Sunday, December 25, 2011

11-12-25: Christmas Vigil Mass

Christmas Vigil Mass

Isaiah 62:1-5 / Pslam 89 / Acts of the Apostles 13:16-17,22-25 / Matthew 1:1-25

At the Vigil Mass for Christmas we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy. Ever since I joined I’ve come to appreciate the gospel accounts of the genealogies of Jesus more and more. “Genealogies” is in the plural because there are two, one in Matthew and one in Luke; they both trace Jesus’ lineage through Joseph , not Mary - but they don’t match. This, even though Jesus’ virginal conception is explicitly attested to only in those same gospels of Matthew and Luke. So you might agree these accounts of ancestors pose a dilemma, not only for later Christian faith which claims the necessity for belief in the Virginal Conception, but also for the integrity of the gospels themselves. The anomalies they present to the curious call for someone the likes of a Hercule Poirot to solve.

As someone with two genealogies I think I can understand what Matthew and Luke may have been trying to accomplish. I remember as a teenager being pushed by my mother to make a family tree. I never got very far but, long afterward while on a vacation to Ireland, I found the town of my father’s ancestors and took a lot of pictures of storefronts and tombstones that carried the Brosnan name. All this, despite the fact that I was adopted and therefore not linked to these names by blood. Many years later I found myself back in Ireland, this time researching my birthmother’s family in a different part of Ireland – the North – a bit astonished to discover I was of Protestant ancestry, a fact which would not have sat well with my adoptive parents had they still been alive. Somewhere along the line, however, after emigration to America, my forebears became Catholic and paved the way for my unwed mother to baptize me Catholic before relinquishing me to adoption through a Catholic agency.

When I joined and plugged in all the names I knew from my birthmother’s background I allowed my family tree to be viewed by other on-line members. Within two weeks I was in contact with Bob, a gentleman who turned out to be my second cousin once removed (I think I’ve got that right): his great-grandfather was my great-great grandfather – who, it turns out, was murdered while a night watchman for a New Jersey Railroad and buried from the Catholic Church, though he’d been married in a Protestant one. A few months back Bob and his wife came to visit me all the way from New Mexico – they’re transplanted Pennsylvanians. He showed me some photographs of his side of the family as well as a very old photo of our common ancestor, Henry Jones, from the turn of the nineteenth century. It reminded me of the time when I had been searching for my birthmother but first found a trail that led me to a friend of her brother’s who had been a Jesuit priest at Georgetown and had long-since died. This classmate of my uncle’s, who had been his best friend, took out a photo album with pictures of him and my uncle. It was the first time I had ever seen a picture of someone related to me by blood. I know it sounds a bit superficial – but that was one of the most memorable moments of my life. Now, through Bob, and, I was seeing the face of someone who was indirectly responsible for me being alive.

Matthew and Luke needed to “prove” their theological point about Jesus being the fulfillment of human and Jewish history. They also were acknowledging indirectly the need for Joseph, the adoptive dad, to provide a name and a legal fiction for Jesus and Mary, saving them both from what would have been an impossible situation. The other aspect of such genealogies that can be quite comforting for someone like me born illegitimate, whose mother was not married and whose father was long gone, is the fact the names that hang on Jesus’ family tree are not unlike my own. Isn’t it significant, for example, that Matthew mentions David’s son Solomon, “whose mother was the wife of Uriah.” He could have simply said Bathsheba but he didn’t want people to forget that Solomon was the product of adultery mixed with murder. If these characters can be claimed as the ancestors of someone like Jesus himself, need any of us feel ashamed of the ancestral baggage we carry, or worry that the sins of our parents and grandparents make us – or them - any less worthy of God’s love and mercy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

11-12-18: 4th Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16 / Psalm 89 / Romans 16:25-27 / Luke 1:26-38

It’s called the Virginal Conception by Catholics and the Virgin Birth by Protestants. It’s what we celebrate at Christmas, and it lies at the core of the gospel message: that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, or as the new translation of the Creed would have it – consubstantial with the Father. Not a few people have complained about using consubstantial in place of the former translation: “one in being with the Father.” Consubstantial is the Latin term which attempts to translate the Greek “homoousion.” Maybe we should have went back to that, you think? This was the term by which the Council Fathers of Nicea (325AD) defined the nature of that baby born to Mary. It’s the stuff that doctoral students in theology spend a lot of time trying to figure out. Truth be told, its meaning, layered in Greek philosophical concepts, is lost on most of us, including myself, who know little of Greek philosophy.

Maybe though this controversy we now experience over translated words can help us appreciate the essence of the problem regarding the identity of that baby born to Mary. I don’t know if it borders on the heretical, but let me say outright that I don’t believe that Mary or the apostles would have known what you were talking about if you could go back in time and pray the Nicene Creed with them – even if you could translate it into Aramaic. It is no accident that the Creeds were written in Greek, centuries after the fact. The Creeds represent a development, an evolution if you will, in the way believers came to identify that baby born to Mary. Some say that’s a virtual proof the whole thing’s a sham; but I would think the opposite. It would be a sham, in fact, to think that Mary or the twelve apostles could have thought of Jesus outside the perimeters of their Jewish faith. They were good Jews. They prayed the Shema everyday: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” They did not have the Greek categories, later employed, to understand how that basic statement of faith could include Jesus of Nazareth. St. Paul, born and raised in the Greek-speaking world, would be the first bridge between those two cultures and would begin to form the understanding of Jesus in non-Jewish ways.

This incapacity to think of Jesus outside their own Jewish box (so to speak) adds more, not less, to how a first-century Jew came to perceive Jesus with awe. Jesus simply did not fit into their categories. What attracted them to him must have been so powerful on an emotional level that categories didn’t matter. Experience rendered creed irrelevant. How else can we explain the courage of a fifteen year old girl, pregnant, unmarried, sent to the hills to visit a distant relative (no doubt so the townspeople wouldn’t talk) to accept her role in this unfolding drama. And though, by marriage, Joseph would protect her and the baby from some ugly repercussions, there would always be those who mumbled behind her back, insinuating some unpleasant things about Mary and her son. The gospels themselves hint at such things whenever they refer to Jesus as “Son of Mary” (an odd designation for a Jewish man, to say the least). How else to explain why some left everything to follow him at his simple invitation. How else to explain why some would die rather than renounce knowing him. How else to explain why the acceptable Jewish term, Messiah, was simply not enough to capture his essence. What they experienced as unique, we have defined as divine. But what does that really mean – how does even that term define the depths of identity.

St. Augustine perhaps said it best in his argument against the Manichees: “Do you think you know what God is? Do you think you know what God is like? He is nothing you imagine, nothing your thought embraces. O God, You who are above every name, above all thought, beyond every idea and every value...”

Or, as Martha Graham once said after a reporter asked her what a dance meant: “Mean?” Graham said. “What did it mean? Darling, if I could tell you, I wouldn’t have danced it.”

In the end experience, not words, makes all the difference.

Monday, December 12, 2011

11-12-11: 3rd Sunday of Advent

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11 / Luke 1:46-54 / 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 / John 1:6-8,19-28

In Fr. Robert Barron’s recent DVD series Catholicism each episode begins with the same footage. Watching all ten episodes, one after the other, you start to see a theme in those repeated clips of people from obviously different backgrounds doing something remarkably similar: they are all caught by the camera immersed in the same gesture of looking up and being startled. The series was very well done and highly commendable, but I confess to liking this repeated footage, without commentary, the best. In those startled, surprised faces, looking up at the incomparable stained glass of La Sainte Chapel or the gothic vaulted ceiling of Notre Dame Cathedral or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel covered with naked human beauty, our desire for the good and the true and the beautiful is somehow captured; and we see in the faces of these pilgrims, tourists, voyeurs a surprised recognition of something wonderful - something we have come to understand as the divine.

Surprise is, perhaps, the only thing that comes anywhere near a “proof” for God in our modern materialistic society. And like its biblical precedents, surprise often comes to us with a dose of fear as well. As Fr. Barron points out, whenever God sends his messenger – his angel – the recipient’s initial response is fear. “Do not be afraid Mary,” the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin. And then, out of the blue, from way-left field, comes the totally unexpected. Pregnant? How can that be? Our capacity for surprise may very well be the very measure of our faith. Is this what Jesus means when he says we must become like little children?

This week, on December 12th, we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Now there’s a story filled with surprises, overflowing with the unexpected. Beginning with the humble Aztec, Juan Diego, surprised by the rustle of birds on the side of the road, he encounters La Morena – the brown-skinned young woman, pregnant and clothed in a mantle of stars. Tell the bishop, she says, to build a temple here in my honor. Bring him these roses I place in your tilma as a sign. When Juan Diego unfurls his tilma, and the bishop drops to his knees, Juan Diego didn’t know he carried in his tilma not only roses but the image of La Morena herself. Within a very few years virtually the entire Aztec people were baptized and that tilma, still on display today, brings millions upon millions to see La Morena – the Virgin of Guadalupe. In this story surprise seems unlimited.

When the priests and the Levites confront the Baptist in today’s gospel: “Who are you – What are you?” He says he is no prophet, no Christ, but only a voice. Yet, with that voice he was able to identify the Christ for those who sought him. It was an important and necessary act since, once again, God would surprise us by sending someone just like us to be the image of him.

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. But it cannot be simply a preparation for something that has already happened some two thousand years ago. If it is only that, it may well serve as an opportunity to gather as family and friends and enjoy each other’s company - all well and good - but that’s not the point. Advent is not meant to help us remember a birthday but to prepare as best we can for the unexpected, for yet another coming, an encounter with him in a yet more humble way. We have no idea how or where the encounter will occur and so we can only prepare to be surprised. In this way when it happens, when that encounter with the divine takes place, we might be a little less frightened and a bit more open to recognize in creation and in those we meet a reflection of all that is good and true and beautiful. Advent is not meant to prepare us for the past but for the future, for that which is yet to happen. Try to remember that the next time you catch yourself startled, surprised, looking up.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

11-12-04: 2nd Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 63:16-17,19 / Psalm 80 / 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 / Mark 13:33-37

I’m not a political junkie but I admit to a strange attraction: I secretly like it when the presidential front runners mess up, lose their footing, get toppled. I suppose it might reflect how I see myself: in the background but yearning for the forefront, a second-class player looking for an opening to get off the bench. It’s not an especially attractive attribute. It doesn’t reflect a penchant for leadership or smack of genuine greatness; rather, it betrays a small-minded worldview, a narcissistic bent, a lingering unrealistic desire to be number one. Yet I’m sure, quite sure, I’m far from alone.

In contrast there are those few-and-far-between individuals who, perhaps after arduous interior struggle, have come to accept their lot in life - to acknowledge there’s someone more suited than they to be number one. It seems John the Baptist was one such individual. Today’s opening of Mark’s Gospel is about him telling everyone it’s not about him.

It’s significant that, though we really know very little about the Baptist, the synoptic gospels all emphasize his import. His prominence in our liturgical tradition likewise hints at a far more significant shadow he cast on the early church than we might at first realize. There is even one small religious sect (still extant, I think) that believes John, and not Jesus, was the Messiah. In other words John’s following was more than noteworthy – it was momentous. All of which means, of course, that John could have been number one - if he pursued it.

We read the gospels as if they were newspapers, journalistic accounts of events in the life of Christ from an eyewitness perspective. But, of course, they weren’t and could not have been. Written down decades after the events they record, and no doubt heavily influenced by the contemporary challenges they were immersed in, the evangelists made the events fit their narrative: they were theologians, not historians. And so, when Mark tells us that John the Baptist said he was not worthy to loosen the thongs of Jesus’ sandals, we can infer that these two charismatic figures may have vied for that number-one spot, until John stepped back. Then, in a move that seems to me more than a bit obscure, John manages to get himself arrested and beheaded by King Herod. The church went on to proclaim John a martyr, the first to witness to Christ by shedding his blood. But, in fact, he died objecting to the king’s breaking the Levirate law, not witnessing to Jesus. Jesus will praise the memory of the Baptist after his execution, but seems not much to care about the king’s marital status. It almost seems, dare I say it, John is committing political suicide in getting himself martyred. His death effectively removes any challenge to the centrality of Jesus in a movement begun by John but now about to be taken in a completely different direction by Jesus.

Perhaps we will never know the intricacies of the relationship between Jesus and the Baptist, or the real impact of the Baptist’s life and teaching on the early Jesus movement, but it’s clear from what the gospels say (and more so by what they don’t say) that John was a very important figure in the early history of Christianity, a genuinely “big man” – big enough, in fact, to swallow his pride and sacrifice his leadership so that his followers would feel free to leave him for the equally charismatic Jesus. John is that genuinely humble man who, though he knows he could have been number one, willingly and with great personal sacrifice, steps back. In that act of humility John achieved real greatness - and Christ could not have had a greater witness.