Monthly Archives: December 2009

New Birth

Some beautiful writings on the Christmas mystery. Here are a couple of sentences from Pope Leo the Great, an early pope.

‘We’re called to fill our own place and all the children of the church are separated from one another by intervals of time. Nevertheless, just as all the faithful are born in the font of baptism, crucified with Christ in his passion, raised again in his resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in his ascension, so we’re born with him in his nativity.”

There’s a special on Darwin’s theory of evolution on PBS these evenings. I wonder if someone will speculate about the union of all creation by reason of  DNA and our belief in the  Word become flesh.  It will be interesting to see theology and science exchange their wisdom.

Again, back to Leo:  “In adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the beginning of our own life, for the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body.”

Is it also a celebration of the beginning of creation?

Following the Word

Hippolytus, an early Roman theologian reflects on the mystery of the Word made flesh:

“ We know that Christ’s humanity was of the same clay as our own; if this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. If he were of a different substance from me, he would surely not have ordered me to do as he did, when by my very nature I am so weak. Such a demand could not be reconciled with his goodness and justice.

No. He wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves, and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept. Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own humanity as the first fruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity.”

The Word became flesh. What does his early life tell us? In one sense, his birth and early life show us the helpless Word, carried along and cared for by others, part of an extended family that nourishes and instructs him, one of the nameless crowd swept along by the strong currents of his time.

Isn’t that what happens to all of us?


Today’s gospel from Luke says that Mary and Joseph customarily took the Child up to Jerusalem for the yearly Passover feast. But was Jerusalem the only place they took him? Surely, they had friends and relatives in Cana and Capernaum, as well as in the Judean hill country, whom they visited from time to time? I don’t think they were a reclusive family hiding in the hills.

What about Sepphoris– Zippori the Israeli call it today– the capital of Galilee at the time, about five miles away from Nazareth, an easy walk for people then? According to one tradition, Mary’s family came from there. For the past decade, archeologists have been uncovering the ruins of this fascinating city.

Sepphoris was a flourishing place in Jesus’ day where, unlike Nazareth, gentiles and Jews lived together. Like other cities it was built on a hill surrounded by fertile valleys; looking east you could see the Mediteranean Sea. The city had a theater that sat 4,500 people, gleaming mansions with sparkling mosaics, streets lined with shops and public buildings. It was a center for tax-collecting and trade.

For sure, Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, had his father’s taste for building. As in Jerusalem, building must have been going on there all the time. Did Joseph, a “builder” according to the gospel, work there? Did he bring his Son along with him? Did people from Nazareth bring their produce to the city to sell to the residents who smiled at the “simple” Nazarenes? Did Jesus see there how proud bureaucrats, like Pilate and Herod,”made their authority felt.” Did he watch the tough Roman legionnaires based there and recognize how futile a fight against them would be?

Sepphoris must have been one of the places, like Jerusalem, where Jesus learned about the world. The two wise teachers who mostly helped him understand what he saw were Mary and Joseph, “simple” people from Nazareth. But there must have been other family members and friends too who brought him up.

Angels didn’t.

The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us it’s not where you go to school, or where you live, or what things you have that’s important. It’s who brings you up?

On to Nazareth

This year we go quickly, too quickly I think, from Bethlehem to Nazareth for the Feast of the Holy Family on Sunday.

According to a story from CNN this week, Israeli archeologists announced that they had uncovered the remains of a house in Nazareth from the time of Jesus. It’s near the Church of the Annunciation, the large Franciscan church that’s built over the center of the ancient town.

The house has two small rooms, a courtyard with a cistern for gathering rainwater and a pit the archeologists speculate was dug as a hiding place at the time the Roman army invaded Israel in the mid 60s. It may not be the actual house where Jesus lived, but it would be like it.

They say that Nazareth probably had about 50 of these modest dwellings, clustered together, where families or groups of families lived. They tended small farms on the outskirts of the town.

This was where Jesus Christ was brought up and spent most of his life. Hardly a showcase for someone Christians call “the Light of the World,” But it was the place God’s Son chose to live among us. Another mystery to wonder about.

CNN also carried a story called Passions Over the Prosperity Gospel: Was Jesus Weathy? The “prosperity preachers,” evangelists who tell you to believe and you’ll get rich, should take a trip to the digs at Nazareth where  Jesus spent most of his days. Probably a little different than where they live.

I Wonder

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

why Jesus, our Savior, was born for to die,

for poor, orn’ry people like you and like I

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Wonder is a word we use often at Christmas.It describes our reaction to something  beyond what we expect, beyond our experience and our understanding. It’s so big it leaves us lost for words.

We describe the mystery we celebrate today as the wonder of the Incarnation.The wonder that God, who made all things could become human like us, and in such startling circumstances.

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 were into the Christmas story recently.

“She can’t wait to go to school, ” 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 wants 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.

The Christmas story is a wonderful story. Children are delighted by it: it touches the oldest and wisest of us.

I was reading a Christmas sermon of St. Augustine recently. You can see him wondering  too about this great mystery. Listen to him.

The Word of God, maker of time, becoming flesh was born in time.

Born today, he made all days.

Ageless with the Father, born of a mother, he began counting his years.

Man’s maker became man; the ruler of the stars sucked at a mother’s breasts,

Bread hungered,

the Fountain thirsted,

the way was wearied by the journey,

the truth was accused by false witnesses,

the life slept in death,

the judge of the living and the dead was judged by a human judge,

justice was condemned by injustice,

the righteous was beaten by whips,

the cluster of grapes was crowned with thorns,

the upholder of all hung from a tree,

strength became weak,

health was stricken with wounds,

life died.

He humbled himself that we might be raised up.

He suffered evil that we might receive good,

Son of God before all days, son of man these last days,

from the mother he made, from the woman who would never be, unless he made

her.  (Augustine, Sermon 191, 1; PL 38, 1010)

Through the years, this mystery of God made so many wonder. May it bring us to  wonder today.

4th Sunday of Advent

The readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent would have us look at small, insignificant things– a little town in Judea, Bethlehem, and a visit of two women, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.

Faith sees meaning here. A mystery, a great mystery,  hidden in this place and in these people.

Bethlehem, some say, means “House of Bread,” and with eyes of faith, we believe that the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, was born in that humble town. The women, visiting together, were holy women who brought Jesus Christ, the Son of God, into the world and were among the first to recognize him.

With eyes of faith we look back and see.

But eyes of faith are not just for looking back; they help us see life today and discover God’s presence and call now.

Along with our scriptures, the signs and prayers of the Mass  help us see. Like our readings they point to great meaning in small things.

Look at the bread and the wine. Jesus took these small signs into his hands the night before he died and made them  bearers of important mysteries. As we bring them to the altar after our Creed and take them into our hands and ourselves, we ask:  What do they mean?

They’re food and drink, we say, and so they are. Real food and real drink, Jesus said, giving life beyond what we hope for and joys we cannot imagine. God feeds us, as a mother feeds a child, as a father giving daily bread to his children. The bread and wine reveal God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

They point, though, to other realities too. They tell us of our relationship to God, but they also point to our relationship to the universe made by  God our Creator.

“Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. it will become for us the bread of life.”

“Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation, through your goodness we have this wine  we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands, let it become our spiritual drink.” (Offertory prayers)

Bread and wine are symbols of creation, our prayers say. We don’t live apart from the created world.  We receive God’s gifts through it. God comes to us through it. Creation’s story is our story too.

Both the bible and science tell that story, but in different ways, the Book of Genesis in poetic language;  scientists in the language of science.

As scientists tell it, after probing into space with instruments like the Hubble telescope and sifting through the earth’s crust,  our universe began 15 billion years ago. Then, about 3.5 billion years ago primitive life began on our planet. 200,000 years ago human life emerged. We humans come lately into the story of creation.

However, we late-comers have an important role in the well being and development of our universe. The Book of Genesis describes Adam and Eve, the first of our human family, as cultivators and leaders of the earth community. God made them stewards of the earth and its gifts.

Today the human role as stewards of  the universe has become critical. The recent meeting on climate control in Copenhagen, Denmark, called the human family from all  parts of the earth, to come together and decide what changes must be made in the way we humans live, so that the environment of our world does not deteriorate further.

Sadly, the meeting ended with its goals unmet.

Pope Benedict XVI was one of those who sent a message to the leaders of the conference:

“Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?”

“It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view,” the pope said.

“Protecting the natural environment in order to build a world of peace is thus a duty incumbent upon each and all. It is an urgent challenge, one to be faced with renewed and concerted commitment; it is also a providential opportunity to hand down to coming generations the prospect of a better future for all,”

“If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.”

As we take the bread and wine at Mass, let’s remember God who blesses us in Jesus Christ, but let’s also remember the earth they represent. These small signs point to a universe we are called by God to protect.

Random Harvest

I watched an old movie classic from the 1940s a few nights ago, Random Harvest, starring Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson. Beautiful film; never saw it before.

A soldier, Charles Ranier, who’s lost his memory in the 1st World War, is saved by Paula, a lovely woman who befriends him, then marries him and finally pursues him after he regains his memory following a street accident in Liverpool three years later.

Traumatized by war, Charles suffers from forgetfulness. Even though he regains his memory and finds his birth family and becomes a successful businessman and politician, there are vital parts of his life he can’t remember.

Only gradually does he regain those lost important memories. Paula, who knows those years and the love he found there, is a quiet patient presence, gently prodding him to remember.

Forgetfulness is a common subject in the history of spirituality. Often enough, the Old Testament comments on the times God’s people forget their God and his ways, traumatized by life good and bad. But God does not forget us. He remembers and reminds and restores our forgotten life.

“Remember” we often say in our prayer.  “Remember us, O Lord.” “Be patient with us, O Lord.”Unless you remind us we cannot remember.

St. Ambrose

In a letter he writes to another bishop, St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, whose feast we celebrate today, mentions the storms that inevitably beat against the church. Like a ship on a perilous voyage; the church must expect to face fierce winds and waves.

But it also should expect the gifts and protection that comes from God. Rivers of grace flow into the souls of those caught in the storm. When the waves reach their highest and winds blow the loudest, Christ sends his Spirit to give joy to the heart and wisdom to the minds of those who guide the shaken ship.

“He who reads much and understands much, receives his fill,” Ambrose tells his correspondent, who may be uncertain about his ability to weather the storm.  Then, like clear water “your exhortations may charm the ears of your people. Let your sermons be full of understanding. Solomon says: ‘The weapons of understanding are the lips of the wise.'”

You don’t need somebody else to tell you what to think and what to say. Look for the wisdom given to you and speak from it.

According to St. Augustine, who knew him, Ambrose was a reflective bishop who kept pondering God’s word and applying its wisdom to the questions raised by his own world.  We need reflective leaders. We need a reflective church.

2nd Sunday of Advent

In last week’s reading, Jeremiah looked out at the bleak landscape of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Babylonians, its people mostly in exile, and pointing to a shoot, a little sliver of life, told us to hope. This Sunday, his scribe Baruch describes a glorious restoration when God leads his people home.

The holy city clothed in glory will rise in splendor to welcome her returning children. “Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.”

They have been “remembered by God, ” who levels mountains and valleys for their joyful journey, beneath fragrant trees, “with God’s mercy and justice for company.”

How unrealistic, many listening to the prophet’s vision must have thought!

How unrealistic the gospel reading also seems, as John the Baptist turns towards the desert to welcome “all flesh” to Jerusalem, still in the firm grip of the Romans, Herod’s dynasty and the priestly caste from Jerusalem.

Yet, the prophets speak the truth, even though we see only ruins and what is.  Remember us, O Lord.

The World of Blogs

I miss the give-and-take world of theological inquiry I often found in a number of periodicals that have become too expensive for my budget or can only be reached by a long trip to a library–or are going out-of-print. At the same time, it’s hard to find theological inquiry in the official Catholic press.  But you can’t stop people from thinking and I’m wondering if we are taking our thinking to the world of blogs.

I find I’m looking these days at the blogs from America Magazine and Commonweal as almost required reading. Today in America’s blog James Martin, SJ, writes about whether we should baptize children whose parents are not very interested in the church, and Austen Ivereigh has one on church marriage. Both hot pastoral topics. The blogs, written by people from different specialties and interests, cover a wide range of topics, from health care to Christian unity to religious toys for Christmas. They’re often followed by comments from readers pro and con. Welcome to the interactive world!

The church is healthy, not only when it prays and acts justly, but when it thinks. Is the church thinking making its way to blogworld?