Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rejoice!

The familiar title for this Sunday is Gaudete, a Latin imperative plural, commanding us to rejoice.  In the Missal, today’s Mass begins with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and today’s generally cheery tone.  Today’s 2nd reading - from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians – also commands us: Rejoice always. … In all circumstances give thanks.

Christmas is, for most people, the cheeriest time of the year, and presumably most people are in a holiday mood, in spite of all that may have happened this past year and the increasing gloom that understandably seems to be enveloping our world. Of course, Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the first three centuries of Christian history. Saint Paul wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a Christmas card. Thought to be the earliest New Testament letter, Paul’s letter was written to encourage them and strengthen their faith, despite difficult circumstances. The command to rejoice, therefore, was not some sentimental slogan or holiday greeting, but was for Paul the consequence of faith in Christ. In all circumstances, he says, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.  

Now, if Paul is right about rejoicing and thanksgiving being the consequences of our faith in Christ, then what other response on our part could possibly proclaim Christ and his Church – even in our conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, a world which, without Christ, presents precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving? So absent has Christ become from so much of modern and post-modern life that even the annual celebration of his birth has become, for some, increasingly a season of stress and sadness! 

Christmas calls attention to the contradictions in our lives, and highlights how hard it can be to internalize the faith we profess, how challenging it can be to live joyful and thankful lives in the world in which we actually find ourselves.  Christmas commits us to that world, a world where other people make demands on us, and duty challenges us to care about things bigger than just ourselves.  

Joy, of course, is one the fruits of the Holy Spirit. How many here went to Catholic school? Or RCIA? So I can assume you all learned and remember the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which Saint Paul first enumerated. They include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control [Galatians 5:22-23]. So the rejoicing to which Paul refers is not the transient happiness that depends on mere feelings and comes and goes with shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the experience of God’s presence and action regardless of circumstances – in good times and in bad.

Hence, Saint Paul’s injunction to test everything, for he well knew that not every happy feeling comes from the Holy Spirit, but only what actually leads us to recognize Christ and to act upon that recognition.
It was for a similar reason – to test whether or not John the Baptist was the real thing – that priests and Levites and Pharisees were sent to John from Jerusalem. John responded, first, by clarifying the scope of his activity – or, as we might say, defining his mission – situating it not in reference to himself, but in relation to Christ. Then, he challenged his hearers – as, through them, we ourselves are challenged today – to recognize Christ in our world in the here and now, and to act upon that recognition by situating our lives in relation to him.
At all times – especially in difficult times, but at all times – the rejoicing and thanksgiving of which Paul spoke, the rejoicing and thanksgiving that counter that sadness that corrodes our desire for God, do not just happen automatically. They happen when I recognize what a difference it makes to me that Christ has come into the world, and then act on that recognition through my participation in the community of his Church.

That is why we celebrate Christmas when the nights are long and the sky is dark, when it is challenge to recognize the light, while we hang lights on evergreen trees to testify to the light against the darkness. It takes more than a Christmas Tree to make Christmas, however. Rather it requires us to become Christmas Trees ourselves, to testify to the light with rejoicing and thanksgiving – so that the whole world will recognize the light of Christ present and active in his Church, and so see his face, and hear his word, and be embraced by his love.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 17, 2017.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Gaudete!

Tomorrow is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, commonly called Gaudete Sunday. Advent originated as a penitential season, modeled somewhat on Lent. It was often called St. Martin’s Lent, because a 40-day Advent fast began on the day after the feast of St. Martin (November 11). By the 9th century Advent had been reduced to four weeks in most of the Latin Church (except for the Milanese Ambrosian Rite, which still has six weeks of Advent), and by the 12th century the fast was gone. Until the 20th century, however, Advent still preserved many of the liturgical characteristics of a penitential season. Thus, on the middle (Gaudete) Sunday of Advent, as on the middle (Laetare) Sunday of Lent, the organ and flowers, forbidden during the rest of the season, were permitted, and rose-colored vestments were allowed instead of penitential purple. 

Coming midway through a season traditionally penitential in character and focused on Christ’s final coming at the end of the world, Gaudete Sunday highlights the nearness of the Lord's coming and the joyful hope that should characterize our expectation. Although Advent has lost its traditional penitential character in recent decades, today’s rose-colored vestments, remind us of Advent’s serious side, even as they continue to invite us to rejoice in Christ’s presence and action in our world.

The great 20th-century liturgical writer Pius Parsch advised those "who love the liturgy" to "celebrate such extraordinary days in a special manner and make the most of their distinguishing features."

(For a contemporary appreciation of Advent's more serious side, see, for example, Timothy P. O'Malley, "The Advent Apocalypse," at http://churchlife.nd.edu/2017/12/07/the-advent-apocalypse/.)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

After Alabama

The Republican Party's blueprint for a post moral society suffered a significant setback in Alabama this week. How significant a setback still remains to be seen, however. Its terribly regressive tax cut bill will likely still pass in some form, for example. But perhaps Paul Ryan's plan to follow giving more money to the rich this year with taking more from the poor in 2018 will now be marginally harder to accomplish with such a fragile majority in the Senate. Perhaps.


Analyzing election results can be tricky. But apparently Alabama's new senator won thanks largely to high turnout among black voters and diminished enthusiasm for Moore among white suburbanites. Analysts all remember how lower black turnout when Obama was not on the ballot adversely affected Democratic party prospects in midterm election results during Obama’s presidency — as well as contributing significantly to Hillary Clinton’s defeat last year. But yesterday was different, and the African-American vote in Alabama matched that of the Obama years 2008 and 2012. While that augurs well for Democrats, it remains the case, for example, that next year Democrats will have to defend more Senate seats than the Republicans will, and winning control of the Senate and the gerrymandered House, while possible, remain real challenges.

That said, Tuesday's biggest loser would seem to have been the Republican Party. The civil war within the Republican Party can only get worse, as its warring factions fight each other over a diminishing slice of the electorate. If there is any consistent lesson to be taken from this and the earlier election in Virginia, it is that - except at the presidential level - bad candidates (which the Republicans seem to do better at producing) fare worse than good candidates overall, and that the part of the electorate which looks more like America's future (minorities and younger voters) is clearly motivated to vote against Republicans. One commentator somewhere (I don't remember who it was) noted that the fact that an Alabama Republican candidate lost voters under 45 by more than 20 points suggests that the kind of "conservatism" we have become familiar with in recent decades may be en route to extinction. 

Recent history suggests, however, that motivating younger voters to vote - and motivating them and educated suburbanites to vote consistently Democratic - may still represent a real challenge for Democratic candidates. At minimum that means Democrats really need to work hard at (1) recruiting good candidates and (2) articulating a clear message (something positive that speaks to people's aspirations, not just being anti-Trump), and (3) motivating their voters actually to vote

Another big loser, of course, is the "religious right," the self-described "values voters," whose putative "evangelical" fervor's rootedness in real religion (as opposed to pure politics) has always been somewhat suspect and whose "evangelical" religion is now increasingly unmasked as rooted largely in a kind of white, ethno-cultural, political tribalism. 




Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Miracle of Light

Today the Church commemorates Saint Lucy (283-304), martyr in Syracuse, Sicily, and patroness of winter light-festivals. By sheer coincidence, this is also the first full day of Chanukah, which was probably the first Jewish holiday of which I was aware as a child. In the fall of 1953, I started in our local public school, P.S. 91. We learned manners and how to behave respectfully towards our elders and those in authority, had regular fire drills, and had monthly birthday parties. And in December we "lit" chalk Channukah candles on the blackboard.

A historically minor holiday, Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with nightly menorah lighting and eating  fried food. The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple on the 25th of the month of Kislev in the year 164 BC after its desecration by the Gentiles. Chanukah was the festival Jesus was in Jerusalem for when he gave his famous "Good Shepherd discourse" in John 10. At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter (John 10:22).

According to the familiar story recounted in the Old Testament books of Maccabees, in the second century BC, Israel was ruled by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Hellenistic culture and abandon Jewish religious practices. A small band of faithful Jews, led by the priestly family of the Maccabees, defeated the Hellenizers and successfully rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the GentilesBut, when they sought to light the Temple's menorah (candelabrum), they found only a once-day supply of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, that one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

So, at the heart of the festival is the nightly lighting of the menorah in order to commemorate and publicize this marvelous miracle. On the first night of Chanukah (last night), one candle is lit. By the eighth night, all eight lights are kindled. Since the Chanukah miracle involved oil, it is also customary to eat foods fried in oil. The Eastern-European classic is the familiar potato latke (pancake) garnished with applesauce or sour cream, while an Israeli favorite is the jelly-filled sufganya (doughnut). There was also a tradition of Chanukah gelt, small gifts of money, to children, which has helped popularize Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas - not just as a winter light festival but also as a great gift-giving occasion.

With the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state in the land of the covenant in 1948 and the recovery of the Temple Mount in 1967, Chanukah has fittingly taken on added significance as a celebration of the renewed presence of God's People in the Holy Land. 

But the centerpiece of the festival always remains the lighted menorah, a reminder of an ancient miracle, itself an expression of God's miraculous divine light and so a symbol of how God's light overcomes every form of darkness in our dangerous and threatening world.

(PhotoPresident Harry S Truman in the White House Oval Office, receiving a Chanukah Menorah as a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and the Israeil Ambassador to the U.S.,  Abba Eban.) 

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Crown (Season 2)

I first subscribed to Netflix almost a year ago in order to see The Crown, the projected six-season series spanning the 60 years-plus reign of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Since then, I've seen lots of other great things on Netflix (not least the French series The Churchmen), but The Crown remains for me the Netflix star attraction. So, along with lots of others, I have been eagerly watching season 2 since its release last week. The wait between seasons has been long, but the result did not disappoint!

If season 1 (1947-1956) was about Elizabeth's accession to the throne and her growing into her role as sovereign (and the toll that took on her and on her husband and on her sister), season 2 (1956-1964) shows her growing both as a person and as a sovereign and in the process allowing herself to re-imagine certain dimensions of her role. Meanwhile her husband and sister find their own way, while society changes dramatically. Through it all, Elizabeth remains a woman defined and determined by her role - a role defined not by what she wants but by what everyone else wants her to be (expectations which vary from person to person and change from place to place and time to time).

Monarchy is meant to be mysterious. Even more than season 1, season 2 is preoccupied with imaginative attempts to understand the inner familial dynamics of such an ostensibly - and deliberately so - mysterious institution. Meanwhile, as the 1950s fade into the 1960s, the Queen and her family find themselves grappling with unprecedented societal change, while Britain's post-war decline as a major power is amply demonstrated by failure at Suez and post-colonial Ghana's flirtations with the Soviets.

Although always the one who holds it all together, Elizabeth shares the spotlight in season 2 with Philip (whose at times petulant behavior finally gets him some of the recognition and behind-the-throne power that the palace's army of stuffy and increasingly out of touch courtiers had hitherto tried to deny him) and Margaret (whose dabbling in non-courtier society finally gets her a husband, unlike any her family would have picked for her, played perfectly by the glamorous Matthew Goode).

If there was one weakness in season 1, it was certainly its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the utterly undeserving Duke of Windsor, whose self-centered abdication of duty has likely always been the Queen's alternative model of what kind of monarch - and person - not to be. Season 2 sets the record straight about the Duke in one devastating episode that highlights his disgraceful behavior before and during the war.

Politics plays more of a real role in season 2 as well, reflecting the Queen's maturation in her role and the replacement of Winston Churchill by less accomplished successors. Elizabeth's successful visit to Ghana is historically accurate, although the suggestion that she was motivated by jealousy of Jacqueline Kennedy's celebrity seems somewhat bizarre and demeaning to both women. But the episode does highlight how the essence of royalty really is the opposite of the fragile ephemera of celebrity. Fittingly, the episode unmasks the vacuousness of much of the Kennedys' celebrity while highlighting the Queen's dignity (even while allowing her to show some human resentment, jealousy, and competitiveness).

It has generally been believed that one of the ways the royal marriage has worked has been by allowing Philip to take charge of his children's education - with disastrous effect upon the present Prince of Wales, who was forced to endure the terrifying experience of Gordonstoun, where his physically and emotionally very different father had once thrived. That episode (for which the audience has been prepared with background information on Philip's childhood revealed by a questioner during a disastrous interview he foolishly allowed a few episodes earlier during his Pacific tour) does dramatically and effectively - and even somewhat sympathetically - recall Philip's childhood as a dispossessed refugee prince, with dysfunctional parents, abandoned to the rigors of a school which in turn became his substitute for a family (along with the famous "Uncle Dickie" Mountbatten, whose patronage of course would prove so significant for Philip and whose friendship would matter so much for Charles). 

Whatever sympathy Philip wins in that episode, however, is largely cancelled not just by the effect on his son but also by his continued behavior in ways which threaten to throw suspicion on his fidelity to  his marriage.. The series may be taking too much liberty in its suggestions, but it serves the dramatic purpose of highlighting how the continually dutiful Queen is constantly surrounded by seemingly much more flawed people - like Philip and Margaret, and of course the politicians.

The Profumo scandal that titillated me and my high school friends in 1963 was a tragic episode that did a lot to undermine what was left of Britain's governing class's legitimacy. Starting with Suez and ending with Profumo, the series frames the loss of the governing class's capacity to govern - paving the way for the greater changes of the 1960s. That final episode fittingly has a little bit of everything that the Queen has to cope with - another government crisis, tensions within the extended royal family exacerbated by Margaret's willfulness, and of course the perennial mystery of how the royal marriage works. 

The season is bookended by the personal and political failures of two Prime Ministers - Eden and Macmillan, both of whom resign in poor health and political disappointment. Their failures give Elizabeth one of her greatest lines in the season. After accepting Macmillan's resignation, she says of her three Prime Ministers in 10 years: "Not one of them has lasted the course. They've either been too old, too ill, or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters."

The Queen, of course, is neither elected nor a quitter, and that captures the essence of her role and its success. Across the pond, as we watch our American political system deteriorate further and further, its moral rot in significant measure due to its elevation of celebrity over seriousness and self-interest over duty, we may have more and more reason to envy the stabilizing, unifying, and moralizing power of the mysterious magic of monarchy.