Albrecht Durer, “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, ca. 1519 (The Met)
Christmas is a time for grandmothers.
They bake and cook and decorate. Their homes become mini North Poles, diplomatic outposts of Santa’s Castle.
At its core, Christmas is of course all about Jesus. All about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. All about the Holy Family.
The Holy Family is an extended family though. And it doesn’t stop at grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, or even cousins and distant cousins.
Just ask Saints Joachim and Anne, Zechariah and Elizabeth, or John the Baptist—not to mention all the unknown relatives whom the child Jesus surely encountered throughout His Galilean days. Ask any one of them about the far-reaching ripple effects of family grace.
Those touched by Jesus have a tendency to appear bigger than life.
Look at Santa Claus.
Most of us are aware that he is really Saint Nick.
But do we stop to wonder who Mrs. Claus really is?
I think she’s Saint Anne.
After all, Mrs. Claus is seen as everyone’s grandmother, especially when it comes to holiday cheer. But when it comes to truly celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is through Saint Anne that we approach the gates of Christ’s Nativity.
Mary’s Mother holds a special key. She is first among grandmas, first among those who pinch chubby cheeks, who pass along one more extra sugary treat.
Saint Anne help us. Speak to us. Show us how to be grand parents to all those around us, especially the little ones. Stir up the spirit of Advent. Bake away the holiday blues. Cook up a dish of Christmas love that only your hearth can serve.
Come one, come all, to the home of Saint Anne. Come with me to Grandma’s house for a holiday visit. Taste and see. Enter her kitchen, where the hot chocolate can always fit a little more whipped cream, where you hear the constant refrain: “eat…eat…eat…”
At Grandma’s your plate is never empty.
Her table is continually set.
She always sees Jesus as having just been born.
She is always wrapping Him up tightly in swaddling clothes.
It is simply grand.
To Grandma, Jesus is always an innocent child.
And she can’t help but see Him deep within both you and me.
Thanksgiving Day’s coming Thursday in the USA and many will be with family and friends. We have just come through a brutally fought election and I wonder if some Thanksgiving gatherings this year will be as peaceful as in other years. Will fights continue over the table?
Our Mass readings these days are from the Book of Revelations and Luke’s gospel where Jesus speaks of the last times. They’re frightening, upsetting times. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” (Luke 21,11)
Notice, though, the promise of peace found continually through these readings announcing chaos and destruction. “Not a hair of your head will be destroyed,” Jesus says in the gospel today. (Luke 21,19) God’s with us in the chaos.
In our Reading from Revelations today people are singing songs of victory. No matter how chaotic the times, God’s there in them, working his purpose in the chaos. The battle’s won, not lost, through the abiding power of God.
“Great and wonderful are your works,
Lord God almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
O king of the nations.” (Revelations 15, 4)
We can sit down at Thanksgiving singing a victory song and remembering that not a hair of our head will be destroyed.
I see this year on Thanksgiving Day the church celebrates the feast of the Vietnamese martyrs killed in the 18th century. Saint Andrew Dung– Lac and 117 others were put to death in a cruel persecution of Christians. One of the characteristics of Christian martyrdom is the joy of the martyr in the midst of a frightful situation. Here’s a letter of Saint Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, one of the martyrs:
“I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises. The prison here is a true image of everlasting hell: to cruel tortures of every kind – shackles, iron chains, manacles – are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever.
“In the midst of torments, that usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone – Christ is with me.”
“I am not alone–Christ is with me.”
I suppose we can say that no matter bad we see the times, we can sit down at Thanksgiving with joy.
Luke’s gospel for the Feast of Christ the King presents Jesus, not in a royal palace, but on a dark desolate hill. He’s not surrounded by cheering crowds, but by people cursing his name. He has no crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. His robe lies torn from him, heaped on the ground soaked in his blood. His throne is a cross, and over the cross is the inscription: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
The temptation is to see this scene as a failure. But listen to the gospel. One of the criminals calls out to the wretched figure hanging next to him: “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.” And power goes out from him. “This day you will be with me in paradise.
The thief is an interesting figure in the gospel. He has no name, nothing is known of his life or his crime. There he is, desperate, thinking all is gone. Powerless, no one would take a chance on him. Who would bother with him or think him worthwhile? Who would come close to him? Only a God who in the person of Jesus Christ would come so low as to share a cross with him.
The thief has no name, but we believer that he bears everyone’s name. In the thief we see ourselves, our desperate, poor, powerless selves. Yes, that is how much Christ loves us. He is close to the sinners of this world, to us..
Often when I find myself thanking God for all he has given me in this life: reasonably good health, such wonderful people to love and be loved by, such graces, such joys, his very presence, the gifts of his Holy Spirit, I find myself asking like so many, “What can I do to repay you for your love? How can I serve you? What do you want me to do with these gifts?”.
Today’s Gospel reading at Mass from Luke prompts me to ask these questions once again.
“A nobleman went off to a distant country
to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return.
He called ten of his servants and gave them ten gold coins
and told them, ‘Engage in trade with these until I return.’
The golden coins given to me by the Master, priceless gifts, consecrated hosts from a paten that come into my hands, golden seeds of wheat to be planted in a field– how can I share them? How do I begin?
I guess I must begin in humility, in gratitude, swept by praise to his Glory.
Psalm 150 ends the Book of Psalms appropriately with a trumpet blast, accompanied by the joyful noise of lyre, harp, strings, pipe, cymbals, wild dance and loud, loud praises to the Lord. Perhaps that is the best way to invest those golden coins of his, telling the world of his boundless Love and the joy that it brings, joining with the hosts, the elders, winged creatures, and countless saints.
Day and night, with our eyes on the One who sits on the throne, let us not stop exclaiming:
Let me begin with my apologies. Forgive me for coming to you yet again with nothing. I’m sorry. Look at me, I’ve just begun and here I go again, saying things that are just not true. Of course I do not come “with nothing.” No, I come with nothing of value. Yes, that’s better. Yes, I come with nothing of value. For as You well know, Lord, I do come with plenty of things that simply get in the way of me doing my job, the job You Yourself assigned me, the job for which You Yourself designed me perfectly.
God, You are so patient.
Sorry, forgive me. Yes, I will stop talking. Of course I’ll listen to You. I’m all ears. Please, my Lord, go ahead, if you please, when You’re ready…
“My son, it is good to see you. I am always pleased to see you. You really have grown. Do you know what I hear when you speak to me? I hear hope. Yes, hope has a sound. No, it’s not like the sounds that you hear in the world. In heaven everything is Love. And the sound of hope is the sound of one of my children falling into love. I never grow tired of you, or any of your brothers or sisters, speaking to me. Think about it. You know this yourself, the most painful thing for parents is one of their children turning away from them, ceasing to talk, cutting off all communication, denying their very existence. Oh, how that hurts. Don’t you see then how Jesus taught you all that you need to know? He taught you all that you will ever need to know while He hung upon the cross. He taught you to never turn away from me. To speak to me. To direct your heart and your mouth and your will toward me. He taught you to keep your eyes on Me. The world only sees terrible pain and suffering upon the cross, I see you being set free. I see you this very morning coming to your Father and speaking openly. I see hope and I hear the sound of my dear child falling into Love.”
Whenever I can, I invite visitors to our monastery in Jamaica, Long Island, to take the subway to downtown Manhattan for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry and then visit Battery Park, the Museum of the American Indian, and some of the old churches and shrines among the city’s famous skyline. I try to tell the story of our country and the Catholic church in America by walking through those places. It’s a good opportunity to talk about the care we need to give creation as we look at the waters of the harbor, the question of immigration as we visit Castle Clinton in the Battery, and the church as we visit the area’s churches. Looking at the past helps you to understand the present.
Our walk usually ends at St. Peter’s church, the oldest Catholic church in New York City, on the corner of Church and Barclay Streets, a block away from the World Trade Center. The church was dedicated November 4, 1786, three years after British troops evacuated the city at the end of the Revolutionary War and it’s been there as an active parish every since.
Previously, New York City was under Dutch and British rule for almost 150 years. During that time the city was strongly anti-Catholic, with laws calling for any Catholic priest who came there to be jailed. Catholic worship was forbidden; there were no Catholic churches.
Even after the Revolutionary War, despite their support for the American cause, Catholics were looked down upon in New York City. There were only a few hundred in a population of almost 20,000. Being a Catholic didn’t get you far in New York in those days.
So how did that church get built? Well, there were some foreign diplomats from France and Spain and Portugal in the city then. New York was the nation’s capital at that time. (1785-1790)
There were a couple of well-to-do Catholic businessmen, but most of the Catholics that formed St. Peter’s were poor Irish and German immigrants and French refugees and slaves from the recent revolution in Haiti.
Not a good mix of people to form a parish, you might think. This new congregation, besides facing the anti-Catholic attitude of New Yorkers, was poor and getting poorer as new Catholic immigrants poured into New York from Europe. Its priests weren’t the best either. They seemed to be always squabbling among themselves. There were some scandals among them. The laypeople were also divided among themselves. There were factions that wanted to run the parish their way or no way. There wasn’t a bishop in the country at the time to straighten things out.
So what kept it going? The other day we celebrated the Feast for the Dedication of the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome. The liturgy for that feast offers some wonderful insights into what a church and a parish should be. “My house is a house of prayer,” Jesus says. This church is not a social hall; it’s a place where we meet God and God meets us. It’s a place where we are welcomed on our way through life by a living water that restores us and helps us grow. ( Ezekiel 47.1-12) It’s is a place where we remember our mission in this world: we’re builders of the City of God, living stones that together form the temple of God. ( 1 Corinthians 3, 9-17) It’s is a place of communion, where we commune with God and God with us.
The readings for the feast say a church is a place of welcome. It’s where the lost sheep find their way home. It’s where people like Zacchaeus, the tax collector mentioned in St. Luke’s gospel, find new hope for their lives. It’s is a place of sacraments, where infants are blessed, where marriages begin, where we put our dead in the hands of God who promises eternal life.
What keeps a church and a parish going is its spiritual life, its life of prayer, its life of ministry.
Whenever I go to St. Peter’s Church on Barley Street I point out two markers at its entrance. One says that St. Elizabeth Seton, the first native born American saint, was received into the Catholic Church here in 1806. She had been a member of a prominent Anglican church just down the street, Trinity Church, but came to St. Peter’s drawn by her faith in the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. Socially, it was step down for her. Spiritually, she found a home here in this struggling, messy parish of poor immigrants.
The other marker recalls Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave who was also a member of this church in colonial times. He became a famous New York hair-dresser and was welcomed into the homes of elite members of New York society for over 50 years. For 50 years he came to Mass every morning at St. Peter’s. He’s buried in the crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in being proposed for canonization today.
The church is not a place of brick and stone. It’s a place for people, holy people, to meet God and one another. They make the church.
Pope Leo had to step in when Attila and his army were threatening to destroy Rome. The elite of Roman society had fled the city, the government was gone, the rest were busy securing their own homes in the city. I don’t think Leo, a churchman who was by nature a thinker deeply engaged in the study of spiritual things wanted to meet the dangerous invaders at the city gates, but he did. He rose to accept the responsibility.
When society is in danger because it refuses to face the issues that endanger it, the church can’t flee or look to its own security. It has to step in. That means not only church leaders but every believer has to meet the challenges at our gates today which government and society won’t acknowledge– Climate change and care for the earth, immigration and care of refugees, nuclear disarmament, universal healthcare, global peacekeeping, respect for the family and human rights.
“Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God for you. Consider how their lives ended and imitate their faith. “ (Hebrews 13, 7) (Common of Pastors} Remember Leo.
Tomorrow we have another leader, who fought for the poor when most were concerned for the rich: Martin of Tours. Remember Martin of Tours.