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Saturday, 25 December 2010

The Holy Family (A)  

(Ecclesiasticus 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)

Today’s readings are concerned, as we should expect, with human relationships, particularly those of family life.  In our modern society, where parental responsibility is, at times, notably and tragically lacking, there is a marked tendency for the government and society in general to “take over” from parents, and a corresponding tendency to give children rights against their parents.  This political support of, and encouragement for, children against their parents, has no parallel in the Bible.
There, children have rights indeed, and Jesus Himself tells us to reverence and respect them:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven. (Matt 18:10)
 St. Paul tells his converts in the Church at Corinth (2 Cor 12:14) that:
Here for this third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be a burden to you; for I do not seek what is yours, but you; for children are not responsible to save up for (their) parents, but parents for (their) children.
The Scriptures are not ignorant of the abusive behaviour of some parents but, notwithstanding those failings of the few, hold firmly to the best teaching and only model for the wholesome upbringing of the many, as you heard in the first reading:
The Lord honours the father in his children, and upholds the rights of a mother over her sons.  Whoever respects his father is atoning for his sins; he who honours his mother is like someone amassing a fortune.
We read in the Gospel how God Himself dealt with His Son as a human child.  The Father in heaven did not by-pass Mary and Joseph to communicate directly to the Infant, nor even to the young boy Jesus.  The heavenly Father spoke to Joseph and to Mary: they were the ones who would tell the Child and the Boy what to do and how to behave; they were the instruments of God for the Child, even though the Child was God’s own Son.  Consequently we can easily recognize the Christian attitude and teaching as regards parenthood: it is an honour and a privilege to be a Christian parent, it is a position of authority and also a position of responsibility; authority given by God and responsibility before God.  In all that is good, for the spiritual and the human good (both physical and psychological) of the child, the parents have a God-given authority and also a God-given backing: they do not need to have degrees in child psychology, nor certificates in human and social studies; seeking sincerely the good of their child, in favour with God and man (as the Scriptures say of Jesus), they will be guided by God in all the normal situations of life, and even in the extraordinary circumstances where no human help can be found.  No Social Services, no child experts, can supply for God-given parents, and no legislation should be allowed which insinuates otherwise, nor should parents themselves ever begin to doubt their own special grace for bringing up their child as a child of God and as a positive and helpful member of society.
Parents, being aware of their position of authority and responsibility, should be ever on the watch to help each other in the acceptance and fulfilment of that position.  You will recall how Mary, the mother, spoke to her Child when He had been lost for three days:
And when they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you." (Luke 2:48)
Mary was concerned, first of all, for Joseph’s authority; she wanted first of all to remind her Child of the respect He owed Joseph:
His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you."
“Your father and I”, that was the order of concern for Mary: Joseph’s position first, her own, second.  That is a model for all parents, for the Christian husband should have as his first concern that his child should love its mother; whilst the mother, like Mary, should always first teach and inculcate the child’s obedience to and respect for the father.
Finally, today, Christian parents should recognize that they, together, are the  basis and foundation for the well being -- spiritual, psychological and physical -- of their children; consequently they should pay close attention to the words of our second reading today.  On no account should they ever allow their child to separate them, for the good of the child they should come first for each other:
And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.  And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.   (Col. 3:12-15)
Remember also those other words of St. Paul:
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them.
Those are not words of domination but of co-operation for the good of the children, the words mean what I have already explained and what Mary has already shown: that the wife should be concerned that her children respect and obey their father, and she should give them an example of that attitude; and that the father, in his turn, must insist that his children follow his example in loving their mother.  It is on that firm and solid foundation that the other words of Paul will be fulfilled:
Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord. (Col. 3:20)
In this respect we can discover the particular reason for Joseph’s position in the Holy Family.  Joseph was not the physical father of Mary’s child and it might seem, for that very reason, that he could never be really essential for the coherence and establishment of that family.  He was legally necessary for Jesus’ Messianic descent from King David, and he was physically necessary to protect the Child and His mother especially to save them from Herod’s persecution.  But, since it was Mary who -- having given, exclusively from the human standpoint, both body and blood to the Child -- would then be largely responsible for the mental and spiritual formation of His human character, wasn’t Joseph therefore, for the essentials, somewhat superfluous, supernumerary?  
By no means, for here we touch on the supreme contribution of St. Joseph to Jesus’ human make-up – not just for His protection and upkeep, His health and security – but indeed for His make-up as a human-being, and above all, as Son-in- human-flesh before His heavenly Father.  For Jesus, as man, had to learn about God, to recognize and respond to, His heavenly Father through the understanding and awareness of His human mind, and the experience and sensitivity of His human heart; and in order to do this He had first to learn what ‘father’ meant for Him as a child, a son, in a human family,  above all, He needed to learn not simply what the word ‘father’ meant, but  what was to be expected of a father and how a true child should relate to its true father.   As a child at Mary’s feet -- in her constant company and under her watchful guidance -- He would read and learn, love and appreciate, the Scriptures speaking of God’s love of and concern for, Israel His child, and in the synagogue He would learn to respond as an Israelite to such a God and Father.  However, at home, He would learn to respond as an individual person to a human father through His Personal experience of Joseph’s individual presentation of fatherhood, and also from observing His mother Mary in her own attitude and response to Joseph as father in the family.   Initially, such experiences would be very influential in helping the Child relate to the Heavenly Father -- uniquely His own true Father -- speaking to Him through the Scriptures, hearing and responding to Him in His life of human prayer and worship.   Joseph would thus, initially, be supremely important for what was of supreme importance in Jesus’ life: promoting and guiding His initial sensitivity and responsiveness to, His growing appreciation and love for, His heavenly Father.
People of God, we should all recognize that the Scriptures do not offer mere options for our consideration, options that we can ignore or reject as the fancy takes us; nor is the Spirit of the Scriptures subject to the spirit of modern times.  Holy Scripture, with its example of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, gives us divine and authoritative guidance together with the promise of sustaining grace and strength.   We can indeed ignore it, we can reject it, because God has made us free; but we cannot do those things without cost, and most certainly, we will never be able to find better guidance, strength, or fulfilment from the prevalent ideas of currently acceptable worldly wisdom, the lurid examples of many news-making lights in today’s decadent society, or again, the preferred easy options of the many whose main aims are earthly pleasure and plenty, and conformity with the prevalent attitude of current society.

Midnight Mass, Christmas

(Isaiah 9:1-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14)

The angel said, "Do not be afraid; I bring you good news, news of great joy  for the whole nation.  Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer – the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger."
Let us think a little on those words: ‘This will be a sign for you: a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.’
What might that infant signify?  What would strike you about such a baby?     What could there be in the baby itself so impressive that it could serve as a sign for the shepherds and for us?
Now there could well be some difference in the order of precedence but I think all of us will agree – on consideration -- that a baby speaks to us about new life and new beginning; again, an infant is so helpless and vulnerable, and yet, nevertheless, exudes a mysteriously protective and literally disarming innocence.  Finally, an infant is wrapped, so to speak, not merely in swaddling clothes, but in an all-embracing beauty somehow independent of its individual features.
In a baby, then, we see new life, a new beginning in life, and in this respect the Babe of Bethlehem was supremely significant, because the Son of God became the Infant Jesus in order to bring new life to the human race, in order to offer sinful men and women a new beginning.  Jesus is our deliverer, our saviour, because He comes to free us from the power of sin and the fear of death: He offers new life, divine life, to all those who are aware of the abiding emptiness of worldly glory and the ultimate frustration of human attempts at self-justification, and who, believing in the Good News, commit themselves to Jesus by faith; and subsequently hope -- by the power of His Spirit -- to live and die with Him for the glory of Father.  And, by thus embracing the Gospel of Jesus and accepting the Gift of His Spirit through the ministry of Mother Church, there are many who have come to experience and recognise -- in the hitherto unsounded depths of their human nature – an echo, so to speak, instinctively resonating with and corresponding to this new beginning and thereby testifying that the divine life of ultimate and eternal fulfilment is indeed stirring within them.
There are, of course, others who would seek new life only in order to know again certain aspects of the death-streaked life of ordinary earthly experience, or to enjoy once more the taste and tang of sins committed earlier, sins in which they are no longer able to indulge, perhaps, because of age and infirmity.  For people with such restricted or perverted horizons there is no possibility of new, or renewed, life; their bodies will perish and they too will perish with them, not, as they might fondly hope, into silent and peaceful oblivion, but into the punishment of eternal loss.
An infant is characterized also by its innocence, and in this respect too, the Child of Bethlehem was a sign for the shepherds as He is for us, because Jesus comes to free us from the disfiguring and destructive power of sin.  The Christ Child stirs up in many a vague, perhaps even reluctant, awareness that they have failed to live up to their conscience, that they have tarnished the best in themselves, that they have too often betrayed that which was worthwhile and true, and lived – devoted themselves -- to things now seen as more or less unworthy, more or less, indeed, degrading.  For such people, contemplation of the Babe in the manger at Christmas stirs thoughts, brings back memories, and causes emotions both bitter and sweet.  Such experiences, though perhaps painful, are, nonetheless, worthy of Christmas; for the Infant Jesus is a continual reminder from God the Father that in Him – the Jesus Who is Emmanuel, that is, ever abiding with us and in us thanks to the Church -- there is not only a real possibility of, and opportunity for, a new beginning of innocence, but also the offer of an accompanying wisdom and power that will protect, strengthen, and bring such a beginning to fulfilment, if we will but sincerely turn back to Him, humbly take His yoke upon us, and perseveringly walk in His ways.
Moreover, the Babe revealed to the shepherds of Bethlehem was, in His helplessness and powerlessness, also a blessed sign that Jesus, and also His Church, has no mission, no desire, to dominate us, to force our minds into submission or our hearts to subjection.  His chosen method is to provoke the attention, and then guide the development, of our minds which are made for the truth; to purify our emotions which were created good and which sin has not been able to totally corrupt; and to evoke our love: therefore this Child can so easily be portrayed holding out His arms to us, and can so readily be felt pulling gently, yet strongly, on our heart strings.  This is an essential part of the process of our total renewal, for it restores in us a right awareness – a right self-awareness -- that we alone in the whole of creation have been made in God’s own image and likeness, with an ultimate destiny and calling to become sharers in the divine drama of eternal love and communion: a calling and a destiny which can never be forfeited, only sadly ignored and tragically rejected.   
There is an undeniable joy about Christmas, it has an atmosphere that is quite unique.  This tells us something about ourselves and about God.  Because Christmas and the Infant Jesus are so deeply in tune with our human nature, they awake something so deep and fulfilling within us which we can only respond to and express by all sorts of joy-provoking activities: by family gatherings, eating and drinking together, parties and outings, receiving and giving gifts, sharing with each other and with the poor.  Notice all these things are primarily joy-provoking, not pleasure-producing, activities.  Of course, at Christmas there are many who seek pleasure-producing measures, such as drugs, drunkenness and orgies; but we all know these are not Christmas activities, they are part of the devil’s distortion of and hatred for Christmas.  Those other, authentically Christian, Christmastide activities, however, are signs that Christ is come to make us members of God’s family, and it is there, in His family, that we will find that fullness of joy and communion for which the human heart longs:
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."
St. Augustine knew this when he wrote those wonderful words: “Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Christmas is the time for beginnings, new and renewed beginnings, for all are called to share in the Christmas rejoicing which anticipates and prepares for eternal glory.  Christmas is a season of joy -- Mary’s joy as the angel Gabriel declared -- and this joy is meant to help us on to an ever deeper and more trustful commitment in the Faith to union with Christ until, as true children of God in the only-begotten Son, the Father receives into the heavenly home prepared for us. There, Christmas joy and fellowship will be transfigured beyond all imagining into the eternal fulfilment and peace of divinely adopted children who, in the Son, are glorified by the Spirit as members of the family of God, eternally rejoicing in the presence of the heavenly Father Who is in All in all.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.  And the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.   Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.
            The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Second Sunday of Advent (A)

(Isaiah 11:1-10; St. Paul to the Romans 15:4-9;
St. Matthew's Gospel 3:1-12).

Advent is the season given us by Mother Church to prepare the way for Jesus' coming:  He wishes to heal our world’s suffering, and for that He needs entrance to the minds and welcome in the hearts and of men and women everywhere, even, and especially, the hearts and minds of every single Catholic and Christian; for no one is holy before the Lord, and pseudo-religiosity is among the world’s deepest and most painful sores.  Let each of us, therefore, try to open our minds and hearts to Him at this our Sunday gathering and pray that His Spirit may rule in us, our families, our society and our world.
In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard some words which are frequently imitated today by people of all persuasions:
            They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain.
Many, indeed, are those who, when speaking of themselves, use such expressions as, "I harm no one, I hurt nothing", thereby witnessing to and justifying their own life styles.  If we try to take their words in the kindest way and on the worldwide scale, we can see what our modern society is claiming, for there seems to be no doubt that our world is, as a whole, improving.  This would seem to be evidence of moral progress: with human beings, and even animals and the environment, beginning to be afforded more respect.
In the past, kings, emperors, and rulers have waged dreadful, slaughter-full, wars, often enough for merely personal pride and national advantage.  At other times, when floods came and crops failed, thousands, even millions died, and nothing was done by the rest of mankind.  You might say that was because others did not know what was happening, but that is far from the whole truth, because even in recent times the potato famine in Ireland, for example, was known and more or less politically ignored, while the world-wide slave trade was blatantly practiced and protected for profit and power.  Today, however, the nations of the world are regularly urged, and frequently consent, to join together in providing help where and when needed.  Children are no longer used for cheap labour with such impunity as was formerly the case, and the equality of women is more widely recognized and accepted.  In modern societies the poor are supported; the disabled are beginning to be integrated more, and the mentally incapable are subjects to be cared for, not nuisances to be buried in oblivion or otherwise disposed of.   In all such respects our world seems, indeed, to be much improved, and these advances are frequently considered to be the result of purely human endeavour by those who think that to do no hurt, no harm, or even better, to do good all around, is the panacea for our world's needs and the surest guide to human fulfilment.
However, there are other, disturbing, indications, which seem to contradict such a rosy picture.  Never in history have there been such murderously successful leaders as Hitler the racist, Lenin the ideologist, and Stalin the opportunist tyrant, to say nothing of the Far Eastern demagogue, Chairman Mao, and petty African tyrants.  Closer to home and in days of peace, politics and politicians are suspect, being openly mistrusted by large swathes of the population; terrorism is not only practiced but also openly justified, while money is worshipped and thuggery practiced by drug barons and their minions who ruin more lives world-wide than even Hitler or Stalin were able to kill.  Corruption and venality are everywhere to be found infecting iconic sporting events, while terrorism and rogue states such as North Korea, Burma, Iran and Somalia are constantly in media headlines.
Such considerations should lead us to think that perhaps our world’s apparent moral progress is not the same thing as real spiritual progress; and that is indeed the case, for morality is not holiness: mere morality can mask supreme pride, whereas holiness is not possible apart from fundamental humility.  The Scribes and Pharisees were most moral, despising the licentiousness and cruelty of both Roman and Hellenistic society; and yet you will remember from the Gospel reading that John the Baptist said some seemingly cruel words to the Scribes and Pharisees coming to him for baptism:
            Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
What was John targeting with such severity?  It was their racial pride, their presumed personal righteousness:
            Abraham is our father. (John 8:39)
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' (Luke 18:11-12)
What then is the Christian truth about our world's progress? 
It would seem that, to a large extent, the progress, which has been noted, is due to greater public awareness:
Then He said to me, "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the room of his idols? For they say, 'The LORD does not see us.' "  (Ezek 8:12)
You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance.   (Ps 90:8)
Harm and hurt are more readily done in the dark.  And so, while the light of day and the glare of public awareness can guide and promote human sympathy as they also expose and dissuade criminality, only the light of God’s grace discovers the pride and self-love which lie so often hidden in the depths of men's hearts, and which so frequently stain their most noble efforts and motivate their most abominable crimes.
Today we have instant publicity, world-wide awareness, and therein a primary reason for our apparent moral improvement; the counter indications, on the other hand, show that wide-spread within human society today there are latent forces capable of causing terrible harm and great hurt, forces which, far from being fundamentally changed by the threat of possible exposure, are -- being personal and private -- merely more cunningly disguised and more deviously promoted .
What did the prophet Isaiah say about not harming, not hurting, on God's holy mountain?  Listen:
They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Hurt and harm, destruction and death, he says, will only come to an end, as distinct from being ignored or brushed under the carpet, when mankind is filled with knowledge of the Lord, when men and women are willing to humble themselves before God and seek to direct all their intentions along the way of the Lord Jesus, for the glory of Father, and the good of their neighbour.
Our modern do-gooders, however, and those who so confidently proclaim that they do no hurt, no harm, to anyone, often enough have no intention of obeying or glorifying God in what they do: rather they believe that the good they do proclaims their own righteousness and humankind’s sufficiency without any dependence upon a God, a Faith, or a Church.
Until men and women of today come to recognize the true nature of the sin that is to be found not only in human actions but also in the human heart, there is no chance that any number of sincere endeavours will effect any real change to our world; and until it is recognized that salvation only comes with repentance, and as a gift -- from God alone, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit -- no amount of self-justification will be able to bring peace to the heart of humankind.
We can all appreciate the peace pictured by the prophet Isaiah:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.   The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play by the cobra's hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper's den.    They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
But the prophet solemnly told those who heard him that One alone, the promised Messiah, could bring about that state of affairs on earth:
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.  The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.    His delight is in the fear of the LORD, and He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, nor decide by the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.    Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins, and faithfulness the belt of His waist.
People of God, let us recognize where we should look for salvation and fulfilment: it can only come to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Apart from Him, even in those who seem to be the best of human beings, sin is never absent, only not seen, not publicly appreciated as such; and the best works of merely human sincerity and concern have no power to promote that salvation which is human kind's supreme good and which can come only as a gracious gift from God our Father in the name of Jesus, His Son and our Saviour.