Merry Christmas

The pressure is on to deliver. No, I’m not thinking of the Post Office, or Fed-Ex or Amazon. In these waning days of Advent 2019, what I refer to is the pressure you or I just might be feeling about any personal promises we made this pre- Christmas season to God, or family and friends with an eye to making this Christmas even more
special.

Concerning God, your Advent resolution hopefully
included some extra time spent in prayer. Or maybe a long-
delayed confession. As to family, a renewed effort to “make it work” with some challenging member, a project that began at Thanksgiving dinner. Your kinder thoughts of him/her now translated into a Christmas card or a phone call, or gladly joining them around the family Christmas tree. As for friends, especially those geographically distant, you made some time together via Skype or texting if not a visit.

As we read St. Matthew’s Christmas account today, we might note some differences in it from St. Luke’s version. They are often combined in the popular versions. Chief among them is the prominent role St. Matthew gives to St. Joseph, which Luke does not. This Matthew did for the comfort of his primarily Jewish audience. Joseph is the link with the House of David, a long-held qualification of their expected Messiah.

This happenstance gives us the perfect time to focus on St. Joseph. He is almost a forgotten saint, despite the fact that he is the foster father of Christ; the Patron of the Universal Church, and a perfect model of true masculinity.

What we note also is his outstanding integrity; constant patience; and inspirational obedience. All three characteris- tics, far from a complete list, will be a working document for all of us to live our Catholic faith in a better way from December 25 into the fast approaching 2020. In vision rating that number is perfection at the eye doctor’s office.

I admit that notion puts some inherent pressure on us all. But like cardio exercise that is good for the heart, so truly living our faith every day is good for the soul. And I’d like to add that St. Joseph models skills that fit in with a modern context.

What is “time management” other than priority adherence and obedience to a command for prayer? What is “goal setting“ other than healthy obedience to a higher power?

Carefully read between the lines of St. Joseph’s story. Note that it has no memorable speech but action aplenty. When St. Joseph’s virtues become part of our own biographies, they bring us the elusive joy of peace.

I close with the thought of the late Menachem Begin, former Prime Minister of Israel: “Peace is the beauty of life. It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. It is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth.” A blessed Christmas to you and yours.

Merry Christmas

Feast of the Epiphany

“Tis the season” of beautifully wrapped boxes encasing treasures specially chosen by the givers. They are meant to express
many things, above all love, but also friendship, forgiveness for perceived failures, or just plain joy for the present and the future.

“Tis the season” for receiving gifts, presumably given by loved ones or recent acquaintances, or even perhaps a co-worker from the wider reaches of our “people circle” wishing to acquire or strengthen a relationship. Or they may be expressions of thanks for favors received.

“Tis the season” of a brand new year, its number 2020 often used to define perfect eyesight, thereby giving a hint that this may be the perfect year to look for a “new vision” to permeate our outlook.

“Tis the season” of Winter’s apex, when ever so slowly the daylight lasts longer with each new day, call- ing for us to live the hope we invest in Spring.

“Tis the season” above all to recognize that Jesus Christ is Himself our greatest gift. His unchanging love for us is no prisoner of time or whim. He is “the Light of the World” for all men and women anywhere and every- where.

“Tis the season,” finally, of Epiphany, which is Christmas for many Eastern Christians. That marks the time when Christ burst out of the confines of a Bethlehem stable to be a Gift, beautifully wrapped but eager to be opened for all nations.

All of this expanded meaning for the season underscores why we love it as being so special. True, it shakes us up a bit, especially if we have commercialized it, or limited its invitation to love God and our neighbor, or unconsciously made our Christianity into some kind of private possession, not to be shared with people who don’t look like us or speak our language. It tells us each year that we share this blue ball we live in with billions of others, all created by the one God and Father. There are no strangers here.

The poets of our world have a way of stating the truth that makes us pause and rehearse their words with our inner ears. We need them more desperately than we sometimes acknowledge. They open us up on this Epiphany day so that we can ponder and grow.

Here is one of them with the lilting name of Edna St. Vincent Mil- lay. This is what she wrote:
“The world stands out on either side, No wider than the heart is wide. Above the world is stretched the sky, No higher than the soul is high.”

Peace to you and yours this New Year of the Lord 2020!

THE MAGI AND EPIPHANY

This weekend we celebrate the Epiphany, when the Magi in Bethlehem came to honor the newborn Jesus as the king of the Jews and Savior of the nations. This celebration, along with Christmas, Pentecost, and the Easter Triduum, are the highest events in the Church calendar. And this veneration of Christ by the Magi in Bethlehem reflects at least four glorious themes: the gathering of nations, the idea of this life as a pilgrimage, the intercession of Mary and the saints, and the offering of our gifts to God. Regarding the first point, the Gospel according to Matthew identifies the Magi as “from the east,” which is often understood to be Persia, eastern Syria, Arabia, or some combination of them.

While the Gospel does not name them, Christian tradition refers to the Magi as Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. They were not of the Jewish faith, but they were guided by their desire for God and so were open to divine assistance. And thus, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, “their faith was a first promise of the faith and devotion of the nations who were to come to Christ from afar.” Summa Theologica part III, question 36, article 8.

For their harmonious worship of Jesus and their gifs to His family, in contrast to the violence of Herod, reflects the gathering of all nations in the Church in the midst of a conflicted world. And, because they were, like Abraham of old, willing to leave behind what they knew for the sake of a greater kingdom, they reflect our own calling to set aside time to approach the mysterious realm of God. With faith and reason, we can increase in our understanding of God; but like the magi, we must ever be guided by the lights of heaven (in revelation and Church teaching) to know that there is ever more progress ahead. We do not come to Jesus alone, however.

When the Magi approached Jesus, they were welcomed by Mary and came to the house provided by Joseph. And likewise, we come to Jesus in the context of Mary, the saints, and the whole Church to honor Him and receive His light. And, as Jesus and His family received gifts from the Magi, we also are called to participate with the Church by offering what we have to give and so make of our home and towns places where the joy of Christmas comes to earth and guides us to the final Christmas of everlasting joy.

CHARACTERS IN THE NATIVITY SCENE

As we enter the Christmas season, it is helpful to contemplate the figures who were there at the first Christmas and consider how they give us an example today.   First, surrounding Jesus, are the holiest ones, Mary and the angels.  As Mary received Jesus in her womb with humility and complete openness to God’s will, we are called to receive Jesus in the Eucharist with such humble courage and prayerful service and, with her intercession, bring His love to the world.   And, with the angels, we announce the Gospel by word, deed, prayer and sacrifice.  The word “angel” comes from the Latin angelus or Greek aggelos, which mean “messenger.”  As Jesus says, we are the light of the world and a city on a hill showing forth His kingdom.  See Matt. 5:14-16.

Alongside is St. Joseph, last before Jesus in the Davidic line of kings.  He never wore the crown, but he lived out the virtues of great leaders and fathers, prayerfulness, courage, purity and justice.  Like him, we seek, not the glory of this world, but the praise of Jesus, Mary and the angels, acting in a fashion worthy of a heavenly crown.  Likewise, in humble dedication are the shepherds, who were looked down upon by society, but privileged by God as the first to receive the Gospel.  Called in the midst of daily work, they brought their labor to Jesus in the form of sheep, a model for us to see Jesus in our daily labor, joyfully accepting the duties we have been given.  Coming later at Epiphany are the magi, who were not among the Chosen People, but journeyed with a mysterious revelation from heaven that they did not fully understand.  We are also called to journey toward heaven along paths that we often do not comprehend, but trusting that fixed guidance of truth from God.

Even the animals in that stable are important, especially the donkey and the ox.  Among other things, they represent attentiveness to God’s calling, fulfilling the words of Isaiah, “An ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people have not understood.”  Is. 1:3.  The world may ignore the word of God and the Word made man, but here nature honors her Creator.  In imitating their humble adoration, and in seeking the virtues of those people at that first Nativity, we welcome Jesus, the Son of God who, as the poet Chesterton put it, became homeless that we all may find our final home.

NATIVITY SCENES AND THE SENSE OF CHRISTMAS

nativityAs this parish and many homes are putting up the nativity scenes, it is helpful to reflect upon the origin and purpose of this devotion.  Christians have used images of the nativity from the beginning, with some of this artwork recently discovered in the Catacombs.  However, the idea of a more realistic nativity scene began with St. Francis in 1223.

In his time, the nativity scenes tended to be very elaborate with much finery, which was not much in keeping with the Franciscan spirit of noble simplicity.  And so, a year after St. Francis visited the Holy Land, he and some of his religious brothers decided to celebrate Christmas as the Holy Family and shepherds did.

To accomplish this plan, they planned a live nativity scene in a cave near Greccio, in the mountains of Italy.  And they tried to make the scene more real by involving common people as actors, wearing regular clothes, dealing with cold weather, and even using real farm animals.  St. Francis and his brothers wanted to have a sense of being with Jesus and the Holy Family in that manger long ago and to feel His love for us, expressed in His humble willingness to join our condition and unite our lives and His.

A few days before Christmas, St. Francis told people about these plans, thinking that some of them might make the difficult journey on Christmas Eve.  Instead, when Christmas Eve arrived, thousands of pilgrims travelled through the snow and descended on the scene, with many reporting that they experienced Christmas joy at the deepest level of their lives.

The idea of a live nativity scene caught on quickly and Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) soon gave his approval.  Within a century, the idea of living nativity scenes became popular throughout Western Europe.  Because it was difficult to get live people and animals into a church or home, statues would often replace the live figures.

But the purpose is the same, helping us to sense the true meaning of Christmas, that in Jesus Christ, God came among us in our daily lives and especially with the poor and those who struggle.  As Professor William Cook of the State University of New York said in his lectures on great Christians, St. Francis “made Greccio into Bethlehem.  Of course, if Greccio can become Bethlehem, any place can become Bethlehem.”

TWO CELEBRATIONS

This week, we will have two major celebrations in this area, one for this Diocese and one with the universal Church. In particular, on Tuesday, St. Nicholas’ day, Bishop Michael Burbidge will be installed as the fourth Bishop of the Arlington Diocese, and Bishop Paul Loverde will become our first Bishop Emeritus. They have been good friends for a long time, particularly because Bishop Burbidge became the rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where many of our seminarians prepare for the priesthood, in the same year that Bishop Loverde was transferred to this Diocese.

With the transition, Bishop Burbidge will take on the role of being the spiritual father and shepherd of the Diocese, with Bishop Loverde as a kind of grandfather, giving wisdom and insights to the new bishop and to the faithful, and bringing the diocesan family together with prayers and a sense of the union of many different areas and generations.

immaculate-conceptionOf course, every family needs a mother as well as a father. And, for the family of God that is the Church, Jesus gave us His mother to be ours as well. From on the Cross, He said to St. John, standing in for all of us, “Behold, thy mother.” See John 19:27. And then some years later Jesus assumed Mary into heaven, where she reigns as Queen, as “the woman clothed with the sun,” who is mother to all who act upon the words of God and bear witness to Jesus. See Rev. 12:1-2, 17.

To recognize the full glory given to Mary, Blessed Pope Pius IX declared in 1854 as a matter of divine and Catholic faith that Mary was conceived without original sin and remained pure of sin throughout her entire life. The rest of us were conceived with the burden of original sin, which was not our fault, but still impairs our souls. See Psalm 51:5.

Baptism frees us from this stain, but we still spend a lifetime and beyond overcoming its effects. By contrast, God gave Mary “preventative grace,” such that this burden never affected her. And thus she was from the beginning totally free from the effects of sin, fully open to His will, and thus most fitted to be the mother of the Son of God. In honoring Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception, we are drawn to that full purity and heavenly freedom for love that Mary enjoys always and that we hope to attain one day.