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The First Sunday of Lent - Year C
Christianity in Ukrainian and Russian lands dates to the earliest centuries of Christian history. Legend has it that the apostle Andrew traveled over the Black Sea to the Greek colony in Crimea where he converted thousands of people.
Throughout centuries of its history religion and politics have both united and fractured Ukraine and Russia. The reality today that complicates the war is that both Russian and Ukrainians are linked by their Orthodox faith. Their religious leaders, however, are not united to stop Vladimer Putin’s invasion into Ukraine even as they offer prayers for peace and the safety of Ukrainians.
Only a fierce cultural pride and identity, a steady historical resilience against oppression, and a loyal faith in God gives strength to Ukrainians and their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to push back against Vladimer Putin’s plan to reestablish the former Soviet Union by encroaching upon independent nations.
The first reading today (Deuteronomy 26:4-10) tells a similar story. It reports what Moses said to the Israelites, who were seeking their independence from Egyptians. “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the God of our ancestors. God heard our cry, saw our affliction, and with “terrifying power,” brought us out of Egypt.
Ukrainians are pleading with God these days with words taken from their national spiritual anthem written in 1885: “Lord, Oh the Great and Almighty, Protect our beloved Ukraine … Bless us with freedom, bless us with wisdom, Bless us, Oh Lord, with good fortune, for ever and evermore.”
What Ukrainians want is a chance to live freely and without being afraid that their children’s dreams will be erased by oppressive dictators. Their battle is important on a global scale where many countries are ruled by autocrats.
The Ukrainian dream is like the Israelites’ in the Hebrew bible who yearned for a promised land. It is like those who still pursue the American dream. It is an aspiration for all of humanity to live in a world measured by justice and peace.
On this first Sunday of Lent we begin a liturgical journey to repent and transform our lives while the world all around us is in trouble. So what are we to do? Give up something for Lent while others are fighting to keep their freedom? Repent and believe the good news while evil people in the world never ask for forgiveness? Renew our lives while millions of people in this nation have no way to do so?
We have innumerable freedoms in this country thanks to the courageous stories of our ancestors in faith. Those who fled one captivity after another, who journeyed long years in the desert, who fought religious wars in Europe, who faced prejudice as immigrants in this country. We are summoned by our baptism to protect the common good so no one person or institution or political party steals it away.
We are part of a long history of humanity, a larger global dynamic, a cosmos without boundaries. We travel bravely to proclaim justice and truth with countless caring Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and people who practice no religion.
Along the way we are urged by our tradition to avoid any temptations that distract us from our calling as Catholic Christians to “stand as living witnesses to truth and freedom, to peace and justice, that all peoples may be raised up to a new hope.”
In today’s familiar gospel (Luke 4:1-13 ) a smooth-talking devil tried to break down Jesus with physical, political and spiritual temptations but the Anointed One from Nazareth never gave in. Jesus snap back at the devil: “Do not tempt God!”
Jesus desired no power or dominion over anyone. He did not want possessions. He stood up against corrupt civic and religious leaders. He taught that only love and compassion matter most. The Ukrainians are not giving in to the devil and neither should we.
And, there is something we can do. We can believe what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (10:8-13) that everyone who calls upon God will be saved. The Ukrainians, like other people struggling in tyrannical countries believe that God is on their side and is still walking with them.
These scriptures are good lessons for us. During this season of Lent let us walk not only with God but with someone who is not doing so well in the world. Let us find the time and a way to give a portion of our resources, however large or small, to people in need. For example, consider donating something to ease the pain of the people in Ukraine.
Our faith coupled with our good works can be a “terrifying power” in a world where evil lurks in our midst … sometimes closer than we think.
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Dear Friends: I was honored to deliver at the funeral liturgy for 25 year-old Brendan Fahy Bequette who passed away on 28 February 2022, after a 20-month battle with an aggressive, rare mediastinal germ cell cancer.
BRENDAN FAHY BEQUETTE
A Funeral Homily by Rev. Richard S. Vosko
St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, New York
March 5, 2022
There is an anonymous 9th century manuscript called “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.” It is an example of an entire genre of Celtic literature known as immrama or stories about journeys.
These Irish tales are concerned with a hero’s voyage west of Ireland across the sea to a paradise, a land of perpetual youth, abundance, and happiness also known as the Promised Land of the Saints.
They are vivid accounts of the heroic lives of Christian pioneers like Saint Brendan the Sojourner. The narratives provide insights into the realities of life and death, a mix of life’s anxieties and yearnings.
On their dangerous journey Saint Brendan the Sojourner often said to his monks: “Do not be afraid O you of little faith. God has always looked after us and God is sure to save us … and from all perils to come.” (Is 43:2-3)
This tale and other stories about Saint Brendan gave our Brendan hope and resilience during his sickness. Spiritually and philosophically inclined, Brendan sought the protection of God and St. Brendan. The connection was important as he came to realize that, after many months of treatments and the tenacious and loving efforts of his parents and medical team to make him better, he was about to die.
In the final months of his life Brendan found comfort in the Prayer of Saint Brendan. “Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown … O Christ of the mysteries, I trust you to be stronger than each storm within me. I will trust in the darkness and know that my times, even now, are in your hand.” (Ps 31)
Amidst innumerable joys, life on this planet can be hard. People of faith claim God is the creator of all life and should protect them always. What we can believe is that God is first one to cry when someone dies.
Still, in spite of our faith in a just and loving God it is so difficult for us to be in the presence of someone we love who is no longer alive. However, science tells us that energy never dies, it merely takes on a different form.
Some religions like Buddhism hold that death leads to rebirth. Others like Islam believe that the real life begins after death. In our Christian tradition we abide by what Jesus said to his followers “I am the bread of life; even though you die you will live forever.” (Jn 6:47-48)
In the meantime as sting of death hurts us it awakens us to be more mindful of how we use our time on earth, how we live. In one example, the gospel of Matthew (6:19-21) we just heard advises us to seek only heavenly treasures, infinite blessings. Everything else will soon pass away.
Brendan was blessed with ever emerging gifts. A look at some of his earlier work as a director of film suggests he had an artistic and sensitive understanding of the scripts and an imaginative way of expressing them by using light, shadows, and color. He identified with those story lines that speak of the risks and rewards in life and he gave them new meaning.
Brendan’s own life story will continue to run as an model of the sensitive respect he had for everyone — his entire family, close friends, companions, his colleagues, health care providers, and many others.
Beneath his quiet almost shy demeanor, he was strong and resilient while methodically wrestling with a rare disease. He showed faith both in God and humanity. All of his attributes live on as we tell his story, share his faith, his love, and what he did for us and gave to us.
Although shattered by the death of someone we dearly love we do not grieve forever. There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to live, and, yes, a time to die. (Eccl 3:1-8)
With time and memory, stories and prayer, we find a way to carry on with Brendan’s spirit — working, playing, teaching, serving, and loving others. As we heard in the second reading we want to be patient and kind; never jealous; not boastful or conceited, and never rude. (1 Cor 13: 4-8a)
The Jewish word for funeral is “Halvaya.” (hal-va-YAH) It means to remember and accompany the deceased person. Brendan’s parents and sister held on to him in his difficult journey. We now travel with Brendan as he moves through what Irish mythology calls a mesmerizing and mystical “thin space” that separates heaven and earth.
Brendan was a curious and brave traveler in life just like his namesake and favorite saint. And now, like Saint Brendan and those Irish monks, we believe Brendan has arrived at the Promised Land of the Saints.
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The 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
The oldest tree in the United States is Pando, a giant colony of Quaking Aspens in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. These trees are part of a common organism, an underlying rhizoidal stem system that absorbs nutrients and provides strength. They continue to grow and spread in every which way. Some estimate the “tree” is about 80,000 years old!
In the gospel for today (Luke 6:39-45) Jesus shares a moral tale with his listeners. His message draws upon words related to trees (“wooden beams” and “splinters”) to teach a lesson that is relevant for us today. We should look at our own behavior — the beams or splinters in our eyes — before criticizing or admonishing someone else about their actions.
Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne commented: “relations between human beings based on retribution, or even on strict justice, fail to take account of … what is really going on inside another person.” Byrne continued, “the image of the tree and its yield of fruit illustrates the continuity that must prevail between the heart … and external action.” Faith without good works is not a good strategy on the world stage today.
As the parable continues Jesus uses trees metaphorically to describe who is an exemplary person. Good trees do not bear bad fruit and they are known by the fruit they produce. Further, trees planted in the house of God will bring forth fruit even as they grow old. They shall remain vigorous and sturdy. (Psalm 92:2-3,13-16) That’s good news for some of us!
We cannot overlook that Jesus also strongly condemned demonic persons who thrive in producing evil, stealing liberty from innocent people. The invasion of Ukraine made by Vladimer Putin is the latest example of crimes against humanity caused by a malicious power hungry autocrat.
If such evil is uncontested it will affect global economic systems and diminish the livelihoods of people especially those already living in poverty. It will harm and destroy millions of lives.
Why focus on trees in this moment of history? In mythology, literature, and poetry, trees represent life and growth. In his lyric poem “Trees” Joyce Kilmer suggests nothing created by humans can match the beauty of a tree. According to his biographer James Hart, Kilmer was influenced by his faith and dedication to the “natural beauty of the world.” 
The cedar trees are mentioned frequently in the Bible most likely because they were strong and indestructible (Isaiah 9:10). They also provided comfort, fruit and beauty. There is something about the grandeur of nature that inspires and gives hope. Mindful of its measureless wonder we realize the divine creative process is not finished. What is the significance of trees in our environmental and religious lives today?
First of all we have a responsibility to protect them and the entire eco-system we rely on for sustenance. The great Pando grove in Utah is endangered because of human activity. The tall and sturdy cedar trees of Lebanon, signs of that country’s historical resilience, are also in danger because of pollution. The same is true in other countries that allow the industrial raping of the land.
The word Pando, the name of that oldest grove of trees in Utah, means “I spread” in Latin. Like the Pando grove of the Aspen clones that keep extending their reach, churches like ours need to reproduce, to spread our roots, to grow fruit that will “glisten in the world.” (Philippians 2:15d, 16a)
A religion that is rooted in relationships will focus on the needs of its members. It will share leadership and decision making tasks. It will be nourished by memory and imagination. And, like the Pando tree, it will spread beyond traditional boundaries in unlimited directions.
Christianity is one of the older religions in the world. We are not often toppled by storms. Nor are we easily uprooted by industrial or political ambitions. Our lives are grounded in the Christian gospel. Our roots spread deep into the earth giving us a solid footing in society. We are known by the fruit we bear.
Our work is challenging. The world needs religious and spiritual people to work with those whose source of strength is found elsewhere. The task is to spread power and wealth so all people can lead stable productive lives. We move forward and upward so others can benefit by our good deeds expressed simply by the beauty of a tree.
1. Hartley, Marsden. "Tribute to Joyce Kilmer" in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (December 1918), 149–154.
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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
In Luke’s gospel (6: 27-38) today Jesus presents an astonishing challenge. This part of the sermon on the plain is the continuation of a vigorous training session for those who would follow Jesus, preach his message, and be rejected because of it. Jesus advised them: “to the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one; love your enemies, do good to them, and expect nothing back.
This surely is a counterpoint to the first reading this morning (1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23). We read that it was permissible and actually encoded in the Law to exact an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The laws of retaliation in the Old Testament established the right to seek damages similar to the crime perpetrated even taking "a life for a life." Jesus reversed that old law.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to turn the other cheek when someone bullies or murders a person especially because that person is of a different ethnic group, gender, race, or caste. How do Jews forgive Hitler for executing their family members? How do parents forgive those who shot their children in school? How do persons of color forgive those who enslaved and lynched their ancestors?
As we know this is Black History month.  It was inaugurated in the 1920’s to remember the emancipation of slaves and to celebrate the contributions black people make to this country. Today there is a lot of discussion about how much of the history of black people should be taught.
American history has many chapters that reveal our country’s good and bad sides but we cannot overlook the whole of American history. The bible has many episodes that graphically record acts of good and evil but that does not stop us from reading the whole story.
Before the pandemic took hold of our country I had the opportunity to visit civil rights museums and memorials in Alabama. As I stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, I grieved as the images of Bloody Sunday flashed in my mind. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s awakened our nation to the reality of racial injustice and hatred that continue to affect African-Americans and all of us in one way or another.
I thought not only of the marchers who were severely trampled and beaten on that bridge but also those people who attacked them. Who were they and what were they thinking? What drove them to do such harm to peaceful protestors, to other human beings also created by God? Would they be forgiven? The gospel today says: Forgive and you will be forgiven.
What was Jesus proposing? New Testament scholar Sarah Henrich explained: “All that power that flows from Jesus … will bring about a very different world, God’s world. The power will level the playing field no matter what rules we have established to create and protect our positions. The thriving of all creatures in God’s realm requires a different ethos from those customarily in place.”
The late John Lewis, civil rights activist and respected member of Congress, was the epitome of this gospel text. Although almost bludgeoned to death at different times he, like other non-violent civil rights activists, whether at a lunch counter or on that bridge in Selma, never once fought back. Lewis urged: “Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Jesus got in good trouble, plenty of good trouble, to save people, to pave a path to freedom from all injustice. He cared for those who were sick and oppressed but he also welcomed sinners in the spirit of today’s Psalm 103:1-4, 10-13: “God pardons all your iniquities. God heals all your ills.”
Privatized prisons are filled because we still have an “eye for an eye” mentality about how to deal with criminals. Slavery exists around the world in various forms — child labor, sex trafficking, unfair wages, and the rise of authoritarian dictators. Social inequities, anger, and hate tear us apart.
We can counter these overwhelming atrocities by stressing human goodness. John Lewis advised: "I alone cannot change the world, [he said] but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”
God needs us to make ripples, to make good trouble during this chapter of cosmic history. The biblical playbook tells us to be resilient, to work harder together, to act justly, walk humbly, and speak kindly.
In January 1972, Pope Paul VI called justice “a collective and universal phenomenon.” He then quoted the prophet Isaiah (32:17): “If you want peace, work for justice.” We might add today, and … if we want justice, work for reconciliation.
1. Carter Woodson is credited with starting the tradition and selecting February to remember two men who helped shape Black History — Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.
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The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Jesuit historian James Hennessy (1926-2001) wrote that the Catholic Church was once described as bishops and priests and the faithful who followed the teachings of bishops and priests. The Vatican Two Ecumenical Council changed that. The people of God are the church.
Ideally 1.2 billion Catholics around the world are on the same team. All persons, including those who are ordained, are teammates willing to play together to defeat any philosophy, government or institution that practices prejudice and inequality.
By way of a popular example teamwork is essential in tonight’s 56th Super Bowl game. Coaches and players will be following their standard playbooks. They will also talk to one another during the event to make necessary adjustments. They might even change their game plans.
Our “biblical” playbook calls for teamwork in the game of life. Jeremiah the prophet (17:5-8) exhorted the leaders of Judah to trust in God. He said: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings.” He wanted his listeners to team up with God.
The elite tribal leaders did not listen and chose to do things their own way. Sadly, Judah was crushed and thrown into exile. In this episode there was not much teamwork between God and the chosen people of God.
We are called to learn the biblical play book to create a life giving game plan for ourselves and others. We are urged to use our talents and our ideas. As Christians we are coached by the Word of God. Win or lose, Jesus of Nazareth taught us how to play the game honestly, effectively, and with passion.
No one of us can win the game of life all alone. We need hardworking coaches and players on the team. In church terms we need smart pastoral leaders who will team up with the members of their dioceses, parishes, and schools.
In our religion, like other faith traditions, teamwork is essential if we are to win against the inequities of the world. We can turn the odds against those who do not play by the rules, mandates that are designed to give everyone a fair chance to win.
Today’s gospel (Luke 6: 17, 20-26) offers a different version of the familiar beatitudes; it can help us understand the biblical playbook. Instead of eight blessings, such as those in the gospel of Matthew (5:1-12), there are four blessings that are coupled with four afflictions. Those who are least fortunate are called blessed. Those who have plenty of power and wealth may not win every game. In the bible … underdogs can be victorious
New Testament scholar Sarah Henrich wrote: “These verses put today’s hearers on a level plain/playing field (v. 17) with all those to whom Jesus once spoke: the twelve, the crowd of disciples and the multitude from all over the area.” All the people of God make up creation and are responsible for sustaining it.
Sure, there are gifted superstar athletes who play better and are paid better than others. But in every “team” game each player on the field matters. A talented quarterback still needs a strong offensive line for pass protection. What makes the team successful is the way all the players communicate with and trust each other during the game. This is what the Catholic Church needs. More teamwork.
Last October 10, 2021 Pope Francis launched a synod on synodality to develop a play book for governing the church in the future. The word synodality comes from two Greek words — syn-hodos. It means walking on the same path together. It could mean playing on the same field together.
This unique synod is not just for bishops. It is an invitation to all members of the church worldwide to have a voice in the governance of the church. It is an opportunity for clergy and laity to listen to one another without being critical or defensive.
Lutheran pastor Katie Hines-Shah wrote: “… we are part of the priesthood of all believers, that whether or not we are ordained, we are called to do important, godly work.”
We want to win in life by following the game plan Jesus of Nazareth gave us. To do that we listen not only to the coaches, the church’s teachers, but also to one another, the players in the game, the people in our dioceses, parishes, schools, and a wide variety of ministerial groups.
The latest odds pick the Los Angeles Rams as a 4 point favorite to win the Super Bowl tonight. Can the underdog Cincinnati Bengals continue their miraculous winning ways? What are our chances of winning out over the injustices in the world? The odds are in our favor when we follow our biblical playbooks and play together as a team.
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The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
There is the old saying that faith is not taught but is something that can be caught. Today’s gospel story (Luke 5: 1-11) is about catching fish. Some people catch fish to sell or feed their families. Others catch fish for sport and then throw the fish back to the water.
The gospel was written in Greek and the word “zogrein,” which means catching, conveys the idea of giving people life and then helping them to stay alive. Jesus said to Simon Peter, who was a fisherman, that he and others would be catching people — to give them life.
Most religions have doctrines and rules that are meant to guide us through life’s labyrinths. But even though we responsibly teach those commandments in our schools and faith formation programs they cannot make us live in a certain way. How is the gift of faith put into practice?
Inspirational speaker and theologian, Judy Landrieu Klein, wrote: Catholicism has been “caught” for two thousand years … through the habits of a living Church that hands on its living faith via time-honored practices that grow organically and culturally throughout history.
“Catching” is a method for evangelization — sharing the good news of the gospel. This does not mean converting people to Catholicism. It does mean finding ways to change lives, to celebrate God’s love, and to serve others as Jesus did. 
When the elite men of Israel rejected Isaiah’s call to practice social justice (6:1-2a, 3-8) the prophet felt he was doomed. God asked: Well whom shall I send to make things better? Isaiah heard the angels sing out “the earth is full of God’s glory!” Isaiah, his lips burning with a new desire to serve, answered God: “Here I am send me!”
Simon Peter also felt he was not up to the task. He objected to Jesus. I am not sure I can do what you are asking me to do. Paul, admitted the same thing years before this gospel “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle.” (1 Corinthians 15: 1-11)
Evangelical Lutheran pastor Amy Ziettlow offers some assurance: “As we ponder our own lives of discipleship, we may resonate with Simon [Peter] in questioning our ability to follow Christ and serve … Let us take heart that Christ is with us [and] will equip us with what we need.”
We need a lot of help these days because many fish are swimming away and cannot be caught by dogmatic decrees. However, by our example we can encourage others to catch on to a lifestyle built around the social gospel. The world is broken; people are falling through the cracks; they are looking for lifelines. Can religion respond to their hunger for help?
The research tells us Christian denominations in the United States are showing signs of wear and tear. The Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that thrived in recent decades are experiencing dwindling memberships.
Some surveys reveal that more people call themselves spiritual but not religious. The numbers of those who claim no religious affiliation are growing. About 33% of Americans say they do not pray at all. No matter what the reason the fish are swimming away.
Although the pandemic surely has had something to do with lower in-person attendance at weekly worship it cannot be entirely blamed. While 21% of U.S. adults call themselves Catholic the overall exodus from organized religions has been a slow but steady phenomenon. This is true especially in countries that were fundamentally founded on bible based teachings and powerful charismatic religious pioneers.
Many Christians today are disillusioned with their clergy. Some people anguish over the pedophile scandal. Others feel left out, disenfranchised, because of archaic rules and an exclusive patriarchal hierarchy. Still others are troubled by polarizations within their own congregations. All religions including ours are need of major adjustments in order to survive and continue to serve those in need.
God asked Isaiah for help. Jesus called ordinary people to follow him. We have been summoned to carry on that mission. We go deeper into the sea, to toss the nets of our faith wider and farther to catch new fish and seek out the ones that swam away. Our strategy is to steady our boats, to fill our nets with people who have been hurt not only by religion but who suffer because of dictatorial regimes around the world.
As our nets fill to breaking, so do our hearts burst open to those sisters and brothers brought to us by the compassion and love of Christ. When we practice what we preach the life and mission of Jesus fills our nets — and our lives — with abundance, new hope, and resilience.
1. See Go Make Disciples: A National Plan & Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the US. USCCB, Washington, DC, 2002
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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
Today’s gospel story takes place in a synagogue and brings to mind the gravity of the recent hostage siege in the the Beth Israel synagogue (Colleyville, TX). Such calamities occur in houses of worship way too often.
We remember the 2015 massacre of nine worshipers during bible study inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Charleston, SC).
Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in 1980 while celebrating liturgy in the Chapel of Hospital de la Divina Providencia (San Salvador, El Salvador).
Historically speaking security breaches in sacred places are not new. In January of the year 825 Scandinavian Norsemen raided the Irish Monastery on the British Isle of Iona. They murdered the monks at the end of the liturgy.
How do we maintain hope, a feeling of safety, and a sense of our own worth as we worship in our own sacred spaces? How do we deal with the hate-filled crimes that are rampant today in our schools and streets? Where is the love of humanity? Psalm 71 for today suggests we can complain to God about our troubles and then plead for help. But is this enough?
Jeremiah the prophet (1:4-5, 17-19) needed assistance as he faced trouble in his mission to all "the nations." He preached individual repentance and community compliance to the Babylonian invasion in order to avoid total national destruction but the Israelites rejected him.
God said to Jeremiah, do not worry, I am with you all the way. It is hard to believe God is still with us when there is so much suffering in the world. The question is this: are we still walking with God?
In Luke’s gospel (4:21-30) we read that Jesus himself was rejected in the synagogue right in his home town of Nazareth. During worship he upset everyone when he spoke about caring and loving all people, even outsiders. The congregants were so outraged they tried to throw him off a nearby cliff.
Jesus did not accomplish his vision for all of humanity. He was hunted down and nailed to a cross for what he believed to be his mission — advocacy for vulnerable people. United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon wrote that “things were just fine in Nazareth … until Jesus opened his mouth.”
Life is full of imperfections but that is not all. There are joys and miracles. There is wonder and happiness. The late Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh taught mindfulness as a palliative for suffering and a formula for loving others. He claimed that happiness and suffering do go together in life but he also offered ways to endure and respond to the pain.
As an influential peace activist he believed in the importance of practicing love: “True love has the power to heal and transform any situation and bring deep meaning to our lives.”  In order to bring happiness to others, he wrote, it is essential to accept yourself, love yourself, and heal yourself.
Award-winning author Dara Horn affirmed the monk’s advice in her recent and penetrating book on the lack of respect for Jewish lives: “The freedoms we cherish are meaningless without our commitments to one another: to civil discourse, to actively educating the next generation, to welcoming strangers, to loving our neighbors. The beginning of freedom is the beginning of responsibility,” Horn wrote. 
Last week’s letter from Paul to the people of Corinth suggested how we might carry out our mission. He listed the many gifts we can use to make the world a better place. The passage today describes at length one of those gifts — the power of love. Paul stresses the importance of love in everything we do. Succinctly, “If I have faith to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13)
We can push back the blatant deprivation of human rights that has occurred over the course of human history. But because we are complex creatures, with individual opinions and goals, getting along is not easy. The result is that we become vulnerable to the weaknesses of our own making.
If we do not do something these defects will stifle and snuff out our joys, our hopes and visions not only for ourselves but more importantly for our children. History and the sacred texts of all faith traditions clearly speak to us. When we practice love toward one another, and care for one another, regardless of who we are or what our differences might be, we bring happiness into the world.
1. Thich Nhat Hanh. How to Love.” Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2015, 16.
2. Horn, Dara. People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (Norton 2021).
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Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
In a recent essay Amanda Gorman explained why she almost declined the invitation to be the inaugural poet last January. President Biden’s inauguration came right after domestic terrorists attacked the Capitol and she feared for her life. She wrote how she would “become highly visible — which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you are Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.” She was terrified!
There is so much to fear in the world right now it is hard to focus on the joys, the delights, the serendipity, the small and often unexpected treasures that help us cope with discouragement and despair. Gorman continued: “I look at fear not as cowardice, but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear.”
What would it be like to live in an ideal world where power-hungry governments did not encroach on neighbor nations; where the resources of a wealthy country were distributed evenly to sustain the underclass?
Can we imagine a world where borders would open up to welcome people haunted and hunted by autocratic authorities, and where the practice of restorative justice would eliminate the privatized prison industry?
What if Jews, Uyhgurs, the Rohingya, Gypsies, Christians, the LGBTQIA community, and persons of color, around the world would not have to fear being ostracized, injured, or killed just because of who they are?
Today’s reading from the first book of Corinthians (12:12-14, 27) includes a line famously found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:28): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Biblical scholar Karin Neutel examined the apostle Paul’s vision for living together in an ideal society: “Paul expected an imminent cosmic change, a new creation ushered in by the death and resurrection of the Messiah.”
Paul’s three categories were expressions of first century expectations for utopian societies. Neutel noted that Paul’s contemporaries pictured “different peoples living together in one homogeneous group under one law — without ethnic distinction … living as equals … removing major causes of social conflict.”
Today we add more categories to Paul’s list. There is neither black nor white nor brown, gay nor straight, rich nor poor, healthy nor sick, transgender nor cisgender, all are equal creatures of God.
Paul imagined all peoples living under this Christian ideal. He preached not only to Jews but also Gentiles and saw baptism as a unifying experience. Paul’s mission was to make all peoples disciples of Christ and he frequently reminded his audiences of his own conversion.
Today, our dream for a peaceful planet extends beyond any one faith tradition or belief in dogmas. Our approach is broader and urgent. The development of one’s spirituality and the desire to live without fear are fueled by a feverish trepidation and a human yearning for peace and justice.
Imagine if the city or town you lived in was totally destroyed not by extreme weather conditions (fires, floods, tornadoes) but by dictators and terrorists. This has happened all too often in history. One example is reported in today’s first reading from the book of Ezra/Nehemiah (8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10).
Biblical scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi remarked that after their exile the Israelites “faced an overwhelming challenge: rebuilding not merely their homeland but their very identity as a people and a religion.” Yet in a short 50-years after their exile they experienced an incredible rebirth.
Cohn-Eskenazi noted the entire community was responsible for the restoration; and that the presence of God, they believed, was not limited to the restored temple building but it encompassed the entire city of Jerusalem.
In the gospel (Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21) the author wrote about the connection between Jesus and Isaiah “to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus would become the One the Israelites were waiting for.
We too take our place in a long line of advocates for justice and peace. We respond to “a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear.” We join with people of many faiths  and those who practice no religion at all to work together to create what we imagine to be an ideal world.
1. This weekend is the conclusion of this year’s Week of Prayer for Church Unity.
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The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year C
Daily and weekly we Christians turn to the Bible for reassurance that God is walking with us on our journeys. Our faith and hope empower us to cope with overwhelming issues affecting our lives.
A recent Gallop Poll reported that the top three things Americans are concerned about are the economy, poor government leadership, and the unrelenting virus. There are other pressing issues such as the growing gap between rich and poor people, clashing opinions about vaccinations, voter legislation, the slow demise of democracy, and climate change.
Our frustrations have incited quarrelsome divisions in our families, neighborhoods, churches, schools and town halls. The rancor among elected officials is not helpful. These cracks in our society, however, challenge us to reflect on those ways where faith and life meet.
The evangelist John wrote a collection of astonishing episodes to convince unbelievers that Jesus was the Messiah. Like other biblical anecdotes this one (John 2:1-11) addresses what is necessary for “turning water into wine.”
Even though Jesus claimed he was not ready for ministry he conceded to his mother’s plea. He showed his skeptical followers that he had a unique ability to do wondrous deeds particularly when the lives of others were at risk.
Jesus’ vision was that every situation and person must be treated with respect and care. As he carried out this task Jesus was showing us how to be partners with God in bringing about a kin-dom here on earth.
Psalm 96 asserts we are to “proclaim the marvelous deeds [of God] to all the nations.” However, as we go about exercising our baptismal ministries we ask ourselves: where is God in this moment of history?
Isaiah the prophet (62:1-5) asked a similar question. The Israelites were rebounding from years in exile. They wanted to rebuild their Temple destroyed by the Babylonians. Life for them was so harsh many of them gave up on God.
Old Testament scholar Callie Plunket-Brewton surmised that “the loss of self-rule and the continued absence of physical and symbolic stability” represented by their Temple [building], meant that “God was absent as well.”
With a vision for the future of Israel Isaiah continued to pester God to keep the promise God made not to forsake humanity. Isaiah emphasized: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet.”
How do we use our voices to make God’s kin-dom on earth a reality? In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (12:4-11) we are reminded of the many gifts we have. No matter what our talents are each of us is blessed in some way. In turn, we can be a blessing to others by “speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all those who are destitute.” (Proverbs 31:8)
Using our wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, and discernment we can be miracle workers; we can turn things around. We do not have to possess every charism but if we use the ones we are very good at we will begin to see results.
As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend we recall the innumerable ways he used his voice and took risks on behalf of poor and vulnerable people. Like Isaiah and Jesus, King also had a dream for the future. He sought to change water into wine, that is, to end poverty, racism of every kind.
In King’s words, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it … There is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will.” 
Sometimes our wine runs out. We get discouraged. We become anxious over things we cannot control. There is little money to pay the rent or mortgage, buy groceries or gas. We distrust even our closest friends. We begin to overlook the needs of others. Sometimes, we give up on God.
United Methodist pastor, Ismael Ruiz-Millán, remarked that the Cana miracle is calling each one of us “to identify what needs to be redeemed in our world so that it is in alignment with God’s desires for us.” The time is now for miracle workers to show up.
Jesus modeled for us a life dedicated to speaking only the truth; caring for those who need help; and advocating for laws that are just. Living in this way, during these troubling and unpredictable times, we too can turn water into wine.
1. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In A Testament of Hope ed. James M. Washington (New York: Harper & Collins, 1986), 623-624.
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The Baptism of Jesus - Year C
Water is a force of nature. We are born with a need for it. We cannot live without it. About 70% of the earth’s surface is water and as much as 60% of our bodies is water. But we don’t have what each person needs.
Less than one percent of the water on earth is fresh and suitable for human consumption. About 1 in 3 people live without safe drinking water, and the global water demand is expected to increase 50 percent or more by 2040.
Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible as a metaphor for life, death, cleansing, and purification. Today’s Psalm 29 affirms “the voice of God is over the water, vast waters.” If, according to these sacred texts, God is the architect of the primal forces of nature, why is water an endangered element? Surely God is not to blame.
The gospel for today is Luke’s version (3:15-16, 21-22) of the baptism of Jesus. Baptism with water is a customary way to initiate someone into a group. While John baptized his followers with water he said that his cousin Jesus would baptize with the “holy Spirit and fire.” There is no mention in the New Testament that Jesus himself baptized anyone with water.
If fire and Spirit are pivotal why baptize with water? According to New Testament scholar Shively Smith, the word fire is “an image for the purifying work of God’s spirit.” Baptism by water only, without an intense experience of the fiery indwelling of the Spirit, is not enough to change a person. The Spirit takes center stage in Luke’s gospel because this text does not state who actually baptized Jesus.
John the Baptizer could not have been present at the River Jordan. He was incarcerated by Herod a first century example of an insecure politician who craved dictatorial power, shamed and persecuted innocent people, and was paranoid about someone else becoming head of state. Both John and Jesus were threats to Herod’s totalitarianism.
What is the connection between baptism and climate change? While water sustains life it can also destroy life. Think of how floods, typhoons, and polluted water kill. Millions die daily due to diarrhea and one third of them are children under the age of five. Food production suffers because of droughts and rising temperatures.
Humans may never completely control natural disasters but we can work to stymie the root cause of them — climate change. Baptism is a call to discover ways to do such that.
Immersion in a large pool of water represents a symbolic “dying” with Christ and marks a change in the way a person chooses to live.  Dipped in the water the candidate is cleansed of an old life, lifted up anew and clothed with the life of Christ. Because baptism is a communal action the person then participates in a spiritual cooperative and is sustained by it as together they seek justice for all.
Biblical scholar Jerome Creach asserts that the synoptic gospels “present Jesus’ baptism as a revelation of his cosmic role as God’s servant who ushers in the kingdom of God.” That kin-dom is unfinished. The cosmos and all of its creatures are suffering. While some are waiting for the Creator God to come to the rescue, others see themselves as partnering with God to repair the earth.
A person who has faith in God, a relationship with Christ, and is energized by a holy Spirit, commits to standing with others who will boldly advocate for what is true and just. This is why so many followed John the Baptizer and then Jesus of Nazareth. The underclass of the Roman Empire yearned for someone to lead them out of subjugation to liberty.
Today, Christian cohorts unite with other faith traditions to change social policies and government legislation that, for example, deny people equal access to healthy food, decent housing, living wages, the right to vote, and, yes, clean water.
Isaiah (42:1-4, 6-7) affirms this call to action: “He [sic] will be bring forth justice to the nations.” Some scholars suggest the pronoun “he” is a reference to an individual while others claim it refers to a nation summoned to bring about a just world.
Although there are many examples of injustice in the world one urgent issue affects everyone. The future of this planet and humanity depends on reducing and eliminating the causes of climate change which in turn impacts our water supplies.
Scientist Sonja Klinsky points out: “To reduce climate change and protect those who are most vulnerable, it’s important to understand where emissions come from, who climate change is harming and how both of these patterns intersect with other forms of injustice.”
While water reclamation and reuse solutions are helpful they will not eliminate the problem of climate change. Dr. Klinsky explains: “The majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels to power industries, stores, homes and schools and produce goods and services, including food, transportation and infrastructure, to name just a few.”
We Christians are reminded, during these unpredictable times, to change our hearts about the way we live and to join others in accepting responsibility for the apocalyptic impact climate change has on the future of this planet and every creature on earth.
What does baptism have to do with halting climate change and other global atrocities? Everything.
1. Baptismal fonts are shaped like crosses or tombs to represent the death of Jesus. Some are designed as octagons symbolizing the eighth day of the week, Sunday, when Jesus was raised from the dead.
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World Peace Day 2022
Mary the Mother of God and The Epiphany - Year C
Opening Doors of Possibility
The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, the animistic spirit of doorways or thresholds. Janus is the god of new beginnings. This weekend there are three celebrations that help us focus on possibilities for the new year.
The World Day of Peace was instituted by Pope Paul 6 in 1967. This year Pope Francis’ message is called A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace. He appealed for a way to combat a “culture of indifference, waste, and confrontation so prevalent in our time.”
The pope also looked to the future as he wrote: “Consequently, our plans and projects should always take into account their effects on the entire human family, and consider their consequences for the present and for coming generations.”
The pope’s words echoed remarks made by the late Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1992 in reference to the future after apartheid in South Africa: “Together, we must work to transform our society into one that says human beings matter more than things and profits. Our society must set a high premium on sharing rather than on hoarding, on cooperating rather than competing.” 
A second example of how to work for peace and equity on earth is found in the celebration of Mary, Mother of God . It is a reminder of Mary’s role in nurturing the Son of God, who would lift up and save humankind from downfall and destruction.
This feast made its first appearance on January 1st in the 7th century. Author Michael Rizzotti wrote that in Neolithic mythology female goddesses were “cosmic symbols of regeneration and life.” Catholics today revere Mary the Mother of God as someone who nurses them with loving care, perseverance, resilience, and hope.
The feast of Epiphany offers a third way to manifest the presence of God in our societies. The date for the celebration of Epiphany in the East is January 6th (sadly, a nefarious date in American history). This year Roman Catholics observe “Three Kings Day” on Sunday January 2nd.
Only the evangelist Matthew (2:1-12) tells the story of the magi and that text gives few details. Scholars tell us they belonged to an ancient Persian priestly line specializing in Mithraic and Zoroastrian cultic rituals. They were also curious about the fulfillment of the Messianic prophesies explaining why, according to popular legend, these astrologers thought the bright star might lead them to the promised one.
Because the magi were Gentiles this gospel story suggests, as did Paul (Galatians 3:28), that the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate God, was intended to serve all peoples and not just those from certain religious practices or those who were privileged, wealthy, and powerful.
This story “discloses” God in continual action throughout the universe and helps us imagine possibilities for the future. For example, we hope that images from the James Webb telescope will broaden our understanding of the cosmic enterprise. We will be reminded that stars, planets, humans, animals, plant life, and this earth all belong to one “universal” family. Together we look to promote healthy relationships with everyone and everything in this household.
As the calendar page turns a recent CBS News Poll reported that 71% of Americans are hopeful for a better year ahead and 22% feel discouraged. Can religion play a role? The journal Christianity Today reports: “while many (74%) Americans believe the church offers hope, there is a gap in tangible expressions of that hope. Only 53% of U.S. adults believe the church makes a real difference, and 44% view the church as being known for the things they are against.”
Like the Mother of God who suckled Jesus and the magi who were inspired by the Star Prophecy  in the East, Christians can make a difference in the lives of many who are dispirited. We can join others from different cultural and religious traditions to manifest care, hope, resilience and perseverance.
Author and social justice activist Megan Phelps-Roper writes about the value of empathy in dialogue and ways to bridge ideological divides. She recently reflected on what the holidays meant for her.
“I came to see these periodic celebrations not as a denial of all that’s wrong in the world or in our lives, but as a reminder of the beauty we hope to preserve in them— a choice to build on good things, which is both more difficult and more worthwhile than the choice to tear down and root out ….”
As Christians, like others who are aware of the joys and sorrows in the world, we can open doors of new possibilities for all peoples.
1. See Psalm 67 for today: “May the nations be glad and exult because you rule the peoples in equity.”
2. Mary was given the title of theotokos; ie, God-Bearer or Mother of God, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE.
3. This term, also known as the Star of Bethlehem, refers to the coming of a saviour. It is found in the Qumran texts of the Dead Sea scrolls.
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Christmas and the Holy Family - Year C
During this past week the Associated Press released an article that read: “In the darkest days of the year, in a very dark time, there is a longing for illumination. And so, all around the world, the holiday lights go on — some of them humble, some of them spectacular, all of them a welcome respite from the dark.”
Whether it is the luster of Christmas trees in our homes or the gigantic displays in parks and streets across the globe the radiance casts a glow of cheer and hope. The bright lights offer us a brief but much needed break from the fears, the sadness, and the darkness caused by the gloom that surrounds us everywhere.
The gospel (John 1:1-18) for today’s Christmas liturgy today reminds us that Christ is the word of God in the world. John wrote: “What came to be through [the birth of Jesus of Nazareth] was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Christians will find ways to unwrap the light of Christ burning inside them, to “enlighten everyone.” In the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1-16), the unknown author challenges us: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, God has spoken to us [my emphasis] through the Son .…” 
This summons, to act for justice on this fragile planet was echoed at the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council regarding Christians and their momentous task in modern societies. They “are not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society.” 
Responsible citizens of heaven and earth have much to do in these United States. We are exasperated by myopic self-serving politicians, a new unconscionable military budget, reluctance to build back America, disagreements over climate control, unrelenting pandemics, and the sad fact, according to the Forbes magazine, that over 42.5 million families are trying to survive while living below the poverty level.
New Testament scholar, Gayle R. O’Day  stressed that today’s gospel promotes relationships among humanity. It is a call for human beings to emphasize blessings, peace, and justice. She wrote, [the gospel] is about the “purpose of Jesus’ ministry … to create a new family of God …. People who have no families, who come from destructive families, or who are alienated from their birth families” can become children of God.
The liturgical celebration of the Holy Family this weekend is a fitting complement to the Nativity narratives; and it raises more questions for us who are called to be luminaries in our communities.
Simply the word “family” cannot be defined in one way. Relational experiences are overriding the traditional — wife and husband with children — household. How do we greet and treat emerging familial associations?
In his commentary on defining family Dan H. observed that many families today are blended and extended, a mix of stepparents, half siblings, and couples without children. For some, family is made up of people who are not related to them. Rather than biological ties those relationships are rooted in loyalty, love, and shared responsibilities.
In the United States the number of single parents is on the rise. Same sex partners, married or not, are birthing, adopting, and raising children. Partnership without a marriage certificate is a rewarding relationship for more and more couples. Countless LGBTQI and transgendered persons find caring companionship with those they love. Immigrant families seek to be reunited.
The second reading for the Holy Family liturgy, from Colossians 3:12-21, is the switch that could turn on more light in the world. It begins with a list of virtues that the community should “put on” — heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another .…”
This letter has baptismal overtones. The charge to “put on” refers to the early Christian initiation practice of disrobing before entering the water and then dressing with new clothing after being baptized. To be baptized is not about saving one’s soul. It is about joining a community that practices the social gospel in the public square.
All of us who are baptized Christians are members of God’s holy family. This is not an exclusive club. It extends beyond denominational roots. In communion with other religious and non religious members of the human family Christians are humble and loving luminaries casting light on their respective communities.
As we ponder familiar biblical stories this holiday weekend, the James Webb telescope will be launched into space. It is designed to capture the light of some of the first galaxies that coalesced after the “Big Bang.” It will explore a wide range of questions to help us understand the origins of the ever expanding and contracting universe and our place in it.
Nothing stays the same. Scientific advancements and our life experiences tell us that Christ is always being born and reborn and is constantly emerging in new electrifying ways throughout the cosmos and our lives. The radiance of Christ will continue to shine as long as we keep the lights on.
1. In another letter Paul writes to the Philippians 2:15 and states that the believers [in Christ] are luminaries in the world.
2. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, December 7, 1965, no. 43
3. O’Day, Gayle, “The Gospel of John” in Women’s Bible Commentary. C. Newsome, S. Ringe, J. Lapsley (editors), Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, 517 ff.
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The Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year C
For those living in the Northern Hemisphere Tuesday December 21st is the Winter Solstice. It will be the shortest day and longest night of the year. Different traditions will gather to celebrate the “birth of the sun” while Christians, in a homophonic way, will focus on the “birth of the Son.”
Christmas celebrates the arrival of Jesus from Nazareth as the revelation of God. His mission was to save not only the Jews from Roman empirical oppression but to proclaim a time of peace, prosperity, and salvation for all people. Christians believe that the world order would be significantly altered because of the justice-filled ministry and sacrifices modeled by Jesus.
Much of the world’s problems are caused by those who wish to control the destiny of this planet and its occupants. Theirs is not an egalitarian or peaceful agenda. Christians and others who care about the earth and vulnerable citizens are called to counter tyranny with justice.
On this fourth Sunday of the Advent season the biblical texts speak of resilience. The prophet Micah (5:1-4a) predicted the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. But he also promised a future ruler who would come from Bethlehem-Ephrathah, a small remote and unknown town. It was the birthplace of the underdog David, the future king of Judah and Israel. God dwells among those who are least familiar.
The Psalm (80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19) is a communal lament that was used in times of national oppression. It calls upon God to save the people from danger. The psalmist implores the Creator to “take care of what you have planted.” This prayer is relevant today as we ponder how to reap goodness in God’s garden while many societies appear arid and parched.
Americans are at odds with one another and the role government plays when it comes to immigration policies, environmental regulations, taxes, vaccinations, and voters’ rights. Nineteen states have enacted 33 laws this year that will make it harder for Americans to vote. This last issue is only one example of several efforts underway to undermine the foundations of our democracy.
Many wonderful pastoral initiatives aim to serve people in need. The irony is that while this is happening membership in American houses of worship is at an all time low. A modicum of imagination and courage would breath new life into congregations. This could mean letting go of worn out religious customs. Also, in allegiance to the gospels, preachers could make more biblical based statements criticizing government for its negligence in caring for every citizen.
Faith thrives along with social action. Like the prophets of old and Jesus himself, there is a need to publicly decry the behavior of those politicians who have become adept at twisting biblical aphorisms. They do so to justify their agendas, which often decry or ignore human rights. Pulpit apathy and silence hurts powerless people.
Adam Hearlson, Pastor of Overbrook Presbyterian Church, wrote about radical and courageous preaching. “One of the marks of the prophetic imagination is its resilience. It refuses to be trampled. To be a prophet is to take the external possibilities and resist allowing their internalization. The outside possibilities ought never hinder our imagination of what remains possible.” This is so true as the media, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, more so than the Bible, are shaping opinions and value systems.
Who will rise to the occasion? Will it be a power from on high? Or, will it be someone we least expect? In the gospel story (Luke 1:39-45) we hear about two previously unknown women. An unwed teenager from Nazareth connects with her old barren cousin from the hill country of Judah. Both Elizabeth and Mary are mysteriously pregnant. Elizabeth was too old and Mary was a virgin.
Both of them were about to give birth to miracle babies who would, in principle, challenge people to fix societal corruption, to level self-serving governments, to care for creation, and to celebrate a simple way of living. Mary was not a recognized leader of people. John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop Emeritus of Newark, affirmed that Mary [like other women] was “de-humanized by a condescending and patriarchal hierarchy.”
Still, like many feisty, independent-minded teenagers today, Mary spoke her mind, and forecast how the baby she was bearing would eventually make life better especially for the working class. Mary broke into song and fearlessly broadcast that the powerless will be made strong and the strong will be made weak.
Niveen Sarras, a Lutheran Palestinian Biblical Scholar, who was born in Bethlehem, sees the birth of Christ, as told in Luke and Matthew, as a political and religious response to Roman Imperialism. She wrote: “The narrative of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth speaks to us about Mary’s participation in the salvation of her people … Mary’s song voices themes that appear in every culture, society, and generation. People are still anticipating deliverance from unjust rulers and unjust law.”
It is apparent that privileged white men are not the only ones who can declare the word of God or establish peace on earth. Women, people of color, poor, ostracized, incarcerated, and vulnerable people all impart the real presence of God in our midst. New Zealand storyteller, Joy Cowley, rendered Mary’s Song with a refreshing and encouraging adaptation. “My soul sings in gratitude. I’m dancing in the mystery of God. The light of the Holy One is within me and I am blessed, so truly blessed.”
For those of us who see Advent as a time to regain our confidence as Christians, strengthen our resilience and take action against inequities, Mary’s Song is our anthem. We too are called to “dance in the mystery of God.”
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The Third Sunday of Advent
Lectionary Cycle C
In the United States unemployment numbers are down but inflation continues to rise. Extreme weather conditions are destroying communities but some politicians debunk the cause of climate change. Many countries have more open borders but Pope Francis chastised other nations for turning vulnerable immigrants away.
The first of two Summits for Democracy was hosted by President Biden while Russian troops are pressing in on Ukraine’s borders. And, December 10th was International Human Rights Day as millions of refugees and minorities are held captive by tyranny.
Resilience, transformation and hope are the resounding themes in today’s biblical texts. But given signs of fragility in the world how do these words help us? The message from Zephaniah 3:14-18a is one example. The prophet encouraged the Judeans as they made their way to Jerusalem with plans for reconstructing their Temple. 
Zephaniah urged: “You have no further misfortune to fear, God is in your midst. God will renew you in God’s love.” Where’s the good news? These “chosen people” once gave up on God. Now they are singing a different song of renewed assurance that God never stopped walking with them.
In today’s section from First Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6 the people of God are encouraged to “cry out with joy, that they be confident and unafraid. Make God’s deeds and glorious achievements known among the nations.”
How are people who have no power or wealth expected to cry out with joy? Where is the good news for them? This text summons anyone who lives in freedom to do something about breaking the chains of poverty. The expectation is that, somehow, the divine presence that radiates in their lives will make freedom possible for others who are helpless.
We hear this same message throughout the liturgical year — that God calls us to be caretakers of every facet of creation that has been gifted to us. That charge is emphasized today on Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday when the entrance antiphon resounds: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” These lines are found in today’s reading from Philippians 4:4-7. Paul is still in jail urging his readers: remain united, do not be anxious, be thankful, be kind to everyone, and pray.
Why should the Philippians have paid any attention to this message? Why should we? Paul is quick to answer: “The peace of God surpasses all understanding and God has anointed us to bring glad tidings to the poor [meaning anyone living on the edges of society].
According to Carla Works, Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, “Joy, for Paul, is not a feeling that is dependent upon circumstances. It is a theological act. It is choosing to reflect on God’s actions to redeem the cosmos even when all the present circumstances might indicate that some other power had won.”
Putting faith into action can be hampered by the busy-ness of this season, anxieties over an unrelenting pandemic, concerns about dwindling democracies, and the emergence of new places of exile. In her latest book, Ilia Delio, scientist and theologian at Villanova University, adds: “… if you stay true to what you see because the power of God is the light of your vision, then you will change the world because you yourself will be changed.”
Delio believes contemplation and the eucharist are helpful tools in bringing about this vision. For us it could mean learning to meditate. To meditate we have to sit still more often to get in touch with our inner being. “Relaxing and calming the body as we breathe in and out” can bring us joy.  Once energized and transformed we can join others to spread that joy in the world.
We are called to be in communion with all people and not only with members of our respective congregations or cliques of like-minded friends. Catholics will recall that the Church is a “sacrament of Unity.”  Those involved in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogues continue to imagine the creation of a common bond uniting people of all faiths in working to establish a peaceful kin-dom of God now.
Countless people are busy making this goal a reality. There are regional food banks and local food pantries, community collections of toys, refugee centers, neighborhood soup kitchens, counseling services, shelters for homeless families and programs to educate incarcerated women and men. These are examples that God’s sovereignty on earth is slowly emerging.
In the gospel from Luke (3:10-18) we read that everyone came to be baptized  John informed these seekers that personal transformation is essential if they want to follow the Coming One. Initiation into the life of Christ is a life long process involving a constant awareness of our place in the ever unfolding cosmic enterprise. Dealing with injustice and treating all people with kindness and mercy are expressions of gratitude for the favors (graces) of God.
The value of our many religious traditions is that they call us to focus on the gifts of first fruits, light and joy. We are urged to share these blessings with those living on the edges of society at least in our own backyards. These are the best presents we can distribute. They also can nourish and shape our consciences, strengthen our purposes, and bolster our behaviors in the public realm.
Where is the good news? We are the good news.
1. Thanks to the Edict of Cyrus the Babylonian captivity ended in 586 BCE.
2. Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Sit. Berkeley CA: Parallax Press, 2014, p. 51.
3. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 26 is a reference to the Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishops. Since the Vatican II Ecumenical Council the word “church” has been used in reference to all Christian churches.
4. From the Greek language the expression “to baptize” means to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one's self, bathe.
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The Second Sunday of Advent - Lectionary Year C
The Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa celebrations converge at this time of year in an annual relational dance. Each one is a festival of light and first fruits. A deeper examination of the biblical texts for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, also reveals more about who we are and what is our purpose.
Kwanzaa, originally thought to be a Black alternative to a “White Christmas,” has developed as a celebration of the first fruits of African American culture, history, art, and music. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa after the 1960s Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. He wrote: “The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose and direction.” Today we might add to his explanation — this is why “Black Lives Matter.”
The larger context for the fantastic miracle story of Hanukkah, which, is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah, is also about culture and identity. Simon Shama called it the “Hasmonean liberation festival.” It commemorated breaking away from the tyrannical clutch of the Seleucids, a Macedonian Greek [Hellenist] oligarchy.
The Hasmoneans, the ruling and ruthless dynasty of Judea up to 64 BCE, saw themselves as both a religious and military power. They were known for colonizing every nation they conquered. (Think of how many Christian missionaries later in history repressed indigenous cultures even while teaching them about Jesus Christ.)
According to Shama, the Hasmoneans saw themselves as the “appointed guardians of Torah Judaism against Hellenistic contaminations … [and] invented Hanukkah” presumably as a festival to keep the story of victory over enemies in the collective memories of Jews. 
According to free-lance author Bari Weiss, “Contained in this story [of Hanukkah] are the themes that have run through Jewish history. The tension between universalism and particularism. The battle between assimilation and self-assertion.” Weiss’s commentary could be applied to tensions currently experienced in Christianity as well as in other religious institutions and nation states.
The Hanukkah story, John the Baptizer’s announcement of the Coming One in today’s gospel (Luke 3:1-6), and the eventual emergence of Christianity — are linked. The Christmas festival (the 25th of December is also without a biblical backup), is truly a celebration of light and first fruits.
We recall that the 4th century date of the nativity was established to counter secular celebrations during the winter solstice. That year (336 CE) officially marked the birthing of the promised One into history, a commemoration that continues to stimulate the religious imagination, the stringing of lights, as well as the secular holiday industry.
Luke wrote this gospel after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, long before Jesus’ assigned birthday. Luke’s purpose was to depict John the Baptizer as the precursor not only of the Coming One but also of a new way of amalgamating differing cultural groups.
Some scholarship suggests Luke was sympathetic to Jews before he became a Christian. He urged his Greek speaking readers of today’s gospel to adhere to Jewish customs. Remember the Hasmoneans aimed to protect Jewish culture from the Greeks. Luke’s vision was for a “pluralistic community of Jews and Gentiles, Romans and non-romans in the common people of God.” 
In the mid-50s CE, and much earlier than Luke’s writings, Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (3:26-28) “There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Biblical scholar Richard B. Hays wrote that this letter to the Galatians reflects a critical moment in defining the identity and purpose of the Christian movement.
This biblical quote is not so much a call to a singular Christian culture or global religious practice but a summons to all people of different creeds, races, and ethnic groups to learn to work within a common ground. The three holiday festivals mentioned here remind us how all humans want to maintain a purpose in life that reinforces their identities, teachings, values.
The Hasmoneans wanted to guard Jewish identity against other super powers. Christians sought to strengthen an emerging Jesus cult against heretical movements. Blacks and people of color want to retain their unique identities and not be subjugated to White power and privilege.
While he was in prison Paul urged the Philippians (1:4-6, 8-11) to focus on things that really matter especially in the face of personal and communal setbacks. He summoned his audience to become partners with God in achieving peace on earth. He believed that the gospel message would advance against all odds.
Christians can heed this advice by striving to advance values shared by different cultures to counter the tensions that Bari Weiss described in her commentary on the origins of Hanukkah as “the pull between fundamentalism and secularism.” Weiss is raising “the complicated question of how far the bonds of peoplehood can strain before they break.”
During the season of Advent Christians frequently see John the Baptizer as an unusual desert-dweller who calls us to repent from evil ways. Make crooked roads straight. Level the insurmountable hills. Fill in the potholes. Was he preaching to corrupt leaders or the peasants who were victims of corruption? To “repent” means having a change of heart — an inner transformation that will bear fruit and cast light on others.
Urging diverse groups to share a vision for justice and peace seems to be an unlikely objective in a world ruptured by cultural clashes and societal problems. Will those of us who come from different classes, myriad religious traditions, and varying political postures be willing to have a change of heart, to eliminate unwavering and divisive agendas?
The Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa festivals of light and first fruits are three celebrations that remind us we can do just that if we are willing to take some risks.
1. You can read more about the Hasmoneans in the apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees.
2. Christopher R Matthews in David Attridge (Ed.) The Harper Collins Study Bible RSV (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989) p. 1761.