Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Holy Family

The Feast of the Holy Family

In New York City’s Metropolitan Museum there’s a painting by the 15th century Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna, called “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” which portrays two shepherds coming from the hills to see the Christ Child. They’re wearing tattered clothes, and from their rough faces you can tell they’re not quite sure what to make of the Child they see. Mantegna pictures the Child Jesus laying on a great rock–not in a manger– enfolded in the dark blue cloak of Mary, his mother, who kneels before him.

Off to the side is St. Joseph, in a bright yellow cloak, with his head in his hand, leaning on a dead tree stump, fast asleep. Years ago, when I first saw this painting I thought it was strange to see Joseph asleep at this dramatic moment, just when the shepherds arrive. Why is he sleeping? (

As the gospel reminds us, Joseph is the one to whom the angel speaks in dreams, while he is sleeping. And so, picturing him sleeping, the artist wants us to remember the questioning Joseph, who’s looking for answers about the Child and his role in the Child’s life.

Of course, the angel gives him some direction. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” “Take the child into Egypt.” “It’s safe, take them back to Israel.” But the angel’s answers were few. For the most part, Joseph and Mary were on their own.

In other words, they lived by faith, with plenty of questions.

That’s the way most of us live our lives, too, by faith with plenty of questions. That’s especially true about family life today. Plenty of questions, and not many answers.

Why get married anyway? Why have children? Is marriage between a man and a woman? What about gay marriage? What’s a father’s role, a husband’s role, a mother, a wife’s role? What are the rights and responsibilities of children? What should government do for families?

There are plenty of questions in our society about family life today.

Yes, we have some answers, but in an unstable society like ours we can’t expect to be perfectly secure. Perhaps our best security is the promise we have from the Child whom God sent into the world. He will give us wisdom and courage to build our families as he wills. Be patient, and don’t be afraid. Live with your questions.

The Christmas Story

St. Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus begins with the simple words, “In those days…” And in a few sentence that follow Luke gives us a political snapshot of those days.

 The Romans were rulers of the western world then, with a tight grip on Jesus’ homeland of Palestine. Caesar Augustus was the emperor. Quirinius was his governor in Syria, and so he was in charge of Palestine in those days. Later, we’ll hear that Pontius Pilate represented the Romans in Judea. 

 In those days, Rome decreed that a census be taken of the whole world, Luke tells us. The government wanted to know how many people were in the areas it controlled, particularly areas like Palestine. The reason for the census was primarily financial. The Roman empire was stretched financially; Rome needed money for its wars and  expensive military occupations. The Romans were into big construction projects, and so they were looking for every penny they could get from the people under them.

 In places like Palestine the Romans got their money through a system that depended on tax-collectors. We hear about them all through the gospels. Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples, was a tax-collector. They were contractors who worked under rather loose Roman supervision. The Romans established financial quotas for them, and the tax-collectors in turn got the money from the people anyway they could. The ordinary people hated them.

 I think the reason for the census that Luke mentions was that someone blew the whistle on the Palestinian tax collectors. I think they were cheating the government and someone in the Roman treasury department said: “We need more financial oversight in Palestine. We have the bring our accountants in. We have to find out how many people are really there to tax.”

 Now, the census was a very disruptive process; we can see its disruptiveness in the gospel story. People had to leave their jobs and their homes. It didn’t matter if a woman like Mary was pregnant. The social cost of the census in human terms and the Roman attempts to reform their economy must have been high. Certainly, the Romans knew it, but the Roman officials probably said: “ Yes, we going to have bad times but we have to go through them if we’re going to rebuild our financial system here and our empire is to go on.”

I think you can see what I’m getting at with my little excursion into the history of those days. Those days sound something like our days, don’t they? It’s easy to romanticize the birth of Jesus, but basically he was born in bad days.

 The shepherds are key figures in the Christmas story. People looked down on them. They were uneducated, toughened by the wind and the rain in the lonely hills; their job was hard and dangerous and undesirable. They tended sheep because someone had to do it. Looking at their economic status in those days, they were at the bottom of the heap.

 In bad times the shepherds would feel it more than anyone. The people on the bottom always feel bad times the most. It was to them, watching on the dark hills, that the angel came announcing great joy.They had a lonely existence. But it was to them, watching on the dark hills “For you and for all the people, your Savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord.” Go to Bethlehem, a Child there in a manger.

 In bad times, it’s always good to listen to the message the angel brings and to go to the Child in a manger.

 The faith we receive from this Child doesn’t mean that everything is going to change for the better. After the shepherds visit, the Romans were still firmly in charge of the world, their armies still marched and they still wrung every ounce they could from the poor; the census continued till everyone was counted, and  after it was over I’m sure tax-collectors found other ways to beat the system.

 The blessing that faith brings, however, is its basic affirmation that God loves the world and all of us. The God we see visible in Jesus is  not a distant God,uninterested and uninvolved in what we are all about here on earth. He is the Word made flesh. And he comes to us as we are, fearful, worried about the future, and wondering what the days ahead will bring. This Child brings a courageous patience, not only to endure what we must but to build a new world, to work that God’s kingdom come.

 “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says to them and to us. “Don’t be afraid.”


Waiting for Christmas

Every year we’re invited to enter the mystery of Christmas. Of course we can refuse to welcome this mystery of God.

That’s what Ahab, king of Israel, did, according to last Saturday’s first reading for Mass. He refused to engage with God. “Come, ask for a sign, Let me open the mysteries of life to you,” God said to him. But Ahab, the busy, proud. self-aborbed man,  said “No.” –as politely as he could– “I will not tempt the Lord.” In other words, “Don’t bother me.”

God would send a sign anyway.

This is the time to open our minds and hearts to the mysteries of God and if we do we’ll be blessed.

The other day a woman was telling me about her little girl, Isabel. She’s in the first grade in a little Catholic school down the street from us and they’re into the Christmas story these days..

“She can’t wait to go to school these days, ” her mother said. They’re putting together a creche for the Baby Jesus and they’re learning all about the angels, and the wise men who come to the stable on camels, and Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the wicked king who want to kill all the babies in Bethlehem. They’re offering little prayers that the whole world be blessed when he comes.

Isabel is enthralled by it all. “Mommy, did you know Jesus had to sleep on straw. That  straw we put in the crib would  hurt him when he slept on it.”

Isabel was asking what she was going to get for Christmas, and her mother told her that before we open our hand to get anything we have to open it to give something.

So Isabel is asking now for enough money to buy presents for everyone in the world. She’s going to have to see the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States for a bailout like that, her mother says.

Why do we lose that childlike wonder and ability to be engaged?  Why do we become like Ahab, not wanting to be bothered about this great sign?

Every once in awhile we’re spurred by something we hear. I heard it in Isabel. I heard it too in St. Bernard’s  beautiful  sermon  on Luke’s gospel of the annunciation, when the angel invites Mary of Nazareth to conceive the Child. Here’s a summary of it:

“You hear, Mary, that you will conceive and bear a Son; you hear it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel waits for your answer; it’s time he returns to God who sent him. We wait for your answer too.

Salvation will be ours if you consent. In the eternal Word, we all came to be made. At your answer we can be remade and brought to life.

Adam with his sorrowing family exiled from Paradise begs you to respond.
Abraham and David asks to agree. The patriarchs and all our ancestors look  for your answer. All the earth waits to hear.

Answer quickly, O Mary, quickly answer the angel and through him the Lord. Say the word and receive the Word of God; say your word, and receive God’s Word. Speak a passing word, and embrace the eternal Word.

Don’t delay or be afraid. Open your heart to faith, your mouth to praise and your  womb to the Creator.  The desired of the nations is at the door knocking. Open to him.

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”

Religious Bias in the Media

In the November 8th issue of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the paper, took one of their theater critics to task for his review of Terrance McNally’s play Corpus Christi, a play about the Last Supper. (

“Set in Corpus Christi, Tex., where McNally grew up, it turns the story of Jesus and his disciples into a parable about the persecution of gays. Along the way, it pushes what have to be hot buttons for many Christians. Jesus is born in a shabby motel room; loud, abusive heterosexual sex takes place in the room next door; Joseph is a boorish, profane carpenter; Mary isn’t much of a mother; Jesus discovers he is gay and has sex (not on stage) with the young men who become his disciples; he performs miracles, officiates at a gay wedding, is ultimately betrayed by Judas and is crucified.”

Hoyt criticized the critic for making no mention that the play could offend the sensibilities of a large Christian public, Catholics among them. (He heard from a large number of Catholics prompted by the fiery Bill Donohue)  Hoyt said the review lacked objectivity. Indirectly, he also criticized the editor of the Times for standing behind  the review.

I wrote to Hoyt afterwards:

“Thanks for the way you dealt with the Corpus Christi review. Freedom of speech isn’t an absolute right to say anything you think or please. Speech is a gift for communicating, hard as it is.

Talking to ourselves and our own gang isn’t enough. That’s what your reviewer did, in my opinion.

Listening is a gift too. Thanks for hearing Donohue. He can be hard to take.”

I’m afraid this one-sided presentation rules the media nowadays, and I don’t see much effort to confront it. I saw a presentation by the National Geographic last night on the life of Jesus and I was ready to throw a shoe at the television. National Geographic, in its religious presentations, is especially offensive to mainline Christian belief, it seems. You also see the same thing at times on the History Channel.

For one thing, Catholics and others like the Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestants  are hardly represented  at all, and if they are mentioned  they seem somewhat reactionary. The scholars, most of whom I don’t recognize, are predominantly from the opposite side.

The Catholic Church, in these presentations, is often seen as a tainted source.

It’s usually Catholics who are singled out for their regressive opinions. Sometimes they’re pictured as conspirators holding back the tide of truth. That was the way they were pictured the other night in a program on the Dead Sea Scrolls. A bunch of Dominican priests, “Vatican agents,” controlled the scrolls when they were discovered, so that the “truth” would not get out, according to one television source.

Anyone aware of the history of the Dominicans in the Holy Land would know they were hardly Vatican agents. Just the opposite. They were progressive scholars, often at odds with Rome at the time.

Unfortunately, most of our people get their information about the bible and religion from the media. They are reading books and magazines less and less. They often ask me about it and I do what I can, but we need help. As churchgoing becomes rarer, the media will become for many their sole source of religious knowledge.

We need media apologists. God help us.

God Speaks

The reading from William of Saint Thierry in today’s Office of Readings is a simple reminder that God speaks to us in Christ.  But shouldn’t we also remind ourselves, as we listen to his beautiful words,  that God speaks in many ways? To many among us, in our fragmented world, Christ does not speak directly at all.

Listen to William:

“You alone are Lord. Your dominion is our salvation, for to serve you is nothing else but to be saved by you! O Lord, salvation is your gift and your blessing on your people; what else is your salvation except to receive from you the gift of loving you” which comes through Jesus Christ.

“He taught us to love him by first loving us, ‘even to death on a cross.’

“You first loved us so that we might love you–not that you needed our love, but because we could not be what we were created to be, except by loving you.”

“He ‘loved us and gave himself up for us.’ He is your Word to us, your powerful message: while all things were in midnight silence (that is, in the depths of error) he came as the conqueror of error and the apostle of gentle love.”

“Everything he did on earth, all that he said, even the insults, the spitting, the buffeting, the cross and the grave–were actually you speaking to us in your Son, appealing to us in your love and stirring up our love for you.”

God speaks to us in many ways–that’s something believers know to be true as we listen for the voice of Christ. Not everyone will hear him this season, but our holy time calls all people to listen, as they are able, for God speaks to them too.

Advent is a time when we hear the Word made flesh, but  also a time to listen for the many ways God speaks. It’s meant for a bigger audience than Christian believers.