Friday, December 9, 2016

Godspeed, John Glenn

Another marker of the end of an era came yesterday when Mercury Astronaut and 4-term Democratic US Senator from Ohio, John Glenn (1921-2016) died at 95. After Sputnik in October 1957 and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first-ever orbit of the earth in April 1961, the US desperately needed and wanted first to catch up to - and then to surpass - the Soviets in space. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn flew "Friendship 7" to become the first American astronaut to orbit the earth and immediately was transformed into a national hero, the likes of whom we have scarcely seen since. 

I am sure all of my generation remember that flight well. We remember the words he was sent into space with, "Godspeed, John Glenn," which in a sense became the entire country's words to him then and since. Six days later, the new national hero gave an admirable address to a Joint Session of Congress (see:

John Glenn, the heroic astronaut, was a down-to-earth midwesterner, who married his childhood sweetheart in 1943 and remained happily married for 73 years. He was a kind of poster boy for how America wanted to see itself in the Cold War. For 24 years, as a 4-term Democratic Senator from Ohio, Glenn attempted to apply the values of that "New Frontier" American Dream to the challenges of his day, and in his retirement he promoted Civics Education, something so sadly lacking and sorely needed in America today.

Compared to today's alternative America of polarization, divisive identity politics, and malevolent fake news, John Glenn was the real deal, whom all of us could identify with and admire. He represented the values we have lost because we so carelessly let them go.

Godspeed, John Glenn!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Full of Grace

It was 30 years ago, but I can recall it as if it were yesterday. My very first phone call, my first day at my first assignment after leaving the seminary, was a call from someone wanting my advice because the devil was throwing things at him.  For a moment, I was at a loss as to how to answer.  Nothing in my seminary training had, so it seemed at first, quite prepared me for this conversation. Eventually, however, as we talked, the right answer came to me, which is, of course, that Christ has already decisively defeated the Devil, for God is more powerful than Satan or sin.

And that is essentially what today’s celebration is about.

Early in 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a poor, rather sickly girl in a riverside grotto in an off-the-beaten-track town in southern France named Lourdes, and identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” At the time, the young visionary, Bernadette Soubirous, did not understand at all the meaning of those words. She certainly did not know that intellectuals, in fact, had argued about their meaning for centuries, or that, in 1497 the University of Paris had decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without swearing to assert and defend the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Imagine if that rule were still in force today! Only four years before the events in Lourdes, in 1854, had Blessed Pope Pius IX dogmatically defined the essence of the Church’s belief about Mary’s Immaculate Conception – that, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, Jesus, Mary was preserved from all sin from the beginning of her earthly existence and thus came into the world completely holy.

She is, as the English poet, William Wordsworth famously called her:

Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast.

That was one of my 8th grade teacher’s favorite quotes. She often used that title for Mary - Our tainted nature's solitary boast - and never more so than when referring to the Immaculate Conception.

Why any of this matters, what it means for us, here and now, is what today’s celebration is all about.

The scripture readings we have just heard suggest a comparison, first popularized by the Fathers of the Church, between Eve, the mother of all the living, and Mary, as the New Eve,” mother of Jesus and mother of the Church.

The passage we just heard from Genesis highlights the damage we sinful humans have done to ourselves - and to the whole rest of the world. It illustrates the seriousness of sin and our resulting alienation from God and one another. Mary, however, Immaculate Mary, represents the effect of God’s much greater power – and his powerful plan to save us from ourselves.

Calling Eve the mother of all the living celebrated the fact that, in spite of sin, human life continued – the very first sign that God would never give up on us. Of course, the serpent still lives and continues his mischief, but his doom is already certain.

God’s plan for our salvation, the mystery decided upon from all eternity and hidden for centuries, has been realized in Jesus Christ and is now revealed in the life and mission of the Church, as St. Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians from which we have just heard.

Mary’s holiness at the very beginning of her earthly life, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, represents the Church’s holiness at its beginning and invites us to look forward to the Church as it will one day be in the perfect holiness of God’s kingdom - and to our place in that kingdom, thanks again to the salvation accomplished by Mary’s Son.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2016.

(Photo: Stained glass window celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the apse of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Knoxville TN.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Immaculate Conception

Concerning the significance of the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal on November 10, 1947: “It seems to me that that definition was a turning point in the modern history of the Church. The world has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.”

Perhaps because this dogma had been so contested for so long, perhaps because its definition was such an assertive magisterial act against the political project of the 19th century, and perhaps most importantly because the doctrine of original sin is so opposed to the reigning spirit of the modern age and its utopian perfectionism, the doctrine and the feast of the Immaculate Conception have always seemed to have an especialy triumphalist air about them. 

But, of course, insofar as the feast actually highlights humanity's desperately inescapable need for redemption, the triumph belongs entirely to God himself - God who, as Saint Paul so powerfully expressed it, in love destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace, that he granted us in the beloved [Ephesians 1:6].

That Mary's Immaculate Conception is celebrated in Advent is an historical accident, which unfortunately may further contribute to the not uncommon confusion of the mystery of Mary's complete preservation from original sin from the very first moment of her existence with the mystery of Mary's virginity. (The use of the Annunciation Gospel in the Mass may also add to that confusion. The Visitation Gospel - including Mary's Magnificat - might have made a better choice.)

Like it or not, however, the feast falls in Advent and certainly lends itself to an authentically Advent approach. Thus, for example, the eminent Pius Parsch, sought to make the most of its Advent context. "During the time when we are awaiting the Savior," he wrote in The Church's Year of Grace, "when we are striving to arouse in ourselves a deep consciousness of the need for redemption, when we lovingly look up to Mary as our chiefest model, then indeed does this feast seem like the golden dawn before the rising sun of Christmas."

What I find so intriguing about the Immaculate Conception is that, while, considered abstractly it would seem to highlight a separation between Mary and the rest of us (for she alone - apart from Jesus himself - was ever conceived immaculate), devotionally the opposite seems to be the case. In fact, Mary's unique connection with Christ gives her a unique connection with us. The first to be freed from the overwhelming power of sin, the first to be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, Mary became the first disciple and so led the way for us as well to become disciples gifted in turn with the grace of the Holy Spirit. So much so that, for example, Saint Augustine (Sermon 25) could speak of how she shares with us even her motherhood - the source and cause of her special place in the Church. We who have been reborn in baptism as members of Christ, Saint Augustine tells us, now by bringing others to birth in the same way have it in our power to become analogously mothers of Christ as well.

The parish church I am privileged to be pastor of was one of that first group of churches dedicated under the title of  the Immaculate Conception within one year of Blessed Pope Pius IX's dogmatic definition The fact of that date further highlights the persistent relevance of those modern and contemporary challenges to the Christian story which the Church fittingly responds by its proclamation of this ancient truth.

(Photo: Stained glass window celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the apse of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Knoxville TN.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Saint Nicholas (a.k.a.,"Santa Claus")

For several years, while I was parochial vicar at the Paulist Mother Church in NYC, I had the joy of playing "Saint Nicholas" (a.k.a. "Santa Claus") at the annual Winter's Eve celebration coinciding with Lincoln Center's Tree Lighting on the Monday after Thanksgiving. That's a picture of me in my "Saint Nicholas" costume - a kind of generic Bishop outfit, plus a big white beard. I doubt too many people really thought I was Saint Nicholas. And I can remember at least one kid making a point of telling me, "I know who you are." But it was all good fun, and it created an opportunity to tell the story of the real Saint Nicholas, whose feast the Church celebrates today and whose upcoming Christmas visit - under his now better known identity as "Santa Clause" - countless kids are eagerly awaiting.

The historical Saint Nicholas (270-343) was a Greek-speaking Christian from Asia Minor, who became bishop of Myra in 317, and attended the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, at which he was one of the signatories of the original Nicene Creed. Legend has it that at that council he punched the heretic Arius in the face! Not quite yet Clement C. Moore's broad face, and a little round belly That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly.

In 1087, Italian sailors stole most of his relics and brought them to Bari, where they remain, while some of his relics made it to Venice. Hence he is patron of sailors. But much more importantly in terms of his long-term influence and significance he is also patron saint of children.

Jacobus de Vorqagine's 13th-century Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) recounts several famous stories of Saint Nicholas' generous acts of charity, the most famous probably being his anonymously throwing three sums of gold into the house of a man with three daughters, who as a result was now able to provide dowries and arrange good marriages for them. 

Thanks to such stories, Saint Nicholas acquired a reputation for generous gift-giving that continued after his death - often ritualized in coins or gifts put by him in the shoes children had left out for him overnight. From shoes it was not much of a leap to filling stockings hanging on a mantlepiece (or under the Christmas Tree for those of us who grew up in apartments without fireplaces)! His modern American name "Santa Claus" clearly comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," whose popularity survived the Reformation and came with the Dutch settlers to old New York.

Like almost everything about our contemporary Christmas, Santa Claus can be dismissed as simply a smiling face camouflaging the rapaciousness of capitalism. That said, and duly acknowledging the damage capitalism and business have done to both Christmas and Saint Nicholas, there remains something immensely inviting about the generous figure of Santa Claus - all that much more so when we recall his saintly origin and the religious roots of his generosity.

So may Santa Claus continue to bring joy to children all over the world, and may the real Saint Nicholas lead them to the true gift-giver, whose birth and generosity in coming to save us ultimately define Christmas!

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight — 
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Repentance at the Heart of Advent

Every Advent, through the drama of the liturgy, John the Baptist emerges again from the Judean desert and assumes center stage, shouting up and down the Jordan Valley, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! [Mathew 3:1-12]

For us today, John the Baptist is at best a somewhat strange, maybe even mysterious, and probably not very appealing figure. He appears, ever so briefly, at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, and then, before we have barely gotten to know him, gets himself arrested and killed. Having heard his rather shrill shouting every 2nd Sunday of Advent, we are ready, right away almost, to put him back in storage, while we focus instead on the holiday season’s more attractive aspects.

But, attractive or not, John’s message most certainly seems to have been compelling to his hearers. At that time, the gospel story tells us, Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him. And even as they acknowledged their sins, John challenged his hearers to produce good fruit as evidence of repentance. More than any other Advent image, I think John the Baptist represents what Thomas Merton once called “the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent,” in contrast to what he called “the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture.”

John’s challenge has always been at the heart of Advent’s message, and the fact that the Church faithfully invites John back every Advent to tell us that may help us appreciate what Pope Francis, for example, was getting at in his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), when he said that “all of us are asked to obey [the Lord’s] call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel’ [EG, 20].

Those words were meant as a challenge to the entire Church to look outside ourselves, recalibrating our priorities and activities to make the Church’s mission – that is, the mission of all of us - possible and effective.

Like John the Baptist confronting his contemporaries, Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium did not shy away from the challenges of our own time. Speaking of where and to whom to go when the Church "goes forth,” Pope Francis recalled Jesus’ famous instruction in the Gospel about whom to welcome to a feast [Luke 14:14]. “There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message,” the Pope reminds us. For “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel” [EG 48].

(We will hear Jesus cite the poor having the good news proclaimed to them as one of the signs that validate his mission in next Sunday’s Gospel.)

Just as John the Baptist confronted the brood of vipers, as he labeled the Judean leadership, Advent confronts our contemporary politics and economics of exclusion with the alternative of the Church's challenging universal mission of inclusion. Welcome one another, Saint Paul tells us, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God [Romans 15:7].

We will hear more about the Church’s essential mission of welcome later, at the end of Mass, when we will read a pastoral letter from our Bishop, in which he reminds how, throughout our country’s history, the Catholic Church has been here to welcome new people who come with the dream of freedom and progress. It is part of our identity as the Church to be a place of hospitality and welcome.

John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by challenging people to recognize the reality of their lives and relearn what that life is supposed to be about.  In reminding us of the priority of society in human existence and the imperative of solidarity in human relationships, Advent challenges us all to reconsider our present-day priorities, whatever they may be, in order to become the Church that we are eternally called to be, a community called, as Saint Paul says, to glorify God for his mercy [Romans 15:8].

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TB, December 4, 2016.