Saturday, January 25, 2014

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Jan. 26, 2014
Matt 4: 12-23
Wartburg Home, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee” (Matt 4: 12).

For the last 2 Sundays, our gospel readings have placed Jesus with John the Baptist, being baptized and being heralded as the Lamb of God.  Skipping over Jesus’ going into the wilderness and his temptations—which we’ll deal with when Lent comes—we read today of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

The passage begins ominously:  John the Baptist has been arrested.  John has dared to preach repentance.  He has denounced sin, even in the highest places like King Herod’s household.  St. Matthew is hinting at the fate that awaits Jesus because of his preaching.

The opposition and the hatred of the world await anyone who follows Jesus, anyone who is faithful to what Jesus teaches, e.g., about universal human dignity, the value of all human life, sexual morality.  8 days ago, the governor of this state declared opponents of abortion and homosexuality personae non gratae, people not welcome in New York.  In case you missed the story buried deep inside Wednesday’s Journal News or Thursday’s NY Times—it wasn’t important enuf to merit their attention till Catholics and political conservatives raised Cain about it for at least 5 days—Andrew Cuomo said on the radio last Friday with reference to people who oppose his legislative agenda:  Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.”  You and I, sisters, are “extreme conservatives”; we believe that unborn human beings are, in fact, human beings, and as such merit the same legal protection as other human beings.  The governor hasn’t threatened to arrest us yet.  But it’s clear enuf—we already knew it, didn’t we?—that like John the Baptist and Jesus we live in a hostile environment; we are challenged to be faithful in a culture that tells us either to shut up or to agree that evil is good.

So Jesus leaves the area of the Jordan and goes back to Galilee.  He also leaves his home town of Nazareth and settles in Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  We don’t know why he does that, but we can guess:  Capernaum is on one of the main roads of the region, the highway between Syria and Jerusalem, and between the Mediterranean on the west and the Decapolis (the Ten Cities region) to the east.  If Jesus is going to have an audience for his preaching, he has to go where the people are, the same way that advertisers compete for air time during the Super Bowl.

As he does so often in his gospel, Matthew links this relocation of Jesus to the Scriptures:  “that what had been said thru Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled” (4:14).  What’s being fulfilled here is Jesus’ bringing the light of God’s word to the darkness of the pagan world—the world of Roman soldiers and government officials, Greek and Arab traders, all the sorts of people who traveled that highway along the lake, as well as the Jews who lived there.  It’s the same impetus that impels Pope Francis to tell bishops and priests to get out of the churches and into the public, into the barrios and the squares and social media where people are, and to bring them the light of God’s word, especially his mercy and compassion.

 “From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17).  Once he’s settled in Capernaum, he begins to preach.  His preaching, as summarized by Matthew in that 1 sentence, has a twofold message:  we must repent, and God’s kingdom is close, near at hand.  Jesus himself is the voice of that kingdom; he personifies the presence of the kingdom.  He opens the way for all of us to enter the kingdom.

But—and this is the key to the door to the kingdom that a lot of people overlook when they speak of God’s mercy and of Jesus’ inclusiveness—the way into the kingdom is the way of repentance.  If John the Baptist had preached only that God was close at hand, Herod wouldn’t have arrested him, and Herodias wouldn’t have demanded his head.  If Catholics and evangelicals today preached only God’s compassion, we’d fit in just fine with the powers of this earth:  the politicians, the mass media, academia, warlords, drug traffickers, etc.  But Jesus calls on us—all of us!—to repent, to admit our specific sins and our sinful passions, and to regret them for God’s sake—for the sake of the kingdom of heaven—and to amend our lives (as best we sincerely can within the limits of our human frailty).

Jesus calls Simon and Andrew
James Tissot
When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John, to come after him and become fishers of men (4:18-22—which obviously includes everyone, not only males), he’s calling them to join him in preaching his twofold message.  This mission of Jesus, this message of Jesus, is exactly the Church’s mission and message still.  When the world hears that certain of its values and its behaviors are evil and need to be repented, the world isn’t happy.  If it can’t ignore the messenger, it shoots the messenger, as it were:  off with their heads!  Pro-lifers and adherents of public morality are not welcome here!

As St. Paul instructed Timothy, the Church must preach the Word “in season and out of season; whether it is convenient or inconvenient” (2 Tim 4:2).  The most convincing preaching, however, isn’t what we read in an apostolic exhortation or a Catholic newspaper, or what we hear from the pulpit.  It is the preaching of authentic Christian lives, the lives of those who are walking with Jesus on the road of repentance, turning from their various sins and practicing the virtues of charity, kindness, chastity, simplicity, honesty, devotion, etc.  Think of yesterday’s saint, Francis de Sales, and of Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, St. Vincent de Paul.  You who are Franciscans no doubt are familiar with the saying attributed to St. Francis:  “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”  So the preaching of Jesus that we should repent is addressed also to you and me, sisters; not only that we might be able to pass thru the door of the kingdom ourselves, but also that we might “proclaim the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23) by our manner of life, making the invitation to enter the kingdom an irresistible invitation.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pope Francis Visits Salesian Parish in Rome

Salesians and Missionaries of the Risen Christ
make Pope Francis feel at home 
at Rome's Sacred Heart Parish 

(ANS - Rome) - Two days after Pope Francis visited the Salesian parish of the Sacred Heart in Rome, which was founded by Don Bosco himself at the request of Pope Leo XIII, the euphoria of the historic event of the visit to Leo’s successor is still being felt. The Pope came on Sunday evening, January 19.
While the memories and emotions are being savored, all activities are proceeding with customary zeal. It could well be that one of the reasons that attracted the Pope to this parish is precisely the Salesian missionary and apostolic zeal of the whole community.
“The meeting with the Pope was friendly and spontaneous,” says Sr. Mary Mercedes Guaita of the Missionaries of Risen Christ. “Pope Francis already knew us very well because our community was founded in Latin America and has its generalate in Buenos Aires, and he was the one who accompanied us on our journey as a new institution.”
“The first thing we did upon his arrival,” Sr. Guaita continues, “was to give him the documents of our general assembly, in which he was interested. Everything was done to make him feel at home. During the Mass we sang in Spanish, and in the sanctuary there was an image of the Virgin of Lujan, patroness of Argentina, a gift of the Salesian past pupils. In the meeting with the religious community we offered him the inevitable matĂ© and some alfajores or traditional cookies.”
The brief friendly moment with the community, although it lasted only about 15 minutes, was highly significant. Meeting the three Salesian communities in the house – the national, provincial, and local communities – as well as various members of the SDB general council, the Pope talked about various aspects and pastoral themes, showing great interest in this work located in the center of Rome, but is in reality a missionary outpost reaching out to people on the margins who are so dear to the Holy Father and to the Salesians.
In this way the Pope got to know the Sacred Heart Mission Project, for which the Salesian community and the Missionaries of Risen Christ share responsibility. It is a good example of the work of Project Europe.
In the Sacred Heart Mission Project, the two religious communities offer young people faith programs that lead them to an encounter with Jesus, and at the same time allow them to grow in love for others through volunteering with homeless people, refugees, and sick people. The ministry is conducted in such a way that those who come for faith programs often end up engaging in volunteer work, while those who start by volunteering to help others often discover something that leads them to question their faith and to encounter Jesus.
Among the areas of community work, great attention is paid to young couples, who are offered formation in monthly meetings of community formation. Currently about 50 young families are being accompanied.
The Pope expressed sincere appreciation for these pastoral initiatives and the creativity that sustains them. He invited the community to continue to listen to the people, and to stay close to the people of God.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Homily for 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 19, 2014                                           
John 1: 29-34
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’” (John 1: 29).

Source unknown
The gospel for the so-called 2d Sunday of OT is always from John’s Gospel, regardless of whether we’re in the year of Matthew, as we are this year, or of Mark or Luke.  And it always continues the manifestation theme of the 2 preceding Sundays, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

So today.  John’s Gospel doesn’t have a baptismal scene.  Instead, we have John “testifying” that he “saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon” Jesus (1:32); and instead of a voice from heaven announcing either to Jesus (as in Mark and Luke) or to the bystanders (as in Matthew) that Jesus is the Father’s beloved Son, we have John identifying Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” as “the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit,” and as “the Son of God” (1:33-34).

In John the Evangelist’s telling of the story, John the Baptist begins his testimony by announcing, “I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel” (1:31).  How is it that John didn’t know Jesus?  Weren’t they kinsmen? (Luke 1:36)  Hadn’t he recognized Jesus even while both of them were still in their mothers’ wombs? (Luke 1:41-44).

When we read the gospels, we should read each in its own terms, not conflating one with another.  Here, we don’t assume that St. John knows all the traditions that St. Luke has preserved for us.  But even granting that there’s a blood relationship between John and Jesus, we wouldn’t know how much contact the 2 had in the 30 years after the Visitation.  Would the adult John, coming out of the wilderness to do his mission, know the adult Jesus, coming to the Jordan from Nazareth?

Supposing they’d had occasional meetings at family gatherings over the preceding 30 years, they wouldn’t have been frequent, given the distance between Nazareth in Galilee and Ain Karim in Judea (traditionally identified as Zechariah’s home).  Supposing he would have known his cousin by sight, would John have “known” Jesus?  We all know that we can be acquainted with someone for years, even live with him in community, and not really know him.  It’s this deeper knowledge that John seems to be speaking of when he confesses, “I did not know him.”  He did not know who Jesus of Nazareth really was.

But he has come to know him by revelation:  “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain,” and so he has come to understand that Jesus “is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit,” as John had already been preaching about the one, unknown to him up till then, to “come after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (1:30).

That much of John’s testimony is consistent with what we read in the Synoptics, even tho it’s expressed in a different form.  But in John’s Gospel John the Baptist manifests Jesus to the Jewish world with his personal testimony (in the Synoptics, the testimony comes only from heaven):  Jesus is the Lamb of God, and Jesus is the Son of God.

The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world, John proclaims (as we do daily at Mass).  The allusion probably is to the Passover lamb, whose blood is shed to mark the doors of the homes of the Hebrews so that the angel of death will pass them by; implicit is a link between the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and the liberation of Jesus’ followers from sin; a link between a life of freedom following the Passover and the freedom of the children of God, born of water and the Holy Spirit.

There could be other biblical allusions at play, as well, such as the ram who is substituted as a sacrifice in Isaac’s place (Gen 22:13) or the scapegoat who bears away the sins of all the people on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:7-10) or the servant led, silent as a lamb, to slaughter as he justifies many and takes away their guilt (Is 53:7,11).  In the Book of Revelation John the Evangelist, or some other John, presents the Lamb who has shed his blood as a conqueror, a redeemer, as the one who leads people to God, as one who is worthy of adoration and praise.

John the Baptist, then, is manifesting Jesus as the one who will save Israel in a way completely unexpected in the fervid time of Roman occupation, of Herodian oppression, of rising nationalistic expectations:  not driving away the Romans but taking away sin; offering himself as a sacrifice to set people free.

“I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (1:34).  In the Jewish tradition, the king was a son of God; those who faithfully kept the Law were children of God.  John the Evangelist presents John the Baptist as saying more than that.  Jesus is not a son of God but the Son of God (the Greek text uses the definite article), who “existed before me.”  The Gospel’s prolog has already introduced its readers to the pre-existing Word who became flesh and made his home among us, possessing “the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (1:14); the Word whose acceptance empowers all believers “to become children of God” (1:12).  Jesus, then, is not just a son of God but the only-begotten Son, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, with the power also to lead others into the divine family.

As a matter of history, we can be reasonably sure that John the Baptist didn’t grasp the divinity of Jesus.  That doesn’t change the truth of the words put into his mouth by the Evangelist.  Like John the Baptist, the earliest disciples came gradually to know him, to understand what sort of a Messiah he was, the meaning of the cross and resurrection, the nature of the redemption offered “to those who believe in his name” (1:12).

How do we know Jesus?  Who is he in our eyes, in our minds, in our hearts?  That’s pretty much the same question that he asked the apostles at Caesarea Philippi:  “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15).  Like John the Baptist, like the apostles, we can come to know him only gradually, by walking with him, by listening to him; like Mary, by pondering on these things in our hearts (Luke 2:19).  One commentary offers this suggestion:

This progressive knowledge of Jesus is the fruit of unceasingly renewed reading of the Gospels … as it is done, above all, in the framework of the liturgy, within a group, or in one’s “inner room” (Matt 6:6), by the light of the Spirit and in a prayerful climate.  This reading must be coupled with a conscious, full, and complete participation in the sacraments of the faith, which celebrate and unveil the mystery.[1]

… the mystery which will be fully made known to us, as St. Paul says, only when we see Jesus and his Father face to face (1 Cor 13:12), when we’re part of that great host gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev 22:3).
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
The Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck

            [1] Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year.  Volume 4: Ordinary Time, Year A (Collegeville, 1992), pp. 25-26.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati, SDB, Named Cardinal

Abp. Ricardo Ezzati, SDB,
Named Cardinal

(ANS - Vatican City) – Just after leading the faithful in praying the Angelus on January 12, Pope Francis announced the names of 19 new cardinals. One is a Salesian, Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Santiago, Chile.

Archbishop Ezzati was born at Campiglia dei Berici (Vicenza), Italy, on January 7, 1942, and entered the Salesian novitiate in Quilpué-Valparaiso, Chile, in 1960. After studying philosophy at the Catholic University of Valparaiso and theology at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome, he made his perpetual profession on December 30, 1966, and was ordained on March 18, 1970.

After ordination he obtained a licentiate in religious studies at the Institut de Pastorale Catechetique in Strasburg, France, and the qualification of teacher of religion and philosophy at the Catholic University of Valparaiso.

Fr. Ezzati was coordinator of youth ministry in the Salesian school in Valdivia; director of the community in Concepcion; member of the provincial council of Chile; director of the studentate of philosophy and of the theologate in Santiago; and provincial of the Chilean Province.

He also taught in the School of Theology in the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and was vice president of the Conference of Religious in Chile. He took part in the Salesian general chapters in 1984 and 1990. In 1991 he was appointed an official of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life of the Holy See.

Appointed bishop of Valdivia on June 28, 1996, he was ordained bishop the following September 8. On July 10, 2001, Bishop Ezzati was appointed titular bishop of La Imperial and auxiliary bishop of Santiago, and on December 27, 2006, he was promoted to archbishop of Concepcion. In January 2004 he was awarded the Jesus Maestro Prize by the Interamerican Confederation for Catholic Education for his contributions to education.

In 2007 Abp. Ezzati became president of the Commission for Education and Culture of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), and in December 2009 he was named Person of the Year by the Chilean magazine El Sur. On November 19, 2010, Abp. Ezzati was elected president of the Episcopal Conference of Chile. He became archbishop of Santiago on January 17, 2011.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Homily for Feast of Baptism of the Lord

Homily for the Feast of the
Baptism of the Lord
Jan. 12, 2014
Acts 10: 34-38
Matt 3: 13-17
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“After the baptism that John preached, … God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (Acts 10: 37-38).
(source unknown)

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the last day of the Christmas season.  (Yes, despite whatever Target and the radio are telling you, in the Church we are still celebrating Christmas!)  In the Christmas season we celebrate the human birth of the Son of God, who came to earth so that we might be born as God’s children—our Collect this morning refers to us as God’s “children by adoption.”  That is effected by the sacrament of Baptism.  At Christmas we celebrate God’s Son’s taking on our human nature in order that he might transform that nature thru his divinity.  In Baptism we are reborn in water, as the Collect notes, but not in water only:  also in the Holy Spirit.

In the tradition of the Church, the feast of the Lord’s Baptism has always been linked with the feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany means “manifestation” or “making known.”  When the wise men from the East came to Bethlehem, the Son of God, redeemer of the world, was manifested to the Gentiles—the pagan nations—as their God and redeemer.  When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John, the Holy Spirit and the Father revealed him to the Jewish people as God’s beloved Son who pleases the Father (Matt 3:17).

Our 2d reading this morning is from the Acts of the Apostles.  When we read Acts, we see that the preaching of the apostles about Jesus, like the little sample we heard, usually begins with John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus.  This preaching and the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke about his baptism stress that Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit immediately following his baptism; he was designated or pointed out to the Jewish people as the Messiah, the Anointed One, when, in Matthew’s words, “the Spirit of God descended like a dove and came upon him, and a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:16-17).

Why is the Father “well pleased” with Jesus?  He’s begun actively to carry out his mission.  When the angel of the Lord told St. Joseph—in the gospel that was read on the 4th Sunday of Advent—that he was to name Mary’s child Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21), his mission was named.  When Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John knows he is no sinner and strongly objects; this baptism of repentance is unfitting for Jesus personally (cf. Matt 3:13-15).  But Jesus is identifying himself with all of us sinners; symbolically he becomes one of us.  This is very pleasing to his Father.  It’s the starting point for his mission:  “he will save his people from their sins.”

And we, when we were baptized, we also were anointed with oil, with sacred chrism.  In that anointing we were christened, made into Christ, made one with him.  In the water of Baptism, we were buried as Christ was buried, as St. Paul says (Rom 6:4), and our coming out of the water was our rising to new life.  We became one with Christ our Savior, as he had become one with us by his incarnation, his baptism, and his passion and death.

When we live out our Baptism, we too are very pleasing to the Father—the Father of Jesus who is also our Father because he’s adopted us.  In the this morning’s Collect, we prayed the Father to “grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well pleasing to” him.  How do we live out our Baptism?  How do we live lives pleasing to the Father?

By continuing to die and be buried with Christ, i.e., by dying to sin, repenting of our sins, rejecting our sins; by continuing to rise with Christ to new life, i.e., by practicing virtue—virtues like kindness, forgiveness, purity, patience, faithfulness, responsibility.

We all know that to reject temptation seems to hurt—to cause a little bit of death.  Sad experience teaches us that what really kills us, however, is sin, bad choices, immoral choices.  And too often it kills the people around us—sometimes literally, as the newspapers remind us every day, but usually figuratively, thru the hurt that we inflict upon others with our words, our actions, and our omissions.  St. Paul, too, knew that sin kills; he’s the one who tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

We also know that practicing virtue is life-affirming—affirming our own inner spirit, and affirming the people around us.  The other day someone wrote to Dear Abby just to affirm what a smile and a friendly attitude can do for the people you meet, and for yourself as well.  How much more when we treat people with patience and kindness; when we forgive their failings; when we respect them as images of God and possibly temples of the Holy Spirit (no to all sins against purity!); when we carry out our duties as spouses, parents, workers, students, parishioners, etc.; when we do what we can to be helpful to others.

That’s how we live our Baptism, how we live lives pleasing to the Father, how we live as one with Jesus, who came to be one with us and so to lift us up from our sins to eternal life.

New Rochelle's Winter Resort

New Rochelle's Winter Resort

New Rochelle was affected by the major winter storm that struck the East Coast on Jan. 2-3, but not as much as many other places.  By my measurement (in a relatively sheltered part of our garden), we got 6.5 inches of powdery snow.

That was more than enuf to close every school in the area, of course.  But by late morning the sun was out, and so were the kids.  Whenever there's a couple of inches of snow, some of the kids from the neighborhood flock to our little hill with their sleds and tubes and have a ball, often until it gets dark.

Winter seemed to settle in; on the 7th we were in the deep freeze (the "polar vortex"), in which a record low temperature for the date was recorded in Central Park (that's about 20 miles from us)--+4 degrees.  It was about that cold here, as well, compounded by a good bit of wind.

It warmed up gradually in the following days--very steadily.  Yesterday (Saturday, the 11th) it was above 50 and rained all day.  By today the only snow to be seen was in the piles where it was plowed up, and those are noticeably diminished.

I went for a walk this afternoon in Larchmont Manor Park.  Not a trace of snow anywhere to be seen.
One of Manor Park's landmark gazebos, overlooking Long Island Sound,
with Long Island itself 3 or 4 miles across the water

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Homily for Solemnity of the Epiphany

Homily for the Solemnity
of the Epiphany
Jan. 5, 2014
Matt 2: 1-12
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” (Matt 2: 1).

Image "stolen" from The Deacon's Bench
In the 1st chapter of his gospel, St. Matthew has already shown Jesus’ legal descent from King David.  Now he places his birth in David’s city, Bethlehem, solidifying his identity as the one who fulfills the messianic prophecies associated with the Son of David.

Matthew also gives us a more or less specific historical context, “in the days of King Herod”—not as specific as we’d like, to be sure.

We’d also like to know more about these magi:  who they were, where the came from, why they came to look for “the newborn king of the Jews” (1:2), how they knew what the star they saw indicated, what was the nature of this star.  Biblical scholars, astronomers, and historians have delved into all that, and it’s quite interesting, but we can’t go into it here.

Suffice it to say that the magi, whoever they were, wherever they came from, however many they were, however they became aware of this “newborn king” and of his import, come as Gentiles, as representatives of the nations, looking for the Messiah.  Matthew will end his gospel with Jesus’ command that the 11 go out and make disciples of all nations (28:19).  In the magi story he links that purpose with Jesus’ birth:  this is why he was born, for the redemption of the whole of humanity, and not only of Israel.  In him all of humanity finds its true king (no tyrant like murderous Herod), its true God, and its redeemer.

King, God, and redeemer—these offices of Jesus are symbolized by the gifts of the magi:  their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  When they find “the child with Mary his mother” in the house at Bethlehem, they “prostrate themselves and do him homage” (2:11) as one would worship a god or venerate a king.

Pope Benedict gives us insight into why these foreigners come looking for Jesus.  He writes in his little book on the infancy narratives that, having seen “his star at its rising” (2:2), they set off on their great journey as

people of inner unrest, people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.  The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers [one reasonable interpretation of who the magi were].  [They] were “wise.”  They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for Truth, a search for the true God and hence “philosophy” in the original sense of the word.  Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”:  the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.[1]

These magi are the scientists, the intellectuals, of their age and their culture.  But they recognize that their science and their knowledge require something more:  the wisdom that will give meaning to their studies and their knowledge, that will teach them how their science and their learning ought to be used.  To find this wisdom they follow the star, the star “by whose light nations shall walk,” as Isaiah had prophesied (60:3), and kings as well (hence the mistaken identification of our magi with kings).

There is timeless truth here.  Our knowledge, our science, always needs to be guided by wisdom, by a search for truth:  truth grounded in human nature, in human dignity, in our status as part of God’s created world.  Just because we can split the atom doesn’t mean we should be building nuclear weapons; we’re not even sure whether we should be making nuclear power plants.  Just because we can create human life in a laboratory doesn’t mean we should be doing so.  Just because we can do one thing or another with the stock market or the banking system or international markets doesn’t mean we should be doing so.  Here we do well to follow the advice of King Herod (believe it or not!):  “Go and search diligently for the child” (2:8), for the One who brings true light into the world and teaches us how to live rightly in God’s eyes.

Adoration of the Magi
Oostsanen, 1475
The magi come to Jerusalem, the logical place to look for a “newborn king of the Jews.”  King Herod consults with “all the chief priests and the scribes of the people” about the Messiah (2:4).  The curiosity of the priests and scribes goes no further than their book learning.  They take no step to go and find this Messiah “who is to shepherd my people Israel” (2:6).  Jesus’ future battles with Israel’s religious leaders are foreshadowed here.  As for Herod—you know about him.  He killed 3 of his own sons and his favorite wife on suspicion that they were plotting against him, and he intends to eliminate any other potential rival.

So—knowing where Christ is to be found does not necessarily mean we will make the effort to look for him or to listen to him, or to be saved by him.  That always remains our free choice.  It’s not enuf for us to read the Bible, study the catechism, even to come to church.  We must do Jesus homage, let him into our hearts as our ruler, our king, our God, so that he may be our redeemer.

       [1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (NY: Image, 2012), p. 95.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Homily for Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Homily for the Solemnity of
Mary, Mother of God
Jan. 1, 2014
Christian Brothers, St. Joseph’s Home, New Rochelle

“O God, through the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary you bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation” (Collect).

Celebrating this solemnity with you last year, brothers, I preached on the gospel, particularly on Mary’s reflecting in her heart on all the wondrous events of this season.  Today I offer you some reflections on these mysteries from the perspective of the collect.
Madonna and Child with the Holy Spirit
Church of Sta. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
The collect, as it is at every Mass and in all the sacraments, is addressed to God the Father.  Today’s collect, like every festal collect, 1st notes the particular feast or mystery being celebrated; but today’s has a double note.  1st, as we are in the Christmas season, it points to the Father’s “bestowing on the human race the grace of eternal salvation.”  2d, it points to Mary’s role in this gift of the Father:  “thru her fruitful virginity.”

The virgin mother is not the object of our worship on this feast.  The work of salvation is God’s free gift to us—“grace.”  But by God’s design, as implied by Paul in his letter to the Galatians (4:4-7), Mary plays a vital part in that grace’s coming to us.  It comes to us “thru” her —quite literally, we’d have to say, the Savior being born from her body and, presumably, carrying her genes and no one else’s.  Christ is born from her mind, her heart, and her will, as well; when these faculties of ours align with the Father’s designs, they’re life-giving, and her mind, heart, and will were so aligned with God’s designs that they gave birth to the most radical life in human history, “the author of life,” as the collect calls Jesus.

We’ve always called Mary “the Virgin Mother.”  The collect speaks of her “fruitful virginity,” which means essentially the same thing.  One commentator remarks, “true virginity is not merely physical integrity, but integrity of body and soul as well. . . .  Mary’s true virginity enabled her to receive the Holy Spirit so fully that she became mother yet remained virgin.”[1]

The collect proceeds to beg the Father to allow Mary to intercede for us.  Commentators on the revised Roman Missal have noted that the language of the collects is the language of a royal court.  We approach God as a subject might approach his sovereign, with awe of the royal majesty, humbly, aware of our unworthiness.  Even when we seek an intercessor, we’re cautious in our approach.  We might think of Queen Esther’s approach to King Ahasuerus when she goes to plead for the lives of her people.[2]  So we pray that God will receive Mary as our intercessor.

Not that we really doubt it.  We’ve already highlighted God’s having “bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation.”  Mary’s intercession can only reinforce what the Father already wants to give.  We’re asking the Father to be mindful of his own design:  that we should be saved thru this fruitful virgin—whose fruit, we know, includes not only her biological Son Jesus but us as well, because of our union with the crucified Jesus:  on the cross Jesus gave us Mary as our mother (John 19:26-27), and he gave us his own life thru the sacraments, symbolized by the blood and water that gushed from his pierced side (John 19:34).

The prayer continues by reminding the Father that “through her we were found worthy to receive the author of life.”  The “author of life,” as already noted, is Jesus.  The human race receives him as one of our own thru Mary’s fruitfulness, her cooperation with the divine design.  The prayer speaks of our being “found worthy to receive” Christ.  One scholar of liturgical Latin points out that the text here doesn’t really refer to our worthiness or our merit; rather, “it is a term of reverence which implies the reception of a ‘free gift’ for which one depends entirely on the benign favor of God.”[3]  Our worthiness certainly isn’t innate; nor does it come as a gift from Mary, tho we may speak of Christ as her gift to us on account of her free cooperation with the Father.  But we are “found worthy to receive Christ” only because the Father chooses to “bestow on the human race the grace of eternal salvation.”  The Father extends to us his “benign favor.”  We hope Mary will intercede for us that his “benign favor” continue—and that it may effect in us a receptivity to his grace similar to her own receptivity:  that our Lord Jesus Christ, “the author of life,” may come to life in our hearts, our minds, and our wills.

        [1] Daniel J. Merz and Marcel Rooney, OSB, Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts: A Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook (Chicago: LTP, 2011), p. 24.

        [2] “Chapter D” in the NAB and NRSV Cath. ed.; more briefly, ch. 5 in all Bibles.
        [3] M.P. Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Nijmegen: Dekker, 1963), pp. 198-199, cited by Anscar J. Chupungco, The Prayers of the New Missal: A Homiletic and Catechetical Companion (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013), p. 40.