In ages past, separated families had only letters and word of mouth for keeping in touch with their loved ones when separated by oceans and continents, or even the distance of a few miles. “Keeping in touch” took days and sometimes weeks and months. Then the technological and industrial revolution begun in the nineteenth century ushered in an era of ever-increasing facility of communication. Today, contact is virtually instantaneous. Zoom and its rivals have allowed us to conduct meetings, classes, and family gatherings in cyberspace. Personally, I never envisaged using a laptop computer to conduct a class, but as the Covid-19 virus ravaged the country, it proved to be a blessing, not least in helping families stay in touch – if “touch” is still the right word for it.
Even so, our desperation to join our families during the holiday season led many of us to expose ourselves, and our families, to infection by the new virus. Hundreds of thousands of family members have died as a result of the contagion that followed. Such is the strength of our love, even if it would be better served by distancing ourselves from close physical contact until the pandemic has passed. It is helpful to remember that the heart-break of enforced physical separation of spouses from each other, of children from their parents and grandparents, of cousins, uncles, aunts from all of us during the dark night of their final moments is also a testament of love – love bruised and wounded, but no less revealed in its power and nobility in the face of overwhelming sorrow. We could all use a hug.
At this somber moment in our history, today’s observance of the holy family reminds us of the importance and value of family life, perhaps all-too easily taken for granted in a country blessed by so much wealth and power, however unequally it is distributed. As a consequence, we have become prone to overlook the fragility of this most fundamental of human associations, the cradle of civilization itself. This was nowhere more vividly impressed on me than when I visited Iraq several times during its bleakest hours, when family life, so endangered by rockets and bombs, was virtually the only lasting and trustworthy bond most people had to rely on.
Nor should we pass too-quickly over the momentary shadow in the prophecy of Simeon related in today’s gospel reading as his gaze turned to
the blessed child’s mother: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Known throughout the centuries as “the sorrowful mother,” Mary’s vigil at the cross and the retrieval of her only son’s body, so frequently painted and carved in stone, presaged the agony of countless numbers of mothers and fathers called upon to witness their children’s death, not only by falling prey to a strange viral inflection and other illnesses, but as victims of hunger, senseless gunfire, and, increasingly, hit-and-ran drivers. This is their day of remembrance also.
In our celebration of Jesus’ birth, we should also recall that soon after, when the mad jealousy of King Herod descended lethally on the little town of Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary had to flee as refugees seeking safety in a foreign country in order to protect Jesus’ life. That should give us cause for reflection as we witness refused entry and the forced separation of thousands of families of refugees seeking safety in the United States from oppression and violence, even murder, in their native villages and towns. The massacre of innocents did not cease when Herod’s militia left Bethlehem. It is present reality.
There would also be moments of parental anguish as when the boy Jesus seemed to have become lost after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph retraced their way back in a panic. All this will be the matter of liturgical memory in the days to come. Here and now we have respite, a time for rejoicing and celebrating the redemptive gift of love. And Luke tells us in his gospel that Jesus returned with Mary and Joseph to their home in Nazareth where for the next twenty years they lived in peace. Artists have loved to dwell on imagined scenes of their home life. We actually know nothing about it, except that after those three days of agonized searching and eventual reunion, Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:51-52).
In his letter to the Christians in Colossae, St. Paul seems to have had something like this mind, and it is still excellent advice when he urges mutual love, obedience, and forbearance, including a wry and always pertinent bit of counsel: “fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart” (Col 3:21). The beautiful passage from the Book of Sirach used as our first reading presents us with whole litany of good counsel. It is worth noting that it is mainly about children’s respect for their parents, especially when they are aged and in need of support.
So as we look forward hopefully to a New Year in which peace and compassion can once again flourish with good will toward all, especially refugee children and their parents, we would do well also to recall the words of Sirach: “Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.”
May you have a healthy and joyful New Year. Mask up, wash your hands frequently, observe appropriate social distance. The vaccines are only very slowly reaching the majority of potential victims of the coronavirus. It won’t be easy, but it will make life once again safer and more peaceful for all.
For those in the Northern hemisphere lucky enough to have an unimpeded view of the western horizon just after sunset on December 21, there will appear in the heavens if not a great sign at least a beacon of hope. For the first time in almost 400 years the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn will appear to coincide, or nearly so, producing a near alignment as Jupiter, the Great Benefic of the Ancients, the “Bringer of Jollity,” eclipses for a time the Greater Malefic, Saturn, the Bringer of Misfortune.
The Great Conjunction coincides with the Winter Solstice, also on December 21, when the increasing darkness of our days halts and begins to retreat. Appearing just days before Christmas, the alignment will resemble a new and brilliant star, bringing to mind the story of the Star of Bethlehem in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-10). This relatively rare celestial configuration was probably not the Star of Bethlehem, although in 1604 Johannes Kepler calculated that there had been such a conjunction in 7 BCE. But it was not a particularly noticeable one. At least no one did, except perhaps the Magi. Still, this week’s conjunction and solstice appear as a welcome ray of hope in very dark times.
Today’s readings turn our reflections from John the Baptist to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whose faith and trust in God were of such great importance and significance in the saga of redemption. But first, we are given the account of David’s plan to build a Temple for God in his newly captured stronghold of Jerusalem. Rebuffed by the prophet Nathan, who first had approved the idea, David is told that a successor would build the great house of God. And it was in fact Solomon, David son, who built the great temple that for centuries was one of the wonders of the ancient world. But, as St. Bernard related in his homily “In Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the true temple would be this young girl of Nazareth, who for nine months bore within her the Savior of the World, the very Son of God.
The second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides a link between the two temples, “the mystery hidden for many ages but now manifested through the writings of the prophets, and at the command of the eternal God, made known to all the Gentiles that they may believe and obey…” (Rom 16:25-26). Those barred from so much as entering the temple were now to be welcomed. While temple imagery is found throughout Christian scripture, the allusion that inspired St. Bernard is perhaps the most beautiful of all.
The gospel reading is taken from St. Luke’s Gospel, our sole source for the story of the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the young Mary, engaged to Joseph but not yet married. The nearly rabbinical dialogue between them sets the stage for the great mystery of Christmas, the Virgin Birth – scripture’s way of affirming that Jesus is the true Son of God, although he will somewhat ironically refer to himself as “the Son of Man,” an allusion to the “eschatological figure” in whom rests the destiny of the world.
The great feast of Christmas lies just ahead, a moment of brightness in what has been far too dark a year in a world still longing for redemption. We were reminded by Isaiah that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone” (Isaiah (9:2).
We live in hope for a better future, one ultimately in the New Heavens and New Earth, where “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-5) There will be no temple in the New Jerusalem, or need for one, for “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).
Christmas is a season of hope, more, possibly, than one of joy. “The Crib of Jesus lies always in the shadow of the Cross. The silence and poverty of the birth in Bethlehem are one with the darkness and pain of the death on Calvary. The Crib and the Cross are the same mystery of redemptive love; the body which Mary laid in the manger is the same body offered up on the Cross (Homily of Pope John Paul II, Manger Square, Bethlehem, 22 March 2000. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/travels/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000322_bethlehem.html ). But the darkness shall not prevail. We live in hope.
In his lovely long poem, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Charles Peguy, the great French poet and playwright, described the virtue of hope that we so desperately need this year as a small child,
…it is my little hope
who lies down every evening
and gets up every morning
and really has very good nights.
I am, God says, the Lord of that virtue.
It is my little hope
who goes to sleep every evening,
in her child’s bed,
after having said a good prayer,
and who wakes every morning and gets up
and says her prayers with new attention.
Hope is a little girl, nothing at all….
And yet it is this little girl who will endure worlds.
This little girl, nothing at all.
She alone, carrying the others, who will cross worlds past.
As the star guided the three kings from the deepest Orient.
Toward the cradle of my Son.
Like a trembling flame.
She alone will guide the Virtues and Worlds.
May the child hope and the child Jesus comfort you in these difficult times and bring you a hope-filled and joyful Christmas.
Joseph Epstein’s mean-spirited op-ed piece on whether Jill Biden can call herself “Doctor” ignited a small firestorm of protest among academics (among others). Epstein, known for his anti-feminist leanings, was for a time an adjunct lecturer in English at Northwestern University, and may just be suffering a bit from Ph.D. envy, as he lacks one.
It is true that Dr. Jill does not have a medical degree and has not delivered any babies. But I wonder if Epstein, especially as a whilom adjunct lecturer in English, would also agitate for renaming Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”? And there’s the case of Roger Bacon, known for centuries as “Doctor Mirabilis.” A Franciscan friar, it is highly doubtful that he delivered any babies either. As for Dr. Phil, I’m not in a position to say other than that his degree is not in medicine. (I don’t recall Epstein inveighing against Dr. Phil’s use of the title, which is curious.)
Northwestern’s embarrassed English department has recently distanced itself from its one-time adjunct lecturer. Epstein may be expected to write an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal on whether academic institutions should be called “universities” even if they have medical schools.
There’s a certain irony in calling today’s celebration “Gaudete [Rejoice!] Sunday,” its former title, although joy and the word “rejoice” appear frequently in the readings. The opening verse of the old “entrance antiphon,” ‘Rejoice in the Lord always!’ [Phil 4:4-5], is echoed in the second reading: “Rejoice always, never cease praying: render constant thanks” [1 Thess. 5:16]. Today, people are rejoicing, too, even in the midst of a still-calamitous year. The news that the vaccines have begun to be distributed for immunizing the nation against the pandemic coronavirus is worth celebrating for sure. But the struggle is not over, much though hope is brighter now than during the past nine months. There is still darkness clouding our lives.
Traditionally, the violet vestments of Advent are lightened today to rose, a forecast of the joyful feast that beckons just two weeks ahead.
Years back, a pastor I worked with, a great friend and colleague, surprised me the first year we were in our new church by removing the rose-colored vestments. “I hate pink,” he explained. I pleaded that they were not pink but rose – a lighter shade of violet, the color of penitence, the reform of life called for by John the Baptist and Jesus – ‘metanoia.’ (It didn’t work.)
As for rejoicing, that term we translate “penance,” from which we get the term “penitential” and also “penitentiary,” means to change our way of thinking and therefore of living. It had nothing to do with punishment, especially self-punishment. It is about moral and spiritual transformation. Originally, a penitentiary was a prison where people guilty of some crime were sent to turn their lives around, to make amends. Amendments. Something to rejoice over. After all, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance –metanoia” [Luke 15:7].
Today, tragically, a penitentiary is now a place where those guilty of very serious crimes, whether or not they have repented, and even those wrongfully convicted, are put to death, as happened again Thursday and Friday nights with the executions of Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois. Last July, the current administration reintroduced federal executions as a matter of policy, ending a seventeen-year moratorium. As a result, thirty-four more executions are scheduled over the coming two years. And if lethal injection proves cumbersome, the Department of Justice wants to reintroduce electrocution, hanging, and shooting.
The Catholic Church, to which Attorney General William Barr nevertheless professes membership, has strenuously opposed capital punishment beginning with the misgivings of Pope John Paul II, and since made a cornerstone of the moral teaching of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. In 2018, the Catechism of the Church was amended accordingly. The bishops of the United States support this position and many have directly intervened on behalf of those condemned to die at the hands of their fellow citizens.
The United States is the only western industrialized nation that still inflicts capital punishment on its citizens. Presently it has the sixth highest number of executions in the world, of which the great majority are carried out in the state of Texas. [https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/death-penalty-in-2019-facts-and-figures/]
Grim tidings on this Rejoice Sunday, but it is worth noting that both John the Baptist and Jesus himself were legally and unjustly executed by state authority. And that is a very good reason to understand why we look forward to that Advent of Justice and Mercy that Isaiah anticipated, “a year of favor from the Lord, and a day of vindication by our God…” Like Isaiah, Jesus was also called, as he announced in his first sermon in his home synagogue
“to bring glad tidings to the lowly,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
Then, putting down the scroll, he said, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [see Luke 4:18].
That didn’t go over very well,. But if we truly grasp the meaning of that message, our response can only be joyful even in dark times such as these, at least if we count ourselves among those who need spiritual transformation – metanoia. Accordingly, our task, like that of John the Baptist and Jesus, is to spread the good news especially to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the world-weary, the bereaved, and prisoners of hopelessness. That will truly prepare the way for a joyful and merry Christmas for everyone.
This is the darkest part of the year, at least in the northern hemisphere, but the darkness is not only because of the fewer daylight hours leading up to the winter solstice. We have been warned that disregarding the warnings of the medical community would lead to a catastrophic rise in morbidity and death from the Covid virus. That dark prediction has already begun to be fulfilled tragically and is expected only to worsen as Christmas approaches. Clearly, the voice crying in the wilderness is not only that of John the Baptist, but it is his prophetic warning to which the gospel reading directs our attention today.
Advent has traditionally been considered a time for joyful reflection, and to be sure there is reason to be joyful, even today in the midst of great personal and social distress. We hear that in the other readings as well, part of the sword of contradiction the coming of the Savior brought into the world.
John’s message, which would be taken up by Jesus himself, calls us to repentance and forgiveness, the keys that will unlock the gate of joy this
Christmas. But we easily misunderstand what the gospels mean by “repentance.” In the Greek translation used by the earliest Christian writers ‘metanoia’ does not mean donning sackcloth and ashes and going around beating our breasts figuratively or in fact. To repent means to change our way of thinking and therefore our behavior, to reverse a decision, to change direction. That shift is expressed first of all in forgiving. Here, God is the model we must emulate.
In today’s first reading, we encounter the passage from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, so memorably set to music by Handel at the beginning of the Messiah: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her tribulation is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” [Isaiah 40: 2].
By all accounts, Jerusalem still needs some comfort, riven as it is by sectarianism and strife. Isaiah tells us that “her iniquity is pardoned.” The Hebrew word for “pardon” here is ‘ratsah,’ which means to be pleased with someone, especially because they have satisfied a debt. They have been reconciled, like our bank accounts. More than that: the debt has been totally forgiven. All that is past, wiped out, the slate cleaned, the debt paid. And here, it is God, who had earlier doubled the penalty for Israel’s rejection of the path of justice, who is pardoning and reconciling.
The financial metaphor involved in the preaching of forgiveness carried over into Christian times. Jesus uses it frequently. We echo it when we speak of our debts to God and each other. Bankers, lawyers, and mortgage companies still speak also of forgiveness when a loan is written off – except, it seems, for student loan debt, which is arguably the cruelest of all and constantly increasing.
Debt forgiveness may not be the happiest of similes, but it is still relevant. When we injure one another by our sinfulness, we enter into debt, both to those we have hurt, and to God, who takes on the hurt of the world. This became sadly evident again in the first week of Advent. School shootings, terrorist incidents, assaults on citizens by carjackers and other thugs, and the terrible toll of the coronavirus, now the leading cause of death in the United States, are still the daily bread of the news outlets and the source of grief and even bitterness to a growing number of our citizens.
And so in the midst of distress and sorrow the message of Scripture today is that turning back to God, finding our way again, requires a settling of debts. On God’s part, it is remarkably simple: forgiveness is there to be taken, abundantly, and completely. The only hitch is the condition that we be as willing to forgive each other, so that God’s forgiveness can take possession of us. Jesus is clear that our unwillingness to forgive each other limits the effectiveness of God’s forgiveness in our case. Right after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel, we hear:
“…if you forgive people their transgressions, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive yours” [Mat 6:14-15].
Our next reading from the Second Letter of Peter seems to pass quickly over the theme of repentance and forgiveness in its enthusiasm for grand eschatological symbolism, but in fact, it lies at the heart of his message, too, where we read, “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach ‘metanoia” [2 Peter 3:9] – that new way of thinking. Moreover, we have no time to waste. The need for a change of mind and heart is urgent now.
The opening of the Gospel of Mark that provides our third reading does not mention Jesus. But it returns us forcefully to the theme of repentance and forgiveness that will occupy so much of his teaching by introducing the main character of the Advent readings. John the Baptizer came to prepare Christ’s way in the wilderness. It was John who first preached ‘metanoia,’ the change of mind and heart that leads to forgiveness of sins. After John’s imprisonment and execution, which must have shaken him to his core, Jesus began to preach the same message, the urgent need for a whole new way of thinking, feeling, and acting grounded in love and expressed in mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Today for individuals and nations, that can be the greatest Christmas present of all. Present tribulation will end. The joy of redemption lasts forever.