Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Nativity of the Lord - December 25, 2016

  Have you ever looked closely at a baby’s fingernails? Some years ago, a new mother let me hold her three-day old baby, and I noticed his fingernails. They were perfectly formed and shaped and in just the right proportion. Those nails led me to study the rest of the fingers and the hands and to notice them as a perfect miniature of any other human hand. I began to consider the possibilities of this human life that lay wriggling in my arms. No one yet knew what gifts or talents that baby was endowed with. No one could know what kinds of choices he would make with his life. He himself did not even know that he would one day have to make such choices. Yet looking at those fingernails, I realized that God had given this child the skills and talents that would one day come to fruition.

When we look at a Nativity scene, we see a figure of the infant Christ. On a small plastic figure, we would not expect such attention to detail as to make sure that the child – or Mary or Joseph – have perfect fingernails. Yet I hope that we can take time over the coming days to reflect on the reality of what we celebrate. When we look at the Nativity, we see the fullness of the gospel. The shepherds did not know that this child would one day die on the cross and rise from the dead, but we do. The shepherds responded in joy to the message of the angels, so how much greater should our joy be, knowing the Salvation that this child would bring us. The shepherds would not have had the theological education to realize what we learned in first grade, that this child is fully human and fully divine, a man like us in all things but sin. But we see Him as the Word Made Flesh, Emmanuel (God-with-us) and our Savior. How can we help but rejoice?

A few weeks after I held that young baby, I stood as his godfather at his baptism, and fourteen years later I was his sponsor for Confirmation. He is now a grown man, and I have not looked at his fingernails since he was three days old. But I still remember that day as I think of the young man he has become. (Among other things, he has inherited his godfather’s love of baseball.) So we can remember the joy of our celebration of Christmas as we prepare to see the mystery of Salvation unfolding through the gospel in the coming year.

So as the big day comes, I take this opportunity to say a word of thanks to all who have helped make this Christmas such a joyous time. Thanks to John Lester and those who helped with decorations, Laurie Lanz and all who have worked with her on the music and all others who have  contributed to our Liturgies. Thanks to those who have sent me cards, presents or other expressions of Christmas joy and to those who remember me in their Christmas prayers. And thanks to so many others. Beyond that, I take this time for my personal wish to all of you and to all of your families. May Christmas be for each of you a time of joyful celebration and of God’s blessings. In the familiar words of Clement Clark Moore, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”                      
                                                                                               Father H                  

Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 18, 2016

Over the first three weeks of Advent, I have dedicated this space to looking at some of the major biblical figures of the season. As I wrote about the prophet Isaiah, St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph, I have tried to take an objective look at each figure as found in Sacred Scripture. Today I will look at the most obvious figure of this season, the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is so much to say about Mary’s role in Scripture and in popular devotion that I would like to take just a few images, particularly from the infancy narratives.

In Luke’s gospel, we “meet” Mary when the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to be the Mother of God. One of the key lessons here is Mary’s trust in God. First she admitted that she did not understand how Gabriel’s words could be true. Yet while she had no problem questioning how the message could be true, she still accepted God’s will. Mary knew and trusted that God would only ask of her what was best for her as well as for all humanity.

There is another image that I have always found helpful to meditation, but it does not occur in the Gospel. Have you ever thought of what Mary told her parents after the Annunciation? What parents, when finding their daughter pregnant, would believe a story of an angel? That situation was covered very nicely in the movie The Nativity Story that came out a few years ago. In addition to her trust, such an image can show us the courage that Mary must have had once she accepted God’s will. Becoming the Mother of God would change all of Mary’s plans, but she was ready.

After the angel left, Mary traveled into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. That would not have been an easy journey, particularly for a young pregnant girl. But for Mary, the presence of Christ led her to service. She would not sit back and wait for the Lord’s coming. Rather, she put Christ’s presence into action for the good of others. In her service, as in her trust and her courage, Mary is an image of what Advent should mean to us.

Finally, as we celebrated the Immaculate Conception earlier this month, we remember that Mary was without sin. The same cannot be said for any of us. So in final preparation for Christmas, we will offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confessions) Tuesday evening from 7:00 to 8:00 (after our monthly Benediction), and from 6:00 to 7:00 (or later as needed) on Wednesday and Friday evenings. We will not have our regularly scheduled Saturday Confessions on Christmas Eve.
                                                                                           Father H                  

Third Sunday of Advent - December 11, 2016

Through this Advent season, I have been using this column to look at some of the scriptural figures who are important to this season. Today, we take a look at St. Joseph, who is featured prominently in Matthew’s gospel. We will hear of St. Joseph next Sunday.

Joseph was most likely a young man just coming into his own when Christ was born, but there is a legend which says that he was an old man. There are several likely reasons why that legend grew up. For one thing, it is easier for some to believe that an older man could respect Mary’s virginity. As one living a celibate life, however, I find it much more helpful to believe that the Holy Spirit helped Joseph to remain chaste. The legend of Joseph as an old man also could be a way of explaining the places in scripture where they refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Our insistence on Mary’s virginity made some people think that these were Joseph’s children by a wife who had died. But in their culture, the word for “brothers and sisters” also referred to cousins, as extended families were quite important at the time.

Setting aside that legend, we can look at Joseph as he appears in the gospel. First of all, we can see Joseph’s role in the Holy Family. As husband of the Blessed Mother, Joseph was legally recognized as Jesus’ father. It is through that relationship that Jesus was recognized as a descendant of King David. More importantly, at the time of Jesus’ conception, Joseph was betrothed to the Blessed Mother. We think of that relationship as an engagement, but betrothal was a step beyond engagement. Joseph had all the legal rights of a husband except for living with Mary. So if she was found to be pregnant, then the logical conclusion was that she had committed adultery, which was a capital crime. But Joseph was merciful, wanting to divorce her quietly, and that mercy left him open to the message of the angel that this child was the Son of God. So Joseph is a sign that we are called to trust God and to be open to His will.

Joseph is also given to us as a protector. When King Herod called for the Messiah’s death, Joseph took Mary and Jesus into safety in Egypt. Throughout the early years of Jesus’ life, we see Joseph as a provider for the Holy Family. We know him as a carpenter, but that probably does not mean that he made a living making fine furniture. The Greek word for carpenter in the gospels is tekton, which is a carpenter who would do all kinds of woodwork, including buildings and other big projects. We might think of a tekton as a construction worker. Joseph was a hard worker who did whatever he needed to do to provide for his family. So while we see Joseph as a man of faith, we do not see that faith as an idle quality. Joseph’s faith was active, affecting everything he did every day of his life.

We often call St. Joseph “a just man.” Justice, in this sense, means that he always sought to do the will of God. As he did so, he not only helped carry forward the mission of our salvation, he also became an excellent example for us. St. Joseph teaches us to live our faith as if Christ were living in our own homes.
                                                                                             Father H              

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Second Sunday of Advent - December 4, 2016

 Last week I said that I would take this space to describe some of the key scriptural figures of Advent, starting with the prophet Isaiah. This week I turn to St. John the Baptist, who is featured in the gospel every year on the Second Sunday of Advent. There is a connection, for much of John’s message and imagery comes from the prophet Isaiah.

Our first thought of John, particularly at this time of year, is of his birth as the son of the Blessed Mother’s elderly cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. The importance of that detail is that it shows John’s connection to Christ. In the First Century, there was a movement that accepted John as the Messiah. All four of the gospel writers make a point of showing that John did not claim any privilege for himself. Rather, the whole purpose of his life was to prepare for the coming of Christ. John’s gospel (John 1:20) says of John, “He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, ‘I am not the Messiah.’” In the gospel of today’s mass, Matthew records John saying, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

John certainly was an impressive figure, clothed in camel’s hair and with a diet that consisted of locusts and wild honey. He lived a very ascetical life filled with penitential practice. There is some speculation that John was an Essene, a very rigorous Jewish community. Yet there were some basic differences. The Essenes saw themselves as an elite group, separate from the rest of the community. John, on the other hand, left the desert to proclaim God’s salvation to all people. He welcomed tax collectors, prostitutes and all other sinners. And rather than calling people to join him in the desert, he sent them back to their families and jobs with the call to live by God’s commandments in their ordinary lives.

Of course, what identifies John most clearly was his act of baptizing in the Jordan River. John’s baptism was a unique symbol, to such an extent that it became his very identity. He is simply “the Baptist.” A totally new ritual becomes a sign that God is about to intervene in human history in an entirely new way. This baptism again ties the Baptist to the coming of the Messiah. As Christ would bring us a new life of grace, so John offers a means of repentance from the sins that separate us from God. This repentance is available to everyone, but it calls for us to make a commitment to turn away from sin and to make a change in our lives.

John’s message is very challenging. Whenever we meet someone who lives the faith intently, it can be very intimidating. Yet personally, the most ascetical people I have ever known have also been the most joyful. Their message, as that of St. John the Baptist, is that Christ offers us such a wonderful opportunity to share the life of God that it is worth whatever the cost. The message of St. John the Baptist tells us that Advent is a time of great hope. This is our time of preparation. For as we hear in the embolism to the Lord’s Prayer at mass, “We await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”                          
                                                            Father H