Sunday, December 30, 2007

I love the colors in this nativity scene (Piero della Francesca, c. 1470); they reminded me of a day along the Wissahickon.
This nativity depicts Joseph with his legs crossed! You can see the sole of his foot. The image is among many available on the site of the National Gallery, London.

This is Holy Family Sunday!

Feast of the Holy Family Dec 30 University Chapel
The great story teller, Tolstoy, opens one of his novels with this sentence: “All happy families resemble one another but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Because we celebrate today the feast of the Holy Family, this sentence can help us understand our readings. How wise it is for us to place this feast of family between Christmas and New Year’s .... In this season families are on our minds and hearts…..

I believe that Jesus’ family was a happy one and, taking a cue from Tolstoy, his family resembles other happy families.
We judge happy families, and Jesus’ family as well, not by the absence of sorrow, dysfunction or suffering but by the capacity of the members of the family to become stronger and more supportive of one another through the joys and sorrows that they experience.

I know quite well a happy family that has suffered much: multiple divorces; a mother's death, Janet's, brought on by alcoholism; Michael's death, a young father, in a traffic accident before the birth of his one child; the collapse of a young woman, Lisa, into a persistent vegetative state by reason of a heart attack, the loss of a baby girl just days after her birth. Some of these crises were instantaneous, others endured over a long period; some are not yet resolved. This family now numbers 33 and not one member wants to miss the annual Christmas party. I know about this family because I belong to it. The laughter and sharing of life at one of these annual parties helps carry me through the rest of the year. This is a happy family.

But it is clear that the happiness of my family is closely related to the suffering that we have shared…. when Tolstoy spoke of the resemblance in all happy families, he must have meant at least this: happy families have the ability to survive as families no matter what the threat.

Today, our reading details a threat to Jesus’ family and tells the story about his family as political refugees… The vicious King Herod, a ruler over Bethlehem where Jesus’ birth takes place, emerges as a bitter enemy of this child because he hears by rumor that the child will become a king. He fears that this child threatens his grip on power. He plans to kill Jesus. In a dream an angel warns Joseph about this danger and he flees with Mary and the baby outside of Herod’s territory into the land of Egypt…

What must it have been like for this family to be refugees and to share a fate like so many of today’s families? Did Joseph wait on some dusty byway in Egypt in order to be hired as a day-laborer? Was he given a status as a political refugee or did he simply hide out under cover? The next time you see a foreign-looking cabbie or gardener or bus boy, think that Joseph must have been something like him, sticking out like a stranger in a strange land not knowing the language but determined to protect and provide for his wife and child.

This kind of fear and anxiety can so stress a young couple that they might not hold together but I believe that Joseph and Mary's fear and refugee status actually strengthen them for what is to come. The family survives this time of uncertainty and eventually returns quietly to settle in Nazareth. This is Jesus’ home and as a human being he needs to have a home. In the bosom of this family Jesus learns the centrality of the community meal and the importance of service to others. In the bosom of this family he gains the capacity to understand the power of suffering to overcome evil. The ability of his family to thrive after the stress of exile provides one small proof that the family of Jesus is one of Tolstoy’s happy families.

This feast celebrates not only the happiness of biological families but also any of the human support structures we build out of our faith, our hope and our love: the family of the church to which we all belong, the elements of the family created by so many of you in your service to young people, the family of friends when we are far away from our biological families by geography or by other circumstances, the new families that welcome us when we are in exile in any way. God comes in the flesh and needs a home and finds it even in exile, even in the dirt-poor town of Nazareth, and even in the community he starts with a few fishermen. If we know any family at all, it makes us happy to know that Jesus lived in such wonderful ones.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas 2007 (Manresa Hall Mass at Midday)
I join my personal greeting to greetings from all those who have known and loved you through the years. Celebrating what we have seen and heard I say again: Merry Christmas. The Christ Child comes again into this world of ours to bring us a joy symbolized in the songs and the sweet treats of the season.
Two one liners simply to free our spirits: When did the baby Jesus first get on a airplane? On the flight into Egypt. What nationality is Santa Claus? North Polish.
This year Tim Brown sent me some Christmas writings composed by Joseph Ratzinger years ago when Ratzinger was the Archbishop of Munich. They are beautifully re-presented in this book “The Blessing of Christmas” illustrated with two dozen color plates of classical Christian art.
Ratzinger calls the first of his sermons: An Advent Dialogue with the Sick. I enjoyed the whole text. Yet let me simply give a brief outline and read something from its introduction and each of its three parts.
[During the Christmas season], Ratzinger writes, “the burden of sickness prevents us from truly sharing in the joy others feel….but perhaps Advent [and Christmas] can help us discover the unobtrusive grace that can lie in the very fact of being sick.” (p.15). He goes on to speak of visitation, of waiting and of joy.
His writings suggest that the sick place themselves in the position of Elizabeth whose confinement and immobility have allowed her to be the subject of a visit. This visitation could have been from negative powers. But, on the contrary, the mother of her savior comes to see her in her confinement; her visitation is a joyful one.
Ratzinger writes: “perhaps we should try an experiment. Let us understand the individual events of the day as little signs that God sends us…To keep an inner diary of good things would be a beautiful and a healing task…--[a diary of visits of all kinds, for example. This diary would be]--… one way that God can come to us and be close to us.”
About waiting in this season, Ratzinger writes: “In his life here on earth, man is one who waits. As a child he wants to be an adult; as an adult he wants to forge ahead and be successful; and finally he yearns for rest. At last there comes a time when he realizes that he has hoped for too little.”
A Christian waits for that Jesus who will bring all of us together into his kingdom. But if the present moment remains completely empty, to wait becomes, Ratzinger says, “completely intolerable.” “But when time itself is meaningful and each moment contains something valuable of its own, the joyful anticipation of something greater, something still to come, makes even more precious that which we already experience. And it gives us a kind of invisible force that bears us across the individual moments.”
Jesus Christ penetrates our time of waiting and hears our prayer, our lamentations, our questions, our praise.
Finally about joy, Ratzinger quotes the psalms that speak of nature expressing the joy of the Christmas season: of the trees breaking into songs of praise and of the rivers that flow with milk and honey. So we sing and eat sweet treats.
“It may be difficult for us,” he says, “to accept this joyful music… when we are afflicted both by bodily illness and psychological problems…but this child is a sign of hope precisely for those who are oppressed…his consoling power can touch the hearts even of unbelievers.”
May the Christ child today fill us with quiet visitations so that we wait with a joyful hope.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

At the Jesuit house at the University of Central America; the garden where the Jesuits were killed in 1989; the roses were planted in their memory and in the memory of their cook and her daughter who were brutally killed with them.
In downtown San Salvador the tomb of Bishop Oscar Romero on a Sunday in November.
Here a delegation of rural people visit the altar where Bishop Romero was murdered.
En este altar Monsegnor Oscar A. Romero ofrendo su vida a Dios por su pueblo.
It was very early in the dark hours of November 16, 1989 after nine years of the brutal war in El Salvador that the six Jesuits and their cook and her daughter were pulled from their beds and shot point blank at the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador. The army officers responsible later told the story of that night in all its grim details. The Jesuits were their target, Jesuits who had pleaded all along with both sides to seek some agreeable cease-fire but the elites and the army viewed even neutrality in the war as yielding to a communist-influenced treason.
El Salvador is a country no bigger than New Jersey with about the same population. Since the war ended in 1992 with a UN brokered peace agreement, the situation for the poor has not changed much. Still the bottom 40% of the population barely sustain themselves while the top 20% live very comfortable lives. Because of the lack of jobs at home, over a quarter of working age El Salvadorans, some 2.2 million men and women live and work outside the country, nearly a million in California alone.

During the war 75,000 men, women and children died in the brutality. About 80% at the hands of the army and the right-wing death squads. Imagine 5 or 6,000 citizens of New Jersey killed every year for twelve years at the hands of government forces, some tortured and you get the idea of the extent of the chaos. The Jesuits were only a tiny part of the bloodshed that embraced so many families.

Briefly let me say this: I spent many years working and preaching in the African American community. The leading image of salvation in that community is the image of the Exodus, the biblical journey of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the promised land. This image still sustains AA Christians as they make their pilgrimage of faith into freedom.
But for the people of El Salvador the memory of blood running in the streets is still fresh. For them the leading image of salvation is the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross, his torture and his death that leads to life. An AA leader is often compared with Moses who leads the people into freedom. The diocesan priests, the Jesuits, Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero gunned down even at the altar, and all those innocents who suffered death in the war in El Salvador rather are pictured as suffering with Christ on the cross.
It is with the sufferings of the people of El Salvador and with the sufferings of others like them that we, too, can come to know this Jesus who suffered for us, the Jesus whom his Father raised up to new life.

Jon Sobrino, the Jesuit theologian who today carries on the work of the martyred Jesuits at the UCA, has this to say about the Jesus that led his brothers to death: “Jesus’ cross is an expression of God’s love…and God chose this way of showing himself, because he could not find any clearer way of telling us human beings that he really wills our salvation.” Let this encourage us to embrace our own salvation in our relationships with those who are suffering. And let us labor to build an image of this life of salvation by alleviating in all that we do the sorrow and the frustration that faces so many of our brothers and sisters.