Saturday, December 31, 2011
New Year's Eve
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Becket's Dilemma - Then and Now
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Faith in a "So What?" World
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.
Homily at the 3rd Mass of Christmas, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011.
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.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
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.”
Friday, December 23, 2011
The Comfort of the Rich
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Christmases Past and Present
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
Sunday, December 18, 2011
A Window of Hope
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
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 always … In 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