Sunday, December 31, 2006

The School of Nazareth

Holy Family Sunday is an important piece in the mosaic of the mystery not only of the Incarnation but also of our Salvation. The Scripture readings for this Sunday are rich especially in answers to the battery of questions concerning what Christmas has to say to me; what are the implications of the Christmas story, the infancy, the childhood, the boyhood of Jesus for me personally, for family life today, for life in the world?

One of my favorite "Holy Family Sunday things" is reading again the excerpt found in the breviary from Pope Paul VI's meditation offered in Nazareth in 1964, during the Holy Father's pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It has been an almost obligatory point of reference in the last now over four decades for reflections on the meaning and importance of Christian family life for the world, for the growth of children, for happiness. Pope Paul talks about the "school of Nazareth" and all the lessons a child, an adult, even a pope (who never stops learning) can draw from that school and briefly elaborates on what he means, mentioning three lessons concerning the importance of: 1) silence; 2) family life; 3) work.

Parents, children still at home who are big enough to play a role in family life, and all this world's mentors and teachers could profitably try to claim those three lessons for their own and for other families in our day and time.

My own thought today, however, circles around the words of the first preface for Christmas, which the celebrant at Mass may have chosen to sing or read today: "In the wonder of the incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see." In whom do we see our God made visible? In him, Baby Jesus! In him, that twelve year old with a purpose, "lost" in the Temple and "found" by his worried parents! In that boy, subject to his parents, learning an ordinary trade and learning the lessons of life!

Holy Family: not a holy card, not a pretty picture or an icon, but a family, that through youth, innocence, poverty, anguish and exile (Flight into Egypt), hard work, play, generous and self-sacrificing love puts the baby in our arms and lets us hold God and God's love. Verbum caro factum est - and his name is Jesus, born this holy night, yes, born. The Evangelists don't mention that Mary let the shepherds hold the new born in swaddling clothes, but Simeon took him in his arms in the Temple and exclaimed, "Now, O Lord, you can let your servant go in peace, because my eyes have seen...!" our God made visible.

We hold the Gospel Book high carrying it in procession, we enthrone that Book, we bow before it, we kiss it, we honor it with incense: why? Because it's not a story book but the words of life, given to us, which put us in touch not with fables but with the Truth, who is Christ, in whom we see our God made visible and are caught up in love. Holy Week and Easter shine from end to end, but Christmas' gentle light is not to be ignored: it's part of the picture.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Son of God and Son of Man

Hebrews 1:1-6 "... God has never said to any angel: You are my Son, today I have become your father; or: I will be a father to him and he a son to me. Again, when he brings the First-born into the world, he says: Let all the angels of God worship him."

The Second Reading of Christmas Mass During the Day really struck me this year. It opened another window for me and shed additional light on what I understood of Pope Benedict XVI's Christmas Message which I had listened to earlier in the morning.

Being five hours "behind" Rome at this time of year, this morning's first input after the wake-up call from a little yellow bird on the powerline outside my window was, in fact, the Holy Father's Message before the Blessing Urbi et Orbi at noon Rome time. Jesus as Savior was at the heart of his message addressed to a world I too find almost unteachable by reason of its achievements while at the same time clearly helpless to resolve its elementary problems and deficiencies. The world around us is anything but life and light, caught in a "hammer-lock" by darkness and almost without hope to free itself from the grip of the enemy.

"Jesus is the Answer", as a catch phrase, deserves to be relegated to billboards and bumperstickers but the holy day which has dawned upon us and the great light which has come upon the earth not. Fullness, adequacy and more, the saving power of our God are manifest today from end to end as God speaks to us through his Son: "...the radiant light of God's glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command..."! Hail, Infant King!

Which way to turn and how to turn to the Word "...the true light that enlightens all men..."? How do you lift the chin of that young man, plugged into his ear buds or stuped in front of his monitor? How to get that young lady's attention, head and heart all abuzz, glances going every which way wondering who may be looking, but focusing on no one? How to unlock age's chains of addiction or bitterness? How to renew the peace within us? How do we go about bowing under His mighty hand? How to cast our cares on the Lord, such that He will care for us and we can see Him bare His mighty arm to save us?

How indeed? "... and he shall be called Wonderful-Counsellor." Who? Well, the baby born in Bethlehem, of course! Life is too virtual, too image-bound and sterile: we need to get back into time and into the mix, so to speak. Hail, Infant King! I'm enjoying the many short messages per telephone or per e-mail with which folks touch base, express joy, put the order of human relations and family back "on the front burner" and with admonitions to watch the sweets and overall intake of food and drink. Though immediacy cannot solve all of the interpersonal problems we may face in life, keeping the world at arm's length solves absolutely none.

What did the shepherds understand from the message of the angels on that night? When did the science of the astrologers' sighting of a new star cross over and catch them up in the love of the God they could not see? Hail, Infant King!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

At the Heart of Christmas

Last evening I had occasion to spend time with a colleague who had just returned to the island from an extended stay in England. He was relieved to be back here for Christmas and away from what he referred to as the "political correctness" of Great Britain and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, which now cringes even at good old "Merry Christmas" as a greeting.

My friend was of the opinion that this denial of the Christian roots of the celebrations marking the winter solstice and imposing both greetings and cards with no message or content beyond "Happy Holidays" has a certain militancy about it. He was of a mind that this brand of "political correctness" goes beyond old-fashioned agnosticism and secularist irenicism. I listened and thanked the Lord for every card I had received with Mother and Child, shepherds, angels and star, Magi and Flight into Egypt.

Spontaneously, my thoughts turned to reflect on the devastation brought to the body Christian as the Roman Empire crumbled and St. Augustine breathed his last in a Hippo under siege by hordes of folk moving west and south under pressure from peoples farther east moving their way. The faith and faithful became diluted in the mix of new-comers labeled "barbarians".

Look in your basket of cards received and see what you find! Check your language of greeting and your front porch decorations! Are you lighting a lamp on the road to Bethlehem or sitting in the shadow of death?

Christmas is nothing if it's not the Child, born for us and for us given. Give him worship and praise! Proclaim His Name and welcome the return of the Light to a waiting world!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Gaudete Sunday

Third Sunday in Advent
17 December 2006, 7:30 a.m. Mass
St. Mary’s R.C. Church, in St. James
Port of Spain, Trinidad
Christmas Novena: “Jesus, the Root of our Hope”


“When that day comes… have no fear… the Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior… he will renew you by his love;”
Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve people have been yearning to get back under the shield of God’s protection, back safe home where, as we heard in the first reading from the Prophet Zephaniah, he will renew you by his love. Just as all generations before us, so we too, in the old language of romance, yearn to be swept off our feet by God, so to speak, and carried away from all the sorrows and trials of this world. If we’re serious, we know that no human companionship can do other than remind us of our ultimate destiny, to be happy with God forever, to be with the only One who can, really, renew us by his love.
As I say, this has been people’s yearning since the time of the fall of our first parents. What getting back to God meant or should mean has become progressively clearer thanks to the Law and Prophets in the Old Testament. In the New Testament it has finally become crystal clear in the person of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Root of our Hope.
Our hope in embracing Jesus, in taking on Him and His teaching, is in and through Him to get back to God. The goal for now in this life and later, for all eternity, is to get to what St. Paul told the Philippians and tells us in our second reading for this Gaudete Sunday, this Sunday of Rejoicing: …that the peace of God… will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. St. Paul said to them and to us: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord… there is no need to worry!”
When mommy or daddy takes a small child’s hand to cross a busy street that little child crosses without worry, confident that mommy or daddy will take care of any danger. With God, however, it is more than child-like trust: we really have nothing to fear ultimately, as St. Paul says: there is no need to worry! In Jesus this is our experience, yours and mine, not in the sense of complete fulfillment – heaven comes later – but in the sense of promise, of a sure hope. We set our eyes and our hearts on Jesus in the assurance that the salvation promised us will be ours in Him.
St. Luke’s Gospel says that after having heard and seen St. John the Baptist, a feeling of expectancy had grown among the people, who were beginning to think that John might be the Christ. John was that good, really; he announced the good news, but his baptism was a baptism of repentance with water; John pointed toward the Messiah. John basically told the people: if you are impressed by me, well just think, you haven’t seen anything yet: he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Meantime, Jesus the Root of our Hope has come, comes, and will come again to save his people, to save us from our sins. In the light of this good news and before the face of God’s only Son, born for us and for us given, we can, let me say we must, react with that same feeling of expectancy as the people had who heard and saw John the Baptist. We too need to pose the question: “What must we do?” What must we do? John said repent, share what you have beyond your basic need in terms of food and clothing with those who have not. Be fair, be just, be content.
I read in the papers the other day about a young man shot off his bicycle for the gold chain he was wearing around his neck. Overpowering greed in somebody’s life and a total disrespect for the life of the other, perhaps an addiction, a habit to feed which respects nothing and no one, seem to be evident here. “What must we do?” Older folks here and even where I come from reminisce about our childhood, when nobody locked their houses, nobody put bars on the windows and doors, and nobody was afraid to go out for a walk after dark. Days gone by and sad to say that is no longer the case either here or there. Don’t misunderstand me: these are not the worst of times and it’s not the first time in the world we find ourselves comparing past to present and saying that something has gone wrong.
A gentleman from Santa Cruz, who now worries about the safety of his family because of the gang violence which has invaded his once peaceful neighborhood, told me that when he was a boy, the object was to be cool (a harmless enough pastime), now the boys all want to be tough (usually at the expense of others)… What must we do? Is more law and order the answer? It doesn’t seem to stop prison riots or prison violence, does it?
“When that day comes… have no fear… the Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior… he will renew you by his love;”
The prophet Malachi said that all that was necessary was to act justly and to walk humbly with your God, kind of like that happy child holding on to mommy or daddy’s hand. But is that really enough to be able to change our world? Is that really enough to let the light who is Christ shine forth and transform our world? Yes, I think so. Look at the categories of ordinary people and even those types notorious for disrespecting and abusing their authority to take advantage of others who opened up to John the Baptist (tax collecting was not a respectable profession back then and soldiers often abused their authority and weapons to supplement their pay). John, upright, humble and hungry for God’s rule in his life and in the life of the world, spoke from a pure heart. You can do the same for the world around you, adding as John did, that this is nothing, just wait until the Christ reveals himself in our midst.
Somebody, please, remind me after Mass who that statesman was who said that it is sufficient for evil to triumph that good men do nothing. The opposite is true, as well, and provides part of the message of this Sunday within the Octave of preparation for Christmas. Do not let your hands fall limp. The Lord your God is in your midst. Pray to God and he will do for you more than you ever ask for or imagine. Pray rightly, though! The object of our prayers cannot be gold chains or other jewelry, not play stations, iPods or cell phones, not wealth or physical beauty, not Mr. or Ms. Right for the rest of my life. No, I pray Come, Emmanuel, Come, Wisdom of Our God Most High, Come, Flower of Jesse’s Stem, Come, Key of David, Come, Radiant Dawn, Come, Jesus, Root of our Hope! I open my heart and my life to Jesus, I let him in and taste already here in this life, by way of promise, the fruits of the life to come.
Is it that simple? What do you mean that simple? I suppose it is if your heart is in order and you hearing John’s call to repentance and follow it. If you have not as yet, then I would invite you, challenge you to take this path and set your heart and your hopes on Jesus. His winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn…
Back to God, back on His side, happy, like St. Paul says, really and lastingly happy, with no reason to worry: is that not what our hope is all about? These days in the comics in one of the daily papers two children are having a bad dream that Santa Claus granted them their wish and brought them every single Christmas present in the whole world! We know that would not make us happy, nor do a lot of other things we dream about getting for ourselves or keeping for ourselves for a forever and ever in this life, which is here today and gone tomorrow. This world, everything and everyone in it, is passing away. Things wear out, even nice things wear out, and people grow old and frail and then pass on.
I got a very good question not too long ago from a young university student at the University of the West Indies. He said, “It seems as though the Church doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to here in our country. What is the Holy Father, what is the Catholic Church doing to regain its influence, its authority in our society?” I’ll pose the question to you as you reflect here at St. Mary’s during these days of the Christmas Novena on the theme, Jesus, Root of our Hope, but I’ll do it by twisting and turning the question a bit. “Are you fully on board as far as Church is concerned? You see, I won’t believe that you are fully grounded in Christ; that He is your hope, unless I see the evidence. Lots of other Christians can pray up a storm and preach up a storm for all the world to see. That’s not the Catholic way. A Catholic shows me that God is the center of his or her life, that he or she has set his or her life, hope ultimately, on Jesus, if and only if that person moves, each and every Sunday without exception, from home to church for Sunday Mass: I’m here, Lord, and I wouldn’t miss for all the world, because you are my life; you are the center of my life; you are my only real hope! Actions speak louder than words and nothing else will convince me you really mean it. Are you sorry for your sins? When is the last time you made a good confession? Tell me? No, do something! Act, just like in the Gospel today, when after hear John the people spontaneously asked, What must we do? And John said, do this and that! What’s the first thing you do on waking in the morning? Do you call on His Name and offer Him your day? Do you stop to thank Him before you eat? Do you bow your head when you pass a church? Do you pray before bed each night? Hope? Well, show me that you do; show me you really have put your trust in him by doing! He will renew you by his love. Have no doubt about it! I don’t!