Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Holy Family

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:22-40

            Today we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—the model family for Christian families. Admittedly, they're a tough act to follow. None of us were immaculately conceived or conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. However, they are the ideal not because their origination, but because of their example of obedience and holiness.
            Our readings center on relationships in the family and the centrality of family in the formation of character. Sirach confirms the authority of father and mother but particularly emphasizes the father's role as the source of authority in the family, as role modeled on our Heavenly Father. Sirach is one of the seven books in the Catholic bible that are not included in the Hebrew Tanakh or the Protestant Old Testament, which is a shame because it's a tremendous source of wisdom.
            St. Paul's letter to the Colossians highlights the need to act with compassion, kindness, and patience with everyone in our faith community, but he sets particular emphasis on the relationships within the family. Many people don't care for the language of submission that Paul uses here, but no one is getting off easy: wives should submit to husbands; husbands should love their wives and hold no bitterness; children should obey parents; husbands should act without provocation toward children.  If we did act this way in our families, how different would our actions be toward those who are not in our families? We're often the worst to the people with whom we're closest. So Paul's emphasis here on family is not by accident. The family is foundational for the proper raising of children to live in society.
            Paul uses the language of self-sacrifice. He tells us to set aside our preferences and to do what is best spiritually for others. And his message is not a very popular one either—to set aside the self and to do for others first. Yet to live and thrive in community requires us to hold some things greater than our own personal desires and well being.
            In Luke's gospel, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Jerusalem to present him at the temple, an event that we commemorate in the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd. Jews were obligated to present first-born sons at the temple and to offer sacrifice. We know that this family is poor because of the sacrifice itself—two turtledoves or young pigeons. A wealthy family would be expected to sacrifice a lamb and a dove. We get a glimpse in this gospel of what it meant to be a Jewish family. They followed the prescribed feasts and fulfilled their obligations NOT because it was easy or because it helped them financially but because they believed that they owed it to God their creator—their Father—and they believed that it demonstrated their love for Him. It was one of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that Jews fulfilled not solely out of obligation but also out of love. Jesus castigated the Pharisees for stacking obligations on top of the commandments, but he never condemned the simple performance of these acts of love.
            I want to focus on one person in this narrative, the foster father of Jesus, Joseph. Joseph utters not a single word in either infancy account in Luke or Matthew, but we can gather that he is a righteous man who does what is best for his family. When the angel tells him to set aside his fear and wed Mary, he does it without hesitation. When the angel instructs him to flee to Egypt with his family, he does it. Joseph is a man of action rather than words. He demonstrates his fidelity by what he does, not by making dramatic speeches. That should be a lesson for all of us fathers. Our actions do far more to shape the character of our children than our words.
            The family is the brick from which the foundation of civilization in built. The Church calls the family, in paragraph 1656 of the Catechism, the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. It is the primary place of faith formation for children— the primary place of faith formation for children. It is the oven in which the bricks of civilization are cured. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and many popes prior to him have stressed the foundational importance of the family not only to civilization but also to the transmission of the faith. I don't know why anyone should be surprised by that last bit—that the family is foundational for faith formation. And our culture is hell-bent on undermining it. Pope St. Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae that family life would be profoundly affected if sex and procreation were divorced from each other, and he was roundly condemned both by western society but also by many of the theologians of the time. Yet his predictions have all proven true. And far too many of us let our children be raised in this cultural village.
            It may take a village to raise a child, but some villages are more sound than others.
            Sadly many of us still act as if faith formation is only the responsibility of the official Church: that we personally don't need to actively teach the faith to our children, that we don't personally need to follow the doctrines of the faith and model devotional life, and that we don't personally need to follow the very basic requirements of the Church—the precepts of the Catholic faith.
            So as we Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers—who still happen miraculously to be in these pews—as we attend mass and watch our children walk out the door, we should be asking ourselves, have we created a domestic church in our homes? Do we act like we believe what the Church teaches? Do we try to teach it to our children?
            I know this is difficult in our society, where every attempt to reign in personal choice is castigated as "oppressive" and "intolerant." But we have got to be more courageous about our faith. Just look at what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East, where Christian traditions far older than ours are being purged by radical militants. Are they privatizing or hiding their faith? Not all. They are standing for the faith in which they—and we—profess to believe. The difference is that they are ready to die for it... and are already dying for it.
            If we do not create a domestic church at home, our children will go out into a faithless culture and suck up what is there. Unless we found them on a belief in objective Christian truth, they will by default fall into a belief in relative truth—which is, in the end, a belief in nothing.
            Do we truly believe what we espouse here? Do we believe in the transformation that happens here on our altar—that our God comes to feed us with Himself? Have we created that domestic church in our homes? Have we created a place for God in the hearts of our children?


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Welcome!

I noticed a very sudden jump in my blog traffic, which I suspect is related to the broadcast  on Salt and Light and EWTN yesterday. Thanks for checking out the blog. Mostly, these days, I post my homilies. However, I do intend to finish up my conversion story. If you're interested in a preview, check out this post from the day of my ordination. It will give you a hint of where I've been.

Blessings to you all!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Humility—Third Sunday of Advent—Cycle C

Isaiah 61: 1–2a, 10–11; Resp. Luke 1:48–54; 1 Thess. 5:16–24; John 1:6–8, 19–28
            This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin Introit for today's Mass from Philippians 4. "Rejoice in the Lord always." And also from the second reading today, which begins, "Semper gaudete." Always rejoice. We depart from the somber tone of this penitential season for a bit to celebrate the light that is dawning on us. So we light a rose colored candle and wear rose colored vestments to celebrate and rejoice in the coming dawn. Some of our ministers will rejoice a bit less if you tease them about wearing pink today, so for the record, I will remind you that we are wearing rose colored garments.
            We have some common themes this week relating to joy and anticipation, but also to a virtue that many of us don't appreciate enough: humility. The readings for this week are also fantastic examples of how the old testament prefigures the new, and the new points back to and interprets the old. Isaiah is the best exemplar of this tendency, as so much of what we read in Isaiah points forward to Christ. The first line of today's first reading comes from the mouth of Isaiah, "The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me." Isaiah announces freedom for those who are captive, glad tidings to those who are poor, and healing for the brokenhearted. The word for anointed in Isaiah is Mashiah, from which we get the word, Messiah. Isaiah is not speaking, intentionally, of the Messiah, but he prefigures the coming Messiah, as many others in salvation history prefigured Christ.
            In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reads this same passage in His home synagogue to announce the beginning of His mission. Luke actually quotes the Greek version of this text, which uses the Greek word for anointed, e' kristen', which is where we get the word Kristos or Christ. So Jesus announces His arrival using the words of Isaiah.
            Now Isaiah wasn't particularly popular among his fellow Jews, as no prophet is welcomed in his home. And Jesus likewise isn't received very well by his neighbors, who know him as the son of the carpenter and of Mary. There's even something of a scandal in how that birth came about. But the words of Jesus and Isaiah are not empty boasting. Each is simply acknowledging their gifts and their role in God's plan of salvation.
            The Magnificat, our responsorial Psalm today, comes from the infancy narrative in Luke. Mary rejoices that God has noticed her even in her humble state and that God lifts up those who are lowly. The Magnificat is another of those canticles with reverberations in the Old Testament, and it presents a series of contrasts between the humble and the arrogant.
            These readings share a common theme of humility. Now, I'm not talking about the kind of groveling humility where one is humiliated, but the true virtue of humility, which is to see oneself as one truly is. Isaiah recognizes the great honor God has done to him by anointing him as prophet. He knows he has done nothing to deserve it other than to be willing to do God's will. He is wrapped in garments of salvation and a robe of justice. He knows that all he has is from God and to use for God. That is true humility.
            Finally, we come to John the Baptist, and here we see the contrast between the humble and the arrogant. A delegation comes from the temple in Jerusalem: priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees who come to question this man in the desert. Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself? Can you just picture the haughtiness of these delegates? Who are you to be out here baptizing people? Are you a prophet? Are you Elijah? Who are you?
            And John also quotes Isaiah: "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord' .... Among you stands one whom you do not know... the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." He is the precursor, called by Jesus as "the greatest of all men," but he knows one thing for certain. He is nothing—NOTHING compared to the God who is to come.
            That is humility—to know that we are just servants and not truly worthy to serve.
            Now, humility gets short shrift in our culture, and that's largely because it is so frequently exhibited in false humility: denial of our true gifts, ungraciously refusing others who compliment us, or pretending to be modest when we're really not. But we should seek to cultivate true humility. It's not an easy thing to develop, and sometimes it comes when we least expect it and in ways that often do seem humiliating.
            I remember when I was in diaconal formation, I was talking to the wife of one of my deacon mentors, and I mentioned that I had been praying for a deeper sense of humility. She responded to me, "Are you out of your mind? Oh, you can bet God will make it happen."
            And she was right. I don't think anything helps us to find out just how flawed we are as humans as when we seek a vocation.
            But humility is truly necessary for the spiritual life. We need to know that we are utterly dependent on God. We have these penitential seasons like Advent and Lent to remind us how much we need God's presence. And we will only truly recognize our dependence when we see ourselves as we truly are. When we come to this Eucharist each week, do we recognize that dependence? Do we recognize how extraordinary it is that God presents Himself to us as our daily sustenance?
            Do we see our dependence in Him in this act of communion?
            John's message in the gospel is for us today in this time of preparation. Make straight the way of the Lord. How do we do this? We can begin by examining our consciences and seeing where we fall short. We can get the clutter out of our lives: set aside all of the distraction, let go of all of the material wants, and loose ourselves from those things that don't matter. You cannot open your heart to God if your heart is set on the cares of this world.

            Make straight the way of the Lord. Give Him a straight passageway into your heart. He can get there anyway, but you can show Him how ready you are by clearing all the junk, the distractions, and the attachments out of the way, and by opening your arms and heart to say, I am ready for you, Lord.