Friday, December 31, 2010
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
We heard the familiar story of how four of King Henry II’s knights demanded that Becket “restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated.” Becket responded, “I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.” After the four knights had split off the crown of the martyr’s head, someone put his foot on the dead bishop’s neck and “scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more’.”
Canonized within three years of his death, Becket rose to become one of the Church’s great heroes in the perennial conflict against the ambition of secular power. Famously, his shrine at Canterbury also became one of medieval Europe’s popular pilgrimage sites. Sadly, that shrine – his burial place in Canterbury’s Trinity Chapel – is long gone. A new pharaoh, Henry VIII - much more ambitious to control the Church (and everything else) than Henry II had been or probably could ever even have imagined being – destroyed the shrine (and the saint’s relics) in 1538. (A candle now burns on the bare floor marking the site of the former shrine, and a modern altar adorns the location of his martyrdom).
The issue which precipitated the conflict between Henry II and his long-time friend is hardly one which would likely endear Becket to too many modern audiences. It involved “benefit of clergy,” the right of medieval clerics to be tried exclusively in church courts rather than civil courts. The underlying principle, that the Church represents a claim on people’s consciences superior to that of any state, still has some resonance in some quarters – but likely less and less. The words of one of Becket’s killers – “No faith, nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the king” – have echoed continually through the centuries, seldom louder perhaps than in this most recent one.
The commemoration of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom on this 5th Day of Christmas is a serious reminder – amidst all the sentimentality of this season – that the world into which God has become human is a dangerous and challenging world, one in which saying “Yes” to Christ inevitably means saying “No” to (at least some) other options.
That is not to say that one should go around looking for fights! I suspect Becket would have preferred to remain on good terms with his old friend the King, if he could have done so. Being a faithful Christian is not about saying “No” all the time to the world, but about saying “Yes” all the time to Christ. Certainly saying “Yes” to Christ sometimes means saying an unequivocal “No” to the world, but at other times it may mean saying “Yes” – maybe even an enthusiastic “Yes,” or, more likely, a qualified “Yes.”
Monday, December 27, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Saturday, December 25, 2010
When I was growing up, Christmas morning followed a set, perfectly predictable pattern. It was a ritual really. We kids got up, bright and early, and woke up our parents. Then all of us (including my grandmother, who as always was awake and up before any of us) went into the living room, lit the Christmas Tree, and immediately began opening the abundance of presents so neatly arranged under and around the tree. Before long, there were gifts - and torn wrappings and ribbons - all over the place. After that, it was time to get dressed and go to Mass, then breakfast, then more time with our toys, before bundling up for the trek to Westchester for an Italian Christmas feast at my uncle’s mansion. (It was actually a typical 1950s suburban home. But, since my uncle was the only relative around, who actually owned his own home, it seemed like a mansion to us).
Times have changed since then, to be sure, but people everywhere (including, no doubt, many in this church this morning) will be doing similar things today – visiting relatives and friends, and, of course, giving gifts and receiving presents in return. Perhaps, some of those visits will not be as wonderful as we would wish – whether for the visitors or for those being visited. Not all the gifts will be appreciated, and some will be returned to the store in search of something better, bigger, or brighter. Our modern Christmas is a lot of work, and it can exhaust even the hardiest reveler. Even worse, with all the emphasis on satisfaction and consumption, a lot of folks can get left out, and end up feeling, if anything, even more lonely or more poor on Christmas than at any other time. We all know that. Still, Christmas is, as Dickens again so delightfully described it: “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time … on the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely.”
Now, of course, we all know how difficult opening our “shut-up hearts” can be. Hence the perennial appeal of every Christmas story that confirms Christmas’s peculiar power to do just that – whether for Ebeneezer Scrooge in Victorian London or the Grinch in 20th-century Whoville. In my own favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle somehow gets all sorts of people to believe in him and be reconciled with one another – simply by doing just the sorts of things all those other people would have been completely incapable of doing on their own, had it not been for his presence in their lives, changing their entire world.
Christmas – the authentic Christmas that unites us together in this church this morning – challenges us (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis) to believe that, in a world like ours, the Son of God became a man – and then to imagine what must happen as a result!
We already know – all too well – what would happen in our world without him! How much have you loved us, kind Father, exclaimed St. Augustine. If your Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair. At best, we would have been like the merchants in Miracle on 34th Street (and all the other ordinary people in the film) completely incapable of opening up our “shut-up hearts,” desperately in need of someone special to do it for us.
Christmas challenges us to believe that the Son of God is really present in our lives, transforming our world, doing it for us – and then to act on that belief and imagine what must happen as a result!
Christmas challenges us to believe what we just heard in the letter to the Hebrews – that God has in these last days spoken to us through his Son, through whom he created the universe and who sustains all things by his mighty word – and then to imagine what must happen as a result!
Christmas challenges us to believe (if I may quote St. Augustine one more time) that he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time – and then to imagine what must happen as a result!
Christmas challenges us to act on the belief that all this has already happened – that God has spoken to us through his Son, that the Word has become flesh and does dwell among us, in our own short day of time.
In Dickens’ story The Seven Poor Travellers, the narrator, continuing on his way on Christmas morning, said he “felt as if all Nature shared in the joy of the great Birthday.”
“Going through the woods,” he continued, “the softness of my tread upon the mossy ground and among the brown leaves enhanced the Christmas sacredness by which I felt surrounded. … I came to the village, and the churchyard where the dead had been quietly buried, ‘in the sure and certain hope’ which Christmastime inspired. What children could I see at play, and not be loving of, recalling who had loved them! No garden that I passed was out of unison with the day, for I remembered that the tomb was in a garden … In time, the distant river with the ships came full in view, and with it pictures of the poor fishermen, mending their nets, who arose and followed him, - and of the teaching of the people from a ship pushed off a little way from the shore, by reason of the multitude, - of a majestic figure walking on the water, in the loneliness of night. My very shadow on the ground was eloquent of Christmas; for did not the people lay their sick where the mere shadows of the men who had heard and seen him might fall as they passed along?"
“Thus Christmas begirt me, far and near … toward the lights of London. Brightly they shone, but not so brightly as my own fire, and the brighter faces around it, when we came to celebrate the day.”
Among us too, this Christmas morning, the kingdom of God is being born, breaking into our otherwise ordinary and self-enclosed world and offering it the precious possibility of hope. So, when the last carol has been sung and we disperse from here to our happy homes and holiday meals (or, perhaps, as so many in our world, to a somewhat sad or lonely home or a modest, maybe even meager meal), may that same precious and powerful hope move us - and so transform our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.
All this, because we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
Homily for the Mass of Christmas Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2010.
35 years ago – Christmas 1975 – when I was in graduate school in New Jersey, a foreign student classmate took the bus into New York City for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When he got there, he was told the Cathedral was full and that he should try one of the other many midtown churches. When he told me the story a week later, he was still amazed that all the people, who had been patiently waiting to get into the Cathedral, had accepted this so calmly and gone away peacefully. “In my country,” he said, “there would have been a riot.” Coming from a different culture, he was surprised – amazed – that Americans were so orderly. Notice, however, that he seemed not at all surprised – or amazed – by the size of the crowd. But why not? Why would people come out in such numbers on a cold New York winter night – in the middle of the night, no less, and to go Church, of all things? Why, indeed? Why, indeed, are we here tonight?
Some 20 years later, a priest I know had occasion to visit a remote Pacific island. When the people there learned he was a Catholic priest, they welcomed him enthusiastically. And then they asked him to talk to them about Jesus. They told him how, before they had been evangelized, they had been afraid of all sorts of things – both physical and spiritual, natural and supernatural. Now, however, they understood that God – the true God – is bigger and more powerful than all those things that used to frighten them, and at the same time is small enough to be one of us. And so they were no longer afraid.
And that is why we are here tonight!
Now, of course, as we all well know, people approach the celebration of Christmas in a variety of ways and with a variety of emotions. Some still come to Christmas with the same excitement they had as children awaiting Santa’s arrival. Others come trapped in the cynicism of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Some are worn out from shopping. Others just can’t wait for the post-Christmas sales. Some are sad; others elated. Some are preoccupied and distracted; others tranquil and calm. Christmas makes some people all “joyful and triumphant.” Others get nostalgic and weepy. (I, for one, still can’t quite make it through a recording of Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas without at least a tear or two).
To all of us, however, whatever our feelings and however mixed our motives, the message of Christmas is one and the same: Do not be afraid … For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord!
Do not be afraid! Well, that’s surely easier said than done! Even the shepherds, so we’re told, were struck with great fear. And who wouldn’t be? Like those Pacific Islanders, we all know that there is a lot to fear in life, and how afraid we can be, and how hard it can be for us to believe that anything at all (let alone something so ordinary as a baby being born) can really remove our fear. In fact, as babies’ births go, this one seems to have taken place under less than optimal conditions – away from home, with no family or friends to help or even visit, just strangers, shepherds, of all people!
But, then, we also know that babies are born all the time in strange and scary situations – to homeless refugees on the road with war raging all around them. for example. For that matter, Christmas itself has been and often is celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those who are alone, or with only strangers for company, by the sick in hospitals, by immigrants in refugee camps, by soldiers fighting a war (by my own father, for example, 66 years ago tonight, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Batallion at the Battle of the Bulge, what one historian has called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge.”)
Yet the point is that Christmas continues to be celebrated. The birth of that baby in Bethlehem some 2010 years ago was so special, so important, so wonderful, that we even calculate our calendar and date our years from it, from Christ’s 1st coming that 1st Christmas – and not, let it be noted, from Caesar Augustus, or Quirinius, or any of the other important, rich, talented, attractive people whom we like to see as the stars of the human race. Secular society has become somewhat embarrassed by our calendar and sometimes uses euphemisms like “the common era.” But the calculation speaks for itself. More important than numbers and dates, however, if Christmas had never happened, then the whole history of our world would have been totally different. We ourselves would have been different – for we would never have known God’s great love for us and would have had no other real alternative but to be afraid. As Saint Augustine so succinctly expressed it: “we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair.”
But now, because of Christmas, we do have an alternative. Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We heard those words this past Sunday, spoken by the angel to Saint Joseph. We will hear them again at Easter, from the mouth of the Risen Lord himself, the same Risen Lord whom we encounter whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. The fact that we celebrate Jesus’ birth not with a birthday cake, but with the Eucharist, the body and blood of the Risen Christ, signifies that this is not some nostalgic bit of playacting, and that the baby whose birth we are celebrating is not some distantly ancient historical figure, but the presently alive God-made-man – now risen from the dead and living forever at his Father’s right hand.
“Christmas comes but once a year,” lamented the narrator in one of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories. I think Dickens put the emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence. The point is not that Christmas comes only once a year, but that it comes – year in, year out, in good times and in bad, in prosperity and in recession, in peacetime and in wartime.
The Christmas story is a proclamation. It is a proclamation of God’s infinitely powerful presence and action on our behalf in our human history – announced by angels to shepherds and proclaimed ever since by the Church, whose main mission and purpose is to announce this good news to all, to proclaim Jesus Christ by words and actions and so be his instrument in the world. Thus, Saint Paul proclaimed to Titus that the grace of God has appeared. God’s gift of his Son – the 1st Christmas gift – has been given to us and stays with us, casting out fear and filling us with hope – hope in the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us.
The language of hope seems especially powerful to us at Christmas. At no other time of the year are our homes and streets and cities so beautiful. At no other season does the world seem so bright and hopeful as it does at Christmas. At no other time of the year are people so ready and receptive to the hopeful message contained in the sights and sounds and symbols of this season.
So let us not be afraid to let the Christmas story speak to us in all its power – and, then, let us not be afraid to let that same Christmas story speak to the world, through us, in all its power – the power of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us.
Let us not be afraid to accept this Christ, to conceive him in our hearts as Mary did and to bring him forth into this confused and frightened world as Mary did. Let us not be afraid to identify ourselves fully with his Church, that network of friendship with Christ, uniting heaven and earth, spanning space and time, uniting peoples and cultures, past, present, and future, in one communion of saints. Let us not be afraid to let the power of Christ in us make a real difference, not just in some things, but in everything.
So, then, when the last carol has been sung, and we leave this warm, bright church and go back out into the cold and dark, Christ’s light will shine – through us – and we will light up the dark winter of our world with a light full of love, a love full of joy, the joy that the angel brought to the shepherds, the joy of knowing that, because of Christmas, we need never be afraid again. And, then, what a wonderful difference Christmas will make, not just today and tomorrow, but every day, all the year, every year!
Homily at Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2010.
Friday, December 24, 2010
My guess is that everyone has his or her favorite Christmas movie. Mine will always be Miracle on 34th Street - for the rather personal reason that I owe my very existence to Macy’s Department Store in New York City. My parents were both employed by Macy’s in the autumn of 1946 when they met there at a soap sale – the first such soap sale after the war. For my father, it was love at first sight. Their first date was Radio City’s famous Christmas Show. While they waited in line, my father serenaded my mother, singing All the Things You Are – to the delight of those standing on line with them and (more importantly) to the delight of my mother. (They were engaged just before Christmas, and my mother received her engagement ring at the famous St. Francis of Assisi Church, near Macy’s). Two months later, they were married in my mother’s parish in the Bronx. As Macy’s employees, my parents (along with many others) sat under the lights for what seemed like forever as invisible parts of the background crowd for the cafeteria scene in Miracle on 34th Street.
Christmas movies often feature otherworldly kinds of characters – Dickens’ Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, for example. In Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle may indeed be Santa Claus, but he lives in a residence for senior citizens on Long Island. While he accomplishes a tremendous transformation in the people who get to know him, he does so in an ordinary, human way –doing the sorts of good things those other people would never have done had it not been for his presence in their lives.
Like Kris Kringle, but to an infinitely greater degree and on an infinitely greater scale, Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, changes the lives of all who will let him. He reveals what it means to be human and enables us to be and to do what we would never have been or done on our own, had he not become one of us. He reveals to us and enables us to reconnect with the God who is so in love with us that he has chosen to be one of us. The Christmas story is the story of God’s own Word, becoming what he himself had created, truly God and truly human, Emmanuel, God-with-us. This is the Christian story, the orthodox Christian faith, which we profess, proclaim, celebrate, and share with the world – at Christmas and all year round.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
In his eulogy at Hecker’s funeral four days later, the Jesuit Provincial recounted the scene at Hecker's deathbed, when his fellow Paulists asked for his final blessing: Hecker "roused himself from the depth of pain and exhaustion, and his ashen lips which death was sealing pronounced the singular words … 'I will give it in the shadow of death.' His feeble hands were raised, and like a soldier dying on the field of battle he reconsecrated his followers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for the struggle in which they had chosen him as Leader."
Monday, December 20, 2010
The lunar eclipse certainly adds something to the experience of the longest night of the year. Unlike Easter, however, which is directly dependent on the cycle of the moon as it intersects with the solar cycle of the seasons, Christmas itself is connected solely with the solar cycle and specifically with the winter solstice. The 4th century assignment of the Roman Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth to December 25 is widely believed to have been a successful adaptation of a pre-Christian Roman winter solstice festival. This was not the famous Saturnalia – a week-long Roman festival of revelry and merriment that began on December 17 and has contributed much to our treasury of Christmas traditions – including gift-giving and evergreen decorations. It was, however, a more explicitly winter solstice festival on December 25, “the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun” (Dies natalis solis invicti), itself introduced into the Roman imperial calendar relatively late (in A.D. 273), that likely became the basis for the Roman date of Christmas. (In the Julian calendar in force until the 16th century’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar, December 25 was reckoned as the date of the winter solstice). The winter solstice is, by definition, the darkest day of the year – the shortest day and the longest night. Very quickly after the solstice, however, one begins to notice how the days start gradually getting longer. Hence, the two key elements of the festival’s title – the birthday of the unconquered Sun.
With the 4th century triumph of Christianity over Roman paganism, it was a simple step to replace the celestial sun with Christ the Lord. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays [Malachi 3:20].
The brilliant illumination of our homes, streets, and city skylines during this darkest time of the year apparently taps into something deeply rooted in human experience throughout the northern hemisphere. The fear and anxiety associated almost universally with long, dark nights are fought off by our holiday lighting - symbolic of the more substantive victory of Christ, the light of the world [John 8:12] whose birth we celebrate in lieu of celebrating the winter solstice.
As I said in my homily yesterday, there is a good reason why we don’t celebrate Christmas in June, when the sun is high and the days are bright and long - why we celebrate Christmas in December, when the days are dark and short. For we celebrate Christmas in a chaotic and perplexing, often threatening and frightening world, where the bright light of God’s own life among us seems hidden in darkness (like Joseph’s dream). Jesus Christ, the sun of justice and the light of the world, is, however, God’s dream for the salvation of the world, the divine dream that brightens even the densest darkness. That is why Christmas remains so necessary, as well as wonderful.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Now prior to all this, Joseph had presumably been leading a relatively normal-seeming life, with normal expectations. The gospel calls him a righteous man, which means he faithfully lived according to the Old Testament Law of Moses. Presumably, he expected to live by the Law and be enlivened by it in return. Then, all of a sudden, what was expected was taken away, and all his hopes for the future seemed to fall apart. Being a righteous man meant no marriage now (at least not to Mary). His most precious relationship had been ruptured in the most unexpected way. What a jolt that must have been! But Joseph still loved Mary, and struggled with what he should do. And God was with that love, hidden in Joseph’s dreams.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Folkloric customs, like our Advent Wreath, remind us that, when winter was really winter, people paused. The Advent Wreath likely originated in the once common custom of removing wheels form carts at the beginning of winter. The practice developed of decorating such a wheel with evergreen branches and candles. If the light of the candles has come to signify the bright light of Christ coming to penetrate the dark night of our present world, the wreath itself signifies our readiness to slow down enough to be able to see the light despite the winter dark.
It may or may not have been winter, but John the Baptist was in the dark too. Confined in Herod’s prison, he too was looking for light and so sent his disciples to Jesus to ask [Matthew 11:2-11]: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Jesus’ (somewhat indirect) answer was meant to reassure John, by recalling the biblical prophecies in which they both believed. Look, Jesus seemed to be saying, the things that are supposed to happen when the Messiah comes really are happening! What more evidence do you need? “Go, and tell John what you hear and see.” In other words, the reality of God’s kingdom is already happening – happening here, happening now!
The Gospel gives us no record of John’s reaction to Jesus’ response. He departs the scene with his question. But it’s a question that the world keeps asking: Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or should we be looking elsewhere? There are, after all, a lot of other places one could look. And increasingly people – particularly younger people, but not just younger people – are doing just that. The contemporary world is a kind of spiritual smorgasbord, with lots and lots of choices and alternatives. But it’s also a world full of confusion and chaos, of broken lives and broken hearts. In such a world, John’s question cannot simply go away – unless, of course, one is prepared to give up and abandon hope entirely.
That John was not willing to do, and people generally have not been willing to do. That is why Christmas is so important, now maybe more than ever. In the dark night of winter, full of fear, danger, and anxiety, in the long night of the present, haunting us, as yet another year comes to an end, with so many memories of lost opportunities, unfulfilled longings, and ruptured relationships, Christmas comes in answer to John’s – and our – question.
Christmas, of course, commemorates an historical event, some 2000+ years ago. Our celebration of Christmas, however, is only in part about remembering an event in the past. It is also – and primarily – about the future for which the coming of Christ into our world makes it possible for us to hope, already even in the present. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, a few years back, in his encyclical On Christian Hope: “If we cannot hope for more than is attainable at any given time, or more than is promised by political and economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope. It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for.”
It was as the historical spokesman for our hope – the perennial hope of men and women of every time and place – that John in prison posed his question, a powerful question, a question the world keeps on asking. To us, as to John, Jesus challenges us to pay attention, and so to hear and see the signs – the powerful signs – of God’s presence and action in our lives and in our world, enabling and inviting us to live in hope, as people of hope.
And because it is we (who continue Christ’s life and mission in the world as his Church), we, who are now the voice of Christ for the world to hear and the face of Christ for the world to see, it is we who are being asked John’s question and we who must answer it by the witness of our own hope – hope for ourselves and hope for the whole world.
Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God … he comes to save you [Isaiah 35:4].
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 12, 2010.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Speaking to Juan Diego, Mary identified heerself as "the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God who is the Author of life, the Creator of all things, the Lord of heaven and earth, present everywhere." She asked "that here, there be raised to me a temple in which, as a loving mother I shall show my tender clemency and the compassion I feel for the natives and for those who love and seek me, for all who implore my protection, who call on me in their labors and afflictions: and in which I shall hear their weeping and their supplications that I may give them consolation and relief.”
The famous image, which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak (tilma), has been venerated ever since in the magnificent shrine in Mexico City near the site of the event. In 1988, in the course of a summer spent studying in Guadalajara, I had the privilege of venerating the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica in Mexico City. Fifteen years later, in 2003, I was present in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral when a small, half-inch square relic of St. Juan Diego’s tilma was exposed for veneration. The only known such relic in the United States, it was originally a gift from the Archbishop of Mexico to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1941, and in recent years has been displayed in various U.S. cities in commemoration of Juan Diego’s canonization in 2002.
In his homily on that occasion, Pope John Paul II said “Guadalupe and Juan Diego have a deep ecclesial and missionary meaning and are a model of perfectly inculturated evangelization. … In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God.”
In 1531, Mary asked for a church to be built. Almost immediately, the Church began to be built among the peoples of this continent, calling and forming disciples throughout North and South America. Under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the building of the Church continues on this continent - inspired by the example of St. Juan Diego to be constantly more evangelizing and more missionary.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! above all nature glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.
The story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the serious damage done by Adam and Eve to themselves and to the whole rest of the world. Adam and Eve symbolize and represent all of us and the damage all of us have continued to do to ourselves and to our world, through our sinful alienation from God. Mary, however, holy Mary, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power – and his powerful plan to save us form ourselves.
Homily on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2010.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
The city had its Christmas Parade this past Friday. But we are waiting until Wednesday to light our tree because, of course, December 8 is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patronal feast of the United States and of this - the first - Catholic parish in Knoxville. The Immaculate Conception celebrates our belief - as an article of Catholic faith - that “the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin” (Blessed Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).
When the Church defines a truth as “revealed by God,” this does not suggest some new revelation but bears witness to what has been revealed from the beginning and has been transmitted over time through the tradition of the Church. In reference to the Immaculate Conception, scripture and Church tradition affirm that the grace of God filled Mary’s life from the beginning. In view of her vocation to be the mother of Christ, we recognize that Christ’s redeeming work was effective in Mary in the depths of her being and at her earliest beginnings.
Mary’s sinless conception prepared her for her special role in Christ’s coming into the world, and thus helped to prepare the world for that great event. This harmonizes especially well with the salient themes of the Advent season - preparing ourselves and the world for Christ’s return and disposing ourselves to recognize his presence among us here and now by contemplating his first coming into the world at Christmas.
On May 13, 1846, the 6th Provincial council of Baltimore, attended by 23 (out of 26) U.S. bishops, in the Council’s first decision requested the Holy See to name the Blessed Virgin Mary as patroness of the United States, under the title of the Immaculate Conception. On November 20, 1959, thousands of Catholics gathered with their bishops for the dedication of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Prominently located on the campus of The Catholic University of America, the National Shrine (now a Basilica) has become a major focus for pilgrimages for Americans from all over the United States, a vibrant testimony to our Catholic faith in this singular grace given, for our sake, to her whom, in consequence, we can constantly invoke as “Mary, full of grace.”
Meanwhile, here in East Tennessee in 1855, the first Catholic Church in Knoxville was erected on Summit Hill and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. For 155 years, a Catholic Church has stood on this hill as a vivid sign of the Church’s outreach to all who live, work, or visit within sight of its tower. May our parish Christmas Tree, which will be lit in time for Wednesday evening’s festive Mass, be a beacon highlighting this parish's mission - the Church’s mission - to illuminate our world with Christmas grace.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Of course, it’s easy for Advent to pass us by, overshadowed as it is by all the activity connected with Christmas. Overshadowed or not, however, Advent is a very special season, Christianity is, after all, a very historical religion, that takes time very seriously. We believe that time has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning, of course, was creation. The middle, not necessarily mathematically, but religiously the center of all history was when God became personally a part of human history in Jesus. Everything since then, however long, constitutes the last phase of human history – everything since Jesus’ return to his Father and his gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church to continue his presence and action in the world.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day. It has even been suggested that the liturgical hymn Dies Irae, that magnificent masterpiece which was for so many centuries sung at funeral Masses, may perhaps have been originally composed for use in Advent - its somber sentiments intended to concentrate our attention of Christ's final coming at the end of time as judge of all the world.
We will do that waiting - in what we might call “liturgical time” - by looking back, to get to the future. I sometimes think of Advent as an ecclesiastical version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which ends with Santa Claus, thus formally introducing us to Christmas. Thus, the 4th Sunday of Advent will recall Jesus’ conception in his Virgin Mother’s body. The 2nd and 3rd Sundays, however, will recall the adult Christ’s public appearance on the historical stage as announced by John the Baptist, challenging us to recognize Jesus, here and now, in the present time, between Christmas and the end. Finally (but at Advent's beginning), the 1st Sunday puts past and present in perspective, focusing on Christ’s final coming, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robes in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to a tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Now this liturgical Advent, as we actually experience it in the present, relies heavily in the seasonal experience of darkness what so defines this time of year in our northern hemisphere. Advent wreaths and candlelight all attempt to tap into that natural imagery, at the risk almost of making Advent some sort of folkloric, seasonal pageant. The Christian life, however, is not a play. The world was really in darkness before the coming of Christ. At his final coming, darkness will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in the interim in which we live – between Christmas and the end – darkness and light coexist in constant conflict.
We are all familiar with Jesus’ famous image of his disciples as the light of the world, a city set on a mountain. Modern electricity has made darkness a mere inconvenience for us. Today, one can illuminate an entire city with a single switch. (It takes a lot more than that, of course, but that’s the part we see and so is how we think about it). To light a fire, however, and then to illuminate a city by spreading that fire’s light from street to street and house to house, that takes work. That work is the mission of the Church in every generation – to let the light of Christ shine forth from and through his Church and so truly to illuminate our world.
Most of us aren’t very good at waiting. We want to know as much as possible in advance, so we can rush into the future. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that is precisely the present that matters. Jesus’ warning about the days of Noah reminds us how common, how universal, our present experience really is. We are still eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – just as it was up to the day that Noah entered the ark. The fact that the present time is limited just makes it all the more precious, makes it matter that much more. So, stay awake, Jesus warns, be prepared – now – because what I do now, the way I live now, the kind of person I am becoming here and now, that is the kind of person I will be when the Lord comes, and so the person I am going to remain for all eternity.
Whatever surprises any of us may be hoping to fund under the Christmas Tree this year, the coming of Christ is not one of them. Christ has already come. If he hadn’t, the world would not be celebrating Christmas and none of us would be here at Mass today! The issue is whether his presence in our world today matters enough to make a difference in the way we live and what we care about – whether and how we are making the most of our limited but precious time to become now what we hope to be when he comes again.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
A common, pre-Christmas custom is the "Advent Calendar," a 19th century German cusotm especially popular with children. Advent calendars count the days to Christmas. As each dat eis uncovered, a picture or "treat" is revealed. Somewhere I still have an old Advent Calendar given to me more than half a century ago.
As a liturgical season, the Church’s Advent, which begins tonight, is part of the Church’s larger, annual cycle (the “Liturgical Year”), within which we commemorate the mysteries of Christ’s life from his incarnation to his ascension, celebrate his continued presence in the Church through his gift of the Holy Spirit, and express our joyful hope for his coming again. The commemoration of Christ’s incarnation, birth, and revelation to the world is the focus of the Christmas-Epiphany season now beginning. These four preliminary weeks of Advent are intended as a time when the remembrance of the world’s waiting for Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas focuses our attention on his 2nd and final coming “to judge the living and the dead,” while meanwhile directing our awareness of his presence in the present. The “great lesson of Advent,” Evelyn Underhill once wrote, “is the many-side truth of God’s perpetual coming to His creatures in secret and humble ways; the nearness of his saving care and energizing grace.”
Here in the northern hemisphere, Advent corresponds to the period of the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, when the days are the shortest and the nights the longest. The now widely popular custom of the Advent Wreath may have originated in the old northern European winter practice of decorating a wagon wheel (not in use during the winter pause) with evergreen branches and lighted candles. In its present form, the four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. As the solstice approaches, an additional candle is lit each week, counteracting the increasing earthly darkness with the growing brightness that symbolizes the coming of Christ, the light of the world.
In recent decades, Advent has been increasingly eclipsed by secular society’s celebration of Christmas. Just as the Church spreads out its celebration of Christmas across Advent and Epiphany-time, so too our society spreads out the Christmas season starting in early November (or even October). Some seem to want to lament this, as if Advent and Christmas were in some kind of competition (a competition in which Advent can obviously only be the loser).
The plain fact, however, is we are participants in both of these cycles. If we completely neglect the Church’s calendar, the Church’s way of celebrating the Incarnation, then we risk missing the whole point of Christmas, failing (as the old saying goes) to see the forest for the trees. But, if we ignore – or, rather, pretend to ignore – the Christmas season as it is actually being experienced by most people in our world, then we also miss the point, because we ignore the world Christ has come into, which is, after all, the point of the Incarnation. God did not become human just for himself, but for us – propter nos hominess et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis (“for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”).
Rather than helplessly lamenting (and scolding) the world we live in, I believe we can best appreciate Advent as an opportunity to enrich our contemporary celebration of Christmas, without negating the joy and festivity (and gift-giving) that make this such a special time of year. After all, at no other season does the busy, secular world seem so open to the Good News that is the Church’s story. Thus, Advent can be an opportunity for enriching all the joy and festivity around us with that sense of explicit longing for God’s kingdom which Advent highlights so well, and which is supposed to be what Christian life is about all the time in this interval between the first Christmas and the end.