Kevin McCallister: “I’m living alone! I’m living alone!” Jesus the Christ: “I’m NOT!”

This was the homKevinily I gave last night; with a few minor changes, I gave it in similar form at the Masses today as well.

Bottom line: Young Kevin McCallister, in Home Alone, decides that when he gets big, he’s going to live alone — family life is just too tough for him to imagine!  Our God, coming to us, is exactly the opposite: Christ chooses to come to us precisely through the relationships of family and community, with all the challenges that presents!

The Once and Future Pope Francis

It seems like Pope Francis is everywhere in the media these days.  Not only is he Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, he was named “Person of the Year” as well by the London Times, and even “The Advocate.”  Just today, I noticed today that Esquire Magazine has name him the Best-Dressed Man of 2013!  For a man who less than a year ago was a retired Archbishop in South America, this is quite a switch.

Over on Facebook, a friend noticed wryly that the media was now focused on Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi (“to the city and to the world”)message of world peace, as if this were a dramatic new statement launching the Church into hitherto unknown directions seeking peace and justice around the world.  Obviously, all prior popes, especially those of the past century or so, have focused on the same themes; there is nothing new in that.

But there IS something new going on, and I think we miss it at our peril: what’s new is not what the Pope is saying, but that people are hearing what he’s saying.  Rightly or wrongly, justifiably or not, many of our contemporaries had tuned out the messages and words of previous popes; now they’re inclined to tune back in.  It’s not that the message has changed one whit.  But the messenger has, and the way the messenger crafts his message has.  The classic words of the Second Vatican Council, echoing Pope St. John XXIII, told us that the Church

has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which people ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics (Gaudium et spes, #4).

Francis2selfieIt seems to me that the key to Pope Francis lies in that paragraph.  As a Church, we’ve been blessed with popes who could, since the Council, focus on certain “signs of the times” and their interpretation.  But that’s only the first part of what we need to do if we’re going to be proper evangelizers.  Many teachers are good at giving students the facts of things, but that doesn’t guarantee that simply knowing those facts will lead to life-changing wisdom.  We have to take the next steps in addition to a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.  So, in addition to reading the signs of the times in light of the Gospel, here’s the rest:

  1. We have to find “language intelligible to each generation,” and I would further interpret this to mean “language intelligible to each generation and culture”; the fact is, all people should be able to understand and comprehend what’s being said.
  2. The point of this understanding is to find what the Church proposes in response to the basic questions of life and the meaning of life.  If this connection is not made, then we are failing at the task!  But there’s still more.
  3. In order to make this connection for folks, we need to recognize and understand the world, and what it proposes to people.  But in addition, we need to understand what people in the world are longing for, and the way the world works.  I have frequently met deacons who, somewhat proudly, proclaim that they no longer have TVs in their homes, that they don’t watch the news or other secular programming, or that they only watch religious programming.  I submit that this is a huge misjudgment, especially for ministers of the Gospel in today’s world.

This is where Pope Francis is proving himself to be a master catechist an evangelist.  He clearly understands the the scriptures (beautifully so, I might add) and official church teachings.  However, what he is bringing to the task is a profound understanding of the rest of the mission: his words, his demeanor, his life style choices, his actions, all point to a messenger that is committed to the content and the context of the mission.  This is not in the least a criticism of previous popes.  No person can do everything.  However, those who assert that the pope’s change of style is unimportant because “the message” remains the same are missing the whole point.  The message is never just about the content  the message; the style and context of the message is equally important.

We call this evangelization.  If people who previously not “heard” the message are now able to “hear” it, God bless them, and God bless the messenger!

“On the Feast of Stephen”

StephenOver the next two days, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Protomartyr of the Christian Church.  The Western part of the church celebrates St. Stephen today, while the Eastern traditions celebrate tomorrow.  What we know of Stephen comes to us from the Acts of the Apostles.  Chapter 6 recounts the selection and ordination of “the Seven” men dedicated to caring for the needs of the Greek-speaking Christian community of Jerusalem, with Stephen the first name listed.  What I have always found fascinating is that the two members of this “deacon class” (although they’re never actually called “deacons” in the text) which we read about — Stephen and Philip — are never depicted serving only the Greek-speaking Christian community!  Stephen, of course, preaches to the entire community, which gets him in trouble with the authorities and leads eventually to his martyrdom; Philip is shown being led by the Spirit to a variety of places, including the famous encounter with the Ethiopian official.  He explains scripture to him and then baptizes him before being led by the Spirit to another place.  As Pope St. John XXIII would say later, in a different context, “In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.”  Stephen and his brothers were being directed by the Spirit to fulfill God’s “inscrutable” designs!

Paolo_Uccello_-_Stoning_of_St_Stephen_-_WGA23196For a variety of reasons (not the least of which is his Greek name!), we may assume that Stephen was himself a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian of Jerusalem.  It may seem somewhat strange that the first person we memorialize after the great feast of Christ’s birth is the first martyr [“witness”] of the New Covenant, but it’s not really a leap at all.  Christ came to us in the fullness of humanity, with special care and concern for those most in need.  Christ’s birth was proclaimed first to shepherds “living in the fields” — rough men, living in the open, not the expected recipients of angelic messages!  Then there were the wise men who came from outside the Jewish religious and cultural tradition.  Christ came to all people, and not just to some privileged religious class or group.

Perhaps this is the legacy of Stephen: as the first witness of the New Covenant, he proclaims the universal message of Christ with his very life, with a special concern for those “unexpected” recipients of God’s care and concern.

One of our most beloved “Christmas Carols” involves St. Stephen, and even before Christianity renewed a contemporary diaconate, the connection between Christ, Christmas, Stephen and the poor is made beautifully clear.  In “Good King Wenceslaus,” the saintly monarch connects Christ’s birth immediately to the care of the poor man.  I, for one, don’t find the fact that this takes place “on the feast of Stephen” to be accidental at all.

Christ comes for all; we serve all.  It’s not the end of the story, but the beginning.

So, in honor of one of our great patrons — as Christians and as Deacons — pray and sing along!

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even

Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel

When a poor man came in sight

Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence

Underneath the mountain

Right against the forest fence

By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine

Bring me pine logs hither

Thou and I will see him dine

When we bear him thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather

“Sire, the night is darker now

And the wind blows stronger

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, my good page

Tread thou in them boldly

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod

Where the snow lay dinted

Heat was in the very sod

Which the Saint had printed

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing.

wenceslas

And — Vinny’s Home!

Pirate VinnyA great Christmas present for the whole family.

Thanks to the prayers of so many, along with the great skills of loads of doctors, nurses, medical technicians: Vinny is now home and resting with his parents and younger brother and sister.

Can’t thank everyone enough for all of the prayers.

We’re hoping that ALL of our children and grandchildren get and stay healthy!

Merry Christmas!

banners_frase-para-NAVIDAD-EN large for blog

Now that our reflections on the “O Antiphons” are complete, and since the next couple of days will be rather busy with celebrations in the parish, I’m violating liturgical nicety by wishing everyone early Christmas blessings!  I am thankful to the Vatican News agency for the lovely picture and quote from Pope Francis:

Christmas should make us realize that, as God has become one of us, we too are called to become like God: humble, close to others, especially the poor. — Pope Francis

Merry Christmas!

 

“O Emmanuel”: God with All of Us

23 Dec O EmmanuelFrom Vespers, 23 December:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

While the original texts of most of the “O Antiphons” were in Latin, here’s one that’s even more ancient (although Latin appropriated it later!).  “Emmanuel” is a Hebrew word taken directly from the original text of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

As a teenager and young adult, I studied for eight years (high school and college)  in the seminary, discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood.  When I left the seminary after college, the military draft was still in place, and I was due to be drafted.  Believing that I might have more control over matters if I simply enlisted before I could be drafted, I joined the Navy.  No guarantees were made, and I had no idea where I might be sent after the conclusion of Basic Training. I was stunned and thrilled to find out that my first orders after boot camp were to go to Hebrew language school for a year; I was blessed to serve as a Hebrew linguist for the first couple of years in the Navy, largely on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.immanuel1 (2)

In language school, all of our instructors were native-born Israelis, known as sabra.  They quickly got us chatting away in modern Hebrew, and one of the topics they would ask involved answering the question, “What did you study in school?” (“Ma lamadita bevet sefer?”)   When I responded that I had studied Philosophy, they asked why.  I answered that I had been studying to become a priest.  From that moment on, every afternoon for at least one full hour, we began reading Biblical Hebrew.  What a great joy it was to be able to read the Hebrew scriptures in their original language!  One particular text we read was the prophet Isaiah, including the verse given above.  “Im [“with”] + “anu” [“us”] + “El” [“God”]: God with us!  (The Latin and English sometimes interchange the “I” for an “E”, so either “Immanuel” or “Emmanuel” is acceptable.) The original word order is somewhat interesting, with the word for God coming at the END of the phrase.  While word order is of differing significance in different languages, the fact that God is at the end of the phrase underscores the foundational importance of God to all that goes before.  We see the same thing in many Hebrew names: for example, Michael is “mi” [“who”] + “cha” [“like”] + “El” [“God”].  So, “Immanuel” becomes almost a cry of stunned realization: “With us, GOD!”

At the beginning of the third chapter of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns his attention to the nature of the Church. “The Church, as the agent of evangelization, is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God.  She is certainly a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary” (#111).  The relationship of the People with God always begins in God’s own initiative: “God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him” (#112).  So, the fact that we proclaim that God is with us flows from our realization that God has CHOSEN to be with us in every human condition and need.  We have not earned God’s presence, we have not somehow bargained God int it!  The covenant is always God’s initiative; as Love itself, God extends and provides for all creation.  “The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone.  God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age” (#113).

Francis-feet-drugs-poor-EPAThe implications of With-us-GOD are profound!  As we know, “possessing God” and then waiting for the rapture at the end of time are not Catholic concepts!  On the contrary, With-us-God “means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. . . .  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (#114).

ADVENT REFLECTION

One this final evening before the Vigil of Christmas, what is the practical, pastoral impact of the realization in our own lives that God has truly come to us and remains with us?  Am I, as an individual believer, and are we, as Church, a place where all people can find “mercy freely given”, universal welcome, love, forgiveness and encouragement?  Or, am I — are we — perceived as people of rules and judgments who tend to exclude rather than include?  This Christmas, as we celebrate the union and universal gift of God-for-all, may we re-dedicate ourselves to the liberating power of the joy of the Gospel!

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“O Rex Gentium”: A King with a Difference

22 Dec O Rex GentiumFrom Vespers, 22 December:

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

The Jewish people had always wanted a King, and in Isaiah, the prophet describes the coming Messiah as a King with a difference.  Consider:

 

  • “For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

 

  • “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Rex GentiumThe divine King of the Nations is not like any other monarch or political head of state.  He establishes a reign of peace, a world that no longer even LEARNS about war.  What a new way of thinking about things!  This “novus mentis habitus” had been sought by many recent church leaders, including all of our popes from John XXIII to Francis.  Pope Francis writes:

What is called for is an evangelization capable of shedding light on these new ways of relating to God, to others and to the world around us, and inspiring essential values.  It must reach the places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed, bringing the word of Jesus to the inmost soul of our cities (Evangelii Gaudium, #74).

As disciples of this new Messiah-King, we find ourselves in the midst of these new “narratives and paradigms.”  How can we best enter the story?

ADVENT REFLECTION

What new ways of relating to God am I being called to?  How are we nurturing that relationship?  Prayer, study, service?  What new ways of relating to others am I being called to?  And what new ways of relating to the world around us?  Where, specifically, in our communities, are these “new narratives and paradigms” being formed?  In our inner cities?  In agriculture, family farms and migrant worker camps?  On our campuses and businesses?  How do I share in forming those new narratives?

4 Advent Candles