Monthly Archives: December 2010

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

The Passionists have daily reflections on the Mass readings and I was the reflector for today:

The final days of the year are days for looking back and looking ahead.  It’s a favorite time for pundits and experts of all kind to take their seats on radio and television talk shows to measure the times.  They mostly see the past and future through the lens of politics and economics. Power and money explain it all, they say.  But do they?

Our readings for today advise measuring things differently. “Children, it is the last hour; ?and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming,? so now many antichrists have appeared.” A grim assessment isn’t it? St. John’s 1st Letter seems to paint the times dark and haunted by evil spirits.

Yet, the opening words of his gospel that follow look beyond the darkness, beyond time and space, to the beginning of it all.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, brings to the world life and light, and darkness cannot overcome him. That’s something to remember as commentators throw up their hands trying to make sense of the world today. Or, more personally, when we hear ourselves thinking we’re going to be overcome by the dark.

The Word became flesh and has made his dwelling among us. “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace.”

God in a Creche

In The New York Times the other day Maureen Dowd’s column was about a visit she and her brother made to see a collection of Christmas crèches in New Haven, Ct. She’s a columnist who makes fun of things, and in this column she made fun of those who compulsively collect crèches. In fact, she bought for herself a bizarre crèche to illustrate how wacky it can get. As I put down the paper, though, I wasn’t laughing.  I had the impression that a crèche doesn’t mean much to her at all.

Today I read a selection from an early Roman saint, Hippolytus,  “Against the Noetic Heresy” and I thought of her and the crèche.  The Noetics, if I remember, were Gnostics who looked down on Christianity because they thought they were smarter than anything it had to offer. They were smart, sophisticated people.

Hippolytus said something like this:

“When God speaks we better pay attention, and God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.  Look at what the scriptures say about him. Learn from what they teach. Believe in what they tell us. You don’t decide the way God reveals himself. God decides that. Look at the way he reveals himself and learn from him.”

We learn so much from the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ. Look at the humility of God, who comes to us as a tiny infant. Look at the way he invites the rough shepherds to be the first to see him as he lights up the dark hills with his glory. So he  welcomes the poorest among us. We are invited to see him too and share in his life and light.

We should pay attention to the revelation of God we celebrate these holy days. It tells us of a God who loves us.  It says that God wants to be near us, to be part of our lives, to lead us to a new life.

Window on the World

The window in my room faces west to a slice of Union City that includes the old monastery church and parking space, some city athletic fields, a crowded  block of houses along 21st Street and a few big oak trees that somehow have survived the urban sprawl.  It’s a wonderful window for taking in the world.

Earlier this morning, Jose reached into the van carrying some neighborhood people to work to bless them, anticipating the morning sun that blesses everything now. A  few minutes ago, a flock of pigeons momentarily touched down on the wires along the street, thenflew away. I can’t figure out their unpredictable ways.

I leave the tiny figures of Mary and Joseph and the Child on the window sill all year because they seem to complete the picture.  Keep your eyes fixed on examples of faith, St. Ambrose said yesterday in his commentary on the Visitation.  Mary saw it in Elizabeth and Elizabeth saw it in Mary. Joseph certainly had eyes of faith too.  The Child is so small.  Only eyes of faith can see him–and everything else as well.

Fishing in the Text

One thing the Christian preachers from patristic times seem to do well is to lead you to the scriptures to search for God’s wisdom there. They seem to do it better than many preachers today who use the scriptures rather like “proof texts” to back up their own observations and ideas, good as they may be.

The patristic homilists  don’t just give you the dish of fish to eat. They teach you how to fish. Here’s St. Ambrose on Luke’s gospel about Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth in today’s Office of Readings. He’s fishing in the text.

Notice in the third paragraph the beautiful way he uses the simple detail that Mary made haste to go to the hill country. It’s a place of grace revealed. “I lift up my eyes to the mountain, from whence shall come my help…”

“The angel Gabriel had announced the news of something that was as yet hidden and so, to buttress the Virgin Mary’s faith by means of a real example, he told her also that an old and sterile woman had conceived, showing that everything that God willed was possible to God.

When Mary heard this she did not disbelieve the prophecy, she was not uncertain of the message, she did not doubt the example: but happy because of the promise that had been given, eager to fulfill her duty as a cousin, hurried by her joy, she went up into the hill country.

Where could she hurry to except to the hills, filled with God as she was? The grace of the Holy Spirit does not admit of delays. And Mary’s arrival and the presence of her Son quickly show their effects: As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting her child leapt in her womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

See the careful distinction in the choice of words. Elizabeth was the first to hear the voice but her son John was the first to feel the effects of grace. She heard as one hears in the natural course of things; he leapt because of the mystery that was there. She sensed the coming of Mary, he the coming of the Lord — the woman knew the woman, the child knew the child. The women speak of grace while inside them grace works on their babies. And by a double miracle the women prophesy under the inspiration of their unborn children.

‘Blessed are you,’ said Elizabeth, ‘who believed’.

You too, my people, are blessed, you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognises his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”

Patron of Blended Families

The great old stories from the scriptures have a way of speaking to us today, if we  hear them right. Tomorrow’s gospel from Matthew is about the announcement of Jesus’ birth made by an angel to Joseph.

Joseph is ready to divorce Mary who is mysteriously pregnant, but prompted by the angel he takes her into his home and raises her Child as his own. Anything like that going on today?

How about all the blended families we meet now, where divorce or death have created other groupings not based on original marriage vows or blood relaltionships? The holidays will bring many of them together. Stepfathers and stepmothers, stepchildren.  Some of these families have known divorce, maybe once, or twice or three times. There are kids and relatives from family number one, number two, number three.

Joseph loved  Jesus and Mary with a love, not based on flesh and blood, a love that made him father, husband, and all the other relationships that blood or vows are supposed to bring. He showed us that love is what counts after all.

Later on, Jesus said in Capernaum, when they announced that his family were outside waiting to see him: “Who are my mother and my brothers? “  He was proclaiming a love higher than that based on flesh and blood. He saw it in Joseph.

How about naming Joseph, Patron of Blended Families?

Genealogies tell us who we are

We may stumble over the names in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, our reading for today’s liturgy, but  Pope Leo the Great says in our Office of Readings, the genealogies tell us who he is. “To speak of our Lord, the son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man is of no value to us if we do not believe that he is descended from the line of ancestors set out in the Gospel.”

I reflected about this gospel elsewhere today, but here’s what Leo says about it:

“No doubt the Son of God in his omnipotence could have taught and sanctified us by appearing in a semblance of human form as he did to the patriarchs and prophets, when for instance he engaged in a wrestling contest or entered into conversation with them, or when he accepted their hospitality and even ate the food they set before him. But these appearances were only types, signs that mysteriously foretold the coming of one who would take a true human nature from the stock of the patriarchs who had gone before him. No mere figure, then, fulfilled the mystery of our reconciliation with God, ordained from all eternity…The divine nature and the nature of a servant were to be united in one person so that the Creator of time might be born in time, and he through whom all things were made might be brought forth in their midst.

For unless the new man, by being made in the likeness of sinful flesh, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan. The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition.”

So that’s where the battle and the victory takes place today, in our human condition, where our names are found.

Winning the Lottery


I’m not up on playing the lottery, so I asked Sal the Barber, in the place where all things are discussed, what would he suggest if I wanted to send my sister some lottery tickets for her birthday? I discovered the lottery is an arcane world as he rattled off the choices, but finally Sal settled on “A Lifetime Winner” as his recommendation.

If my sister won she would get $1,000 every month for the rest of her life.

“She’s up there in age, so I don’t know if that’s a good deal,” I said to him, but he countered with a complicated solution that involved designating some young relatives to take the winnings, while my sister could benefit quietly for the rest of her years.

Too deep for me to understand, but anyway I went next store and said the code words to the man at the lottery machine and he handed me the tickets. Sal gave me $5 to get some tickets for him too. He said he was sure I was lucky today.

Who says faith is dead?


Seeing God

Here’s why I like St. Ireneaus:

“The prophets foretold that God would be seen by us; as indeed the Lord himself confirmed: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

But at the same time God is great and unspeakably glorious, so that no one shall see God and live, for God can never be completely understood. But God is loving and kind and omnipotent, and so he gives the sight of God, the greatest gift of all, to those who love him. Even this was foretold by the prophets: For those things that are humanly impossible, are possible with God.

We don’t see God by our own powers; but we see God when it pleases him that this should be so. God decides who should see him, and when, for God is powerful in all things. He was seen in the past prophetically, through the Spirit, and now by adoption through the Son; and in the kingdom of heaven he will be seen as a true father. The Spirit prepares humanity for the Son of God, the Son leads it to God, and the God gives it the gift of incorruptible eternal life, a life that everyone receives who sees God.”


We Only Hear Secular Sermons

The sermon by St. Peter Chrysologus I looked at yesterday was directed to people experiencing the barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire in the  5th century.  Notice he never mentions in his sermon the barbarians, or their leaders, or what places have been burned, or those from this village or that who had been enslaved or made hostages.

That’s all said through the images of Noah’s flood, of Abraham’s journey, of the exodus of Jews from Egypt, images forming the substance of his sermon. Through these images he offers meaning and comfort for what people of his time are experiencing.

Today it’s so different. We seem to get only the actual experiences, the bare facts of our time, the raw data of life, without the benefit of ultimate meaning and comfort. We’re flooded with facts and images about our worldwide economic, political and military disasters.  And it’s always more and more. If any interpretation is given at all by our media–the preachers of our time– it’s usually a political spin. “Liberals” or “conservatives” are responsible for it all.

We only hear secular sermons.

We’re missing God’s word offering meaning and comfort.

Later preachers after Peter Chrysologus, like St. Paul of the Cross, would tell us to make the Stations of the Cross if we want to know what’s going on. In the unjust judgment of Jesus, his falling and rising again, his meeting with his mother, his crucifixion, death and resurrection, we can find ourselves and our world. We were there. We are there now.


Love in Ruins


The playwright Stephen Sondheim in a recent interview on The Newshour said that playwrights should listen to their audience and know who they are and what kind of world they live in. Preachers have to do that too.

You can see St. Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna, in a homily today in the Office of Readings, doing that. He’s describing a fearful world falling into ruins. It’s the Roman Empire coming apart as barbarian tribes invade it in the late 5th century.

The bishop of Ravenna uses biblical images, not current events, to describe what’s happening. It’s a deluge, like that experienced by Noah in his time. But notice how he sees God working lovingly through it all:

“Thus, when the earth had grown old in evil, God sent the flood both to punish and to release it. He called Noah to be the father of a new era, urged him with gentle words, and showed his trust in him. He instructed him about the present and reassured him about the future. God did not just issue orders but shared in the work of shutting into the ark all that was to be born into the world in the future. Thus by sharing in love he took away servile fear, and he protected with shared love whatever their shared labour had saved.”

So God works lovingly, and not at a distance, but side by side with Noah as the deluge goes on, taking away his fear.

It’s a world such as Abraham experienced, unsettling, calling for change. But a loving God is also at Abraham’s side as he journeys into a strange world:

“Thus God called Abraham out of the heathen world, lengthened his name from ‘Abram’, and made him our father in faith. He accompanied him on his journeys, protected him in foreign lands, enriched him with possessions, and honoured him with victories. He made promises to him, saved him from harm, accepted his hospitality, and astonished him by giving him the offspring he had despaired of. Abraham was favoured with so many good things and drawn by God’s sweet love so that he would learn to love, not fear: love, not fear was to inspire him to worship.”

Mosaics in the ancient churches of Ravenna often feature Abraham.

The bishop of Ravenna goes on to describe Jacob wrestling with a loving God and Moses called to lead a people into a new land. The God who works in ruins and challenges does not lead to fear and despair but love and promise.

As we discover God in the deluge, on the journey, in desperate situations, we say with Moses: “If I have found favor with you, show me your face,”  the bishop says. “Love cannot accept not seeing the thing that it loves. That is why the saints counted whatever they deserved as being nothing if it did not mean that they could see the Lord.”

Experiencing the mystery of the cross, finding a loving God in our sufferings, leads us to seek the face of God.

Peter, the bishop of Ravenna , spoke golden words, that’s why he was called “Chrysologus.” The Empress Galla Placida, who had her share of suffering and exile, heard him speak and probably gave him that title. He’s one of the patrons of preachers. They say he was always afraid of boring people when he spoke. Would that we were all fearful of that!