Thursday, January 1, 2015

Homily for Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Homily for the Solemnity of
Mary, Mother of God
Jan. 1, 2015
Num 6: 22-27
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon

“The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!” (Num 6: 26).

January 1 is, liturgically, the solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.  It also commemorates the circumcision and naming of Jesus, mentioned in the gospel reading.  It’s the 1st day of the new civil year, 2015.  We speak of 2015 A.D., anno Domini, the year of the Lord, acknowledging that time is not only civil or secular; it’s the Lord’s time 1st of all, his gift to us; and we ask him to bless it for us so that we may spend it well in his service.

And finally, the Church observes Jan. 1 as World Day of Peace.

Well, sort of observes.  Do you even know of this observance?  The Popes since Paul VI have issued a World Day of Peace message every year for 48 years and called for governments and Catholics and all people of good will to do more to foster peace in our society and the world community.  Probably most of you haven’t read Pope Francis’s message, dated December 8, or any earlier papal messages for the day.  (Not that I’ve read many of them myself.)

Think for a moment of the news you heard in 2014—news of war and violence from Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.  If you listened or read more closely, you also heard about wars, rebellions, or civil unrest in Burma, Congo, and Colombia, and no doubt I’ve missed a few places.  This is not to mention instances in our own country of drug violence, gang violence, domestic violence, sexual assaults, assaults based on some form of discrimination, shootings, and street crime.

Where does all that come from?  It seems to be rooted in our nature.  The story of Cain and Abel in the 4th chapter of Genesis tells us it’s rooted in our jealousy or envy of others, in anger or greed or pride.  (I’ve just named 4 of 7 deadly sins, haven’t I?)

The cure for our deadly sins is, as the blessing in the 1st reading suggests, to let the face of the Lord shine upon us, to let God infuse our hearts with light and divine grace.  Peace follows.

Whatever jihadists think; whatever various racists or extreme nationalists think; whatever Vladimir Putin thinks—peace can’t possibly come from the domination of others or the extermination of our enemies.  Whatever secularists think, it can’t come from abandoning public and private morality.  It can come only from our common submission to the Lord, only if we allow the Lord to “rule the peoples in equity” (Ps 67:5), i.e., in fairness and justice.  “May all the peoples praise you, O God, … and may all the ends of the earth fear him!” (Ps 67:6,8).

The papal messages for World Day of Peace usually focus on one theme or approach to peace.  This year Pope Francis asks the world to work harder to eliminate slavery.

Does that surprise you?  You thought slavery was long gone?

A news item in the NYT on 11/18/14 reports that, according to a human rights organization in Australia, “almost 36 million people are living as slaves across the globe.”  This slavery includes forced labor, forced marriages, and debt bondage.  The report also says that in the U.S. about 60,000 people are exploited as forced laborers.[1]

I’ll quote from Pope Francis’s message:

Even though the international community has adopted numerous agreements aimed at ending slavery in all its forms, and has launched various strategies to combat this phenomenon, millions of people today – children, women and men of all ages – are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery.

The Holy Father identifies various forms of forced labor that are like slavery:  domestic and farm workers, workers in mines and sweatshops in places where labor regulations and protections don’t meet international norms or minimum standards.  Remember the garment factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in April 2013, killing more than 1,100 workers?

Pope Francis continues:

I think also of the living conditions of many migrants who, in their dramatic odyssey, experience hunger, are deprived of freedom, robbed of their possessions, or undergo physical and sexual abuse. In a particular way, I think of those among them who, upon arriving at their destination after a grueling journey marked by fear and insecurity, are detained in at times inhumane conditions. I think of those among them, who for different social, political and economic reasons, are forced to live clandestinely.

That sounds like the situation of people who are coming to and living in the U.S. illegally.

The Pope also mentions migrant workers forced to live under unfair labor contracts that practically bind them to their employers, who hold legal power over them.

Then he bemoans

persons forced into prostitution, many of whom are minors, as well as male and female sex slaves. I think of women forced into marriage, those sold for arranged marriages and those bequeathed to relatives of their deceased husbands, without any right to give or withhold their consent.

Nor can I fail to think of all those persons, minors and adults alike, who are made objects of trafficking for the sale of organs, for recruitment as soldiers, for begging, for illegal activities such as the production and sale of narcotics….

You’ll recall the horrors of child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone during their civil wars, well depicted in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond, for example.  The front page of the Wall Street Journal last weekend carried a story called “The Child Soldiers of Syria” that describes what happens to young recruits of ISIS, and what they’re trained to do.  Can you imagine an 8-year-old learning to behead his “enemy”?

The Holy Father goes on:

I think of all those kidnapped and held captive by terrorist groups, subjected to their purposes as combatants, or, above all in the case of young girls and women, to be used as sex slaves. Many of these disappear, while others are sold several times over, tortured, mutilated or killed.[2]

That’s a clear allusion to the hundreds of schoolgirls who’ve been kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria.  Unfortunately, that’s not the only place where that’s happening.

Pope Francis goes on to review some of the causes of these abuses of our brothers and sisters, all of whom are created in the image of God and have been redeemed by Christ; who are intended to be free and to be loved, just as you and I are.  The Pope calls upon the entire human family to commit itself to ending slavery.  In his homily in Rome this morning, he exhorts:

All of us are called to be free, all are called to be sons and daughters, and each, according to his or her own responsibilities, is called to combat modern forms of enslavement. From every people, culture and religion, let us join our forces. May he guide and sustain us, who, in order to make us all brothers and sisters, became our servant.

You and I, of course, aren’t in government, and perhaps none of us belongs to any organized group that deals with these kinds of issues.  Perhaps some of us should; perhaps some of us have time and passion to commit to human rights issues—and this is one of the Pope’s specific suggestions; or time and willingness to address our state and federal legislators about these issues.

The Pope also suggests that “everyone, in accordance with his or her specific role and responsibilities, practice acts of fraternity….”  He suggests that we “ask ourselves, as individuals and as communities, whether we feel challenged when … when we are tempted to select items which may well have been produced by exploiting others.  Some of us, out of indifference, or financial reasons, or because we are caught up in our daily concerns, close our eyes to this.”  He suggests that we “practice small, everyday gestures – which have so much merit! – such as offering a kind word, a greeting or a smile.  These cost us nothing but they can offer hope, open doors, and change the life of another person who lives clandestinely; they can also change our own lives with respect to this reality.”  He could be speaking there of the many undocumented persons—many of whom are truly refugees from violence and oppression—who live all around us.  Then he urges us to “have the courage to touch the suffering flesh of Christ, revealed in the faces of those countless persons whom [Christ] calls ‘the least of these my brethren’ (Matt 25:40, 45).”

Pope Francis concludes his message with a paragraph that opens this way:  “We know that God will ask each of us: What did you do for your brother? (cf. Gen 4:9-10),”[3] which is an allusion to the Cain and Abel story.  Let no one feel enslaved on account of our pride, anger, or envy.  Each of us has many opportunities every day to bring peace to a brother or a sister in the way we treat that person—with a smile, with kindness, perhaps with a helping hand—whether that person is a stranger, a co-worker, a schoolmate, someone at the senior center or supermarket, or a family member.  “May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!”  And may the Lord make you a bearer of his peace!

                [1] Reuters, “Millions Forced to Live as Slaves,” NYT, Nov. 18, 2014.

                [2] Francis, Message for World Day of Peace, n. 3.
                [3] Ibid., n. 6.

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