Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

For all its exuberant festivity, for me New Year’s Eve lends itself to both nostalgic and serious reflections both about the state of the world and about my own life, about where I - and the world - have been so far and where we may be going in whatever time may yet be allotted me. On New Year's Eve, it's only natural to look back - not just at the year about to end, but at the many years that have already passed - and ponder personal experiences both good and bad (as well as mixed and in-between). Remembering NewYear's Eves past and the people they were spent with, I am flooded with memories of family and friends now dead, others still living but far away and out-of-touch, precious relationships once treasured that are now only memories or survive but only vestigially (perhaps as Facebook "Friends"). And, if I really get reflective, there are all those opportunities taken or missed to recall, all those forks-in-the-road, where having taken one path I still can't help but wonder where the other might have led.
That's the personal side of New Year's. It's built into the structure of a lifteime from birth to death, which the annual cycle of a "year" from "new" to "old" imitates. In the annual cycle of a "year," however, the annual ringing out of the "old," brings with it the ringing in of the "new," with its new range of - admittedly limited, but nonetheless still very real - new possibilities and opportunities. In other words, reason for hope! Hope is what keeps us going, and our world would be a tragically impoverished place without it.
Hope is important not just in one's individual personal journey of life, but is equally essential when considering the state of the world. Admittedly, the present state of things in the world at large leaves little to be optimistic about. Of course, things could be worse - and have been. There have been far gloomier and more threatening years for the human race than the one just ending. It is perhaps the peculiar conceit of every generation to think its problems and challenges are among the worst.
And yet you hear people complaining about this present day and age because things were so much better in former times. I wonder what would happen if they could be taken back to the days of their ancestors – would we not still hear them complaining? You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430)
That said, we who live in the present age don't have to respond to the challenges of earlier ages(although we have to live with their consequences), but we do have to face up to the present! In that regard, 2012 seems anything but promising. In the United Kingdom, the British have all sorts of economic and social problems, but at least they can look forward to two big national parties this new year - Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee in June and (more ambivalently perhaps) hosting the London Olympics a month later. What do we in America have to look forward to? A year-long Presidential Election!
Already the pathetic process by which the leader of the Free World is anointed has enthralled the media, but at what price in producing an even more dispirited nation? Now at last the peculiar, media-driven institution called the Iowa Caucuses will finally happen on the third day of the year (the earliest ever!). Competing in the Caucuses to challenge the incumbent President in next year's election are quite a crew of candidates: a consistent libertarian (whose fidelity to his principles seems somewhat charming, but whose ideas seem whacky and dangerous even by the standard of libertarianism, which is itself is at best pretty whacky and dangerous), three "social conservatives" (whose efforts to uphold "traditional values" sadly seem at times more about mean-spiritedness than about tradition), an intellectually-oriented, interesting thinker (trying to shoe-horn his ideas into the narrrow confines of his party's new-found prejudices, even while struggling under the weight of his own personal baggage), and finally a "frontrunner" (who seems to be scrambling to oppose what he once advocated). And so it goes, as we welcome a new year in America!
Elections do have consequences, and politics is important. More to the point, there are serious, pressing problems our country and the world need to resolve. Yet, instead of offering a way forward (what one expects an opposition party to do in an election), this process is - in the words of the magazine, The Economist - "saddling its candidate with a set of ideas that are cranky, extreme and backward-looking." (That's from a publication that really would like to have a Republican candidate to support!).
What The Economist writes may not be totally true of all their ideas, of course - some of which may actually make some sense, and some of which may really be traditional and deserve to be supported (or at least considered). Anyway, American voters have a way of sorting it all out. So hope may yet prevail after all.
But on New Year's Eve, it's appropriate to put politics back in its place. For the hope that matters most and that makes all other human hopes make sense is ultimately grounded in God's great Christmas gift to us of himself in the Word-made-flesh - who cares enough about our problematic world to become a part of it and can be counted on to help us get through it.
So I close yet one more mixed up, complicated year with the words of this morning's Postcommunion Prayer: May your people, O Lord, whom you guide and sustain in many ways, experience, both now and in the future, the remedies which you bestow, that, with the needed solace of things that pass away, they may strive with ever deepened trust for things eternal. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Becket's Dilemma - Then and Now

Nineteen years ago today, I attended Evensong at England's Canterbury Cathedral on this Christmas week feast of St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170), the Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred at Vespers in that very Cathedral on this very date. In 1992, it was St. Thomas Becket’s Anglican successor as Archbishop of Canterbury who led the celebration of Evensong, the highlight of which came at the end of the service when the Archbishop led the congregation down to the exact site of St. Thomas’s murder, where we listened to a contemporary medieval account of the famous event.
It is really quite striking that three of the six intermediate days within the Christmas Octave commemorate martyrs. There's St. Stephen the Protomartyr on December 26, the very day after Christmas. Then, on December 28, come the Holy Innocents, who are, of course, themselves an integral part of the Christmas story (although generally downplayed in the compulsory cheerfulness of most Christmas carols - the "Coventry Carol" being the great exception). And today, December 29, the Church recalls the medieval martyr St. Thomas Becket, who gave his life for the Church's freedom and liberty from encroaching executive and judicial interference on the part of the State. (In the old calendar, in the 2nd Mass of Christmas, there was also a "commemoration" of St. Anastasia, a holy woman martyred on December 25, during the persecution of Diocletian. So the Christmas Octave has actually commemorated four martyrs for much of its history!)
Obviously, no one is being martyred in the United States right now. But Church-State tensions do seem to be on the rise. Being denied a government contract to provide care for victims of sex-trafficking or having to shut down Church-sponsored adoption services because of intrusive government demands is not quite the same as being forced to shed one's blood for the independence of the Church, of course. But the analogy between the ambition of the modern liberal state to control so much of civil society and the comparable ambition of King Henry II is evident enough. The analogy also benefits from recalling that King Henry (who was in many respects really a great ruler) was originally Becket's friend and patron. Likewise many of the challenges to Church-run institutions today stem in part at least from their having become in effect partners with the State by having accepted (and desired) government contracts, etc. From a public-policy perspective, it has been beneficial for society that government has helped fund Church-run institutions' social services. But has it perhaps produced another problem and so contributed to the present situation of tension?
According to today's New York Times, some 62% (nearly $2.9 billion in 2010) of Catholic Charities' annual revenue derived from government. Catholic Charities - as even the New York Times admits - "is one of the nation's most extensive social service networks, serving more than 10 million poor adults and children of many faiths across the country." There can be no doubt that government aid has enabled the Church to accomplish a lot more social service than it could possibly have accomplished relying on purely private charity. From a public-policy perspective, society as a whole - and its neediest and most vulnerable members in particular - will be the biggest losers if Church institutions feel compelled to curtail their services because they cannot conscientiously cooperate with the State's social agenda.
It would be interesting to evaluate the net benefits and losses to civil society from the modern State's progressive assumption of control over so many areas which were once the primary province the the Church (in part because the pre-modern State was often relatively weak and in no position to assume control in areas such as education, etc.).
Looked at from the perspective of the ministry of the Church, however, perhaps the relevant analogy for the future will not be the medieval experience in which the Church was the primary player in civil society but that of the ancient Church before it became an established part of the the social order. Early Christians were widely noted for their charity, for how they cared for one another and for the sick and the vulnerable - all in marked contrast to traditional pagan Roman religion which generally did not concern itself with such matters. The Early Christians acted the way they did as an expression of who they had become by their faith in Christ, but they obviously did not expect their modest local efforts at social amelioration to solve all of Imperial Rome's social problems.
The Church must always continue to do its utmost to feed the hungry, minister to the sick, protect the weak, and champion the immigrants among us. But, given the encroachments of the ideologically motivated modern State, perhaps the Church will in the future no longer be able to do so on the scale both Church and society been accustomed to expect.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Faith in a "So What?" World

American Christians have long taken comfort in the apparently persistent religiosity of the United States - especially in comparison with Europe and Canada. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) memorably extolled the vitality of American religion in his 2-volume classic Democracy in America, American religiosity has rightly been recognized as one of the distingushing hallmarks of a specifically American experience of democracy and modernity. And certianly much of this conventional wisdom remains true still.
Recent trends, however, may warrant soem re-examination of our automatic assumptions. Granted that religion remains very strong in the U.S. and that many Americans - including many younger Americans - are seriously committed to relgious faith and practice and are active members of churches, still something certainly seems to be changing. It is not that the churches have changed (although there is certainly some of that too). It's mainly the world - in particular the world as experienced by the younger generations - that has changed, and changed in particularly problematic ways. (Whatever else one may have read in 2011, I think anyone seriously interested in these issues would do well to read Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith et al., and - with a more specifically religious focus - You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman).
This Christmas week USA Today took up the question in a more popular culture way. An article, "For many, 'Losing my Religion' isn't just a song: It's life" by Cathy Lynn Grossman, highlights the growing group of Americans (not necessarily all young) who seem to answer a collective "so what?" to the spiritual dimension of life. Not atheists, and not very interested in atheism either, an increasing number "simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose."
The Church has had a long history of surviving and out-lasting overt hostility and brutal persecution. The blood of the martyrs, as the ancient saying goes, may indeed be the seed of the Church! But a world in which religion - and the kinds of concerns religion cares about, the kinds of ultimate questions religion tries to help people respond to - a world in which little or none of that matters much anymore, a world in which issues of ultimate meaning no longer concern, such a world is a relatively new chllenge for the Church. Focused as we in churches tend to be on day-to-day ecclesiatical concerns and programmed by our history and experience to respond to conventional challenges to faith, this may be not just new but something we are radically ill-prepared to understand or respond to.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Imagining What Must Happen as a Result of Christmas

Last night (as people often do on Christmas Eve), I was recalling memories of Christmases past – memories of big family gatherings and gifts given and received, and cherished people and places, “the wonderful things we’ll remember the rest of our lives,” as the familiar song says. And, today, people everywhere (including, I’m sure, many here in this church, this Christmas morning) will also be visiting relatives and friends and 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. Certainly, not all gifts will be appreciated. Some will be rapidly returned to the store in search of something better, bigger, or brighter. In spite of all that, Christmas is still special. It is, as Charles Dickens 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 their shut-up hearts freely.”

Of course, not everyone will have a place to go or will be getting gifts. For some, this is a day to feel even more lonely or more poor than usual. We all know how difficult opening those “shut-up hearts” of ours can be at times. Hence the permanent appeal of every Christmas story that confirms for us the power of Christmas to do just that – whether for Ebenezer Scrooge in Victorian London, or Mrs. Hamilton in 1940s New York in the Christmas movie The Bishop’s Wife, or the Grinch in late 20th-century Whoville. In my own personal favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle gets all sorts of different people to believe in him and be reconciled with one another – simply by doing the sorts of things all those other people would have been incapable of doing on their own.

Christmas – the Christmas that unites us here 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 in our world – and then imagine what must happen as a result!

We already know – all too well – what must happen in our world without him! As St. Augustine (354-430) so succinctly expressed it: “If [God’s] 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, stuck in ourselves and so completely clueless about how to open our “shut-up hearts” and desperately in need of someone special to do it for us.

But instead, because of Christmas, we have an alternative, because we have that someone! In these last days, we just heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, God has spoken to us through his Son! [Hebrews 1:2]

Uniquely in the Church’s calendar, Christmas is observed by the celebration of three different Masses. At the 1st Mass - “during the Night”- the historical event of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is recalled. At the 2nd Mass – “in the morning” – the story of the shepherds hastening to the manger and then returning home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen [Luke 2:20], invites us to do the same - to experience the kindness and generous love, the mercy and forgiveness, of God our savior, appearing among us [Titus 3:4], opening up our “shut-up” hearts – and then, like the shepherds, to share this experience with the wider world. Finally, at the 3rd Mass – “during the day” – the incredible mystery of God becoming one of us, with us, and for us, is proclaimed in the simultaneously simply and awesome words of the John’s Gospel: the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth [John 1:14].

Like the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story, John’s Gospel invites us to believe what we hear, and then imagine what must happen as a result – to believe (if I may cite 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 imagine what must happen as a result!

We celebrate today what we profess every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son of God … for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. This is the Christmas story. Today, we kneel when we say those words, to highlight the fact and solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is the Christian story – our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to open our “shut-up” hearts, once and for all. And so, every time we come up this hill to hear this story of God-with-us, it really must become our story, challenging us, as we go back down the hill, to be remade by it ourselves and so to reimagine our world – 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.

Merry Christmas!

Homily at the 3rd Mass of Christmas, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011.

The Shepherds

I suppose hardly anyone in the English-speaking world hasn’t heard of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Some have really read it. Many more have seen some of the 42 film versions – classic Black & white to IMAX 3-D. Dickens was such a great fan of Christmas that he wrote several Christmas stories, in addition to the one about Scrooge. My personal favorite is The Seven Poor Travellers – about a Christmas Eve spent by the narrator with 6 others in a hostel for travelers. The story includes Dickens’ famous line: “Christmas comes but once a year, which is unhappily too true, for when it begins to stay with us the whole year round we shall make this earth a very different place.” As with all good Christmas stories – starting with the Gospel according to St. Luke – while a lot happens during the night, it’s on Christmas morning when it all seems to come together.
Historically, this 2nd Mass of Christmas – officially the Missa in Aurora, “Mass at Dawn” – has often been called the “Shepherds’ Mass,” because of the prominent part played by shepherds in the Gospel we just heard. I suppose one could hardly tell the Christmas story without at least mentioning the shepherds. In the 4th century, St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called their arrival at the manger “the beginning of the infant Church.” Even so, the shepherds do have a way of fading into the background, don’t they? In Christmas pageants, boys compete to play Joseph or perhaps one of the kings. How many specifically try out for the role of shepherd? (it’s no accident that, in that other great Christmas classic, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it was Linus who was assigned that role). And it surely doesn’t help that the shepherds’ role in the story sometimes seems as if they were mainly just filling in the time between the great Gloria in excelsis Deo of the angels and the star-lit arrival of the Magi. As for their day job, how many modern folks would choose to make their living as shepherds? How many people in any period would prefer being a shepherd to, let’s say, being a king?
Even in 1st-century Israel, shepherds didn’t merit much status. Given the religious importance of animal sacrifices, shepherds’ work was certainly necessary, but the nature of their job kept them with their flocks (even on Sabbath) – limiting their participation in Israel’s religious life and denying them the social respect that went with proper religious observance. So, as often happens with low-status jobs that provide essential services (think of immigrant day-laborers today), the shepherds were under-appreciated and probably felt it strongly. To top it off, they were probably pretty poor. The widespread tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor – what Adam Smith (1723-1790) called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” – was likely as universal then as it is now.
So it was probably a surprise to everyone (including the shepherds themselves) when the angel announced the birth of a savior who is Messiah and Lord - to them. To them, a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed peace to those on whom God’s favor rests (the implication being that the shepherds themselves were now numbered among those so favored by God). For perhaps the first time, the shepherds experienced a free gift, rather than a commercial transaction. The gift was nothing less than what St. Paul, writing to Titus, called "the kindness and generous love of God our savior." The shepherds were being invited to experience God’s kindness and generous love themselves, and then to share it with others. And, just as surprisingly, that’s exactly what they did!
Last Sunday, we heard the story of the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary. The story continues with how, having heard the angel’s message, Mary set out in haste to visit Elizabeth. Today, it’s the shepherds’ turn. There must be something special about angelic messages that suggests urgency, something special about good news of great joy for all people that just takes hold of its hearers and makes them move! So "they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger."
In most Nativity scenes, the shepherds stick around for a while. They’re often seen, still kneeling there, later on when the Magi arrive.
In the real story, however, they stayed just long enough to find Mary and Joseph and Jesus – just long enough to be found in turn (or rather re-found again) by God. And then the shepherds went back – back presumably to work and to their ordinary lives. But nothing for them would ever be the same again. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. However socially insignificant they may have been, however ordinary the lives they returned to, the kingdom of God was being born among them. And, however insignificant and ordinary we and our daily concerns may seem today, the kingdom of God is also being born among us – if only, like the shepherds, we hasten to find it in Mary’s Son.
The same Son of God who revealed himself to the shepherds in the Son of Mary continues to reveal himself to us in his Church this Christmas morning. Like the shepherds, we too hasten with wonder to find him and to be found in turn. And, as his Church, we continue doing what the shepherds did, making known to one another and to the world the message about this child in whom the kindness and generous love, the mercy and forgiveness, of God our savior have appeared and forever more continue to appear.
Among us this Christmas morning, no less than among those shepherds so long ago, the kingdom of God is being born, breaking into our otherwise ordinary, 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 many must, to a somewhat sad or lonely home, or to a modest, maybe meager meal), may that same precious and powerful hope move us and fill us and change us, as surely as it did those long ago shepherds – 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.
Merry Christmas!
Homily at the 2nd Mass of Christmas, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Showing Up

One of the most quoted Christmas homilies in Church history is a late 6th-century one from Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) that begins: “Since by the Lord’s favor we are to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass three times today, we cannot speak at length upon the lesson of the Gospel. Yet the Nativity of our Lord compels us to say something.” And so indeed it does!
In one sense, of course, Christmas has been going on all around us for weeks now. Some people perhaps are tired of it already! What is there that is new to say after weeks of Christmas carols and shopping and parties? And anyway what is there that is new to say some 2000+ years after the fact that we call “the 1st Christmas”?
The Christmas story, as St. Luke tells it, begins by announcing who the Emperor was and what was going on in the world at the time. Luke wants us to understand that the story he is telling really happened as part of the history of the world. Jesus was really born. God’s Son became Mary’s Son, a human being like us.
What if in fact it had never happened? Well, for one thing, we wouldn’t be here tonight celebrating Christmas! We wouldn’t be here tonight at all, because this beautiful church, that has graced this hilltop now for 125 years, would never have been built! And, whatever year this would be, it wouldn’t be 2011 – A.D. 20011, Anno Domini 2011, the year of the Lord 20011. Some try to avoid acknowledging that and use other terminology to obscure the meaning of the calendar, but nothing can change the number and its meaning. What happened that 1st Christmas was so fundamentally important that, even now, we still calculate our calendar and date our years from it. But more important than numbers and dates, if Christmas had never happened, the whole history of the past 20 centuries would have been very, very different. And, even more important than that, we ourselves would be very different. As St. Augustine (354-430) so succinctly expressed it: “If [God’s] 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.”
But instead, because of Christmas, we do have an alternative to despair! Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We heard those same words this past Sunday, spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary. 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.
Of course, all those people – Mary, the shepherds, the disciples at Easter – all really were afraid, for good reasons. And for all our holiday cheer, so perhaps are we as well, as we come to the end of another very difficult and challenging year of economic and personal struggles and look ahead to the new year – with hope, to be sure, but also with anxiety. It’s not for nothing that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our distress is real enough, and our anxiety about it is honest, but so must be our hope - the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
That is why we celebrate Jesus’ birth not with a birthday cake but with the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. For this is not some nostalgic holiday pageant, and the baby whose birth we celebrate is not just some distantly ancient historical figure, but God-with-us!
“Christmas comes but once a year,” lamented the narrator in one of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories. I think Dickens may have 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. Christmas shows up, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and recession, in war and in peace.
How often have we all heard the saying – perhaps even quoted it ourselves – that “90% of life is just showing up”? That’s what God did for us on Christmas. He showed up in our world – in a somewhat out-of-the-way place under the less than optimal conditions that are so often experienced by immigrants, then as now, and with only some shepherds taking notice.
But he showed up! And he stayed! He stuck with us! He’s still showing up! He’s still sticking with us – here in his Church! And that in turn makes it possible for us – as his Church – to show up, without fear, to continue what he started, in our world today, this year, and every year.
We celebrate tonight what we profess every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son of God … for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. This is the Christmas story. Tonight, we kneel when we say those words, to highlight the fact and solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is the Christian story – our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to free us from fear, once and for all. And so, every time we come up this hill to hear this story of God-with-us, it really must become our story, challenging us, as we go back down the hill, to be remade by it ourselves and so to reimagine our world – 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.
In showing up in his Son and sticking around in his Church, God really has given us the greatest of all Christmas presents. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) so memorably expressed it in the 12thcentury: “It is as if God sent upon the earth a purse full of mercy. The purse has been burst open to pour forth its hidden contents.”
Merry Christmas!
Homily at Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Christmas Day, December 25, 20011.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Comfort of the Rich

So our dysfunctional Republican-run House of Representatives has abandoned (for now anyway) its opposition to a 2-month extension of the "temporary" payroll tax cut - "kicking the can," as the commentators like to say, to fight another day!
Since this is largely the same bunch that last summer seemed about to bring the U.S. to the brink of catastrophe, rather than consider raising taxes on the richest citizens, the message now seems quite clear. Taxes for the ultra-rich are bad - always. Tax-cuts for the ultra-rich are good - despite the damage done in terms of the deficit, for example, by the 2001 Bush Tax cuts. Tax-cuts for ordinary working people, however, are bad - unless the damage they do to the deficit can be compensated somehow by budget-reductions elsewhere.
As Voltaire (1694-1778) famously observed centuries ago: "The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmases Past and Present

What Pope Benedict XVI this week called "the exterior aspects that play upon our heartstrings" (General Audience, December 21, 2011) factors significantly in how each of us approaches the Christmas feast and the memories we hold onto as we age - memories of family gatherings, gifts given adn received, and cherished peopel and places, "the wonderful things we'll remember the rest of our lives," as the familiar song says.
Back when I was a mid-20th-century Baby Boomer kid, growing up in the Beautiful Bronx, Christmas mornign followed a set, somewhat predictable pattern, a ritual really. We kids got up, bright and early, and woke up the grown-ups. Thena ll of us went together intot he living room, lit the Christmas Tree, and immeidately dived into the abundant arrangement of presents so neatlya rranged under and aroudn 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 - 9:00 a.m. Children's Mass for us school-kids! After Mass, we had breakfast, then more time with our toys, before bundling up for the trek to my uncle's mansion for a traditonal Italian Christmas feast. (It was actually just a typical 1950s suburban home. But since my uncle was the only relative around well off enough actually to own his own home, it seemed like a mansion to us). a succession of subsequent extended-family gatherings filled out the holiday week, culminating in a traditonal arrancini dinner at our place on New Year's Day.
Times have changed since then, to be sure. For one thing, our sense of liturgical time has been impoverished by "Vigil" Masses the day before Sundays and holydays - above all on Christmas. In many places, Christmas Eve (actually often just late-afternoon) has replaced Christmas Day as the de facto holyday - as if we were all in a rush to get the religious part over with, leaving more time on Christmas Day for gift-giving and party-going.
Be that as it may, the general Chrisitmas Day routine remains for most people not all that different now from what it was then - visiting relatives and friends and giving gifts and receiving presents in return. Perhaps, some of those visits will not be as wonderful as we would wish - whther for the visitors or for those being visited. Not all the gifts will be appreciated either, and some will soon be returned to the store in search of somethign better, bigger, or brighter. Our post-modern Christmas can be a lot of work, and it can exhaust even the hardiest reveler. And, with all the emphasis on partying and consuming, some folks inevitably get left out and end up feeling, if anything, even more lonely or more poor on Christmas that at any other time.
Even back then those Christmas Day family gatherings were often not quite all they purported to be. But who would have freely chosen to miss out on them?
Over time, my family Christmas gatherings got somewhat smaller, and the people around the dinner table began to vary more from year to year. Living alone, then at school, then alone again for four years in Wisconsin, I always looked forward to coming back "home for the holidays."
In 1981, my novitiaqte year interrupted that pattern as we priests and novices celebrated the feat together as a relgiious community. That too was probably an imperfect experience (as indeed every Christmas inevitably is), but the unique experience of celebrating the feast in a way that was coherent with my new vocation to religious life was precious then, and its memory retains a special glow even now.
With the single exceptiopn of one unhappy year in Michigan, I was "home for the holidays" again every Crhsitmas until my ordiantion to the priesthood in 1995. After that, I had to work on Christmas, and that has given the feast another new fell. Meanwhile my immediate family had mostly moved west, while came back to New York to work (and mroe recently to Knoxville). The routine now tends to be one of almost frenetic preparation, culminating in glorious Christmas Masses on Christmas night and Christmas morning. Then, by about 1:00 p.m. at the latest, it's effectivley all over! It's time to watch Christmas movies on TV, listen to Christmas carols, and just try to absorb it all at last!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December 22, 1888

On December 22, 1888, Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, died at the Paulist community residence attached to St. Paul the Apostle parish in New York City. Thirty years earlier, together with collaborators, Fr. Augustine Hewitt, Fr. George Deshon, and Fr. Francis Baker, (like him all American-born Protestants who had converted to Roman Catholicism), Fr. Hecker had established the Paulist Fathers in order more effectively to share the rich faith and full experience of life in the Roman Catholic with the dynamic culture of 19th-century American society. From their home parish in New York, the Paulists have since spread out across the country, serving at parishes and universities, preaching missions and giving lectures, and aspiring to reach an ever wider audience through the Paulist Press and other media.

Pretiosa in conspectu Domini mors sanctorum eius (“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones” Psalm 116:15). One of the earliest written accounts of Fr. Hecker’s death was that of his devoted disciple, Paulist Fr. Walter Elliott (The Life of Father Hecker, 1891):

“Some days before he died he seemed to realize that the long struggle was nearly over … and his mind appeared to have suddenly grown peaceful. The Scriptures as well as other books were read to him, as usual, up to the very evening before he died. On the night of the 20th of December, two days after his sixty-ninth birthday, the last sacraments were administered, Father Hecker receiving them without visible emotion but in full consciousness. During the following day he was quiet and apparently free from acute pain, the benumbed body refusing to suffer more; but the mind calm and attentive. When the morning of the 22nd came all could see that his time was near at hand. In the middle of the forenoon the members of the community were gathered at the bedside, the prayers for the dying were read and the indulgence was given. As this was over the doctor arrived, and Father Hecker, who had gradually lost advertence to all around him, was roused by him into full consciousness, and gave the community his blessing, feebly raising his hand to make the sign of the cross and uttering the words in a light whisper. Then he sank away into unconsciousness and in an hour ceased to breathe.

“And so Father Hecker died. Our beloved teacher and father, so blameless and brave, so gentle and daring, so full of God and of humanity, entered into his eternal beatitude. …

“The life of Father Hecker is a strong invitation to the men of these times to become followers of God the Holy Ghost, to fit their souls by prayer and penance in union with Christ and his Church, for the consecration of liberty and intelligence to the elevation of the human race to union with God.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Final Word About New Words

Today, I celebrated my 30th Mass using the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Most have been regular parish Masses, but also Masses at the University parish and at the local Catholic school, a funeral, and a Mass for teens at their Confirmation Retreat.So much has been said and written - some of it wise, much of it foolish - about this new translation in these brief 3 weeks it has been in use (on top of the mountains more said and written prior to its introduction - either anticipating the parousia or dreading the apocalypse), that one hesitates to add anything more!

That said, it has been, on balance, a good experience. Repetition remains the mother of learning. The more frequently one recites the new formularies, the more familiar and easier they become - quicker than I had honestly expected! People (myself included) do lapse on occasion. Hence the importance of always having the text in front of one - even for simple responses. It is, in fact, for that very reason that the hardest parts for me are the "private" priestly prayers, said silently, which often accompany other actions. In the "Tridentine" liturgy, there were "Altar Cards" to address precisely this problem. When, for example, the priest went in cornu epostolae to prepare the chalice, he could read the accompanying prayer, even though the book was well out of his visual range. Of course, eventually, I will have those prayers memorized too. So this issue will become moot - hopefully sooner than later!
In ordinary English, complex Latinate constructions are no longer much in favor. Indeed, in ordinary speech (as opposed to literary English), I think a good case can be made for simple sentences with strong Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible. But, of course, we are not talking about ordinary English here, but liturgy, worship, prayer. People have always assumed that such language should be somewhat special. Thus, for example, the King James Version of the Bible (which for all its foreign-sounding English remains the most sold English version of the Bible in the world even today) was apparently written not on contemporary Jacobean English, but in the Elizabethan idiom of the previous generation - familiar enough to be completely comprehensible, but still different enough to sound "sacred."

That said, if the only issue involved were one of translation, I think a case could certainly be made for lightening up a bit on the Latinity. Not every lengthy, multi-clause sentence absolutely needs to be translated as one single sentence in English! But again the point is not just translation but fidelity. It wasn't just a question of simpler, less complex English in the 1971 version of, for example, the Confiteor, the Gloria, and the Domine, non sum dignus. Those prayers were tragically truncated. Important elements of those prayers (now thankfully restored) had simply disappeared. were it politically possible to guarantee that a simpler, less complex-sounding (but still dignified and elevated) translation would be truly faithful to the sense of the original, I think a very good case could be made for preferring such an alternative. Realistically, however, the only way, in our contemporary political climate, to guarantee such fidelity seems to be to require absolute word-for-word literalism. Given that dilemma, I see no practical alternative to literalism. For liturgy must be about fidelity.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Window of Hope

Everyone, I suppose, has his or her favorite Christmas movie. One of my all-time favorites – second only perhaps to the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street – is the 1951 British film version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Some 45 years ago, I played Ebenezer Scrooge in a Christmas pageant. Everything went well until the scene in the cemetery, when having been confronted by my future, I threw myself on my tombstone in repentant sobbing. The only problem was that, since the gravestone was made of cardboard, it went flying off the stage and into the unsuspecting audience.

Now the three spirits who visit Mr. Scrooge in Dickens’ story are intended as vehicles to move the story along, to force Scrooge to confront the reality of his own past (which he cannot change, but with which he must come to terms), the present (to which he must respond, one way or the other), and the future (which will inevitably be shaped by both the past and the present). And the measure of Scrooge’s transformation is not how loudly he sobs but how fully in fact he comes to terms with his past and responds differently to what he experiences in the present, so he can face the future through a window of hope instead of fear.

The story of Nathan the Prophet’s message to David, God’s favorite king, in today’s 1st reading [2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16] and the familiar story of the Annunciation in the Gospel [Luke 1:26-38], together with Dickens’ classic Christmas story all concern the drama of God’s becoming one with us in this world. The Old Testament story treats it as prophecy. The Gospel recounts the event of the incarnation itself, while Dickens deals with its meaning and consequences for us as we negotiate life in our world. For what we celebrate at Christmas concerns the involvement of God himself, not just in some faraway temple somewhere, but at the heart of human life. What we call the incarnation means that God has joined up with us and is to be found nowhere else.

Scrooge’s 3 spirits were just visions, of course. But what they showed him – about himself and about the world – was very real. There is no reason to suppose it was easy or automatic for Scrooge to make the changes in his life that Dickens tells us he did. Or that the world changed much as a result. In one sarcastic sequel done in the 1990s (and reflecting the greedy, runaway capitalist ethos of recent decades), Tiny Tim, having been cured thanks to Scrooge’s generosity, grows up to be thoroughly obnoxious. Good deeds don’t always produce the desired right results. (King David’s heirs and successors didn’t all do so well either!)

No, there is nothing automatic about the change that Christmas calls for in us. What Christmas does do, however, is make change make sense. In a world which seems so lacking in sense, Christmas becomes the window through which we can see an alternative – the mystery, as St. Paul puts it in today’s 2nd reading [Romans 16:25-27] kept secret for long ages but now manifested, in this world of which Christ has become a part.

Several years ago, a visitor from the Far East, who had had no significant prior experience of Christianity, after observing New York all lit up for Christmas and all the holiday displays, commented, “You mean all this is because Jesus was born? What a great thing for you that you have Jesus!"

Christmas season sentimentality sometimes makes it seem as if a little Christmas cheer were all the world needs to become a better place. Of course, we know better. But what we should also know, as Christians, is that Christmas is the window of hope that replaces fear and makes it sensible to imagine something more. If only we realized what a great thing we really have in Jesus!

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 18, 2011.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Politics and Transcendence

Today's New Tork Times has an interesting article about the escalating tensions between Occupy Wall Street and its neighbor Trinity Church ( Except for what was in the article, I know nothing about the relationship between the Occupy protesters and its elite Episcopal neighbor. Hence I make no specific judgment on Trinity Church's involvement as such. If the article is to be believed, however, it seems clear that Trinity Church has been somewhat supportive - if not of the Occupy movement as such, then certainly of the protesters themselves. And it is certainly a well known fact that some clergy at least - from various churches - seem more or less to have jumped (or tried to jump) onto the Occupy bandwagon.
So, whatever the actual specifics of Trinity Church's involvement, one does see here an example of a perennial 9but particularly contemporary) problematic whereby religious people latch onto passing political movements and trends, superficially investing those movements with some sort of transcendent moral significance. Elites of all sorts have historically jumped aboard new political movements and trends for any number of motives - everything from hoping to control the movement to reflexively feeling soem need to be "on the right side of history" (which as I have often remarked may be among the least legitimate reasons to do anything!). Religious institutions, by their very nature, embody tradition and are oriented to the transcendent. So one would expect them to be among the least likely to be constantly shifting course in order to be thought to be "on the right side of history." Ironically, however, that behavior has been all too prevalent - especially (but not exclusively) in recent decades. What's going on?
In the interests of full disclosure, let me begin by recalling that I was trained as a political theorist - and for a few years way back when actually taught the subject in a university. So I do consider politics to be important - worth caring about, worth caring even a lot about. But I don't believe politics to be of transcendent importance. Politics concerns how we use power is society to attain various objectives, all of which is very important for human well-being. Everyone should care about this - among many things people need to care about or want to care about. And, of course, how we conduct ourselves in society - like all our actions - has a moral dimension. What I do here and now contributes to my becoming the kind of person I will be for all eternity. So how I behave socially, economically, politically, etc., has significance for salvation. But politics per se is not about salvation, and the two must never be confused.
Biblical faith forms one within a certain framework, which may exclude certain political possibilities. From a faith perspective, it is clear that, for example, Marxism - as a philosophy - is based on a false understanding of human nature. The same might be said of Libertarianism. Biblical faith may not require one to embrace Aristotelian assumptions about the inherent link between political participation and human well being, but it does require believers to seek the welfare of the society in which they find themselves, for upon its welfare depends their own (cf. Jeremiah 29:4-7).
Even so, since politics is primarily about contingent questions which admit of a plurality of plausible resolutions, even fundamentally flawed philosophies may legitimately inform such contingent political judgments. Marxism may be false, but there may be elements in class-analysis or its understanding of ideological mystification that may usefully be incorporated in particular political judgments. Likewise, while Libertarianism as a philosophy falsely denies the inherently social and political character of human beings and undermines their ability to pursue the common good, there may still be something to be said for individual freedom as a very high value, which is worth incorporating into any program for a good society.
What religious people need to be permanently wary of, however, is the all-too-facile identification of the transient with the transcendent. Even were we able to know for certain the direction of history, it would not follow that that direction would be the right one in terms of our ultimate destiny.
Believers - like all their fellow-citizens - are found "all over the place" on the political spectrum. What we must not do is either to identify one such particular place with the Kingdom of God (or the Misson of the Church,) or (what is the other side of the same coin) to permit political ideology and interests to get in the way of one's citizenship in the Kingdom of God (and the Mission of the Church).

Saturday, December 10, 2011


In the Latin Missal, Sunday’s Mass begins with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and the liturgy’s generally cheery tone. Sunday’s 2nd reading (1Thessalonians 5:16-24) also commands us: Rejoice alwaysIn all circumstances give thanks.

Christmas is, of course, a time to rejoice - even if 2011 has hardly been a very joyful year for many people. St. Paul, however, wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a feel-good Christmas card. His letter – thought to be perhaps the earliest New Testament letter - was written to encourage them and strengthen their faith, despite difficult circumstances. The command to rejoice was not some superficial holiday greeting or sentimental slogan. It was for Paul the consequence of faith. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. What behavior but rejoicing and thanksgiving should characterize the lives of believers? What other possible response would proclaim Christ and his Church in a conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, which, without Christ, would present precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving?

Joy, of course, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). So the rejoicing to which Paul refers is not the transient happiness that depends on mere feelings and comes and goes according to shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the experience of God’s presence and action regardless of circumstances – in good times and bad, sickness and health, war and peace, prosperity and recession.

Hence, St. 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 1:19). John responded by clarifying the scope of his activity, situating it in relation to Christ. Then, he challenged his hearers – and, through them, us 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.

Especially in difficult times, but at all times, the rejoicing and thanksgiving that counter the 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 a real challenge to recognize the light, while we hang lights on evergreen trees to testify to the light (John 1:7) 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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Grown-Up Politics

"Most people just want somebody who can articulate their hatreds," David Brooks bluntly observed regarding our electoral process in today's New York Times. That's undoubtedly all too true. It was, after all, a fantical, obsessive hatred of President George W. Bush that helped energize the Deomocratic opposition and create the climate that contributed to the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. Equally fanatical, obsessive, irrational hatred of President Obama in turn has energized Republican opposition and contributed to the Republican resurgence in 2010 and Repuiblican hopes for 2012.
What this highlights is the modern American problem of the "permanent campaign" that dominates political discourse and especially media coverage of American politics. The problem with the "permanent campaign," however, is that it leaves little or no room for actually governing. Unemployment, income inequality, access to health care, our deteriorating infrastructure and educational system, climate change, sovereign debt, the War on Terror, the transformation of the family and social relations - all these challenges ought to be not just on the list but at the top of any list of society's concerns.
Admittedly, the way the American political system is structured makes it much harder to act effectively than it is in many other democratic countries. That said, our history offers abundant examples of politicians and political institutions acting like grown-ups and effectively addressing the challenges of their time, despite such structural obstacles. Potential for paralysis may indeed be built in by our constitutional arrangements and extra-constitutional customs (e.g., filibuster), but history demonstrates what grown-ups can do when they get beyond an adolescent desire for emotional, expressive politics.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Greatest Generation

I neglected to mention Pearl Harbor at Mass this morning. I stuck with St. Ambrose, although to my very young, pre-1st Communion congregation, Pearl Harbor would perhaps have seemed equally ancient! Even so, the 70th anniversary of that "day that will live in infamy" certainly does deserve some mention somewhere.
I grew up in a very eurocentric household. My parents, grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants from the third Axis Power, Italy. My father and most of my uncles had fought in the war, but in the European theater. Only one uncle had served in the Pacific, but he had died before I was born. So the war-stories were all about D-Day and the Bulge - never about Guadalcanal or Okinawa. All that cohered comfortably with a general view of the world that had history centered on Europe. I have always been interested in the history of World War II and what led up to it, but almost exclusively from the European angle. Even now, while I happily absorb endless History Channel documentaries about the Second World War, my attention tends to be almost exclusively devoted to the European War, with some secondary interest in the Pacific War's beginning and end.
In important respects, they were in fact two quite different confllicts, coexisting to create a global quasi-apocalypse. Yet in one very important respect they were one defining event, forming the war-time generation to which we, their children, owe so much - now famously referred to as "the Greatest Generation."
If "the Greatest Generaton" had just conquered Germany and Japan, that (to borrow form the Passover Haggadah) "would have been enough." But "the Greatest Generation" went on to do more. Those that survived the calamity of combat, came home to build a prosperous and stable society, such as the world had seldom seen before (of which, again, we their children were the immediate and primary beneficiaries).
The post-war period was indeed prosperous and stable - in contrast to what preceded it and to what followed the post-war period. Notably, the United States in the post-war period was not only the envy of the world in its prosperity, it was also more egalitarian than the society we have now. Contrary to what some politicians and other ideologies might have us believe, that more prosperous society thrived in part because the benefits of its prosperity were widely shared. It was also - contary to the conventional wisdom being promoted in certain ideological circles - a time when labor unions were big and strong and tax rates were high.
The members of that "Greatest Generation" were actively engaged in creating and maintaining that prosperous and stable society at all levels - including politics. Most politicians were veterans. Conspicuously so also were the Presidents - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush 41 - some of whom had served with great distinction and all of whom had their world-view and values fundamentally shaped by the experience of the war that began (for the United States) 70 years ago today.
In the post-war era, the overwhelming majority of politicians were also veterans - beginning with our Presidents

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In the Desert

This Tuesday, the Church celebrates one of our most popular saints, St. Nicholas (nowadays best known as Santa Claus). St. nicholas was a 4th-century Bishop known for his generosity. In those countries where St. Nicholas still comes to bring gifts on his actual feast day, his appearance is a sure sign that Christmas is coming soon. Here in the United States, where his arrival is delayed until Christmas, I guess we’ll all have to continue on our best behavior a few more weeks! (Right now, he’s making his list and perhaps checking off how many times we absentmindedly say “And also with you”!)
Of course, St. Nicholas is not the only figure whose annual appearance heralds the coming of Christmas. From the harsh Judean desert, John the Baptist returns each Advent, as we hear his shrill voice shouting up and down the Jordan Valley: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
In The Wizard of Oz, the Good Witch wisely advised Dorothy “to begin at the beginning.” That is exactly what the Church invites us to do today as it announces: The beginning of the gospel [that is, the “good news”] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God [Mark 1:1]. We are, literally, at the title page of Mark’s Gospel, a title that tells us the central facts of the Christian story. Jesus is the Christ, that is, the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. In Jesus, God himself has come among us. And it’s all supposed to be good news.
All the more noteworthy, therefore, that the story doesn’t actually start with Jesus, but begins instead with John the Baptist, who appeared in the desert – almost, as it were, out of nowhere. The result is that every year at this Advent time, the Church takes John the Baptist out of storage, so to speak, so he can try to outshout the deafening din of our ordinary everyday noise and our holiday pandemonium, with his ancient and ever timely warning, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
For most of us, I suspect, John the Baptist seems a somewhat mysterious, elusive figure. He appears, ever so briefly, as a kind of warm-up act at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. Then, when we’ve barely even gotten to know him, he gets himself arrested – and is soon dead.
Were we today to encounter such an apparently odd-looking character, clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, chances are that many – maybe most - might try to ignore him. Fortunately, that did not happen the first time John’s jarring message was heard in the land. On the contrary, so we are told, the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they
acknowledged their sins. What, one wonders, did they see in John that we cynical, sophisticated moderns and post-moderns might be more tempted to ignore? Whatever it was that they saw, the point is that they listened and acted. They acknowledged their sins. So, when we hear him now, our task too is to listen – so as to act on what we hear.
One thing we know they saw in John – or hoped they were seeing, or perhaps feared they were seeing – was another prophet Elijah. The Christian Old Testament, ends with these words of the prophet Malachi: Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom [Malachi 3:23-24]. (I keep looking for a Christmas card with the words of that Advent prophecy, but so far haven't found one!)
The key word in Malachi’s prophecy is, of course, lest. Elijah’s role is to make the day of the Lord a day not (what it would otherwise be) a day of doom, but a day of blessing. The gospels record elsewhere that Jesus himself saw in John the fulfillment of this prophecy. So, however shrill John may sound to our super sensitive ears, attuned as we are to very different kinds of marketing appeals, we need now to hear his call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins as an invitation to the true blessing that Christmas offers.
John’s mission, as clarified by the Gospel’s reference back to Isaiah’s prophecy [Isaiah 40:1-5], was about filling in valleys, leveling mountains and hills, and repairing whatever is rugged and rough – picturesque, ancient imagery that suggests not environmental catastrophe, but fixing things. For us it suggests facing up to all those gaps and flaws and failings and sins in our personal lives, in our relationships, in our work, and in our world, and allowing God to lead us in fixing them. It’s a challenge we may be tempted to try to evade - but dare not, for, as Isaiah says so pointedly: Here is your God.
Advent invites us to prepare the way of the Lord – not just as some abstract idea, detached and divorced from whatever else is going on in our lives right now, still less as just another item to be worked on in some ever-lengthening list of things to be done before Christmas. Rather, the point of Advent is to let the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his actual presence among us in the here and now and so prepare us for his final coming for which we say we wait in joyful hope. The challenge of Advent is to transform our anxious and fear–filled present that hopeful future promised by Christ’s 1st coming in the past.
Advent challenges us set aside our self-destructive sophistication and internalize John the Baptist’s invitation in every aspect of our lives and so bring John the Baptist’s message into the very heart of our society – through our participation in the community of the Church, a community acutely conscious of Christ’s coming and eager to share him and so remake our conflicted, anxiety-ridden world.
Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 4, 2011.

Friday, December 2, 2011

O Christmas Tree!

Knoxville had its annual Christmas Parade on Gay Street tonight. Meanwhile up the hill Immaculate Conception Church hosted a concert of "Down Home Christmas Music with a Twist," featuring hammered dulcimer and penny whistle. Outside the church, our parish Christmas Tree made its informal 2012 debut. (It will go dark again until its official Blessing and Lighting on our parish's patronal feast next week).
There is something special about Christmas Trees - the way they light up the dark winter night outdoors, the way the evergreen smell permeates the indoors. When the Christmas Tree makes its appearance is always cheers people up. I remember back in 1975 setting up a second-hand artificial tree in the living room of the apartment I and two other graduate students were then sub-letting overlooking Lake Carnegie in Princeton. As I strung the lights and hung the ornaments, one of my housemates came home. When he walked into the living room and saw the tree, his eyes lit up, and he commented how nice it was. As I said, it was a used, second-hand, artificial tree - nothing to write home about. But, with just a few lights and some ornaments, it was transformed into an icon of Christmas joy.
Whether it's the monumental Christmas Tree that stands in Rockefeller Center or the small, modest "tree" that graces the lonely apartment of some solitary unfriended soul, somehow a Christmas Tree - just by being a Christmas Tree - speaks so eloquently the story of this season, the intense desire of the human heart for hope and salvation.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Old Prayers, New Words

For four days now, Catholics in the United States (and other parts of the English-speaking world) have been getting used to a new English translation of the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal. Some of us (myself among them) have been looking forward for some time to this new, more literal translation, with its complex sentences and relative clauses - English as it used to be written and spoken in a pre-internet age. Some others have been apprehensive about it - whether out of fondness for the familiar translation in use for the past 40 years or because of objections of a more ideological nature. Still others are largely indifferent. For some, the introduction of this new translation has probably come as a surprise - despite the fact that it has been long in the making and has been the a major conversation topic within the US Church, as well as the subject of many diocesan and parochial programs throughout the US over course of the last year. Whether it comes as old news or as a surprise, however, and whether it is welcomed or resented, it is a change; and change is always a challenge – any change, but especially one that affects established habits such as the words of our prayers.

That said, I have been impressed by how easily the change has happened here. Of course, we had prepared. The new music had already been introduced; so that part of the Mass was already familiar. We had purchased pew cards with all the new lines the people need to learn; and they are being used! At the beginning of every Mass so far, I have been enormously edified to see people grabbing their pew cards and enthusiastically answering "And with your spirit"! Of course, it will take time for the responses to become second-nature. We will all absentmindedly lapse into an occasional "And also with you." But the line between past and future has been clearly drawn. It won't be long before "And also with you" is but a fading memory - an object of nostalgic humor, along with recollections of 1960s "folk Masses" and "clown Masses."

As someone who still talks at New York speed, I have been given an added gift by the new translation. Reciting long sentences of less familiar words, while trying not to lapse into the older formulas, forces me to speak more slowly - hence, hopefully, more reverently. Hopefully, that may translate into a longer lasting benefit for me as celebrant!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Watching and Waiting

This past week (Not unlike lots of other Americans), I flew back and forth across the country to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my 2 college-age nieces. One could, of course, give thanks at any time of year. But autumn, the season of the harvest, naturally lends itself to such sentiments. Autumn, however – especially late
autumn, autumn turning into winter – also gives this holiday time a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, that the Church’s annual cycle captures so singularly in this season of Advent, which (in most churches of the Latin Rite) begins today (unless you happen to live in Milan, Italy, where the ancient Ambrosian Rite is followed, and where Advent already began 2 weeks ago).
Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day, and this Sunday, rather than starting something completely new, continuesthe end-of-time, Judgment Day themes of the last several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Like the servants in today’s Gospel 9Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with work to do, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.
We will do that waiting - in what we might call “liturgical time” - by looking back, to get to the future. Like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Advent introduces us to Christmas, our annual remembrance of Christ’s 1st coming in the past. Thus, the 4th Sunday of Advent will recall Jesus’ conception in his Virgin Mother’s body. The 2nd Sunday, however, will recall the adult Christ’s public appearance on the historical stage as announced by John the Baptist. Then, on
the 3rd Sunday, we will hear John’s challenge to recognize Jesus, here and now, in the present, between Christmas and the end. Finally, this 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.
Hence this Sunday’s somber tone. What we see and observe are autumn’s withered leaves, winter’s barren branches, and the imminent end of another year. What we feel and fear is the end of ourselves. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
Yet, while Advent starts out being about fear, it is also about faith and hope – both the passing of an old year and our hopes for the new, both the enveloping winter darkness of a dying world and the dawning brightness of Christ’s coming to save us. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]: God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the true spirit of winter – winter as it used to be experienced when people actually lived according to the rhythm of the seasons – Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, to pay attention. Of course, everything about the way we live nowadays conspires against slowing
down – let alone taking stock of ourselves and paying attention to anything. After all, in our work-obsessed society we all, understandably perhaps, brag about being busy – even if that means ignoring Bertrand Russell’s warning that “one of the signs of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
The older I get, the more I think I begin to appreciate how much sense Advent makes. The older one gets, the more aware one becomes that time is running out, and thus the more one appreciates the importance of the present. Time – this time, our time – is so precious, precisely because it is limited, but also (and that’s the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) because it has a future. Advent annually ritualizes for us our ongoing present reality, where we actually are right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at
Christmas and his final coming for which we claim as Christians to be waiting.
Advent is not, therefore, some irrelevant interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe, created by ecclesiastical kill-joys to compete (as if one could complete) with the joyful Christmas season in which we find ourselves. In any case, the liturgy isn’t a play. We’re not reenacting God’s entry into our world a long time ago, or pretending
Jesus hasn’t already been born, so that we will be somehow surprised on Christmas morning - as if Jesus were Santa Claus.
The point of Advent is to let the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his coming again, while we, meanwhile, recognize his action on our behalf in the present. The challenge of Advent is to let our anxious and increasingly fear–filled present be transformed into that hopeful future promised us already by Christ’s coming in the past.
At no other time of year does the world seem so receptive to the story that is told and retold throughout this season. So we need to let this Christmas season speak to us – and through us to the world.
Advent is a wake-up call to respond to Christ’s coming and so live as people for whom the Christmas story really matters – matters enough to make everything different from what would otherwise be in a world without the presence of its one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.
Homily for the Frist Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 27, 2011.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Giving Thanks

It is arguable that the great American national holiday of Thanksgiving, which we have just celebrated once again, is actually about many things, admittedly about a lot more than just giving thanks. For most people, probably, it is, first and foremost, about family. It’s no accident that Thanksgiving may be the most travelled holiday of the year. We travel, most of us, to share Thanksgiving Dinner with important people in our lives. The dinner is the occasion for the sharing. But, while the sharing part is key, so certainly is the dinner; and so Thanksgiving is surely also about food. And it’s also – in no particular order - about parades, dog shows, football, and, of course, the beginning of Christmas shopping. All that having been said, still for Americans the 4th Thursday of November remains the pre-eminently privileged day for giving thanks.

Back home in Knoxville from Thanksgiving with my family in California, I am thankful for many things. I give thanks to God, first of all, for the mere fact that I am alive. Making it to 63+ may not seem like the accomplishment it once was, but I know (or, rather, knew) enough people who didn’t make it this far. For all my many health concerns, I am OK – not in the best of shape, by any means, but I’m still standing. And that itself merits a fervent prayer of thanks – maybe even a rousing chorus of Now Thank We All Our God!

I am thankful too for my vocation, for being a priest of the Church, for the joy I experience in celebrating the sacred liturgy and preaching the Good News, for the great privilege priesthood has given me to be a part of the lives of so many people, families, and communities, and for the faith-filled parish communities it has been my privilege to minister in – at St. Peter’s, Toronto, St. Paul the Apostle, New York, and now Immaculate Conception, Knoxville.

I give thanks for my family (both immediate and “extended”) and my friends (both the “faithful friends who are dear to us,” who “gather near to us” as in the familiar Christmas song, and also the distant, more marginal ones, including even all my Facebook “friends”).

In a world which seems so distressed in so many ways, Thanksgiving challenges one to prioritize. In a very different 1st century world (a very different – but certainly also distressed – world), the 3rd Pope, St. Clement the Martyr wrote, in his letter to the Corinthians: “The stronger should care for the weak, and the weak should respect the stronger. The wealthy should give to the poor, and the poor man should thank God that he has sent him someone to supply his needs. The wise should manifest their wisdom not in words but in good deeds, and the humble should not talk about their own humility but allow others to bear witness to it. Since, therefore, we have all this from him, we ought to thank him for it all. Glory to him for ever. Amen.”

Amen, indeed!