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A HOLY FAMILY AT CHRISTMAS
Christmas Day and Holy Family Sunday
Each year on Christmas Eve my family would gather to share a traditional Eastern European meal and gifts. Many of you have similar practices. My earliest memory is traveling wide-eyed to my grandparents’ farmhouse, then, to keep the same customs in my parents’ home and, in recent years, in my sister and brother-in-law’s place. It is wonderful to see how, from generation to generation, the customs and handed down recipes do not lose their flavors.
For as long as I can remember this is the first year we did not get together at all at Christmas. Is this what it feels like to live alone with no family or friends? Is this a time when broken families feel the pain of hurtful arguments and disagreements?
Although this entire holiday season has been turned upside down many families and friends are finding other ways to connect either in the intimacy of their own dwelling places or virtually in the vast universe. And then there are those who prefer peaceful solitude and head for the mountains and hills in search of “new fallen snow.”
Somehow the ancient festivals find a place on our calendars — St. Nicholas Day, Hanukkah, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Posadas Navidenas, Bodhi Day, Christmas, Kwanza, the Wiccan Solstice, and Watch Night to mention just a few. On many liturgical calendars there is a trifecta of feasts (Christmas, Holy Family and Holy Innocents) running from December 24 through 28.
For me, one word ties these holy days together — family. In writing about the holy family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Dr. Mary McGlone, CSJ, gently points out it “is really not about a nuclear family of two parents and an only child, but a celebration of human community.” Instead, McGlone continues, this narrative and its symbolisms “introduce us to a web of relationships that grows exponentially.”
Aha. This season, especially because of the pandemic, may not be a time to think only of our own traditions set aside, our own family units, our own households or neighborhoods. Maybe it is an invitation to expand our horizons, to see beyond our confined domains, to peer into our greater communities.
A cosmic perspective helps. The mystic Hildegard of Bingen wrote: “Everything that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, is penetrated with the connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.” Her wisdom makes us think about many things.
We look at earth as part of a heavenly family of planets, stars, and dark holes. We are moved to act, to save it from ourselves. We take the time again to observe the injustices heaped upon immigrants and refugee families worldwide. They, too, are part of our human community. We can roam the streets in our villages, towns and cities to actually seek out homeless, hungry, jobless people and find ways to make this season a bit more bearable and celebratory for these often forgotten members of our family.
Last Monday, we marked the Winter Solstice, a timely pre-Christmas event. For centuries different cultures have celebrated the Solstice in a variety of ways. The common denominator is a homage to the rebirthing sun. This slow moving seasonal transition from the bleak days of winter toward springtime offers a chance to focus on the meaning of Christmas as a brilliant rising of the Sun of God and our own rebirthing.
In the 4th century, the Christian feast appropriated the language of the cult of Mithras the Iranian god of the sun, justice and oaths and attached it to the “Sun” of Justice. John’s gospel (1:1-18) for Christmas day calls Jesus the “true light, which enlightens everyone.” Whenever people of good will practice justice they cast light upon the world. Sometimes, however, the light of Christ, our light, is imperceptible.
I missed seeing the historic conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on the evening of the Solstice. Although their luminosity was shrouded by clouds I sensed the two of them were still there as they moved across the horizon even though I could not see them.
Sometimes truth is blurred, justice is overlooked, beauty and goodness are ignored. Nevertheless, all of these life giving facets are still there waiting to be grasped, appreciated and put to good use. Often, we do not see things as they really are because our views are obscured.
How do we make this season’s message of peace and prosperity come alive? Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” (3:12-17) This mission will take time.
As author Heidi Haverkamp reminds us the world did not become more peaceful the moment the Jewish Jesus arrived. “So much of what we are waiting for in our personal lives, communities, and nation are things that we will still be waiting for after Christmas, and for quite a long time afterward.”
The vulnerable infant in our crèches “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom…” (Luke 2:22, 39-40). He learned that to make the human family better he had to take action. He set an example and invited others to join him in his mission. Pope Francis nudges us today … “Let us continue, then, to advance along the paths of hope.” (Fratelli Tutti, 55) Our radiance can no longer be obscured. The human family needs us. We need one another. Merry Christmas!
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WE CANNOT TAME THE PRESENCE OF GOD
4th Sunday of Advent B
In November this year voters in the United States elected a new male president and a new female vice president. Kamala Harris said she would not be the last woman of color to hold that office.
Last week the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago elected a Black woman, the Rev. Paula Clark, as its new bishop. She was not the first woman of color elected to that office and would not be the last.
This week’s gospel (Luke 1:26-38) tells the familiar story about the heavenly herald Gabriel who informed a woman that she was elected to give birth to the savior of the whole wide world.
According to the canonical narratives and the Quran, Miriam, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was a Galilean Jew from Nazareth. Most likely she was a poor unschooled woman who toiled at home. How would this young stunned girl explain this embarrassing situation? What gave her courage to sing that radical Magnificat that we heard last week? Why was Joseph so silent on this matter?
There is a paradox in the imaginative portrayals of this story. On one hand we find a frightened, unknown, confused, betrothed but unwed, teenager skeptical about the angel’s message. On the other hand this same youthful woman accepted the call (her vocation) to deliver the One whom all of Israel was waiting for.
God promised David and Israel that a messiah would descend from the family tree of David and the tribe of Judah. There are different genealogies in the gospels. Luke traces Jesus’s ancestry through Mary. But, in Matthew’s gospel, and according to Jewish law, Jesus’s legal descent came through Joseph’s line. One way or another the story remains vivid for those who commemorate the birth of Jesus every Christmas.
In my mind, and probably many of yours, today’s gospel raises an old but nagging question: If a woman who “found favor with God,” was good enough to give birth to a savior, nurse him, change his diapers, dress him, school him, worry about him, cry for him, protect him from ambitious disciples, and mourn for his ruthless death, why is it that a woman is not good enough to lead worship in so many Christian churches? Consider all the storied experiences and wise counsel we are missing that only women can share.
This is not just a Catholic question. An ongoing project, the National Congregations Study, “captures well just how bleak the picture is for women moving into leadership roles in Christian churches.” In the United States women are imams, rabbis and pastors in Muslim, Jewish and Christian congregations respectively. Further, more women are now members of Congress, lead big corporations, manage banks, administer hospitals, and supervise universities than ever before.
One could claim tradition, custom and doctrine as some of the reasons for an ecclesial aversion to, or prejudice against women. While sundry documents report how important women and their gifts are in the church they are still denied ordination. The overarching culprits are power and patriarchy, the same bureaucracies that Miriam, the mother of Jesus, was born into but resisted. The alternative religious tradition is much more inclusive and interdependent. It is the one that Mary’s son himself endorsed. The Son of God is not prejudiced when it comes to being present in every one created by God.
The first reading from Samuel (7: 1-16) today casts light on where God actually dwells. Israelites experienced the presence of God in the tabernacle (tent) that moved with them on their journey. When King David assumed power he wanted something better, a temple structure to replace the humble tent. God objected.
Historical theologian, Dr. Mary M. McGlone, CSJ, offers this interpretation of the text. God said, “you cannot contain me in a palace or sanctuary, nor keep me under the control of a priesthood.” McGlone argued, “in the history of Israel we won’t find God trapped in anybody’s temple.” Consider here “temple” as Paul the apostle did — “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 6:19)
God’s presence cannot be contained. Mary delivered Jesus, the incarnate God, to the entire world. Powerful authorities could not stifle his wanderings or his teachings. The ongoing presence, the indwelling of the Christ of faith in all peoples, cannot be suppressed, limited, or held in check. That is the same holy Spirit that Jesus’s mother Miriam embodied. Her entire life was changed by the presence of God within her.
Jesus of Nazareth, liberator and wise counselor gave his life to establish a peaceful kindom that would wipe away oppression forever. Here in the 21st century we are still waiting for that day when all woman and men will be treated fairly, equally. What will it take for that Davidic Covenant, that divine promise to become a reality?
The answer may be found in how we respect and bless the goodness that is in every woman, man, and child. These days that compassion may require more patience and effort than usual. A culture that replaced truth with lies, smothered love with hate, deemed demagoguery over democracy has been brewing for generations across the globe. The recent administration set this nation back by fueling feelings of hostility and mistrust. It did little to make every citizen great again. It will take a long time for us to recover.
As we Christians emerge from the 2020 Advent season of waiting we join people of other religions and those who are not religious to move forward with a renewed enthusiasm for living in truth, beauty and goodness. After her election, the new bishop-elect in Chicago wrote: “God is truly calling us to a new day and a new way of being.” A very young and feisty woman birthed forth the Judaic promise of a merciful God. Let us recognize that women today can bear, cradle, and nourish that promise, too.
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3rd Sunday of Advent B
Today, the third Sunday of Advent is also known as “Gaudete Sunday.” As noted last week, Advent was a penitential season before it became a time leading to the observance of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The word, Gaudete, is taken from the opening lines of the Entrance Antiphon at the beginning of Mass, “Rejoice in God Always.” Like Laetare Sunday in Lent, Gaudete Sunday was a day off from the rigors of fasting and doing penance.
We remember, too, that the Latin title for the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965) is “Gaudium et Spes.” The opening sentence reads, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
These are such important words to remember these days. During this season, more so than in others, we wait with joyful hope amidst so much grief and anxiety. We want to defeat the pandemic, stimulate the economy for everyone, return to work and school, and reunite with loved ones in nursing homes and hospitals. Rejoicing these days requires determination.
From the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) we read something we know well, that the pandemic is “having a negative impact on the well-being of Americans.” According to the study we are the “unhappiest” we’ve ever been in fifty years. So what do we do to “rejoice” now, especially since in the words of the reading from Isaiah “we dare not ask how much longer, O God!”
Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones, assistant professor of African Studies at Boston College recalls how the Israelites were despairing. And then, she wrote, “God snaps them back into hope and promise.” She suggests that while we are desperately holding on “we must also desperately hold on to the echoes in our heart, no matter how faint.”
Adkins-Jones calls this aphorism a Sankofa  moment. Sankofa is a movement that focuses on issues of injustice that, in her words “disproportionately affect disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the underserved, which left unaddressed will continue to impact the lives of too many individuals and remain a scar on our nation’s moral character.” This is what the NORC study is saying about our country.
Perhaps the mission of the Sankofa movement and the words of “Gaudium et Spes” are telling us that we must serve as moral beacons to recover our way back to more civil and equitable times envisioned by God and revealed in the face of Jesus whose birth we celebrate soon. Our guiding light must not be shrouded. If we are to be effective in our mission to end oppression, we must be spirited.
From the gospel of John, we read that John the Baptist was testifying to the light, the Coming One who would map out a strategy for bringing peace and justice to all people, everywhere. In noting how much of a rogue preacher John was, John Pilch wrote, he “presents himself more like a prophet, a spokesperson who declares the will of God for the here and now.”
The Catholic vocation is similar to the practices of many religions. We start out by finding ways to preach prophetically the four basic principles of our social doctrines — the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. If we can proclaim these benchmarks publicly and give witness to them in our everyday lives the lights of Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza will brighten the horizon.
On this Gaudete Sunday the response to the first reading is from the Gospel of Luke instead of the Psalms. It is the Song of Mary, words she uttered when she greeted her cousin Elizabeth. Both women were very pregnant.
Mary addressed God with revolutionary language that turns any status quo upside down. The proud will be scattered. The lowly person will be lifted up. Hungry people will be filled with abundant goods. Tyrants will be toppled. Greedy pockets will be emptied. A mighty God will be merciful to all.
In a sermon written in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on these words: “This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
I want to add my own words to Mary’s Song and invite you to do the same. Black Lives will matter. Women will be recognized for who they are. Immigrant children held in detention centers will be freed. Prisoners will be treated with respect. Sick people will be well again.
On this Gaudete Sunday, we who are rooted in faith, filled with hope and eager to assist others, can count on help. Here are more words from Isaiah, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
God, in us, and around us, gives us something to be joyful about after all.
1. Sankofa is from the Twi language of Ghana and translates to “go back and get it.” The movement was started by Harry Belafonte.
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ARE WE THERE YET?
2nd Sunday of Advent B
When they were much younger I would take my two nieces and two nephews on a summer day trip. Usually I would keep our destination a surprise. Inevitably, as anyone who has or had children knows, the big question from my little travelers was “are we there yet?” No amount of car games, quizzes or storytelling could suppress their curiosity and impatience.
The word Advent means arrival. The season began sometime in the fourth century and after December 25th was formally established as the birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth.  Originally Advent had nothing to do with the arrival of Christmas. It was a time of fasting and preparation for Epiphany, when new Christians were baptized and welcomed into the church community.
Sermons at that time focused on the wonder of the incarnation when Jesus revealed the face of God to humanity. People were excited about the possibilities and, perhaps, no longer worried if and when Christ would arrive or come again.
Keeping Christ in Christmas these days is a bygone campaign. I noticed a display of “Advent Calendars” in a local supermarket. Cartoon characters replaced the biblical ones. Culturally, a belief that Christ is really present in our midst has dissipated.
Sharing the eucharist is one way to experience Christ. For many it is the only substantial way. Forgotten is the connection between worshiping God and doing works of justice. That link is essential in order to realize how Christ works among us now. It is important part of our spiritual covenant with God.
No doubt we are distracted as we wait for the arrival of other things. We ask when will an effective vaccine be available to all of us? How long will it be before our republic returns to civility? Is health insurance for everyone a human right? No wonder it makes eminent sense to some that a Victorian-like Christmas is a rewarding diversion from the wasteland most of this planet is mired in.
The Book of Isaiah is a compilation of writings from different prophets during various time periods. Lines in today’s passage from Second Isaiah are familiar to most because George Frederic Handel used them in the opening stanzas of The Messiah. However, the unknown prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness, was not consciously anticipating the Christ-event even though our traditional prayers and hymns suggest the opposite.
Instead, according to biblical scholar Reginald Fuller, the author had in mind “the restoration of Israel from the Babylonian exile around 538 BCE. Cyrus of Persia had won his preliminary victories and the power of Babylon was waning.” The prophet calls out to the people, “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”
About 500 years later, as the gospel of Mark reports, John the baptizer also served as a voice crying from the wilderness. He claimed that someone greater than he was coming. Like the prophet in the Hebrew bible, John lamented: “Repent. Prepare the way.” We are not actually certain John was talking about his cousin Jesus. Maybe he was reiterating the salvation envisaged in the Isaiah prophecy.
What we have learned from these texts is that two prophetic voices, Isaiah and John, emerged from the wilderness and imagined a future when people will no longer suffer oppression. But, both of them also urged their listeners to get their own acts together. The key words echo last week’s gospel bulletin, “Be alert.” “Be on the watch.” “Be prepared.”
John paid a price for his brash preaching, his criticism of power and greed, and his call for repentance. He was imprisoned and decapitated. Many prophetic voices today also take risks for protesting against unfair wages, crowded prisons, production of nuclear weapons, and inhumane detention centers along national borders.
Our chronological sense of time tells us that the celebrations of Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza are just ahead. Each commemoration, in its own way, is a reminder that courage and conviction can restore peace and justice.
Although we continue to investigate what the biblical authors may have been experiencing or what they were dreaming about, Dr. Fuller advises: “The hope of a new heaven and a new earth as the final goal of history is something that can never be surrendered.”
Barack Obama resonated with this aspiration. In his new book he writes about what winning the presidency in 2012 would signify. “… it would mean that I wasn’t alone in believing the world didn’t have to be a cold, unforgiving place, where the strong preyed on the weak and we inevitably fell back into clans and tribes, lashing out against the unknown and huddling against the darkness.” 
As my nieces and nephews would ask, “are we there yet?” Nope, we are not! We must continue to wait, watch, and work. We know what our calling is and what we must do. Let us listen again to the opening lines in Handel’s The Messiah: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
1. Archeologists continue to explore two possibilities — Nazareth or Bethlehem — as the true birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.
2. Obama, Barack. A Promised Land (p. 78). Kindle Edition.