Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holy Family

(Holy Family, C)

The other day I was taking a walk near our friary in Jamaica Plain, Boston. Around the corner is an apartment building with a big dumpster. And stuffed into the dumpster, top down, was a big, full, beautiful Christmas tree.

And I thought: that’s what Christmas is to the world that doesn’t know the Lord—a lovely celebration and a time to enjoy the warmth of home and family and friends, but then, that’s it. When it’s over, that’s the end.

But we who have been given and have accepted the grace of knowing and loving God, we know that Christmas is more than this. We know that what we celebrate is the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know that all of giving and receiving of gifts is only a way to remember and honor God’s great gift of his own divine life to us in the humanity of Christ.

Friends, the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of the revealing of God in the Word made flesh; it’s a gradual process, a gradual revelation. Last week we celebrated the beginning of this process, when we were here for the feast of the Nativity of the Lord. At first he was revealed only to Mary and Joseph, and then to the poor shepherds by way of the announcement of the angels.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, the presence of the Incarnation within the ordinary family life of a husband and a wife and their child. In today’s Gospel we hear the beginning of the revelation of Jesus to his own religion in his discussion with the teachers in the Temple. They were all “astounded” with his answers, even at so young an age. They knew they were dealing with someone special.

Next Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, when we will recall how, in the presence of the three wise men from the East, Jesus begins to be revealed to all the nations of the world. In these three great feasts of Christmas—the Nativity, the Holy Family, and the Epiphany, we see the gradual revelation of God’s goodness and kindness to the world in the Word made flesh. First he is revealed to Mary and Joseph and the poor shepherds of their own neighborhood, then to Israel, the people of God, and finally to all the nations.

But let us return to today’s feast, the feast of the Holy Family. We have in our Gospel today the beginning of Jesus’ great revelation when Mary and Joseph find the boy Jesus in the Temple. He says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus calls God his Father, revealing the identity of the unseen God, and thus begins the great grace of Christianity, of our being freely made children of God by being ourselves absorbed into the humanity of Christ.

Remember the line from the old the prayer, the Anima Christi: “O good Jesus hear me, within thy wounds hide me.” When we hide in the wounds of the Savior, when we live our lives within the Body of Christ we receive here at Mass, then God is our Father because he is Jesus’ Father.

Notice, however, that this great revelation, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” only comes about because of a family misunderstanding. It only happens because Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus in their travels. Men and women traveled separately in a caravan in those days, with the women taking the children. Jesus, being at the age just in between being a child and a grown man, could have gone either way. So Mary and Joseph each perhaps presumed he was with the other, and, as often happens with teenagers, there was a misunderstanding and a miscommunication. But it’s only because of this confusion, because Mary and Joseph had to search for Jesus, that we have this great revelation of Jesus being found in the Temple, in which he begins to reveal the great good news of the Fatherhood of God.

Now this ought to be encouraging for us! All of us have had parents, and some of us have children. Most of us live with some kind of family, even if sometimes, they aren’t family in the biological sense. And when it comes to family, as we all know, things don’t always proceed in the smoothest or most peaceful manner. So when we hear about the Holy Family, this family made up of two saints and the Lord himself, having a misunderstanding and miscommunication, it should encourage us! Even the Holy Family of the Lord himself had its troubles.

But the revelation, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” only comes because Mary expresses her anxiety to Jesus and asks him where he’s been. And it’s the same with us, friends. If we don’t risk talking to each other about our family misunderstandings and how we hurt each other and give each other anxiety, we don’t make room for the grace of God to spring up.

We’re not always going to get along. There are going to be problems and fights. As we see today, even the Holy Family had its misunderstandings, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we have them too. But what matters is what we do with them. If all we do is stuff our feelings down, or wear out the patience of our friends by complaining to third parties, we will only bear more misery into the world. And there’s enough of that already. But if we keep taking the risk of talking to each other, of saying, with Mary, “you are giving me great anxiety by your behavior!” perhaps we are accepting the humility and vulnerability through which the grace of God can come into the world.

And making room for the grace of God to take flesh in our little lives with each other; this is nothing else but the mystery of Christmas, of the birth of God in the world.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Visitation

(4th Sunday of Advent, C)

We are very close, friends, to the great mystery of our salvation, to the great mystery of the Eternal Word made flesh, to the birth of the Lord. We’re not quite yet there — but nevertheless, today we rejoice in expectation with two great mothers, with Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of John the Baptist, greatest of Israel’s prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ, the Son of God.

Since today’s Gospel is the story of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, I was recalling when I was first learning to pray the Rosary. I had one of those little pamphlets with the prayers written out and a diagram of what to say on each of the beads. This was before the new “luminous mysteries,” so there were only the original fifteen mysteries arranged in a little chart. For each mystery there was a little picture, a verse from Scripture, and something called the “fruit” of the mystery. I was never sure what was meant by the “fruit” of the mystery, but I guessed, I think correctly, that it was the virtue or disposition in yourself that would be strengthened by the meditation on each mystery.

Now when it came to the second joyful mystery, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the Gospel story we hear today, the fruit of the mystery was listed as “charity.” So I would like to reflect a little with you today about how entering into this mystery of the Visitation, together with Mary and Elizabeth, can help us to grow in the love of God, of the charity we have toward one another.

First of all, we adore and celebrate these beautiful mysteries of the Christmas season, and as well we should. But we always need to go further, and enter into the mysteries of faith with our own hearts, and with our own hands and feet too. In other words, God invites all of us to be Marys and Elizabeths for each other.

Mary, of course, is “blessed among women” as Elizabeth cries out. She is the mother of God and the mother of the church. Even more, she has been the mother of every one of the Lord’s disciples, including us, ever since Jesus gave her to us as our mother from the Cross. To take two of her titles from the Litany of Loreto, she is the “gate of heaven” and the “spiritual vessel” through which God becomes Incarnate in this world. She is, in her great Greek title, the Theotokos, she who bears God into the world. And friends, it is us who are called to continue her vocation of bearing Christ into the world – us, the Church!

St. Francis called Mary the Virgo ecclesia facta, the Virgin made church, and what an insight! Just as Mary bore the Incarnate Word, the Son of God into the world, so we, the Church, are called to continue to make Christ real in the darkness of this world. Mary is the Church and the Church is Mary – we continue her great “yes” to God by bringing Jesus Christ to birth in our faith and in the love we put into practice for the sake of each other and for the world.

So let’s go ahead and imitate Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. The great gift of faith that we carry in our hearts, the love of God that inspires our actions, let’s take it to each other. We see a lot of people this time of year, and like Mary, we often see family and relations we might not visit with often. Let’s bear the love of Christ to them, just as Mary did for her cousin Elizabeth. Though you can, you don’t have to preach it out loud – you preach just as much by your attitudes of gentleness, forgiveness, and care. And if those you are with have eyes to see your faith and ears to hear you words as the love of God, they will bless God on your behalf just as Elizabeth did and say, “how does this happen to me, that mother of my Lord should come to me?”

And so that brings us to Elizabeth, to the other half of this mystery of the Visitation, to the other part of our learning of God’s charity. Just as we are called to continue Mary’s work in the world, we must also learn to do as Elizabeth did. We must bear the love of Christ to one another, for sure. But we also learn how to graciously receive the love that others bring us, to accept the humility and vulnerability of letting other people love us with the love of Christ.

Remember how Elizabeth felt the infant John the Baptist leap in her womb when she heard Mary’s greeting. In his commentary on Luke St. Ambrose writes: “Elizabeth is the first to hear Mary’s voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace. She hears with the ears of the body, but he leaps for joy at the meaning of the mystery.”

So it needs to be with us. When anyone bears love to us, when anyone greets us with kindness or forgiveness or gentleness, we must go beyond just seeing and hearing them with our bodily eyes and ears. Through our faith we must perceive, like John the Baptist, the love of God, the charity of Christ that is being borne to us by someone else.

It could be the long-suffering love and care of our family members. It could be the forgiveness of someone we’ve hurt long ago, or over and over. It might just be the smile or kind word of a stranger on the street, or the delight and wonder in the eyes of a child. In all of these we must, with our eyes and ears of faith, see the love of Christ that is being brought into the world. And then we can say with Elizabeth, “how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Let’s let Jesus open our eyes of faith, that we may notice some of the many chances we have in a day to continue Mary’s great “yes,” and bear the love of Christ into the world. And let us imitate Elizabeth by glorifying God for the many ways God uses the people around us to show us his love and care.

Merry Christmas, everyone. The Son of God, the Eternal Word of the Father, desires nothing more than to be born anew into this world. He’s literally dying to be born. The Eternal Love that is Christ wants nothing more than to be born into the dank caves of our hearts and the messy stables of our lives. Like our mother Mary, let us accept him with faith, and, like our sister Elizabeth let us rejoice with those who share his love with us.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Baptized or Burned

(3 Advent, C)

Brothers and sisters, we have a choice to make. To those who came to him in heartfelt expectation and received the baptism of repentance, John the Baptist announces that a fire is coming upon the earth. What will this fire will be for us? Will it be the fiery baptism with the Holy Spirit or the unquenchable fire that burns the chaff? John promises that both are coming. Indeed, they are the same thing.

For those who have looked forward to the arrival of the Savior and are ready to receive Him, this is a moment of rejoicing. “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst” proclaims the prophet Zephaniah. The love and salvation of God is arriving in our world and in our lives, and there is no greater cause for rejoicing. The classic name for this third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, from the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass, which is taken from the second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Gaudéte in Dómino simper: íterum dico, gaudéte. Dóminus enim prope est. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”

This nearness of the Lord is the coming fire of which John the Baptist speaks. The fire is the passionate love of God, God’s burning desire for our salvation. In his infinite compassion, God saves the world by uniting his own divine life to our humanity in Christ, so that our human nature—yours and mine—can be reformed and re-created from the inside out. Jesus Christ continues this divine mission each day for us who are baptized into his death and receive his Risen Life into our very bodies in Holy Communion. The Body and Blood of Christ is the medicine of the divine physician, meant to cleanse and re-create our lives from within.

The Incarnation of the Word, which we prepare to celebrate at Christmas, is the dawn of this divine plan of salvation, the arrival of the fire of God’s burning love in our humanity.

As God’s burning love descends to make a home within us, it is up to us to decide what this divine fire will be for us. It is too intense to ignore, and if we try it will burn us away like chaff in the wind, lost to eternity. Instead, may we rejoice to consent to God’s love as a cleansing, spiritual, fiery baptism for each of our hearts and lives. Let us make ourselves homes for the fire of God’s love, that God’s delight may be our joy as we become those called to radiate divine love to the world.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Joy, Longing, and Mission

(2 Advent, C)

“I am confident of this,” St. Paul assures us, “that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” This is our whole Advent spirituality, brothers and sisters. We are those in whom God has begun the “good work.” We have been baptized into the death and Resurrection of Christ, confirmed in his Holy Spirit, and each Sunday we are further configured to the Sacrifice of Christ here by our prayerful participation here at Mass.

This “good work” is accomplished in us by the God who is always arriving in our daily life. Advent reminds us that our God is precisely that: adventitious, showing up at certain and graced moments. Theologically, this is because God is eternal; there is nothing God was doing yesterday that he is not doing today, and nothing God will be about at the end of time that is not already with us—though obscurely—in the present. In our own limited consciousness as temporal creatures, the closest thing to eternity in our experience is the now, the present moment in which we always find ourselves. And this is where God is revealed; gently arriving in our lives through the call to prayer, the love and care of people around us, our wonder at the beauty of creation, and in many other ways as well.

The spirituality of this Advent season is to find the deep part of our hearts that longs for the fullness of this revelation of God. God has begun this good work in us, and caught our souls for this path. We who have had this taste of the grace of God arriving in our lives are called to “prepare the way” for God’s saving goodness to find a home more and more in this world. This is the work by which we take up and imitate the ministry of John the Baptist. We are called, in the words of the classic Advent hymn, On Jordan’s Bank, to “make straight the way of God within.” One of the intercessions in the Liturgy of the Hours caught me earlier this week in this regard, “Bring low the mountains of our pride, and fill up the valleys of our weakness.” This is a good example of the ascetic work we are called to during the Advent season: we know that the Lord Jesus seeks to be born into our hearts and make a home in our lives, so let us sweep his new home clean and prepare a fitting place for Him.

Advent comes to us as a joy, as a longing, and as a mission. We recall our joy at being those within whom God has begun his good work of inaugurating the new creation. As Baruch puts it, we rejoice that we are “remembered by God.” We long for the fulfillment of this great work, which God has begun in a mysterious and obscure in the birth of our Savior, and in a public and definitive way in his Resurrection. For those of us who have the grace of his knowledge of Truth, and of God’s purpose, we are called to prepare His way within, and to call the world to recognize the arriving grace of God, until the destined Day when “all flesh will see the salvation of God.”