Friday, December 31, 2010


In my homily for January 1 this year I really wanted to draw attention to the Holy Father's message or better to his theme for the world day of prayer for peace: religious freedom as the path to peace. My underlying thought was that too few of us Catholics position ourselves properly in this world. We don't see ourselves as caught up in a conflict, as having enemies. As important as the message is that we should pray for our persecutors, the "our" referring to those who attack our brothers and sisters and maybe us directly or indirectly too, I felt a bit of regret at having short-changed the great tmystery of this day: The Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God.

This year, in almost extraordinary fashion, I have been living these days of Christmas as an insight into the importance of doing as Mary did in the face of the Mystery of the Incarnation (and not only) as she contemplated the events of Jesus' birth, infancy, childhood and growing up: "As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart." The high holy days of Christmastide and the Octave in particular have struck me this year in their uniqueness, their being so different from the Easter Octave. Easter ponders the Resurrection of Christ in a focus on the Appearances of the Risen Lord, which while focusing also on those to whom He appeared (esp. Mary Magdalen, the Apostle Thomas and the disciples on the road to Emaus) really stands predominantly in awe before our Glorious Lord. It is the Church pondering the Risen One. Mary is present, but in a very different way than she was for us at the beginning of her Son's life here in our world. Christmas, perhaps because of the unobtrusiveness of the Baby Boy, has us with Mary treasuring all these things which happened around the Baby. He is a protagonist as babies are: not saying a word, maybe crying, certainly wiggling and squirming and sleeping in His Mother's arms. Christmas also takes us farther afield, especially in the persons of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents.  Stephen was neither a shepherd nor a wise man; he was probably not even born yet when the star made its appearance. None of the Innocents had even seen the little Child with Whom they were identified by date of birth and gender, and because of which they were violently plucked from this world to be His vanguard in the next.

Though the Baby is there wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger, we have more time for the shepherds and the wise men than their inclusion post Easter Sunday would have allowed. The pondering of the Mother of God, St. Joseph's obedience to the subtle promptings which granted him access to the meditation of his bride-to-be during her pregnancy and during their time of child rearing, offers us another complement to how Christianity is totally other and not to be lumped together with other religions or forms of meditation. The proximity, the intimacy of the Infancy Narrative calls forth an engagement on our part as extreme antidote to the estrangement from God caused by Adam's sin, as he and Eve hid themselves from the face of God.

Mary the Mother of God: her title is certainly a theological statement. Her solemn feast this year on the Octave Day of Christmas crowns my meditation on the sort of pondering and looking at the Baby which makes Christmas the necessary compliment of Easter, which makes the Infancy Narrative integral to appropriating the impact of the Passion, Death and Glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Savior. "What Child is this who laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleeping..."

"As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart."

Bless and Do Not Curse!

Solemnity of Mary, The Mother of God
31 December 2010, Old Year’s Night
at Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s
Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

          Ringing out the Old and bringing in the New Year is commonly tied to making wishes or resolutions. Beyond wishing a healthier lifestyle for ourselves and for those who are dear to us or starting an ill-fated diet and exercise program, it is a time when we would like to call down very special blessings from heaven upon all those whom we love. As good Christians we also want God to bless a few other folks too in hopes that they might behave better and especially toward us in the year to come. As Scripture says: “Pray for your persecutors, bless them and do not curse!”
Normally, we would aim such a prayer at a troublesome family member, coworker or neighbor; this year the annual world day of prayer for peace invites us to focus on another group of people who may not seem so close at hand or threatening to us here in Trinidad. The theme for this year’s world day of prayer for peace is: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, THE PATH TO PEACE. Toward the beginning of his message, Pope Benedict XVI says:
I offer heartfelt thanks to those Governments which are working to alleviate the sufferings of these, our brothers and sisters in the human family, and I ask all Catholics for their prayers and support for their brethren in the faith who are victims of violence and intolerance. 
Prayer is effective because prayer can change hearts; law enforcement or justice systems are too little; people need to respect each other. This is something we can and must really pray about. And in particular at the beginning of this new year, we as good Christians should seek blessings for all of those non-Christians around the world who have made life burdensome for our brothers and sisters in Christ this past year, who are responsible for atrocities against Christians, for the persecution of the Church which is ongoing in many parts of our world.
We, God’s children, don’t have it easy in many places of our world, but the proper reaction on our part is to pray for our persecutors, for those who hate us. We think of the 40 some Syrian Catholics killed and the many who were injured at Sunday Mass in Baghdad not long ago, of the Christian minority in Pakistan forever being accused of offenses against the prophet Mohammed and being killed really for their faith, of poor Christians being mobbed and killed in Egypt, Nigeria and India, of a bishop in Vietnam stopped at the door of his cathedral by police and kept from celebrating midnight Mass, most likely because too many people showed up for church. We think of Communist China refusing to release its strangle hold on the Catholic Church there, and we could go on with our neighbor across the way and other more subtle types of repression and discrimination elsewhere in Europe, North, South and Central America. We pray for our persecutors one and all.
There are those who say “yah, but what is missing for peace in my world is a measure of security. We need law and order! I need to be able to walk around my neighborhood without being attacked. I need to feel safe in my home and not always be checking the bars or the alarm system.” Law enforcement is important, but it alone cannot grant us peace. Even if there were a policeman on every corner supposedly guaranteeing my property rights and personal safety, such a situation is not nearly so reassuring as when people generally recognize that anger or rage have their limits and I dare not ever harm another simply because he crosses me. I cannot cut short the life of that other because he refuses me his gold chain, nice watch or bracelet.
Granted that the Holy Father chooses a single theme each year for this day of peace, he touches one particular aspect of the problem and therefore chooses not to address every side of the question each year. You’d need to take a number of messages over the course of years to get a comprehensive coverage of the topic. Be that as it may, I think it is very important to single out this year’s theme, respect for religious freedom, as fundamental to the cause of peace in general. Religious freedom is fundamental because of the consequences that kind of respect has for the kind of respect due to the human person. Respect for others especially for their faith and values is the way to peace. In Europe, North America and even here there is lots of talk about tolerance and pluralism. Respect for others cannot be at the expense of the truth nor can it deny me all that I hold dear. Look at the controversy in the United States right now over Catholic hospitals! Sadly it seems, there are those (like the American Civil Liberties Union) who would begrudge us as Catholics our right to run our hospitals according to our moral principles; there are those who attempt to silence our voice in matters concerning marriage and family life, just to mention two issues in the headlines. As a Catholic I have the right to be respected in my beliefs and values too! This is what we mean by religious freedom too!
          When the appointed time came God sent His Son, born of a woman… Mary’s Motherhood, today’s feast on the octave day of Christmas, can be a great help, a great source of consolation for those who suffer persecution or trials. Recognizing just how intimately we are loved by God, that God chose His Mother from among us and from the Cross gave her back to us as our Mother too, that we, brothers and sisters all through baptism in Jesus Christ, as children of God are also her children too. Such good news of Christmas gives us reason for hope. We have a dignity and a hope which we share with all who are not Christian and yet which goes far beyond what they might perceive; we have a dignity as created beings; we have a dignity as members of the household of God. As the Holy Father also writes in his message for January 1, 2011:
          Our nature appears as openness to the Mystery, a capacity to ask deep questions about ourselves and the origin of the universe, and a profound echo of the supreme Love of God, the beginning and end of all things, of every person and people. The transcendent dignity of the person is an essential value of Judeo-Christian wisdom, yet thanks to the use of reason, it can be recognized by all.  This dignity, understood as a capacity to transcend one’s own materiality and to seek truth, must be acknowledged as a universal good, indispensable for the building of a society directed to human fulfillment.  Respect for essential elements of human dignity, such as the right to life and the right to religious freedom, is a condition for the moral legitimacy of every social and legal norm.
In asking God’s blessings for ourselves we do what beloved children do naturally. In willing the good of our enemies we do that which can most effectively disarm them and render our life not only safer or more secure but also happier and filled with the sort of promise which gives us reason for hope.          
Religious freedom is sought in defense not only of a value system but in recognition of the power and presence of God in our lives and for our sake, God who made the universe and all that dwells therein.
          With confidence in Mary, the Mother of God and our Mother, let us close out this old year and bring in a new one by begging the Lord not only to bless us and others but to grant insight and pause to all those who would deprive us of real life, life rooted in the recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bear with One Another, Forgive Each Other!

Sunday in the Octave of Christmas – The Holy Family
2010 – Year A
Apostolic Nunciature, Port of Spain
Ecclesiasticus 3:2-6. 12-14
Colossians 3:12-21
Matthew 2:13-15. 19-23
“Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins.”
You’ll find people or at least you used to find people out there who would complain about the Church placing an unattainable ideal before our eyes in celebrating the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as a model for all Christian families. I think people who object to the Church’s proposal of the Holy Family as a model haven’t really looked closely enough at the Liturgy of the Word for this Sunday. The 1st Reading is among other things a marvelous Old Testament piece of Wisdom literature exhorting adults to respect and care for their elderly parents (this message is always timely). Matthew’s Gospel describes anything other than an iconic or stained glass existence for the Holy Family, we experience them here in tougher times than most must face as Joseph takes Mary and Jesus, flees Bethlehem in the night and settles his family in Egypt out of harm’s way, thereby saving the Son of God from certain death at the hands of Herod.
No, today’s feast addresses families as they really are and advises us rightly how they ought to be. Look again at the 2nd Reading from St. Paul to the Colossians:
“Wives, give way to your husbands, as you should in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and treat them with gentleness. Children, be obedient to your parents always, because that is what will please the Lord. Parents, never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated.”
Today’s feast is very much down to earth. Granted, in our world today it is not all that easy to find the classic family of mother, father and children. Death may get in the way as do a lot of choices on the part of individuals and even couples, which don’t really point to the triumph of love.

Part of Scrooge’s nightmare in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is of that family of his employee at risk because of his miserliness. Each and everyone of us here, and not only at Christmas time, has a part to play in supporting families, whether it be our own or others. We may not be strangling a family, like dear Scrooge, through our calloused behavior or neglect; let us hope not anyway. Perhaps the greatest challenge comes not from trying to correspond to St. Paul’s exhortations regarding family but coping with those big wrongs which can mark a family history negatively for decades and keep brothers and sisters at odds for the longest time. Or how often is it that we encounter an adult son who feels wronged by dear old Dad, and yes even granted that old Dad may indeed be at least somewhat to blame for the situation, still the son clashes regularly and violently with his father over things which cannot be that important? Or that daughter who chooses unresponsiveness or withdrawal rather than engaging her mother?

Each family’s history is unique and it would be wrong to think that there’s something all-purpose to be whipped up in the blender and applied to all those wounds, imagined or real, which keep people apart. If I had one point to make it would be this, namely that the Lord knows our family trials better than we. In faithfulness to the love of Our Lord, the Church seeks to speak to real families where they are and call us to that fullness of life and love in family which is doable precisely because of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

On this Holy Family Sunday, I want to invite you to join me in turning families and their hurts, turning them all over to the Lord, your relatives and friends and mine. Ultimately, in most cases an increase in the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity would improve things exceedingly. Psalm 127, our responsorial today kind of sums it up, “O blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways!” Reverential fear is owed to all our family and to God out of love on our part for that significant other. This is so, because in faith we fear to offend the one we love and we hope always, always to be forgiven for falling short of an ideal which is terribly, terribly real, by the grace of the Lord Who gives us strength.

“Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Your God is King!

Christmas Mass during the Day
Apostolic Nunciature, Port of Spain
Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-6
John 1:1-18

“John appears as his witness. He proclaims: ‘This is the one of whom I said: He who comes after me ranks before me because he existed before me.’”
The Christmas story or the mystery of God becoming Man in Jesus is somewhat lost on our world. Although there might be some rabid atheists out there pushing the “Season’s Greetings Agenda” at the cost of ignoring or denying the centrality of the Christ Child for today, my guess would be that a lot of people among the unchurched or the once a year perhaps “darken-the-door” types are just kind of at a loss and go with the flow. The Christ part of Christmas gets covered over and lots of people have turned or keep their backs turned to the bright dawn of the Word made Flesh. They miss the point of Christmas maybe for failure to sort out some crisis or conflict in their lives or maybe because of just plain dullness.
“At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is.”
Those words may not fall on deaf ears but perhaps on dull hearts and distracted minds. Too many folks out there would be hard pressed to say an enthusiastic “yes” to John’s Gospel speaking about Jesus as God’s Word made Flesh, as the true light coming into the world. In other words, not much has changed out there in 2000 years. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is new again in every generation; each and every child encounters the Word, the first-born of the heavenly Father, maybe not with all of the novelty and controversy which accompanied Jesus’ 30 some years on this earth, but the encounter is new for each and every one of us and in every generation; it is as new in you as it is in me.
          The prophet Isaiah speaks out boldly in God’s name, as we heard in our first reading today. Isaiah is prophesying over the ruins of Jerusalem destroyed, over a Davidic or Solomonic kingdom very much failed and torn apart. He says with lots of hope and enthusiasm:
“Your God is king! Listen! Your watchmen raise their voices, they shout for joy together, for they see the Lord face to face, as he returns to Zion.”
Many years earlier the Old Testament figure Samuel was very much distressed when the people insisted that they wanted a king, rather than God ruling over them; they wanted to be just like any other nation. Samuel saw very clearly the implications of exalting anyone short of God Himself. Our problem is not necessarily that we want something or someone over us other than God, but that the Word from Bethlehem seems too good to be true, like Zion in ruins invited to break into shouts of joy as God arrives on the scene to console us His people through Baptism.
          Christmas more than any time of the year is a time to ask “How can it be that people die without baptism right in our very midst?” Maybe that happens in part at least through our fault; maybe you and I are not quite as enthused and hopeful as we should be in saying that with Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem the fullness of time has come. Things are resolved; they are handled; they are settled. Our God is indeed King; He rules the universe; we live in confidence. We dare not hide our Christmas joy!
‘This is the one of whom I said: He who comes after me ranks before me because he existed before me.’
John the Baptist was thrilled to make this confession. We can say the very same and bask in the glory of the bright dawn Jesus, born at Bethlehem, come to fill our world with peace. The angels told the shepherds this was a joy to be shared by the whole people, by the whole world.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Life and Joy in Swaddling Clothes

Christmas Night Mass
Rosary Monastery - St. Ann’s
Isaiah 9:1-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14
          The 2nd Reading for Christmas Night, which we just heard from St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, contains a whole program and one well worth reflecting upon in this Holy Night:
“He (as St. Paul identifies Him “our great God and savior Christ Jesus”) sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.”
Just to be clear on it, when we say that Jesus sacrificed Himself we are referring to His sacrifice which was completed upon the Cross, but which began with tonight, with His being born a man like us in all things but sin. Christ’s outpouring for our salvation, and this is why we genuflect when we recite the Creed tonight, His sacrifice began when the Word became Flesh, born this day at Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. Freeing us from wickedness began with the Incarnation. Purifying a people for His very own with no ambition but to do good (I repeat) began with the Incarnation.
What indeed has God-become-Man, the Word-made-Flesh, accomplished in us, such that we can and should take on His ambition for us, His Will for us? Does your will conform to that of the Lord? What sorts of ambitions do you have? Are they only to do good? I really wish I could say that about myself, that purified I had indeed set my heart on the world to come, on the Kingdom of Christ, on His Will alone.
Sadly, yes, I would have to judge myself and say that I am not all that simple and straightforward. This is not to say that I have ambitions to do anything except the good, but honest is honest, and so I had better concede that I don’t quite think I have that first and longer sentence of the reading quite down yet. I come up short when it comes to the important details concerning what St. Paul means when he speaks of Christ’s sacrifice so that I might be His and have no ambition except to do good. St. Paul tells Titus and us that the Christ has “…taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world…” Having no ambition except to do good means giving up everything but God. My salvation depends upon my wholehearted and self-sacrificing response to Christ’s sacrifice for my salvation. But how do you do that? Is it even possible? Yes, it is possible, but not without our wanting it, not without real effort on our part. Our own hesitancy or slowness to embrace God’s Will wholeheartedly is a big part of what is wrong with our world.
What is the real reason that too few babies are being born in a lot of developed countries? Why is Western Europe aging so quickly, dying really? Why are fewer young people today entering into Christian matrimony? Why do we here in Trinidad have a genuine shortage of vocations to priesthood and the religious life? Maybe it’s simply because people have other ambitions in life, ambitions which have little to do either with how the Son of God ended up in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago or why He was lifted up on the Cross for our salvation. Maybe too few people nurture ambitions to do only good, ambitions which can save us from death, ambitions which can lead us to God. I’m not pointing an accusing or condemning finger to say folks are bad or folks are selfish, but there would certainly seem to be a lack of focus in people’s lives, a lack of the kind of singleness of purpose St. Paul is recommending. The shepherds didn’t wander off to Bethlehem in this Holy Night looking for action or entertainment. They came looking for the One proclaimed to them by the hosts of Heaven, the angels. They, as shepherds the lowliest creatures in the world at that time, were summoned by angels to share in the most sublime mystery the universe has ever had to offer.
Approximately 30 years or so ago, in the context of what they used to call “film study”, I remember being annoyed by a Swedish film thing which contrasted the happy and carefree life of a family of entertainers, who really cared for each other, and whose daughter, widowed young, was sent away from this fun-loving family to be married off to a Lutheran pastor and condemned with her children to a dreadfully austere life and seemingly for no reason. Why she had to marry again, when she and the children were getting on so famously at home, is just one of those mysteries of “film study”. The film gave the impression that this poor woman and her children went from life and love, from what the film described as the good life in a carefree extended family to a sort of somber antechamber to death in a Lutheran parsonage. The film director seemed to want to characterize Christianity in his home country Sweden as a sort of living death.
Is this image fair? I don’t know, maybe things were that bad back then in Sweden. But let’s talk about being truly Catholic and right here and right now. Does this art film business describe us? Is this really what our religion is all about? Is this the meaning of St. Paul’s words: “…we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Christ Jesus”?
          Personally, I feel very sad for all those people who feel constrained to reject faith, to boycott the Christ Child and to send out cards that have no more than a sprig of holly, a poinsettia or a frosty bell on them and make no mention of “Christmas” or “Holy” but only talk about the “season” and “lovely”. For me, those are the folks trapped in the antechamber of death, not my poor little widow in the Swedish art film and not those who give praise to the Infant King born in a stable at Bethlehem. Life and joy are not tied to all-inclusive fetes or to giant HD flat screen 3D entertainment centers. You cannot cook up or bottle the fullness of life and joy, no matter how long you age it in oak barrels. The reason for the season lies elsewhere. Life and joy, even if crippled, sick or financially destitute, keep company with that host of angels singing glory to God and with those poor shepherds come in the middle of the night to see the Holy One of God, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race…” And with St. Paul, I proclaim that to be the one and only real joy.
          A special word for adults and specifically for parents and grandparents: is that happiness yours which would put in first place and above all else a child and the Child born at Bethlehem? Do we have time for others as the Last Judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel would prescribe: when I was hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison…? St. Paul tells us that Bethlehem and the Cross: “…taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions…” Have we truly learned the lesson? Or are we raising our own crop of budding Swedish film directors or snotty newspaper columnists who will have nothing but criticism for our faith and the cause of our joy?
          When we say with St. Paul: “…we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Christ Jesus…” do we add a spontaneous “Oh joy!” or do we break out in a cold sweat?
          On this Holy Night I think the secret to joy is to be found in looking to the shepherds and remembering once again the answer to the very first question in the basic catechism of once upon a time. “Why did God make me?” For conspicuous consumption? No! For the good life as defined by the Hollywood Dreamworks or some crafty and probably crabby old Swede? No! “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life, so as to be happy (happy, yes!) with Him in the next.” I really wonder some times if the forces of unbelief and secularization are really all that powerful or if maybe we don’t just need to turn off the noise, walk outside of an evening and contemplate the handiwork of our Creator… as simple, yes, as simple as that!
“For there is a child born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace. Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end, for the throne of David and for his royal power, which he establishes and makes secure in justice and integrity. From this time onward and for ever, the jealous love of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
“He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.”
A Blessed Christmas to you one and all!