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Suffering and Sacrifice
Second Sunday of Lent 2021
While working on the renovation of the Motherhouse Chapel of the Ursuline Sisters in Maple Mount, Kentucky I learned about one of their members Sister Diana Ortiz who had worked in Guatemala. She went there to teach little children “to understand the Bible in their culture.” Ortiz knew her mission would be dangerous. The intentional killing of women or girls just because they are female continues in Guatemala even now.  Ortiz was gang-raped and tortured in 1989 prior to her escape.
Sister Diana, 62, died last week after a long battle with cancer. This human rights activist should be declared a saint right away. She is one of many admirable examples of a Christ-like person who suffered affliction while carrying out her Christian calling.
My religion tells me that suffering is one of the characteristics of our baptismal identity. It is the cost of our discipleship. Living up to this attribute is not at all like sacrificing movies, travel, or desserts during Lent. This season, instead, prompts us to give new energy to our baptismal covenant.
Primarily, we are called to build up the realm of God on earth, the mission Jesus did not finish. His primary objective, to save Israel from oppression, was thwarted. He was executed because he preached and practiced justice for all peoples regardless of tribal membership. The odds against fulfilling that mission are still overwhelming.
In today’s gospel (Mark 9:2-10) Jesus and some of his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem where he told them he had to die. However, what they experienced on Mount Moriah was not suffering and death but a “transfigured” Jesus. The theophany, the appearance of Jesus in glory, was unexpected. The three men were stunned and did not understand what the vision was all about.
Professor of religion and culture, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, wrote: “The Markan Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for transitioning from witnessing the power of God’s realm in bringing food, health, and wholeness to the powerless, to risking participation in such community in the face of the powerful.”
Malbon added more about the dangers in this undertaking. “Jesus’ obedience to God entails both proclaiming and enacting God’s realm in this present age and risking the inevitable suffering that such service to the powerless may elicit from the powerful, who are threatened by any challenge to the status quo.” 
What do we risk in order to challenge corruption in church and state? Do we really have to suffer unwanted torture like Ortiz or all the martyrs named and unnamed in the history of society and religion? The apostle Paul understood that the suffering he endured served as a way to be like Christ. The Catholic Catechism reiterates: “suffering … becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” 
The passage about Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18) suggests that God will take care of those who follow the commandments; they will be blessed abundantly. These blessings are not so apparent today.
Many people globally are wondering where are the abundant blessings from God for those who faithfully have followed the commandments? Why have over 500,000 died from Covid related issues in the United States? Why are so many people out of work, hungry and even homeless? They ask, “Has God abandoned us?”
Further, Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq will remind us that Christians, Yazidis and others living in Baghdad, Mosul and the Nineveh Plains have been tortured and murdered just because of who they are. The history of slavery in this nation recalls the Black persons who were tortured and lynched because of their race. Anti-Semitism continues to plague Jews. Those helping immigrants along the Mexican border could be shot.
Sin and oppression will not go away. People will suffer and die because these are, undeniably, facets of human life. We live daily with suffering and death caused by failures, imperfections, diseases, loneliness, and accidents. Torture, killings, physical and psychological abuses, and other injustices happen because there are evil people living among us.
The challenge for the followers of Christ is to join people of other religious traditions to combat injustices. Kindness, empathy and sacrifice are key words. In every case showing gratitude for the blessings we do have is important. Sharing those blessings with others is our obligation. We cannot stand by and do nothing when bad things are happening to others.
1. In 2020 alone, nearly 500 femicides were reported in Guatemala, and at least 60 children were killed.
2. Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsome, Ringe, Lapsey, Editors, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2012) 480, 486.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1521
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First Sunday of Lent Year B
Lent is a good time for anyone affiliated with a Christian religion. Those who are prepping for Christian initiation at Easter will study, fast and pray. Those of us who are long time members will examine our consciences to recover what it means to be a Christian today.
Throughout the season there are some amazing and challenging biblical texts to keep us focused. Today’s gospel, for example, helps us think about the temptations in our lives.
In a biblical perspective the word “temptation” points to a trial that we might encounter. It requires making a free choice to be faithful to the Creator’s marvelous vision for the cosmos and its never ending evolution. Made in the image of God how do our actions help us develop and sustain a good relationship with God and creation? In other words, how can I cultivate “Godliness” in my life and for others?
On a daily basis we are faced with many decisions about life, time management, energy conservation, consumption of goods, caring for others, etc. We make some of these choices alone. Other issues are more societal where we join others to make the right decisions about issues that affect all of us: food inequity, the economy, health care, prison reform, human trafficking, immigration and the election of government officials.
And, let us not forget this is still Black History month. There are vital connections between acts of justice and our Lenten aspirations. Black History month honors the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history, including the civil rights movement. It also celebrates Blacks’ artistic, cultural, political and athletic achievements. Black basketball players are now wearing uniforms that say “Built on Black History.”
Honoring Black lives does not eliminate the racial tensions caused by inequities and prejudice. Actor and playwright, Anna Deavere Smith, gave the apostle Paul’s teaching (1 Peter 3:18-22) about “appealing for a clear conscience” a keen perspective in her essay about Black identity and empowerment.
She wrote: “In our current moment of division, we cannot afford to go forward without looking back. We must excavate history to assess how we learned to restore human dignity that had been ripped away by plunder and slavery. How did we get this far? Not by being nice.”
“The journey of Lent,” Pope Francis said in his Ash Wednesday homily, “is an exodus from slavery to freedom.” We still have a long way to travel. Not everyone of us is being as nice as we should be toward those who are not like us.
Justice for all is an ambitious goal. Art critic Jason Farago offers this insight from the Enlightenment painter Francisco Goya.  “Goya saw, and depicted with unrivaled vision, that error or evil can never be purged entirely, not from your society, nor from your soul. A world of perfect justice will always be a mirage. Tyrants, idiots, swindlers, conspiracy theorists: They will always be with us.”
That unsettling commentary points to the momentous and imaginative story about Jesus in today’s gospel (Mark 1:12-15) who, while retreating in the desert, warded off the temptations of the devil. “Jesus invited everyone to metanoia, a conversion in which they would drop the myths that stifled their dreams and vision, freeing them to move in the future God desired for them.” 
Yielding to temptations is not helpful in this regard. In their collective history people of color offer us a model of strength, perseverance and bold action against all odds. It is a necessary foundation for pressing on, moving forward, in order to experience the peace and joy imagined by the God of all creation. 
Lent has traditionally been a season for purification, the intentional transformation of our lives. In its time, the idea of giving things up was a good one. Mostly it had to do with abstaining from whatever gave us delight in some way large or small. In reality, for many, it was an easy way to do penance.
Now, we are in a different place and period when we are challenged by the virus, home schooling, joblessness, economic constraints, and impatience. It is a good time to give up the temptation to ignore our bad habits. It is an opportune occasion to worry about those who are suffering more than we are and then to do something about it.
During Lent, like in any act of worship, we rehearse how to embrace the other, the stranger, to touch and nourish them with kindness. Lent is not an introspective occasion to improve only ourselves but also the lives of the people who are “other”, those yearning for justice. Forty days is not a long enough duration to completely correct our imperfections but it can provide a good start.
1. See “Goya: The Dreams, the Visions, the Nightmares” in The New York Times, February 11, 2021.
2. Mary McGlone, Commentary on the First Sunday of Lent, National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2021.
3. See today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis (9:8-15) about God’s promise never to destroy us.
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Gotta Love Others Always
Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time Year B
Dare we mix Valentine’s Day with the upcoming season of Lent? Originally Valentine’s Day was a 3rd century pagan festival that took place in February, a word that is derived from the Latin word februa, meaning purification. The festival was Christianized in the 5th century and St. Valentine was added to the calendar.
According to legend, Valentine (there was also a Valentine of Terni) was beheaded because of his efforts to change an unjust law that decreed single men were better soldiers than married ones. To spite the law Valentine married couples in secret. One could say Valentine’s Day is a time for justice. Justice requires love.
Lent is usually considered a season of reconciliation and regeneration. It entails a certain amount of purification (februa) on our part. That cleansing is so important today. Societies everywhere are mired in hurtful injustices. We are part of those societies. The difference between right and wrong is muddled. Superstitions replace reason. How do we recover truth over fiction as a guidepost for living?
Although the length of the season of Lent varied in the beginning, it was a time of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter. Over time, it became a period of preparation for candidates for the sacraments of initiation. It was also a time of penance for grave sinners. Lent is a period of transformation.
The biblical texts today are familiar. Two of them remind us of the debilitating disease of leprosy. The obvious lesson is that we are called to embrace all people with love no matter what their condition, or race or ethnicity is. Think of all the health care workers treating sick and dying people in our hospitals regardless of age, ability, or comorbidity. They are models for the rest of us.
Jesus taught us to touch people who are outcasts living on the edge of society. To reach out to those who have no resources or hope is an important ministry for all of us. We are summoned to spread love where there is loathing, suspicion and harm. The second reading today is an early wake up call for the next forty days of Lent: “Avoid giving offense to the others who are not like you.”
With all the distractions in our lives these days it is easy to overlook what is taking place far away in the universe. Three rovers launched from different countries are approaching Mars. The names of the vehicles evoke a constructive message for us today as we deal with imperfections here on earth: The “Quest for Heavenly Truth” (Republic of China), “Hope” (UAE), and “Perseverance” (USA).
Three nation states are working in a united effort to explore and learn more about a planet about 35 million miles away. Here on this tiny planet the names of the rovers could serve as guideposts for our journeys forward. God’s realm is already here just not yet realized. There is work for us to do.
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SEARCHING FOR BEAUTY AND GRACE
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
While being interviewed on the NPR program “On Being,” Mary Catherine Bateson, talked about “believing in the God of all things as they are.” She said, “Job lost a sense of wonder.” She continued … God invites us to just look around to experience the wonder of creation which then leads to praise.
This is something Job, in the first reading today, failed to do. He was so caught up in his own ambitions, possessions, and worries he failed to notice all the goodness around him.
Job's shaky encounter with God turned into a loving one once he figured out what he thought was his really did not belong to him even though he worked hard to get them. The never ending beauty of creation and all it encompasses is entrusted to us to protect and share for as long as we live on this fragile planet.
The woman in the gospel, Penthera, Peter’s mother-in-law, was hanging on for dear life. Whatever she may have yearned for or acquired in life no longer mattered. When she was healed by Jesus her experience of in exhaustible goodness transformed her. She then became Jesus’s disciple.
Do we expect God to relate to us the way we want God to treat us? Do we ask too much of the world we live in … sometimes only for our own benefit? Maybe a quiet patience beckons us to let beauty and grace come to us rather than chasing after them with our prayers and good deeds. What will it take for me to be open to whatever a holy Spirit will bring into my life? Then, will I share that blessing with others?
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BY WHOSE AUTHORITY?
4th Sunday Ordinary Time B
In today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28) we read that Jesus had “authority” over unclean spirits and his fame spread everywhere in the region. Jesus’s authority did not come from any government official or written document. His authority emanated from his charismatic being, his Spirit, and he released it for the common good. People believed him because he spoke to their needs.
There are a lot of people who exercise “authority” throughout the world these days. Who or what gives them that power? In the government of the United States powers and authorities exercised by elected officials are outlined in the Constitution and its amendments. While those rights of individuals are stated in that document not all citizens have been or are treated in the same way because of the “hard hearted” divisions in this country.
On the local level there are various authorities at work to protect and represent all people and to see that everyone has a fair chance to advance in society with dignity and equity regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. However, these aspirations, also rooted in the Constitution, are hard to realize. Consider, for one example, the growing gap between wealthy and poor people.
In the Catholic Church, the pope is considered the supreme authority. His ecclesial ministry is most notable in matters of faith and morals. In principle this authority is shared by bishops and the laity.  The role of the Holy Spirit acting in the entire body of the church is extremely important but often difficult to accept because the hierarchy continues to ignore the insights and contributions of so many people.
The polarization that exists in civic societies is not new in religious ones. It is clear that Pope Francis does not have the support or obedience in his own household. There are clergy and laity who question the pope’s teaching authority and power to lead. Because of these divisions people yearn for truthful and authentic voices. Organized religions are expected to provide moral leadership.
What kind of authority did Jesus have? Where did that power come from? In general, there are at least two forms of power and authority according to James Rowe Adams.  First is the power that enforces obedience. This kind of authority uses coercive means to rule over the people who have no voice. The second type is the power to influence or inspire. This is a more collaborative authority that seeks out the wisdom of the group.
A close reading of the Second (New) Testament clearly suggests that, in the beginning, the followers of Jesus used their teaching authority to influence and inspire others. These early disciples believed that the kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus’s power over the unclean spirit reported in today’s gospel metaphorically signaled an end to the oppressive regimes that ruled the world. Jesus announced a new day was coming. And, he backed up his words with action.
In the words of Dennis Hamm: “To say that the ‘kingdom of God’ is at hand is to draw upon the apocalyptic world view and to say that God is about to manifest divine kingship by rescuing God's people from whatever oppresses them ….”
Hamm continued: “When we find ourselves depressed and oppressed by the evil we detect in others, perhaps we best hear the authoritative teaching of Jesus when we hear it as a call to our own further conversion.”
In his sermon at the inaugural prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral the Rev. William J. Barber II  likened the invasion of the Capitol to the many breaches that exist in our country. He said, “According to the imagery of Isaiah … a breach occurs when there is a gap in the nation between what is and how God wants things to be.” Barber added that unity without action will get us nowhere.
Seekers of unity, reconciliation, and peace? Repairers of the breaches? What action is required to achieve such ambitious agendas? With the witness of Jesus in mind what is holding us back from releasing the Spirit inside us?
Starting with our personal lives we can clean out the demons, the evil forces that consume us and mislead us. In doing so we can regain our true identity as a Spirit-filled people with a purpose. We are not to be led by suspect powers that take advantage of us. We do not want a new normal that is merely the old normal in disguise.
Instead we want to take control of our destinies to find ways to emerge with new energy, new composure, new agendas, to shape the world we live in. In doing so our collegial authority and power, rooted in a divine presence in and among us, will influence and inspire others just like Jesus of Nazareth did.
1. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 874-913.
2. Adams was the rector of St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill for 50 years before his retirement. He also founded The Center for Progressive Christianity.
3. Barber is President and Senior Lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
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INAUGURATION OF A NEW AGE
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B
There are times when it seems our sacred texts cannot readily help us examine what is going on in our lives right now. Sometimes, rather than starting with the narratives found in scripture books, it can be more productive to begin with the wisdom of contemporary voices.
The inauguration of Joseph Biden as the 46th President of the United States was one of those uplifting times when the prose, prayers, poetry and songs help us gain a new perspective on our biblical texts.
Many of the words heard at the inaugural echoed what we often hear in churches, synagogues, mosques and shrines every week — unity, service, justice, and peace. The inaugural twist was that these terms are the keys to preserve a republic built upon democracy.
When the Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recited, “We’ve braved the belly of the beast,” she provided a fortuitous segue into the biblical texts for today. While in the belly of the whale, Jonah (3:1-5, 10), full of fear and doubt, is transformed. He emerges to take up his prophetic job. He boldly tells the Ninevites it is time for them to change the way they have been living.
Like Nineveh  our nation has been swallowed up by the lack of attention to what is true. While many Americans live rather comfortably millions more continue to suffer from various inequities and prejudices. Jonah did not want to be the one to tell the Ninevites they needed to change their ways. We, too, are often remiss in our prophetic role to challenge the status quo, to foster a common good.
Having been tested, now we are summoned to be united in an effort to restore our nation. If the poet Gorman is right that we are “a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished” we still have work to do together.
Our identity as a Catholic church, a sacrament of unity, has also been weakened. In fact, many Christian religions and their leaders are divided over grave issues that affect American lives. Jonah’s experience nudges all of us to find ways to transform the religions we belong to, the societies we live in. This is what Jesus also taught his followers.
In today’s gospel (Mark 1:14-20) Jesus tells his listeners a new kingdom is near and that repentance is required to embrace it. A biblical definition of “repentance" is to have a change of mind, heart, and action. Jesus recruited disciples to build up his coalition, to spread his message.
The term “new kingdom” is not a reference to the end of the world or to a heavenly place but to the realization of God as the primary and powerful wellspring for living here and now. It is in this sense that a change of heart is a necessary first step to make things right in our lives. How do we actually do this?
In commenting on the socio-political situation when Mark’s gospel was written, theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote it was a time to “de-script” from empirical and religious exploitation. This direction suggests a movement away from any ideology that blocks the out the presence of a holy Spirit among us. But Brueggemann also warned, “We have forgotten what has been entrusted to us.”
According to Osvaido Vena  Jesus recruited disciples not to leave a “hostile world” but to create an environment where the word of God abides in all of us. Bluntly, Jesus is calling us “to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”  The damage done by the defeated president is very deep leaving rifts for us to repair in our country, our religions and ourselves. We are not finished.
While we can continue to celebrate the passage from a failed presidency to a more civil, kind, and hopeful one, each of us must do our part like Jonah, Jesus and others working in the vineyard.
In speaking about the American aspiration on the eve of the inauguration, Vice President Kamala Harris reminded us, “Even in dark times, we not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be. We shoot for the moon, and then we plant our flag on it. We are bold, fearless, and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome; that we will rise up.”
1. Ancient Nineveh is now modern day Mosul, Iraq. Once in history the region around Nineveh, with its hanging gardens, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
2. Profesor de Nuevo Testamento, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill., USA
3. Ched Myers, quoted by Osvaido Vena. In the Bible catching fish represents judgement upon extremely wealthy power brokers. See Jeremiah 16:16, Amos 4:2.
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THIS IS NO ORDINARY TIME
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time B
The Catholic church is now in a period called “Ordinary Time.” It is an interval on the liturgical calendar when no particular event of the mystery of Christ is celebrated. However, on our daily calendars this is no ordinary time.
The events of the past fortnight are filled with both fear and hope. There was the dastardly breach of our nation’s Capitol, the historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump, and the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden, whose 1.9 trillion dollar rescue plan aims to curb our economic and public health emergencies.
While we await nationwide vaccinations against SARS-CoV-19 we worry about continual threats against democracy and national security triggered by crazed mobs and specious conspiracies. The FBI considers, for example, the QAnon conspiracy a domestic terrorist threat. Although a majority of Americans believe QAnon is bad for this country many Christians strongly believe its theories.
What is hard to understand is why so many Christian people continue to accept these deceptions and a defeated president who intentionally abused women, separated children from their parents, shamed persons with disabilities, disregarded the Constitution, and mocked veterans for serving in the military.
A president who has consistently eschewed core Christian teachings, not to mention legal statutes, can hardly be called “pro-life.” More intolerable are the large numbers of Christians and their leaders who believe the outgoing president was appointed by God to be the savior of this nation if not the entire world! They are such loyal followers they have become complicit in embracing and promoting the shallow but dangerous agenda of Mr. Trump.
James Martin SJ wrote last week: “The invasion of the U.S. Capitol was seen by many rioters not simply as a political act but a religious one, in great part thanks to the moral framework fostered by too many Christian leaders. Christians in the mob probably did not consider themselves criminals as much as prophets.”
What are good, well intentioned people supposed to do? In the first biblical text for today (Samuel 3:3b-10, 19) the aging high priest Eli said to the teenager Samuel, son of Hannah, if you hear God calling you, you had better reply ASAP. Unlike Eli’s sons, Samuel did not yet know about God. Further, he did not realize God was calling him to be an important prophet.
The gospel (John 1:35-42) offers another example of readily answering the call. We read about Jesus recruiting people to follow him.  In this passage Peter is called by Jesus but, perhaps like Samuel, he did not understand what he was being asked to do nor did he grasp the significance of his calling. Some scholars think Peter never understood.
We, too, have been hearing this same biblical mandate over and over. We cannot ignore the call. Just as the world did not become an egalitarian sphere as soon as Jesus was born or when he died, neither should we think that our thirst for social justice will be quenched overnight. There is work to do.
In his sermon “No Surprise,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, preached about the traumatic and dispiriting event in Washington as an example of what happens when unchecked leaders rule. He urged, “There is no one moment when dissent dies.” Cosgrove continued to say that redemption does not happen all at once but takes one step at a time. “The dawn beckons,” he said.
What explains the dangerous behavior of the Trump cultic following? What locks ordinary people into a frenzied loyalty to crazed incendiaries like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson, or Keith Raniere? Chris Jackson, a pollster with Ipsos commented: “Increasingly, people are willing to say and believe stuff that fits in with their view of how the world should be, even if it doesn't have any basis in reality or fact.”
We cannot forget that Jesus, like his cousin John the Baptizer, started a cult with a goal in mind. And, yes, Jesus, an itinerant Jew, did excite his disciples and others with his stirring speeches and radical actions. Christians today are baptized into that same cult and are called to rally, protest, attack, march against what we believe are grave injustices.
The difference between Jesus’s call to action and the maneuvers of egregious cults deluded by a demagogue is that Christians, along with people of other faith traditions, are committed to a united  effort to seek justice by peaceful means and without acts of violence. We do not stir up barbarity.  We move about in society using immeasurable kindness and truthful conversation as agents of reconciliation and peacemaking.
This coming week we begin with the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on a National Day of Service.  Undeterred, and true to his calling, King challenged unbridled bigotry, racist structures and, specifically, a White supremacist, homophobic culture. King’s prophetic voice still resounds. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech he said: “ …Faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.”
In mid-week a new president and vice-president will take office. They promise to restore our nation’s credibility worldwide, to make health care a human right, to create jobs so everyone can live with dignity, and to lift up our pride in being an American citizen. It is no small task. We are all beckoned to do something, anything, to work harder for reconciliation and justice. Like the invitation to Samuel and the disciples of Christ we need to answer the call ASAP.
This is no ordinary time.
1. Next week’s gospel Mk 1:14-20 reports the continuation of the same recruiting process.
2. This is the beginning of a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
3. Those who peacefully protest various issues of public interest have a constitutional right to do so. The criticism is aimed at those who endanger the lives of others to make their point.
4. In 1994 Congress passed the MLK holiday and Service Act designating the day as a National Day of Service.
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SERVICE ABOVE SELF 
The Baptism of Jesus
Today, January 10, 2021, the Catholic church commemorates the baptism of Jesus. (Mark 1:7-11) Usually, it is a time to ponder the important vocation that persons initiated into the Christian tradition need to carry out in the world.
However, we cannot focus on this sacrament without asking ourselves some serious questions about who we are as people of God and what our role is in the public sphere.
Donald Trump clearly instigated the hostile march to the Capitol. Populist lawmakers who mindlessly continue to support him are complicit in his seditious actions. This latest odious tactic of the president and his legions did not develop overnight. His unhinged behavior has been well known for a long time.
The third from the last lines in the Christian bible warns against preaching falsehoods (Rev 22:19). During the last five years current and factual news in the United States have been skewed by outright lies, denials, and trumped up fictions fueled by the president and spewed by dishonest politicians, ratings hungry media personalities and, yes, ordinary citizens.
The climate was ripe for someone to rise up in 2016 promising to make a republic, broken apart by racism, poverty and greed, great again. Trump ironically stymied his own mission. Sadly a very large number of people, for some unthinkable reason, remains lured into the delusional world of the outgoing president. Vast numbers of well intentioned citizens remain loyal to a demagogue who despised the very people he needed to vote for him, the man who lied to them for five years.
On January 6, 2021, the feast of the Epiphany, reality set in when a mob of White extremists invaded the Capitol, our nation’s civic temple. Imagine the deaths, injuries and arrests that would have taken place if those who stormed into our sacred precinct were people of color, Black people? While thousands were beaten and arrested at Black Lives Matter rallies, not even a dozen (at this writing) were taken into custody during their siege on the Capitol.
Public buildings, aside from being functional, are symbolic expressions of principle, character, and identity. The treasonous invasion of the Capitol was an attack on the foundations this country was built upon. We, the citizens of this country, like it or not, are also responsible for the state this nation is in.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said, "Today's events show the immensely perilous pathway of division and polarization that our country has embarked upon in these past four years.” Baptized persons, to be true to our calling, must step up.
How can Christians regain composure and rally together to repair this planet, the country, the church? Some bishops have publicly denounced the attack on the Capitol and the president’s actions. They are calling for prayer but that is not enough. Catholics, and Christians in general, are hardly united in searching for a common ground in civic, ecclesial and moral matters. For example, fifty percent of Catholics in the USA voted for Trump.
The teachings of the Vatican II Ecumenical Council refer to the church as “a sacrament of unity.”  The rituals of baptism, anointing and eucharist should celebrate and affirm this coalition. These ceremonies are designed to initiate new members willing to proclaim the social justice agenda started by Jesus of Nazareth. Ironically what is suppose to unite the church does not.
Charles C. Camosy  wrote: “Cleavage between Catholics of differing political stripes still exists, but it has been complicated by America's political realignment ….” Of course, membership in a religion does not require that every one must agree on every socio-political-ethical issue.
However, one hopes that the gospels proclaimed every single day should have some effect on moral instincts, that in turn, will guide the decisions people make in their lives and for the common good.
Those of us who are baptized need to stop, be still for a moment, take a deep breath and figure out exactly what is it that we are doing that will make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. Sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. Mandated by our baptisms we have to find ways to act.
Liturgical scholar Melinda Quivik  wrote, “Baptism opens our hearts and our minds to becoming instruments that bring unity and peace to our neighbors.” Quivik’s words are similar to today’s passage from Isaiah’s servant song (42:1-4, 6-7) “I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of those who cannot see, to bring out prisoners from confinement and dark cells.”
In his baptism Jesus of Nazareth was energized by a new Spirit to practice “service above self,” to advance the kingdom of God on earth. According to the text, God was pleased with him. Baptized persons embody that same Spirit, and are summoned to do good for others, to speak the truth always, and to show thanks for the beauty that surrounds them with an eagerness to share that grace with others so that they, too, can live freely, equally and with a peace of mind.
Heather Cox Richardson, law professor at Boston College, wrote last week: “Once you have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, you have granted your approval to the idea of rulers and servants. At that point, all you can do is to hope that no one in power decides that you belong in one of the lesser groups.”
We cannot allow a few powerful, wealthy people and corporate monopolies to run this country by creating agendas that suit their own personal or company ambitions. Donald Trump is still a dangerous person. Right now, or as soon as possible, he should be brought to justice for his mutinous behavior and countless other actions that have, over the past four years, jeopardized national security as well as the physical and mental health of this nation.
If there is any significance to the act of Christian baptism at this moment of history it is to birth disciples of Christ. For those of us already baptized we need to renew our promises to restore the well being of all religious persuasions and the nation at large. 
1. “Service Above Self” is the motto of the Rotary Club. It refers to unselfish community oriented service.
2. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 26.
3. Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University in New York City.
4. Quivik is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Paul, MN,
5. By the way, do you know the date of your baptism?
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DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
The twelve days of Christmas are filled with stupendous biblical accounts and characters — a virgin giving birth, a carpenter adopting Mary’s son, grungy shepherds spreading news, and heavenly choristers singing alleluias. Today, on the feast of Epiphany, we read about inquisitive astrologers following a star. Although these stories still astound us what can we learn from them that will give us renewed energy for 2021? What is the Word of God revealing to us in these passages?
Literally, the word Epiphany means “appearance.” In the Book of Maccabees (15:17) it specifically refers to the manifestation of the God of Israel. Scholars assert that this account about the “wise men” — it appears only in Matthew’s gospel (2:1-12) — is the first announcement of Jesus’s divinity to non-Jews, the Gentiles. Scripture scholar Reginald Fuller wrote that one of the elements that shaped the tale of the “three kings” is the “folk memory of Herod’s character and of his psychopathic fear of usurpation during the closing years of his reign.” Hmmm.
Another way to read this story is to think of it as uncovering a divine cosmic scheme that includes something for everybody. If so, what is in that plan for our planet, you and me as we deal with civic and ecclesial power mongering, manifold inequities, and interminable grief? But first, who were those night visitors anyway?
It is clear from the biblical texts there were no kings in the caravan and their number and names are unknown. Further, Jesus was already a young boy when they met him. The magi (think of magicians or wizards) belonged to a priestly line in the Parthian region contiguous to the easternmost frontier of the Roman Empire.
According to Greek and Roman lore the word magi refers to “dream interpreters.” Perhaps these commentators saw the bright “Christmas star” (the confluence of Jupiter and Saturn?) as a sign that dreams can become realities or, more so, biblical prophecies fulfilled.
Many ask, “how can we make our dreams come true today?” A more essential question is “what new revelations will each of us bring into 2021?”
People are worn out from a relentless pandemic and never ending political follies. Many are anxious for a return to some normalcy. Is this what we look forward to, the same old way of living, working, studying, relating, friending, worshiping God?
Theologian Mary McGlone suggests, “the Magi might be inviting us … to read the stars, to look for epiphanies of God among us and to allow mystery to shake us out of our status quo and beyond the borders of our comfortable relationships and thought patterns.”
What exactly will shake us out of our tiresome routines and old expectations? In his World Day of Peace message Pope Francis wrote about the importance of developing a “culture of care.” It is a social teaching that promotes the dignity and rights of all people, advances the common good, develops a sense of responsibility for others, and protects the environment. 
The same urgency is facing the new administration in Washington DC. “To fulfill the mandate that the 2020 electorate has given them, Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris must reject the politics of austerity and fulfill their commitment to policies that address human needs and cultivate human capacities.” 
The reason for this challenge is obvious to some but not all. The Brookings Institute offers one startling example from research conducted in 2016 but still relevant. “Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception. The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens.”
If we believe that God is love then maybe we need to move slightly away from the biblical narratives and images that stirred our imaginations this season. Instead of depending on a distant God to solve our problems what if we accepted what we believe, that we who are made in the image and likeness of God, can glow with love, showing love to one another like anyone who cares for little children. Mary looked into her infant’s face and saw the radiance of God. The shepherds got all excited, angels sounded their trumpets and magi perhaps thought a safe and secure world was forthcoming. Complex and difficult as it may seem we can see in each other the luster of God’s face. This can be our epiphany, our revelation of the presence of God in our midst.
The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, known as the animistic spirit of doorways or thresholds. Janus has two faces. One gazes forward while the other looks to the rear. Mythologists consider Janus the god of new beginnings. As we leave 2020 behind we approach a new portal that, with assurance, will open up fresh possibilities for all of humanity.
1. Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace” January 1, 2021 (No. 6)
2. Wm Barber II and Liz Theoharis, “What Biden and Harris Owe the Poor” in The New York Times, December 25, 2020
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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.
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1st Sunday of Advent Year B
I’m just hanging in there.” “We’re taking one day at a time.” “Just hoping things get better soon.” You’ve heard these remarks lately. We are waiting for brighter days to bring relief in this historical, long and dreary night. Local charities serve millions in need. The rapid production of an effective vaccine is a good sign. Yet, no one is without the anxieties heaped upon us by a live virus.
In the first reading we heard about the Israelites who were in a similar mess. Although they survived plagues, exiles, infighting, they kept looking for more, namely, a powerful warrior-hero to protect them from further trials, to guide them to the promised land unharmed. Their temple was still in shambles and no divinity showed up to help. According to the texts, their leaders did a lousy job of leading and the people themselves did not cooperate with God.
The Israelites, who never saw God in person, cried out “God, show us the radiance of your face!” Although God’s presence was experienced in streams, mountains, fire, deserts and temples, it was culturally common for them to expect a dominant male figure to be their superstar.
Think of Abraham, Moses, David and the other patriarchs. Yes, there were strong women — Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel — but they were never considered in that period of salvation history to be as powerful or capable enough to rescue Israel like a male figure would.
We are caught with the same mentality when we personify God as a powerful manly person, a conquerer, judge, ruler, king, lord, who will come to save us. Carol Dempsey, professor of biblical studies at the University of Portland, urges us to avoid naming God only with masculine labels. So, how do we see the radiant face of God?
The Advent season is a time to ask ourselves this question again: Who are we waiting for? Jesus of Nazareth died to redeem us but the suffering and death continues. Although his bold vision for humanity has not been achieved, that goal has not been abandoned.
We keep the Spirit of Jesus alive by participating in God’s plan for peace and harmony instead of retreating to the comfort of our own domains. We have to step up our efforts in small and large ways rather than waiting for others to solve the problems we collectively have caused.
In his new book,  Pope Francis wrote: “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. God asks us to dare to create something new … We need to slow down, take stock and design better ways of living together on this earth,” the pope wrote.
The gospel recounts the story of the head of a household, a metaphorical reference to Christ, who it was thought, will soon return. “Be watchful!” “Be alert!” You do not when Christ might show up. Christians long ago thought the return was just around the corner but we are still waiting.
Robin Whitaker, Australian scripture scholar, commented, that in the Greco-Roman culture of Jesus’s time, the prevailing religious expectation was that gods will come or arrive in sudden and unexpected ways to rescue people.
Supposing, instead of waiting for Christ to return, we shifted our great expectations to us. Made in the image and likeness of God we are the human face of God called to illuminate the world. Just maybe God is waiting for us to show up to make things right.
Perhaps, then, Christmas is about the rebirthing of a people called by God to straighten out roads filled with obstacles to harmony and peace. To be effective we cannot fall asleep on the job. We are summoned to be woke, alert to the injustices happening all around us.
Advent has become a count down to what is a very commercialized Christmas holiday. That industry, as we know, is challenged this year. And, we can help by supporting local small businesses. We also can take this time to think of ways to be less complacent and more active in the affairs of our communities.
We know that this planet, this culture, this world we live in is far from being perfect. What if mercy characterized relationships in the world? What if kindness prevailed instead of suspicion?
Courtney V. Buggs, assistant professor of homiletics at the Christian Theological Seminary suggests: “… Enter the Advent season with a tripartite call to watch, to wait, to work. Watching can be hard. Waiting can cause disillusionment. Work can be difficult,” she wrote.
We the people of God are waiting with great expectations for the birthing of better days. The realization that Christ is already in our midst depends on us — our faith, our hope, our charitable deeds, our spirit.
We cannot afford to wait any longer. It is our time now. As the eighth century Chinese poet Tu Fu wrote: “The future slips imperceptibly away. Who can say what the years [ahead] will bring.”
1. Pope Francis, Let Us Dream:The Path to a Better Future
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WHOSE LAW MATTERS MOST?
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Reprinted in the Albany Times-Union on October 31, 2020
These days leading up to the General Election are fraught with emotion and challenges. The issue is whether to vote with an informed conscience or simply according to party lines. For those who trust in the providence of a higher being the big quandary is: How does God fit into all of this?
We can find some guidance starting with the familiar line from today’s gospel: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God. This axiom is not only about paying taxes according to the laws. It provides us with a chance to examine critically what civic and religious laws matter most in our lives.
The social context for this gospel passage and the words of Jesus are relevant. Religion scholar, Sarah Rollens wrote: “the backdrop of the Jesus movement was persistent ... conflicts stemming from the inherent social and economic inequality that characterized the Roman Empire as a whole [at that time] ....”
In this socio-political-religious environment of Jesus’s life different factions competed for power. The Pharisees and the Herodians featured in today’s gospel opposed one another but despised Jesus and his preaching. They teamed up to dishonor him with a tricky legal question about paying taxes. (In next week’s gospel the Pharisees will ask Jesus about which is the greatest commandment.)
With regard to today’s gospel, scholar John Pilch noted: “If Jesus said it was not lawful to pay the tax, he would anger the Roman officials. If he said it was in accord with Torah, he would offend the ardent nationalists who hated everything about the Romans.” There was not much wiggle room for compromise. Jesus’s concise and clever reply about which law applies in a certain situation requires a contemporary application.
Some laws in the United States benefit some but not all persons. States have conflicting laws. Not every individual agrees with every law. The same conundrum exists in many religions where, sometimes, laws are thought to be irrelevant. Varied responses to laws can cause confusion for all of us. When people disregard civic and religious laws or interpret them for personal gain or privilege they disregard the common good. The result is that people who are more vulnerable and live on the margins of society are harmed. That is why Jesus’s answer to his opponents is notable now as it was then.
In his new encyclical “Sisters and Brothers All” (Fratelli Tutti) Pope Francis strongly urges us to “rediscover our vocation as citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond.” (66) In this most important and timely papal letter Francis continues: “... political charity is born of a social awareness that transcends every individualistic mindset: ‘Social charity makes us love the common good’, it makes us effectively seek the good of all people, considered not only as individuals or private persons, but also in the social dimension that unites them’.” (182)
One spirited campaign issue that has polarized this nation and most religious institutions focuses on the meaning of the term “pro-life.” Does this expression mean “pro-God?” Does it mean “pro-one-politician-over-another?” How does someone vote in the upcoming election when one right to life issue is touted as more important or pre- eminent than other right to life concerns? Coxing voters to ignore other crucial issues affecting human life and planet life is not helpful in the long run.
When moral issues are politicized their values are diminished. What law can we follow to help achieve the common good? The U.S. Catholic bishops teach that we should abide by a well-informed conscience grounded in Catholic social doctrine. In this context Bishop Robert W. McElroy wrote that to vote only on one “preeminent issue in a particular political season is to reduce the common good, in effect, to one issue ... when there are [actually] several preeminent issues.”
So we can ask: How can someone be pro-life but support the military industrial complex, the imprisonment of immigrant children at our borders, capital punishment, and discrimination against minorities? How can someone be pro-life and oppose universal health care, supplemental nutrition programs, regulations to protect the environment, and equitable tax laws. All of these issues are of preeminent concern to the human family.
We realize no law is perfect. No law will serve every dictum of every religious persuasion. Jesus of Nazareth died while working to achieve a “common good.” We Christians can act with members of other faith traditions to discern whose law guides human behavior at any one time. Our ultimate goal is to preserve God’s vision of peace, equity, and harmony for all human beings, our animal friends, and the planet at large. As Pope Francis urges, we are called to act in a way that protects all of these cherished gifts.