The Holy Family: Teaching Jesus

The Sunday after Christmas we celebrate the feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Christmas is not a day, but a season.  During the season, we celebrate that God has become human from different angles. Christmas really is a celebration of Jesus’ divine humanity.

As any other human being, Jesus was born in a family and as the text says, he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Jesus had to learn, and grow, like any of us. Interesting how many church people would have a problem with that statement.

It is very clear in the gospels that Jesus had to learn, first of all about who he was, what he meant, his mission and the scope of that mission. There are turning points in his life, as we have reflected about before, when he re-shapes, widens his scope, acquires a new understanding. Truly human, he had to learn a trade—he will be known as the carpenter’s son—and there is increasing agreement among scholars that he had to receive some schooling as a rabbi to be allowed to stand up in the synagogue and read the scrolls and preach about them.

His temperament had to be shaped by Mary and Joseph during the childhood years we know so very little about. All the traits that he showed as an adult—his fairness, his practical wisdom, his basic relationship with the Father, his concern for the marginalized, even his storytelling skills he had to learn from Mary and Joseph. We celebrate the holiness of this family that taught Jesus well, and this celebration becomes a prayer that our families will be holy as the Holy Family. I pray especially that our families will be holy in educating children, our future, in the values of the gospel, in generosity and concern for others, especially those most in need.

Probably this will end up being the homily, but I saw something else that I am still thinking about, something that caught my attention in the gospel (perhaps you can help me to polish it with your comments.) Here it goes:

There is something else in the text that Mary, Joseph and Jesus himself had to learn. Simeon, speaking in the guise of a prophet, says of Jesus that he will be “light for revelation to the Gentiles,” but also a “sign that will be contradicted.” To be light and to be sign of contradiction are two very different things.

I live this tension in my own ministry, between being light—encouraging, supporting, uplifting people, giving direction, even as lost as I feel sometimes myself—and being sign of contradiction—the prophetic call to point at shortcomings, lack of deep faith… A tension between conveying the love of God, the joy of faith and life, and the necessary criticism—including self-criticism—of a pastor. Jesus had to learn the art of the balance. Yes, clearly, to some he was always sign of contradiction, especially with the self-righteous, those who had the power and used it to oppress. But for instance, with the disciples, he was at times tender light, and at times sharp sign of contradiction.

Perhaps this part has little to do with the Holy Family celebration. Should I just not include it in the homily? Would you? Or perhaps you can think of some way to include it? Comment, or email me in private if you wish, but I am asking you to help this time.

Blog Pic, Holy FamilyMerry_Christmas

 

 

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Christmas: The Celebration of God’s Empathy

I have to admit that the celebration of Christmas produces some anxiety in me. On the one hand, I want to be calm and help my people celebrate well, but everything about Christmas has been said a million times, we are so familiar with the readings at Mass and with the story… Also, Christmas requires some quietness, a certain calm state of mind and spirit, and what most of us have been living lately is total chaos—gifts, Christmas gatherings of all kinds, traveling… and family. If yours is like mine, nothing quiet there!

I admit that what I always try to do is to bring newness to the way we reflect about the gospel and about our faith. Find new language, new words to help us get to the core of what we believe. Pull new meaning out of something we seem to know too well. This is what I will do today–in the blog and at Mass. I want to reflect about Christmas as the Celebration of God’s Empathy. And here it goes:

At Christmas, God becomes human. God deeply wishes to embrace the human experience and becomes one like us. Christmas is the celebration of God’s empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand reality the way another person experiences it. To exercise the gift of empathy means to be able to walk in the other person’s shoes and understand and share that person’s view, and feelings, without judging. Empathy requires our own ability to be open to our own emotions. It requires a learning, and constant practice. I believe it is a wonderful way to reflect about Christmas: God deeply desires to share the great human adventure with us. God becomes human in radical openness to us and to our emotions. God embraces my struggles and joys, my sadness and my hope. Christmas is the celebration of God’s empathy.

Any liturgical celebration comes with a call, a mission attached to it. We contemplate and celebrate the mystery of the Nativity, at the same time that we embrace the call to empathy. If God has become human as an act of absolute empathy towards us, we also are called to become more human ourselves–the more human we become, the more we will be like God. We become more human when we are able be empathetic to others. We are called to understand, rather than to judge; we are called to share in joys and anxieties, rather than undermine other’s experiences; we are called to listen and communicate, the way God listens and communicates with us—as He so wonderfully does today.

God exercises empathy with passion. Christmas shows us the nature of our passionate God. At the Christmas Midnight Mass we will read Paul’s letter to Titus, where it says that God has delivered us, to “cleanse a people as his own, passionate to do what is good.” We are invited to be people of empathy with the same passion God shows empathy in the mystery of the Nativity—which is the same passion with which Jesus—the God made human—will live the rest of his life.

May you and your families have a Blessed Christmas. May it be an opportunity for all of us to become more human, sharing in God’s empathy towards us. Christmas is a beginning, let it start for us.

Christmas Theme

 

Advent IV: Pondering Angels, Plans, and Invitations

If Advent began in the desert, it will end in a house, with the amazing, world-changing dialogue between a young woman and an angel, a messenger of God. If in the silence of the Advent desert we found a way to listen to God, perhaps we have seen more clearly that God has a plan for each and every one of us. Today we witness the explanation of God’s plan to Mary, her mission.

In the desert we heard the message of John, that he would bring a baptism of water and cleansing, but that Jesus would bring a baptism of Holy Spirit, which is a baptism of mission. One way to get ready for Christmas in these last days of Advent is to reflect about God’s plan for us, our mission—knowing that God has a plan for each and every one of us. Will we say “yes” to God’s plan as profoundly and as thoroughly as Mary did?

We can learn a lot from this Sunday’s gospel on how to reflect about God’s plan. First, we see that God has a plan, and within that plan there are numberless, constant invitations that take us in the direction of that plan. As we see in this Sunday’s gospel, the angel proposes to Mary God’s plan for her, and immediately she invites her to attend to Elizabeth’s needs. Embracing her vocation to be the Mother of Jesus came together with answering to the invitation to service. All during her life, Mary will get many more invitations within the larger plan.

Perhaps Advent also has given us the opportunity to look at our past, and we may have been able to see a sketch of a plan, and some of the invitations. To many we said “no,” but God kept issuing them; to some we said yes, and we became fathers and mothers; we became friends; husbands and wives; sons and daughters; and we embraced our mission on earth.

Second, God’s plan is conveyed to Mary through an angel. The word angel in Greek (angelos) means “messenger.” Without trying to be controversial in terms of Catholic teaching on angels, I believe especially in angels that do not have wings. People, friends and strangers alike, who have become bearers of God’s plan and invitations to me. People who tell me when I go astray, when something gets the best of me, when I am not doing or saying what is best to do or say.

Finally, we can learn from the subtle verb the text uses to describe what Mary does in today’s gospel, a verb that will be used again in the gospel when referring to the Mother of Jesus: Mary ponders. The verb caught my attention and I went to the dictionary to know exactly what it meant: “to think about something carefully, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion. To consider something deeply and thoroughly.”

Most of us do not even think. We just let events take place and we do not reflect about them, when they are the way in which God communicates with us. Many of us make decisions or reach conclusions and only afterwards, we think about them. But to discern God’s plans and invitations to us we have ponder, like Mary did: to consider things, events and issues, deeply and thoroughly.

Do we know God’s plan for us? Do we believe in angels? Have we experienced them? Do we ponder, the way Mary did, about life and faith?

Blog Pic, Advent IV

 

In the Desert, change (3rd Week in Advent)

If last week we focused on a theological location, the Desert, now we focus on the character, John the Baptist. Both gospel texts, last week from Mark and this week from John, have him as the precursor of Jesus. We know that all four gospels describe John as the summary of all the prophetic tradition.

Before we focus on the Baptist, we have to realize that often we look more like John’s disciples than Jesus’ disciples. And it is not that John does not make that same point, he clearly states he is not the one to be followed. Why would we say that we look more like John’s disciples than Jesus? For the same reasons that we often seem Old Testament people more than New Testament people. For the same reasons that—as we have discussed a number of times already—we follow the Ten Commandments closer than we are willing to follow The Beatitudes.

For many, the Church is just a spiritual washing machine: the Church is there to tell us what is right and what is wrong, and then provide the mechanisms (mainly, the Sacrament of Penance) to clean us up. But this is just part of what we do. The Church exists to give us community, inspiration and direction on a very specific mission, the building of the Kingdom of God in the here and the now (this is why John says that his baptism is one of water—cleansing, but Jesus will bring a baptism of Holy Spirit—mission.)

All this said, in Advent, John’s message of repentance—in Greek, metanoia, which means change—needs to be heard by us. What are the sins—or obstacles—we place in allowing Christ to come into our lives? As I try to do what I preach, this Advent I am reviewing my life, and I can tell you about four issues or areas of my life which need that kind of change, and I suggest we reflect about these or the obstacles you may find yourselves:

(1) I need more prayer: less worries (as we have said before, a dialogue with ourselves about things we cannot control instead of a dialogue with God about the things He controls), less whining, and more prayer. And, particularly, I stress the need for silent prayer, the prayer of the desert, which is the most Advent-like. A prayer in which our words and thoughts do not keep us from listening to what God has to tell us.

(2) As John was a prophet, I also need to work on my prophetic dimension. Prophets were good at seeing and diagnosing the problems of the present—and we are generally very good about that. But prophets did not stop there, but were able to dream, envision and work for a better future. It is called hope—based on the present, projected towards the belief that a better future is, indeed, possible.

(3) Forgiveness: how many times have we reflected about that? How many times does Jesus speak about it? Forgive always, no matter what (and the one forgiving gets the best part of the deal!) But I need real, authentic forgiveness. Not the forgiveness of, “Yes, I forgive this person, but I will never ever talk to him again!” Not the forgiveness of “forgive but not forget”—I have heard it before and I am beginning to think that’s not real forgiveness.

(4) Because we are celebrating Gaudete Sunday (literally, Rejoice! Sunday) I am reminded that I need more joy in my life. As we reflected not so long ago, joy is a choice we make. We all have very good reasons to be sad; we all have been wronged; we all experience certain degrees of depression…but again, joy is a choice I make. A choice based on thankfulness. When I realize that everything I have is a gift, when my sense of entitlement disappears, then joy finds a way to creep in.

What do you think about these four areas? Do you find different obstacles to the coming of Jesus in your life?

Blog Pic, John the Baptist

Advent II: An Invitation to the Desert

[By popular request, really one person–thank you Fr. Juan Manuel, the blog comes back to ‘before the weekend’]

The gospel for the Second Week of the beautiful season of Advent (Mark 1:1-8) takes us to a very significant place. We read the beginning of Mark’s gospel—a gospel we read this liturgical year—a gospel that begins in the Desert (which I am writing with capital d.) The Good News does not begin in the Temple, or in any other center of power and notoriety, but in a place where there is nothing.

The desert also echoes the experience of a People—our ancestors—who wandered through it for a whole generation before reaching the Promised Land. Our Promised Land is Jesus Christ, and Advent takes us to the desert to teach us that we have to start our pilgrimage to encounter the Jesus of Christmas precisely there.

The desert was the place where the discontent went, as well. It was the refuge for those who were in disagreement with the way society worked. We focus on one of them, John the Baptist, whom we will talk about next week (but allow us to advance that, in short, John is not Jesus, and we often look more like disciples of John than disciples of Jesus.)

Advent finds us before the desert. Advent finds us in a place where there are many valleys to level, many paths to make straight. The task in this Second Week of Advent is to look at ourselves and at our closest reality and see how much it does not resemble the desert. There is so much noise, so much unhealthy interaction, so many worries, so little prayer; in summary, so many bumps—a whole mass of total distraction. We can begin—as always—by  looking at our relationships; then we can check our habits; even the physical state of our spaces (while I write this, I look at my room or my office, too much stuff everywhere.) In that area, I do need a lot of emptying, even physical, that will become a symbol of the spiritual emptying necessary to take the road to the desert.

If Christmas is going to mean anything this time around, we have to quickly find ourselves on the road to the desert. It is another of the invitations of Advent. A simple, but challenging one. In the emptiness of the desert, Jesus may find space to come and influence us.

What will you do, desert-wise, this Advent? (Please, use the comments to reply, it is not a rhetorical question.)

Blog Pic, Advent II (Desert)

Advent I: The Prophetic Wait

We begin the beautiful season of Advent with a gospel which calls us to be watchful (Mark 13:33-37.) How many times have we discussed the connection between the way we live our life and the way we live our faith; but Advent may be the time of the year where these two areas of our lives depart the most from each other. Advent calls for a time of reflection, requiring a certain slowing down… but during these weeks approaching Christmas, we seldom have time to pause and reflect. As much as we may try, this is one of the busiest times of the year for anybody. How do we live the spirit of Advent in the midst of the hectic activities of these weeks?

Sunday’s line, “You do not know the time,” and its many variations often has been interpreted in terms of preparedness for death—and we discussed preparedness for death when we reflected about the celebration of All Souls. However, this holy preparedness should be understood as an attitude of constant attention to recognizing the presence of Jesus in our lives. Now, one of the beauties of the liturgical calendar is our sense of season: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time… each season emphasizes a different attitude, a different dimension of our faith. Each season also identifies with a different dimension of Christ: reflecting about the Risen Christ of Easter may not be the same, spiritually, as searching for Christ in Lent. What is special about the Christ in Advent?

I believe the emphasis in Advent is precisely the absence of Christ. The season helps us reflect on the situations were Christ seems absent. We read the prophets during this season precisely because they denounced the absence of the Holy at the same time that they dreamed and proclaimed the promise of a better future.

Advent is the season of waiting, but not an idle waiting. Advent is an invitation to look at ourselves and at the world around us and to see how much we lack Jesus, how much we and the world around us lack Jesus’ values. To learn to know ourselves and read reality the way the prophets did takes time. Advent is, as we have said about so many things, a process, a pilgrimage, a school in the art of prophetic waiting.

Blog Pic, Advent I