Think of your least favorite dictators and traitors throughout history – that’s what these names would have meant to all who knew them. They had plunged Israel into the depths of Roman oppression, afflicted it with corruption, and driven away any notion of Israel being God’s chosen people.

It is into this nightmare of a situation that John is called forth by God from the desert and sent to preach repentance. Certainly this seems logical – Israel, and the Jews of the time, and indeed all humanity had apparently royally messed up, and they needed to ask forgiveness to get themselves back on track. But note how there’s something more to John’s message than just “repent” – he says, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." These words, taken from the prophet Isaiah, are words of repentance, yes – but they’re also words of joy and hope. They tell of a salvation that is to come, indeed, is already coming.

In some ways, John the Baptist was a messenger of that which he himself did not fully know. John knew there was going to be a Savior, but he didn’t know who it would be, or where he would come from, or how exactly he would redeem Israel. Yet, John had hope – he placed his faith in the Lord’s promises, despite the terrible circumstances and outward appearances that could have dissuaded him or caused him to doubt. He places his trust in what he knew to be trustworthy – that God’s promises do not go unfulfilled, that hope will not be unrewarded. And for this reason he begins his preaching, his cry of repentance – not because he wishes to tear the people of Israel down, but because he wants to build them up, to get them ready for the coming salvation. At the heart of repentance is hope – hope that the future will be better than the present.

In this season of Advent, the Church asks to look again to John the Baptist and to his cries of repentance – not just because we want to beat our breasts, and say “Woe is me, I’m a sinner”. We turn again to repentance because, at our core, we have hope. We believe that we can be better with God’s grace, that we have been called to become something which has not yet been realized, that we are not yet the best versions of ourselves. Our circumstances may be terrible – we might feel as if we are as distant from God or as unworthy of his love as we have ever been. Or perhaps we feel as if he is just absent from us, as if he is not listening and not present in our lives. It is precisely in this kind of situation that we have to have hope – we must trust that God is at work somehow, in some way, even if we can't see it at the present moment.

My friends, there is no period of history – not the time of John the Baptist and not now – that is beyond the reach of God's providence and grace. Sometimes it is precisely when things seem most dire that God breaks through to reveal his presence to us. This Advent, look to John the Baptist – hope even when you do not understand, believe even if you do not see, be a messenger of what even you yourself do not yet fully realize – and the presence of God will be revealed to you in a way far more profound than you know.

Allow me to end with just a few lines of a poem by the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, called “Advent Credo”:

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—

This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—

This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.