"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen.1:27)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Thank God for Bishop A -- whoever he is!

The end of one calendar year and the beginning of another is always a time for reflection. For Christians, this comes during the middle of the Christmas Season (despite the fact that retailers and buisness page editors perpetuate the myth that Christmas is over on December 26). During this season, we celebrate the fundamental Christian belief that God became "one like us in all things but sin." In and through Jesus of Nazareth, God the Creator knows even more intimately the heart, mind and soul of the human person.

Earlier this year, a wonderful organization called Fortunate Families posted responses they received from Catholic bishops around the country who replied to a letter asking the bishops to be in dialogue with gay and lesbian Catholics in their dioceses. Take a moment to read the response of "Bishop A" and thirteen other bishops who were gracious enough to reply. While some of these episcopal replies are less than hoped for, Fortunate Families should be applauded for keepeing the conversation alive. It's my prayer that this conversation will continue in the New Year and beyond.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Eve Homily - Dec. 24, 2007

Christmas Eve – Mass at Night
Dignity/Northern Virginia (at Immanuel Church on the Hill, Arlington, VA)
December 24, 2007

Yesterday I was speaking with a friend who is traveling this Christmas, visiting family. He knew I would be standing here this evening and he asked how my preparation was going, if I had my homiletic thoughts together. I told him that I had a few “thematic ideas” in mind, but that I didn’t have a good story or illustration to open with … after all, a good homilist, a good preacher always has a good story to tell, right?

Well, he then asked me what the scripture readings were, and I told him briefly about the gospel passage we just heard – about this passage from Luke where Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem because of the Roman census, how there’s no room for them where travelers stay, how the birth of Jesus takes place where animals are kept, and how this good news is shared by an angel with shepherds in the surrounding area.

There was this brief pause … and then he simply said, “well, isn’t THAT the story?” Of course, he was right. THE story for us to focus on and to reflect upon this Christmas night IS indeed the story of the birth of Jesus.

And so it’s good that we are gathered here in the quiet and stillness of this place – this place whose very name – Immanuel / God with us – is so closely connected with the celebration of Christmas – to pause at the end of whatever holiday preparations we’ve been pre-occupied with these past weeks, and before whatever busy or not-so-busy day lies ahead of us tomorrow – it’s good for us to pause and reflect on what the story we just heard really is all about.

Yesterday I happened to catch part of a show on the History Channel that was about this very subject – trying to understand what Christmas is all about. It was followed by another show that chronicled some of the various ways in which Christmas has been celebrated socially and culturally here in the United States, but this first show’s focus was on the "Jesus of the Bible" and interviewed theologians and biblical historians who were discussing what we really know about the historical facts surrounding the birth of Jesus. Although there are certain discrepancies between the accounts presented by Matthew and Luke, and also some historical inaccuracies in their accounts about what actually happened over 2,000 years ago, we come here this evening not as students of history, but as people of faith who believe that this rather unremarkable event (it was, after all, simply the every-day occurrence of a birth of a child), in an out-of-the-way and quite unremarkable place, involving relatively simple and unremarkable people, at a time so far removed from our own ....yet somehow this event still has meaning for us here in our 21st century world.

One of the ways we can get at that meaning is to think about what we call this feast that we celebrate. Certainly it is called “Christmas” – but that word, which is rooted in Old and Middle English and which literally means “Christ’s mass” – doesn’t really tell us much, does it? As the Gospel reading we just heard spoke of a birth, the birth of Christ, we also call this the feast of the Nativity, and so that gives us a little bit more to go on. But the word that I think means the most and that I believe has the strongest implications for us a people of faith -- is to speak of this celebration as the feast of the Incarnation. Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Christ, in time, into our world; it is the celebration of God becoming Incarnate – the “enfleshment” – of full divinity in full humanity. That, in itself, is almost incredible. Do we really believe and take to heart the fact that God – the Creator and source of all Being – chose to come among us, the created, to know our human life, to live and breathe walk and cry and love as one like us, like us who live and breathe and walk and cry and love? And if we do believe that, then does this belief cause us to live our lives in a way that is any different from how we would live if this event hadn't taken place?

The second History Channel show I mentioned noted that one of the more recent developments in the way that Christmas is celebrated is with the practice of gift-giving. Without getting into the discussions about the over-commercialization of Christmas, I think there’s something about this practice that helps us embrace the deeper meaning of this day. In gift-giving, there are always two parties – the one who gives, and the one who receives.

In the Incarnation, God gifts us not with a new sweater or an in-edible fruitcake or a new 52” flat-screen HDTV – no, God gifts us with God’s very Self. That's the "what" in this equation, but in the Incarnation, the “how” is just as important as the “What.” What are the circumstances of how this Gift of God’s very Self comes into our World? God does not come barging into the world or our lives with earthly power and might and force. God does not become Incarnate as one who can command armies or exert commercial or political power. On the contrary, the divine presence comes in a truly helpless human infant, a newborn child who is vulnerable and utterly dependent on others.

If Christ is both the Giver and the Gift of Christmas – then we, like anyone to whom a gift is offered, have a choice to make – and that choice is either to accept it or reject it. Acceptance or rejection -- what will it be? Mary and Joseph were the first to whom this Gift of God’s very self was given. Mary accepted the gift into her very body and being; Joseph accepted the gift into his heart and home.

We come together this evening as individuals and as a community who know both what it means to be accepted and what it means to be rejected. Most of us have probably been met with varying degrees of acceptance or rejection from family and friends. In so many ways the wider Christian community and the political structures of our day reject us, not because of anything we’ve done, but simply because of who we are. Fortunately, there are places like this community and other “islands of acceptance” in our lives where we are able to experience the acceptance and love of God, a love and acceptance made flesh in one another.

If that gift of acceptance has been given to us, are we not also called to extend it to all others whom we can so easily turn away from and forget? Are we too, not called to bear the gift of Christmas to the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, the imprisoned, the despised?

Allow me to end with what I found to be a very poignant thought about Christmas by Thomas Merton – the famous Trappist monk. Merton once observed that Christ came into this world uninvited, and when he came into this world, there was no place for him, no room for him. And because, in a certain sense, Christ is “out of place” in this world… Christ’s “place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, excommunicated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world."

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Homily: 4th Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Cycle A
Saturday, December 22, 2007 – Dignity/Northern Virginia

I’m not much of a sports or baseball fan, but this evening’s celebration is the first part of what could be called a liturgical double-header. Not only will I have the pleasure of being with you again two nights from now for the Christmas Eve celebration of the Nativity, but by an unusual occurrence, the Gospel reading we have for tonight will be – in part – the Gospel passage we’ll hear once again on Monday evening. At our Vigil liturgy for Christmas Eve, we will hear an extended version of this passage from Matthew, a version which re-tells the genealogy of Jesus’ family tree, demonstrating that – at least according to the Law – Jesus is a descendant of David and therefore can be seen as fulfilling the prophecy about which Isaiah writes – that a “almah/virgin” will give birth to a child and that child will be called Immanuel – God with us.

This passage from the very first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel tells us part of the story of Jesus’ birth, but from a different perspective than the passages from Luke that we are so familiar with. Other than the angelic visitor, the only other character in this passage is Joseph, the young man who is described as Mary’s husband. Marriage customs were a bit different in the Jewish culture and society of that day – marriage would usually be arranged by the families involved and so Joseph is spoken of as engaged, or betrothed to the young girl, Mary. They were, in fact, “married” in every sense except for the fact that they did not yet live together.

We are told that it was Joseph’s intention quietly divorce Mary, so clearly he knows that she is pregnant, that she is expecting a child – and he also knows that the child is not his. We’re also told that he was an “upright man” – which would mean that he follows the Law. And the Law in this situation was pretty harsh. It would have said that he had the right not only to “divorce her,” to not complete the marriage contract by taking her into his home – but the law from Deuteronomy also said that she – Mary -- should be brought to the entrance to her father’s house and stoned to death for bringing this disgrace not just upon her family, but on all of Israel.

And so, being the good guy that he is, Joseph doesn’t want this to happen to Mary, so it’s his intention simply to “divorce her quietly.” I don’t know what the population of Nazareth was at that time, but I have to wonder how easy it would be to do such a thing “quietly.” Family and neighbors all had to know that Mary and Joseph were betrothed, so I’m sure this would be the perfect stuff for gossip in the community. And, not only that, it would also be seen as quite scandalous in the wider community. Nonetheless, it is Joseph’s intention to divorce her and not to expose her publicly. This plan changes, however, when he has a dream – a dream in which an angelic visitor tells him, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”

You know, scholars tell us that the admonition – “Fear not!” or “Do not be afraid!” – this occurs countless times both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Even those of us who are not scripture scholars just need to take a few moments to think about so many of the passages that are familiar to us and we realize that this is correct:

  • In Genesis, when Abraham is still Abram, God tells him to “fear not” before establishing a Covenant;
  • In a vision, an angelic visitor told Daniel not once, but twice, “Do not fear” – the second time saying “Do not fear, greatly beloved. You are safe! Be strong and courageous.”
  • The declaration to the husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptizer, says: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”
  • And of course, we are all familiar with the greeting of Gabriel, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
  • At the birth of Jesus, an angel says to the shepherds near Bethlehem, “Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you news of great joy!”
  • In Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, Jesus tells his disciples who had heard a voice from heaven, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
  • In Mark, we hear Jesus himself telling his disciples who have gone out fishing – they think he is a ghost on the water, but he tells them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

I suppose it’s reasonable to expect that such seemingly other-worldly encounters could engender a sense of fear and trepidation, and so it’s not unexpected that God or God’s emissary might offer a bit of consolation with these calming words. But even before the “divine encounter,” I wonder if these individuals – Abraham, Zechariah, Daniel, Mary, Jesus’ disciples, or the young Joseph from today’s reading – I wonder if there were other things that caused them to be afraid, to be anxious, to be worried about their lives or the situations in which they found themselves?
Let’s take the case of Joseph. We know very little about this young man, except that he was a descendant of David and that he was committed in marriage to the young girl, Mary. As most young people, he probably was looking forward with much anticipation to this new life that he was about to begin. He’s getting married – and I’m sure he probably had all the hopes and expectations that any young person might have at such a time in life. Although we have to be careful not to presume too much, it’s clear that whatever hopes and expectations he had to build a life with his young wife Mary – these hopes and aspirations are now gone. Who knows what this situation might mean for him in the community? I can’t imagine that this would be a very enviable position to be in.

When we think about our lives, are there things that we are afraid of? I’m sure if we take just a moment to think about where we are in life – our relationships, our future, the world in which we life -- there would be things that cause us to be fearful, anxious and afraid. For me, I know this is certainly true. As more my beard turns to gray and white, I am reminded that I am growing old and I sometimes am a bit fearful of what that experience of aging will be like for me. Not only am a sometimes afraid of growing old, but I’m also afraid of the possibility of growing old alone, wondering whether or not I’ll have someone to share that time of life with.
I’m blessed to have both of my parents still alive and doing well, but I’m afraid of the day that I know will come when that’s no longer true.
I’m afraid that someday the good health I’ve been blessed with might fail, and that I will become ill, and perhaps even no longer able to care for myself and dependent on others. I’m afraid that maybe I haven’t done all I should to prepare for the future, and that I won’t be able to meet all of my needs.

Looking beyond myself ...

  • I sometimes fear that our American culture and society is becoming less tolerant of people like you and me … and less tolerant and accepting of anyone who is “different” or “one of them” or “not like us” in one way or another.
  • At the risk of saying something political, I fear that the next resident of the White House might speak a good game of “being Christian,” but be someone whose understanding of Christianity – as a religion rooted in love, in charity -- is so different from those of us gathered here.
  • I fear, too, that bishops and other leaders in our own Catholic community will continue to close the doors to people like us – or welcome us only when we agree to remain quietly in the shadows – ostensibly telling us that really is no room for us at the tables they set.

Psychologists tell us that there are typically two normal, primal responses to fear. They speak of our natural “fight or flight” response. When we find ourselves in a situation that we perceive as threatening and potentially harmful – we either become combative and begin to lash out [like the animal who’s been backed into a corner], or we simply run away to a place where we feel protected and the threat can no longer reach us. Isn’t this what Joseph wanted to do? He wanted the situation in which he found himself to go away – his “flight response” was in high gear.

For him, it took the intervention of an angel in a dream, to help him understand that he didn’t really see the full picture. This dream – which I believe had to have been born of his fundamental faith in God, the “righteous,” good guy that he was – this dream helps him to remember that God is at work even in this situation in which his plans are being turned upside down and things aren’t working out as he had hoped.

And so, he realizes that in fact, there is a third response to Fear. Instead of “fight or flight,” he finds strength in his faith – a faith that tells him God’s hand is at work. In these next brief days before Christmas, let’s take just a few moments to think about those things which cause us to be afraid – remembering that the angel’s words to Joseph are spoken to us as well: “Do not be afraid.” Like this holy place in which are gathered, let us remember Immanuel -- God is with us.