Sunday, December 27, 2009

12-27-2009: Holy Family (C)

Feast of the Holy Family
Samuel 1:20-22,24-28/ Pslam 84/ 1 John 3:1-2,21-24/ Luke 2:41-52
All you lovers of the Rosary will recognize today’s gospel story as the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary - the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though, if we read the story with honest eyes. After all, for whom is it joyful? Mary and Joseph, having come from rural Nazareth, cannot find their teenage son in the vast, sprawling metropolis that was Jerusalem. They were probably past frantic, and more than a little miffed, when they finally locate him hobnobbing with the hoi polloi in the Temple precincts. [I’m using hoi polloi, here, the way someone from Brooklyn (or Nazareth) would – not in its literal sense].

This is the only story, in the canonical gospels, of Jesus as a teenager – the only mention of his adolescence. Not to be too judgmental we might read today’s gospel story, or meditate on it as the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary, marveling at Jesus’ precociousness while overlooking his seemingly obvious insensitivity to his parents’ feelings. Talking about Jesus “growing up,” or growing in wisdom, age and grace as the gospel tells us today, does present problems for us Christians, especially for those of us with too static a notion of the hypostatic union.

Now there’s a phrase. Hypostatic union is that technical term used for the unique presence of both a divine and human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. We seldom hear the phrase anymore; probably because it makes Jesus sound, to our modern science-fiction-sensitive ears, more like a space alien (Klingon or Romulan perhaps?) than anything else. But then again, when we’re trying to figure out why teenagers do the things they do, maybe it’s as apt a description as any. “Ordinary” teenagers, not in possession of a hypostatic union, usually act like they’re aliens from another planet, speaking an unintelligible gibberish, clumsily awkward, inordinately sensitive and, ultimately, so mysterious they could have a decade of the Rosary named for them.

When Mary and Joseph finally find the teenage Jesus, spouting off with the priests and scholars in the Temple, Mary’s frustration comes across loud and clear when she rather sharply rebukes her son: “Boy, why’d you do this to us?” Of course, what would be most telling would be the ability to hear Mary’s tone of voice – that is, if she weren’t screaming at the top of her lungs. And you parents of teenagers might just be wondering how Mary and Joseph decided to punish Jesus when they got him back home where, the gospel tells us, he was obedient unto them.

All this comment is said with tongue and cheek, of course; but, hopefully, causing us to pause to consider Jesus’ unique identity and how he interacted with those closest to him. Some insist that, because Jesus was God, he planned the whole episode, intentionally running away from Mary and Joseph in order to teach them and everybody else that he was indeed the Son of God; staging the Temple scene so he could dramatically deliver the revelation that the Temple was his real Father’s house. But this kind of interpretation invites more than a little skepticism because it doesn’t honor the greater revelation – that of the authenticity of the Incarnation itself. If the Incarnation means that Jesus is truly human than he must be just as human as we are, especially in adolescence - when planning anything long term just doesn’t seem possible.

The beauty of today’s gospel passage is that it’s such a relief. Despite the fact that within the Holy Family both Jesus and Mary were free of original sin, their family still experienced stress and friction, even a little bitterness and, most certainly, hurt feelings. When the teenage Jesus runs away from Mary and Joseph, leaving them distressed and filled with anxiety, wasn’t he acting just like most other teenagers who know exactly how to press their parents’ buttons and cause the same reactions. And the fact that Mary “lost it” in front of the hoi polloi - all those scholars and priests in the Temple - shows her human frailty as well. And what is considered by some to be the main import of the passage - Jesus’ claiming divinity by suggesting God is his real father - is perhaps the cruelest cut of all, at least from Joseph’s perspective. By Jesus claiming he was in his “Father’s house,” he was telling all those important people in the Temple that poor old Joseph, the blue-collar carpenter standing embarrassed before them, was not his real dad.

The Holy Family is often (and unfortunately) held up as the perfect family, whose perfection our families should emulate. But if the Holy Family was indeed perfect, we may safely conclude from today’s gospel that perfection doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. In fact, it seems that being conceived without original sin (Mary), as well as possessing a divine nature (Jesus), doesn’t make you immune from emotions that all human beings are subject to; some, not so nice.

Perhaps, though, I was wrong. Maybe today’s gospel passage, as a mystery of the Rosary, is indeed joyful – showing us that Jesus is less alien than his unique hypostatic reality would make him seem, having more in common with “ordinary” teenagers than we first expected. Teenagers’ actions and words may sometimes cut a parent’s heart to the quick, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love and respect you enormously – somewhere, way down deep, in their mysterious nature, which the more prayerful among us have long ago discovered to be joyful.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

12-20-2009: Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:1-4/ Psalm 80/ Hebrews 10:5-10/ Luke 1:39-45
The exhortation to keep Christ in Christmas has the ring of modernity about it. As if to say we, as a culture, have forgotten the real meaning of Christmas while indulging ourselves in all of its tangential concerns and pleasures. Reading between the lines in the gospel, though, might suggest that trying to keep Christ in Christmas has been a challenge from the very beginning.

In today’s gospel, what serves as John the Baptist’s unborn debut hints at a perhaps darker dilemma that the teenage Mary had to face. We are told that Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth who, seemingly past childbearing age, was miraculously pregnant as well. Reading between the lines a more apt translation might be: throwing a few things together, Mary headed for the hills – with all the danger and intrigue such a phrase conjures.

It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Who could blame Mary’s parents if they tried their best to salvage what must have seemed a no-win situation, figuring out a way to get their pregnant and unwed teenager out of town before she began to show. Heading for the hills is the classic solution to this most perennial of problems. We might even surmise that, all things being equal, no one thought Elizabeth at her age would be able to carry her child to term and, if something should happen… well, kinship adoption would seem the perfect solution to a very thorny problem.

Up until fairly recently unwed mothers bore an inordinate amount of shame brought on by culture, religion and societal mores. When Ingrid Bergman became pregnant out of wedlock (playing Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s when she began to show), she was denounced from the floor of the United States Senate. Bergman then headed for the hills – of Europe, until her public forgave her with her performance in Anastasia. [It’s a bit uncanny that the name Anastasia, in Greek, literally means arise – the very word that opens today’s gospel account: Mary arose and travelled to the hill country…]

Perhaps it was the ugly way in which Bergman was shamed that caused another actress in the same predicament, Loretta Young, to head for the hills – of Italy. After she gave birth to her daughter in secret, Young returned to the U.S. claiming she had adopted the baby girl in Italy. Not only did she avoid the ugly denunciations of such a prestigious (and shameless) institution as the U.S. Senate, but was praised for her selflessness - saving the poor waif from a cruel fate. Young, noted for her devout Catholicism, no doubt had that burden to bear as well as she continued the lie for nearly three decades.

When my mother, unwed and living in Baltimore, became pregnant with me she also arose and headed for the hills – of Manhattan. It’s both comforting and unnerving to think that, if she had chosen to head to some other hills, how different my life would have been. While our genetic make-up certainly seems to be the dominant feature of who we are, the “accidents” of environment, twinged here or tweaked there, can determine to a great degree who we become.

Keeping Christ in Christmas has always been a challenge; Advent helps by bidding us arise and head for the hills. We need to get some distance, see things from a different and, perhaps, higher perspective; figure things out, make decisions, accept our destiny, and then return from the hills to embrace it.

For Mary, things didn’t work out the way they might have: Elizabeth carried to term and Mary returned home - very pregnant. The hills didn’t offer Mary an easy out, but strengthened her in her resolve to accept her situation as she promised she would when the angel had first come upon her. Keeping Christ in Christmas might be a challenge these days, but having kept Christ in that first Christmas was indeed a major miracle, made possible by God’s grace no doubt, but also by the resolve of a young mother who arose to accept her situation. Who knows: if Mary hadn’t first headed for the hills, she might not have been able to do just that.

12-13-2009: Third Sunday of Advent (C)

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-18/ Isaiah 12:2-6/ Philippians 4:4-7/ Luke 3:10-18
It would be quite a coincidence if one day archaeologists would uncover evidence that Jesus’ birth really did take place in the darkest weeks of winter, deep in December. Perhaps finding something akin to our church baptismal registers, listing date of birth, the name of the young mother, and as for the father, the Latin designation - pater ignotus - a not so subtle attempt to protect from the shame that such births seem always to engender.

A coincidence, precisely because no one knows when Jesus was born. It took the Church centuries before she began to celebrate Jesus’ birth, celebrating instead his manifestation to the Magi – the Epiphany – Little Christmas. When the church finally did settle down for the birthday celebration, she chose this dark time of year, near the winter solstice, when days are shortest and the darkness of night seems way too long. Then, recalling the star of Bethlehem, a slice of light and the longed-for dawn appearing on the horizon, became the theme of Christmas. It’s an obvious use of metaphor, alluding to that primal human need to see – or at least to glimpse – so we might hope and not despair.

The metaphor is likewise applied to that inner darkness where loneliness and a sense of abandonment can do terrible things to people; or make them into something extraordinary. One of the mysteries of Christianity is that it isn’t so simple. It promises light, while steadfastly refusing to curse the darkness. If you’ve read the recent biography of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, you might agree that she knew of that darkness, intimately:

"The darkness … surrounds me on all sides…no light enters my soul. Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness…I have come to love the darkness."

Notice she doesn’t say that God breaks through the darkness; it is her longing that makes the breakthrough. Christmas, the mysterious way in which divinity made itself manifest, started in darkness, not light. Remember: Mary’s initial reaction to the angel Gabriel was one of fear, and the dilemma that her unexpected pregnancy provoked must have been a very dark time for all involved. Christmas, though celebrating the coming of divinity, is in a real sense the sacrament of absence as well.

In our most skeptical age, when faith has been relegated to the back room of daily experience and the practice of religion considered a remnant of an unenlightened past, surprise is perhaps the only “proof” that still has the power to melt away doubt and despair. Surprise is the manifestation of the unexpected with all its awe-ful terror and awe-filled wonder. Most of us are not in the same league as the Virgin Mary who accepted Gabriel’s proposition, or Mother Teresa who claimed to receive a call within a call on her fateful train ride to Darjeeling in the 1940s; but we can be surprised nonetheless. One of the earliest documentaries of Mother Teresa’s life and work recorded an interview with a Loreto nun who lived with Mother Teresa for some twenty years when she taught Geography at a girls’ high school in India and before she left the convent to begin picking up the dying on the streets of Calcutta. The old Irish nun recalled that Mother Teresa was no different from any of the other sisters in the convent; matter of fact, the nun said, we thought she was a bit on the delicate side.

Can you picture the delicate Mother Teresa as she picked up the maggot-ridden bodies of the dying and the dead, washing their putrefying bodies, cleaning their open sores – for fifty years. Delicate indeed. But that’s the kind of surprise that makes you step back and wonder, despite (or is it because) the darkness seems at times so deep, how such things can happen.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

12-06-2009: Second Sunday Advent (C)

Second Sunday of Advent
Baruch 5:1-9/ Psalm 126/ Philippians 1:4-6,8-11/ Luke 3:1-6

Both the prophet Baruch, as well as the great John the Baptist, echo the same images from the Hebrew scriptures as they suggest in today’s readings that salvation is somehow akin to heavy construction, redevelopment or, perhaps, urban planning. Make those crooked paths straight, lay those mountains low, fill in those deep valleys; then we’ll all be able to see our salvation when it appears.

Mountains and valleys might block your view of the uninterrupted horizon, but they too can be beautiful in their own way; and, as beauty, serve as a conduit of that very same salvation. Even crooked paths can lead to the same desired end, albeit the journey be a bit longer. Salvation, then, may be a matter of perspective; in the end, a completely subjective and totally personal experience. The bottle always smells of the wine it once held, St. Augustine would write about his own conversion experience.

For a class I teach at St. Joseph’s I was re-reading a few things from the extraordinary life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker and recently proclaimed by the Church a Servant of God on the road to canonization. Dorothy Day had a jaded youth, to say the least. But it would be a huge mistake to think that she might be a saint despite her past, rather than because of it.

As a young journalist in the roaring ‘20s, she was way ahead of her time vis-à-vis women’s liberation and the sexual revolution. After being jilted by a live-in lover by whom she became pregnant and because of whom she aborted her baby, Dorothy would descend deep into that very low valley called despair where, some suggest, she may have attempted suicide. She would rebound though and, a few years later, ascend a high mountaintop, when she found herself deeply in love with Forster Batterham, a fellow radical and Communist, by whom she would became pregnant once again. But now she was filled with delight and gratitude and, overcome with joy, began to pray in thanksgiving for such a gift. Dorothy would attend Mass at a nearby church close to their cabin in the Spanish Camp section on the Staten Island shoreline. It was there she decided that she would baptize her daughter and, in that decision, find herself at the crossroads of her life, because the agnostic Forster had told Dorothy that if she baptized their daughter he would leave her. It was the hardest decision of her life, she would later write. But she baptized her daughter and, at the same time, became a Catholic herself.

The rest, as they say, is history. For the next fifty years Dorothy Day lived and worked with the poor and outcasts of New York City. She founded the Catholic Worker and opened houses of hospitality where the corporal works of mercy could be practiced for anyone, by anyone. It seemed that Dorothy had laid those mountains of her past low, she had filled in those deep valleys, straightened all those crooked paths. But it also seems significant that she always kept in touch with Forster, filling him in over the years on their daughter’s life and, then, on the lives of their many grandchildren. When Dorothy died in 1980 Forster attended her funeral. He, the onetime anarchist-communist who would not countenance religion of any kind, received Holy Communion that day. “It was Forster’s way of expressing his love for Dorothy,“ an old friend of Dorothy noted. “Those loves don’t disappear.”

Dorothy Day may have filled in those valleys, razed those mountains and even straightened out some very crooked paths – but never completely so, thank God. Salvation it seems is custom-made; one size doesn’t fit all. It’s utterly personal: transforming our past not obliterating it - grace building on nature, never annihilating it. No matter how sordid you might think your history is, it is precisely that history that will be saved, that history which becomes the foundation for your eternity – an eternity made up of all the highs and lows and crookedness that is part of your unique journey.