I have to say, just between you and me, that I sometimes have a problem with the people that
get all up in arms about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. You know the ones I’m talking about: the folks who get all worked up over “Xmas”, despite the fact that it’s been
used for centuries because the Greek letter chi is the initial for Christ, and looks like an X. Or the
folks who think they’re being radical and countercultural with campaigns that say, “Keep Christ in
Christmas.” The problem I have with these things isn’t that they go to far, but that they don’t go
Keeping Christ is Christmas is a fine idea as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t say enough.
What about Christ are we keeping in Christmas? The fact of his birth? That’s not enough. I want
to keep his compassion and sacrifice in Christmas. I want all of us to keep in Christmas the
humility of his birth, and the willingness of everyone around him: his parents, shepherds, angels,
wise men and all– to seek God’s will in the extraordinary circumstances of his Incarnation.
That is the central message of Christmas, after all. It’s all about the incarnation: God choosing
to become human like us, re-directing the course of human history by his birth, his teaching, and
eventually by his death and resurrection. Peace on Earth is the hoped-for and still not-quite realized by-product of his coming. “Joy to the world” is the consequence, several steps down the line, of “away in a manger.” Christ became human, to mend the rift between God and humanity caused by sin.
Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. And every time that starts to sound overly theological, and disconnected from people’s real lives, I spend a few moments looking behind the
Holy Family in the nativity scene, and focus on the shepherds. They, together with the angels, are
the real stars of tonight’s Gospel reading, and they are the ones who make the Incarnation real and important, and connected to people’s real lives and real struggles.
Shepherds work 24 hours a day, guarding the sheep– sheep that probably belong to someone else. At night they keep watch for predators. A shepherd’s life is simple, dirty, smelly, and hard. Although their work provided the lambs for sacrifice in the temple, it’s unlikely they’d be allowed in for worship.
How strange is it, then, that when it was time to announce the Incarnation, to proclaim to the
world that the cosmic balance between good and evil has just shifted forever, and that God himself has become human– how strange is it that God sent his angels not to the Temple, not to the priests, and not to the king, but to the Shepherds. Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace, has been born and is waiting for you, not in a palace or a temple, but in a barn, and is sleeping in the animal’s food trough. It’s no wonder the shepherds were afraid. They probably thought they’d lost their minds.
But this is how Christ came to us. This is how our salvation was accomplished. And this is
why Christmas is, generally speaking, the feast day we love the most. Because it’s a foretaste of
God’s Kingdom. It’s a peek in the door of heaven, when there will be peace, and when injustice is
overturned, and mercy becomes the new law of the land. Christmas is when we’re the most
generous, the most gracious, the most reconciling. It’s when all the world is decorated with lights
that banish darkness, and we endulge in the richest bad-for-us foods. It’s all a peek into the door
of heaven, when shepherds are the first to know the good news, because in his Kingdom, they will
inherit the earth.
Limited, sinful creatures that we are, it’s too hard for us to keep Christmas all year. Still, this
is the time to celebrate and strive for the ideals that are the best of who God calls us to be. By
tomorrow, or maybe next week, we’ll be back to tending the flocks and mucking out the barns.
But we’ll return to that everyday life with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has become one of us,
we are his sisters and brothers, and we’ve had a brief glimpse of his Kingdom.
2nd Advent “B” / 5
I’ve always been fascinated by the character of John the Baptist. In the Gospels he’s depicted as a sort of primitive: coming out of the desert, wearing camel hair and leather, eating what he can scavenge. These are all the marks of a prophet, and John is very much cut from the mold of the ancient Hebrews, like the author of this section of Isaiah.
The function of the prophets is not to lay down a trail of cryptic textual bread crumbs for us to follow 2500 years later. Their function was to speak to their own people about immediate events. The author of this section of Isaiah, (who was not actually Isaiah, by the way) is writing about his hope for the restoration of Israel after their exile in Babylon. His hope is for a gentle land where God reigns, and the people are at peace. When he talks about a voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s talking about himself.
Of course, we read that passage knowing about the life and accomplishments of Jesus, so we see a foreshadowing of those later events. Through the centuries, Isaiah continues to speak to us of events he himself never saw. In Mark’s Gospel, John’s cries to prepare the way of the Lord pick up Isaiah’s message. If you read a little further in the Gospels, it becomes clear that Jesus, when he arrived, was not at all what John expected. John expected the Messiah to come with judgment, not with salvation. Later in life, John, from prison, sends his own disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one. Jesus answers that the lame walk, the blind see, and the poor have the Good News preached to them. Again, salvation, and not judgment.
The character of John the Baptist fascinates me, because his purpose in life was to foretell the coming of Christ. The baptism of repentance he preached was to prepare people for Christ’s coming. It’s hard for me to imagine spending your whole life just preparing for someone else to step in and do the real work. Maybe that’s just my ego. Everything John did pointed away from himself, and toward Christ.
But that’s really how we should still be preparing for Christ’s coming. When every valley is filled in, and every mountain is leveled, there’s no room for ego. In these days, we’re preparing for the coming of the Savior that we celebrate at Christmas, and more importantly, for the return of Christ at the end of time. That preparation isn’t just about us. John the Baptist wasn’t concerned about preparing just himself, his mission was to prepare his people for Christ. Our mission ought to be to prepare our people for Christ as well. And to do that we have to give our own egos a rest, and simply serve. Take care of each other. Take care of the poor. Take care of the sick and the lonely. People need to be able to look at our lives and see that we point to Christ, Christ in the poor and the broken.
Someone pointed out to me recently that all this raising the valleys and leveling the hills and straightening the roads is what we’d call infrastructure work. This preparation isn’t about color schemes and window treatments. It’s infrastructure– changing lives and changing our culture.
And the hard workof changing lives and changing culture is still before us. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be prophetic today. For Isaiah and John the Baptist, their culture was mostly unified, and uniformly in need of reform. Today, it seems to me that our culture is characterized by division, partisanship, and a simplistic desire to divide every question and ever issue into two camps. The destructive consequences of these divisions are all around us, especially in our inability to accomplish anything for the common good, or even agree on what that might be. Where once the prophetic position was to stand on the margins and speak to the mass of people in the middle, I think that today the prophetic position is to stand in the center, and refuse the cultural and ideological pull that wants everyone to choose sides. I believe that the prophetic call to prepare the way of the Lord, today, asks us to make level the valleys and hills, to resist the extremes, and work toward the peace of God’s kingdom that can only begin in the center, not the fringes.
In the midst of the mad dash to Christmas, don’t forget to prepare the way of the Lord. While you’re preparing your cards, shopping for gifts, taking your exams, and preparing to travel, make sure your heart’s prepared as well. Give yourself some quiet time and space for prayer and reflection. Do something for someone in need of assistance or company. Level some hills, and fill in some valleys. And find your prophetic voice not by choosing sides, but by insisting that truth and peace will be found in the middle.
A quick show of hands: How many of you work for a company or organization that has a Mission Statement? OK, now, how many of you could tell me what it says? Not many!
The Mission Statement is the greatest invention of the management consulting industry of the 1980’s. Great fortunes were made by consultants who hired themselves out to help organizations generate Mission Statements, and along the way they got us to think outside the box, maximize our value proposition, and understand the difference between a goal and an objective.
These Mission Statements are supposed to help us understand what’s at our core: what’s most important about who we are, and what we do. The problem with most of them, unfortunately, is that they tend to be too long, too filled with jargon, and too vague to help us accomplish anything. It’s not a surprise that most people can’t tell you what their organization’s Mission Statement says.
My religious community, the Paulists, has a Mission Statement that works, because we can reduce it to four things that tell us what we’re all about. Our mission is Evangelization (the spread of the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it), Reconciliation (reaching out to those alienated from the Church or society), Ecumenism (working toward the unity of Christians), and Interfaith dialogue (building bridges between different faiths). It’s four things, easy to remember, and an accurate representation of what we Paulists are and do. Its not descriptive of everything that we do, but it describes what underlies all our work.
This week, we have a Gospel reading that very neatly presents a Mission Statement for Christian believers. Jesus is confronted by this Pharisee Lawyer– there’s a great combination– who wants to trap him, make him look bad in front of the crowd. So this lawyer asks a trick question, “which commandment of the law is the greatest.” What he means by this is, “give me a quick summary– pick one law that all the others could be derived from.” This is a mostly impossible task, because whatever law Jesus picks, he’s going to be criticized for leaving something out. It’s an old rhetorical trick. If you can’t attack what someone says, attack what they didn’t say.
Jesus answers, not with one law, but with two, taken from different parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. Both parts would have been familiar to his audience. By putting them together, he avoids the rhetorical trap.
All the law, everything that God commands, is based on love. Not on vengeance, not on punishment, not even on justice. On love. Love of God, and love of our neighbors. That’s not too hard to remember. And it works as a mission statement, because it calls us back to our core values. If we have any motivation for what we do, apart from love, we are in trouble.
Our first reading serves as an illustration of this. This little section of Exodus is designed to delineate social behavior. This is part of the Law that Jesus says is derived from love of God and neighbor. And it’s based on love. Not on an eye-for-an-eye, not on equality, not on justice. It demonstrates a particular concern for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. This is love of neighbor; not the neighbors you’d invite over to watch the Superbowl. These are the neighbors that no one invites to anything. God is asking his people to set up a system to make sure that the poor and the powerless are cared for.
We could do with such a system today. Our judicial system is called the Justice System, and we have a Department of Justice in the federal government. What we don’t have is a Mercy System, or a Department of Compassion. Perhaps that’s why the US has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. There has to be something behind that statistic other than just efficient law enforcement.
As the folks involved with Occupy Wall Street, or maybe Occupy Portland will tell you, our laws tend to favor the rich more than the poor. As much as we might want Law to bring us love and compassion, it can’t. Instead, it’s up to us to be God’s compassion in the world. It’s up to us to live out the love of God and love of our neighbors. We will start to do that when we really own our Mission Statement, when we remember these two elements, from which every commandment is derived. “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
One of the things critical to understanding Catholicism is that ours is an embodied and sacramental faith. Our Christianity isn’t just a head trip, or some intellectual construct; it permeates our physical reality, our world, and our own bodies. In our best moments, this challenges us to integrate body, mind, and spirit, and to put all of those in God’s service.
But over 2000 years of history, this has occasionally led to religious practices and observances that to modern sensibilities seem superstitious, or at least awfully odd. Take, for example, the relic of St. Januarius, or San Gennaro. The fourth century bishop of Benevento in Italy, Gennaro was imprisoned and martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian. For centuries he has been the patron saint of the city of Naples. Since the year 1389, each year on his feast day, a vial that purportedly contains his dried blood is carried in procession through the streets. During the procession, the dried blood miraculously liquefies, supposedly as a portent of good fortune for the city.
Many sources claim that the miracle defied scientific explanation. But honestly, there is a possible explanation. In 1902, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia, Luigi Garlaschelli, and two colleagues from Milan offered thixotropy as an explanation. They made their own “blood” that liquefied and congealed, using chalk, hydrated iron chloride and salt water. A thixotrophic gel appears to be solid, and liquefies when agitated.
Still, the festival of San Gennaro continues, in part because it’s a good show, but also because like all such rituals, it connects the intangible aspects of our faith—sacrifice, martyrdom, holiness—with an historical person, and tangible, physical realities. In the grand scheme of things, such miracles, whether provable or not, are peripheral to our faith. They offer a link to the transcendent, and speak of both the fragility of life, and the durability of the spirit.
Our property on Lake George is teeming with wildlife. I’ve had several encounters with deer, a coyote, bats, and thousands of chipmunks. This Barred Owl is the coolest fauna yet. He he nests near our chapel, and just after dusk comes out to hunt. That should help the chipmunk problem!
It’s hard to believe that my dad passed into eternal life two years ago today. The memory of his final week is such a stark, vivid recollection, and the intervening two years have gone by so quickly, with so many changes!
They say that you never really finish grieving the loss of a parent (or a child or spouse, for that matter). Mostly, I’m fine. But there are still days when the sadness wells up, or when something unexpected triggers a memory. I can be watching a movie or TV show, and find myself tearing-up during a scene in which characters say their final good-byes.
And yet, I can still feel like my dad is still with me. I like to think that a lot of my sense of humor came from him. He taught me to be keenly interested in the world around me, and to fix things when they’re broken. He showed my what a successful marriage looks like, and that has informed every conversation I’ve ever had with anyone about marriage, love, relationships, or family. I see his face in the faces of my nieces and nephews, and in their children.
As much as his life, his death has taught me to love every moment we’re given, and to not waste a single day on jealousy, fear, or bad feelings.
Rest in peace, dad. I miss you!
Every year on January 25th, the Church commemorates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is a particularly important day for us Paulists, and we generally treat it as our primary feast day of the year. We see ourselves as successors of St. Paul, bringing the Gospel to those outside the Church, and using the best contemporary tools of communication to do that.
This year, however, my thoughts are more focused on the idea of conversion than St. Paul per se. In todays reading from the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 9), Saul of Tarsus goes from persecutor to preacher. Sent to reign in the follower of the “new way,” and take them back to Jerusalem as his prisoners, he instead finds himself blinded and helpless, and thrown in with the very people he was going to imprison.
As Fr. Charlie Donahue, CSP, pointed out this past weekend, the conversion in this story is also the conversion of Ananias, the Christian sent by God to meet Saul and bring him into the faith through healing and baptism. Ananias even has the temerity to argue with the Lord over the suitability of Saul, and the danger he poses to the Christian community.
Can’t we please just stay enemies?
Life is so much easier and clear-cut when we have an enemy. During the years of the Cold War, we could look to the Soviet Union and China, and understand our place in the world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of China as a trading partner (or, if you prefer, their rise as the ones who make all our Stuff and hold our debt), we’ve found new enemies: terrorists. Perhaps because “terrorists” is a little too nebulous to really help us understand who the enemy is, some would like an easier target, like Islam.
Perhaps we’re still in need of a little conversion. Is it possible that God is still challenging us to put aside our fears and prejudices, and begin the work of healing?
Tonight President Obama will present his State of the Union message. Already politicians and pundits are squaring off, choosing sides, and ratcheting up the rhetoric of division that will play on our fears and our desire to have an enemy. It seems nearly impossible to have a political discussion– let alone a policy discussion– without ad hominem attacks and demonization of those with whom we disagree. There is very little productive discussion of the common good, compromise, and problem-solving. Instead we’ll likely hear tonight plenty of blaming, and plenty of fear-mongering.
Ananias and Saul both had to change (experience conversion) to enable the spread of the Gospel. This required divine intervention, with Jesus himself appearing to them (separately) to command them to meet and work together. What will be required today, for us to function as a civil society working together for the common good of all?
Will I have to give up an enemy? Will you?
– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
I spent a little time this afternoon with my friend John Remy. We occasionally wander off into the rural Ohio countryside looking for ruined barns, farm equipments, or bits of rural decay to shoot. This was my best shot of the day, taken kinda off-handedly where we parked to car, on the way to shoot something up the road.
Last week, for the Thanksgiving weekend, I stayed with my brother and sister-in-law in Syracuse, NY. It was a glorious weekend, filled with family, fun, food, and an abundance of gluten-free pastry. On Sunday afternoon I departed, and began the drive to Washington DC, for the Paulist General Council meeting. Unfortunately, my iPad stayed behind in Syracuse.
Honestly, it’s rare that I don’t visit my family and not leave something behind: my phone charger, a sweater, something. I’ve been told that’s an expression of the subconscious desire to stay, or perhaps to return. True enough, I guess. But my iPad? How was it possible? It’s almost never out of reach. I think I set it down on a black tabletop, and just didn’t see it as I was packing. A few hours later, I got a call from my sister-in-law, Ann, telling me that they’d discovered it, and would send to to me overnight the next day. Obviously, I felt pretty dumb for having left it, and putting Ann to such trouble.
The next day, I remembered an app on my iPhone called, “Find my iPhone,” which will also locate a missing iPad. You fire it up, and in moments it reports the location of your registered iOS devices, along with their position on a Google map. In addition, if your iPhone/iPad has been lost or stolen, you can make them squawk, and display a message asking for their return. Should that fail, you can send them a “poison pill” that will lock the device, or make it wipe it’s memory clear, destroying any sensitive data that might be loose in the wild. [This used to be available only to MobileMe subscribers, but Apple’s recently made it available to anyone, for free.]
So, I launched “Find my iPhone,” and there it was: Sitting in a warehouse next to the Syracuse airport! The next morning, there it was: in suburban Maryland, waiting to go out for delivery. Later that day, I watched as my iPad visited several buildings on the campus of the Catholic University of America, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and finally I tracked it in near-real-time as the UPS truck rolled up 7th Street, and then down the driveway to St. Paul’s College, where I’m staying. I looked out the conference room window, and there was the truck! Amazing!
The lessons here:
- Don’t leave your iPad behind!
- Make sure you’ve got “Find my iPhone” installed and running.
- Don’t annoy everyone around you with geeky squeals as you track a UPS truck coming up the driveway.
Another great example of innovative Apple technology, making like a little less stressful, and a lot more fun.
If, like me, you attended a Catholic elementary school in the 1960’s (or earlier), your memories of the feast of Christ the King probably include lots of marching. We’d line up– boys on one side, girls on the other, and led by our battalion commander, Sister Mary Alma, we would march from the school yard into the Church, singing some sort of martial hymn proclaiming ourselves soldiers of Christ, following the cross, and ready to storm the ramparts of evil. It was pretty rousing stuff.
Back then we knew what a King was, because we were still pretty close to fairy tales and storybooks. But even then, because we didn’t have a King– in fact, since our country was founded in opposition to a king– we knew that this was metaphorical. And as we grew up, the metaphor became more and more of a problem.
I suspect that for most people, the generic King is like the little guy from the comic strip the Wizard of Id. This king is short, impulsive, reactionary, and exercises absolute authority. I don’t think it’s an accident that the kingdom he rules is called Id. This is a dangerous king, because at the least offense, he could order you jailed or thrown on the rack. Not surprisingly, the king of Id is universally disliked and feared. It’s the reason our country has never vested unlimited power in one man, or one office.
For many years, that was the sort of King most people saw on this feast day, I suspect. Christ the King was one of the most triumphalistic feasts of the Church’s year. Lots of talk of thrones and dominion and majesty and power. You can see that even in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel, where David is anointed King of Israel. David wasn’t the first of Israel’s kings, but he was considered the greatest of them. At first, God told the prophets that his people didn’t need a king. But the people insisted. Why? For security. The nations around them had kings, and they wanted to feel secure. The prophets warned them that kings are dangerous, that they would be taxed, oppressed, and drafted into their king’s service.
And all of that did come to pass. For all his strength and military power, David did some terrible things. And Israel’s subsequent kings would be progressively worse, until the nation itself was divided and conquered. Throughout the Scriptures, having a king is generally speaking a disaster for God’s people.
So why do we today celebrate Christ the King? The answer is in the Gospel.
Christ the King isn’t the triumphalistic king, or the king of armies and wars, or the king who rules by capricious commands. He’s the king on the cross. He’s the king who taught that to b the ruler of all is to be the servant of all, and in this Gospel, he’s offering the ultimate service: dying for our sins instead of saving himself.
All three of the Gospels for this feast function this way. In year “A” we get the judgment scene from Matthew 25, where the king separates the sheep from the goats. The ones welcomed into heaven are the ones who recognized their king in the hungry, and the thirsty, and the refugees, and those in prison. In year “B”, Jesus stands before Pilate and declares that his kingdom is not of this world. These Gospels shatter our images of the king who lives in the castle, exercising absolute authority over his subjects. What it leaves us is the King who sacrifices, who lives in the poor and the rejected. Whose highest value is the truth, and who lays down his life for us. That doesn’t leave much room for triumphalism, or imperialism, or even for authority as we understand it.
The feast of Christ the King ought to make us a bit uncomfortable. Not because we’re uncomfortable with the metaphor of a King, but because we’re still too comfortable with our own power, and our own place in the hierarchies of our world. Part of our sinfulness is that as much as we say we dislike the idea of Kingship, there’s always a temptation to think, “Well, it might be OK if I were King (or Queen).” But the Christ the King of these Gospels challenges that temptation. We are asked to follow the King we see in the poor and the rejected, the criminal who stands before Pilate for threatening the status quo, and the king who died on the Cross.
This is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. Next week begins the season of Advent. That time of preparation ask us to get ready for the coming of our King—both the victorious Christ who comes at the end of time, and the helpless infant born into our world 2000 years ago. But we really begin that preparation today, with the realization that power and glory as this world understands them are corrupt and temporary things. We follow the one whose reign begins with service, compassion, and justice: Christ the King.