Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Slaughter of the Innocents: Bethlehem & Newtown. December 23, 2012

The Simon & Garfunkel album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” was released in 1966.  I’ve thought during this past week about a song from that album which I had not thought of in a long time.  It’s the last song on the album, their rendition of “Silent Night.”
It starts with a simple rendering of this Christmas lullaby singing in beautiful harmony “all is calm, all is bright”, but by the second verse there was a fade-in of a broadcaster’s voice doing a news report.  It was actual news of the day which spoke of the turmoil of the times with references to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. It also included mention of the trial of Richard Speck, a mass murderer of eight student nurses in Chicago.The words of “Silent Night” and the news of the day made for a haunting irony, and it came back to me as I heard the news of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Twenty children and eight adult lives lost to evil and madness.

From where will come tidings of comfort and joy to Newtown, Connecticut, this year? There are people in Newtown who are taking down their Christmas decorations in sympathy and solidarity with those who will have no joy this Christmas.  People feel guilty celebrating the holiday in the face of their neighbors’ sufferings. I think we in America do not know what to do; we celebrated a wonderful Christmas pageant here at Our Lady of the Pines just a week ago, but we are careful not to have the news on when our little ones are around the television. In fact, you may indeed want to retire to the Narthex if you think this homily might touch too close to the tender hearts of your own children. And that’s perfectly fine.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy in which we celebrate the birth of the Savior.  But if we really look at what is said in the Christmas story we will see an all too realistic account about the human condition and the world in which we live.  Consider the dark chapter in Matthew’s gospel within the nativity narratives which is called the “slaughter of the innocents.”

You know this story. The magi have come in search of the “King of the Jews.”  They inquire at the court of Herod.  Herod is taken aback by the wise men’s question.  He tells the foreign ambassadors to search diligently and when this new born king is found, bring him word and he will also go and pay homage.  It’s a ruse.  But the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and Joseph also receives a dream directive to escape to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.  When Herod learns he has been outfoxed, he orders henchmen to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys two years old and younger.

This was a man who could not accept any competition to his dictatorial authority. This is why, when Herod took on the position as pontificate of Jerusalem, he had his eldest son, Antipater, murdered, along with his wife, Mariamne, and her mother, Alexander. Herod began annihilating members of the Sanhedrin as well as 300 other court officials. In the midst of this barbarity, he had no qualm in killing any child rumored to one day be greater than himself.

With a word spoken and the sweep of his hand, he sent soldiers to the town of Bethlehem to murder every child two years old and younger. I did some research on this during the week. It is estimated that Bethlehem in the first century would have been a town of one thousand persons.  I read in the New Bible Dictionary that statistically there would have been twenty infant males who were murdered, not unlike the 20 children shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Twenty young innocent victims. It stunned me as I was preparing for this message

In Matthew 2 we read of this slaughter, “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

All week long as a nation we have watched the news until we could watch it no more. We have wept, we have wondered, we have gotten angry at the ease in which Adam Lanza could slaughter 26 other human beings, 20 of them children. We have listened to the pundits, to the blamers, to the politicians, and yes, rare voices of wisdom, sympathy, and reason. Today we shall listen to the voice of God in the midst of this new slaughter of the innocents. Let us consider some of the heroes in this carnage:

Teacher Victoria Soto used her body to shield her students, we learned this week. Soto paid for her bravery with her life. “The family received information she was found shielding her students in a closet,” Soto’s cousin Jim Wiltsie told the press. “She put herself between the gunman and her students.”

In her eulogy, the Rev. Meg Boxwell Williams praised Ms. Soto as a “quick-thinking, beautiful, selfless person” who huddled her first-grade pupils into a closet and cupboards and hurried others to escape as a determined gunman invaded the school.

“Her last act was selfless, Christlike in laying down her life for her children.”

Another victim, Anne Marie Murphy, a 52-year-old special education teacher, died trying to shield one of her students as well.

Jesus, who told us that, "Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends;"

I was touched also by an interview with one of the survivors, Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at Sandy Hook. She quickly ushered 15 schoolchildren into a bathroom when she heard shots at the elementary school in Newtown.

She later told ABC News that she urged her students to be quiet so that they would not alert the gunman, telling them that “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out.”

She said to them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it’s going to be OK’ because I thought that was the last thing they were ever going to hear,” she added.
Only in the grip of love can you make that promise – that everything is going to be OK – and we only know that because of the strength of God’s love.  “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

There are always people who question why God lets a tragedy like this happen.  It is sad to say it, but as 21st century Americans we are insulated from how tenuous life has always been and still is in much of the world.

There are some mysteries we will never understand.  In theology, this is called the question of “theodicy,” why does an all-powerful and all loving God allow bad things to happen to good people has many responses. It has been wrestled with since the days of Job. Such will not bring comfort to the bereaved.  As one rabbi in Newtown said, his job is not to interpret “why,” but simply to be present with grieving families of his congregation and his community.

The teacher, Kaitlin Roig, who shepherded her young students into the bathroom and told them to be quiet because “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out,” but also told the children she loved them and everything was going to be OK even while thinking these may the last words they ever hear, perhaps gives perfect voice to the meaning of Christmas.

We are in a liturgical season of waiting – Advent. We are waiting for rescue.  We are waiting for in darkness, in silence, in fear, for light. We are waiting for Christmas.  We are waiting for Christ – our good guy who will come and put a stop to the bad guys including Fear, Satan and Death itself.  But even as we wait, we know everything is going to be OK.  Because God loves us.  And that is all we need to hear.

Connecticut Governor Daniel P. Malloy may have said it best with these words: "Evil visited this community today". This is what makes Herod's story and the slaughter of the innocents as part of the real Christmas story. This day and every day evil visits our world, our nation, our communities, our churches, and our lives. Evil is inescapable. Pass more laws... build more prisons... invest in our mental health system. And after all this, there will still be a Herod; there will still be an Adam Lanza.

Evil visited this community today, but so did God. God visited, as proclaimed by Isaiah, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." God has not only visited Newtown, and the families in Aurora Colorado, and he is visiting Syria... and Afghanistan... and homeless shelters... and ICU units... and funeral homes... and hospice care centers... and drug rehabilitation centers... and the subjugated young adolescent female workers in Indonesian garment factories who are trampled in fires.
You could make a good argument that we should save this story for another day—Lent, maybe, or some late night adults-only occasion. But our songs of peace and public displays of charity have not erased the headlines of child poverty, gun violence, and even genocide. If you go to Darfur, or Karachi, or Zimbabwe, or Iraq, and just listen, the sounds of Rachel weeping for her children are not uncommon. 

And so, we must and do weep. We must and do pray for and with all those whose lives were uprooted.  Now we remember – we must remember - how fragile life is and take stock of it every day. If we live letting life pass us by, then every day becomes loss. Parents, hug your kids even more – and kids, hug your parents, and give them some slack--we deserve it. It is right to do.  It is worth it.

Spouses, relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors, my brothers and sisters in Christ: Give each other some slack as well. There are more important things than being right. Life on this side is too short. Someday, some moment, it will be over – and possibly without warning. Leave no good undone. For once, don’t forget what you resolve to do now.

Let us Pray:

Dear God, with Rachel, you wail for your children because they are no more. With Jesus, you weep over the death of Lazarus, his friend. Like a mother hen, you yearn to comfort and protect your chicks. In the passion of your Son, you bring all our pains and all our sorrows into your very Self. Bless these who have been lost in Connecticut, bless all those victims of violence, and Maranatha—send your son Jesus quickly. We pray in Jesus name, Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

John the Baptist: Herald from His Mother's Womb (Luke 1:39-45)

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah,and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”(Luke 1:39-45)

There are two annunciations that Luke is recording in his first Chapter, and they both correspond finally to one purpose of God. Here the two streams flow briefly together and their relationship becomes explicit. Elizabeth is first to realize that Mary’s coming child is none other than the messiah; and her own unborn son, himself a child of destiny, rejoices at the (yet unseen) presence of the one it is his own task to herald. Mary rejoices at her quite undeserved privilege and praises God for his mercy to her, which she identifies as the fulfillment, at least in principle, of all the hopes and aspirations of beleaguered Israel. The interrelationship between God’s plans for John and for Jesus, already intimated by the careful parallelism between the two annunciations (and cf. v 36), now receives concrete expression in this account of the meeting of the two pregnant mothers. The formal parallel between the two infancy narratives is maintained: each mother is supernaturally aware of the other’s condition (vv 36, 41–45); each speaks words of rejoicing that interpret the deep significance of their situation (vv 42–45, 46–55). At the same time the subordination of John to Jesus becomes quite explicit (vv 41, 43, 44)

ἐσκίρτησεν, “leaped,”, we actually get the word “skip” from this Greek word, probably echoes David’s leaping before the ark in 2 Sam 6:16, where we read “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. We have further confirmation of what we already know from the scriptures, that life begins in the womb, for here we have the Spirit of God animating the child of Elizabeth, John the Baptist. John would go on to be a passionate proclaimer of God’s Will, preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah.

vs. 41-42
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!This “filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed” is a standard format for Luke….we see this in Luke 4 when Jesus goes into the temple to read, and reads from Isaiah, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”, we see it when he cries out his prayers on the cross, and we see it in all the sermons of the Apostles, from St. Peter in Acts 2 to St. Paul in Acts 25….Luke wants us to know something important is coming…something from the very heart of God.

Elizabeth, being used by the Spirit, gives us a great insight into the nature of Jesus, and into the nature of Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

I wish we had more time to unpack these words, for they are an insight into the nature of Mary, and why Catholics venerate her deeply. Our own parish, Our Lady of the Pines, is a function of the blessed nature of Mary. Elizabeth does not wish or offer blessing, but recognizes blessedness. Mary’s blessedness is that she is carrying the messianic child who is in turn blessed because of his unique identity and role. Elizabeth here expresses her overwhelmed realization that she is being visited by the one who is pregnant with the messianic child.

Maximus of Turin (d. 408/423). Bishop of Turin. Over one hundred of his sermons survive on Christian festivals, saints and martyrs, and here he gives us insight on John the Baptist, in the womb of Elizabeth, already becoming a preacher:

“Not yet born, already John prophesies and, while still in the enclosure of his mother’s womb, confesses the coming of Christ with movements of joy—since he could not do so with his voice. As Elizabeth says to holy Mary, “As soon as you greeted me, the child in my womb exulted for joy.” John exults, then, before he is born. Before his eyes can see what the world looks like, he can recognize the Lord of the world with his spirit. In this regard, I think that the prophetic phrase is appropriate: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth from the womb I sanctified you.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Thus we ought not to marvel that after Herod put him in prison, he continued to announce Christ to his disciples from his confinement, when even confined in the womb he preached the same Lord by his movements.”

Did you catch what Maximus says about John? He was preaching when he was in his mother’s womb, he was preaching even after his ministry and when he was confined…in whatever fashion he could move, he was an example. Something for us there, too, huh?


μακάριος, “fortunate,” is used seventeen times in Luke’s writings, and is the very word that Jesus uses in his first words in the Sermon on the Mount….it is the word “blessed”, or “fortunate”, or even “happy.” It is the Greek form of the Hebrew word ahshre, which is found in Psalm 1, blessed is the one who does not walk in the way of sinners, or seat in the seat of mockers, or stand in the way of evils doers, but his delight is in the Law of Yahweh, and on that Law he mediates yom vlaylah—day and night….he is that tree planted by the streams….Mary is the blessed of God; Mary is the fortuned of God, Mary is even superlatively blessed among all women. She is the makariosed of God. That would not mean untrammeled success and happiness throughout her life, but we know that the angel told her that a sword would pierce her heart. In just a few month’s time, she would be hastily packing with Joseph to escape the slaughter of the innocents brought on by King Herod. We see that  blessings and trials come upon us, and that evil and wickedness fall not only on the wicked, but on the just, and even the pure and innocent. Incidentally, we see in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the recent slaughter of 20 children in Newtown, CT, a tragic similarity—the act of a disturbed madman—one with the power of despotic and tyrannical rule, the other with the death-dealing power of weapons and fear. We’ll be speaking more about this in all of the homilies this Sunday. It will be a good opportunity to bring friends, perhaps those who do not regularly attend, to Mass, to hear a Word from God on this tragedy, and its connection to Christmas and the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

I will close with the poetry of Prudentius (c. 348–c. 410). Latin poet and hymn writer who devoted his later life to Christian writing.

Believe what says the angel who was sent
From the Father’s throne, or if your stolid ear
Catch not the voice from heaven, be wise and hear
The cry of aged woman, now with child.

O wondrous faith! The babe in senile womb
Greets through his mother’s lips the Virgin’s Son,

Our Lord; the child unborn makes known the cry

Of the Child bestowed on us, for speechless yet,

He caused that mouth to herald Christ as God.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Advent: God's Wake-Up Call (First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2012)

Gospel: Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Jesus said to his disciples:
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

"Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man."

 Advent: God’s Wake-Up Call

Wake-up calls are sometimes needed in our life, whether we like them or not. It’s precisely because we are asleep that we need them. And most of the time, it’s only after we have awoken from our slumber that we are grateful to the one who woke us. As a cadet at West Point, they actually had a rule that a cadet was not responsible for the content of his speech for the exactly the first 60 seconds after he received a wake-up call from his commander. Many was the time I thought about having a stopwatch and giving my commander about 59 seconds of what I thought about being woken up from my beauty sleep.

Advent is God’s annual wake-up call.

Our hearts get drowsy and lazy, tired out by the anxieties of daily life. Maybe we distract ourselves from our troubles by working very hard, or becoming depressed, or becoming fascinated with drink, or sex, or out-of-control emotions, or shopping, or email, or golf, or surfing the web, or pride, or, or, or (you name yours). Whatever it is for you, the very clear message of Advent is, “Settle down for a while; wake up and pay attention.” Open the door just a crack to let God in.

For the past month we have been reading about the coming of the Lord, His coming in justice, His coming in recompense, and our need to be vigilant. For many, it will be a day of great fear. Even in our Gospel, Christ tells us that some will actually die of fright. Even our own hearts, we among the elect, we quake at the thought. But in today’s Gospel, we feel another emotion, and it is equally an emotion of advent—the feeling of expectation, and hope, and eagerness to meet the Lord.

When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”  (Luke 21:28)

The Church has a liturgical strategy in the Advent Sunday readings. Each week’s First Reading is the carrot: usually positive, a promise of good. Then the Gospel hits you with a big stick to wake you up.

It’s a wake-up call.

Take the encouraging First Reading this Sunday. It reminds us of the promise God has made to his people: rightness and justice will come to the earth. Security. The day of the Lord will arrive, though long delayed. Peace in our day.

I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
I will raise up for David a just shoot ;
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
Yahweh Sedikah--"The LORD our justice, our righteousness."

God tells us of a promise that one day we will no longer rely upon our own righteousness—for we know that our own rightness before God is as filthy rags—but the Lord will appear as that righteous branch, that just shoot, Emmanu-El—God with us—and Judah shall be safe, Jerusalem shall dwell secure—and our righteousness will be from Yahweh and from His Messiah—Jesus.

What a lovely thing it is to desire such a time. We want to cry Marana-tha! Amen, come Lord Jesus!
The Second Reading urges us to put God’s promise of peace into action, even if we are not yet sure what it means. Love others and be loved.

Ah, and then the Gospel. It tries to wake us up, especially if the above has not helped. Signs in the sun, moon and stars, nations in dismay, the roaring of the sea and the waves, people dying of fright, and the Son of Man appearing in the clouds with power and great glory.


So you are all ready for it? Let yourself imagine what it might be like. Picture it scene by scene and don’t worry about being exact. Just experience it.

Will such a shakeup really happen literally? We do not know. Maybe much worse is to come, judging from the state of the world today. Do you live without fear of terrorist acts, of proliferating nuclear weapons, of a shooting in a theater, of a crash of the entire world economy or the greed that fills so many hearts to overflowing in your city, in your state, your world? My world seems to be a giant fiscal cliff!

Four weeks ago in the more eastern parts of The United States, days of weather-warnings preceded Hurricane Sandy. Days before its arrival, life changed. Schools, businesses, whole cities shut down, even Wall Street! Rain, snow, winds and high ocean waves electrified the coast-landers into fight and flight. Some doubted and tried to live through it all. Some didn’t believe it would be as bad as predicted.

Jesus has some warnings himself which sound worse than the ones for Sandy.

This Gospel is difficult to hear and understand. Keep in mind and in the immediate context, the city of Jerusalem is central to the religious sense of the people. Jesus is speaking to His disciples about the total collapse of the city which has been the symbol of God’s eternal fidelity. For the city to fall is similar to the sky falling and all natural orderliness being disturbed. The stability of the temple as well as the city itself is similar to the order of the sun and moon, the seas and normal living.

Welcome to Advent—God’s Wake-Up Call

Christian living takes place ‘between the times,’ between the first coming of Christ and his second coming. The first coming was humble, to say the least: an infant born of poor parents in an obscure village. The second coming will be different: "The powers in the heavens will be shaken and people will be distraught at the roaring of the sea and the waves."

Advent is anticipation. Jeremiah thrives on it: “The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise. . . . I will raise up a just shoot . . . . He shall do what is right and just in the land. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem secure.”

Advent is promise and prayer. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians brims with desire: “May the Lord increase you and make you overflow with love. May he strengthen your hearts.”

Darkening skies, longer nights announce the winter of life. But the child in us looks for the sign of love in the sky, the rainbows of fall, the snows that brighten the earth, the arms that reach down to lift us up.

And so, even with portents of the end times, there is the promise born: We will “see the Son of Man coming on a cloud. . . . When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”

Like Israel, like Paul, the childhood we never leave is suspended between devastation and delight. We rise and rush to the window imagining snow. We sit up, alert to songs that promise joy. We attend to the slightest confirmation that our ransom is at hand.

Each ensuing Advent thus reawakens the child in us. And yet, as each approaches and then recedes into the past, our frail childlike qualities mysteriously mature. We slowly come to a realization that there is a deeper hope, a more profound ransom, a truer liberation. We begin to hope that Jesus Christ’s radiance will be brighter than any snow. We start to trust that his light could be more luminous than all the candles ever burned, anticipating Christmas. These days we are invited to be faithfully, and not fearfully, watchful.

Jesus offers us the encouragement to stand firm against the disorders and tribulations and temptations which lead to disorder. The Man of Justice and Integrity is always coming into the disorderliness of our personal, cultural, and global worlds. The next two Sundays of Advent will bring John the Baptist onto the stage of preparation. We will hear his callings. Today we are invited to begin preparing for the coming into our lives of a Savior. To do this we are called to check up on the disorders within and around us to which Jesus is constantly arriving, and to wake up.

We as believers are waiting patiently for the new beginning rather than an ending. In the New Testament patience (hypomone in Greek, a combination for two words—hypo—a word of dynamism, but also mone, which is that same work Jesus used in John 15 when he spoke of abiding, thriving, in the Vine) is not passivity. Rather, patience entails active waiting and hoping. As we begin a liturgical year in which most Sunday Gospel readings are from Luke, I want us to focus on the Advent virtues of patience, hope, joy and fidelity.

There is an ancient story that depicts a man entering the gates of heaven. Once inside he discovers nothing but a place to sit facing a huge wall. When he asks his escort, St. Peter, for an explanation, Peter says, “You have but entered the antechamber of paradise. Paradise itself is on the other side of the wall. An opening in the wall will appear, but only once a year. It could emerge at any time: possibly in the next hour, possibly in many months. Keep vigil and watch. If you miss it, your waiting will continue.”

When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”  (Luke 21:28)