Friday, December 26, 2014

Feast of the Holy Family, 2014

The first Sunday after Christmas Day is reserved for the Feast of the Holy Family.  By Church standards this a relatively modern celebration, established in 1921, first celebrated the first Sunday after Epiphany, but later moved to first Sunday after Christmas in 1969.  Coming as it does at this time of year, it crystallizes for us the importance of family life in our creation and formation.  Jesus, as the Incarnation, was born into a family and raised by that family.  Mary and Joseph may have had a sacred trust in parenting the Son of God, but it is also growing up in that ordinary family structure that brings Jesus closer to us.  Our readings this week offer a number of alternatives, but all focus on the importance of family life.  As it is most likely you will be hearing the first of all our selections, I will focus on these...

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 or Genesis 15:1-6, 21:1-3
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5 or Psalm 105:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Colossians 3:12-21 or Colossians 3:12-17 or Hebrews 11:8, 11-12, 17-19
Luke 2:22-40 or Luke 2:22, 39-40

Our first reading is from the book of Sirach... one of the wisdom books which is also sometimes referred to as Ecclesiasticus.  It comes to us from the 2nd century BCE, and like many of the wisdom books, serves as a practical catechism of day, and very likely well known to Jesus and the other Jews of his time.  This Sunday's passage, most scholars believe, was a commentary on the 4th Commandment (You shall honor your father and your mother).  It even reminds us that our obligations as children go beyond the age of childhood... that just as our parents cared for us as infants and children, we too have an obligation to care for our parents in their time of need.

Where our first reading would seem to focus on the ideal model of family life, St. Paul in our second reading seems to recognize that family life isn't always perfect.  In his letter to the Colossians he provides us with some guidance on how to live within a less than ideal family setting.  Many of us today think that life, including family life, was easier in times past, but as this passage shows us, there is nothing new to the struggles of living with one's family members.  While our day-to-day living situations may be different, our problems are still the same.  It's one of the reasons that the Bible still speaks to us, even in an age when we might think we've grown beyond it's experience.

Our Gospel from Luke gives us the story of the presentation of the Lord at the Temple.  This was done in accordance to traditional Jewish custom for their day, much the same as we Catholics bring our infant children to the Church for Baptism.  During their visit to the Temple, they encounter two other important people.  First, Simeon, who confirms for us that this child is indeed the Christ.  Second we encounter Anna the Prophetess, who also recognizes Jesus to be the Messiah, but also foretells of the pain this calling will have on this family.  As with so much of the Gospel, this story shows us both the ordinary and the extraordinary.  A humble young family presenting their child at Temple, like any traditional Jewish family would in that day, but in that ordinary moment recognizing the extraordinary nature of this child as the promise fulfilled for the people of God (Jews and Gentiles alike).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

4th Sunday of Advent, 2014

This 4th Sunday of Advent we focus on the Incarnation… God made manifest through the birth of Jesus.  Nothing captures this moment better than our Gospel, but as we will see, our other readings would suggest that this meeting between God and his people has been coming for some time…

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

To better understand our readings for this week, I think we should first look at our Gospel.  In a story that is unique to Luke’s Gospel, we here the of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary to announce God’s plan for the birth of his Son.  It’s not hard for us to imagine Mary’s amazement in this moment.  Not only is this humble girl from Nazareth (already likely anxious over her betrothal to Joseph) being approached by an angel, a messenger for the Lord, but the angel’s message is almost unbelievable:  God has chosen her to bear his Son.  Mary isn’t naive, however, and challenges Gabriel about this plan, but after some further explanation Mary agrees and says “yes.” (“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”).  Every Christian is familiar with this story, but I often wonder if our familiarity with it drowns out the shear amazement of the moment.  Not only has God concocted this incredible plan for reconciling with his creation, but the whole scheme depends on whether this young unwed peasant girl from Nazareth is willing to go along with it.  The miracle is two-fold… God’s plan, and Mary’s “yes.”

As for God’s plan, we will see that this has been in the works for some time.  This is evident in our first reading from the 2nd book of Samuel.  David, God’s chosen, is now king of Israel… settled into his new palace.  But David is troubled… he now has a palace, but what of God?  Should the arc still be in a tent?  God wants David to dismiss this idea, however, and instead has Nathan remind David about the greater mission… where they’ve been, and where they are going, to establish a house, a son and a kingdom dedicated to the Lord.  This was the promise God made, and though it took some time, it’s the promise he fulfilled in our Gospel.  Our Psalm echoes that covenant… we praise the Lord, and he protects us.

Our second reading comes from the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In this passage from Paul we hear echoes of our Psalm… that it is through Christ we find strength, and from that grace we continue to bring the nations to give praise to God.

These readings from Samuel and Paul lead us to think of kings and thrones and majesty, with are all valid images for Christ.  But let us not forget that like David himself, Jesus was born of humble, ordinary means… just like Jesus… just like us.  This is the miracle of Christmas.  If a shepherd like David, or a carpenter’s son like Jesus can bring entire nations to the Lord, so can we.  Not through battles or revolutions, but by loving God and sharing that love with our neighbors.  Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

3rd Sunday of Advent, 2014

The third Sunday of Advent marks the midpoint of the season… in Catholic terms, this is like “hump day”, where we happily see that the conclusion of our journey is within sight.  Referred to as Gaudete Sunday, it takes its name from the Latin word for rejoice.  We will hear this word several times throughout this Sunday's Mass in our prayers and our readings.  We light the rose colored candle on our Advent wreaths, rose being a mixture of Advent violet and Christmas white.  Not only is Christmas a joyous occasion to celebrate the birth of our Lord, but it reminds us that we are joyous (not fearful) of his return.

The Word for the 3rd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

We open with a great announcement from Third Isaiah, that the anointed brings glad tidings to the poor.  If his words sound familiar, they should.  Not only are they reminiscent to the announcement made by the angels to the shepherd in the Nativity narratives, but these are the same words Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth, after which he proclaims that this prophecy has been fulfilled.  Indeed, such news from God, in any age, is cause for great celebration.

Our responsorial Psalm mirrors this joy and praise to God, but its source and its voice are not what you might expect.  This passage isn’t from the book of Psalms… it’s from the Gospel of Luke, and it’s voice isn’t from David or an anonymous psalmist, but from the Virgin Mary.  Taken from a passage referred to as the Canticle of Mary, this song of praise follows right after she and the pregnant Elizabeth greet each other.  Both the message and the messenger are fitting for this Gaudete Sunday.

Our second reading comes from the concluding verses of Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians.  His direction to “rejoice always” are words we ourselves would do well to follow.  But this isn’t a reckless kind of rejoicing, for in the same breath Paul reminds us that we must also pray and give thanks.  Our rejoicing comes from the gift of Spirit, given to us by Christ, so that we may find what is good in preparation for the coming of Christ.

This takes us to our Gospel, this week from John as he proclaims the coming of John the Baptist.  Our theme of rejoicing continues here as our messenger is almost giddy with anticipation for the great one who is to follow.  As the end of our Advent Season looms on the horizon, we too should be joyous for the Lord’s coming.

Final Thoughts:
Although Advent is meant to be a contemplative season, much like Lent, it carries with it a joy and anticipation that is hard to contain, and Gaudete Sunday is meant to reflect those feelings.  As Catholics this Sunday affords us the opportunity to celebrate the coming of Christmas in a special way.  For me and my family, this is when we go out and get our Christmas tree.  Like incense in church, that fresh pine scent fills the house telling us that the Christmas season is almost upon us.  Some folks say, “what?  you’re only now getting your tree?”  And believe me, some years this can be difficult as many tree lots are already closing up shop.  But we began this tradition in an effort keep from getting caught up in the commercialization of the holiday.  To ease our way toward Christmas, knowing that we don’t have to get all the decorations put up over night.  To embrace the spirit of Advent and take this time to prepare, both our home and our spirits for the Christmas season that is still to come.  Like Mary and Elizabeth, we take this time to rejoice, pray, and give thanks to our God for the gift of his son.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2014

This is the clarion call we receive for this 2nd Sunday of Advent.  Preparation is indeed the message that’s in the air as we are bombarded with all sorts of advertising right now... to find the perfect gift, create the perfect meal, decorate the perfect home, all the while surrounded by the perfect sense of family.  Trouble is, when we seek this type of perfection, we often find ourselves disappointed.  Not only have we missed the point of the season, we’ve allowed the secular world to obfuscate our understanding of the Gospel message…

The Word for the 2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Psalm 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14
2 Peter 3:8-14
Mark 1:1-8

We open with one of the finest songs of forgiveness and triumph from the Prophet Isaiah.  There is an established pattern in all of our worship… that before we ask for something from God, we first must ask him for forgiveness for our sins.  We see this every time we celebrate the Mass as we begin with the Penitential Rite.  Preparation, in the truest Judeo-Christian form, means approaching God (and one another) with a clear conscience… with an unburdened heart and a cleansed soul.  Isaiah recognizes that the people’s sufferings in Exile have been more than sufficient payment for their sins, and God in his compassionate mercy, doesn’t merely forgive their sins, but states that “her guilt is expiated,”  as if that sin had never existed.  From this then comes the triumphant prophecy of the end of their exile.  By recognizing their mistakes, they have opened themselves to salvation… a promise echoed in our Psalm.

But how long until we are saved?  This is the question St. Peter is faced with in our second reading.  The communities to which he is writing were made a promise… that by renouncing sin and following the way of Christ they would be saved.  The next obvious question, then, is “when?”  Peter, in the voice of the wise Church elder, reminds us to be patient.  In a society where we are increasingly accustomed to instant gratification, rushing around to make sure everything is ready for the holidays, Peter’s message serves as a poignant reminder for us all;  we should be patient and focus instead on how we are conducting ourselves.

Our Gospel then takes us to the opening of Mark’s Gospel, where we hear again those same words from Isaiah, prepare the way of the Lord.  In this case, the announcement of John the Baptist preparing the people for the one who is to come… Jesus, the Christ.  An how does he prepare the people?  By baptizing them in the Jordan River as they acknowledge their sins.

We are all attracted to the idea of having the “perfect” holiday.  But none of us are perfect.  We all come with some baggage.  But guess what… God knows that.  And yet he still wants us.  God isn’t looking for us to be perfect, but he does expect us to take stock of our failings, acknowledge our sins, and strive to learn from those mistakes for the betterment of all.  This is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Repent, give thanks, and then give praise.

Final Thoughts:
When I think about Advent I think about cleaning my kitchen before preparing something special.  All the dishes from previous meals need to be clean and put away.  The counter tops need to be cleared to have plenty of working space.  All the items I need to cook with need to be clean, staged, and standing ready.  How, I ask myself, could anyone cook in a dirty, disorganized kitchen?  You can’t.  No good cook would.  The first order of business is always to make sure everything is cleaned and organized before you start.  This is Advent.  This is the time to clean the dishes, to cleans our souls, to organize and prioritize our lives for the feast that is the coming of Christ.  So let go of the commercial chaos of the holidays and take this opportunity to “clean your kitchen, ” and prepare the way of the Lord.