Monthly Archives: December 2016

January 1: Looking Ahead with Mary

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We’re beginning a New Year. What will it be like? Some people don’t want to even think about it. If we limit ourselves to political squabbles, terrorist attacks, storms and floods, racial tensions we wont find much to hope for. The commentators and talk shows are pretty pessimistic. Can anyone help us look ahead?

How about Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom we honor today?

Mary didn’t see far into the future in her own lifetime. She didn’t have a lot to go on when the angel left her in Nazareth. She was a woman of faith, rather than  sight, but faith in the future might the greatest gift she gives to us, a faith based on God’s power and not ours, a faith based on God’s love, God’s faithfulness and not ours.

Pope Francis quoted this prayer in his address to his advisors last year. He invited  them to look into the future with faith. God’s plan is unfolding, even if we don’t see it. We can recognize  Mary’s thoughts in the prayer.

“Every now and then it helps us to take a step back and to see things from a distance.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is also beyond our visions.

In our lives, we manage to achieve only a small part of the marvelous plan that is God’s work.

Nothing that we do is complete, which is to say that the Kingdom is greater than ourselves.

No statement says everything that can be said. No prayer completely expresses the faith.

No Creed brings perfection. No pastoral visit solves every problem.

No program fully accomplishes the mission of the Church.

No goal or purpose ever reaches completion.

This is what it is about: We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that others will watch over them.

We lay the foundations of something that will develop.

We add the yeast which will multiply our possibilities.

We cannot do everything, yet it is liberating to begin.

This gives us the strength to do something and to do it well.

It may remain incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.

It is an opportunity for the grace of God to enter and to do the rest.

It may be that we will never see its completion,

but that is the difference between the master and the laborer.

We are laborers, not master builders, servants, not the Messiah.

We are prophets of a future that does not belong to us.”

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A New Year Is Coming

new year
Looking at the New Year, Karl Rahner speaks of our need for “a mysticism of everyday life.” It’s not in big things God’s grace will be found, but in steady, commonplace living. Accepting time in small dimensions readies us for its big moments.

“The New Year is coming.  A year like all the rest.  A year of trouble and disappointment with myself and others. When God is building the house of our eternity, he puts up fine scaffolding in order to carry out the work. So fine, that we may prefer to live in it.

The trouble is we find it is taken down again and again. We call that dismantling the painful fragility of life. We lament and become melancholy if we look at the new year and see only the demolition of the house of our life, which is really being quietly built up for eternity behind this scaffolding that’s put up and taken down again.

“No, the coming year is not a year of disappointment or a year of pleasing illusions. It’s God’s year. The year when decisive hours are approaching me quietly and unobtrusively, and the fullness of my time is coming. Shall I notice these hours? Or will they be empty, because they seem too small, too humble and commonplace?

“Outwardly they won’t look different and can be overlooked: the slight patience it takes to made life slightly more tolerable for those around me; the omission of an excuse; risking good faith in someone I’m inclined to mistrust because I’ve had an bad experience with them before; accepting someone’s criticism of me; allowing an injury done to me to die away, without complaining, bitterness or revenge; being faithful to prayer without being rewarded by “consolations” or “religious experience”; trying to love those who get on my nerves (through their fault, of course); trying to see in someone else’s stupidity an intelligence that is not mine; not trading on my virtues to justify my faults; suppressing my complaints and omitting self-praise.”

Rahner doesn’t glamorize everyday mysticism. It can be both tough and boring. “Even the saints yawn sometimes, and have to shave.”

K. Rahner, The Great Church Year, New York 1994  p. 85

Readings here:

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The Holy Family

 

Luke 2,41-52

For most people, Christmas is over– the music’s stopped; Santa Claus is gone from the malls. The decorations are down and put away. It’s over.

But in church Christmas isn’t over. We’re still singing  carols and continue to celebrate as we think  about what it means when we say “our God was made visible.”

Today’s the feast of the Holy Family. The Word was made flesh, and as the child of Mary and Joseph Jesus was part of a family in the small town of Nazareth in  hills of  Galilee.

For one thing, families then were extended families or clans, living close together and working side by side. Archeological excavations in Nazareth and Capernaum (pictures below) make that clear. Families worked together in the fields or in  business, they ate together and moved together, as they still do in parts of the Middle East and elsewhere today.

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It’s safe to say that nuclear families didn’t exist then. A nuclear family– mother, father and children– is a modern form of family life. Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus were not all by themselves in a small house in Nazareth. Rather, Jesus was raised in an extended family where  grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles, aunts and cousins lived together and were involved in bringing him up.

That doesn’t take away the part Mary and Joseph played in his upbringing, of course. They weren’t props, standing by while angels brought him up. Some of the apocryphal gospels – early stories about Jesus which the church rejected  – seem to say that.  One  story describes the Child Jesus forming  the figure of a bird from clay, then breathing on it, and instantly it becomes a living bird and flies away. Stories like that presented him exercising  miraculous powers as a child.

The church rejected those stories because they gave a  false picture of Jesus growing up. He “was subject” to Mary and Joseph, the gospel of Luke says. He grew up in their care as an ordinary child would.

Like mothers and fathers everywhere, they saw to his needs, they held him in their arms,  fed him, clothed him,  stayed up at night when he was sick. They taught him his first words,  guided his first steps,  nudged him along this way and that.

They  brought him to church–the synagogue, the temple–as we see in today’s gospel from Luke. They instructed him in his tradition. They taught him to pray,  interpreted events for him,  listened to his questions,  encouraged him over and over. They had their misunderstandings, as today’s gospel  indicates. In fact, they  influenced his life.

Yes, angels were there, but at a distance.  Mary and Joseph and that larger family and village around him raised the Child.

Today’s  feast of the Holy Family takes in the years of Jesus’ childhood and early adult life called his “Hidden Life.” His  years in that nondescript town among those ordinary people were truly hidden, yet were they less important than his Public Life, the few years he taught and did great miracles,  suffered and died and rose from the dead? In those hidden years “he humbled himself.”  A hidden life is important; it’s what mostly characterizes life in a family.

We need to think about family life today, because it’s in trouble.  For one thing, the nuclear family– father, mother, children– is  in trouble. I read some disturbing statistics recently. In every state in our country, families where children have two parents have declined significantly in the last 10 years. One of three children live in a home without a father. Almost 5 million children live in a home without a mother. A single mother may have an income of $24,000. Two parents are likely to have an income significantly greater.

What can we do? How can we help? Feasts  like the Holy Family focus our attention on important things.  They remind us what’s important in God’s eyes. The feast of the Holy Family focuses on the family. It’s important, it says.  At the same time, it tells us God’s grace will be ours when we work to make families go and when we support them all we can.  God points to family life today. It’s vitally important in our world.

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Friday Thoughts: Portrait of the Catholic as a Middle-Aged Man

 

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Georges Seurat, “Aman-Jean (Portrait of Edmond Francois Aman-Jean)”, 1882-83, (The Met)

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So much is not seen.

What is heard hardly tells the story.

The hairline leaves little to gaze upon.

A good sergeant, he worries little about appearances.

He often feels what he believes is slipping away beneath his feet.

The commands barked from above seem detached from the situation on the ground.

He follows orders anyway.

To many he is somewhat of a joke.

A puppet. A man who cant think for himself.

Some may even use the word ‘coward’.

But none of this is accurate of course.

No, he is a man of honor.

A noble-man.

He takes his vows and commitments seriously.

He will protect his wife. He will raise his children.

He will stand when others hide.

He will walk forward when others turn away.

Firm and steadfast.

He lives out daily the faith of his fathers.

Quietly and efficiently as possible.

No, he’s certainly not perfect.

And of this he is very conscious.

So much so he wonders often if God has chosen the wrong man.

And this is saving grace.

Humility is purgatorial.

It burns away the dross.

It polishes the trophy.

It propels him to love to heroic measures.

It keeps him around, in the game, engaged, alive, an active participant.

As much as it hurts, he knows it’s true, and he carries on, toward the goal.

Toward what he cannot see, toward what he certainly does not understand.

This man is a hero of faith.

And at the same time he is just another Joe.

Another Tom, Dick or Harry.

But in heaven, when all is said and done, he shall receive a crown.

His cross finally laid down, he shall finally see it as a walking stick.

A beautifully-crafted staff in the hand of a just and upright man.

A righteous upholder of God’s eternal law.

Then he shall take his place, very close to the King and Queen, right beside that other unknown man named Joe.

That common nobody led by angels and mocked by men.

The one chosen by God to raise the Messiah.

For where you find the anonymous man of whom I speak, you too shall discover the Holy Family.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

On earth as it is in heaven.

A little humble home in the middle of nowhere.

An eternal kingdom emanating all that is good.


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—Howard Hain

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http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/339751.

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* Dedicated to my good friend, who I greatly admire.

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An 84 Year Old Apostle

 

 

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In his Infancy narrative,  read during Christmastime at Mass, Luke skillfully describes the coming of the Lord, starting in the temple where the angel announces the birth of John to Zechariah, then to Nazareth where the birth of Jesus is announced. Mary hurries to her cousin Elizabeth with the news. Then, there’s the birth of John when the old priest Zechariah gets his voice back. Then, Jesus is born and poor shepherds come from the dark hills to see him.

In today’s reading,  Mary and Joseph take the Child to the temple in Jerusalem, “to present him to the Lord.” Two old people, Simeon and Anna, meet the Child. Simeon is filled with joy as he takes the Child in his arms. “Now you can dismiss your servant in peace, Lord, because my eyes have seen your salvation.” No temple priests, no officials, no angels are in the story, just two old people happening to be there meet the Child.

Anna, a temple regular, is 84 years old and a widow after being married for only seven years. She also sees the Child. “Coming forward at the very time,” Luke says, “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

The Lord comes to one 84 years old as well as to Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds in the hills, the wise men from afar. He comes to all. Anna gives thanks when she sees the Child and speaks about him to everyone she meets. At 84, she becomes an apostle.

It ain’t over till it’s over.

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Morning Thoughts: Wise as Doves

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Rembrandt, “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”, 1634

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Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.

—Luke 2:8-9


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Perhaps the scariest thing to those of us who cling tightly to the things of the world is to accept the job that the Lord assigns us.

Oh, how so many of us are so quick to long for greater adventure!

Yet, when it comes to those humble, little shepherds to whom the angel of the Lord appeared, we are perhaps even quicker to long to be one of them—sitting quietly upon a gentle hillside, effortlessly tending to a passive flock, while the always-full moon provides a soft, ever-so-appropriate illumination from above.

But we are liars. For there’s nothing less romantic in each one of our daily lives, or more mundane. We simply have to be honest, or at least consistent. It all depends on how we look at it. If we see the shepherds in such a delicate light then we also need to see ourselves in the same. For before the angel appears, the shepherds were hardly posing for picturesque landscapes. Perhaps it is for this very reason—their realness, their authenticity, their holy simplicity—that the Lord chose them to be present when He revealed His glory.

It is exciting. We have a wonderful choice, then. Either our “boring” lives make us just the kind of people to whom God prefers to reveal Himself, or our lives are a lot more “exciting” than we ever imagined. Either way, what is vital to making such a decision is true sincerity and genuine gratitude. We need to thank God for who He has made us, for where He has placed us, and for what type of task He has assigned us.

A faithful, humble heart dreams and believes and sees great things among the most ordinary circumstances. Just look at the young virgin and the upright carpenter to whom the shepherds “went in haste” to find in a stable, adoring a child born within the company of the “lowest” of men.

If we spend our time dreaming of being someone else, living somewhere else, and doing something else, we miss the opportunity of being exactly who God intends us to be—and when that happens—we are always in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and most tragically, doing that which matters very little.

For to be the first on the scene, the first to “lay hold”, the first to adore the New Born King, is as good as it gets—even for those whose “normal existence” isn’t standing around all alone—day after day in the scorching sun or biting cold, while picking fleas from matted-down fleece or scaring off hungry wolves.


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The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…”

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

—Luke, Chapter 2:10,16-18,20


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—Howard Hain

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The Word Made Visible

John evangelist
The Feast of St. John the Apostle follows closely the birth of Jesus because in his gospel and letters John answers the great question: Who is Jesus? Who is this child, born of Mary in a stable? Who is this person we see in his hidden  life, his public ministry, and his death and resurrection.

Called by Jesus himself at the Sea of Galilee, John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, he sat beside him at the Last Supper; he went into the Garden of Gethsemane with him. Finally, he stood beside his cross, he saw the empty tomb and met him risen from the dead.

Tradition says John was the last of the apostles to die. His gospel and his letters–which circulated among his followers– testify to the church’s firm, mature belief in both the divinity and humanity of Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John states in the opening verses of his gospel, one of the principal readings for the Christmas feast. In his letters, which we read at Mass most of the days after Christmas until the Feast of the Baptism, the apostle upholds the humanity of Jesus against those who said that God would not possibly take human form.

In a beautiful way, John recasts the sublime words from the prologue of his gospel and testifies that the Word of God became flesh and we know him through his humanity, just as his apostles did.

“What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life —
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it
and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us—
what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you.” 1 John 1-4

Readings here.

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