Monday, December 31, 2007

The Holy Family

The Holy Family came into being because of God and for God. Though Mary and Joseph were already betrothed, Mary would not have conceived Jesus without the Holy Spirit. Joseph was ready to divorce Mary if not for the angel's intervention in a dream. While the Holy Family is a traditional family as we understand it, it is not a conventional family.

Despite popular, traditional images of them, neither did they lead a tranquil life. Jesus is born homeless and into poverty. They must flee their country under the threat of execution to live as refugees in Egypt. It is a family born into tremendous exterior pressures.

Families today know pressures as well. For economic reasons, both parents frequently have to work outside of the home making meals together on a regular basis difficult. The price of real estate makes longer commutes necessary further limiting time with the family. And those are just some of the pressures on traditional, two parent families. We haven't mentioned single family homes where these pressures are doubled. And then there are "blended" families where step-parents and step-children are constantly testing the boundaries of their relationship adding to the tension within the home.

The status of the family today causes a lot of hand wringing, especially in the Church. There are fewer and fewer traditional families. More young Catholics are opting to live together before marriage and are often choosing to be married outside the Church. But, things are not going to change any time soon. We can't turn the calendar back to 1955.

We are right as Christians and as good citizens to promote the welfare of the traditional, two parent family. Children born in such families are no doubt better off economically and psychologically. But, at the same time, we must recognize that in today's society when bodies mature more rapidly and adolescence lasts well into the 20's, people are going to make mistakes resulting in out-of-wedlock births and divorce.

A spiritual director once told me that God is not in the "ideal", but in the "real". The traditional family is an important ideal. But, God is not found in ideal families or in ideal people, but in real families and in real people. As painful as our past may have been and as much as we wish we could go back and fix our mistakes, God doesn't give us the option of going back in time. God is spending His grace on us in our real lives and in our real families as we find ourselves today. God's grace happens in families that are "blended" and those that need to be mended.

Families are never perfect, even when they are the ideal, traditional family. They are all marked by joy and pain, mistakes and good choices. The Holy Family - Jesus, Mary and Joseph - knew the pressures of family life. The difference was that they experienced God's presence even in those difficulties. Even with all the pressures of daily life in today's society, we can experience God's presence with us and teach our children to recognize Him as well. Then we have fulfilled our mission as a family, no matter what our family looks like.

Pope Benedict XVI speaks about the mission of the family beautifully in his message for the World Day of Peace:

Indeed, in a healthy family life, we experience some of the fundamental elements of peace....the family is the foundation of society for this reason too: because it enables its members in decisive ways to experience peace. It follows that the human community cannot do without the service provided by the family. Where can young people gradually learn to savour the genuine "taste" of peace better than in the original "nest" which nature prepares for them?

If we are experiencing God's peace in our families and schooling our children in the ways of peace, then we are the type of family that God expects.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Blue Sun - Yellow Sun

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Jesus - The Divine Physician

When a doctor diagnoses cancer, she must act decisively and immediately. Every cancer cell must be either removed through surgery, burned away through radiation or poisoned through chemotherapy. If we didn't know what the doctor was doing, we might think her cruel for cutting the patient open or for pumping chemicals into him. It's only when we realize how dangerous the situation is that we can accept how drastic and radical the cure must likewise be.

John the Baptist, when addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees in this Sunday's gospel (Mt.3:1-12) calls them a "brood of vipers" as they approach him for baptism. But, he wanted to be clear with them just what they were committing to by being baptized. "Give some evidence that you mean to reform!"

We cannot accommodate any evil in our lives, any more than the body can accommodate a little cancer. Evil destroys whomever welcomes it. So, radical surgery is indicated. "The ax is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire."

God sounds cruel here. But, like the doctor, God knows that the evil we accommodate will eventually strangle us and prevent us from bearing fruit.

Now, the doctor can only extract the malignancy. She cannot put health back into our bodies. God, on the other hand, not only roots out the evil in our heart, but replaces it with gifts for living a good and holy life. These gifts are the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" which Isaiah lists in the first reading as the mark of the Messiah (Is.11:2-3):

"a spirit of wisdom and of understanding;
a spirit of counsel and of strength;
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord;
and his delight will be the fear of the Lord."

We receive these gifts through our baptism and confirmation which are the "baptism with fire" which John the Baptist foretold that the Messiah would grant to all those who believed in him. When we make use of those gifts in our lives, then we bear the "fruit of the Spirit" which Paul describes in Galatians 5:22:

"the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

These are the fruits which God looks for in those who follow Jesus. These are the fruits which will spring up in us once sin is uprooted from our hearts, and Jesus replaces them with His gifts.

Jesus is often called the Divine Physician because of His power to heal and to free us from our sins. Saint Augustine in his Confessions puts it in a beautiful way:

"My weaknesses are many and grave, many and grave
indeed, but more abundant still is your medicine."

These weeks leading up to Christmas are a time to uproot whatever is not of God and to recognize that no good can come from allowing sin and evil a place in our lives. It is a time to turn to our Divine Physician, Jesus, for the radical surgery only He can perform. And so, the coming of Jesus will be not a historical fact of the past or a long off, future anticipation, but an everyday event bearing fruit in our lives.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Immaculate Conception

With Mary, God begins His work of restoring nature to the purity He intended - the beauty which is a reflection of Himself.

Many have compared God's work of grace in our lives to snowfall which cloaks the barren tree, giving beauty to otherwise fruitless branches. Iced over with freshly fallen snow, the tree glimmers in the sunlight with a brilliance that its brown bark could not allow. The glaze replaces the natural beauty of the leaves and fruit which the winter has stolen.

But, that image of grace presupposes that we are too corrupt to be restored. It presupposes a winter that will never end. Grace, in this image, cannot bring us back to our original lustre, but can only cover us over so we don't look so bad.

As Catholics understand it, grace is more like the sun whose rays warm the barren tree stimulating the bud, the leaf and, finally, the fruit. Grace restores the original beauty marred by the winter of sin.

If grace were like snow, our branches would never bear fruit. They would remain iced over, unable to thrive. But, God wants us to grow and to reflect the beauty He intended for His creation.

The Marian feasts - the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the Annunciation - all celebrate not what Mary accomplished, but what God accomplished through Jesus. Mary, as the first disciple of Jesus, is the first to receive the benefits of Jesus' saving work. She is the first to taste the victory over sin by being herself exempted from it's stain at her conception. She is the first to celebrate the resurrection of the body through her assumption into heaven.

What she has received is also what God holds in store for us. Like Mary, He wants to restore us to the sinless, pure creatures He intended us to be. We, like Mary, will one day know victory over sin when all the scars of sinfulness will be healed. And, like Mary, we will know God's victory over death when our bodies are raised on the last day.

So, today's feast of the Immaculate Conception is not for Mary to celebrate alone. It's not like a birthday party in which only one person is honored. Today's feast is about the power and purpose of God's grace which restores the original beauty sin has deformed - not to cover over our shame, but to render us truly good and truly beautiful as God intended.

God achieved it in Mary so that she could be equipped with everything she needed to serve as Jesus' mother. God will achieve it in us when His work of restoration is consummated at our individual deaths and at the end of the world.

Friday, December 07, 2007

It's Later than You Think

This summer, my family spent a day at Storyland in New Hampshire. Above one of the ornate clocks I read: "It's later than you think!" It puzzled me that a place dedicated to amusement would greet its customers with such a grim warning. Nonetheless, I took it to mean that I shouldn't waste the time I had with my family, because one never knows what tomorrow will bring.

At this time of year, what do we hear more often than not? "I can't believe that Thanksgiving is over!" "I can't believe it's almost Christmas!" No matter how old we get, we never cease being surprised by the quickening pace of time. There's no doubt that it's later than we think.

In last Sunday's readings, both Paul and Jesus remind us that the end is near. It's nearer today than it was yesterday. There's no telling when it will happen. We won't get a two weeks' notice. We have to be always at the ready.

While the reminder is grim, our reaction to it can be joyful. For, what we expect is our salvation! Isaiah describes it to us in the first reading as a time of peace and prosperity when we will finally be liberated from fear and conflict. Paul describes it as living in the light. And Jesus describes it as being taken up to live with God. The end of time has been revealed to us not so that we will live in fear, but so that we'll cherish what we have in this life and come to clarity about what is really important.

I once spoke to a man who had lost his daughter when she was around eight years old. Understandably, the loss embittered him. With time, he grew to accept it by thanking God for the joy his daughter had brought into his life for those seven years. While he still mourned the years he didn't get to share with her, he could comfort himself with the memory of fun and laughter they enjoyed when she was alive.

Everything and everyone around us will be coming to an end. It is later than we think. We "cast off the deeds of darkness" not to live these last days in sorrow and mourning, but to embrace God's generosity and to relish all that is really good and worthwhile while it's still here and while it's still today.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Christ the King

None of us asked to be born. By creating us without our permission, God shows His absolute sovereignty over our lives. Furthermore, though He offers us the freedom to accept His gift of eternal life or not, He doesn't give us an alternative. Most of the time, we try to work out a compromise between God and the world. But, we have no real choice other than to accept God and His claims on us or reject Him; and, along with that, to accept Jesus' claim that He is the Son of God or reject it.

Jesus is King! This Sunday's second reading (Col.1: 12-20) tells us that Jesus is the pattern of creation. "All things were made through Him." Jesus is also the finish line of creation, the culmination of evolution. "All things are for Him." Jesus is the reason we continue to exist. "In Him, everything continues in being."

Jesus is like our lungs and our heart. Our lungs continue to take in life-giving oxygen even when we are not paying attention to them. Our heart circulates blood through our body, although we are not conscious of it. So, Jesus sustains our life, sustains our very being, even though we often fail to realize it or acknowledge it. Jesus is the reason for everything, whether we know it or not.

And now that we know it, now that it has been revealed to us, we have a decision to make. It is a decision we cannot avoid. Just as we could not decide whether or not to be born, we cannot decide not to decide about Jesus' sovereignty over our lives. To "not decide" or to "put off deciding" is already to decide, and to decide wrongly.

In Crossing the Threshhold of Hope, Pope John Paul II calls the crucifixion the judgment of man on God. God is judged to be impotent and indifferent before the reality of suffering and evil. Jesus on the cross is derided by the soldiers: "If you are the king of the Jews, then save yourself." The crowd said: "He saved others, why can't he save himself?" Even the thief crucified beside him taunted Him, "Why don't you save yourself; and while you're at it, save us too!" Man has always judged God to be silent before evil and the suffering it causes. Man has always interpreted that silence to mean that God is indifferent in the face of our suffering.

The present Pope would revisit this theme in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. The world asks, "What difference did Jesus make?" Two thousand years after Jesus there is still poverty, conflict and death. What exactly did Jesus bring? Pope Benedict answers, "He brought God." Jesus ended God's seeming silence, indifference and impotence before the reality of evil, suffering and death. In Jesus, we can no longer say that God doesn't know what death is and, more importantly, that He doesn't care.

The world continues to look at Jesus and require from Him a salvation that can be measured in economic or political terms - a salvation that can be put to some use. But, to those for whom God is enough, Jesus speaks clearly and forcefully from the throne of His cross.

Like the soldiers, the crowd and the thieves, we have a decision to make as we look up at Jesus on the cross. Is that our God and King twisted in pain on two planks of wood, or an imposter? Is the salvation He offers good enough, or should it come from politicians, scientists or corporations?

Whom will we make our King?