Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Forge of Vocation—Feast of the Holy Family (Cycle C)

            Yesterday was the feast of St. Stephen, a special day for deacons because St. Stephen was one of the first deacons, and the first Christian mentioned in scripture to be stoned—and by that, I mean martyred. So whatever connections you make between deacons and St. Stephen's being stoned I will leave on your conscience.
            Today is the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, and it's a day on which the Church reflects on foremost on the Holy Family, but also on the gift of family in our lives and the role that family plays in the formation of our character.
            In the first reading, Hannah names her son Shmuel (שמואל), which we pronounce Samuel in English. The name has no precise meaning but has been translated variously as—heard of God, asked of God, His name is God, or namesake of God. What we get in this passage is essentially a folk etymology. His name is Samuel because Hannah asked the Lord for him. Hannah takes Samuel to the temple and dedicates him to God's service. It's important to note here her motivation. Out of gratitude to God for His gift of a child to her, a child she had longed for and whose birth removed the stigma of barrenness from her, she gives Samuel back to God.
            Now, if you've studied this book before, you already know that Samuel is literally called by God, and he becomes a great prophet and judge of Israel. It is he who anoints first Saul and later David as kings of Israel. But imagine how different his life had been had he not been in the temple. Would he have heard the call to his vocation if he were not in a context where he was constantly exposed to God?
            In our Gospel reading, Jesus is left behind in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph search for him for three days only to find him in the temple. To us, this story sounds a bit like the family that left the kid at the rest area, and our parental judgment apparatus springs into action. But keep in mind that in that time, extended families and neighbors would travel together to and from Jerusalem for the three major festivals. Mary's presence on the journey indicates her personal dedication to her faith, since the journey was only required for Jewish men. They assumed that Jesus was traveling with the other members of their large contingent from Nazareth, which was a completely legitimate assumption for them in their time. So let's not take this as a sign that Joseph and Mary were anything other than exceptional parents. They were devoted in the observance of their faith, and if anything, it is Jesus who has done something unexpected and out of character for their culture.
            When they find Jesus, he is sitting in the temple asking questions and responding to the teachers, and the teachers are astounded by his wisdom. You see, at that time, a Jewish boy's religious education did not culminate in a bar Mitzvah at age 13. They didn't start until they were 12. So Jesus' understanding is so completely out of the norm for the time and place. At the age when most of us started junior high, he is teaching the teachers.
            Mary questions Jesus. She has a legitimate grievance: "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety."
            And Jesus answers, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And this, likewise, is a legitimate question.
            Now why do I make that claim? Because Jesus does here what we are all called to do: to respond to the vocation to which God calls us. He recognizes his vocation and sets out to practice it. That sounds a little odd to us in our secular culture—a 12-year old disregarding his parents' concerns and embarking on a vocation. How many of us would stand for something that radical? But this is in a culture where parents regularly committed their children at an early age. In fact, one explanation for Mary's marriage to Joseph was that she had been dedicated for service to the temple until she was of age and then needed a patron after she was no longer qualified to serve. Samuel's call likewise came at an early age. It is simply something that is foreign to our modern sensibilities and context.
            So how do these two stories touch on the meaning and purpose of family? Our Church, of course, has something to say about that.
            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. As I said in last year's homily for this feast, family 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.
            In this context, children see whether or not the faith makes a difference in family life and in all life. If our faith isn't taught and demonstrated in the home, it will not find a home in the human heart. Both of our readings show that faith begins at home, and then the children take it out to serve God in the greater society. What would Samuel have done without his mother's commitment and gratitude to God for His gift to her? And while we can presume that Jesus would carry out his mission regardless of whether Mary and Joseph were on board, the gospel writers—particularly Luke—make it clear that Mary and Joseph are pious and observant Jews. That could not have hurt his mission by any means.
            So family is important for faith formation, and part of formation in the faith is discerning one's calling. Because of his mother's sacrifice, Samuel discerned his calling while he served in the temple. Undoubtedly, Jesus was able to respond to his calling because of his parents' observance of the Jewish high holy days. In both cases, we see that the child is aided in discerning and following a call through his parents' support.
            Now, I'm sure I don't need to explain that the word vocation comes from the Latin verb that means to call. A calling is a vocation, and all of us are called to some mission. As Catholics, we believe that this calling is not just a personal preference but something that God has knit into our fabric—into our very being—and if we ignore the call or if we do not take the time to listen for it, we miss the very purpose for which we have been given life. All of us have a vocation, and if we do not find that vocation, we will find our lives unsatisfying. We will fill up our time with frivolous and meaningless endeavors.
            It used to be the norm for Catholic families to encourage their children to discern whether they had a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. My uncle attended minor seminary for just that purpose, and I know more than one of our parishioners who spent some time in the discernment process. Some discern instead that they have a firm commitment to the vocation of marriage, and that is good as well. The point is that they discern where God is calling them to mission.
            "What do you want to do with your life?" That is a question we often ask our children. What do you want of your life? There's a problem with this. First, it confirms the tendency we have in our culture to think that we live solely for our own self satisfaction, and that is quite simply not true. Second, it assumes that we are given gifts for our own use alone. Scripture teaches us that our gifts must be used for the purpose for which they are given, and that purpose is not under our determination, but it is under our stewardship.
            We do not ask our children the right question. We should not be asking them, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" We should be asking them, "What do you think God is calling you to do when you grow up?" We should be encouraging them to consider their mission in terms of God's will for them, not their own will for themselves. It should be no surprise to us, then, if our grown children are focused solely on their own personal self-fulfillment than on serving God or anyone else. Their self-centeredness is something our culture will implant in them if we do not take the time to inculcate in them a knowledge of their obligation to discern God's will in their lives—in directing their lives according to His will and not their preferences.
            This concern about vocations is not just an abstract exercise. Our Church needs priestly and religious vocations. And vocations begin in the home. If we are going to have priests to serve at the altar, to bring us the Eucharist daily, weekly, or even monthly, we must raise boys to pursue the priesthood. If we are going to have religious brothers and sisters to provide service to the Church and to the impoverished, elderly, and disabled, we must raise children who seek to serve rather than to be served. We have to look at the generosity of Hannah, who gave her much desired child back to God in His service; and to the Blessed Mother, who accepted her own vocation to be the Mother of God. We have to look back on the generosity of the fathers and mothers of past generations who encouraged their children to seek God's purpose for their lives, parents like Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, who gave not just one but five daughters to serve religious vocations, including a doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

            We have to recall why we are here, and it doesn't hurt to start with the basic proposition from our catechism. We are here to know, love, and serve God, in this life and the next.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rejoice! Third Sunday of Advent (Cycle C)

Third Sunday of Advent (Cycle C)

Zephaniah 3:14–18a; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:10–18
            Today we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin translation of Philippians 4. "Rejoice in the Lord always." Always rejoice. We depart from the somber tone of this penitential season for a bit to celebrate the light that is dawning on us.
            The readings today give us our marching orders for Advent and beyond. The Latin word adventus, the source of our English term, indicates an approach or onset. Advent is the onset of Christ's coming again. As our readings suggest, it is a time of hope, of looking forward to a joyous event, but not necessarily from the perspective of people who are now experiencing joy. Often the expectation of the Messiah's coming dawns when His people are at their lowest, when they feel bereft and oppressed.
            Zephaniah prophecies during the reign of Josiah, a time when the king is attempting to bring the kingdom back from its fall into idolatry. The Assyrians have been chipping away at the Kingdom of Judea and demanding their tribute, which always means an oppressive tax on the people. All of these events are considered to be the result of the sins of the People of Israel. But Zephaniah tells them that God is letting go of that penalty and that they will be delivered from their oppression. In the midst of their strife, they are called to rejoice in their deliverance.
            The letter of St. Paul to the Philippians is much the same. Paul is writing from prison, as Fr. Jerry mentioned last week. Now Paul wasn't exactly a popular figure in Philippi, at least not with those outside the Church. If you remember the account in Acts, he expels a spirit from a slave girl who is constantly prophesying in a loud voice that Paul and his companions served the Most High God. Her owners weren't too happy about that. St. Paul was pretty adept at ticking off the local populace and bringing their wrath upon him. But even he is telling the Philippians, whom he obviously loves, to be joyful. He knows that all of this tribulation has a purpose. We can obsesses about our trials, or we can rejoice because we know the one who has overcome the world.
            And then there are those of us who perhaps dwell too much on where we've been rather than where we're going. John the Baptist's message in the gospel reading addresses these who have come to recognize their need to repent from their past lives. John doesn't shake his head and say, "Tsk, tsk. I'm sorry, but you guys are toast." He gives them concrete steps on the right path. First he tells them to repent, and then he gives them their marching orders.
Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Give what you have in excess to the poor.
            And these actions help the penitent to grow in holiness. St. John Chrysostom said that "the poor are physicians, and their hands are an ointment for your wounds." And if you've ever worked with the truly poor, or if you've ever visited the sick, or fed someone who was hungry, you've experienced it—that sense that what little you've done actually helped you more than it helped the other because it helped you to move outside of yourself and to recognize Christ in the other. Regardless of where you've been, your sins are old news, and they are swept away. John is saying, "All of that past stuff was true, but you are forgiven. Now go and leave all of that behind. Go and sin no more." That is the very message of mercy that the Holy Father has challenged us to proclaim in this Jubilee year of mercy.
            It's a message that hits home for me. I myself have been in this position. I was not always that man you see in front of you now—holy, righteous, and dashingly handsome.
            But seriously, I am a far different person now than I was in my young adult life. I drifted away from the Catholic faith in my late teens, and I wandered for a long time—about 20 years. I did plenty of things of which I'm not proud. And I could go on carrying those failures as many of us do. But the call to repentance is not a call to self-judgment and condemnation. It is a call to recognition and conviction and then, ultimately... to mercy... to forgiveness... to healing. To letting go and moving on.
            That's what Advent and Lent are all about—helping us to recognize our brokenness; helping us to recognize our need for healing; helping us to recognize our need for salvation. Thank God that salvation has come, and in this season, we celebrate the fact that He is coming again.
            But like it was for the Israelites in our first reading, there are plenty of reasons for anxiety. If we look around our world, we can find many reasons to be fearful and anxious. The last year has seen a mass exodus of refugees from areas of conflict, and areas that have been historically Christian since the first century are seeing their native Christian populations disappear. We're seeing an increase of terrorist violence all over the world, even in our own back yard. Our political rhetoric has become increasingly bombastic and intolerant. It seems like we can't have a civil conversation in a public arena without someone barging in, not to engage in dialogue, but only to disrupt. We seem to have less and less of a shared culture and shared morality on which to base our decisions.
            Our world is more chaotic than ever.
            Or at least than we remember in our lifetimes.
            The fact is, every era encounters these moments of chaos and doubt. Look at the letters of St. Paul. Look at the words of the prophets like Zephaniah. Plus çe change, plus c'est le même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
            We're not really seeing anything new. We're seeing version 21.15 of the same old thing.
            Which means we're still seeing the same result of our fallen nature playing itself out. We're still seeing those same human failings that we've always seen. We're still seeing the effects of sin and the wounds they create in our lives and the lives of the people we love.
            But we still also encounter the effects of redemption in our world. We still encounter those moments of grace individually and collectively. We have that moment of grace when we set aside our own needs to take care of the homeless, or to visit the sick, or to comfort others who are in pain. We watch those flash mob videos of people singing the Alleluia chorus in a midwest mall or in a European market square.
            We have those moments when we collectively stand up and say, "No, we will not engage in persecution of the others in our midst."
            "No, we will not tolerate the neglect of the homeless in our midst."
            "No, we will not euthanize the old and weak, or abort the young, or neglect the alien."
            We have moments of grace, and we have to remember that the story is not over. Advent is here to remind us of that. The man who came here and suffered that defeat (point to the crucifix), has overcome the world. And He is coming again on the clouds in power and glory to make an end of all defeat. And He comes to this altar today to make us one.

            And that is why we rejoice.