Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

"And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." Jn 1:14

Those of us who have lived in the New York area most of our lives are very familiar with the New Year's Eve celebration that goes on each year in Times Square.  More than a million people begin gathering early in the evening and then wait for hours so they can watch the lighted ball drop exactly at midnight to celebrate a New Year.  Like any ritual, it is designed to help people begin again, to put aside the past and focus on the New Year just begun.  Many people use the occasion to seek reconciliation with family or friends. Even more make resolutions to change their lives so that 2012 will be better than 2011.

While we understand and appreciate the fun and hope of the night, the incredible statement we read in the first chapter of St. John's gospel, if only we take time to meditate upon it, can lift our spirits even more.  John writes,  "And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." These words remind us of something that is almost too powerful for us to fully appreciate. Despite the failure of the human community to honor God and neighbor consistently, despite our wandering from the path of justice and life, God loves us so much that God speaks the word that becomes flesh as the ultimate sign of God's undying love. God wants to be with us, to walk with us, to weep with us, and live with us forever. 

Most of us can get excited about a story or a movie that reminds us of the heroes who have lived among us. Reading about Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker, who spent most of her life providing soup and bread for hungry New Yorkers, or Mother Teresa who found a way to care for thousands of dying people in India "one person at a time," fills us with hope.  How much more excited ought we be when we realize how great and enduring God's love is!  Every day, God promises us, the Word will dwell among us as companion and friend, as guide and leader.  We are never alone, never in the dark, always in God's heart.  What a wonderful way to let go of 2011 and begin 2012. The only resolution we need to make for 2012 is to promise ourselves to take time each day to remember the promise of God's undying for all.

Today, let go of fear and open your heart to the indwelling of God in your lives and communities.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Holy Family

"The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." Lk 2:40

Wisdom is a gift usually associated with old age.  We expect and hope that we can go to our elders in faith, especially when we are confused or in need of affirmation, and absorb their wisdom and compassion. That is why it is so surprising to read in today's passage from Luke that Jesus, even as a child, was filled with wisdom.

On the other hand, perhaps it is not so surprising. For years, especially when I was more deeply involved in religious education, I watched children and marveled at their ability to focus on something, even in the midst of a very busy house, and enjoy themselves. Children are natural contemplatives. Their minds are not so filled with things to do or tasks to complete that they easily get distracted. Rather, they enjoy what is right in front of them and it is usually more than enough to satisfy them. When I encounter this gift in adults I call them wise, spiritual and compassionate, and I want to be close to them. Perhaps Jesus was like this when he worked alongside his father.

Children are also often filled with awe. A child's face at the beach as she runs along the shore or builds a sandcastle is wonderful, and watching a child as he enters a huge stadium is always fascinating. Quiet at first and full of joy, he looks around with awe and wonder at the vastness of the place imagining that someday he will play in place like this. Perhaps Jesus was like this when he first went to the temple.

Most of all, many children are naturally trusting and affectionate. Years ago a young couple, who brought their children with them when they served a hot meal to the hungry, spoke about how the poor seemed drawn to their children, because the little ones wanted only to help and did not judge them in their need. Perhaps Jesus was like this when he shared his bread with the crowds.

Today, ask God for the gift of childlike wisdom for yourself and your families.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thomas Becket, Martyr

"The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.'' Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot

Discernment of spirits is one of the most important tools adult Christians have.  To sift through many goods in order to determine what it is God wants us to do is slow, difficult, and painstaking, but without it we risk falling into the temptation to which St. Thomas Becket, an 11th century martyr, was subjected.

Thomas Beckett was canonized only two years after his martyrdom and has been memorialized not only in many biographies, but in T.S. Eliot's, "Murder in the Cathedral,"(2) and Jean Anouilh's,  "Becket." (3) Locked in a fierce political and spiritual battle with Henry II who, prior to his ordination, he served as chancellor, Thomas fled to France, lived as a Cistercian, and though every other bishop in England accepted the The Constitutions of Clarendon, which weakened both the authority of bishops and their relationship with the Roman Pontiff, Thomas refused on the grounds that he could not do the "right thing for the wrong reason."  As Eliot reminds us, Henry wanted Thomas to submit to his authority alone, but Thomas knew, as soon as he was ordained bishop, that he had to answer to a higher authority, and though he was buffeted by many temptations to conform to Henry's pleading for the sake of peace at any price, he resisted.

Although, in 1170, Henry II reached a compromise which respected Thomas' conscience and allowed him to return to Canterbury as Archbishop, the struggle continued. A short time after Thomas' return, Henry II died and Henry III, whom Thomas had helped raise as a child, was crowned King by three lesser Archbishops. Upon hearing this,Thomas, who as Archbishop of Canterbury had the exclusive right to crown the King, excommunicated them all. Furious, Henry III wondered aloud, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Interpreted as an order, several knights set out for Canterbury and after Thomas refused to go to Winchester and submit to the King's authority, he was assassinated in his own cathedral.

In the middle of the Christmas octave, Thomas' integrity challenges us all.  No matter what civil or ecclesial authority may want of us, adult Christians must discern what it is that God wants of them.  Obedience for the sake of avoiding conflict will eventually lead to more problems.  As adults, with the help of a spiritual director and a trusted friend or two, we must employ a careful discernment when we face decisions that do not fit neatly into legal categories, and we should not be afraid of this.  Thomas Becket's willingness to suffer martyrdom is a powerful reminder that we must always do the right thing, not simply to preserve our own independence or power, but for the right reason.

Today, ask God for the courage to submit to God's authority when making a difficult decision.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holy Innocents

"Herod ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under." Mt 2:17

Today's feast is full of dread, hurt and rage. While for a moment the title of the feast can distract us by speaking of the slaughtered children as "innocents," it is the horror the parents of these children had to bear that bores a hole of unspeakable loss in our collective consciousness. Authentic faith demands that we stand and weep for those who lost their lives, and for their families who had to find their way in the darkness of senseless violence.

On Christmas day this year, those of us living in the Eastern United States learned of a terrible fire that took the life of three young children and their grandparents.  How will the mother of these children, who was asleep when the fire started and then unable to reach them because of the intensity of the flames, survive?  Is there anything anyone can say or do to bring her comfort and eventually acceptance? The overwhelming horror of this tragedy is too difficult to even think about, and the same must have been true for the parents of the children Herod murdered.

No doubt some of the aggrieved parents plotted revenge against Herod while others numbed themselves with work or wine or anything else to help blunt their pain, but there is no escaping the enormity of their loss, and rage always destroys everything in is path. For believers only the strength of the community of faith, which wraps us in compassion and carries us for a while, makes any sense. Not intended to deny or sanitize the loss, our prayer merely sustains those leveled by the insane act of a madman, and we throw ourselves upon God's mercy begging for help.

At the same time, the feast of the Holy Innocents forces us to think about the destructive ability we all have. Though it is difficult to admit, each of us has torn the life out of another by slander, calumny, or hurtful talk about their backgrounds, race, sexual orientation or culture. Acknowledging our personal and communal sin is the first step on the path to reconcilation. Only admitting our guilt without explanation or excuse allows those we have hurt to offer us authentic forgiveness.

Today, pray for the grace to see the hurt you have caused before asking forgiveness.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

St John the Evangelist

"We are writing this so that our joy may be complete." 1 Jn 1:4

Bickering, rigidity and unfettered competition can drain the life out of any community and leave it joyless, which is precisely what was happening in the community to which St John was writing his first letter. Struggling to understand how Jesus could be both fully God and fully human, some believers dismissed the mystery altogether by proposing that Jesus was not really human but only God in a human disguise.

The writer of John's first letter, however, takes a different tack. Trying to help the community see that the mystery of the incarnation could never be reduced to words, John encourages them to put aside their disagreements and serve others on behalf of the Gospel.  In this way, he assured them, they would begin to appreciate more deeply the mystery of God's presence in the world as they saw its "truth" living in those they served.

Trying to parse a mystery as deep as the incarnation, then and now, without charity, can only lead to division and disunity. Working together to witness to God's love by caring for the needy not only gives us the distance we need from struggling with the mystery in the abstract, it often leads to insight and acceptance beyond understanding.

This simple lesson is still true today. There are times that we get stuck inside our heads, especially when we are trying to convince others that our insights and opinions are correct and important. Perhaps if we followed St John's advice to help the needy when we are in turmoil, we might reach a more peaceful place. Care for those most in need often settles our spirits in ways we could never have imagined or articulated and brings us a kind of joy beyond words.

Today serve someone in need. Your joy will be overwhelming.

Monday, December 26, 2011

St Stephen - The Cost of Discipleship

It is always a shock to get up the day after Christmas to celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen. Though I understand the necessity of emphasizing the cost of discipleship, I wish we could wallow for a day or three in Christmas warmth before being overwhelmed by the horror of Stephen's death by stoning. But this is how it is.  We have enjoyed, even delighted in, the memory of Christ's birth, of God become human, and now we must face the reality of gospel life as most people encounter it. Witnessing to his faith cost Stephen his life and few speak more eloquently about this most challenging gospel demand than the 20th century Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis because he could not keep silent in the face of Hilter's atrocities, especially against the Jews.

In perhaps the most quoted passage of his theological and spiritual classic, The Cost of Discipleship(1) Bonhoeffer confronts his readers plainly and clearly. "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." While all of us might nod in agreement as long as it doesn't threaten our life, discipleship costs a lot. Bonhoeffer was hanged for cooperating with a German Resistance movement that believed the gospel demanded Hitler's removal from power, even if it meant asassination.

But Bonhoeffer did not coin the phrase "cheap grace."  While a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1930, Bonhoeffer heard Adam Clayton Powell, the African American activist pastor of the Abyssian Baptist Church in New York City's Harlem, rail against "cheap grace" when preaching about social justice and equality for black Americans. While Bonhoeffer did not speak highly of his theological education at Union Theological, he freely acknowledged that it was the witness of American blacks that radicalized him in action.

Discipleship, even on the day after Christmas, must be our first goal as Christians. Being a "good Catholic" does not simply mean obeying the dictates of the church hierarchy alone, no matter how laudable its teaching. Rather, discipleship demands that we seek justice for all despite the cost. Like Bonhoeffer, Jesus died because he confronted the leaders of the Jewish community who were more concerned about their own power than the freedom of all God's children. When faced with the abuse of power, in the church and world, the Gospel demands that we speak and act with and on behalf of the poor whose "cries" God always hears." (Job 34:28)

Today, filled with Christmas hope, ask for the grace to die for sake of God's reign.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Contemplation

"Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." Lk 2:18

Contemplation is a gift that allows us, like Mary, to ponder, to sift through, to accept everything that comes to us.  For Mary, who was a very young woman when she first heard that she would be the mother of the Messiah, is was a necessity. Without a commitment to quiet prayer and reflection, without the ability to live with ambiguity, without the willingness to let go of certainty, Mary would not have been able to hear the angel's request of her but because she had a contemplative attitude, Mary became the compassionate mother of all around her.

Think of Mary at the wedding feast of Cana.  Noticing that the young couple being married are running out of wine, she tells Jesus. Full of compassion, Mary is worried that they will be shamed by those who expect to celebrate for several days. Not having enough wine for everyone would have exposed them to harsh ridicule by their guests, and it is only Mary's persistence that wins the day.  When Jesus replies with a question of his own, "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" Mary does not hesitate. She ignores him and tells the waiters, "Do whatever he tells you."  Kindness and understanding trump the rigid rules of hospitality. It is never all right to shame people. What a powerful lesson for all at Christmas.

For many Christmas is not an easy, gentle family time.  For some families excessive drinking will blot out the joy. For others, finding a way to meld multiple families after a divorce will prove impossible, and when faced with the pain of shattered hopes Christmas often descends into loud arguments and further hurt.  Mary's ability to hear Jesus' hesitation and act on behalf of the beleagured couple despite her son's reluctance to help is a reminder to us that a quiet response, rooted in contemplation, is always more effective that a prolonged debate.

Christmas is intended as a time of overwhelming joy for all, but when the joy seems shallow, do not despair.  Remember Mary's willingness to move ahead with silent conviction.  Mary does the right thing. So can we.

Today, ask for the gift of contemplation.