Monday, December 31, 2012

On the Seventh Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

I attended a funeral today—the fourth one in six weeks.

The priest who celebrated the Mass read the following "Prayer for Dying" (based on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18) at the end of his homily:
"I know that my days are poured out from the cup; the time of my dissolution is at hand. But He who gave me my beginning is now at my ending; I have no fear.

"It is by His grace that I am bold to say: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. And I believe that the Lord, just judge that He is, will award me the crown of everlasting life.

"In that faith I have lived; in that faith I die, and I join all those who have longed for His coming—the Lord of glory in whose love is my peace."
This prayer meant for the end of a life seems also somehow appropriate for the end of a year. Read it again with that in mind.

The past 365—no, 366!—days did indeed "pour out." Not trickle, not leak, but pour. Can I say with sincerity on this eve of another year that I have "fought the good fight"? That I have "kept the faith"? Have I lived "in that faith"—a faith that has "no fear"?

What is "that faith"? Faith in what? In whom?

Faith in "He who gave me my beginning."

"He" is the one spoken of in the Gospel reading for this seventh day of Christmas, John 1:1-18:
"In the beginning was the Word.... He was in the beginning with God.... What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.... And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory ... full of grace and truth."
What came to be through Him was the life of the man—husband, father, son, brother, coworker, friend—memorialized today. He was a light to those he loved and who loved him.

What came to be through Him was my life, and yours. In the coming 365 days (or however many of them we each still have) may we be light to those we love and who love us. Light that "shines in the darkness," light that any darkness, now or yet to be, will not overcome (John 1:5).


On the Sixth Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

"After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions.... His mother said to him, 'Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.' And he said to them, 'Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?' "
—Luke 2:46-49

"Having someone to love is family. Having someplace to go is home."
—Tom McBroom

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

I have focused frequently on Jesus words in today's Gospel reading, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" because they are part of the scripture passage that is the source of the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.

Because I have repeated this question often in my mind and sometimes with my mouth, I often think of it when I am in fact in our Father's house, listening to Scripture being read, or listening to and participating in the words and movements of the liturgy. Indeed, I do feel drawn there, and I go much more often than the "required" Sunday attendance for that reason. In fact, there is no other place that I feel more at home, no other place where I feel more like I belong.

The psalm read during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass today, Psalm 84, expresses this feeling perfectly:
"How lovely is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord. My heart and flesh cry out for the living God. As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young, my home is by your altars, Lord of hosts, my king and my God!... Blessed the ones who find refuge in you, in their hearts are pilgrim roads. As they pass through ... they find spring water to drink.... They will go from strength to strength.... Better one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere. Better the threshold of the house of my God than a home in the tents of the wicked."

I am grateful that the Church provides for me—still merely a flesh and blood creature—not only a book in which I can read about this dwelling place, these "courts," and be moved to imagine eternity, but also a physical place, here and now, a space set apart and sacred, a refuge in which the body of Christ actually dwells and where I can experience a foretaste of heaven.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the Fifth Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

"Mediaeval actualities have a violence that does seem comic to our conventions. The Catholics of that age were driven by two dominant thoughts: the all-importance of penitence as an answer to sin, and the all-importance of vivid and evident external acts as a proof of penitence. Extravagant humiliation after extravagant pride for them restored the balance of sanity."

—G. K. Chesterton writing about St. Thomas Becket in A Short History of England

On December 29, the fifth day of Christmas, the Church commemorates St. Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury until his murder, in his own cathedral, on this date in the year 1170.

As I sought to learn more about this man, I discovered and watched the 1964 movie Becket, which stars Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as King Henry II. The movie ends with Henry receiving a lashing by monks in front of Becket's tomb, as a means of repenting publicly for his influence in the Archbishop's murder. Apparently this did indeed occur, soon after Becket was canonized as a martyr-saint.

It is virtually impossible to imagine a public figure doing public penance of any sort—much less a harsh physical penance, and a penance to satisfy the justice of God—in our time or in our country.

In fact, outside the Catholic Church (and of course the government's penal system), the idea that penance, especially any penance owed to God, is needed or worthwhile for anyone now seems to be largely ignored.

Something I'll have to consider more at another time....

Friday, December 28, 2012

On the Fourth Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

"God knows that what so many of us want at this moment is the chance once again to mother the beloved children whom we have lost."

Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., St. Rose of Lima Church, Newtown, CT, Dec. 23, 2012

Today the Church observes the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in remembrance of the murder of an unknown number of boys age two and under by King Herod after he heard about the birth of "the newborn king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2).

Of course this observance is more poignant than ever this year because of the gunning down of twenty children at an elementary school in Connecticut just a little more than a week before Christmas.

It has also long been a poignant remembrance for women who mourn the loss of their children to abortion, in a culture that mostly refuses to recognize the connection between Herod's massacre and our own ongoing murder spree, between the grief of the first-century mothers whose children were killed by Herod's soldiers and the grief of post-abortive mothers in our own century.

The Office of Readings for today's feast includes the following from a sermon by Saint Quodvultdeus, a fifth-century bishop: "You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself." Quodvultdeus was speaking of Herod, but whether consciously and acknowledged or not, women have abortions because, for one reason or another, we (or someone who coerces us) are afraid, like Herod, of a baby.

Today's Gospel reading ends by quoting Jeremiah 31:15: "A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more." Fr. Cameron, in his homily to parishioners of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown on the Sunday before Christmas, offered sentences with similar sentiments from the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross:
Why, since You wounded
This heart, don’t You heal it?
And why, since You stole it from me,
Do You leave it so....
Extinguish these miseries,
Since no one else can stamp them out.
Yes! My own heart cries out like this sometimes, for my child, and for other (though less innocent) loved ones who are no longer present. But like the Psalms, which always end with hope and praise, and like the Gospels, which end not with Jesus' death but with His resurrection, and the promise of ours, St. John's Canticle continues:
And may my eyes behold You,
Because You are their light,
And I would open them to You alone.
Fr. Cameron too ended his homily to his stricken community—who, after all, came—with hope, expressed to the Mother of our Lord, "Tell Him whom we love most … that we sicken, suffer, and die. But we do not despair! Because you come to visit us … and we leap with joy in our darkness to receive the Communion of love who is the Fruit of your womb."


On the Third Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

"True religion is caring for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). Joseph made a choice to put that true religion into practice when he decided to care for and protect Mary and her son, Jesus." (Anna Higgins)
"Seeing his closest friend die on the Cross was certainly the most painful experience of his life. He and Mary were suited to care for each other because they shared in the same suffering. They had both lost their greatest and most perfect Love." (Br. Bonaventure Chapman, O.P.)
"The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him." (Genesis 2:18)
On Thursday, the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, who is said to be the author of the Fourth Gospel, the three Epistles of John, and the Apocalypse, or Revelation.

John is also one of two men (besides her father) who consented to care for the woman God chose to be Jesus' mother—which means, I think, that it is also not good for a woman (not even the woman sometimes referred to as "the Mother of God") to be alone, and that a woman too needs a "helper."

Mary conceived her son without the help of a man and "by the power of the Holy Spirit" (according to a 1973 translation of the seventeen hundred year old Nicene Creed). What sort of help did she need from a man? And what sort of men did God provide?

According to the Bible, Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus; according to Church Tradition, she remained a virgin for the rest of her life on earth. This means that her husband, Joseph, was also chaste. And John? According to Tradition, he too was a lifelong virgin, and nothing in Scripture disputes that teaching.

These sex-free relationships were, even in Jesus' time, as they certainly would be in ours, countercultural. Yet, in terms of love, they lacked nothing and fostered much.

What effect, I wonder, did the celibate love that Joseph lived out for Mary and Jesus have on our Lord's ability to "advance in wisdom and age and favor before God and man" (Luke 2:51-52)? Luke's Gospel tells us that Jesus' growth and development were the result of his obedience, not just to his much-discussed and honored mother, but to "them," meaning both Mary and Joseph.

And how important was the celibate love between John and Mary to John's poetic Gospel and to his beautiful, challenging letters? Did it help him to write this:
"What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ." (1 John 1:1-3)
The "we" and "us" in this passage must of course have included Mary.

"Whoever claims to abide in him," meaning Jesus, writes John in 1 John 2, "ought to live just as he lived." In 1 John 3 he continues, "What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure." As Jesus is pure, as His mother is pure, as John himself is pure. For many more than understand and practice it, this means living, and loving, just as Mary and Joseph did, as Mary and John did.

For women who have discerned this need, may God provide as He did for the mother of His Son.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On the Second Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

"As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' "
—Acts 7:59

It is the second day of the Church's twelve-day celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and today the Church recalls a death, and a brutal one at that.

Stephen is described in Acts 6:5 as "a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit." Because he was "filled with grace and power," Stephen was able to work "great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8).

Yet despite the evidence and goodness of his deeds, some witnesses argued with him, and when they couldn't find fault with him over the truth (because he spoke with "wisdom and the spirit," Acts 6:12), they lied about him to the religious authorities. The Sanhedrin—sort of the Jewish Supreme Court—could see the innocence in Stephen's face when they asked him whether the charges being brought against him were true.

Stephen made it clear that he knew the history of his people and their relationship with God. "You stiff-necked people," he concluded, "you are just like your ancestors, who put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one," for now they had become the "betrayers and murderers" of the righteous one Himself.

Stephen was murdered for his insight. Yet his final words before he "fell asleep" were these: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60).

Stephen's last two utterances echo two of the last seven phrases that Jesus spoke as he was dying on the Cross. This was a man who exhibited, as I wrote yesterday, "the qualities" that Jesus "will call us to imitate as we follow him, carrying our cross."

Why focus on a story like this during a season of "comfort and joy"? Why not wait until at least after the Wise Men have visited the newborn baby?

In my own life, I find the answer to this question in another death. In the middle of Christmas afternoon, a man named Dave, the 66-year-old brother of a dear friend (a woman named Mary who is married to a man named Joseph), "went home to Jesus," as her text message later that afternoon told me. He'd stood up to cancer on and off for five years; his death, while not as brutal as Stephen's in its final moments, was nevertheless not the kind of departure that he or his family and friends would have chosen if they could have.

Before they threw him out of the city and started stoning him, Stephen cried out, "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Stephen saw Jesus waiting for him in the place to which he was about to go—the place to which Dave, also a man of faith, went on Christmas afternoon.

It is because of the faith of Stephen, and of countless numbers of Christian martyrs since Stephen, that Dave received the Good News about Jesus that Stephen preached and for which Stephen died. The Christmas season began with the birth of a baby, but the reason we celebrate that birth at all is so that we can understand the significance of Stephen's life, death, and last words, and the confidence that Dave's family has because of Dave's faith and their own.

In an e-mail to the many friends who had been praying for Dave, Mary wrote the following (which I share here with her permission):
"One Christmas song that stands out in my mind from my childhood pertaining to my brother Dave is 'I'll Be Home For Christmas.' He was in the air force when I was a little girl—we are 12 years apart—and I missed him terribly. There was one Christmas when he couldn't come home. I cried every time I heard that song played but now he truly has gone 'Home for Christmas' and that song has new found meaning for me."
Here's to you Mary. Here's to you, Dave.

Until you meet again.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On the First Day of Christmas My True Love Said to Me....

"He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him."
—John 1:10-11 NAB

"The plan and purpose of God would be accomplished through weakness—through human limitation, through dependency—through an infant who was as vulnerable to disaster as any human being who ever lived. This, indeed, is scandal. It overthrows everything we ever thought about God."
—Ann Spangler, from A Miracle a Day, 1996, Zondervan

Weakness. Limitation. Dependency. Vulnerable. Scandal.

These are not words that anyone uses to describe God. We don't say God is weak. We don't say God is limited. We don't say God is dependent, or vulnerable. Indeed, to say such things would be scandalous, blasphemous.

Actually, we don't like these words, or what they represent, at all. We certainly don't want them applied to ourselves, and when we apply them to others, it is not out of respect or admiration. Weakness, limitation, dependency, and vulnerability are not qualities to be desired, nor are they to be tolerated, at least not for long, not permanently.

Yet Jesus—the Only Begotten Son of God—comes to us—is conceived and born to us—weak, limited, dependent, and vulnerable. And He will live out his life and die exhibiting the same qualities—the qualities He will call us to imitate as we follow him, carrying our cross.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

"I Know How That Sun Feels . . . Waiting for the Light to Show Up"

Yesterday, Saturday, December 22, 2012, Abby D. at Surviving Our Blessings posted a piece about the impact that the Sandy Hook shooting has had on her experience of the final week of this year's Advent season. She wrote:
"I think of my sister, whose pale Alaskan sun sets early in the afternoon this time of year; after a weak attempt at climbing partway up the sky, it gives up and drops quickly back below the horizon again.

"I think I know how that sun feels.

"...The scope of this tragedy, the enormous weight carried by the families who have lost a child, dwarfs my capacity to say anything helpful. My words are raindrops in a hurricane. There's nothing I can say that hasn't been said ... and the storm of words is so deafening, there's almost no point in speaking, anyway."
Almost no point, dear Abby, but not absolutely no point. I, for one, am grateful that you have spoken "anyway." What you have written is light to me on this almost-darkest day before the dawn, at what I pray is the end of a season in which I have felt mostly "too weak to shine."
"We cannot proclaim the limitlessness and omnipotence of God in one breath and then say that God has abandoned us in the next breath....

"God does not need our permission to exist or to be present and is there whether we confess belief in God's existence or not. God is at school and in jail and in Wal-mart and wherever else we can imagine and in all the places we can't imagine. It is not up to us....

"God wants so badly to be with us that God Incarnate came to earth to do just that. To be with us.... If being with us is that important, maybe we ought to pay more attention to being with each other....

"Tending little lights may feel small to me now. But only the presence of little lights—hundreds, thousands, millions of them—can push back the darkness....

"...when we forget about our light or we're too weak to shine, we can hold it out for each other. God's still God. Jesus is still going to be born. We just have to keep watch, to sit together as we wait for the light to show up."
Thank you, dear Abby.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Waiting in Silence, Waiting in Hope

"Waiting in silence, waiting in hope;
We are your people, Lord, we seek your truth.
Wisdom Incarnate, teach us your way;
Show us the path of life, Maranatha!"


Text and music © 2002 by Carey Landry.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Salvation Rested: An Advent Poem by Janice Russoniello

Several days ago I posted here some thoughts on the meaning of Advent:
"We should be speaking of him and experiencing him as already here, already growing within us.... A prenatal child grows under his mother's heart. Her body nurtures him; she feels his growth and movements. When he is born, then she can hand him to others to hold. Then she can share him. Advent, then, is about being pregnant with Jesus...."
In response to these thoughts, a friend sent me a beautiful, perfectly fitting poem she wrote in 2008 "at Adoration while I was meditating on Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was one of those moments when you feel flooded and simply must write down what comes into your head." I asked Janice for permission to share her poem here, and she graciously said yes!

Before sharing the poem, however, I want to tell you a tiny bit about the poet. Janice Russoniello is a member of St. John Neumann Parish in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She and her husband are the parents of nine children, six girls and three boys, ages eight to twenty-five. On December 16 of the year in which the poem was written, their twenty-year-old daughter Liz died after a cluster of arteriovenous malformations in her brain ruptured. The poem is only one of "an abundance of consolations" that Janice received in the months prior to her daughter's departure. "I believe," she told me, "God gave me so much that year in preparation for what was to come."

For example, Janice was also inspired in 2008 to start the Little Society of St. Rita, "a prayer group for girls in middle school and high school (although everyone is welcome!) under the patronage of St. Rita of Cascia. I wasn't sure anyone would be interested in this group, but we have four families that attend each month, with eleven girls (including my three youngest daughters), four moms, one grandma, and a friend of mine who helps out."

It is no surprise to me that the following poem would come from the heart of this mother of great, faith-filled joy and sorrow.
Salvation Rested
by Janice Russoniello

Salvation rested beneath her ribs
Heard the beating of her heart
Moved within her
Drew life from her life
Found comfort in her voice
Understood her sweet ponderings

She carried Salvation within her
Salvation hidden
Perfect Love resting in perfect love
Within His Own creation

Salvation rested within her arms
Pressed His head against her heart
Was nourished at her breast
Experienced her gentle caress
Gazed with wide-eyed wonder
Into the eyes of His masterpiece

She carried Salvation on her hip
Salvation hidden
Perfect Love cradled by perfect love
Within the embrace of His Own creation

Salvation rested within her eyes
Sought her face among the many
Longed for her to be near
Found strength in her surrender
And solace in her love
Needed His Own tender mother
Creator leaning on creation

Salvation rested within her gaze
Salvation hidden
Perfect Love supported by perfect love
Within the eyes of His Own creation

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Season of Advent: What Are You Waiting for?

"How counter cultural is our faith! When the world encourages us to use the 'holiday season' to be excessive in consuming/spending/drinking/eating, the Church says 'take this time for every heart to prepare Him room.'"
This morning I watched the following video on YouTube:

"What is Advent? Christmas trees? Shopping? Rushing? Parties? 2013 New Year?

"Advent is a time to stop. A time to wait. But what are we waiting for? Santa Claus? Family gatherings? Christmas Mass? Shopping sales? Gifts? New Years parties? Holidays?

"We are waiting for a child born into poverty. We are waiting for a child who will save the world. Just as Mary waited for Jesus to arrive into the world, we must also await his arrival. Is your heart ready?

"What is Advent? A time to re-live the Christmas story. A time to welcome Jesus into your heart. A time to change."
On this second day of the 2012 Advent season, I would like to suggest that the Church take its response to the secular "holiday season" even further than this.

For example, because language is so powerful and so vulnerable to being misunderstood, misleading, and misused, I think the following sentence should be reconsidered:
"Just as Mary waited for Jesus to arrive into the world, we must also await his arrival."
The mistake in this sentence is that Jesus was already in the world before his birth. He had been in the world since his conception, since his mother's "Yes!" to the Annunciation of the angel. It was at that moment, not on the day of Jesus' birth, that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). The Catholic Church (too quietly) acknowledges this event on March 25th.

In a world that is more callous than ever toward prenatal life, the Church needs to call attention, loudly and clearly, to this distinction. Instead of saying, "we must also await his arrival," we should be speaking of him and experiencing him as already here, already growing within us.

His birth, then, would, or should, take on the same meaning as the birth of any other child. A prenatal child grows under his mother's heart. Her body nurtures him; she feels his growth and movements. When he is born, then she can hand him to others to hold. Then she can share him.

Advent, then, is about being pregnant with Jesus, about already carrying Him under our hearts and nurturing his growth within us. And Christmas is about sharing him with each other.