Sunday, December 30, 2012

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

Homily for
the Feast of the
Holy Family
Dec. 30, 2012
Luke 2: 41-52
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2: 49).

So read most of our modern translations.  An alternative translation, e.g., in the King James, the Douay-Rheims, and the original Jerusalem Bible, as well as in footnotes to some other versions, reads “must be about my Father’s business” or something similar.  If you prayed Evening Prayer last nite, you may have noticed that the intercessions use both forms.

Either rendition is valid, Luke’s Greek and Jerome’s Latin being ambiguous.  Jerome puts it thus:  “Nesciebatis quia in his quae Patris mei sunt oportet me esse?”  “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s things?”  (Both classical texts use a plural indefinite form—tois in Greek, or his quae—which doesn’t line up precisely with the idea of “house.”)

“My Father’s house” does obviously fit the context, for Mary and Joseph have found the boy in the Temple.  At the same time, there he’s found “sitting in the midst of the teachers [of Torah], listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46); this, too, is his Father’s “things,” his Father’s business:  to understand and to carry out the Torah.
Child Jesus in the Temple
stained glass, Holy Savior Church, Bruges
At age 12 Jesus would not already have become bar mitzvah, a son of the Law.[1]  But he would already have been aware of the importance of the Law; he would have known that his age of maturity as a son of the Law was approaching.  He seems to be taking that responsibility very seriously.

A little too seriously in his parents’ eyes, of course:  “Son, why have you done this to us?” (2:48).  It’s a cry of anxiety, as Mary says (2:48), of consternation, of stifled anger perhaps, of relief, that any parent would understand.  The anxiety, the fears, the terror of separation from a child were brought home to us all too tragically on the 14th.

Jesus, on the other hand, has a gentle rebuke for his mother and the man who has functioned as his earthly father for 12 years.  When he refers to his “Father’s house” (or his “Father’s affairs”), he’s not referring to Joseph.  Can we imagine how that must have startled both Mary and Joseph—no matter how well they may remember the amazing story of this child’s origin, they have to have settled comfortably into their parental roles.  Wouldn’t Joseph, after 12 years, have begun to think of Jesus as his own son just as much as Mary did?  Is Mary’s exclamation, “Your father and I have been looking for you” (2:48), meant only for public appearance—how else could she speak of her husband here?—or does it represent a way of thinking that both she and Joseph have just taken on naturally over the course of the quiet years?

So Jesus recalls them to a different set of relationships.  Mary and Joseph are his family—as we celebrate today—but God is his Father.  His Father’s house is the Temple; whether by design or not, Luke doesn’t say, “He went home with them and came to Nazareth,” but, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth” (2:51).  “Going down” and “going up” were the ordinary ways of speaking about leaving or going to Jerusalem, sited as it is on a prominent height.  Luke’s phrasing may be nothing more than that.  On the other hand, he could hardly have referred to Nazareth as Jesus’ home right after what the boy had just said.

The word house shows up 5 times in today’s liturgy:  once, as “household,” in the OT reading; once in the psalm, besides “dwelling place,” and in the psalm refrain; once, sort of, in the gospel, as we’ve been considering; and once in the Collect.  The word, as we know, can mean both a physical building, like the Temple, and a family, like Elkanah’s household (1 Sam 1:21) or “the house of David” to which Joseph belonged or God’s “house” in heaven (Collect).  In addition to those 5 usages, Hannah brings her son to God’s house, tho that word isn’t used, and Samuel becomes a member of the priestly household, “dedicated to the Lord” (1:24,28).
St. Mary's Church, Fredericksburg, Va.

As we celebrate the Holy Family, we pay homage to their “shining example” and pray that we might “imitate them” in our own natural or religious family, our household dedicated to the Lord (Collect).  But we also look to a heavenly family—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—which Joseph and Mary entered mystically by taking God’s Son into their home, and which we, also, enter mystically thru our religious consecration.  The Holy Trinity was present in their home at Nazareth thru the Son’s union with his Father and the Holy Spirit.  No doubt the Spirit guided Mary’s meditations as she “kept in her heart all the things” that she witnessed and took part in (Luke 2:51).  No doubt the Spirit was part of the boy’s advancement in wisdom (2:52)—as that’s understood by human beings, of course, since Divine Wisdom has no need to grow.

The Holy Trinity made the “house” of God in Jerusalem into a temple.  They call us, invite us, to come to the heavenly temple, to become part of their heavenly household.  Without using the word house or household, St. John voices that idea, too:  the Father’s love bestowed on us enables us to “be called children of God” (1 John 3:1), i.e., members of his family.  But, according to John, that’s only a start:  “we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1:2).  When we do finally come to the Father’s house, a tighter bond, a tighter relationship, than Father to children, awaits us, John seems to be saying.  Seeing God in his essence is going to transform us in some manner presently unknown to us.  Perhaps this is related to what we prayed in the 3d Mass of Christmas:  “that we may share in the divinity of Christ” (Collect), however that’s to be understood.

This divine transformation begins here below.  John links our relationship with God as his children to 2 things:  “belief in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love [for] one another just as he commanded us” (3:23).  “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them” (3:24); i.e., they dwell with and in the Son, and vice versa, sharing in the Son’s relationship with his Father “from the Spirit [that the Son] gave us” (3:24).

The Collect is perhaps a little more specific about those commandments when it prays that our imitation of the Holy Family include “practicing the virtues of family life and the bonds of charity.”  What precisely those virtues and that charity might be, in practice, in a household of religious women—that you pretty much know after your many years of practice; and you may, of course, imitate the Virgin Mother by continuing to “keep these things in your heart” in such wise that the virtues of Ursuline family life and the bonds of Christ-like charity become more and more deeply rooted.  All of this amounts to imitating Jesus in “being about the Father’s business”:  study and meditation upon the Torah, or more broadly, the commandments of Christian life, and loving one another in day-to-day practice—acting like we already belong to God’s household, his family.  And what we shall later be…will eventually be revealed to us, by God’s grace.


      [1] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford, 2011), note on Luke 2:42.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Homily for Christmas 2012

Homily for
Christmas
Dec. 25, 2012
Mass during the Day
Heb 1: 1-6
Collect
Ursulines, Willow Drive, New Rochelle

“He has spoken to us thru the Son” (Heb 1: 2).

Structurally, the Letter to the Hebrews isn’t an epistle but a sermon, or perhaps a series of sermons.  So the scholars tell us.  (Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to sit thru such a sermon?)  Not that that changes its content.

It’s a challenge, of course, to come up with appropriate readings for a feast like Christmas.  The Scriptures don’t give us much to work with that deals directly or prophetically with the birth of Christ.  And when you have 4 distinct Mass to find texts for, the challenge gets daunting.  So we have a highly theological passage from Hebrews and a highly theological passage from John at this final Mass of Christmas, rather than the beloved poetry and narratives of the earlier liturgies.
Looks like Giotto's work--but I can't say for sure!

The opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews speak of the meaning of what we call the Incarnation, without using that term; they place the time-changing historical event within the context of the history of divine revelation to Israel.  All of that series of revelations—to Noah, to Abraham, to David, to the classical prophets—were partial, fragmentary, incomplete.  Today, we might add a note about other religions in addition to Judaism, which contain a share of divine truth—but “partial and various” (1:1).

In the Jewish Scriptures, many revelations come thru angels, e.g., the three visitors who come to Abraham, the angel who wrestles with Jacob, the angels who appear to Gideon and to the woman who will become Samson’s mother, the angel who passes over Egypt on the nite of Passover.

All these revelations to the patriarchs and prophets, whatever form they took, don’t measure up to the revelation made to us “in these last days,” in this final period of human history (1:2).  Now we have heard God’s ultimate revelation, his eschatological revelation.  It has been voiced to us by God’s Son (1:2,5), his first-born (1:6).

This final revelation, the cause of our celebration today, comes thru no mere prophet, no mere angel.  The bearer of God’s ultimate Word is “the refulgence of God’s glory, the very imprint of his being” (1:3), a bearer of the full glory of God, the living image of God.  This is none other than God’s Son, who shares the divine nature, God’s “heir in all things thru whom he created the universe” (1:2). To use the language of the psalms, “God spoke, and it—the world—was made” (33:9); that’s a form of revelation.  In the words of St. John’s prolog, our gospel today, now that “Word has become flesh”; God’s Word is incarnate (1:14).

To what purpose?  Why such joyful celebration today?  This bearer of God’s final revelation “accomplished purification from sins” (1:3).  God speaks to us thru his Son to effect our purification.  The letter will go on to explain how the Son did that—which you and I know.  Christmas always points us toward Easter, as the Collects of Advent bring out repeatedly.

As does today’s Collect:  God, who originally “created the dignity of human nature,” which fell into death (Saturday’s Collect said[1])—God has now, thru his Son, “wonderfully restored” that dignity thru the human nature that the Son took on and shared with us.  Created as images of God (Gen 1:27), we have now been made anew in his image, in the image of the Son—if not quite “the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being,” then something like it.  For we aspire, the Collect reminds us, to “share in the divinity of Christ.”  (In fact, we make that prayer, silently, at every Mass as the celebrant pours water into the wine at the preparation of the gifts.)  “To share in the divinity of Christ” in Latin is eius divinitatis esse consortes, “to be sharers in his divinity”; consortes suggests a union with God like that of a wife with her husband, the two becoming one.[2]

This mystical union to which we aspire individually has been effected already with the Church collectively by Christ’s “sharing in our humanity,” humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps.”  In this case, “sharer” is particeps, meaning that he has become a participant in our human nature, has become a member of our race, not a “consort.”  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” but not to be a tourist, a journalist, a 1st-century Tocqueville or Margaret Mead, living among us and recording what he observes.  No, he has made his dwelling among us as an equal participant (particeps), and he has gone further yet, taken us as his bride, his consort, so as to restore the dignity we had lost and make us whole again.


           [1] Dec. 22
           [2] Daniel J. Merz and Marcel Rooney, OSB, Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts (Collegeville, 2011), p. 20.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Advent
Dec. 23, 2012
Luke 1: 39-45
St. Vincent’s Hosp., Harrison

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb” (Luke 1: 41).
The joy of Miriam (Mary) and Elizabeth

The gospel reading this morning is the one we call “the visitation”–the Virgin Mary’s visit to her older relative Elizabeth.  Elizabeth and Mary are often called “cousins,” but St. Luke doesn’t tell us the precise relationship, only that they were relatives or kinswomen.  That, however, isn’t the point of the story.

Mary herself has just been visited by the Archangel Gabriel (1:26-38) and consented to his invitation, from God, to become the mother of the “Son of the Most High” who will “rule over the house of Jacob forever” (1:32-33).  And this conception and birth will take place without any human intervention:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” so that “the child to be born will be called the Son of God” (1:35).  Mary gives her consent:  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38).  And the eternal Son of God is conceived in her womb, takes from her flesh and blood, becomes her Son.  The Collect made explicit reference to all of that, using the prayer that concludes the Angelus (if any of you are familiar with that traditional prayer).

That’s where our gospel reading takes up:  “During those days,” Luke says, “Mary set out and traveled in haste” to the home of her kinfolk, Elizabeth and Zechariah (1:39-40).

These stories involve Mary as a principal character, but they’re really about her Son.  She greets Elizabeth, presumably in whatever manner 2 female relatives in 1st-century Israel would have greeted each other after not having seen each other for many months (and of course not having called each other on their cell phones or sent any text messages).  Immediately, as soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, there’s a reaction—not from her but from her own unborn child, the son who will become John the Baptist.  He leaps in her womb; he jumps for joy.

Why?  The unborn child of course can’t explain.  His mother, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:41), divinely inspired, does explain:  “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (1:43).  Both unborn John and elderly Elizabeth recognize the presence of God in Mary’s womb.  The word Elizabeth uses, “Lord” (Kyrios in Luke’s Greek), is the scriptural way of referring to God.  If you’re old enuf, you remember when Mass was in Latin, and at the beginning we had a little litany, Kyrie, eleison; Christe, eleison; Kyrie, eleison (actually that’s Greek, not Latin):  “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.”  So right from the beginning of his earthly existence, before he’s even born, Jesus is recognized as God, and his coming causes rejoicing in the family that receives him.

That’s one point that St. Luke is making thru this story.

Another point is that these events that he’s describing fulfill what the Old Testament had foreshadowed.  He makes this point very subtly.  If we ask who else leapt for joy at the presence of God, we find that it was King David when he escorted the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, as described in the 2d Book of Samuel:  “David went to bring up the ark of God … into [Jerusalem] amid festivities.  As soon as the bearers of the ark had advanced six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.  Then David, girt with a linen apron, came dancing before the Lord with abandon, as he all the Israelites were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts of joy and to the sound of the horn” (6:12-15).
David Dancing before the Ark by an artist of the Venetian school, 17th c.

When John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, he’s leaping, like King David, because a new Ark of God has arrived.  “Ark of the Covenant” is a title that we give to Mary, e.g. in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, because she held, she contained, the Son of God within herself; she was God’s dwelling place for 9 months and his motherly shelter during his childhood and adolescence.

A 3d point comes in one of the blessings that Elizabeth pronounces:  “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (1:45).  She’s already blessed Mary kind of non-specifically:  “Blessed are you among women” (1:42)—you recognize there a fragment of our favorite prayer, the Hail Mary.  Now Elizabeth tells us why Mary is “blessed among women,” and it’s not because she’s Jesus’ mother but because she “believed that what was spoken to [her] by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

During his public preaching, Jesus is going to make the exact same point—and, again, it’s Luke, only Luke among the 4 gospel writers, who tells this story:  “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that carried you, and breasts at which you nursed.’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (11:27-28).  So Mary isn’t blessed because she’s Jesus’ mother; if that were the source of divine blessing, the rest of us would be out of luck, wouldn’t we?  Rather, Jesus says, she’s blessed, and anyone is blessed, for listening to God’s word and observing that word.  That’s a blessing open to all of us, as is the blessing that Elizabeth pronounces:  blessed are you for believing that the Lord’s word to you would be fulfilled.

God’s word is addressed to all of us.  God’s Word par excellence is Jesus himself, who speaks to each of us—in the sacred Scriptures, in the sacred liturgy, in the moral law, in the teachings of his Church, in the individual responsibilities that each of us has because of his or her vocation.  All of these “words of the Lord” are potential sources of blessings for us—if only we do our best to live them out, to believe them, to put them into practice.

When we recognize God’s Word in our lives, it’s something joyful.  We might not literally dance like King David, but maybe our hearts will do a little jump, like the unborn boy in Elizabeth’s womb.  For sure, living out God’s Word is the only way that we’ll be fulfilled as persons and as Christians; the only way that we’ll be happy in this life or in the life to come.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Homily for Christmas Novena, Dec. 22

Homily for the
Christmas Novena
December 22, 2012
Collect
Provincial House, New Rochelle

On the Christmas novena, see http://sdbnews.blogspot.com/2011/12/christmas-novena-starts-probably-most.html


Creche at St. Mary's Church, Fredericksburg, Va. By Fr. Don Rooney.
“You willed to redeem the human race, fallen into death, by the coming of your Only-Begotten Son” (Collect).

Today’s Collect is loosely linked to the O antiphon (http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2012/12/o-rex-gentium.html), which beseeches the King of the Nations to “come and save man … formed from the dust.”  It also lays out, subtly perhaps, the reason for the Only-Begotten’s coming to us:  to redeem us from death—by becoming totally human himself, even to suffering death himself.
Human beings are frail creatures, but “dust and ashes” according to Sirach (10:9; 17:27); and so Abraham describes himself to the Lord (Gen 18:27).  Our very name, “human,” derives from humus, earth, soil, dirt.

You might think that you can’t fall any lower than dirt.  Somehow we managed that and became a fallen race, a disappointment to our Creator.

Not only the race, collectively, of course, but each of us individually is “fallen into death,” the spiritual death of sin and, eventually, inevitably, the physical death of our dusty bodies, what Paul calls these “earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7).


Deacon Greg Kandra, by Rosalind Chan
Our prayer reminds our Creator, matter-of-factly, that he “willed to redeem” our fallen race.  He didn’t have to, but he chose to.  O felix culpa!  O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” (Exsultet)  Christmas points us toward Easter!

If there’s any truth in the OT narratives, it was almost a thankless job, a divine choice answered with repeated ingratitude by Israel—and, truthfully, by each of us, so often, in so many little ways at least:  our daily sins and infidelities.  But God willed, anyway, to redeem us; willed so strongly that he persisted at his saving interventions in Israel—thru Moses, thru the prophets, thru John the Baptist.

God’s ultimate intervention, of course, is “the coming of [his] Only-Begotten Son.”  Not was but is; for the Son who came in time thru his conception, birth, public ministry, and passover, and passed from time, yet persists in coming to us in mystery:  thru the sacred mysteries of the liturgy, in the Eucharist and those other saving interventions we call the sacraments.  He comes to us thru our reading of the Scriptures, thru the edifying example of our confreres, thru fraternal correction.  God’s Only-Begotten Son, born in time, gone from time, is yet truly present among us, carrying on his redemptive work of bringing us back from death, restoring to life our humble dust and ashes and our soiled souls.

Since God so ardently wills our redemption, we make our prayer that he effect his redemptive will in us “who confess [the] Incarnation” of his Son “with humble fervor.”  Humble, like human, is a word rooted in humus, “soil,” a reference to our lowly origins.  But our aspirations are high because of God’s will for us.  We aspire to be part of the “company” of those whom the Son redeems, brings back from death, raises from the earth, to be his heavenly companions, even as his Incarnation made him companion to us on earth.  It is his Father’s will that this promise of Christmas be fully realized in us, that this companionship begun on earth be fulfilled forever in his heavenly kingdom.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Homily for the 3d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 16, 2012
Luke 3: 10-18
Zeph 3: 14-18
Phil 4: 4-7
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“The crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’” (Luke 3: 10).
 
St. John the Baptist, Duomo of Turin
The crowds in general pose the question, and John gives a general answer that would apply to anyone:  share from your abundance with those in need.  Then 2 particular groups, tax collectors and soldiers, pose the question, and John gives them answers specific to their professions.

We may safely presume that the crowds of the Jews coming to John looked down on those 2 professions, tax collecting and soldiering, and for the very reasons implied by John’s answers.  Tax collectors as a group, backed by the weight of Roman authority, gouged the people and grew rich.  Soldiers, whether in the employ of Herod in Galilee, of Philip in Ituraea and Trachonitis, of Lysanias in Abilene, or of Pilate in Judea—names we heard in last Sunday’s gospel (cf. Luke 3:1-2)—had a tendency to abuse their power in multiple ways, such as we continue to hear and read in the flow of news from anywhere in the Third World and in rare cases also about our own soldiers.  For that matter, I was just in Fredericksburg, where one feature of the occupation of the city by the Union troops 150 years ago last week was the wholesale looting of the town—the 1st, shocking time that was ever done by an American army.
Streets of Fredericksburg, Va., after the shelling and looting of the city by Union troops, Dec. 11-12, 1862 (www.nps.gov/frsp)
 
John clearly calls for repentance, specific acts that demonstrate a change in one’s attitude and behavior.  Whatever popular opinion about tax collectors and soldiers may have been, John doesn’t exclude anyone from his invitation, or his challenge if you will; from this opportunity for saving repentance, this new chance to find favor with God.  What’s noteworthy, and what is universally applicable, is that John challenges each one in the crowd to change his behavior in relation to his state of life; not to change his profession; not to perform some dramatic or heroic deed; but to do his own duty, fulfill his own responsibilities with respect and care for others, like the respect and care indicated by giving an extra cloak to someone who doesn’t have one.

Each of us can imagine what answer John might give to us were we to ask him today, “Teacher, what should we do?” (Luke 3:12).  What might it be that I, a 21st-century Catholic; I, a 21st-century religious, am doing that I ought to stop doing; what is it that I’m not doing that I should be doing?  If we don’t want to think about that right now, we’ll have a chance to do so tomorrow evening during our DOR.

The people coming to John are eager to become better people because they are “filled with expectation” (3:15), expectation of the coming of the Messiah—kind of like kids filled with expectation at this time of year for someone’s coming, usually not Jesus’.  (In the comic strip Shoe on Friday, Schuyler was asked in school to define “eternity.”  He answered, “From now until Christmas.”)

Insofar as we believe that the Messiah has already come, our expectation is realized.  Insofar as we “await the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” we’re still filled with expectation—and still have time (not an “eternity,” to be sure, but limited time) to prepare for the 2d Coming.

But having already come once, not with the fire that John may have envisioned but certainly with greater might than John wielded, certainly in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is already present.  As the prophet Zephaniah sings today, “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, a mighty Savior!” (3:15,17).  Both Zephaniah (3:14) and Paul (Phil 4:4-5) call upon us to shout for joy, to rejoice at the Lord’s nearness.  Zephaniah adds that the Lord himself rejoices in his people, the people to whom he is close, the people whom he has redeemed by removing the judgment against them and turning away their enemies (3:15), the people whom he loves (cf. 3:17).  Zephaniah’s Lord offers security, and Paul assures the Philippians that they will experience God’s peace because he is close them in Jesus Christ.

The Lord has come to us in his call, in his gift of Baptism and the other sacraments that express his living presence in our midst, in the vocation he’s offered us, in the brothers he’s given us.  So many examples of his abiding presence, his constant love!

The Philippians passage is very familiar to us because of its use on the feast of Don Bosco.  Our father was a saint of joy and urged us to be joyful, or cheerful, because the Lord is close to us, always in our midst (like his Mother, too).  To be sure, Don Bosco had moments of discouragement early in his apostolic ministry, such as the one he describes in the Filippi brothers’ field just before Pancrazio Soave came along to speak to him about Francis Pinardi’s shed.[1]  We can imagine that he turned often to Fr. Cafasso[2] in discouragement or uncertainty.  But generally, whatever his many troubles were—dealing with the government; finding money to feed and shelter his boys; dodging assassination attempts; mourning the death of his mother, of a pupil, of a Salesian; contending with episcopal and Roman opposition to his new congregation, etc.—despite all his troubles, he was an example of “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!” (Zeph 3:16), an example of “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything…make your requests known to God” (Phil 4:6).
Filippi brothers complain to DB about the boys tearing up the grass in their field (Nino Musio)

The joy of the prophet, the joy of the Apostle—writing from a prison cell, no less—the good cheer of our founder, all these come from utter confidence in God’s nearness, God’s love for his people collectively and his love for them individually.  To go back to John the Baptist’s preaching, we may say that they were confident of being part of the wheat that the Lord intends to gather into his barn (Luke 3:17).  Theirs isn’t Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, me worry?” confidence, but a confidence born of what the Lord has done, what the Lord has promised, what they have experienced thru their own closeness to the Lord.  Each of us certainly has his troubles, his burdens, his worries, whether personal or apostolic, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.  But can any of us say that his troubles are bigger than Paul’s were?  than Don Bosco’s were?  We may take courage from them—and imitate their example of clinging to the Lord in “prayer and petition” and in our sacramental life.  With God as our savior, we may indeed be confident, unafraid (cf. Is 12:2), and ever joyful.


[1] John Bosco, Memoirs of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, trans. Daniel Lyons (New Rochelle, 2010), ch. 39.


[2] St. Joseph Cafasso, Don Bosco’s confessor and spiritual director.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Advent
Collect
Christian Brothers, Iona College
Dec. 2, 2012                                                               

(In fact, most of the Saturday evening congregation is lay people, not brothers.)

“Grant your faithful the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom” (Collect).

The 1st Sunday of Advent always draws our attention to the 2d coming of Christ, continuing the focus of the 33d Sunday in OT and the feast of Christ the King.  Advent’s attention will gradually shift to preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth in time 2,000 years ago; yet we know that birth is an unrepeatable historical event.  And we know that this same Jesus Christ has promised to return, to come again, to complete the work of our salvation that he began with his incarnation.
Last Judgment by William de Bailes (13th c.)

The Collect (or “opening prayer”) is loaded with meaning.  As usual, we need time and attention to unpack that meaning, to understand what we’re praying, to enter our prayer more deeply.

The Collect—like all the collects of the Roman Missal—is a humble petition addressed to the Divine Majesty.  This is brought out much more forcefully in the new translation we’ve been using for exactly a year:  “grant, we pray….”  We don’t demand of God but plead with him.  We sinners aren’t in a position to demand, no matter how faith-filled we may be, no matter how confident we may be, in the Father’s amazing grace.

Our prayer this evening is for “resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.”  As most of you know, Christ isn’t Jesus of Nazareth’s last name but a title:  the Greek translation of Messiah, “anointed one.”  Those who were anointed were designated for some special purpose by God, mainly kings and priests in the OT, and in the later OT period, the one expected to liberate God’s people from all their oppressors, the Son of David.  We Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is that Anointed One of God.

We pray for “resolve.”  That word implies a strong will, perseverance, determination.  For, assuredly, there are many things to distract us from attending to our Christian discipleship, from thinking about the 4 last things, from considering our ultimate destiny.  Our sins may discourage us from thinking about all that or from wanting to meet Christ.  So we need resolve—as a gift from God—to get ready for death, judgment, and eternity (either heaven or hell).

But we’re praying for more than a steely determination; more than a British stiff upper lip, as we prepare for Jesus.  We pray that we might “run forth to meet your Christ.”  Picture a child running to meet Mom or Dad coming home from work, or a spouse charging into the arms of a returning soldier.  What emotions are there?  We hope, we pray, that we might look for, desire, be eager for Christ’s return in such a way.

To welcome Christ like that, we need to have “righteous deeds.”  How many parables warn us not to come to him empty-handed!—e.g., the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30; cf. Luke 19:12-27), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13), the parable of the last judgment (Matt 25:31-46), to which our prayer refers explicitly.  Thus our responsorial psalm prayed the Lord to teach us his paths and guide us in his truth (25:4-5), and Paul prayed that the Lord increase the faithful of Thessalonica “in love for one another and for all,” that they might “be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thess 3:12-13).  And he urges the Thessalonians, “Conduct yourselves to please God” (4:1).
Wise & Foolish Virgins by William Blake

When we have filled our lives with righteous deeds—have our lamps filled with oil, lit and burning brightly, like the wise virgins of our Lord’s parable—then we’ll be ready to greet Christ at his coming, will run forth to meet him like children who’ve missed their parent for days or weeks away.

The “resolve” we pray for touches on these “righteous deeds.”  How can a follower of Christ live righteously in this world without resolve?  Following Christ, we all know, requires constant vigilance (cf. the parables again, and the final verse of today’s gospel [Luke 21:36]), resistance to evil, no compromising of principles, repentance of our failings, renewal of our baptismal (and vocational) commitment.  “I heartily resolve to sin no more,” we say in the traditional Act of Contrition most of us learned many years ago.  It’s a resolve we need to renew every day.

Of course, a resolve to avoid sin and “the near occasions of sin”—or, in the words many of our young people now use, “whatever leads me to sin”—is only a beginning, rather like a student resolving to do the bare minimum of schoolwork to avoid an F.  As Jesus’ followers, we need to resolve to imitate him in doing good, in practicing virtue—the “righteous deeds” for which we’ve prayed in the Collect.

The Collect goes on to refer to those “gathered at his right hand.”  2 weeks ago our gospel spoke of the angels “gathering his elect” from the far reaches of the world (Mark 13:27).  (One objective of the new translation of the Missal was to capture more of the biblical allusions in the prayers—there you have an example.)
Last Judgment by Jan Van Eyck

These elect, these faithful, are gathered at Christ’s right hand.  That’s an allusion to the parable of the coming of the Son of Man and the last judgment in Matt 25, at which the sheep (of his flock) will be placed at his right hand and rewarded for their righteous deeds of mercy:  feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming strangers—and the goats placed at his left hand will be condemned to hell for their lack of merciful deeds.

The final line of the Collect begs that “they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.”  Interesting lack of presumption there!  We don’t automatically count ourselves among the faithful, among the elect; we don’t say “we may be worthy.”  It’s a humble prayer for everyone, and we can only hope (and pray) that our kind and merciful Savior will include us—but we don’t presume to say so out loud.

What we pray for is more than mere presence in the kingdom, like being a spectator in the galleries of Congress.  We ask to be worthy of “possessing” the kingdom.  What a difference from just being there.  God has made us his children, and he has promised us an inheritance alongside his Son, places of honor in the heavenly kingdom.

May God’s abundant grace empower us to live righteously so as to look forward eagerly (without anxiety) for Christ’s coming, so as to be joined with our Savior in the glory of his kingdom, forever and ever!