Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Mother's Love: A Reflection for New Year's Day

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

—Luke 2:16-19

To honor Mary as the Theotokos, the Mother of God, is to celebrate the unique role that she has played (and continues to play) in God’s plan of salvation. Today, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and the Octave Day of Christmas, we also recall the circumcision and naming of Jesus on the eighth day after his birth (cf. Luke 2:21). In a special way, on New Year’s Day, the Church invites us to pray for peace: “It is Our desire that, every year, this commemoration [of “The Day of Peace”] be repeated as a hope and as a promise… that Peace with its just and beneficent equilibrium may dominate the development of events to come” (Blessed Pope Paul VI, Message for World Day of Peace I, 1968). 

The iconic image of Mary, holding her infant Son, embodies the mystery of the Lord’s birth as it brings together the human and divine elements of the Incarnation. And yet, in honoring Mary as the Mother of God, we are also invited to consider another image: the Mother cradling the body of her murdered Son. The same arms which held the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem received the crucified Savior of the world on Mount Golgotha. The Son of this Mother is the true source of peace among nations, within families and communities, and in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
Pieta by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Mindful that Mary treasured all the “Christmas” mysteries in her heart, we honor the Mother of God, “through whom we were found worthy to receive the Author of life. It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewed adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, listening again to the tidings of the angels, and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace” (Pope Paul VI, Marialiscultus, 5).

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Feast of the Holy Family: Rediscovering Nazareth and a Lesson in Family Math

During his 1964 pilgrimage to Nazareth, the city that was the home of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Blessed Pope Paul VI offered these words:
Here we can learn to realize who Christ really is. And here we can sense and take account of the conditions and circumstances that surrounded and affected his life on earth: the places, the tenor of the times, the culture, the language, religious customs, in brief, everything which Jesus used to make himself known to the world. Here everything speaks to us, everything has meaning. Here we can learn the importance of spiritual discipline for all who wish to follow Christ and to live by the teachings of his Gospel.
Blessed Pope Paul VI celebrates Mass
in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth
on January 5, 1964
How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths...
First, we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times. The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.
Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplify its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings, in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children – and for this there is no substitute. 
This Christmastide Feast of the Holy Family fits comfortably on the Sunday between Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1) and on the surface it reflects an old-fashioned devotion to the Holy Family. I believe, however, that today's feast looks well beyond devotions of the past to give us an insight into the "Family" of the Church. We get a sense of this perspective if we read the words of the Collect (Opening Prayer) for the feast: we honor the example of the Holy Family and ask for the grace to imitate them "in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity."

With all the talk about family--especially "traditional" Western families--during the recent World Meeting of Families and the Synod on the Family, I wonder if we have lost sight of a fuller, broader understanding of family that should is part of what it means to be Christian.
I've been thinking a lot about this over the past several days as I have been saying good-byes to friends in Los Angeles--while I continue to appreciate the support of friends in other parts of the country--as I prepare to begin my life with the Salvatorians; I will begin my cross-country drive to Milwaukee on January 3.
When I read the above words from Pope Paul VI, I was especially touched by his definition of family: "a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings." That view of family goes well beyond our images of a mom and dad and children. It gives us permission to see that our families include many others, even those who exist might beyond the furthest branches of our biological family trees.

All of this reminds me of an important lesson about family I learned from a children's book I recently edited as part of my work for Abbey Press. In the book, author Cynthia Geisen writes, "In family math, members can only be added to the family. No one is taken away. Even though someone might die or move away, they're still part of the family."

And so, on this Holy Family Sunday, I offer a prayer of thanks for those beautiful souls who are members of my family, those indispensable players in my own personal journey and story. Today's celebration also reminds us of the ties that bind us together as both a family of faith and as a human family, particularly in our responsibility to share in the blessings, responsibilities, and burdens of the members of families... both near and far. I think especially of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, China, North Korea, and elsewhere, and of those who are enslaved by human trafficking, addiction, abuse, and neglect. I think of the those victims of terror, at home and abroad. But, there are also so many reasons to rejoice and to be grateful.

Perhaps, the great invitation of the Feast of the Holy Family is for us to rediscover the beauty of that simple household in Nazareth, with its silence, its dignified labor and household tasks, mutuality, and its love and to reflect on what it means for us to be part of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

A Prayer for the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph +
O God, who were pleased to give us
the shining example of the Holy Family,
graciously grant that we may imitate them
in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity,
and so, in the joy of your house,
delight one day in eternal rewards.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(from The Roman Missal)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

God-With-Us: A Christmas Reflection

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God …
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
—John 1:1–2, 14
The Gospel of the Christmas Mass “During the Day”

The Lord said to me: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” As unlikely as these words (the Entrance Antiphon for Christmas Mass in the Night) may seem, they are a powerful reminder that there is more to the celebration of Christmas than the birthday of Jesus.

Every Christmas we celebrate the truth that God became a human being. This belief is so essential that to deny it or to try to explain it away is to give up the foundational belief of Christians. The Solemnity of Christmas invites us to pause and reflect on what these words really mean.

It is one thing to simply profess the words “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” It is quite another to allow these words to effect a change in our lives. How the Polish Celebrate Christmas Eve As Cardinal Basil Hume observed, “The words are simple and direct, but their meaning is far beyond our power to comprehend. … But it is not flesh and blood that leads us to the truth. It is our Father in heaven who gives us the light to say ‘I do believe’ and with conviction. His touch is gentle. There is no force as he moves us to share his secret thoughts. He, Emmanuel, is God among us, a man to lead us where we truly belong, wrapped in his love for us” (The Mystery of the Incarnation, 142).

The Nativity by Giotto (ca. 1304)

To say that Jesus is Emmanuel — “God-with-us” — requires a profound and dynamic statement of faith. But it is only faith that allows us, like the shepherds and sages of so many centuries ago, to make our way through the darkness to make our way to the manger, even as war, disease, poverty and the senseless loss of innocent life can make us ask, “Where is God?”

But what we, as people of faith, celebrate at Christmas is the reality that God is here, present among us. Ultimately, as Henri Nouwen wrote, Christmas means saying yes to something beyond emotions and feelings. It is saying yes to hope and the knowledge that salvation is God’s work, not ours: “The world is not whole. … But it is into this broken world that a child is born, who is called Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, Savior. I look at him and pray, ‘Thank you, Lord, that you came... Your heart is greater than mine’” (The Road to Daybreak).

Originally written for Aleteia and posted on their site on December 24, 2015.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Eve and the Ancestors of Jesus

The birth of Jesus is actually the climax of a story that began in the Garden of Eden and which continues into our own time. Jesus was born into an all-too-human family whose own story is filled with saints and sinners, the faithful and those who fell, and all types in between. And their experiences form an indispensable part of our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are as his followers: these ancestors of Jesus are also our spiritual ancestors and we owe them a debt of thanks.
Pope Francis reminded us of this in his General Audience on June 25, 2014:
If we believe, if we know how to pray, if we acknowledge the Lord and can listen to his Word, if we feel him close to us and recognize him in our brothers and sisters, it is because others, before us, lived the faith and then transmitted it to us. We have received faith from our fathers and mothers, from our ancestors, and they have instructed us in it.

"The Jesse Tree"
from The Capuchins Bible (ca. 1180)
Today’s Gospel includes the Benedictus—the great hymn of praise of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. In it, the happy father praises God for keeping his promise of salvation made to the prophets and patriarchs (and matriarchs!) of generations past. This hymn is traditionally included in the Church’s Morning Prayer and reminds us that each day—and, of course, Christmas—is a time to give thanks for the gift of the Light of the World: “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
On this Christmas Eve, ask the holy ancestors of Jesus to pray for those Christians who continue to face persecution and oppression and for all those who dwell in darkness, that they may know the coming of Christ in a special way on this holy night.
Prayer +
Come quickly, we pray, Lord Jesus,
and do not delay,
that those who trust in your compassion
may find solace and relief in your coming.
Who live and reign with God the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal, Mass for morning of December 24)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Seeking the Transcendant

How can we begin to grow and see in the events of life the hand of God, and see in each other the face of Christ? Saint. Paul suggests the answer:
Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are in the earth. (Colossians 3:2)
That is the secret. Look beyond and above the things of men and earth. It is thereparadoxically, surprisingly and unexpectedlythat we begin to see the hand of God in the events of daily life, the face of Christ dimly outlined among those whom we know and love.

Stained glass window by Marc Chagall
in All Saints Church in Tudely, England

We have to seek constantly the transcendent, plunge more deeply into the mystery that is God, and worship him more reverently. Like him we must establish and deepen community life. We must refuse to be intimidated by opposition or oppression. We must seek every means of communicating freely with the peoples of today who, no matter under what political system they live, are starved of the word of truth and of the bread of life.

- from The Mystery of the Incarnation Cardinal Basil Hume, O.S.B.
O Oriens, O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
-Magnificat Antiphon for December 21

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Reason to Rejoice - The Third Sunday of Advent

Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
—Luke 3:15-18

On this Third Sunday of Advent, the Church gives us a very particular mandate: Rejoice! And, during these pre-Christmas days, it seems that there is joy all around us. And yet, the essayist William Stringfellow makes a poignant observation that should give us pause: “For the greeting card sentiment and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe the outbursts of either frolicking and rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility. He identifies repentance as the sentiment of Advent” (from Advent as a Penitential Season).

The themes of judgment, repentance, and salvation which emerge in this Sunday’s Gospel seem to be at odds with the spirit of Christian joy to which we are also called on this Gaudete Sunday. John the Baptist, the prophet par excellence, announces the coming of the Christ, calling his hearers to lead lives worthy of the new age of the Messiah: give up extortion and avarice and begin sharing with those who are in need. In short, manifest your interior faith through works of charity, peace, and

Saint John the Baptist
The angelic wings symbolize his role as
a prophet and divine messenger

In Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year C, Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., reflects:
Beyond the baptism of repentance and its freeing joy is a further ‘baptism’ with the ‘Holy Spirit and fire’ that the Christ brings. Followers of Jesus will be empowered by the Spirit, who emboldens them for all manner of ministries. They will undergo a purification process, a winnowing away of any imperfections that impede God’s love and joy… it is a refining for all who turn to Christ, a burning away of all that keeps us from experiencing God’s delight and from knowing how to share that with others. This, then, is what distinguishes joy from optimism. A cheery outlook is not necessarily a Christian virtue. But a radical joy that accompanies a refinement by fire is one of the paradoxical hallmarks of our faith.

How can we reconcile these seemingly disparate ideas of repentance and joy? To find an answer to this question, we have to keep in mind that the One who is to come is, in the words of Thomas Merton, “more than a charming smiling infant in the straw.” In Advent we celebrating the coming and the presence of Christ in the world. This demands a certain response on our part—conversion and living lives worthy of his Kingdom—but we can also rejoice because he is present among us, even in the midst of all the problems, trials, and tragedies that seem to overwhelm our world today.

What we prepare to commemorate at Christmas has actually happened: God is in our midst. John’s clarion call for repentance is an invitation for us to acknowledge the presence of Christ among us now and to live accordingly. And so, our Advent-hope and joy are not only focused on the approach of Christmas Day. Rather, we rejoice because God has kept his promises through the ages and has given us love, mercy, and truth in Jesus: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (Zephaniah 3:17-18a).

- This reflection is adapted from a piece originally written for Aletia and posted on their website on December 12, 2015.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Prepare the Way of the Lord": The Second Sunday fo Advent

John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
—Luke 1:3-4
We live in an age of hashtags, sound bites, and blogs, in a world of competing viewpoints and clamoring voices. It can sometimes be difficult to discern what is really worthy of our attention. This is especially true in these days as our nation looks toward the next presidential election and as we collectively try to make sense of the mass shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino and the ongoing acts of terror here at home and in the Middle East. We place blame, make excuses, and dig into our ideological trenches, all-too-often losing sight of the many goods—and lives—that are sacrificed on the altars of politics and partisanship.
If we settle for the mediocrity of sound bites and half-truths, without seeking to discern what is truly important, we run the risk of losing sight of the hopes and promises that can only find fulfillment in a life committed to Christ.
While we may not often think of it in this way, Advent is a season of discernment. We’re reminded of this in the Second Reading for this Sunday as we hear St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: “This is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (1:9-10).
St. John the Baptist
by El Greco
Building on this theme, the words of Baruch (5:1-9) and the clarion call of John the Baptist that we hear this Sunday remind us of what it is we are called to be and do. The Baptist’s cry of “prepare the way for the Lord” is a charge to discern the Lord’s voice calling out to us in the midst of the noise and clamor that fills our daily lives and to persevere in the way of faith. As Origen reflection, “Is it not a way within ourselves that we have to prepare for the Lord? Is it not a straight and level highway in our hearts that we are to make ready? Surely this is the way by which the Word of God enters… Prepare a way for the Lord by living a good life and guard that way by good works. Let the Word of God move in you unhindered and give you a knowledge of his coming and of his mysteries.”
Hearing the voice of the Lord in the distance demands action, but this isn’t only an invitation to turn away from personal choices and sins that may limit or even prevent God’s coming among us. John is also calling us to turn toward God’s mercy. And this turning—conversion—isn’t only about what we give up, it is really about accepting the gift that we are being offered. Certainly a beautiful message as we prepare to enter into the Year of Mercy!
This Sunday, we are being reminded that these days of Advent require our attention and intentionality. It is only by creating seeking the stillness and quiet—leaving behind the hashtags and sound bites—that we can discern the distant voice of the Coming One who brings the mercy and peace which our world so desperately needs.
This reflection was originally written for and published on December 4, 2015.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Saint Narcisa de Jesús: Watching for the Bridegroom

Behold, the Bridegroom is coming; come out to meet Christ the Lord.  
—Communion Antiphon for the
Common of Virgins (based on Matthew 25:6)

These Advent days are a time of joyful expectation, a time for watching and waiting. The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, the young women charged with waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom before for the wedding feast (see Matthew 25:1-13) is a fitting lesson for this holy season. Just like the women of the parable, we have a choice of preparing our lamps—our selves—to meet the Lord when he comes. We also, of course, have the option of living only in the moment, coasting along without paying attention to our responsibilities as disciples.

On December 8, as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, the Church also remembers Saint Narcisa de Jesús Martillo Morán, a woman who dedicated her life to watching for the Lord’s Coming just like the wise Bridesmaids in the parable.

Born in Nobol, Ecuador, in 1837, Narcisa was the daughter of farm laborers who both died when she was very young. She moved to the coastal town of Guayaquil—her home for the next fifteen years—supporting herself by working as a seamstress, dedicating her free time to prayer and caring for her poor and sick neighbors. Early in 1868, she moved to Lima, Peru, where she lived as a lay member of the Dominican convent of Patrocinio.

As she continued to grow spiritually, she saw that her path to holiness was to be found in the Cross and she embraced a life of poverty and humility. She spent eight hours each day in prayer and often dedicated several hours each night to prayer. She also practiced acts of penance, offering them to God as a sacrifice for the salvation of humankind. Her humility showed through in her desire to remain hidden in the world without seeking any kind of special recognition or religious status.

Saint Narcisa de Jesús died on December 8, 1869, at the age of thirty-seven. Her remains were returned to Guayaquil in 1955 and, eventually, taken to her hometown; she was canonized in 2008. At the time of her beatification in 1988, Saint John Paul II praised her as a model for all those women—especially in Latin and South America—who are forced to seek work in the cities in order to provide for themselves and their families.
In his homily at her canonization, Pope Benedict XVI reflected: “Saint Narcisa of Jesus shows us a path of Christian perfection obtainable for all the faithful. Despite the many and extraordinary graces that she received, she lived her life with great simplicity, dedicated to her work as a seamstress and to her apostolate as a catechist. In her passionate love for Jesus, who led her on a path of intense prayer and torment and to identify herself increasingly with the mystery of the Cross, she offers us an attractive witness and a perfect example of a life totally dedicated to God and to her brothers and sisters.”
During these Advent days, especially as we enter into this Year of Mercy, as Saint Narcisa de Jesús to help you remain focused on those things that truly matter so that with her—and all the faithful women of the ages—you will be prepared to meet Christ when he comes.

A Prayer in Honor of the Saint Narcisa de Jesús Martillo Morán +
Lord God,
who gave the holy Virgin Narcisa de Jesús
gift upon gift from heaven,
grant, we pray, that, imitating her virtues on earth,
we may delight with her in the joys of eternity.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
[from The Roman Missal]

This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their website during the week of December 6, 2015.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

An Advent Appeal

For me, Advent has always been a season of taking stock, looking back, and anticipating what lies ahead. Perhaps this is because the season usually begins so close to Thanksgiving and leads up to Christmas and the beginning of a new year.

But, there is also something else about this season: the longer, colder nights, the lights of Advent wreaths and holiday decorations, and the reverie that goes along with familiar holiday movies, songs, and even a favorite Christmas ornament or family photo.

Advent, however, is also a season of gratitude. As we look back in prayer and Scripture to the prophecies of Old Testament and the revelation of who Jesus was and is (which we hear in these early Advent days) and to the fulfillment of time when we will celebrate the second Advent of Christ, these days invite us to reflect on the gifts we been given. And, for me, an important part of that is considering how I have--or have not--passed those gifts on to others... "paying it forward," as it were.

In less than two weeks, the Catholic Church in the United States will hold the annual collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious. This an important opportunity for each of us to give back to those women and men religious--nuns and sisters, priests and brothers--who have given their lives in prayer and service to the Church as pastors, teachers, catechists, missionaries, healthcare providers, social workers, artists and musicians, and as contemplatives praying night and day behind cloister walls. 

The sad reality is that many of the religious communities to which these women and men belong are unable to support their aging and infirm members because of the high cost of healthcare and the large numbers needing care.

As I observed in a similar appeal last year, religious deserve our respect and admiration but, sadly, our culture has done an amazing job dismissing the work of generations of holy and loving women and men of faith. It is our responsibility to care for them the way they have cared for so many others.

Even if you aren't Catholic, I encourage you to consider this invitation as well. My guess is that wherever you are, there is a hospital, mission, food pantry, school, or some other charity that was or is run by a religious community that needs your help.

If you were taught by religious sisters, priests, or brothers or have ministered with them, considering sending a gift to that community as a sign of your gratitude. If you would like to give a gift to the U.S. Bishops "Retirement Fund for Religious," click here. I have certainly enjoyed the support and friendship of religious of many communities through the years (and I'm looking forward to returning to religious life with the Society of the Divine Savior in January) and I'm happy to promoting this appeal and doing my part to help.

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider this Advent invitation.